Wednesday, January 17, 2018

'9-1-1' and the Importance of Being Seen

The debut of Fox's new show '9-1-1' was something I had circled on my internal calendar for awhile now. I had initially heard that it was in development last summer, starring Angela Bassett. I was excited about it, because the initial news seemed to be that the show was going to be about 911 Dispatchers. Turns out, it includes police and fire as well as 911 dispatchers, which was a little disappointing, because there are plenty of shows about police and firefighters, but precious few about dispatchers, but what the heck, I thought. I'll take it.

It's not something I write about often and when I do, its usually pretty tangentially, but I've been working as a 911 Dispatcher for the local campus police for nearly a decade now. Having long since resigned myself to the fact that dispatch will forever be a voice on the radio when it comes to television and movies (or the cops will just magically know where to go) I was excited to see that someone was taking the time to portray 911 Dispatching on screen.

So I was somewhat surprised by the vehement reaction to this show on line. The 911 Subreddit hated it. Reaction on a few dispatcher Facebook groups I follow wasn't much better. And I can sort of understand why. The cocky young firefighter who takes the truck out to pick up the ladies for sexy time? He would have been fired. The cop taking on a home invasion without a single backing unit in evidence? Unlikely to happen. Not to mention answering every 9-1-1 call with, '9-1-1, what's your emergency?'

That last one really sticks in my craw a little bit. I mean, I get it. The whole conceit (or theme) of the show is that everyone has an emergency in their lives and yes, it can include the people that come running to your emergency. There might be 911 centers out there than answer there calls like that, but the overwhelming majority are going to want to know the location or address of your emergency first and foremost.

Is it a perfect television show? No, I'd say it's off to a bit of a rocky start. But there's good mixed in with the not-so-good. This is probably the first television show I can remember which shows First Response from phone call to resolution. The second episode where the characters are all talking about getting over a bad call and how to deal with losing people? A lot of that rings very true to me as well. Is there going to be dramatic license taken? Of course. It's a television show... I've watched many an episode of Grey's Anatomy with the Missus, who's a nurse and I know damn well that there's plenty they get wrong. A show like 9-1-1 is going to be no different.

But at least this show doesn't treat dispatch as an afterthought. At least this show sheds a light on 9-1-1 dispatchers and what they do. We live in a time when 9-1-1 dispatchers are more often than not providing life saving instructions as soon as they pick up the phone. We live in a time where the 9-1-1 system, which has been at the cutting edge of telecommunications technology for decades is now struggling to keep pace. When APCO is trying to persuade the Federal government to reclassify dispatchers as Protective Service Occupations instead of 'office and administrative support, a show like this, however flawed you may find it, provides an important opportunity for Dispatchers to be seen.

Does this show present a total accurate picture of 911 Dispatch? No. But it does (so far) a decent job of telling the story of what it can be like on the other end of the phone. It shows what a difference great dispatcher can make and most importantly of all, it's an opportunity push the industry and the job itself into the wider cultural zeitgeist. (Assuming this show goes the distance that is.) The opportunity to be seen is reason enough for me to keep this show on my DVR.

Plus, I don't care what anyone says: it's still better than 'The Call.'

Monday, January 15, 2018

Boozehound Unfiltered: Russell's Reserve

A delicious addition to my collection courtesy of the Parentals for Christmas, I had no idea what to expect from Russel's Reserve other than a my Dad telling me that it was Cask Strength and therefore likely to be a little strong. I got a chance to have a wee dram of it to celebrate The Youngest Spawn being born and finally got a proper tasting in late last week and I can report that it is indeed, strong stuff. But that doesn't mean it's not delicious either.

Russell's Reserve is a Single Barrel Bourbon matured in American White Oak barrels It's non-chill filtered and a hefty 110 proof. (The description also references an 'alligator' char, but I have no earthly idea what that might be other than, 'it makes this stuff tastier.') This delicious stuff falls under the wings of Wild Turkey (which to be honest, I enjoy greatly. Probably more than I enjoyed Maker's Mark, though I should probably revisit that at some point) and is the brainchild of the only active father and son duo of bourbon master distillers in the world: Jimmy and Eddie Russell.

(Honestly between this and Four Roses- which is my other Christmas present this year, this stuff is making me want to go back to Kentucky again- though perhaps this time we'll head up to Lexington and check out some distilleries around there. Or some other beautiful sites in the Bluegrass State.)

But enough of my tangents and babbling. Let's give this a taste, shall we?

