Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Scotus Pocus

Here's the thing with the Supreme Court: any argument, any confirmation fight, any disagreement: if you switch the parties of everyone involved, you end up in the exact same argument.

Here's the thing with Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser: I believe her, not just because that's the decent thing to do in the 21st Century, but because it really stretches credibility to me that any woman would put themselves through a mountain and a half of undeserved bullshit for something they made up. ("But why wait so long to come forward?" Well, the culture has changed. People are far less likely to be silent about things like this these days than they were in times past. Again, I find it entirely credible that this woman kept her silence on the matter and moved forward with her life as best she could, because so many woman have undoubtedly done just that.)

At this point, I don't know of Kavanaugh's nomination is going to survive or not. The cynic in me probably thinks it will. After all, Clarence Thomas survived Anita Hill and has been comfortably ensconced on the court ever since. But maybe we're not that far gone. Maybe we're better than we used to be, but I doubt it. If his nomination does go down (and I think there's a decent chance it does) then I would expect President Trump to nominate a woman- to naturally, own the libs.

The current nominee aside (and when I say 'aside' I don't mean to diminish the accusations against him in anyway- far from it) I think it's time we face up to the fact that the process of confirming nominees to the Supreme Court is broken beyond repair. In fact, there's a serious case to be made that the Supreme Court itself is in need of serious structural reform. The stakes for the highest judiciary shouldn't be so apocalyptic with every vacancy on the court.

Politics is always going to be about winning to a certain degree- especially in the current system we have. My head is full of songs from Hamilton (which we saw this past weekend) and the warnings and fears the Founding Fathers had about factionalism and political parties seem to be very prescient given the current climate today. Our current system doesn't help either. A political binary is the worst of all possible worlds for the growth of a healthy democracy and a sane and civil discourse in our society. It's either/or. It's a/b. It's the knowledge that the pendulum might swing one way, but it will surely swing back your way at some point. Nothing about our system encourages consensus or coalition building and it's absolutely 100 percent about winning at this point. If you look at Washington through the lens of 'how do we own the [cons] or [libs]?' and 'how do we beat the other guys?' it explains so much about the dysfunction of our political system.

So while the press and the circus will focus on the accusation leveled against Kavanaugh, the larger structural problem won't be talked about. We're not about solutions anymore, just how to get the most mileage out of our problems so that one of the two parties can wring the most advantage of it. I'm in favor of structural solutions. But no one is offering those- at least not in any meaningful way in Washington.

This one was out there on Medium. I like it. It's relatively simple: increase the number of justices fron nine to eleven and then have them serve one twenty-two year term on the court and stagger their terms so that one new justice is appointed to the court every two years. This plan neuters many of the political advantages that currently surround appointments to the court- each President would be able to appointment at minimum two at most four justice over the course of either one to two terms- and by increasing the number of justices to the eleven, you also prevent any President of either party from appointing a majority to the court.

This one is slightly more radical, but makes equally good points. Go big or go home, it says. Keep the nine and add fifty more, appointed by each Governor and approved by the Senate. This plan might be a little too extreme for my tastes, but it sure as hell beats what we've got going on now. It's at least a solid proposal. It's something. A solution.

Whatever you think of Kavanaugh, it should be obvious to everyone that the way we appoint Justices to the Supreme Court is broken beyond repair. I hope we're better in 2018 than we were in 1991, but I doubt it. I'm sure he'll probably be confirmed. What that says about us as a country, I don't know. Probably nothing that good. If his nomination does go down, then I'd expect the circus to start right back up again.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Netflix & Chill #50: Molly's Game

Watched On: Redbox (DVD)
Released: 2017
Starring: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Jeremy Strong, Chris O'Dowd, Bill Camp
Rotten Tomatoes: 82%
Pick: Mine

I own every season of The West Wing, have seen every episode of Sports Night and Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and The Newsroom and I went ahead and brought the Aaron Sorkin masterclass on screenwriting and I pretty much make it a point to eventually getting around to watching pretty much everything the man writes and/or creates, so when I heard that Molly's Game was going to be written and directed by him (his directorial debut, no less) I put it on the list of movies that I would eventually, maybe, hopefully get around to watching. Turns out I didn't have to wait too long and, even better: this was a really, really good movie.

