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 ****

Saturday, November 11, 2017

This Week In Vexillology #237

I was wondering what I was going to do this week, but then The Quiet Man tweeted a picture of the shiny new flag of Toronto he purchased on his trip to the Great White North and inspiration struck- the one type of flag that I haven't done too much of yet? City flags. So, This Week in Vexillology, thanks to this handy-dandy Buzzfeed listicle I found, we're going to look at a trio of City Flags.

First up, Buffalo:
First of all, how bad ass is this flag? It's like someone took the old 'seal on a bedsheet' thing and decided, 'LET'S ADD LIGHTNING BOLTS!' and this is what resulted. The flag immediately catches the eye. There's not too many colors- though the combination of navy blue and white seems a little vanilla to me, I think it's probably a wise design choice in this case. You've already upped the ante with the lightning bolts and that's where you want to focus of the design to be- if you start adding colors, this thing could have turned into a hot mess real quick.

This flag has been the flag of Buffalo since 1924. According to the flag's wiki-page, they originally had a contest in 1922 to design a new flag, but didn't get enough entries or entries they liked, anyway so they upped the reward money and local architect Louis Greenstein, who produced the winning design, won himself a cool $250.

So, what does it all mean?  Well, the central emblem features a ship passing a lighthouse (I'm assuming on Lake Erie) at the left of center and below that a canal boat on the Erie Canal, representing Buffalo's geographical location and connections to the bodies of water. The thirteen stars in between the bolts, represent New York's status as one of the Thirteen Original Colonies and the bolts represent either 'the energy and zeal' behind the spirit of Buffalo or they celebrate Buffalo as one of the first cities to deploy electricity widely.

Next up, Toronto:
Seriously, how cool is this flag? To be fair, I found some detractors online that suggested some interesting look alternatives, but as city flags go this is pretty good, at least to me. It was originally designed by Renato De Santis in 1974 for the Old City of Toronto flag design content (at least per the flag's wiki-page) and when the city consolidated in 1997 with the surrounding metro areas (which I honestly didn't know it did, so the more you know I guess!) they looked for new flag designs, but didn't find any they could get behind so just fiddled with the original a bit and landed on this design in October of 1999.

The white stripes represent the outline of the Twin Towers of Toronto City Hall, while the maple leaf from the flag of Canada represents the Council Chamber at the base of the towers. The blue above and in between the towers forms the letter 'T' which stands, I'm guessing for Toronto?

Finally, I was going to do the flag of Phoenix, but I thought that was too 'Rebel Alliance' for my liking and kind of boring, so I came up with a curveball that's got some vague relevance to news this week- yes, it's Madrid!
The flag of Madrid is basically the city's Coat of Arms on a field of crimson- but it's the modern, clean look of the Coat of Arms that caught my eye. While heraldry is cool (and something I need to learn more about, I think, given how often Coats of Arms intersect with flags) Coats of Arms as a rule tend to be a hell of a lot busier than what Madrid's got going on. I like the modern, updated look of this because I think it makes the overall design of the flag feel cleaner- there's less for you to look at.

Looking at the history of the Coat of Arms, you can see that the bear dates back all the way back to the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212 and the bear all up on the tree eating the fruit with the seven stars goes all the way back to 1222. The crown starts showing up around the mid-1500s and has been going through a variety of permutations ever since before settling on the current form post-Franco regime in 1982.

In terms of meaning, the bear is leaning up against a strawberry tree (which is news to me, because I honestly didn't know strawberries could grow on trees- so the more you know, I guess!)- the significance of that is unknown, but the tree is native to Madrid. There is a theory that the bear and the tree stand for a farming rights dispute between the clergy and citizens. The seven stars are supposed to represent the stars in the Starry Plough, which is closest to Ursa Major (the Great Bear!) The stars stand for the north and north is the direction on which all others are based, it's supposed to stand for a Madrid as the seat of government for Spain. (That last part about the stars seems like a bit of a reach for me, but okay. We'll go with it.)

And that's our trio of city flags for this week! Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, November 10, 2017

The New Marketing Strategy

Peeps, I had a plan.