Color: The color on this stuff is absolutely gorgeous- it's a deep, dark, rich shade of amber that comes very close to matching the color on the label itself. Everything about the color alone promises a delicious, tasty experience. It's a great hook, right off the bat.

Nose: Strangely enough, banana. I think it's probably the first time drinking whiskey that I can say that I've gotten a whiff of banana, but there you go. It took me the longest time to figure it out- but nothing else fit. Banana is there, but toffee is the underlying sweetness here. There's also a tantalizing hint of nuttiness of some kind that I want to call nutmeg. I know for sure it's not cinnamon.

Palate:It's nicely balanced. The viscosity isn't too syrupy and it's not too watery either- but the cask strength becomes immediately obvious. This is good stuff, but it's strong stuff.

Finish: Like a punch in the face, this stuff hits you hard and in a rush, but the warming afterward is gradual and universal. It will warm the cockles of your heart and then some. 

Overall: Smells beautiful, looks beautiful and tastes amazing. It's strong stuff, but unique and enjoyable. Would I buy this again? Well, I didn't technically buy it all, but if someone asked me 'hey, should I buy this stuff?' I would say, 'hell yes!'  My Grade: **** out of ****

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Netflix & Chill #36: Bright

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2017
Starring: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramirez, Ike Barinholtz
Rotten Tomatoes: 27%
Pick: Mine

Set in an alternate version of the present where human rub shoulders with orcs, elves, centaurs and dwarves after fighting with them for thousands of years, Bright opens with LAPD Officer Darryl Ward (Will Smith) returning to duty after being out of action due to being shot by an orc. Ward is reluctantly partnered with Nick Jackoby (Joel Edgerton), the nation's first orkish police officer. Humans aren't crazy about him due to his race, orcs hate him because of his position and to top it all off Ward isn't crazy about his partner because Jackoby apparently let the assailant that shot him get away.

Responding to a report of a crazy man waving a sword around, they find a Shield of Light devotee, whom Ward and Jackoby arrest and take back to the station. On the way back there, he tells Jackoby in Orkish that two officers are part of a prophecy and that Ward is blessed. Once back at the station, however, Ward is approached by internal affairs, who say that believe that Jackoby but his ethnic loyalties above his uniform and let Ward's assailant get away. They want Ward to get Jackoby to confess on tape, so they can fire him.

Ward and Jackoby head back out onto the streets and respond to a disturbance at what they find out is a Shield of Light safe house. Inside, they find a bunch of bodies and a torso of a still living elf-woman embedded in the wall and one survivor, a young elf named Tikka who has a wand. Magic wands are exceedingly rare and powerful and can only be used by what's called a 'Bright.' Things take a turn, however, when four officers arrive as backup and decide to kill Ward and Jackoby and take the wand for themselves.

Ward is coerced into going back outside to Jackoby, but instead confronts him about the incident that got him shot. Jackoby admits letting the suspect escape, but only because he cornered the wrong orc and realized that responding officers would probably shoot him on sight. Ward then makes the decision to shoot down his corrupt colleagues and he, Jackoby and Tikka flee with the wand. Unfortunately for them, everyone find out that they have the wand and gangs both human and orkish want it for themselves. To top it off, there's a Federal magic taskforce that's on the case and in hot pursuit as well and dark elves intent on using the wand to resurrect The Dark Lord, a mythic figure who will take over the world.

After fighting their way through just about everyone, Ward and Jackoby end up in Shield of Light safehouse where they are trying to heal Tikka and in one last desperate confrontation with the dark elves, Ward grabs the wand, discovering that he himself is a 'Bright' in the process and blows up the dark elf, taking out the safe house in the process.

The next day, Ward and Jackoby meet with the Feds and while Jackoby volunteers the truth, Ward sees that the Feds want to keep the incident quiet and emphatically denies it had anything to do with magic or police corruption. Satisfied, Ward and Jackoby are released and honored by the city for their actions.

I was genuinely shocked that this movie only scored a 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, because I thought it was a genuinely good movie. I guess maybe I could see the point of the critics to a degree: if you're watching this movie looking for social commentary, then the commentary to be found in this movie is ham-fisted and not exactly subtle or all that uplifting. If, on the other hand, you wanted to see what a fantasy epic would look like in a contemporary setting, then Bright will knock your socks off. I love the fact that they just drop you into this version of Los Angeles like it's just another afternoon and while the 'racial' tensions depicted in the movie probably don't land well when applied to contemporary police-community relations, I found them to be plausible at least. (I think a footnote in a Discworld novel said something along the lines of: "white and black got along fine and ganged up on green.")

