Monday, December 11, 2017

Squawk Box: An Oddly Mismatched Trio

I'm shaking off the cobwebs of the great and grand Star Trek Cycle and catching up on a lot of shows that I've missed and this month's Squawk Box is a kind of a good example of 'catch-up' featuring a oddly mis-matched trio of brilliant television: American Vandal, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and, of course, the second season of Stranger Things.

American Vandal I read about courtesy of NPR and gave it awhirl based solely on their enthusiastic review only to find it was as brilliant as advertised. A satirical take off of Netflix's Making A Murderer, American Vandal plunges into the depths of the social strata of Oceanside High as the school is reeling from an ambitious act of vandalism: 27 dicks were spray painted onto 27 cars in the faculty parking lot and class clown and school ne'er do well Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) has been expelled for the crime. A couple of members of the AV Club/Morning TV Show for the high school, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) are convinced that Dylan has been framed and start a documentary intending to answer the question that everyone is asking: Who did the dicks?

With a first season of eight episodes about thirty minutes a piece, American Vandal is an easy watch and goes quick, but what makes it worth watching is it's unflinching commitment to it's satire. This works and works brilliantly because the show plays it straight, tackling the mystery with a deadly seriousness that would fit right in to any True Crime show on television. The characters tackle theories, chase leads, get breaks in their 'case' and by the end of the show, the central question of American Vandal is answered, but it's not quite the answer you were expecting.

While Vandal provides pitch perfect satire, Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the latest offering from Gilmore Girls (and Bunheads) creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and the promise it showed in it's pilot, which debuted in the spring during Amazon's pilot season is more than fulfilled with the rest of the first season. Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a Jewish housewife living in New York City in 1958 with her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) and appears to have the perfect life. They've got two beautiful children, her husband has a good job and moonlights as a comedian at night- she's got it all, until it all falls apart. Turns out her husband has been having an affair with his secretary and leaves her and Midge gets drunk, goes down to his usual comedy club and delivers an impromptu stand up set that the audience loves.

The house manager, Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) tells her that she has the talent to be really good at comedy and a post-arrest meeting with none other than Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) convinces Midge to go for it. The season mainly involves Midge figuring out how to do just that as her family and her in-laws push for her to reunite with her husband. Her husband Joel realizes that he's made a mistake and wants to come back. By the end of the season, Midge seems to be getting her life back together and the first season ends in a way that's going to leave you begging for more (thankfully, Amazon has picked up this show for a second season.)

Sherman-Palladino's talent for intelligent writing and razor sharp, lightning quick dialogue is once again given a beautiful platform on which to shine. This is the beautiful period piece you never knew you wanted and Rachel Brosnahan is incredible as Midge and with Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle, Kevin Pollak and Caroline Aaron as the parents of Midge (Shalhoub and Hinkle) and Joel (Pollak and Aaron), the cast is operating on all cylinders and it's a joy to watch and funny to boot.

Finally, Stranger Things is back for a second season and the return trip to the Upside Down is just as entertaining as the first go-round. A year after the disappearance and then reappearance of Will and the disappearance of Eleven, the kids are trying to move on, but it's difficult. Will is still traumatized by the events of the previous year. Nancy is still struggling with the fact that she knows the truth about what happened to Barb, but Barb's parents still think she's missing. Hawkins Lab is under new management with Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) and Will's Mom, Joyce Byers has a boyfriend, the local Radio Shack man, Bob (Sean Astin.) There's also a new girl in school, Max (Sadie Sink) whom both Dustin and Lucas develop a crush on.

As the one year anniversary of Will's disappearance approaches, his nightmares and flashbacks to the Upside Down start to increase, as does the reappearance of strange things happening. Eleven (who, as it turns out, escaped from the Upside Down almost immediately after vanquishing the monster in Season 1) has hidden away in a cabin and is being cared for Sheriff Hopper, but, when his overabundance of caution starts to feel more like keeping Eleven locked away and less like keeping her safe, she rebels and sets off looking for answers to her origin. (Which she finds.) In the meantime, strange creatures keep emerging, Will's condition starts to deteriorate at the Upside Down seems ready to break through into our world and it's up to Eleven and the gang to stop it.

Stranger Things still has it in Season 2 and then some... like every 80s movie you've ever loved, it's a perfect slice of exciting, paranormal, nostalgia and I can't wait to see where it goes in Season 3.

Overall, this was an interesting mix of shows to make my way through. I enjoyed them all, but I think by far, the Gold Medal has to go to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel...  yes, it's a period piece which may not be your thing, but the writing is intelligent, the performances amazing and the dialogue crackles. I'd probably but Stranger Things and American Vandal at about level- Stranger Things continues to take all the nostalgia buttons and just mashes them repeatedly with incredibly entertaining results. Either, all three shows in this trio are worth watching. You should check them out.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Netflix & Chill #34: The Bonds of Timothy Dalton

Watched On: Amazon Prime
Released: 1987 (The Living Daylights), 1989 (License To Kill)
Starring: Timothy Dalton, Maryam d'Abo, Joe Don Baker, Art Malik, Jeroen Krabbe, Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe
Rotten Tomatoes: The Living Daylights- 71%, License To Kill- 77%
Picks: Mine

James Bonding has made it's way back into my podcast rotation and they've tackled both the Timothy Dalton Bond movies in recent episodes and thanks to Amazon Prime getting every non-Daniel Craig Bond movie, I decided to give both of them awhirl and watch them again. I've always felt that Dalton got kind of a bad rap as Bond. The Living Daylights is probably one of my all-time favorite Bond movies and License To Kill...  not so much. (My main beef with License To Kill was Felix not dying, which made Bond's revenge tour seem somewhat pointless to me, but on a revisit, I've actually changed my mind.)

I started with Dalton's debut, The Living Daylights. 007 is assigned to aid in the defection of a high level KGB General, but disobeys his orders to shoot the sniper allegedly sent to kill General Koskov when he notices that she is a cellist in the orchestra. Shooting the rifle from her hands, he instead uses the Trans-Siberian Pipeline to smuggle the General over the border into Austria and then to Britain. Being debriefed, Koskov tells MI-6 that the new head of the KGB, General Pushkin has brought back the old policy of 'Smiert Spionam' or 'Death to spies'- but before Koskov can tell them more, he's kidnapped and allegedly taken back to Moscow. Bond is assigned to track Pushkin to Tangier and kill him in retaliation for the deaths of various agents.

Bond has a different notion, however and before heading to Tangier he flies to Bratislava to track down the cellist, Kara Milovy. She confirms that Koskov's defection was staged and reveals that she is actually his girlfriend. Bond convinces her to go with him to Vienna, ostensibly to be reunited with Koskov. In Vienna, another MI-6 agent is killed by Koskov's henchman and the duo leave for Tangier. In Tangier, Bond confronts Pushkin, who claims to have no knowledge of the assassination program and reveals that he canceled an arms deal between Koskov and the American arms dealer Whitaker because he was about to arrest Koskov for corruption.

Kara on the other hand, has developed some suspicions about Bond and promptly sells him out to Koskov who places them both on a plane to Afghanistan. Once in Afghanistan, Kara figures out that her would-be boyfriend is kind of a jerk, she and Bond escape to the Mujaheddin where they figure out that Koskov is going to buy a bunch of opium from them and use the profits to keep buying the Soviets weapons to continue the conflict. Everyone escapes Afghanistan and goes back to Tangier where Koskov and his associates are arrested and then Kara, now living in London gives a concert for everyone.

Dalton's next (and last) Bond movie, License To Kill is actually more of an outlier than I remember ti being. It's largely set in the Caribbean, which stands in stark contrast to it's predecessor, which saw Bond going to Bratislava, Vienna, Tangier and Afghanistan. It opens with DEA agents stopping James Bond and his friend Felix Leiter on the way to Felix's wedding. Drug kingpin Franz Sanchez is nearby and they have a shot at bringing him in, which they do. Then they parachute down to Felix's wedding. Sanchez, of course, bribes a DEA Agent to get out of prison and his crew kidnap Felix and his new bride, maiming him and killing (and it's heavily implied, raping) her.

Bond is ready to hunt down Sanchez to bring him to justice, but M appears in Key West, giving him an assignment in Istanbul and ordering him to leave the hunt for Sanchez to the Americans. When Bond refuses, M revokes his license to kill and Bond goes on the run, becoming a rogue agent and starting an infiltration of Sanchez's organization with some clandestine assistance from Q and teaming up with Pam Bouvier, an ex-CIA agent along the way.

Bond is close to assassinating Sanchez, but is foiled in his initial attempt by Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau Agents (apropos of pretty much nothing) and is captured by them and about to be turned over to MI6 when Sanchez raids the house and rescues him and after framing one of Sanchez's henchmen, Bond soon finds himself in the Inner Circle of the drug kingpin.