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is a world class mogul skier, who opens the movie about to qualify for the 2002 Winter Olympics, but ends up severely injured instead, effectively ending her career. She originally had planned (at the advice/guidance/pressure from her overbearing father (Kevin Costner) to attend law school, but she takes a year off and moves to Los Angeles. She becomes a bottle-service waitress at a club and meets Dean (Jeremy Strong), who is an ostentatious and unsuccessful real estate developer. She becomes his officer manager and eventually helps him run his underground poker games which attract movie stars, investment bankers and sports players- she ends up earning large sums of money on tips alone.

When Molly gets too independent for Dean's liking, he fires her and she sets up a game of her own. One of Dean's A-List players, Player X (Michael Cera) leaves with and soon Molly is making even more money- but when a skilled, conservative and very successful player by the name of Harlan Eustace (Bill Camp) joins the game and ends up losing to one of the worst players in the room and he becomes compulsive, suffering heavy losses. Molly finds out that Player X has been funding Harlan to keep him in the game and she berates him for his unethical actions and in turn, Player X changes the venue and the other players leave Molly's game to join him.

Molly moves to New York and after some efforts, starts up another game. She finds success again, but runs into a problem when she begins to have trouble covering her losses when payers can't play. She gets convinced to start taking a percentage of the larger pots, which does cover her losses but makes her game an illegal gambling operation. When one of her Los Angeles players is inducted for running a Ponzi scheme, Molly is investigated and questions about who was at her games. This sort of starts a downward spiral for her and she becomes increasingly addicted to drugs and unsavory and dangerous elements from the Mafia start becoming involved in her games, other members of the Mafia offer their services to extort money from her non-paying players. When Molly refuses, they attack her in her home, hold her at gunpoint and threaten her mother. But before anything further can come of this, the FBI rains the game, her assets are seized and she returns home to live with her mother.

Two years later, Molly has moved out and published a book where she names a few individuals who played in her games. She's arrested by the FBI for involvement with illegal gambling and the Mafia and enlists the help of Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) a high profile lawyer in New York, who agrees to help her after he realizes that she's been protecting innocent people who were affected by her poke games.While she's waiting for her trial in New York, her father seeks her out and attempts to reconcile with her, admitting that he was overbearing and treated her differently because she knew about his affairs. Charlie negotiates a deal for her, but Molly declines, wanting to protect the identity of her players. She pleads guilty, but the judge decides that she had committed no serious crimes and gives her probation, community service and a $200,000 fine instead.

Overall: Here's the deal...  usually, Sorkin leaves his fingerprints on what he writes. If you watch enough of his stuff, you'll see the same lines and the same cadence to his dialogue. There's whole supercuts of it floating around the internet, which is what makes this movie so fascinating to me. It's got the cadence and the rhythm of his writing, but it's also just about fingerprint free. I think I bumped on maybe two moments in the entire movie. Sorkin's always been a great writer, but I feel like this movie might be his masterpiece. I loved it. My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, September 15, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #269

Let's get down to business right away. We're still reaching to the bottom of the barrel of the Unfortunate Wordpress Experiment and we're in the race to the finish line of the Lost Archives, so let's get to it.

This Week.

Back in Africa.

Double shot of the old Vitamin C with Chad and Cameroon.

First up, Chad:
No, I haven't made a mistake. This isn't the flag of Romania- it really, really is the flag of Chad. The shade of blue they use is darker than what Romania is rocking and here's the deal. Chad kind of got this tricolor going first- kind of. When the flag was adopted on November 6th, 1959, Romania's flag had a communist symbol in the center stripe which lasted until 1989 when their Communist government was overthrown. Then the symbol was removed and the flag reverted back to it's pre-war configuration which is pretty much the same flag that Chad had going on.

The Chadians kind of make noise about the similarities now and again, but Romania isn't gonna change and they don't seem to be in a hurry to change either, so for now, they're pretty much going to have the same flags.

So what does it all mean? Well, the original concept was supposed to be a combination of blue-white-red from the flag of France and the pan-African colors of green,  yellow and red. I don't know if they've managed to communicate that to anybody who looks at their flag, because while the idea is cool and historically worthy of consideration, the practical upshot of it is that you look at the flag and go, "hey, isn't that the flag of Romania?" So the original notion behind this sort of gets lost almost immediately to me. The colors have some meaning: the blue stands for sky and hope, the gold is the sun and the desert and the red signifies the bloodshed over independence.