Overall: This was a solid, entertaining movie that gave a tantalizing glimpse of what fantasy can do when dropped into a contemporary setting. Plenty of authors from Jim Butcher to Kim Harrison and Charlaine Harris have shown what you can do with the genre when mashed up into our contemporary world. Bright is one of the few movies that's attempted to do something similar and the results are amazing. I love that they don't bother to explain the world you're dropped into, they just do it. And it works. The cast is great, the story excellent and you're left intrigued by the possibilities of this world and wondering what else they could do with it. My Grade: *** out of ****

Saturday, January 13, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #243

This Week In Vexillology, we're heading over to Africa, but not for another trip into our 'lost' archives, but for the flag of MOSOP or the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Here's what their flag looks like:
The Ogoni people live in the Niger Delta in what today is the Rivers State along the coast of Nigeria just east of Port Harcourt. Why do they have a movement and a flag? Well, back in the 1950s Royal Dutch/Shell found a commercial viable oil field in the Niger River Delta and began oil production. Normally, you wouldn't think that would be all that much of a problem beyond the normal risks for oil spills and other nonsense, but then, there's this- according to Wikipedia, between 1976 to 1991 there were reportedly 2,976 oil spills which amounts to about 2.1 million barrels, but the horrifying part is that those spills in this area alone accounted for about 40% of Royal Dutch/Shell spills worldwide.

Thanks to such environmental neglect, five decades of oil production has devastated the region- I hate leaning on Wikipedia so much, but I'll quote directly from them here:
In a 2011 assessment of over 200 locations in Ogoniland by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), they found that impacts of the 50 years of oil production in the region extended deeper than previously thought. Because of oil spills, oil flaring, and waste discharge, the alluvial soil of the Niger Delta is no longer viable for agriculture. furthermore, in many areas that seem to be unaffected, groundwater was found to have high levels of hydrocarbons or were contaminated with benzene, a carcinogen, at 900 levels above WHO guidelines.
In general, it sounds absolutely terrible and therefore is unsurprising that a movement to protest these conditions and the general awfulness of oil production in the region would spring up (and have it's own flag.) MOSOP was founded in 1990 by Ken Saro-Wiwa and currently is an umbrella organization of 11 member groups that represent more than 700,00 indigenous Ogoni. They mandate the use of non-violent methods to promote democratic principles in their campaign for social, economic and environmental justice in the Niger Delta region. 

Saro-Wiwa was tried by a special military tribunal for allegedly masterminding the murder of pro-government Ogoni chiefs and hanged by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha.(I actually vaguely remember the international outcry over his execution, though because I was 12 years old at the time, I don't think I really understood why it was a big deal.)

In the course of writing this post, I've been sort of scratching my head over how I found this flag and what possible connection it could have to the month of January: turns out Ogoni National Day is celebrated on January 4th.

Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Fire and Fury, Signifying Nothing

I want to preface this by saying the following: I'm a registered Independent that hates both of the two parties with a heat of a thousand fiery suns. I didn't vote for the current President- he is most definitely not my cup of tea. But the latest political hot button issue of the week (that is, until Oprah stole the show at the Golden Globes on Sunday) finds me in the uncomfortable position of wondering if those opposed to this current administration might have finally gone too far.

Michael Woolf's allegedly explosive book Fire and Fury on the Trump White House has been flying off the shelves. It's the new Fifty Shades of Grey and everyone is dying to read it. There seemed to be a groundswell of feeling this past week that by God, if we can't pin Russia on him, we'll just say he's crazy. That'll do it for sure.

Never mind the fact that President Mike Pence wouldn't exactly be an improvement on the current occupant of the White House. Never mind the fact that there are far more effective and more important reasons to oppose the policies of this administration- reasons that, could, for instance, lead to actual policies, that real life candidates could, you know, run on. No, let's write a book saying he's crazy. Because that's what our political discourse has come too in this country. If you miss the dunk on a winnable election, then it's got to be someone's else fault.

But that's not the worst of it: the damn thing may not even true. The author himself has admitted as much. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the parts of the book he's involved in 'complete invention.' Vogue Editor Anna Wintour called the claim she asked President Trump to be ambassador to the UK, 'laughably preposterous.' Perhaps the craziest part of all is that Mr. Woolf is convinced that this is going to be the thing that brings down President Trump. This book which parts of may or may not even be true. That's going to do it. This piece of dubiously sourced fan fiction is going to do the trick- it will in the words of the author, 'lift the veil from our eyes' about this President.