Sanchez takes Bond to his base, where Bond learns that Sanchez's drugs are dissolved in oil and then disguised as fuel to ship it safely to Asian market, but Bond is finally recognized. He sets fire to the lab, wrecks Sanchez's base and chases him down in a plane before finally getting his revenge by using the lighter that Felix and his wife gave him as a wedding gift to light Sanchez on fire.

Overall: both these movies are underrated in the franchise as a whole and Dalton I think gets kind of a bad rap as Bond, because he's actually pretty damn good in the role. The Living Daylights is one of the few Bond movies that I think holds up as just a good movie and not just a good action movie. Along with Octopussy it probably fits more comfortably into the role of 'Cold War thriller/action' than any other films in the franchise. However, it does suffer somewhat from the multiple endings and codas and it just never seems to end...  it's like The Return of The King of Bond movies because it never seems to end, but that's the only flaw in an altogether kick-ass debut for Dalton.

I like that he follows it up with License To Kill though. It really is an outlier in the franchise in so many ways and it's shockingly violent. I remember Felix getting his legs eaten off by sharks, but I don't remember Della's death being so violent and watching it again, Bond's thirst for revenge and his ultimate revenge on Sanchez seems very believable indeed. I feel like after Roger Moore's tenure, Dalton's approach to the character was more of a return to the Sean Connery era with a sterner more violent and gritty approach to the character and overall it works well for him. It's almost worth wondering what his third Bond movie would have been like- but I also think Goldeneye is one of the best Bonds ever made, so I'm fine with Dalton being 'two and done' in the role. Both his movies still stand up well and remain worth visiting again. My Grade: The Living Daylights *** and 1/2 out of ****, License To Kill *** out of ****

Saturday, December 9, 2017

This Week In Vexillology #240

We're dipping back into the 'Lost Archives' for the last two weeks of 2018 and focusing on the countries that begin with the letter 'B'. Why? Well, I just sort of feel like it knocking off some 'B' countries...  so, this week, we've got Belarus and Bulgaria and next week we'll tackle Benin and Burkina Faso.

First up, we've got Belarus:
Infamously known as 'Europe's last dictatorship' the flag of Belarus was adopted on June 7th, 1995 and was modified again on February 10th, 2012. It's a modification of the old Soviet-era flag which was adopted in 1951. There were some obvious tweaks made to the flag: the symbols of communism have been removed and the ornamental pattern on the hoist, set against the flagstaff was changed as well. The original pattern was white on red and this one is red on white.

There's no official interpretation for the colors of the flag, but President Lukashenko has stated that red represents freedom and the sacrifice of the nation's forefathers, while the green represents life. Given Lukashenko's stranglehold on power, his explanation might not be official codified into law, but it's about as official as it can get. (It's also worth mentioning the white-red-white flag, which was the flag of the Belarusian People's Republic (very short lived) and served as the immediate post-independence flag of the country between 1991 and 1995. It's also used widely by opposition folks/people in the Belarussian diaspora.) (Sorry for the second parenthetical here, but The BPR from 1918 produced the oldest government in exile that's actually still going today, which is kind of incredible when you think about it.)

Next up, we've got Bulgaria:

The white-green-red tricolor of Bulgaria has been around since the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, when Bulgaria gained it's independence. During the Communist period, the flag sometimes contained the state emblem, but the current flag was readopted in 1991 and confirmed as the flag of the country in 1998.

Weirdly, the wiki-page for the flag is pretty bare of details on just what the colors mean. And the Law for the State Seal of National Flag of the Republic of Bulgaria, which is cited in it's entirety on the wiki-page is somewhat unhelpful, describing the flag as 'a national symbol which expresses the independence and sovereignty of the Bulgarian state.' So, I went deeper into the internet rabbit hole and found this webpage, which states that the white represents peace, the green the fertility of the soil and the red one stands for the courage of Bulgarians. I have nothing other than the 'because the internet said so' to back up that interpretation, so take it with a grain of salt. But in general, it seems like a plausible enough one.

And that's Belarus and Bulgaria! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Sportsyball: Tennessee Dumpster Fire Edition!

Adopt-A-Team: Well, good news is that Defensa y Justicia seems to be doing okay! We last checked in on October 13th and since then, we've had a loss to San Lorenzo, a draw with Olimpo and then four wins in a row, over Temperley, Lanus, Banfield and Godoy Cruz in that order. Right now, they're sitting at sixth place in the Super Liga Table. In short, for being where they are in the table, they seem to be doing what they should be doing at this point in the season. The draw with Olimpo (currently relegation bait along with Arsenal and Chacarita) is really the only bad result of the run. Yes, San Lorenzo thumped them pretty good, beating them 3-1, but San Lorenzo is second behind Boca Juniors in the table with an 11% chance to win the whole thing at this point in the season according to FiveThirtyEight anyway.

We'll see if they can keep it up, but it's somewhat heartening to know that apparently I'm not the kiss of death to whatever team I follow around for a season. (Weird side thought: I wonder if anyone broadcasts Superliga games in the US? Hmmmm...  might have to check into that.)

Coaching Carousel: With the college football season coming to an end, the coaching carousel began to turn almost immediately. In terms of major programs, this is what we started out with:

Oregon State: hired Washington OC and former Beaver QB Jonathan Smith. Everyone seems happy with this. 

Arizona State: fired Todd Graham with a ludicrous contract and are I guess going to hire Herm Edwards?

UCLA: hired Chip Kelly

Nebraska: unless Scott Frost goes to Florida State, should be hiring Scott Frost. If they don't, I have no idea what they're going to do, except possibly set the entire state on fire.

Arkansas: fired Brett Bielema and their AD, I've heard Mike Leach being mentioned for this job, but I've heard Mike Leach being mentioned for all the jobs at this point. (They hired SMU's Chad Morris, which seems like a good thing.)

Mississippi State: hired Penn State OC Joe Moorhead, which sparked a ton of Moor Cowbell billboards, which is kind of cool, but general opinion seems to be that Mississippi State made a really, really good hire.

Ole Miss: got some yummy NCAA sanctions and took the tag off their Interim HC to ride it out.

Texas A&M: lured Jimbo Fisher from Florida State for stupid amounts of money.

Florida: hired Dan Mullen away from Mississippi State- general consensus seems to be this was a good move for them.

Florida State: They got Willie Taggart from Oregon...

Tennessee: God Bless the Tennessee Volunteers...  I have absolutely no interest in the SEC and have zero connection to the program, but watching this flaming train wreck unfold on my Twitter feed has been the delight of my post-Thanksgiving existence. In the space of about a week and a half, they've attempted to hire Greg Schiano, David Cutcliffe, Mike Gundy, Jeff Brohm, Dave Doeren, Kevin Sumlin and Mike Leach before firing their Athletics Director John Currie and putting their Barry Alvarez/Tom Osbourne equivalent Phillip Fulmer in as the new AD. Guess what they still haven't done yet? Oh that's right...  hired a damn coach. (Though it sounds like as of this morning, they might have finally found their new Coach, bringing nearly two weeks of entertainment to an end.)

Hawkeye Football: So, it ended at 7-5. In general, against a brutal schedule, I'm okay with the results... I'd really like to win our Bowl match-up against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. Ferentz teams have, as a rule tended to peak in November- the good ones, anyway- so the offensive inconsistency/feast or famine aspect of their play was especially frustrating to deal with for some games. But on balance, do we have a lot to complain about? Not really. I had zero expectation for this season and it ended up being a winning one with flashes of brilliance and promise that could bode very well for the next couple of years. It's really hard for me to be upset about a winning season with a first year starting QB. We came close to beating Penn State. We thumped Ohio State and Nebraska. We kept Floyd at home by beating Minnesota and beat a legit good Iowa State team in Ames. Losing to Northwestern will always rankle me a bit, but the two losses that really stick in the craw are Wisconsin and Purdue, the latter more so than the former.

To me, we should have beaten Purdue and while it was probably a big ask to get two out of three between Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, I feel like 66 yards of total offense was inexcusable as well. They should have been 8-4 this year. But given the questions on offense and defense and a new QB plus this schedule?  7-5 is just fine.

The whole question of Ferentz fatigue is starting to rear it's ugly head again, but given the Coaching Disaster unfolding at Tennessee and the bloodbath this year in general (there are a ton of openings this year) stability isn't something to sneer at it. I think Brian Ferentz has the opportunity to earn a shot at the top job when Kirk retires, but only if the next few seasons are consistently above average/meet expectations. Do I think Brian should be the automatic heir apparent? No, I don't... Iowa isn't the biggest job in college football, but it's not exactly the smallest job either and I'd be somewhat leery about handing the keys to someone with no actual head coaching experience. If Iowa's offense can buck trends and win a Big Ten Title or major bowl in the next five years, however, he's probably the next coach.