Yes, I have two books out there in the big wide world. (If you don't know, check out my debut novel The Prisoner and The Assassin and it's sequel The Arrows of Defiance today! Reviews are always welcome!) And while I love my first two books dearly, I've been wrestling with the nagging sensation that I'm not really doing right by them either. The first, Prisoner, was my "I want to see if I can actually do this" book and, lo and behold, it turns out I could. It's sequel, Arrows, concluded the story I began in the first, but it too felt like a "I want to see if I can actually do this" kind of book.

So, I hatched a plan. I stumbled across a indie publishing platform that not only publishes your books but pushes them out to multiple vendors to get them to as many people as possible. I got excited. This seemed like a good idea to me. I could get new covers and relaunch them next year and get them posted to multiple vendors and really get them out there the way they should be now.

Since I started writing as much as I have my goal has been a simple one: always keep improving. I want me writing to get better with each new book I write and yeah, I want to get better and marketing the work I have out there in the world. I had a plan and 2018 was going to be the year I get my books back out there looking better than ever...  I had a plan. Emphasis on had, because on Monday I got an email saying that the shiny new platform that I had pinned a lot of my marketing strategy for next year on was shutting down.

Well, shit.

So, now I'm sort of back to square one- but the nugget of the plan remains. I want to get the first two books out to more vendors on a platform that lets me really do right by these books. Don't get me wrong: I'm under no illusions here- I don't think they're Hemingway or anything but I did put a lot of time and energy into them and I want to make sure that time and energy gets the platform it deserves. (I'm also usually my own damning critic and whenever I find myself reading those books, I'm sort of surprised that they're actually not half-bad. Certainly worth a read!) These books mean a lot to me, oddly enough. I think one of my biggest failings in writing has been focusing on the plot and not the characters- my biggest fear has always been someone will read something that I've written and then look at me and say, 'I don't get it.' So I used to obsess about plot and that made the story I had in my head and the characters that I had in my head hard to translate to the page.

I don't know at what point in writing Prisoner that I realized that the characters had sort of come alive for me, but they did. And that's when I knew that whatever it was I had going (because both books sort of emerged from a pile and a half of writing that sort of poured out of me) that it was going to happen. I was going to write an actual, real life book.

I know it's sort of a writery cliche to say, but I really got to know all those characters- and at some point, I'll be going back to them to finish their story for good. But for now, all I know is that looking at the books I put out over the past couple of years, I know I can make them better. I know I can get them out to more places, more effectively than I have been up to this point. Like most indie authors, I know next to nothing about how to effectively market a book, but 2018 is going to be the year that I try and learn something about that I think.

So, I'm back to Square One. I'm going to spend the rest of the year coming up with a new marketing strategy and then 2018, I'm planning on finishing the next book and relaunching one, if not both of the other books- and hopefully doing a bit better about marketing the books that I have. I know I set a pretty ambitious goal for myself last year in terms of writing short stories and I want to keep getting after those and getting those out there in the world as well.

The TL;DR of all of this: I've got some thinking and planning to do, but fun stuff is coming 2018. I just have to figure out how much fun stuff and how to get it all done.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Psephology Rocks: Holiday Grab Bag Edition

Well, there's lots to talk about post-Election Day, not only in America, but there's a few bits and bobs from around the world worth touching on as well.  We'll start local and work upwards:

Local:  Well, I went three for three in my City Council Endorsements- Botchway, Salih took the At-Large Seats and Susan Mims took the District B Seat. The District B race between incumbent Susan Mims and student Ryan Hall was less of a contest than I think people were anticipating, as Mims won handily 59% to 41%.