Well, it's lifting a veil from my eyes all right. Just not the one that Mr. Woolf was aiming for, I think. While the President is rightly being condemned for his calls for tighter libel laws and his reaction to the book was about what you'd expect from this President, this book risks the one thing I expect his opponents are hoping won't happen. It risks proving him right.

It's very easy to roll your eyes at the constant screaming about Fake News. But here we have a dubiously sourced book, parts of which might not even be true, whose sole purpose is to try and convince us that the President is crazy and unfit for his office. I loathe the fact that I have to say this, but if this piece of fan fiction isn't the definition of Fake News the President keeps ranting about I don't know what is.

And here's the stupidest part of all: reporting on all the ephemera (like every Tweet the President sends, this book, and increasingly, the Russia investigation) obscures the fact that the Democratic Party is both in dire straits and not that far away from flipping the script on this Presidency in short order.

Think about it: if the Democrats can hold all the states they won in 2016 (which isn't a given in the current climate, but just go with me on this) then all they need is to win Florida and flip Ohio, Michigan or Pennsylvania and President Trump is a one term President. That's it.

Do they have work to do on the state level? Absolutely. Is winning anything in 2018 or 2020 guaranteed? No. But if you find a message that can win in all 50 states, all this could go away very quickly- but if people are more concerned about the latest gossip that sells books instead of your message, it could be a long six years ahead.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Kidlit: The Berenstain Bears

Editor's Note: A New Year means it's time to play around with new features here on the blog, so I'm pleased to present the first edition of Kidlit, which will be a mixture of reviews, commentary and thoughts on the books that my kiddos are either reading or making me read to them.

Both the Elder Spawn and the newly promoted Medium Spawn love books, but while the Elder Spawn loves reading a book, the Medium Spawn has a mild obsession with them. I honestly think that if he could keep you in a room reading books to him for the entire day, he would and of late, he's been especially into The Berenstain Bears.

The Berenstain Bears had a weird moment in the pop culture zeitgeist a couple of years back, when many insisted that they were the proof that we have, in fact, slipped into an alternate timeline of some kind, as there are many people who would swear blind that they remember read about The Berenstein Bears and not The Berenstain Bears. While the election of our current President might convince many that we are in fact, living in the darkest of timelines, there's a more interesting explanation of the phenomenon: The Mandela Effect.

(Basically, it's a kind of collective false memory and it's sort of a fascinating rabbit hole to go down if you really think about it. I could swear that Sinbad did star in some kind of genie movie back in the 90s, but there's absolutely zero evidence that he did so. Shaq, on the other hand, starred in that cinematic classic, Kazaam. So there you go.) 

As books go, The Berenstain Bears have a pretty simple formula. There's a problem of some kind and Mama Bear and/or Papa Bear help either Brother or Sister Bear (sometimes both) learn some kind of an important life lesson. The stories can be saccharine and sweet and make you roll your eyes more than a little bit sometimes, but in general, there are worse kids books out there. I can't complain too much about them overall, but there are a couple of critiques that have jumped out at me.

First, these books work better when the kids are the focus. 'Get The Gimmes' is a perfect example of this. Brother and Sister get a bad case of 'the gimmes' and Mama and Papa have to figure out how to solve the problem (with a little assist from Gramps and Gran). All of which is fine, but Brother and Sister become secondary characters in this one in ways that annoy me. They just sort of whine and nod their heads when they're talked too. The focus is more on Mama and Papa realizing they have to up their parenting game. All of which is fine, but compared with say, 'The In-Crowd' or 'The Bully', 'The Gimmes' is weak sauce, because what kid is going to connect with a kids book delivering a lesson to their parents? (I can see why parents would want to read this book, obviously. But I also hate the idea of children's book that parents want to read instead of kids, you know?) These books are at their strongest when it's either Brother Bear or Sister Bear solving the problem and learning the lesson.

Second, there's moments of repetition that stick out like nails on a chalkboard. 'The Slumber Party' has a perfect of example of this, where the book says: "An angry and disappointed Mama Bear came to take Sister home." And then what does Mama say, right after that sentence: "I'm very angry and disappointed." Argh. I've found a couple of clunky sentences that jump out at me here and there reading a few of these books. (Don't worry: there's also inconsistent rhyming in some of the Thomas and Friends board books we have that bothers me too, so I have other complaints, never fear.)