If I'm Chad and looking to stand out, I've got two words for you: diagonal tricolor.

Next up, Cameroon:
Okay, here's a fun fact about Cameroon. It used to be plural, but now it's singular. No, really... over the years, there have been German Cameroons, French Cameroons and British Cameroon and at some point, they made the decision to make like Voltron and join forces to become one, greater, more awesome Cameroon and that's how we got where we got to where we are today.

So, the flag of Cameroon: the flag was adopted on May 20th, 1975. It's rockin' the pan-African colors of green, red and yellow. It's got a five pointed star in the center stripe, which can apparently vary in size (but it always stays in the center stripe.) The green in the flag stands for the forests in the south of the country, yellow stands for the sun and the savannas in the northern part of the country. The star in the center is known as 'the star of unity' and red is the color of unity.

I like the whole Voltron thing that Cameroon has going on. (Our national motto of 'Out of many, one' surely applies here.) Their flag is... pretty good. It doesn't make me jump up and down with excitement and it uses the same old color scheme we see all over the place in Africa- and that's also fine. The star is a nice touch, as well.

Two more countries to cross off the list! Closer to clearing out the Lost Archives! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying, FREAK or otherwise!

Monday, September 10, 2018

Squawk Box: Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan

I wanted to watch this show for a couple of reasons. First, Amazon has been promoting the shit out of it since like March, which seemed ridiculous to me, but for months now, you couldn't go anywhere on Amazon without seeing some trailer or banner ad for it. So if you're going to hype a show at me that much, I'm going to want to tune into to see if it lives up to the hype.

Second, I love this character. Growing up, I read pretty much every Tom Clancy book I could get my hands on- great, thick tomes, all of them. So the idea of Jack Ryan moving to the small screen intrigued me greatly. I didn't like Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears. I didn't even bother with Chris Pine in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. So I was more than willing to give John Krasinski a shot in the role occupied by the latter two as well as Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin.

The great part: it all works really, really well. The first season is only eight episodes, which I think helps immensely, because there's no filler here. They know what story they want to tell and they don't waste time telling it- but it's also not so jam packed that they don't allow for character development and nuance either. When the series of opens, Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) is a low-level financial analyst in the Terror, Finance and Arms Division (T-FAD) of the CIA. He's been tracking financial transactions that he believes are connected to an emerging terrorist named Suleiman whom he belives is operating out of Yemen. He has a hard time convincing his new boss, James Greer (Wendell Pierce) of this and eventually heads out to a cocktail party where he meets Cathy Mueller (Abby Cornish) the daughter of his former boss from the financial firm he used to work at on Wall Street.

Greer realizes that Ryan is onto something and sends a helicopter to the party to whisk him away and soon Jack is away from the comfort of his desk job and out in the field. They had to Yemen, where they interrogate the man supposedly responsible for the payments and his bodyguard when the camp comes under attack and they realize that the bodyguard is none other than Suleiman (Ali Suliman). He's rescued and Jack and Greer are left with the realization that a new and dangerous player has joined the terrorist game.

Back in the states, Jack reconnects with Cathy and keeps following the phone records and other intelligence they had gleaned from the Yemen incident which leads them an apartment outside of Paris where Suleiman's brother, Ali (Haaz Sleiman) is transferring the funds. Greer, Ryan and French Intelligence raid the apartment, but Ali escapes in the chaos and the raid ends in a suicide bombing. Greer and Ryan track Ali to a hideout they believe is his rendezvous point in Southern France, but in their attempt to take him into custody, he's killed.

Meanwhile, Suleiman's wife Hanin (Dina Shihabi) becomes increasingly concerned with the armed terrorists that her husband is bringing into their home and begins to realize that her husband has another, darker side that she's never seen before. She flees with her daughters, but Suleiman sends someone after her.