So, let's talk 2018 and make a stupid early prediction for next season:

Northern Illinois- W
Iowa State- L
Northern Iowa- W
Wisconsin- L
at Minnesota- W
at Indiana- W
Maryland- W
at Penn State- L
at Purdue- W
Northwestern- W
at Illinois- W
Nebraska- W

So, just going with my gut right now I have them at 9-3, but the non-conference isn't exactly easy next year. We can't come out flat against Northern Illinois or Northern Iowa or we'll get beaten. Iowa State I feel is due for a win at some point in the rivalry and it might be next year. It might not, but I feel like that one is probably going to be another overtime. They're going to be hungry and we have to be hungrier there. Wisconsin I just really really want us to get more than 66 yards against them at home. Minnesota and Indiana will not be walkovers, but I feel like those are winnable road games. I'm not sure how much Penn State has returning, but playing there is always tough. We better beat Purdue and Northwestern next year, especially the latter. Illinois... who knows and Nebraska will be in year one of a new Coach, so I feel good about that one as well. As always, I'll revisit these predictions close to the start of the actual season and reserve the right to change them.

(BTW: September next year is going to suck from a 'day job' point of view. Four home games in a row plus Iowa State and Wisconsin here? Ugh.)

COYG: Well, Arsenal is back in the top four and thanks to a delightful North London Derby victory over Spurs is above Tottenham in the table as well. Since we last checked in, this is what we have going on:

L to Watford
W over Red Star (Europa League)
W over Everton
W over Norwich City (League Cup)
W over Swansea City
D vs Red Star (Europa League)
L to Man City
W over Tottenham
L to FC Koln (Europa League)
W over Burnley
W over Huddersfield
L to Manchester United

Do I think Arsenal is going to catch Manchester City and win the League? At this point I'm not sure anyone will- do I think they have a shot to go deep/win in the Carabao Cup, Europa League and the FA Cup (whenever that gets going)? I do.  They've also made some interesting moves behind the scenes, bringing in Borussia Dortmund's chief scout Sven Mislintat and former director of football from FC Barcelona...  not sure what both of those hires mean quite yet in terms of on-field product, but everyone seems to be pretty stoked by them. (I really hope they can resign at least Mesut Ozil... Alexis is probably gone next summer though.)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Bookshot #103: Norse Mythology

This book was another birthday purchase and is the perfect intersection between my appreciation of the writing of Neil Gaiman and my long time love of all things mythology related. While most of my mythology obsession was when I was much younger and centered around Greek mythology*, I've always been curious about Norse mythology but never seemed to be able to find a really good one volume book on Norse mythology- until now that is. (I do have the actual Prose Edda kicking around my Kindle somewhere, but I haven't gotten back to it yet.)

Gaiman happily stepped in and produced an eminently readable volume of Norse mythology that breathes new life into the tales from both the Poetic and Prose Edda while managing to put them into a contemporary voice that can appeal to as many readers today as possible. Gaiman starts the book with an introduction to all the major Gods (Aesir) in the pantheon, ranging from the familiar like Odin, Loki and Thor to names like Balder and Freya and Frigg as well. He opens with the creation of the world and then delves into stories like Odin and the Well of Mimir, which sees Odin sacrifice his eye to gain wisdom.

The stories flow nicely yet manage to stand just fine by themselves, which allows the unfamiliar to meet newer characters of Norse mythology. Freya especially stands out in multiple stories, but my favorite is probably 'The Master Builder', where Loki, in an attempt to get the gods a shiny new wall for Asgard, unwisely offers the builder Freya's hand in marriage if he completes the task on time. Freya needless to say is not pleased and pretty much openly tells Loki that if he wants to live, that the builder had best miss his deadline- which is the entirely correct response as well as a moment that endears her character to the reader.

Another standout: 'The Mead of the Poets', which tells the tale of where poetry comes from and how Odin, through various machinations stole the mead that gives the gift of poetry, which closes with this beautiful paragraph, explaining where the bad poetry came from:
No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin's ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similies and ugly rhymes, you know which of the meads they have tasted.
This both made me laugh and is a perfectly reasonable explanation for where the bad poetry comes from in my humble opinion. Eventually, of course, Gaiman gets to the end of all things and tells the tale of Ragnarok and the final battle of the gods, where they all meet their fates only to see the world born anew and the game begin again.

Like so many people out there, a lot of my limited knowledge of Norse mythology comes from the Marvel universe- which is kind of sad when you think about it, but the characters in my head all come from there and by and large they all hold up pretty well in this book. Odin seems just like Anthony Hopkins in my head and Loki seems just like Tom Hiddleston. Gaiman writes Thor as more of a meathead than Chris Hemsworth portrays him in the movies, but he has a flash or two where it sort of all matches up in my head. (I honestly don't know whether this is a fair comparison or not. I feel like in my head it is, from a literary point of view, it's probably dubious- though Walter Simonson's run on The Mighty Thor is well worth reading and draws on this mythology far more than the movies do.)

Overall: It's Neil Gaiman- have yet to read a bad book by him and this is no exception It's slim, compulsively readable- I read it very quickly indeed and if you've ever been curious about Norse mythology and don't want to jump all the way into something like the Prose Edda, this is an excellent place to start. **** out of ****

*I loved The Illiad and The Odyssey when I was growing up. Troy was a terrible movie. Disney's Hercules is just god-awful and butchered the mythology in ways that still enrage me. (Hades was NEVER a bad guy, damn it.) Kevin Sorbo's Hercules: The Legendary Journey's has probably done the best job adaption mythology the right way. Though there is that moment in Armand Asante's version of The Odyssey where he shoots the arrow through the axe heads that is just about damn perfect.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Netflix & Chill #33: Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Watched On: Amazon Prime
Released: 2008
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Shia LaBeouf
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Pick: Mine

I listened to a recent episode of James Bonding where they talked about Indiana Jones instead (they called the episode 'Indiana Jonesing' which I dug) and that sort of got me interested in going back and revisiting the fourth and most recent Indiana Jones movie: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I remember not really liking it all that much the first time I saw it, but upon second viewing, I am happy to report that despite the weird paranormal bits and the ridiculousness of escaping an atomic blast in a lead lined fridge, it actually was much better than I remember it being.

The film opens in 1957, with a group of Soviet commandos sneaking into a secret Army base to raid 'Warehouse 51'- in the trunk, they've got a kidnapped Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his associate Mac (Ray Winstone) who the leader of the Soviets, Colonel Spalko (Cate Blanchett) needs to locate a box in the warehouse containing a mummified corpse recovered from a crash site in Roswell in 1947. Jones initially refuses, but Mac switches sides on him, revealing himself to be a double agent working for the Soviets and he assists Spalko in locating the corpse, before escaping. (Of course, he escapes via bullwhip and jeep chase and ends up in a fake town that's about to be blown to hell by an atom bomb, which he escapes courtesy of the lead lined fridge, mentioned above, but he escapes.)

After that, he gets decontaminated and debriefed by the Army and sent back this college where, thanks to the Red Scare, he's put on a leave of absence to keep his job- but the dean of the college (Jim Broadbent) resigns to save Indiana's job. Kind of at a loss, he's approached by a greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who tells him that his old friend Harold Oxley (John Hurt) has found a Crystal Skull in Peru and lost his mind as a result and been kidnapped and just like that, Indiana and Mutt are off to Peru!

While there, they figure out that the crystal skulls are leading to the mythical city of Akator (also known as El Dorado) and Mutt's mom is none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who has also been kidnapped by Colonel Spalko and her merry Soviet Men. Chases through the jungle, dry sand and giant, flesh eating ants all follow before they get to Akator and find not aliens, but 'interdimensional beings' that, once the skull is returned to it's body, are thankfully they've been reunited and then bug the heck out of there, frying Colonel Spalko and her goons in the process. In the end, it turns out that Mutt is Indiana's son and finally, Indiana settles down and marries Marion at the end of the film. The wind blows his fedora off of the coat rack in the church and Mutt is about to pick it up when Indiana grabs it and puts it on his own head with a grin. He may be married, but he's not done with his adventures yet.

Originally, I didn't think the 50s B-Movie thing worked all that well for that movie, but on second viewing, I think I was wrong. As an Indy film, this works just fine for me. The most eye rolling part of the entire thing remains the lead lined fridge, but they get that out of the way early enough on in the movie that it doesn't ruin the rest of it. The return of Marion Ravenwood and having Marion being the one who eventually gets the ring on her finger seems like a perfect happily ever after for the franchise. There is another movie that's allegedly coming in 2020, but if for whatever reason that doesn't happen, Crystal Skull could prove to be a perfectly satisfying ending to the entire franchise.