These books have their detractors out there and I've read a few clunkers in the series here and there- and as the series has evolved, so have the questions- this fall collection features a Bear Preacher which opens up the whole issue of Bear Theology and how that all works. While the Thanksgiving story they present is pretty traditional, I sort of raised an eyebrow at the 'Native Bear' saying 'ME SQUANTO' and the pilgrims in their little play being all, 'He speaks English, what a miracle!' about it all. But really, my biggest question is about their house.

I mean, at the outset, I should say: I get it, it's a kids book. But the nerd in me has immediate questions. How many bedrooms does it have? Is it a split foyer or a multi-level type of situation? There's a root cellar (a literal root cellar) which shows up in 'Messy Room' and is that underneath the tree itself? Is the trunk on this bad boy thick enough to hollow out? How does it all work? If this artist can come up with floor plans for sitcom apartments, why hasn't someone come up with a floor plan for the Berenstain Bears tree house down the sunny dirt road in Bear Country? Come on, internet. Get on that.

Happily, in terms of expanding mediums, YouTube helpful has all the episodes of the old Berenstain Bears cartoons from back in the day available that sheds a little more light on the interior of the house. (There's a guest bedroom that Mama and Papa paint at one point.) The cartoon is actually develops the characters and fleshes out the stories a little more than the books do, which is kind of a surprise and as an older cartoon it holds up pretty well. Full episodes are about 24-25 minutes long with single 'stories' being about 10-12 minutes a piece, which is kind of handy if the kiddos want to watch something, but you don't want to get stuck in cartoon hell for a full half hour.

Overall: As kid's books go, this is a classic, tried and true franchise that might make you roll your eyes now and again, but in general, imparts solid, entertaining lessons for your kiddos. The writing can be a little uneven now and again in painfully obnoxious ways, but in general you can't go wrong with the Berenstain Bears.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Netflix & Chill #35: Silence

Watched On: Amazon Prime
Released: 2016
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Liam Neeson
Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Pick: Mine

Silence is a beautiful adaptation of a beautiful, moving book of the same name by Shusaku Endo. It opens with a Jesuit Priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) witnessing the torture of both his fellow priests and then the Japanese converts he has been trying to bring Christianity too. He seems rooted to the spot an unable to help any of them in anyway, only to describe the horrors that he is witnessing.

The movie then cuts to a few years later at a church in Macau, where Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) receives word that Father Ferreira has renounced his faith after undergoing the torture of the pit in Nagasaki. His students Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) persuade Father Valignano that they should go and find out the truth of what has happened to Father Ferreira. Valignano is dubious at first, as Japan is incredibly dangerous for Christians at the present time, but the two young priests persuade him and, with the help of an alcoholic Japanese refugee named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) they set out for Japan.

Arriving in Japan, the Priests arrive at the village of Tomogi, where they find the Christian populations have been driven underground. When the authorities come looking for the Christians, they subject them to a religious test by making them trample on a fumie, a carved image of crucifix- those that refuse to do so are outed as Christians and imprisoned and tortured. The villagers, at the instruction of the Priests all trample- but the authorities then demand that they spit on a crucifix and call the Virgin Mary a whore and when they refuse, the three villagers are martyred. They are tied to crosses by the ocean shore and the tide eventually drowns them. Then, the bodies are retrieved and burned to prevent a Christian burial. Rodrigues and Garupe, realizing that their presence has put the villagers in danger, split up and go their separate ways.

Garupe heads for Hirado Island, while Rodrigues goes to Goto Island to find the last place where Ferreira lived, only to find it destroyed. Kichijiro finds him there and betrays him and he is taken to Nagasaki and imprisoned with other Japanese converts. The prisoners are put through the test of the fumie and all refuse to trample and then one of them is beheaded. Kichijiro (also imprisoned) is then brought out and he tramples eagerly and is released. Then Rodrigues is taken to a shoreline, where he sees Father Garupe and three prisoners approaching in the distance. The three prisoners are taken offshore in a small boat and are bound and one by one thrown into the sea in an attempt to get Garupe to renounce his faith. He refuses and drowns trying to rescue the last prisoner, while Rodrigues watches, restrained and helpless to do anything.

