Saturday, March 17, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #251

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 16, 2018

Short Fiction Friday: The Door

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sportsyball: Bracketology Edition

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

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

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

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

The East Region:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Netflix & Chill #40: Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 10, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #251

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 9, 2018

Squawk Box: Dirty Money/Altered Carbon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Kidlit: Roald Dahl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Worst 48 Hrs. Since 'Another 48 Hrs.'

Worst. Weekend. Ever.

Friday began with a sad trip to the vet to put our Yorkie, Sophie to sleep. We'd known for awhile know that she had a large mass on her abdomen and was showing signs of heart failure and had been doing our best to keep her comfortable with a couple of medications that seemed to be helping. But in the last week or so, she had taken a turn. She just wasn't comfortable any more and was having trouble getting up sometimes and it was getting harder and harder for her to breathe, so we made the appointment and took her in.

Sophie was a sweet little dog that came into our lives thanks to a friend of my sister in law's who had broken up with her fiancee. The fiancee was being charming about this poor little dog, threatening to take her to the pound and my sister in law swooped in to save the day- but through a series of circumstances that I'm still kind of fuzzy on, the Missus (who was The Girlfriend at the time) and I ended up sort of adopting her as our own.

When we lived in Mankato, we would take her all over the place with us. We'd do regular walks and go to parks with her (we even took her to see a bike race, one hot summer afternoon). She used to jump in bed with us and was the best little snuggler when she wanted to be as well. She loved tummy rubs and running around outside.

As the years passed and we moved to Iowa City and Winston joined the family, I feel like she sort of faded into the background a little bit. We never pampered her as much as we could have (or probably should have) but I think she liked being present but also being able to do her own thing after awhile. She'd find a corner to take a nap in. She'd be at the ready for any bread bones or treats, but in general, she slipped into old age so quietly we almost didn't notice, really.

Sophie was the dog that completely turned me around on small dogs. I would, at some point in the future, happily give serious consideration to getting one again. She was sweet, gentle and just the best puppy you could ask for and it was hard to let her go, but I'm glad we did. We kept her comfortable for as long as we could, but it was time and hopefully she's breathing easy and running free somewhere.

Friday was bad enough but somehow managed to get even worse when we took poor Winston in to get checked out. Poor old dude had been having a hell of a time pooping for a week or so and just was getting more and more uncomfortable and was in obvious pain after awhile. We were expecting that he had probably eaten something he shouldn't have and had a partial bowel obstruction (his infamous tampon eating incident meant that it was not entirely out of the realm of possibilities for him) but after checking him out, the vet found a mass just above his rectum that was pressing down on it and sealing it shut. He referred us to a surgeon if we wanted to know more, but was pretty convinced that the mass, whatever it was, was inoperable due to it's position below the spine.

We had medications for Sophie that had helped to keep her comfortable for awhile, but there was really nothing we could do for poor Winston. They prescribed up some stool softeners, which we didn't end up using, because we didn't want to risk making things worse for the poor guy. Bad enough he couldn't poop, even worse if he was full of laxatives, crampy, miserable and still not really able to poop if they didn't work. We made an appointment for Monday to take him in to get him put to sleep, but after a day or so of just watching him be absolutely miserable, neither the Missus nor I could do it any more, so Saturday night, barely a day and a half after Sophie had left us, we took him in to the emergency vet and sent him over the rainbow bridge to join Sophie.

Winston was our million dollar dog- and I mean that almost literally. He was adorable as a young guy- boisterous and fun, sweet and snuggly. I have a picture of him floating around somewhere doing tummy time with one of my nieces when she was just a tiny baby. He loved to be by people and had no concept of personal space, which could get a little annoying at times (especially when he was constantly licking you.) He'd also do this thing where he'd sit next to you on the couch and sort of face away from you like he was trying to be all non-chalant about it and then, 'BOOM' he thump his head into you and snuggle you as hard as he could.

He claimed space on the end of our bed that required negotiation and moving him to exactly the right spot so we could both stretch out comfortably every night. On occasion, he would sneakily creep up the bed, so that by morning there would be a large bulldog between us and one of us (usually the Missus, it seemed) would have all four paws in our backs.

While he was a gentle and faithful sentry for both our babies, he and the Elder Spawn butted heads after awhile and one of the saddest things about letting him go was the missed opportunity there. He and the Elder Spawn should have been best buddies. I'm really sad that they weren't. (Though, to be fair, he became the Medium Spawn's puppy after awhile and it was adorable.)