I had nothing in particular against Hall, per say- but I feel like if Raj Patel who was another student who ran a few cycles back (I want to say 2010?) had serious money and a serious platform behind him and didn't win, then Hall was going to be a long shot. He checked all the right progressive boxes for Iowa City, but he was running against an incumbent who might not be uber-Progressive, but not say, Terry Dickens either. I think Hall would have had a better shot against Dickens than he had against Mims- but the precinct by precinct results are somewhat telling:

IC3, which covers the West Dorms had a whopping 46 votes. Hall won 67%-33%. IC5, which covers the East Dorms had a whopping 55 votes- but Hall actually lost this precinct by a single vote. IC19, which covers Johnson-Van Buren-Dodge areas south of Burlington Street also had a whopping 46 votes and Hall won again, 61%-39%. IC7, which covers the Hawkeye Campus area also went to Mims by a wide margin. I don't know if a student will ever get elected to the City Council but if any of them are considering jumping in next time, you have to, have to, have to, get out the vote in Precincts 3, 5 and I would say 19 as well. 7 would be a nice bonus, but it also includes Walnut Ridge which I'm not sure would flip for a student, but you never know.

(In general, I wasn't that impressed with Hall's website. He spoke in broad metaphors, while Mims in her candidate profile cited specifics- plus that Press-Citizen article I linked too above drops a nice little surprise in at the bottom: Hall works for current Council Member Rockne Cole which raised some questions about possible conflict of interest- Hall said had he won and the City Attorney advised him that there was a conflict, he would have resigned. Which raises the question: what would have been the point of it all? Don't get me wrong: props to Hall for standing up and getting involved- Lord knows, I'm just a dude with a keyboard here- but if you're going to do the thing, then you've gotta come out and play like Iowa did against Ohio State last Saturday because as a student you've already got a ton working against you locally and Hall didn't do that.)

Interesting bit of history might have been last night in Iowa City too, I saw a tweet go by (I think from Mazahir Salih's husband, I'm guessing) saying that Mazahir Salih was the first Sudanese woman to be elected to office outside of Sudan and a basic (though not exhaustive) search of the internet this morning seems to back that up. If so: awesome! (Side note: both Sudans do pretty well for representation for women in their national parliaments- South Sudan comes in at 29% of their seats and Sudan has 31%.)

Other interesting things around the county: University Heights voted for a hotel tax to possibly get a hotel all up in their little enclave and Tiffin turned down a library levy to increase the annual operating budget of the Tiffin Public Library- which surprised me, because I didn't honestly know that Tiffin had a public library.

State and Regional: Looking around the geographical neighborhood, it's sort of a mixed bag of delights. Dallas County approved 1-cent sales tax and now the question becomes whether or not Polk County is going to do the same thing. I checked Omaha.com and didn't really see anything from Nebraska that caught my eye- Kansas City voters approved a massive overhaul of KCI, so they're going to have a shiny new single terminal airport down there, I guess. In Saint Louis, Prop P passed with ease, giving cops and firefighters a raise.

The Medium White North saw some impressive firsts in local races...  Melvin Carter was elected as St. Paul's first mayor of color and in the 8th Ward of Minneapolis, Andrea Jenkins won more than 70% of the votes to become the first transgender woman of color elected to public office in the nation. Cool thing about local races in the Cities: it's all done by ranked choice voting. (Oh and voters voted the Mankato School District some more dinero. Shout out to my former employers, lol.)

National: Good news everyone, the Democratic Party seems to have life left in it yet! Ralph Northam was elected Governor in Virginia, Phil Murphy took New Jersey- holding Virginia for the Democrats and picking up New Jersey from outgoing Republican Governor Chris Christie. The bigger news out of Virginia is probably the 16 seat pick-up the Democrats made to erase a massive GOP majority and give them a 50-50 split. Democrat Justin Fairfax took the Lt. Governor's slot for the Democrats becoming only the second African-American to win a statewide office since Reconstruction.* and they also held the Attorney General slot as well. (Plus: Danica Roem became the first transgender state legislator ever!)

Washington flipped to all blue as well, as an open Senate seat went to the Democrats, giving them full control of all legislative houses/Governorships along the West Coast. They flipped a GOP state house seat in New Hampshire, won the Mayor's races in St. Petersburg, FL and Manchester, NH and flipped a couple of deep red seats in Georgia. (Maine approved a Medicaid Expansion by a wide margin, New York said no to a Constitutional Convention and Ohio shot down a measure to limit prices on prescription drugs purchased by the state. Texas had seven constitutional amendments on the ballot as well that all passed.)

So, all in all, I'd say good news. This bodes well for 2018, but like the wise man said: "Don't get cocky."