At long last, Father Rodrigues is taken to meet Ferreira. He tells Rodrigues that he renounced his faith under torture and has become convinced after 15 years in the country that Christianity is futile in Japan. Rodrigues denies this, but Ferreira insists. That night, Rodrigues hears the sound of five Christians being tortured. Ferreira tells him then that they have already renounced their faith- the authorities want Rodrigues to renounce his faith, which will end their suffering. He looks upon the fumie and hears an inner voice of Christ giving him permission to trample which he does.

The movie then changes points of view and a Dutch clerk narrates his experiences with the Apostate Priests over the next few years. The Japanese authorities use them to determine which objects are religious and which aren't and eventually Ferreira and then years later, Rodrigues die. His body is prepared for burial in a Buddhist manner and as the flames begin to consume his coffin, the camera zooms in and we see the crudely made crucifix he was given when he first arrived in Japan, tucked into the palm of his hand.

This movie has been a passion project for Martin Scorsese for nearly a quarter of a century and you can see why. This is a beautifully crafted movie and wonderful adaptation of an amazing book. Questions of faith, morality and the trials of your faith in turbulent times are themes that are all explored here and the suffering of the Japanese martyrs is especially powerful and raw to watch. Scorsese also plays with the concept of silence itself- the movie opens to the sounds of quiet and when Rodrigues hears the voice of Christ telling him to trample, the movie goes dead quiet, save for that voice. There are subtle touches that amplify the power of the movie throughout.

Overall: An incredible adaptation of an incredible book, Scorsese has assembled an excellent cast to bring his passion project to life. This was a movie worth waiting a quarter of a century for. **** out of ****.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #242

Two hundred and forty two of these posts later and we're into a new year and facing some new challenges: I'm starting to run out of flags. I don't know how I'm going to take these posts up a notch in 2018, but I'm going to try and dig a little deeper and go some places we've never been before and revisit some we have. So, This Week In Vexillology, we're heading back to Lithuania.

My original post on Lithuania was all the way back on March 22nd, 2014 and it's a bit...  slim. Slimmer than I would like, to be totally honest. Yes, Marko Ramius is from Vilnius and yes, you can make obscure references to The Hunt for Red October if you want, but if you go a little deeper, there's more to Lithuania than meets the eye. For instance, January 1st is Flag Day in Lithuania, which marks the anniversary of the day the Lithuanian flag was raised on Gediminas' Tower in 1919.

We've looked at the Lithuanian tricolor already, so let's take a peek at their Coat of Arms:
The knight on horseback has been a symbol of Lithuania and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since around 1366- it's mentioned as a symbol of Narimantas, the second son of Gediminas. (Another symbol that dates from this period are the columns of Gediminas, which are seen at the bottom of the Parliamentary version of the full Coat of Arms.) By the 15th Century, knight on horseback had become the main representation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The colors began to swing in the sharper focus in the next century- with the shield of the knight being azure and the double cross (which was derived from the Hungarian cross) began to be seen as part of the symbol.

The symbol itself gradually became to be known as the Vytis, though it's unclear as to where the term came from. It gradually seems to have emerged in the 19th Century and the double cross continues to play a role in the sub-national flags of Lithuania:
This is the flag of Vilnius County- but all ten county flags of Lithuania follow a similar design. The fringe outside is a border of the double crosses seen on the shield of the Vytis, while each county's flag usual features a portion or of all of the main symbol of their respective coats of arms. (I can't honestly find a good explanation for the Coat of Arms, but looking over the history of the national Coat of Arms, it seems like Vilnius has an earlier iteration of the arms, featuring a knight with a lance instead of a sword.)

So Happy Belated Flag Day, Lithuania! (According to Google Translate: "Laiminga veliavos diena, Lietuva!") And remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Bookshot #104: The Fall of Hyperion

The end of Hyperion was damn near perfect: it finished off an incredible piece of literature and left me begging for more and happily, its sequel, The Fall of Hyperion ties up everything left over from the first book and brings the fates of all the characters to an amazingly satisfying conclusion. While Hyperion is structured around each of the seven pilgrims telling their story drawing on things like the Decameron and Chaucer's Cantebury Tales for inspiration, The Fall of Hyperion focuses more on the John Keats characters from the first book, introducing a second reincarnation, Joseph Severn, an artist.

When Severn dreams, he dreams of the pilgrims from Hyperion and what they are currently doing, which is of great interesting to the CEO of the Hegemony, Meina Gladstone who is monitoring the situation on Hyperion and what the believe to be the impending invasion of the 'Ousters.' While the political struggles and tensions within the Hegemony rise throughout the book, the pilgrims on Hyperion have to deal with problems of their own. Father Hoyt is the first to encounter the Shrike when he enters the Jade Tomb, hoping to relieve himself of the intense pain inflicted by his cruciform parasite- he tries to commit suicide, but the Shrike kills him instead. Instead of Hoyt reincarnating however, his mentor Father Paul Dure comes back instead.