Overall, this was much better than I remember it being. If I'm doing an Indiana Jones binge, I would no longer skip this movie, in fact, I'd enjoy the hell out of watching it along with the first three. (As '4' movies go, I'd say while Lethal Weapon 4 was enjoyable, Indiana Jones 4 was a better movie.) My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, December 2, 2017

This Week In Vexillology #239

We're kicking off December with our Second Trifecta of World Cup 2018 Qualifiers! Yes, we've got Colombia, Belgium and Switzerland. (Of our six, I think France has the potential to make the deepest run, but Belgium has ridiculous amounts of talent that didn't really go anywhere in Brazil, so I feel like if they don't go deep, it'll be disappointing. South America is getting gloriously deep these days, so while I'm bummed Chile didn't get in, I'll be cheering for Colombia instead!)

First up: Colombia!
Adopted on November 26, 1861 as the national flag and ensign, the flag of Colombia is the brain child of both Goethe and Fransisco de Miranda and once upon a time was part of Miranda's vision of a united 'Gran Colombia' which encompassed Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador (and I guess Panama too?) which is why you see the yellow-blue-red combinations running across all three countries. Historically, the color combination is due to something that Goethe told Miranda: "Your destiny is to create in your land a place where primary colors are not distorted." (There's a more in-depth explanation on the flag's wiki-page, but needless to say- it's complicated and has something to do with philosophy and how the iris transforms all light into shades of yellow, blue and red.)

The colors, thankfully do have their own meanings beyond complicated philosophical ones. The yellow stands for the riches of the country, the wealth of Colombian soil, gold, sovereignty, harmony, justice, agriculture and the Sun. Blue is for the seas on the along Colombia's coast, the rivers that run through it and the sky above it. Red is for blood spilled in the fight for independence, the effort of the people, the determination and perseverance and despite the fact that Colombia and her people have had struggles, they've also thrived.

All in all, pretty cool flag. I like that they sort of twist on the tricolor a little bit by giving the yellow more room in the flag than the other two.

Next up: Belgium!
I actually like the official proportions of this because I think it helps the flag standout from France and Germany- if that makes sense? Anyway, this bad boy was adopted on January 23rd, 1831 as the national flag. The roots of this flag go back to the August Revolution of 1830, where Belgium went to the opera and promptly decided they were sick and tired of this French and Dutch business and decided to riot and start their own country. Inspired (one hopes) by the July Revolution in France the month before, they initially flew the French tricolor from Brussels City Hall, but quickly replaced it with this flag.

The color combination comes from the Duchy of Brabant and a horizontal tricolor of red-black-yellow was used during the Brabant Revolution of 1789-1790, which briefly established a 'United Belgian States' before Austria knocked that shit off in their usual Hapsburgian fashion. (For like a half a second before France and their revolutionary wars sort of spilled over and occupied the place.) While that Revolution didn't fly, the memory of it lasted and proved to be a big influence on the Revolution of 1830 that got the job done once and for all and created an independent Belgium.

Finally: Switzerland!
The flag of Switzerland is one of two square national flags- the other being Vatican City. The various cantonal flags of Switzerland follow the model of the national flag and are square as well. There's no fancy symbolism to be found here, just a deep historical origin that has a couple of possible roots. First, there's the Theban Legion connection... basically, that was a Roman legion that converted to Christianity enmasse and was martyred enmasse for it's trouble. The Arma Christi, which were venerated by the forest cantons and which they were allowed to use in 1289 during a campaign somewhere. Or, it was first seen at the Battle of Laupen to differentiate troops of the Old Swiss Confederacy from those of the Habsburgs, which used a red cross and the St. Andrews Cross used by Burgundy.

Whatever the explanation, the white cross on the red banner has been a symbol of the Swiss for centuries now- and as one of the two square national flags out there I think we can all agree that it is very hip to be square.

And thus concludes our second World Cup 2018 Trifecta (which also, conveniently updates my 'Lost Archives' a bit as well.) Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying. FREAK or otherwise!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Upload Project #11: Elton John and A Whole Lotta Nothin'

This was supposed to be a new roll of blank CDs for me to go through. As you can see below, this proved to be the easiest and least time consuming edition of The Upload Project to date, because it was one CD, heavy on the Elton John and 8 blank ones.

Oh well, on to the next bunch!

CD #1, Untitled
Eddie Money- Take Me Home Tonight
Elton John- Bennie and The Jets
Elton John/Kiki Dee- Don't Go Breaking My Heart
Elton John- Your Song
Elton John- Levon
Elton John- Tiny Dancer
Elton John- I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues
Elton John- Rocket Man
Elton John- Honky Cat
Elton John- I Want Love
Elton John- Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Elton John- The Bitch is Back
Gorillaz- Clint Eastwood
Gorillaz- 19-2000
Soul Coughing- Sixteen Horses
Justin Timberlake/Snoop Dogg/Charlie Wilson- Signs

CD #2: Blank

CD #3: Blank

CD #4: Blank

CD #5: Blank

CD #6: Blank

CD #7: Blank

CD #8: Blank

CD #9: Blank

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

28 Days of Tai Chi

My original idea, back in the spring had been to try yoga. I felt like I needed something. I can't remember if I was thinking I was in need or more inner peace or health and fitness at the time, but I wanted something easy that I could learn to do at home on a consistent basis. The kiddos are still fairly young and in between my then work schedule and the Missus' work schedule, coordinating regularly scheduled visits to the gym has been something of a challenge. I couldn't be bothered with hauling my ass all the way down to the CRWC or paying for some place like Anytime Fitness. I wanted to at least attempt to do some moderate activity with some tangible health benefits at home.

I thought yoga was  good place to start, but as soon as I spooled up a video and tried to get my yoga on, I realized some drawbacks almost immediately. The first was, of course, the dogs. If you get down on their level, they're going to get all excited and come over and sniff and be like, 'hey man, what the heck is going on?' The second was the Younger Spawn. Kelv was all about jumping on me when I attempted to yoga, so I had to rethink my notion a little bit and that's when I decided to give tai chi a try.

Why Tai Chi? Well, simply: I can do it standing up. Which takes care of the dog problem and most of the kid problem. (Occasionally, the boys try and jump on me or headbutt me while I do my routine, but I can live with that.) I found a good series of YouTube videos with a variety of routines on them and started practicing. I couldn't really achieve consistency practicing my Tai Chi on a daily basis, but at the start of this month I decided to really double down on it and lo and behold, I've done at least ten minutes of Tai Chi a day since November 1st.

I've heard it described as 'meditation in motion' and I agree with that. There's something about it that's very calming and centering. Do I think I've really fully explored the health benefits of Tai Chi? I'm not sure... I think if I can turn this into a habit I might try and snag a DVD so I can get some actual instruction beyond random YouTube videos so I can get better at it- I feel like there's some health benefit to it, but I'm not sure if that's psycho-somatic or not. Some of the routines I do feel very much like workouts, which I like.

I feel like I need to educate myself more about the practices of Tai Chi, but in the month or so I've been doing it, I have found some favorite moves. This video starts out with three of my favorite movies: Rising and Sinking (to warm-up), Buddha Asks Heaven For Forgiveness and Dong Hai Chuan Serves The Tea. I could do these three moves all day long- they're ridiculously relaxing and my favorite way to warm up and get into a routine. Repulse The Monkey remains a challenge... I think I've come close to getting it, but I still feel like I look like a jackass when i do it. 

I'm not a huge fan of the Withdraw and Push on the video I linked too, but I found a different routine that does it pretty well in a couple of ways that I enjoy that I fold into my rotation from time to time as well. This one was a bit of a challenge- especially when Immortal Touches The Earth involves you bending from the waist to place your palms flat on the ground. I can't even touch my damn toes!

So, what's the point of all of this- other than centering my chi a little bit and trying to be more calm, patient and centered in my life? Well, I'd like to make a push and learn the 24-Form Tai Chi. I've got a few of them down already, so I'm on my way, but I'd like to be able to go through all the forms at least once a day at some point. I also think more education and more practice are in my future as well!

I have no idea where my Tai Chi journey is going to take me, but I'm glad I started it. 28 days down and hopefully many more to go!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Albums2010 #95: In The Mountain In The Cloud

Portugal. The Man is one of those bands that has sort of popped up on my radar now and again over the years- I've seen mentions of them float by on various social media feeds now and again, but I had never actually bothered to sit down and listen to any of their stuff until Bill Burr mentioned them on a recent episode of Monday Morning Podcast and I thought, 'well, hell. Why not?' So I found an album and took it out for a spin.