But he also had terrible allergies every summer that required special shampoos, cortisol shots, medications and copious amounts of Benadryl. Moving to the new house seemed to help a little bit at first, but last August he had another bad flare up. And then his knees started to go bad (our new house had stairs, which is something that he had never really had to deal with on a regular basis.) Then his tail developed a massive infection and had to be removed. It was just one thing after another with the poor guy until finally it was too much.

Winston is the reason that we both love bulldogs and absolutely won't be getting another one.

He could be sweet and loveable and cranky and cantankerous all at the same time and his farts were absolutely deadly. But we'll miss him. I never thought he and Sophie liked each other all that much, but apparently like an old married couple that's been together for years, they couldn't be apart. Between losing two cats (Harper, a few years back and our big guy Moxie to heart failure a few months back) and now this, we're down to one in our menagerie.

These dogs were, in their own way, the best dogs you could ask for. We'll miss them both.

(I should just note in passing that I haven't actually seen either of the 48 Hrs movies, but given the fact that Rotten Tomatoes rates the sequel, 'Another 48 Hrs' at a whopping 15%, it seemed fitting.)

Saturday, March 3, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #250

It's March and I was struggling to come up with a fresh idea or two for this feature when a handy dandy dive into Wikipedia gave me some inspiration. It's St. Patrick's Day this month and I happened upon a flag of the four provinces of Ireland: Connact, Leinster, Munster and Ulster. I figured- four weeks and four provinces will take care of the bulk of the month of March, so in celebration of St. Paddy's Day and all things Irish, we're starting off This Week in Vexillology with the flag of Connacht:
First of all: how bad ass is this flag? A big strong arm and a sword on one half and a fearsome looking eagle on the other- I don't know what to think except: bad ass. (And be possibly worried about a one winged, one armed mutant black eagle coming to kill me with a sword.) The next (and perhaps more obvious) thing to tackle would be a simple question of geography: just where the heck is Connacht? Well, it's here:

That part in the green there? That's the province of Connacht, which consists of the present day counties of Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo. It had a nice run a few centuries back culminating in Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair and his son Ruaidri Ua Conchobair expanding the ancient Kingdom's influence enough that both became kings of Ireland. (Wikipedia also tells me that of the four provinces of Ireland, it's got the greatest share of Irish speakers, clocking in at about 5-10% if you wish to share my joy at learning linguistic nerd facts like that.)

Now that we know where it is, we've got to turn our attention back to the bad ass mutant sword carrying black eagle flag of Connact and really get down to some serious questions.

Like, what about that Eagle? In terms of heraldry and symbolism, eagles aren't usually associated with this neck of the woods in Europe. St. Patrick (the man himself) drove out all the snakes. Across the water you have Wales with it's dragon, Scotland with it's unicorn and England with it's Lion...  you've got to go to central Europe and the Holy Roman Empire to get into eagle territory. (Albania's flag still features a double headed eagle. German symbology features an eagle. It's very central European.) Wikipedia (that font of all knowledge) admits that even they don't have a satisfactory explanation for all of this- the best that they can come up with is an Irish monastery that was established in central Europe near the town of Regensberg and it's royal benefactors (which included Ruaidri Ua Conchobair) were granted the arms and sort of brought them back home and began to use the arms.

Our celebration of all things Ireland is off to a great start! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, March 2, 2018

Bookshot #106: Silence

I saw some previews for the movie Silence and read some articles about what a passion project it was for it's director, Martin Scorsese and so I figured, 'man, I should get ahold of this book and read it,' so I did.

In the 17th Century, when news reaches the Church in Portugal that a Jesuit Priest named Ferreira had undergone torture in Nagasaki and renounced his beliefs, the Church decides to send two young Priests, Father Rodrigues and Father Garrpe to research the truth of the matter and minister to the Christians of Japan while they do so. Japan is currently in a period of repression against Christians, so both Priests make the long arduous journey, first to Macao and then to Japan knowing that once in the country, they will be in great danger.

The Priests make landfall and soon find a Christian community in a nearby village. They begin to minister to the faithful, while hiding from occasional sweeps by samurai sent by the local magistrate, Inoue, whose name they have learned to fear as they were told he was a former Christian who was especially vigilant at finding Priests and either executing them or getting them to renounce their faith. The authorities bring a fumie, a carved image of Christ with them and ferret out hidden Christians by getting them to trample on the image. Those that refuse are imprisoned and tortured.