With food running low, and Sol's daughter getting younger with every passing minute, the Pilgrims demand The Consul bring his ship to them so they can get food and medical aid for those of them in need, but The Consul discovers that his ship has been impounded by the Hegemony authorities. So, they nominate Lamia and Silenius to hike back to Chronos Keep to get food. Silenius leaves Lamia to go into the City of Poets to finish his Hyperion Cantos and is attacked by the Shrike and impaled on the Tree of Thorns which is at least partially real. Lamia gets to Chronos Keep, but is attacked as well and plugged into the datasphere.

Colonel Kassad, meanwhile has begun his fight against the Shrike aided by the mysterious Moneta and he eventually succeeds in his mission, dying in battle. Lamia finds out about some of the motivations of the mysterious techno-core and they finally find out what Het Masteen (who vanished in the middle of the last book) has been up to and what his deal is.

In the meantime, things have gone sideways on Gladstone and the Hegemony. The Ousters- or at least, people they think are The Ousters have beached the web that connects all the worlds of the Hegemony together and suddenly the expected battle for Hyperion has become an apocalyptic battle for the future of all mankind. Both the pilgrims and Gladstone soon figure out who the real enemy at their door is and in an unusual twist, it turns out not to be the Ousters at all, but faced with an impossible choice, Gladstone makes a call that changes humanity's fate. The purpose of the Shrike is revealed, the fate of all the pilgrims is decided (actually, they do okay, with the possible exception of Kassad, who does die in battle.)

This was a damn near perfect sequel. It answered every question that you had been asking since the first book. It provided satisfying and complete ending for all the characters and left the door open to explore more of this universe- I'm assuming in Books 3 and 4, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, which I'm going to have to get to at some point. (I don't know when... I'm plowing through a lot of books lately, but I've got to finish the series out now.)

Overall: an eminently worthy sequel, I raced through The Fall of Hyperion about as fast as I raced through it's predecessor. The influences evident throughout the book that range from the poetry of John Keats to the teachings of John Muir (along with Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Stephen Hawking and references to Jack Vance) are beautifully woven into the story to create a vision of the future that is stunningly unique. I'd say ***** out of *****

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The [Insert Number Here] Predictions for 2018

Resolutions are a popular game this time of year, but so is the most dangerous game of all: predictions. The [Insert Number Here] Predictions for 2018 is a common sight this time of year, but I think it's a lot more fun than blathering on about what a cleansing time of renewal the new year is, so I'm going to have some fun and offer Five Predictions for the Year Ahead. Let's see how wrong I'm going to be!

First, the Democratic Party will take back the House. (They might be able to snag the Senate as well, but I feel like even with the Alabama win, their path is a lot narrower in the Senate than it is in the House.) I also think that on the state level, Democrats will take back a chamber of the Legislature and that Iowa won't send Kim Reynolds back to the Governor's Mansion. I don't know if early indications of Branstad fatigue are real or just wishful thinking at this point, but the Democrats have a deep field with some serious candidates and if there was a year where they could get it done, ti seems like it could be this year. (The Medicare Mess, I'm convinced is going to be more of an issue come the fall than is it right now. UIHC is already struggling with not getting Medicare payments- imagine what rural hospitals are going through. Voters, especially rural ones- have the real potential to be pissed about this come November.)

Second, Tarantino's pitch for a Star Trek movie will go from internet buzz to actual reality. I feel like at this point in the Star Trek movie franchise, it's worth taking a swing at something like this just to see what it looks like. While I enjoyed Star Trek Beyond, Star Trek Into Darkness felt like a parboiled remake of one of the greatest Trek movies of all time and the news that the fourth movie was going to involve time travel somehow just makes it seem that nu-Trek is more interested in dressing up the old Trek movies than moving in a new direction. Tarantino would move Trek in a new direction. (Bonus Prediction: Uma Thurman will say her piece about Harvey Weinstein and it will be epic.)

Third, I really want to say that the Minnesota Vikings will win the Super Bowl, but Minnesota being Minnesota, I think they'll lose on a last second field goal instead. (Bonus Predictions: Arsenal will finish in the Top Four and manage to win everything except the Premier League which will give Arsene Wenger enough silverware to justify going out on top. They'll lose Alexis Sanchez to Manchester City, but keep Mesut Ozil- for now.)