The first thing that stands out about the band is probably it's name. "Portugal. The Man" is kind of a brilliant name. It a declarative statement 'Portugal.' followed by the reassuring clarification 'The Man' to make sure the listener knows we're talking about a band and not a country here. The band's wiki-page has their origin listed as Portland, Oregon, but I guess they all got together and started playing music during their high school years in Wasilla, Alaska. Having listened to at least one of their albums, I think it's safe to say that they are a far cooler export than the Palin Clan.

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of In The Mountain In The Cloud, I should confess that I both enjoyed their music and found it to be something of a puzzle. It didn't seem to quite fit anywhere comfortably in my head- it seemed sort of psychedelic in many ways and reminded me a little of T-Rex, for some reason, but at least with this album, it's not a definition you can apply to them universally across the board either. (Wikipedia has them as: alternative rock, psychedelic rock, psychedelic pop and experimental which was... unhelpful to say the least.) I know that however you classify them, I liked the sound. It was big and orchestral but not in an obnoxious kind of way and it blended well with the sort of alternative rock thing they've got going on. Though thinking more on the 'psychedelic rock' thing you can sort of see a Flaming Lips type vibe going on. (If the Flaming Lips were more rock than... whatever it is they are, they might sound a little like this. I think.)

Clocking in at 42 minutes or so, the album itself is about the perfect length, I think. If it were shorter, I think the listener might feel short changed and longer you get into experimental weird territory that I just don't know if people would have the patience for any more these days. It opens with 'So American' which immediately captures your attention- but it's 'Senseless' (which has retro, older vibes that sort of remind me of older Bowie/psychedelic Beatles era in a way- if that makes sense.) That track along with 'Everything You See (Kids Count Hallelujahs)' are probably the tracks I liked the most.

The overall tone of the album sort of shifts with 'All Your Light (Times Like These)' into sort of darker, edgier territory. (Thinking about it, I dig this track as well.) 'Once Was One' and 'Share With Me The Sun' sort of seem to be sliding the album down to the end with 'Sleep Forever' rounding out the album.

Overall: This was a great album, but I think I got more enjoyment out of listening to the band's Spotify playlist which had a little bit of everything from all their albums. I'll absolutely listen to more of this band, but would I buy this album? Maybe. It's got a cool album cover, but I have to wonder if Portugal. The Man has better albums out there.  My Grade: *** out of ****

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Netflix & Chill #32: Arrival

Watched On: Amazon Prime
Released: 2016
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Pick: Mine

Arrival opens with a sequence that shows Louise Banks' (Amy Adams) daughter Hannah, dying in early adulthood from an incurable disease of some kind. (It's never actually named, but it appears to be cancer.) She heads to work the next day to her job as a linguistics professor/teacher and everyone seems to be incredibly distracted by something and half her lecture hall is empty and when Louise turns on the television, she finds out why. Twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft have appeared in twelve different locations across the globe- their purpose is unknown and attempts to communicate with the craft seem to be unsuccessful. But an Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) shows up at Louise's door to recruit her to join the government's effort to establish contact with the aliens.

Louise initially insists that she has to be on sight to meet with the aliens in order to fully understand their language, but Weber accuses her of trying to get access to the camp like everyone else with a top secret clearance is right now just so she can see. Louise then asks if he's going to talk to another expert and he replies 'maybe.' She tells him to ask the second expert what the Sanskrit word for 'war' is and what it means.* This turns out to be a wise move on Louise's part, because Weber shows up at her house with a helicopter and asks her the same question- turns out, he likes her answer better and they bundle her into the helicopter and fly her off to the site in Montana where the alien craft is located.  On the way, she meets Dr. Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist that has been recruited to help with the aliens as well.

Once on site, they put together a team and go into the alien craft, where Ian and Louise make contact with two seven-limbed aliens, whom they call 'heptapods.' (Ian nicknames the two they talk too Abbott and Costello.) The initially have no luck communicating until Louise starts writing things down, and the aliens respond with a series of complicated circular symbols. As Louise studies the language, she starts to have visions of her daughter, Hannah.

With countries starting to get nervous and twitchy about the aliens, Louise is pressured to ask why the aliens have come and they reply, 'offer weapon.' Which initially makes the military get very nervous indeed until Louise points out that their word for 'weapon' could easily mean 'tool.' China, however translates 'offer weapon' as 'use weapon' and cuts off communications with the other nations and the aliens. But Louise argues that the competitive nature of their interactions with the aliens might have resulted in a bad translation.

Tension starts to ratchet up when Chinese General Shang issues an ultimatum, demanding the aliens leave in 24 hours and Russia, Pakistan and Sudan follow suit. Despite an attempt by rogue soldiers to blow up the the aliens, Louise goes back to the craft alone and the aliens explain that they have come to help humanity because in 3,000 years they will need humanity's help in return and the 'weapon' is their language, which opens time to allow the future to be seen. Louise realizes that the visions of her daughter are in fact, from the future and she soon has another premonition from the future where she meets General Shang at an event at the United Nations and he gives her both his private number and his wife's dying words and thanks her for convincing him to call off the attack. Using that knowledge, Louise does just that and the countries of the world begin to cooperate to decode the twelve separate parts of the Heptapod Message and then the craft one by one disappear.

As Ian and Louise watch the craft disappear, she asks him if he would change his life choices if he could see the future and he replies that he wouldn't. And then Louise knows that she will agree to have a child with him (Hannah) and that Hannah will die and Ian will leave them after she tells him that she knows that Hannah is going to die.

I loved this movie. The whole idea of 'first contact' has been done dozens, if not hundreds of times in various mediums through the years, but this felt like a refreshing twist on the idea by focusing so much on language and the niceties and problems of linguistic communication when you have no common frame of reference** is a beautiful illustration of what a real First Contact is probably going to be like- trying to figure out how to communicate before you get down to the brass tacks of why the aliens are here, etc etc.

Overall: Amy Adams is excellent and Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker are perfect complements to her beautifully restrained performance. This is interesting, thought provoking science fiction at it's very very best. My Grade: **** out of ****

*Holy shit, this is like a tiny moment in the movie and wow did it provoke a lot of discussion... check out of this Reddit Thread.

**'Darmok' from Star Trek The Next Generation is another episode that tackles a similar issue and does so excellently. It's also a great episode of Star Trek.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

This Week In Vexillology #238

I hate to reopen old wounds for US Soccer fans, but the field for the 2018 World Cup is officially set and looking at the list and cross referencing it with my 'lost' archives, I noticed there were six teams going to Russia that I had yet to tackle, so I thought I'd round out November and head into December with a double trifecta of Lost Weekends In Vexillology featuring teams that made it to Russia. (Just as an aside, if you're a USMNT fan still in need of some serious therapy/grief counseling, then I highly recommend the Men In Blazers Live Podcast 'What Happened'- it has some fun, but it also has a serious discussion about what happened and possible remedies/hopes for the future going forward.)

So let's begin with our first trifecta- Senegal, Nigeria and France! First up, Senegal:
Adopted August 20th, 1960 the flag of Senegal serves as the national flag and naval ensign for the country. In 1959, France melded Senegal together with the French Soudan to form the Mali Federation, which had a flag strikingly similar to this one, except with a stylized depiction of a human being in the center instead of a star. The Union between the two colonies didn't last long after independence and the two split to form Senegal and Mali.

The flag is dripping with symbolism. We see the traditional colors of the Pan-Africanist movement with the use of green, yellow and red- and the five points on the green star are said to recall the human ideogram from the flag of the Mali Federation, but the colors also have different meanings within Senegal itself. Green is highly symbolic to all the major religions of the country: In Islam, the main religion, the green of both the stripe and the star are said to represent the color of the Prophet. Christians see green as a sign of hope and Animists view it as a symbol of fecundity. Yellow is a symbol of wealth and the color of 'arts, literature and intellect' because literature teachers in Senegal I guess wear yellow blouses. Red is for the color blood, "therefore color of life and the sacrifice accepted by the nation, and also of the string determination to fight against underdevelopment." (See: the flag's Wiki-Page for more details.)

Next up, Nigeria:
Adopted on October 1st, 1960 as the national flag, what really kind of bums me out is that the original proposal for the flag of Nigeria looked like this:
But for reasons passing understanding, they removed the sun and just went with the plain white stripe and haven't changed it sense. Unlike Senegal's flag, which has permutations upon permutations of meaning, Nigeria keeps it simple, The green stripes represent Nigeria's natural wealth, and the white stripe represents peace. But what Nigeria lacks in symbolic complexity, they more than make up for with a plethora of variant flags including ensigns for their Air Force and Navy along with State and Civil Ensigns. They've also got flags for the President of Nigeria, the President as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, another Naval Ensign, a flag for the Nigerian Defence forces and the former flag of the President along with oodles of historical flags. I could probably do a whole series of posts on the many many flags of Nigeria- but if you want to check 'em out, get over to to the flag's Wiki-Page and check 'em out.