We'll see how it plays out over the next year or so, but for right now, today, color me cautiously optimistic. My general gut feeling is that voters want politicians to do the business that needs doing and get turned off (after awhile) by ideological swings to the extreme ends of the spectrum. You go too far with the ideological crazy and voters will slap you down. I think an unpopular President might be more of a liability for Republicans than they think- and with their failure to deliver on repealing the ACA and a looming potential failure on tax reform, their base might be pissed by November of next year. Unpopular President + Pissed of GOP Base = Democratic Congress. (At least that's what it seems like to me- of course, once in control, the Democrats could easily shoot themselves in the foot by pursuing a potentially partisan impeachment of the President**- but for right now, I think the message to the GOPers has to be: get your shit together or pay the price next November.)

International: Biggish news out of Kyrgyzstan of all places, but it looks like they're headed for the first peaceful transfer of power between Presidents since they gained their independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The elections were...  well, from what I can tell, 'free-ish' seems to be the best way to describe them, but 'free-ish' is a refreshing change of pace from how things usually go down in the regional. Though, interestingly enough looking at this article about Sooronbay Jeenbekov's victory, I guess there were allegation of interference in their election as well- though from Kazakhstan and not Russia.

Kenya's election mess continues. Uhuru Kenyatta won the re-vote ordered by the Supreme Court, but opposition candidate Raila Odinga actually withdrew from the election two weeks before it all went down at the end of last month and now there's an effort underway to annul the second vote as well. No idea if there's going to be more twists and turns in the story, but keep an eye out on it nonetheless. Mercifully, the process seems to have been largely free of the widespread violence of elections past.

*You know what I'd like, I'd like to read a story about an election down south and have it be for like the 100th African American to win a statewide office since Reconstruction. That's an America I hope to live in some day.

**I think any impeachment will be partisan, no matter what these days. But it'd be nice to have actual hard evidence instead of vague charges of 'collusion.' What's the simpler explanation: that Russia fucked with voting machines in Wisconsin and Michigan or that the Democrats ran a candidate who didn't bother to go to either state after the Convention and lost both as a result? Collusion gets to be an awfully vague word, because you come close to implying that voters are idiots for believing everything they read on Facebook- but the problem is that the dumb shit on Facebook cuts across ideological boundaries. For every alt-right conspiracy theory spun out of thin air, you can find another one from the left about vaccines or climate change or some shit like that. Coming to the conclusion that Russia influenced are election because people believe anything on the Internet these days might be a correct conclusion, but the implications aren't going to be ones that a lot of voters are going to warm to, I think.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Bookshot #102: Lincoln In The Bardo

I checked out this book from the library purely on a whim. I saw an article celebrating George Saunders winning the Man Booker Prize for this novel and figured since part of my reading goals for the year were to stretch myself and push my usual reading boundaries to writers and genres I don't normally read and Lincoln In The Bardo, as it turns out more than fits the bill.

The novel opens in February of 1862 in Washington DC with the Civil War raging and the country just starting to realize that the conflict is going to be longer and bloodier than they imagine. While the White House holds a grand soiree, young Willie Lincoln lies upstairs, racked with typhoid fever and eventually, he succumbs to it and dies. History records that the Lincoln returned to the crypt where his son was buried several times to hold the boy's body.

Willie Lincoln, however, finds himself in a transitional state, a purgatory (or in the Buddhist tradition, the Bardo) which is populated by ghosts who mingle, gripe, commiserate and try and convince themselves that they're not dead, merely 'sick' and that somehow they'll find a way back to what they once were before, even as they enact various penances for their misdeeds in life. Periodically, members of their population will transition onward to whatever was next. The main trio of ghosts are Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and the Reverend Everly Thomas. Vollman had a young wife, who  made him happy until a beam fell on his head and killed him. Bevins (who is gay), committed suicide when his lover decided to break it off with him and 'live correctly.' They note the appearance of young Willie and when he doesn't immediately transition onward to whatever is next, they decide to figure out why and help him get where he needs to go.