Fourth, if there's a continent worth watching this year, it's probably Africa. I know the trendy prediction for the 'world news' category is the cheerful prospect of war with North Korea, but there's actually a lot going in Africa that we should, but probably won't be paying attention to. Zimbabwe is going to have an election that won't have Robert Mugabe on the ballot. The Democratic Republic of the Congo says it's going to have elections in December, but we'll see. (It's also in the midst of a refugee crisis that's being overlooked and/or ignored.) Sixteen nations in Africa have elections set for this year and South Africa is looking ahead to their election in 2019.

Fifth, I'm going to boldly predict that Iowa City's trend of housing developments with breathless, pretentious sounding names will continue. (There's a lot of names out there that make me roll my eyes like 'The Quarters' and 'The Crossings' and 'Rise'). I do feel like the steel and glass gargantuan construction book is probably going to start leveling off if the University's enrollment has reached a plateau, at least for now.

Predictions are the most dangerous game of all, so I'm fully expecting to be wrong on most, if not all of these predictions. (Here's hoping we avoid a war with North Korea!) That said I also feel good about all of my predictions as well. We'll see how right (or wrong) I end up being this December.

Monday, January 1, 2018

5 For 2018

1. Getting another tattoo: Yeah, yeah, you all heard this last year, but the crazy part is that I know exactly what I want, I know where I'm going to get it, I just need to stash away some ducats and get some time to go and do it. Didn't get it done in 2017, so onto the list for 2018 it goes!

2. Finishing my Year of Books: despite the seven books on my list from last year that I didn't read, the overall goal of my Year of Books was more than met. I'll be honest with y'all: I have book reviews scheduled out until March- that's how much reading I've gotten done. The original idea was a germ of a notion I picked up from Stephen King's On Writing (at least I think so), but basically it was this: to be a better writer, read everything. So, onward and upward to finish off my list:

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Ulysses, James Joyce
Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks

3. This is my Year of Health. I'm going to be thirty-five this year and I'm going to have three kids and if there was ever an opportunity to get serious about being as fit as I want to be, I think it's this year. But this is a somewhat vague declaration, so let's break it out into specific goals for the year:

-Learn and master 24 form Tai Chi
-Kettlebell (a full routine) at least once a week
-Train for and specifically run a 5k
-I'm not a huge fan of BMI as an indicator of health, but I'd like to be closer to make ideal BMI than further away from it.

Why these goals? Well, 24-form Tai Chi seems the obvious place to take my tai chi. I have a kettlebell that is gathering dust that I want to start using again and running a 5K is something I've wanted to actually be fit enough to do for awhile now. All of these seem achievable. We'll see how I'm looking at the end of the year.

4. Up my writing game. My general philosophy has always been 'to do better.' I started last year with a blog that had about 8K in pageviews and ended it with over 25K in pageviews*, so whatever I'm doing, I'm doing something right, at least when it comes to the blog. My goal this year is to hit 50K for the blog. But more generally, I want to crafting a more coherent identity for my blog. I've always sort of had a 'whatever flies into my brain that's interesting' sort of approach to blogging and I want to make Lit City Blues more of a unique brand. People obviously take time out of their days to take a minute or two to read what I have to say- I want to make the time the take as worthwhile, creative and interesting as possible.

I also want to keep writing short stories and getting them out there so see if someone will publish them, relaunch both my books (The Prisoner and The Assassin and The Arrows of Defiance) and finish my latest book and get it ready for launch by year's end.

5. House projects...  I have this short list of things I'd like to around the house that are practical in nature this. They include in no particular order:

-Staining our deck
-Building a raised bed so we can start a garden
-constructing a built-in bookshelf in the house so we can consolidate all our books into one place
-Getting a farmhouse sink for our kitchen
-putting a new back splash in the kitchen

2018 is officially underway. I've got 365 days to see what I can do.

Game on.

*I'm not sure how accurate Blogger's stats actually are, but I purchased my own domain name through Google, which means if you Google 'Lit City Blues' this is the first thing you'll find (which is gratifying)- so I don't think SEO is a problem. I think it tracks unique pageviews, but I'm not 100% sure, so that 25K number might not be as accurate as I'd like. I know for sure it's not all me though, so some of y'all are reading what I right. Thank you for making this what it is and I look forward to making this even better in 2018.