Finally, France:
The Tricolor that started them all, France has one of the most iconic flags in the world today as well as a flag with an incredibly complex history. Originally adopted with the colors reversed in 1790 the design was tweaked and the current order of blue-white-red was adopted in 1794. The Royal Flag came back after Napoleon for the Bourbon restoration of 1815-1830 but after the July Revolution of 1830, it's been the Triocolor ever since.

The symbolism gets a bit muddled as well. The historical roots seem to be well-established: the Paris Militia wore cockades of red and blue when they stormed the Bastille in 1789 and Lafayette added a white stripe to the cockade to 'nationalize' the design a bit and break up the revolutionary colors somewhat- though many identified the white with being associated with the Monarchy and some people assumed the red and white were a reference to the red and white livery of the Duc d'Orleans. As factionalism began to grow in the first revolutionary period, monarchists started flying white flags and Jacobins and Socialists red ones and the combination of the two colors with the blue came to be seen as a symbol to transcend factional fight and represent France itself.

Or, if you want the official government version: white stood for the King, while blue and red were the colors of Paris. (Another one sentence explanation: blue is for liberte, white for egalite and red for fraternite incorporating all three elements of the revolutionary motto.) If you want to do a deep dive into the history of the Tricolor, head over to the flag's Wiki-Page and jump down the rabbit hole.

Thus ends our first trifecta of countries bound for Russia 2018 next year...  we'll be off next week for the holiday, but back the first Saturday of December to tackle the next trifecta: Colombia, Belgium and Switzerland. Until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, November 17, 2017

My 2020 Vision Thing

I stopped my occasional lurkings on Reddit a few months ago and actually signed up and joined the place (I'm at u/litcityblues if you want to follow me or do whatever it is redditors do in that regard) and as I was reading through r/IowaCity I noticed a grandly titled post, An Iowa City Manifesto For The Future. 

I read it. I didn't agree with a lot of it but there were some interesting points made and some very real criticisms leveled at Our Fair Metropolis. Then, the University sent out a big email to everyone asking for Feedback and Input on their UI 2020 Initiative. They were asking some big questions like:
What ideas do you have for helping the UI thrive in the decades ahead? How can we better address the grand challenges of the 21st Century through our research, creative endeavors, curriculum, and teaching? How can we better serve our state and its people? We welcome all ideas, including bold proposals.
Bold proposals, eh? I might be able to rustle up some of those. Well, between the Reddit Manifesto and the University's request for feedback, that got the old brain wheels churning and so I figured, why not come up with some ideas of my own. So I sat down, thought about it and did just that. Three ideas for the University and three ideas for Iowa City. Yes, it's my 2020 Vision Thing.

For The University:

1. One of the biggest challenges facing higher education is the increasing number of negative attitudes about it's overall purpose and efficacy in society today. Rightly or wrongly, extreme examples of campus activism run wild from across the country have given too much of the general public the impression that college is something that costs too much and isn't worth paying for if (what the public perceives as) over privileged students are going to spend their time protesting instead of learning. While I don't believe this is a charge that can be leveled at the University of Iowa or any of the Regents Institutions in our state, higher education risks having this perception, however incorrect become reality whether they like it or not.

Institutions of higher education should be places where free expression is not controlled but encouraged. Open debate and the clash of ideas- even ideas that students might be uncomfortable confronting is how we get new ideas. However, clashing ideas and open debate without structure doesn't necessarily provide that much of an educational benefit.  Both Cambridge and Oxford have their famous debating unions that confront and debate ideas in a structured setting- the University should consider setting up one of their own. They should also follow the lead of schools around the country in the adoption of the University of Chicago Statement on Free Expression and work with institutions like FIRE to make Iowa a 'green light' school for Free Speech.

Ultimately, the future of funding for higher education in the state of Iowa is dependent on both the State Legislature and the taxpayers. It's important we send a message that we're committed to free speech and aren't afraid of challenging ideas- especially ones we believe ourselves.

2. In her book, DIY U, Anya Kamanetz digs into a lot of potential for the future of higher education, but a real world example that stands out is BYU-Idaho. In 2008-2009, they charged just $1400 a semester and are posting a 6 percent decline in costs in real dollars- all of this with an enrollment that they increased from 22,000 to 30,000 without spending a single dime. Checking their tuition and fees schedule today, that cost has gone up a bit to $2009 dollars per semester, but the cost still stands in stark contrast to Iowa's listed tuition of $9189 dollars for in-state residents only. According to Kamanetz, the success of their model comes through a variety of factors- they put an emphasis on their faculty teaching- with professors being asked to teach four credits per semester for three semesters but their campus is also occupied year round and students are admitted for either fall-spring, spring-summer or summer-fall rotations.

Whatever they're doing, it's interesting- and granted, they are a private religious institution and therefore may have certain advantages that the University, as a public institution does not. However, the issue of cost is going to be a huge challenge for higher education to confront in the years ahead- and there's something to the idea of having a campus fully occupied year round. If costs are (inevitably) going to come down, then we're going to need more students and we're going to need to get students in and out at a more efficient rate than we do now. At the very least, the University should look at schools both large and small that are keeping costs low the way BYU-Idaho is and adopt whatever ideas they can to start bringing down the costs of higher education. (Texas and their $10K Bachelor's Degree is another idea worth looking at.) The University should lead the way on cost control and not wait for someone to lead them.

3. Higher education shouldn't just be about getting a piece of paper and for the state of Iowa it shouldn't be just about sending your kids to school for four years and hoping like hell they move out of your basement when they're done. If the University does it's job right, every student in every major should be graduating with a degree and a hunger to always keep learning. Life long learning is going to be an amazingly important skill to impart in the economy of the 21st Century, because people will have to be able to adapt to the changes that an information economy is going to bring. The University should take the lead in creating an online learning platform aimed not just at it's students but at all the residents of the state of Iowa and beyond. Access to our world-class faculty and classes shouldn't be limited to our students- if I'm a 50 year old retiree from Fort Dodge that's always wanted to learn Sanskrit or something that isn't offered at the local community college, I should be able to do that. I should be able to get a certificate in something as simple as advanced coding or a degree in something as complex as biochemistry. When the Museum of Art lost it's facility to the flood, one of the smartest things they ever did was start taking their art on the road to share and demonstrate that their collection wasn't just a fancy bunch of paintings in a building in Iowa City- it was a cultural treasure for the whole state. The University should take a similar attitude with everything it does and shouldn't be afraid to innovate in the process. I keep reading articles about how vertical farming is the future of agriculture, yet here, in an agricultural state, I have yet to see a vertical farm. So it's more than just online education, we need an online idea factory for the whole state and ways to bring those ideas into reality.

For Iowa City:

1. Highway 6 has always been viewed as a barrier between the south side and the rest of Iowa City and as such, it's given the south side and living on the south side more of a negative connotation than it needs over the years. The old cliche about 'living on the wrong side of the tracks' has become, 'oh you live south of the Highway.' I'd like to see the city make some attempts to break that barrier down a bit, both physical and practical. Some community events on the South Side would be nice, but I also think some actual infrastructure to break the barrier down wouldn't be bad either. Driving through Des Moines on 35 these days, you'll notice that they've done an amazing job creating bridges over the interstate that stand out and make the interstate seem more like a river that runs through the city rather than a barrier dividing the city. Iowa City could also do something similar with pedestrian bridges...  you wouldn't need that many- and granted I know they just spent money upgrade the crosswalks at Sycamore and Highway 6- but it might help and depending on how you design the bridges, it could be an opportunity to create unique and iconic pieces of public art that serve a practical purpose as well as establishing a gateway to the South Side of the city. (By my reckoning, you'd need about five bridges- four if you want to leave off Sycamore. Fairmeadows, Taylor, Broadway and Keokuk.)