When a pair of local Christians are found and refuse to renounce their faith, they are tied to crude crosses and placed in the tide to freeze or be battered to death by the water- the crosses are placed just high enough that they do not drown. Eventually through a combination of exposure and exhaustion, both are martyred, which shakes the faith of Father Rodrigues especially. Martyrdom, he had believed was a glorious act of faith, replete with nobility and courage. But there was nothing but brutality and cruelty in these deaths and Rodrigues begins to wonder at the silence of God.

The two Priests flee the village, to avoid putting any more of the villagers at risk, but soon Rodrigues is lost and starving and finally, when betrayed by one of the villagers he is captured and forced to watch as Father Garrpe is executed while other Christians are drowned. Captured and imprisoned by the feared Inoue, he learns that initially, the authorities had been torturing Priests in an attempt to get them to renounce their faith. After Father Ferreira had renounced his faith, they changed their tactics and instead tortured the Christians, promising the Priests to end the suffering of their flock if they renounced their faith.

Rodrigues continues to struggle with his faith, even as he meet Ferreira, who tells him that Christianity cannot succeed in Japan and that what he had spent decades building had turned out not to be Christianity, but local beliefs with Christianity painted over them. While Rodrigues continues to understanding suffering for one's faith, he begins to wonder if it is self-centered and egotistical for him not to recant when doing so would ease the suffering of others. God remains silent until the climactic moment, when Rodrigues makes his choice.

Silence is probably the most incredibly written and moving novel of faith I've read since Graham Greene's The Power and The Glory. The climax of the struggle of Father Rodrigues is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I think I've ever read in a long time. This was one of those books that I had to put down, lean back and just sort of think about for a very long time. It sticks with you and books that do that are rare indeed. I loved the structure of the novel as well- using letters written by Rodrigues to tell the story allows the reader a glimpse into the inner personal struggle that he's going through, but the choice to switch toward the end of the book to a journal/diary of a Dutch trader is an interesting one as well. That chapter was a bit jarring, especially since the book switches back to the point of view of Rodrigues after that, but it also gives the reader more of the historical context in which Endo is writing, which I think adds to the power of the novel, knowing that Christianity really did have a period of persecution in Japan.

Overall: powerful, moving, incredible writing. If you haven't read this book, you should. ***** out of ******

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Let's Talk Taxes

Look, I get it. The GOP is going to cut taxes. That's how they do. But here is what I think the GOP doesn't get sometimes: while people might not want a massive government, they don't want minimal government either. Finding the balance between the two, it seems to be me, would be the responsible and political beneficial move for a party really interested in constraining the size of government, But that's the problem with a lot of our politics today: nobody's interested in being responsible anymore.

That's why I can't believe that I'm about to type this: I agree with Governor Reynolds. Now, to be fair- the numbers cited in her plan seem pretty damn similar to what the Senate is tossing around (and I haven't seen an analysis on how it will impact state revenues either), but on paper at least the Governor's plan at least makes a head nod to protecting the state budget priorities. I'm assuming that some form of tax reform will be passed this session (one can hope for an outbreak of common sense down in Des Moines, but I'm not willing to do that) so if I have to choose, I'll stick with the Governor's plan rather than the slash and burn plan being tossed around in the Senate.

What I'm curious about though is this: why the sudden plunge toward tax reform madness? Maybe I need to go back and check my state tax returns a little bit, because I feel like my Federal taxes bite harder than any of my state taxes. All of these Republicans down in Des Moines are pushing the notion that Iowa is high tax state all of a sudden and I'm sitting here like, 'since when?'

If Iowa's corporate tax rate is the highest in the region, I'm willing to listen to arguments to cut that, especially if it makes Iowa more competitive and business friendly. However, any such discussion on corporate taxes needs to be coupled to reform of the corporate tax incentives we seem to have going on in the state. I was not crazy about $200 million in tax breaks to land Apple when at the end of the day there's only going to be 50 permanent jobs created. Cedar Rapids is nervous about Rockwell Collins, Iowa City is losing a product line at Proctor and Gamble and we lost out on a Toyota plant to the Southeast. But sure, spend $200 million in corporate welfare to land Apple- because that's a good use of incentives to bring jobs to the state. All 50 of them.

Up until recently, I've always been comforted by the fact that Iowans are, at their core, farmers and farmers tend to be pretty sensible I've noticed. We've been remarkably immune to the radical shifts in the political pendulum and whether it's Republicans or Democrats running the show down in Des Moines, we've always seemed to have a solid credit rating, a good sized rainy day fund and leaders that aren't willing to get drunk, go to the casino and bet all the state's money on red. That common sense approach to state politics has taken a beating these last few years and I'm really hoping that voters start to get tired of it this November and send a message that we need to get back to 'slow and steady wins the race.'