They quickly realize that it's his father who is keeping him there. Lincoln comes back to the crypt to view Willie's body and Willie goes into his father to try and find out what's going on (not realizing that he's dead) confused, he feels his father's grief and retreats, not understanding his predicament and as Lincoln leaves, the battle for his soul begins as dark forces begin to try and trap him there for all time.

The trio of ghosts springs into action and, upon realizing that they too can enter the living attempt to bring Lincoln back to help Willie try and understand what's really going on. They're initially unsuccessful in the attempt, but Lincoln comes back eventually for another visit and after one more trip into his father, Willie realizes that he has died and it's time to move onto what's next. Proclaiming the word to the assembled ghosts help many of them realize it too and many depart, now at peace after final acts of penance. Lincoln rides back to the White House, still grieving, but ready to continue the work of his Presidency.

I don't know what to think about this book. I want to be blown away by it and yet, for some reason I'm not and I think a large part of that has to do with the scene setting that Saunders employs at the start of the book, drawing on the historical record to describe the party in the White House that night and the mood of the country. I was initially annoyed by it, because I had the sneaking suspicion that Saunders was going to assemble his novel by drawing on fragments from history and trying to pass it off as a narrative. But instead he takes the initial format and runs with is, so that everything looks a bit like this:
I didn't know what the whole deal with the format was with this book.
Tom Nixon
Everything sort of looks like how you'd format a quote or a passage from a book and it's incredibly hard to get your head around at first, but after awhile it sort of starts to flow like a play and the power of the writing starts to shine through. I've wondered from time to time whether I view things differently since I've become a parent and I think this might be a good example of how I do, because the descriptions and portrayals of Lincoln's grief at the loss of his son are haunting and absolutely touching and I think those are probably what stuck with me the most after reading this novel.

Overall: There's the old saw in writing about how you need to know the rules in order to break them and I would say it's pretty damn certain that Saunders knows all the rules to break. This book bends the traditional format of the novel without getting weighed down or lost in it's own experimentation, which is nice. It takes a chapter or two to get over the weirdness of the format, but once you do, the book reads pretty quickly and is a powerful and haunting tale of grief and loss that I enjoyed immensely. I'd say: *** out of ****

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Netflix & Chill #30: The Hunt For Red October

Watched On: Amazon Prime
Released: 1990
Starring: Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, Sam Neill
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Pick: Mine

I was working solo a couple of weekends back and saw this one pop up on Amazon Prime and decided to give it a watch again. It had been years since I had seen the movie and even longer since I had sat down with the book and I was curious to see how well it would hold up- turns out, it's still as excellent as I remember.

Late in the Cold War, the Soviets develop a new 'caterpillar drive' for their submarines which render it undetectable to passive sonar. The first ship outfitted with this drive, Red October, heads out to conduct exercises with it's fellow submarine, the VK Konovalov. Captain Marko Ramius (Sean Connery), once out to sea, kills the political officer and gives false orders to set sail for the east coast of America where they're going to conduct missile drills.

Meanwhile, CIA Analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) flies to Washington to brief his boss, Admiral Greer (James Earl Jones) about the new caterpillar drive, only to find himself briefing the National Security Advisor and more when Greer reveals that Red October has already sailed. While most people think Ramius is a madman set to launch a first strike, Ryan offers another hypothesis, namely that Ramius is actually intending to defect. Ryan is given forty eight hours to prove his theory and heads out into the North Atlantic, first to an aircraft carrier and then to the USS Dallas who thanks to it's Captain, Bart Mancuso (Scott Glenn) and their Sonar Guy, Ronald Jones (Courtney B Vance) seems to have figured out how to track Red October.

Ramius, meantime, tells his officers that he has sent a letter to the Vice Admiral of the Soviet fleet informing him of his intention to defect, thus committing them to their plan. The bulk of the Soviet fleet is now chasing them, including his fellow captain, Tupolev and his ship the VK Konovalov.

On the USS Dallas, Ryan persuades Mancuso to contact Ramius and ascertain his intentions- when it turn out that Ryan's theory is correct, they arrange a rendezvous off of the Grand Banks, where, after a convenient radiation accident to get the crew off of the ship, the officers submerge once more and the Americans board the Red October and Ramius formally requests to defect. Suddenly attacked by the Konovalov, Red October with an assist from the USS Dallas successfully destroys the other sub- and the watching crew thinks that Red October has sacrificed itself to avoid being boarded and the subterfuge is complete. Ryan then welcomes Ramius to the New World and freedom.