2. Affordable Housing, affordable housing, affordable housing! I don't think the current construction boom of gargantuan complexes with twee, pretentious names like 'The Crossings' and 'The Quarters' and whatever is going to continue forever. At some point, the glut will be satisfied, but the cost of owning a house and living in Iowa City is getting increasingly ridiculous. The Missus and I glad we made our move when we did, because now, barely a year and a half to two years later, the market would have been a hell of a lot rougher. I think the City's moves on inclusive zoning are good, but I wish they would stop pushing 'work force housing' in these complexes downtown. Nobody who isn't a student wants to live anywhere near downtown and setting aside six units out of a total 8-10 story building just for 'affordable housing' doesn't strike me as very ambitious either. I see a lot of housing flipping going on in our neighborhood, which strikes me as a good thing to help older houses over on our side of town get some TLC as well as brightening up some neighborhoods, but the whole Rose Oaks debacle still rankles me. The City should never allow a complex to get so bad and so run down that the only real option to tackle the rot is to gut the place. It may clean up an apartment complex, but Rose Oaks proved that the cost of cleaning up a complex will be paid by it's poorest residents. Which is why watching the situation with the Forest View Trailer Court is key for anyone who is passionate about this issue- they shouldn't be cleared out to make room for more expensive housing either.

Diversity of housing helps, I think as well as encouraging different types of housing. (That co-housing venture over off of Hudson Avenue is a good example of this.) Why don't we have a green village of eco-friendly houses? Or a tiny house village of Tiny Houses? The city should encourage innovation as well.

3. I don't know if we're quite there yet, but I think we're getting to the point where a regional transit authority should be given some consideration. I think Iowa City Transit does a great job and Coralville as well, but with North Liberty and Tiffin booming right now,I think it's worth looking into how to integrate those two cities into the overall transit footprint as well and maybe even spiraling south to get Hills in on the action. There's still a lot of talk about passenger rail to take some of the pressure of commuter traffic on I-380 and I think it's a potentially good idea, but only if it's Iowa City to Cedar Rapids. I don't really see the point of Iowa City to North Liberty rail service- and if you're going to do IC-CR, then for crying out loud, put in an airport stop. (To me, in a perfect world, I'd start with IC-CR with an airport stop and then expand as far south as Riverside- to get the casino and as far north as Hiawatha/Marion to get those towns as well. A third phase after that- assuming it all goes well, you could go north to Waterloo/Cedar Falls and south to Mount Pleasant to meet up with the Amtrak line, but that might be waaaaaaaay too ambitious. Oh and I'd also want passenger only rail lines graded for actual high speed rail and none of this 65 mile per hour shit. Which makes my crazy rail dream totally insane, I know, but dreams are dreams.)

So there you go. Six ideas, three for the U and three for the City to consider in their visions of the future. I have honestly no idea how realistic a lot of this is, but I'd like to think I did my best to ground these ideas as much as I could. They seem achievable, in some form anyway.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Drop The Hammer (But Not On Your Toe)

So, I signed a petition last month to support the Fair Debate lawsuit that the Our America Initiative is bringing to try and crack open the stranglehold the Commission on Presidential Debates has on the presidential debates- they're taking a somewhat unusual tack this time and filing an anti-trust lawsuit and they did raise more the $100k to support their legal efforts. Thing is, I'm just not sure that opening the debates is going to be the cure all the outside parties think it is.

Don't get me wrong: I hate the two party system and I'm pretty sure a lot of the rest of the country isn't exactly enthused by our lack of choices at the ballot box, it's just that the effort to break the system faces three distinct problems: a chicken vs egg problem, history and the structure of our political system.

The chicken vs egg thing is a common response I've seen on Facebook whenever people bring up Fair Debates. "They don't get airtime because their views aren't popular" is the usual refrain, which brings up the next question: how do candidates from outside the two parties get their views heard? Which comes first- do the views have to be listened to in order to get the coverage or does the coverage and exposure bring the views into the mainstream? I'm honestly not sure. This is where I think the Fair Debate Lawsuit probably stands on interesting ground, because by being controlled by the two parties and not the government, the CPD can decide who is and isn't invited into their debates and surprise, surprise, they never seem to include anyone from outside the Republican and Democratic Parties- so it really does seem like an effort to crowd out the competition.

The debates along with various ballot access restrictions and hurdles that other parties have to clear do represent an effort to crowd out the competition. If the playing field is level, then yes, I can go back to the core of the 'chicken v egg' refrain and argue about non-mainstream views not receiving coverage because they're so far outside the box. But nugget of cold hard truth at the center of this lawsuit is that the playing field is not level and other parties are denied a chance to even play the game.

To me, debate standards should be set by the Federal Election Commission and not a private corporation/entity.* However, that's not to say that I don't think that there should be standards. Any random other party shouldn't get a seat at the table- I think this:

1. If you're on the ballot in all 50 states, then you can go to the first debate.

2. If after the first debate, you break 5%, you get an invite to debate #2.

3. If after the second debate, you break 15%, you get an invite to debate #3.

(I also think it'd be fair to say that if you're on the ballot in enough states to get to 270 electoral votes, then that could be a fair standard as well, but if you're also organized enough to get on the ballot in all 50 states, that speaks to at least a baseline of national support across the country. You should get a voice, in my opinion- ballot access laws are a whole other post, though.)

So, I come down on the side of 'egg' in this, I guess. Without access, you can't put your views up next to the Big 2 parties to see if people care or not. Access gets you exposure and the Presidential Debates are absolutely a free media gift that the two parties don't need but outside parties do.**

Where it all goes wrong is at my second point: history. America has always tended toward a political binary in our history- and if one party withers away something else usually rises up to replace it as this excellent chart from XKCD illustrates beautifully. (So want this for a wall somewhere.) As a country, we haven't tended toward regionalism in a way that's translated to our party politics- at least not yet- and shifts in ideology and factional fights that in other countries would lead to party splits and the formation of new parties tend to just push the Big 2 one way or the other along the ideological spectrum- which brings me to my third point:

The structure of the system. The single member district, first-past-the-post system (which is a nerdy polisci way of saying, one member per Congressional district, person with the most votes wins) tends to produce a lower number of parties than say, a proportional representation system or a mixed system. It's not guaranteed to be two parties in any way, shape or form. It just usually shakes out that way. But other democracies with our system either have medium sized parties (like the NDP in Canada or the Lib Dems in the UK) or regional ones (like the DUP/PC/SNP in the UK or the PQ in Canada) that provide voters a clear alternative if they need it- and news flash, I think the American system desperately needs some kind of pressure valve. A medium sized third party with mainstreamish appeal and a broad geographical base- a party where the sensible moderates can defect too if/when the Big 2 get too ideologically crazy as they are now.

Right now, the biggest problem, at least to me is that there's no impetus to accomplish anything. If Republicans are in power, Democrats can wait around for the inevitable bus crash that will happen at some point and take advantage. They know the pendulum is going to swing the other way at some point. They just have to wait.

But what if they didn't have to wait? What if they actually had to work for it a little and get some shit done because the pendulum might not swing back to you automatically. It can swing over here to point C. I feel like the system needs another voice if for no other reason than to provide a credible alternative for voters disgusted with the Big 2 parties a home.

I think this antitrust lawsuit is interesting enough that it might well go some place- for the sake of our democracy, I sure hope it does. But even if the outside parties get everything they hope for, including access to the debates, that's only the first step. With the free media exposure they crave that means their ideas are going to have to stand up to the mainstream of the electorate- so they may well succeed in dropping the hammer on the Big 2 parties. Unfortunately, they may well end up dropping the hammer on their own toe in the process.***

*Whoever sets debate standards should be accountable to somebody, preferably the voters. And yes, I believe there should be some standards for outside parties to clear. I don't think the Make Marijuana Legal Party that's on the ballot in like 10 states should get a seat at the table, whereas the Libertarians and Greens who are on the ballot in close to 50 states should. 

**And goodness me, wouldn't the debates last time have benefited from a third candidate up there? Even a fourth? Anybody else? I think so. 

***I honestly don't know how/if/when another party can emerge in the current system. Lowering barriers to entry is a great first step, but it's not the only step you need to take. The hard work begins after you get to invited to play and getting the invite isn't the golden ticket. We tend to shy away from regionalism in this country except in the most quirky, off the grid ways (see: the State of Jefferson, Cascadia, etc) so I'm not sure if a regional model or a state by state model would be the way to go. For sure- unlike, say Iowa's Green Party, if you're gonna do it then you gotta show up EVERY DAMN TIME.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Squawk Box: Legal Eagles

I emerged from the great and grand Star Trek Cycle and immediately tripped and fell headlong into two legal dramas that I had heard about, but hadn't gotten around to watching just yet: The Good Fight and The People vs. OJ Simpson.

The Good Fight was the first new show out of the gate for CBS All Access and helped launch the streaming service. A spin off of The Good Wife, it picks up the action a year after the finale, when Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) is finally ready to hang it all up and sail off into the sunset for a well-earned retirement. Unfortunately, life gets in the way and when she loses all of her life savings thanks to a Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Henry Rindell (Paul Guilfoyle) whose goddaughter Maia (Rose Leslie) has just passed the bar and is starting her career.