Kansas and Oklahoma are having hard conversations right now because they went all in tax cuts and it didn't work out. 20 percent of schools in Oklahoma are only holding classes four days a week. Their highway patrol has mileage limits because the state couldn't afford to put gas in their tanks- and they're a state with a healthy petroleum industry. Kansas is straight up telling people, 'don't do what we did.' Whatever you feel about the changes to Iowa's collective bargaining laws, they stopped short of what Wisconsin did with theirs. One can only hope a similar sense of prudence stops us short of following Kansas and Oklahoma down a ruinous rabbit hole.

The real talk about taxes shouldn't be how much do we cut? It should be: how much government do the people want? Because some things people are willing to pay for- and expect to function regardless of who's in charge.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Netflix & Chill #39: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2004
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Bud Cort
Rotten Tomatoes: 56%
Pick: Mine

The Elder Spawn loved reading Fantastic Mr. Fox so much that I surprised him and sprung for the movie, which he also loves. But watching it again made me get an itch to watch some more Wes Anderson movies, so I decided to revisit The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and it was far more delightful and charming than I remember it being.

Following his success with The Royal Tennenbaums (another movie I need to rewatch), Anderson sets the stage for The Life Aquatic by opening the movie at a film festival in Italy. The latest documentary from Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and instead of the wonders of the ocean, it deals with a tragedy as Steve's best friend and chief diver, Esteban (Seymour Cassel) is eaten by a creature that Zissou describes as a 'jaguar shark.' His crew thinks he has 'the crazy eye' and isn't quite sure they believe him, but for his next project, Zissou is determined to find the shark that ate his friend and kill it.

The crew of Zissou's ship prepares to launch their next expedition to find the jaguar shark and we meet many of them, including, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) his estranged wife and chief financial backer, Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge), Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), the first mate and other crew members ranging from Vikram Ray, the camera man to the group of unpaid interns from the University of North Alaska. Zissou's plan to find the jaguar shark hits an immediate snag as he has no money to finance the documentary.

The money problem looks to be solved thanks to the appearance of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) a longtime fan of Zissou who thinks he might be Zissou's son. He offers his inheritance to finance the film which angers Eleanor, who believes that Steven is taking advantage of Ned, so she leaves. Zissou presses ahead with his expedition- with a reporter, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) who is pregnant and along for the ride to chronicle the voyage. Ned and Steve both develop infatuations with Jane and a rivalry develops between them as a result.

First, they stop at a remote station owned by Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) a nemesis of Zissou who is far more successful than he is, They they head into unprotected waters where they are hijacked by Filipino pirates, who take their bond company guy hostage and all of Ned's money to boot. Hennessey rescues them and tows them in to Port-au-Patois where Zissou convince Eleanor to rejoin the crew to go and rescue Bill, which they do. (Picking up Hennessey as well, who was also kidnapped.)

Everyone rescued, Ned and Steve go up in the helicopter one last time to try and find the jaguar shark, but something malfunctions and they crash. Ned dies of his injuries and is buried at sea and finally, at long last, Steve finds the jaguar shark and is moved by its beauty and out of dynamite so decides not to kill it. Their documentary, dedicated to Ned is premiered to great acclaim and the crew heads back to the ship ready for their next adventure.

Overall: I'm pretty sure I owned the soundtrack to this at one point, since it features Seu Jorge singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese which is as awesome as it sounds. All the charming Anderson touches are there and the cinematography is beautiful. I think I would happily own this movie- I don't think I thought it was that good when I saw it the first time, but now, I think it'd be great just to have on a shelf so I could pop it in now and again and be charmed by the life aquatic. My Grade: *** and a 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, February 24, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #249

I have no idea why I picked the flag of Andalusia for this week. I've been scratching my head about it for a little bit now and I just can't remember if there was a reason or not. But, Andalusia seems like a happening place, so this week in vexillology, we've got the flag of Andalusia:
This is the civil and state flag of the region and it was adopted in 1918. The assembly that adopted the flag also adopted a charter based on the Antequera Constitution that wanted Andalusia to be an autonomous republic inside a federal Spain. (Not unlike what the Catalans had going for them right up until their declaration of independence- however that's going.) What's the 4-1-1 on what the flag is all about? Well:
La bandera blanca y verde vuelve tras siglos de guerra a sembrar paz y esperanza bajo el sol de nuestra terra. (Or, 'The white and green flag comes back after centuries of war to sow peace and hope under our land's sun.)
On the flag, you've got the Coat of Arms of Andalusia. So let's go ahead and talk about those as well...