There's just something about a good old fashioned submarine flick, you know? I don't know what it is, but it gets me every time. Plus, while this film must have resonated more effectively in the latter days of the Cold War, it still captures the historical moment of high tension and Cold War shenanigans between the United States and the USSR perfectly. (And honestly, thinking about it, this was probably one of the better adaptations of Clancy's work...  Patriot Games was okay, but is a better book. Clear and Present Danger is- well, I think it's another movie I need to watch again and they completed messed up The Sum of All Fears.) Added bonus: reading the wiki-page of the movie and finding out how much access the filmmakers got to make this movie.

Overall: Who doesn't love a good submarine flick? I think The Hunt for Red October ranks right up there with Das Boot as iconic entries in the admittedly small genre. **** out of ****

Saturday, November 4, 2017

This Week In Vexillology #236

We're jumping back into the Lost Archives this week- but with a twist! Turns out that Mauritania has made some changes to it's flag recently and by recently I mean in August! It's not much of a change in the grand scheme of things, but it's shiny and new and This Week In Vexillology, it's what we're going to take a look at:
So, what's new? Like I said- not much, but we've got some snazzy new red stripes at the top and the bottom of the flag. Why the changes? Well, President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz held a referendum to do some tweaking of the way things work over there. One question wanted to abolish the indirectly-elected Senate and it's replacement with regional councils. Islamic High Council and the national Ombudsman into a 'Supreme Council of the Fatwa' (which sounds like a fun time.) The second question was about the changes to the flag (which we'll get to in a minute.) Mauritanians went to the polls and said 'YES' to both questions by wide margins...

The official changes to the flag were adopted to August 15th, 2017 and it's used as the national flag and naval ensign of Mauritania. The color break down is pretty simple: green, gold and red are considered Pan-African colors, but Green in this case also symbolizes Islam, gold is for the sands of the Sahara desert. The (shiny new) red stripes stand for: "the efforts and sacrifices that the people of Mauritania will keep consenting, to the price of their blood, to defend their territory." The crescent and star are symbols of Islam, which is the state religion of Mauritania. (There's also an alt-explanation for green as possibly being for a 'bright future' and 'growth' out there, but nothing official on that score.)

Two things that stand out immediately looking at the new flag of Mauritania: first, is their take on the pan-African colors. In general, I understand the historical significance of the Pan-African Movement and it's flag and colors have had a huge impact on vexillological design, especially in West Africa. (See: Ghana and pretty much everyone around it.) What I like here about Mauritania's addition of the red is that it creates a balance that reflects it's geographical position between the core of West Africa and the sort of Maghreb/Arab Countries to the north. The green and red nod toward the south and the green and gold crescent/star nod toward the north. I dig it.

Second, let's talk about the crescent and star. I like how Mauritania places their crescent and star. It's centrally placed, the star is above the moon and the moon is underneath and not to the left, which is the placement you see in Turkey, the new flag of Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. Going out on a limb here- I'd say the North African Crescent/Star has some historical roots that date back to the Ottoman placement of the crescent and star- but a search of the Old Google Machine reveals that Mauritania seems to be the only country that places the crescent/star this way, which makes it stand out in the crowd a bit more. 

All in all, I like the new look Mauritania...  remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Catalan Conundrum

So when is it okay to secede?

That's the question that seems to be floating around in my head quite a bit, watching the news from Spain as the showdown over Catalonia's declaration of independence continues to unfold. I think, from the outset, Madrid bungled this. In fact, they bungled it in such a way that honestly, Prime Minister Rajoy shouldn't have a job right now. Had they confronted the Catalan question head on and allowed a free and democratic referendum on the question, then the result (which could have well have gone their way) would have reinforced the stability of Spain's democracy and integrity of the Spanish state itself for at least a generation.