While Hanin is being pursued, Suleiman starts an insurrection against ISIS and effectively takes control of the organization. His terrorist cell stages a sarin gas attack on the funeral of a well-known French priest. In the aftermath, Jack makes contact with Suleiman using the messaging board on a video game, posing as his brother Ali- but Suleiman detects the ruse and Jack confirms that Ali is dead and manages also to confirm that Suleiman's wife, Hanin has fled before Suleiman disconnects, which sends Greer and Ryan racing to the Middle East to find and extract her.

Cathy, meanwhile, is investigating a case of Ebola in Liberia where a man has been infected with a strain they believed was eradicated. It is then revealed that six months earlier Suleiman and Ali dug up a body infected with that strain. Greer and Ryan catch up with Hanin and her children and extract them safely. Ryan and Greer investigate the Ebola case, which reveals Jack's true job to Cathy who isn't exactly happy at the news, but eventually forgives him. Ryan and Greer also convince their superior to launch a ground assault on Suleiman's compound when they discover the existence of a dozen or so western hostages. All hostages are rescued, but the compound is empty and neither Ryan nor Greer can figure out why at first, until they realize that the hostages (including an old army buddy of the President's) have all been exposed to Ebola.

With the President a numerous other officials quarantined, the next stage of Suleiman's plan- detonating a cesium dirty bomb inside the hospital is revealed and is almost successful, but Ryan and Greer make one last timely intervention which culminates in Ryan shooting Suleiman before he can detonate the device. As rewards for preventing the attack, Greer is promoted to Deputy Station Chief, Moscow Station and Ryan takes over as the head of T-FAD.

Overall, there is so so so much to like about this. The characters are complicated and nuanced and all of them felt fully realized and three dimensional. This series gets right what a lot of the movie adaptations don't: it's possible to update a lot of Clancy's source material to a contemporary setting and they get it absolutely right. Ryan worked in finance, Cathy's Dad was his boss. He had been in the Marines and was gravely injured in a  helicopter crash- though in Afghanistan this time. Greer is almost perfectly cast with Wendell Pierce assuming the role that James Earl Jones played so well in the movies. A nice twist though is the reveal that his character converted to Islam for his now ex-wife. I didn't see that coming at all and the fact that he converted adds an unusual and fresh dimension to the character. All in all, this is taut, thrilling, crackling with suspense and the complexity that made Clancy's novels so great to read.

The problem with Clancy's source material is that a lot of it was written in a Cold War context that's incredibly dated now. Jack Ryan proves that the best of the source material can be updated to a contemporary setting while staying true to what made the originals works so great. I can't wait to see more. My Grade: **** out of ****

Sunday, September 9, 2018

35 Random Observations about Turning 35

1. If one trip around the sun is roughly 584 million miles, then 35 trips around the sun is 20,440,000,000 miles. I feel like there should be some frequent flier miles for that much travel.

2. In my lifetime, I'm only on my third Pope.

3. Additionally, there's only ever been one British monarch.

4. There have been six US Presidents and six British Prime Minister since I've been alive.

5. In 1983, there were 158 members of the United Nations, today there are 193.

6. The Cubs, White Sox and Red Sox all broke their respective 'curses' in my lifetime.

7. The Triple Crown of Horse Racing has been won twice in my lifetime.

8. It struck me when I was in line at Hy-Vee the other night. I remember when food stamps were actually bills/stamps and not on electronic cards.

9. The Euro didn't exist when I was born. Neither did the Channel Tunnel.

10. We've never landed on the Moon in my lifetime. (Or Mars for that matter.)

11. Six countries have won the World Cup in my lifetime: Argentina, Germany, Brazil, France, Italy and Spain.

12. Liverpool won the old First Division four times, Everton twice, Arsenal twice and Leeds United once in my lifetime.

13. Manchester United won the Premier League thirteen times, Arsenal three times, Chelsea five times, Manchester City three times, Leicester City and Blackburn Rovers once.

14. The Iowa Hawkeyes have been to the Rose Bowl three times in my lifetime and have yet to win the darn thing.

15. The Minnesota Vikings have yet to win a Super Bowl in my lifetime.

16. Technically, ARPANET adopted TCP/IP on January 1st, 1983 and began assembling what would become in the internet but it really didn't come into existence in the form we think of it today until 1990. So I was born before the internet was a thing.

17. The Soviet Union was still a country when I was born and barely two months after I was born we had a brush with actual nuclear war during the Able Archer incident.