Okay: again, there is a design critique to be made that the 'Coat of Arms On A Flag' is the equivalent to the American sin of 'Seal On A Bedsheet' but these Coat of Arms are unusual enough that I sort of gave them a pretty close look. The more traditional elements of a Coat of Arms are absent. There's no shield, there's no historical ties to the region or anything like that. What you do have, though, are lots of nods to the region itself.

The two pillars are, of course, the Pillars of Hercules on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar. The dude in the middle? It's none other than the man himself, Hercules seizing and taming two lions, each representing the power of animal instinct. Below the Lions, you've got the legend, 'Andalucia Por Si, Para Espana Y La Humanidad' and above the Latin inscription 'Dominator Hercules Fundator'. (Which is super hard to read, I know, but is actually what is written up there.) Rough translations of both mottos- the Spanish: 'Andalucia for itself, for Spain and for humanity.' and the Latin: well, Google Translate came up with: 'Her dominator founder.' Go home Google Translate, y'all must be drunk.

Overall: 'meh' flag, but really interesting Coat of Arms. There's something retro about them that makes me think 70s and they might be too 70s, really. (The city flag of Madrid provides a good example of what a contemporary update to your Coat of Arms might look like). But a lot of the inspiration for them came from the city arms of Cadiz and I think this is a fairly faithful adaptation of those for the wider region.

So, that's Andalusia. Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Weird New Flavors of Diet Coke, Ranked

Food marketing is the worst. I say that because whenever some company somewhere comes out with NEW FLAVORS and TASTE THE DIFFERENCE, there's a little part of my brain that always goes, "Ooooh, I'll have to remember to try that." Doritos (damn them!) are a prime example of this. Mountain Dew and it's ever increasing colorful kaleidoscope of flavors is another. And while technically I'm supposed to be on the soda wagon right now, I had to jump off to try the weird new flavors of Diet Coke.

Diet Coke, until I discovered the hipster joys of LaCroix was my jam a few years back. Even though for the vast majority of my life, I never really drank soda and when I did, it was the regular stuff and I thought Diet stuff tasted weird, at some point I went all in on the Diet soda, probably in a misguided belief that it was somehow healthier for me, but really because I was in college and a healthy dollop of rum took away the weird Diet taste. At a certain point, I realized that I had gone too far and I couldn't go back as regular soda tasted horrendously sweet to me (and still does) but I'll always have a soft spot for Diet Coke and Diet Dew.

So, naturally, when The Weird New Flavors of Diet Coke were launched in an obvious attempt to appeal to the youthful hipsters of America, I decided to run down all down so the Missus and I could try them and come up with the Definitive, 100% Accurate Ranking. This is what we got:

1. Feisty Cherry: Cherry is not a weird flavor for Diet Coke, so really it's not that big of a jump to get behind this one. It might, maybe, have more of a 'black cherry' taste to it, but to me it just tasted like a Diet Cherry Coke.

2. Ginger Lime: Probably the most subtle of the new flavors, again this wasn't that hard to get behind. You can taste the lime, but the ginger sort of gets lost in a sea of coke flavors, but nothing particularly wrong with it. I don't think I'm going to rush out and buy it by the case load, but I also wouldn't pour it down my sink either.

3. Twisted Mango: Truly, the individual that thought 'I know, wouldn't a Diet Coke taste great if you added some mango flavor to it?' is a twisted individual indeed. The mango flavor is initially subtle but becomes more pronounced as the soda warms up which is...  somewhat disturbing. At the end of the day, you're drinking a mango flavored Diet Coke and wondering why someone thought a mango flavored Diet Coke was a good idea.

4. Zesty Blood Orange: there's nothing zesty about this flavor, in fact, the orange was a massive misfire as it overwhelms the Diet Coke and you end up drinking a Diet Coke flavored Blood Orange Soda which is about as disturbing as one might imagine.

Honorable Mention: Regular Diet Coke. If you have no idea why anyone would want to ingest any flavor of Diet Coke, keep right on drinking the regular stuff. It's really hard to go wrong with Plain Old Diet Coke.