Instead, they bungled it. They sent in the police to break up the vote and we were treated to sights of riot police handcuffing old ladies and attempting to disrupt a peaceful democratic vote. The optics alone demolished any constitutional case that Madrid might have made against independence- and strictly speaking, they had a pretty good legal case. Whether you agree with it or not, Spain's constitutional court had ruled the referendum illegal, but the regional government went ahead and did it anyway. The severity of Madrid's reaction was revealing: apparently they either are convinced that they have to hold the line or see a slew of their Northern Provinces follow Catalonia out the door or that the Spanish state is no where near as stable as they think it is. All of which strikes me as somewhat silly, given then fact that 300,000 people turned out for a pro-Unity rally in Barcelona over the weekend.

This was an argument that Madrid could have won- easily. Membership in the EU for an independent Catalonia was not guaranteed. You're going to need to get a new currency off of the ground, fast- and make sure it's stable. Then there's the question of health care, pensions and a general divorce from a Spain that would have no reason to be magnanimous with you. The poetry of independence might be nice, the realities are a lot harder. (The economics of this can get complicated, as Quebec learned in the run up their referendum.) That's the line that Madrid should have taken. Instead, they're filing charges against the dismissed Catalan government, which I think is only going to keep the independence question alive and might, in the long term, make things worse. Authorities in Madrid locking up Catalans fighting for their freedom? Stop me if you've seen this movie before.

There was a practical and strong argument to be made against independence. And had Madrid bothered to make it, I suspect we wouldn't be in this mess. But there's a demographic problem with this as well: in the vote itself, two million Catalans voted, (despite the police interference) and 90% of them voted yes. Which amounts to about 42% of the electorate. That's troubling math if you break it down... so less than half of your electorate bothered to show up and 90% of them voted yes- is that a clear mandate from the Catalan people? (This stands in contrast to the Scottish referendum where 84% of the electorate turned out to vote, and the Kurdish referendum- also causing headaches in the Middle East, which had 72% turnout.) I don't think it is- and if it's not, then can you really claim that people want out?*

Which brings this back to the original question: when is it okay to secede? As an American, there's an uncomfortable contradiction with unpacking how to feel about all this. On the one hand, we are a country born of secession. We dumped a bunch of tea in Boston Harbor and said 'fuck all this King shit.' And one Revolution later, here we are. But then came the Civil War and secession gets slapped with a whole other set of connotations that we're still wrestling with today. The slavery question having been settled (here in America, anyway), now for a lot of these regions out there, it's an economic question, instead of a Nationalist one. Catalonia doesn't want to pay for the rest of Spain. Northern Italy doesn't want to pay for Southern Italy. Flanders doesn't want to pay for Belgium. Alberta doesn't want to pay for Ontario. California doesn't want to pay for Republicans and Texas doesn't want to pay for Democrats. 

Personally, I don't think 'I don't want to pay for that' is a good foundation for a new Republic. It's hardly Lexington and Concord, is it? And while yes, there might be some good, strong cases in favor of Catalan independence out there, I don't think they've made their case to their own people today. While the reaction of Madrid might ensure that the tantalizing poetry of independence remains alive for future generations to come, I don't think Catalonia can claim a mandate for it now. That's not entirely their fault, given the idiocies of Madrid in not embracing the question and fighting the issue on it's merits. But if you're going to declare independence and not have things like 'money' and 'a plan' ready to go right off the bat, that's a massive strike against you in my book. My sympathies are with the Catalans in this, and if at some point they actually get a free and open vote on the question and decide (with turn out similar to what Scotland and Kurdistan brought to the table) to leave, I'd say Viva Catalunya! But that day doesn't appear to be today.

*Puerto Rico keeps having these issues with their periodic questions about statehood. It's either a ridiculous two part question- like, 'Do you want to change?' and 'If so what should we change too?' Which is confusing, because people might not want to change right now, but think that if they do change, it should be option a. Or option b. Which doesn't send a clear mandate at all. Or there's little to no turnout. If it's me, I'm giving PR a waiver from the Jones Act for 15 years to get it's economy up and running post-Hurricane. Then I'd require a simple, three part question to be asked every ten years or so: Statehood, Independence or Status Quo. This floating in limbo shit is unfair to Puerto Rico and Constitutionally murky at best.