18. STS-9, a flight of the Space Shuttle Colombia was the first space shuttle launch after I was born. I saw the end of the space shuttle program with STS-135, the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

19. The Mir was launched, operated and abandoned over the course of my lifetime.

20. The International Space Station was launched and is still going strong.

21. James Michener's Poland, Stephen King's Pet Semetary, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, John Le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl, James Michener's Space and Judith Krantz's Mistral's Daughter all appeared on the New York Times best seller list the year I was born.

22. William Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature the year I was born. Lech Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize.

23. The Berlin Wall was still up when I was born.

24. Cell phones were the size of large bricks when I was born. Now the sum of all human knowledge is on your phone and can fit in your pocket.

25. Bitcoin was not a thing when I was born. It is now though.

26. South Africa was still under apartheid when I was born. Namibia wasn't a country. Burkina Faso was still called Upper Volta and the Democratic Republic of the Congo was still called Zaire.

27. Less than 50% of the US population was covered by 911 when I was born.

28. The US Interstate Highway system was still under construction when I was born- I-80 was completed coast-to-coast three years after I was born and the I-70 stretch through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado was only completed when I was 9.

29. This seems like an obvious thing, but might be somewhat mind blowing to the younger generations: social media wasn't around when I was a kid. Like, at all.

30. I still remember old rotary style telephones.

31. This was a better fountain than whatever they have on the Ped Mall today. I miss this fountain.

32. Betamax, VHS and Laser Discs were still around. I purchased my first album in a Sam Goody. It was on a cassette.

33. We rented VHS tapes to watch o the weekend.

34. The Hubble telescope was launched.

35. Oldsmobile Supreme, Ford Escort and Ford LTD were top selling cars the year I was born. The Chevrolet Equinox took the top crown for the front half of 2018.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

40 For 40: Year 5

When I wrote this list five years ago, part of the criteria I set was that I could revise this list when I turned 35. The way I figure it, people's priorities change. People change. Life changes. I listened to an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience a few months back, where he interviewed Kevin Smith not long after he had survived a massive heart attack. I was struck at home changed Smith seemed to be by the experience- I don't know him personally, but it was... moving almost, to listen to him talk about being so serene about it. Accepting the fact that he might well have reached the finish line of the great race that is life that night really made me think.

The average life expectancy for US Males as of 2015 was 78.84 years. That means in five years, I'll be officially at the halfway point, according to the statistics anyway. The older I get, the less I seem to care about acquiring 'stuff.' I'm more interested in accumulating experiences now- and, of course, making sure I last as long as I can in my own great race of life. So, yeah, there are some changes this year. Changes are noted in red.

1. Publish my novel.
2. Get another tattoo
3. Finish all 4,532 pages and 12 volumes of Winston Churchill's 'The Second World War.'
4. Run a 5k
5. Visit All 50 States
6. Lose 50 lbs (this is a more specific, attainable goal than just 'get ripped, yo')
7. Pay off every single dime of my student loans.
8. Write more novels, publish them.
9. I would like to ride a mechanical bull.
10. Go on a Caribbean Cruise with the Missus.
11. Drive to Alaska.
12. Find out if St. Louis and Kansas City are pretty cool, since people keep insisting that they are.
13. Have at least one culinary adventure a year.
14. Vikings/Packers at Lambeau. 'Nuff said.
15. Read one fiction book a year that's well outside my usual genre preferences.
16. Work on my backlog of non-fiction and history books, my Fraser biographies of Charles II and Cromwell, The Steel Bonnets and my Jenkins bios of Churchill and Gladstone are at the top of the list.
17. Read Wuthering Heights and understand/appreciate it.
18. Re-read and finish The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire
19. Read Pride and Prejudice and understand it/appreciate it.
20. Master my ukulele!
21. I would like to shoot a gun. Because I've never done that before.
22. Be the best Father I can be.
23. Be able to buy a really rare bottle of whiskey for my 40th Birthday.
24. I'd like to visit Kentucky and check out the Bourbon Trail.
25. I'd like to visit NYC.
26. Ride a day of RAGBRAI.
27. Ride the whole week of RAGBRAI.
28.  Learn how to make bread from scratch.
29. World Travel Wishlist: Brazil, India, China, Europe.
30. Brush up my foreign language skills. I've invested a lot of time of the years into learning French, Spanish, Portuguese, Swahili, Arabic and Hindi. I'd like to maximize my knowledge of all six languages. (Wrapping up Duolingo courses on all languages is my preferred benchmark for this.)
31. Get something pierced again.
32. Go skydiving.
33. Go to Trekfest.
34. We've got family in Texas, Georgia and the UK. Be nice to take vacations to at least two out three of those destinations.
35. Make our house perfect (or move to a bigger and better house.)
36. Be able to afford subscription to The Economist.
37. Road trip it up to Winnipeg for Jets game.
38. I'd like to see an Iowa away game somewhere. (Football and Basketball.)
39. Go to a Major League Soccer Game
40. Go to a Cubs game at Wrigley