Overall: none of these flavors is enough to lure me back into soda full time. Some of them taste better than others do, but none of them made me go, "I need to buy a case of this as soon as possible" which is probably not the reaction that Coca-Cola was hoping for. (Semi-Serious question though: whatever happened to Vanilla Coke? Now that was delicious.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Shouting Is Not A Policy Position

It's depressing to think about, but it's nearly been 20 years since Columbine and we still can't seem to come together as a nation to tackle this problem. I don't think I have any answers. My position on guns has evolved over the years, as most of the people I know who own guns genuinely do use them for hunting and it's not trophy hunting, it's 'filling your freezer with deer meat' kind of hunting.

You know what I would like though? I'd like to stop posting the same articles and the same Facebook memes after every single one of these tragedies. It doesn't do anything. It doesn't advance a sensible conversation. It doesn't craft policy that can lower the number of gun deaths in this country. So, from the top, let's talk about what's unhelpful and what's not:

First: put down the cudgels. Guns are one of the many issues that the left and the right use to beat on each other in our ongoing culture wars and it needs to stop. (There are many of these cudgels that both sides use. The Right likes to ferment moral panics about a variety of issues. The Left likes to rail about guns, usually while knowing very little about them. Both sides beat each other up over abortion. The cudgels of the culture war never actually create compromise or solutions to any actual problems underneath the shouting.)

Second: let's talk about unhelpful things to say in this debate. "Fuck your thoughts and prayers." Not particularly helpful. "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Also not helpful. (Another variation I saw: "I'm waiting for my AR-15 to jump up and kill me.") Mass shootings are also not because of the following: a lack of prayer in schools, not enough guns in schools, the changing culture because '30 years ago everyone could bring their rifle to school and work on it in metal shop,' violent video games, violence on television, a lack of faith in general, Muslims, Women, Feminists, Gays, single family homes, Men, Christians, white people or white nationalists.*

Third: let's talk numbers. The '18 school shootings in 2018' number that's floating around out there? Wrong- and before you think it's just right-wing propaganda pushing the notion- it is, in fact, The Washington Post that says so. The '33,000 gun deaths a year' number? Something of a misnomer... if you look at this data taken from 2014, some surprising things emerge: 2/3rds of those deaths are suicides and the overwhelming majority of those suicides are men. (So when people talk about 'mental health' it's not just a red herring. They kind of have a point.) That leaves about 10K homicides by gun, which is still seems pretty high, but mass shootings are, in fact a small fraction of even that number. The data tells me pretty convincingly that we don't have one overarching 'gun' problem, we've got about six or seven and yelling 'BAN ALL THE GUNZ' isn't going to solve it. (Oh and that data: sourced from which includes links to where they got the data and the methodology they used. So see for yourselves.)

Fourth: before we rush into passing more laws, can we at least talk about why the laws we have don't appear to be working? A flaw in the background check system let this psycho get a gun. This other psycho shouldn't have been able to get a gun either. And while Dana Loesch may not be everyone's cup of tea, she raises a good point here. What's the point of the system if states don't fully conform to it? Senator Rubio pointed out that new laws wouldn't have prevented a lot of the recent tragedies and people jumped up and down on him for it- but The Washington Post had his back and pointed out that he was right. Am I going join the chorus on the Right calling for the head of the FBI to resign over this? No. But there is a problem somewhere in the system and it needs to be fixed.

In a perfect world, we'd ban the sale and manufacture of all semi-automatic weapons for civilian use and treat the rest the same way we do automatic weapons.We'd strip gun manufacturers of their legal immunity for their products and let the CDC and the NIH study the problem of gun violence so we can maybe come up with a solution. And then we'd take a page out of history and start designing the safest schools in the world so we don't have to send our kids to school at gunpoint.**

But we don't live in a perfect world, so at the very least can we fix the background check thing?

*Also not helpful: Repealing the 2nd Amendment is a nice dream, but if you can find enough states to vote for it, good for you. Ditto with 'ARM ALL THE TEACHERS'- that notion lasts until the first teacher's cheese slips off their cracker and they shoot up their own classroom- plus hey, there's this also that makes seem like a really good idea.

**The last time there was a school fire that killed ten or more kids was in 1958. As a nation, we came together and made our schools safe. And it worked. Something similar can be done for schools and psychos with guns. We've just got to stop shouting at each other long enough to decide what it is.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Albums2010 #98: Divide

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

So, Divide.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 17, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #248

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, February 16, 2018

My Biennial Rant About The Olympics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 12, 2018

Who Decides The Canon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, my Dream/Ideal Lit Class:

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

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Netflix & Chill #38: The Cloverfield Paradox

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

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

Spoiler alert: it's not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 10, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #247

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

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

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

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

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

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