Her life savings gone and her old firm not willing to take her back, Diane winds up finding a lifeboat in the form of Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) of the prestigious African-American owned firm Reddick, Boseman and Kolstad who has made it's name by taking on police brutality cases in Illinois. With a good reference from her former associate Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo), Diane brings Maia aboard as well and roll up their sleeves and try to start over, navigating their personal lives and the cases and their new firm as best they can- with a friendly face in the former of Marissa Gold (Sarah Steele) joining Diane as her secretary.

There are the outlines to something really, really good in the first season of The Good Fight. I have to wonder if the fact it's premier was moved up due to production delays on Star Trek: Discovery might have something to do with it because it can feel a little rough here and there- especially in the early episodes. But it's firing on all cylinders by the end of it's first season. Alicia Florrick and all things Florrick are wisely absent from the First Season, which gives the cast a chance to stake out it's own territory without being overly beholden to it's predecessor. Some old favorites from The Good Wife do show up though: Gary Cole returns as Kurt McVeigh, Diane's husband. Carrie Preston is back as Elsbeth Tascioni and Matthew Perry shows up as Mike Kresteva- Neil Gross, Colin Sweeney and Dylan Stack all pop up here and there as well.

I think the difference between The Good Fight and The Good Wife is more of where the show seems to be focusing. Wife was more about the journey of Alicia Florrick whereas Fight is more about the actual, well, fight of it all. Maia's family drama, while an integral part of introducing and building her character in the show isn't at the center of the show and I think it's a nice change of pace- because the courtroom battles and legal shenanigans make for one hell of an entertaining ride. My Verdict: I'm not sure this is Frasier just yet, but it sure as hell ain't Joey either. *** out of ****.

The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story is nowhere near as ponderous as it's title suggests, in fact, it's sort of a weird time machine vortex back to the mid-90s when everyone in America was hyper-focused on pretty much every aspect of the case. Based on Jeffrey Toobin's book The Run of HIs Life: The People v OJ Simpson, the producers made this appointment television just on the sheer talent they assembled for the cast alone, but the way they tell the story of the case is absolutely riveting. Despite having memories of this case and having lived through it (I remember when the television cut live to the verdict and everything in junior high stopped in a way that it probably didn't stop until the morning of September 11th, 2001- it was that big of a deal.) this was still a fascinating series to watch.

Starting with the discovery of the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Golden, OJ Simpson (a fantastic Cuba Gooding Jr.) immediately becomes a person of interest in the case and then the suspect, the series takes you all the way through the chase in the White Ford Bronco to the ups and downs and ins and outs of the trial itself and right up until the verdict.

The cast is what makes this. Sarah Paulson is excellent as Martha Clark and Sterling K. Brown got a well-deserved Emmy for his role as Christopher Darden. Courtney B. Vance becomes Johnnie Cochran and John Travolta, Nathan Lane and David Schwimmer round out the defense team as Bob Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey and Robert Kardashian. (Schwimmer is especially good in this.) I straight up did not recognize Selma Blair as Kriss Jenner, either as you go through familiar faces sort of pop here and there- Evan Handler as Alan Dershowitz, Jordana Brewster as Denise Brown. It's an amazing cast- and because the cast is good, I think it gives the show room to play with some interesting themes and make some subtle points.

OJ as a precursor to the Kardashian ruled, narrative over facts driven world is a huge underlying theme to this- so much so that the Kardashian kids themselves show up a couple of times just to underline the point. The show doesn't come right out and say that OJ is guilty- which I think is smart, because they leave it entirely up to the viewer and depending on how you feel about the case, I suspect that's going to influence you one way or the other. The way they handle it though is beautifully subtle in many ways and just adds to the power of the series. My Verdict: as weird as it was the flashback to the 90s and this interminable never ending mess of a murder case, The People v OJ Simpson manages to make it thrilling, entertaining and appointment television. **** out of ****

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Netflix & Chill #31: The Right Stuff

Watched On: Amazon Prime
Released: 1983
Starring: Fred Ward, Charles Frank, Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Lance Henriksen, Scott Paulin, Dennis Quaid, Sam Shepard, Kim Stanley, Barbara Hershey, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Pick: Mine

Randomly last month I saw General Chuck Yeager fly by on my Twitter feed, trying to get himself to 70,000 followers in time to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of breaking the sound barrier (he more than met that goal and has 77K followers as of today)- not even realizing that General Yeager was still out there in the world and being sort of tickled by the fact that he was on Twitter, I obliged him and then I kind of got the itch to see the beginning of The Right Stuff to watch their portrayal of his record breaking flight and then I just kept right on watching, because well, it's a great movie!

Telling the story of America's first nine astronauts that launched the Mercury Program and began to space race which culminated in Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the moon, The Right Stuff opens in 1947 in the high desert of California at Edwards Air Force Base (at the time I guess it was called Muroc Army Air Field?) where test pilots fly high speed air craft like the Bell X-1 pushing the envelope of man and machine faster than humanity thought possible at the time. Many die as a result. When one pilot demands $150,000 in an attempt to break the sound barrier, the chance to fly the Bell X-1 falls to Captain Chuck Yeager. (Sam Shepard).  While on a horseback ride with his wife, Glennis (Barbara Hershey), Yeager takes a fall and breaks some ribs which prevents him from leaning over and securing the hatch to the X-1. A fellow pilot, Jack Ridley (Levon Helm) rigs up a broom handle which helps Yeager to secure the door and he takes the X-1 out on a flight and breaks the sound barrier.

Six years after that first flight, Edwards Air Force Base is still attracting the best test pilots, including young hotshots, Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Gus Grissom (Fred Ward) and Deke Slayton (Scott Paulin) who want to prove that they're as good as now Major Chuck Yeager and his friendly rival Scott Crossfield (Scott Wilson) who keep breaking each other's speed records. Their wives carry the heavier burden of being terrified of becoming widowed by the dangerous work their husbands do and for Trudy Cooper (Pamela Reed) it proves to be too much as she heads back to San Diego to her parents house for awhile.

The 1957 launch of Sputnik, however changes everything and suddenly there is massive political pressure for America to catch up to the Soviets in the now declared space race. Deciding that they want men with a college degree, Yeager is excluded from the search for America's first seven astronauts, but Cooper, Grissom and Slayton are joined by John Glenn (Ed Harris), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), Walter Schirra (Lance Henriksen), and Scott Carpenter (Charles Frank) and after going through a series of grueling physical and mental test, they become the Mercury Seven- America's first astronauts.

Despite the momentum the Americans have picked up, Russia beats them into space again, launching Vostok 1 on April 12, 1961 with Yuri Gagarin on board, which only increases the determination of the astronauts to get in the game and beat the Russians. Eventually, Alan Shepard becomes the first American to reach space on the Mercury Redstone-3, Grissom follows on the Mercury Redstone-4, but experiences a slight setback when the capsules hatch blows prematurely and it fills with water and sinks before it can be recovered- many accuse Grissom of panicking and blowing the hatch prematurely. John Glenn follows on the Mercury Atlas-6 and becomes the first American to orbit the Earth surviving a possibly loose heat shield on re-entry to come home to a ticker tape parade.

Back at Edwards Air Force Base, Yeager and Crossfield recognize that they have been eclipsed by the new astronauts, but keep flying anyway- Yeager is nearly killed while testing the new Lockheed NF-104A when he has to eject at high speed, but survives, despite being burned, walks himself to the ambulance, proving once again that he has 'the right stuff.' 

The movie closes with Gordon Cooper having a successful launch on the Mercury-Atlas 9 ending the Mercury program- he was the last American to fly into space alone.

What a fantastic movie this is- I actually remember having to watch this in my 9th Grade Earth Science class and being both fascinated and captivated by the story and the movie itself- though I'm pretty sure Mr. Coleman fast forwarded through a lot of the fan dancing scenes. The music is great, the cast is incredible and while they took some dramatic license with the accuracy, as Hollywood is wont to do, it's still a fascinating look at the earliest days of America's space program. (Weirdly, they didn't talk about the Russian side of things all that much, but the two sequences from Star City, where the old dude is looking up and laughing through the shimmer heat of the rocket exhaust and balalaika type music in the background always sticks in my head and make me wonder what the space race would have been like if the Russians would have had a few breaks go their way.)

Overall: This is an awesome movie and honestly, doesn't feel like it was made in 1983 even though it was. It's a classic in every sense of the word. I've always been a sucker for early space history and the like (going to Canaveral when we were in Florida a couple of years ago was very cool) and if you like Apollo 13 or From The Earth To The Moon, you'll either have seen this and loved it or if for some inexplicable reason you haven't, you'll love every minute of it. My Grade: **** out of ****