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Let's Talk About Socialism, Because Everyone Else Is

I suppose we should talk about socialism. Everyone else seems to be these days- but here's the kicker that's sort of starting to annoy me. All these people running around talking about the glories of socialism and how socialist they are and how we should all be socialist? I'm not sure they really understand what the hell socialism actually is. (And for that matter, not having lived in a socialist country for the majority of my life, I'm not quite sure what it is either, but I'm willing to take a whack at it.)

So, let's start with a definition. This is what the Googles delivers:
1. a political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.
2. policy or practice based on the political and economic theory of socialism
3. (in Marxist theory) a transitional social state between the overthrow of capitalism and the realization of communism.
Well, there's a lot to unpack with this definition, but for the sake of argument, let's limit our scope somewhat and throw out number 2. It's probably the most abstract definition of the bunch, anyway. This leaves us with #1 and #3. The problem is that when people right now are talking about 'socialism' neither of those two definitions really fit either.

So, if we're going to unpack this a little more I think we've got to throw another definition into the mix: social democracy. Wikipedia leads off that entry with this:
"a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a liberal democratic polity and capitalist economy."
THIS is far closer to the mark of what a lot of Progressives are talking about these days. A lot of Conservatives when they talk about the evil boogeyperson of socialism always go to Venezuela. The pathway that a lot of Progressives talk about when they talk about socialism is closer (at least in theory) to Denmark. The hitch is this, from the second 'graph from the Wikipedia entry:
"Social democracy originated as a political ideology that advocated an evolutionary and peaceful transition from capitalism to socialism using established political processes in contrast to the revolutionary approach to transition associated with orthodox Marxism."
In other words, the destination may be Denmark initially, but the idea is to transition (at least on paper) to a fully socialist system. Hence, the Conservative paranoia about the evil boogeyperson of socialism and Venezuela. (As we can see here, trying to compare Denmark to Venezuela didn't go so well for a Fox News anchor lately- and it was a slipshod comparison that collapsed like a flan in an oven when you pushed on it even slightly.)

I have several things about this whole 'ooooooooh, scaaaary socialism' versus 'socialism, hurray!' thing that's going on.

First: why do we have to be constantly stuck in the 19th century? I mean, our government and (somewhat) our educational system are rooted in the 19th century. Why do we have to default back to a binary that's as old and sclerotic as people from that century at this point? The answer isn't going to be: "If not A, then B" all the damn time. Why can't we come up with something new? I would argue that there's a mountain of data out there for the shortcomings of socialism and it's becoming increasingly obvious that whatever the hell we've got going on in this country, it's not really laissez-faire capitalism. It's more like 'let us pass a tax break to help you with that and oh, we'll get rid of some pesky regulations while we're at it,' which is very much governmental interference in the market. (I type this sitting in an ag state awash in what now? Oh that's right: farm subsidies.)

Second: I have real doubts that moving to a socialist model on a Federal level is going to work. One of the reasons that social democracy worked so well in Europe for as long as it did is that the populations were relatively small and homogeneous and the strains on a lot of European welfare states at the moment are probably incredibly complex in many ways, but to me, the changing nature of that population combined with declining birth rates have to be a factor in the strains that are being put on those societies. That's one thing.

The other thing is money. Money is the great super glue of American life today. We spend $3 trillion on health care today- which seems ludicrous to a lot of people, which is why they're pushing for a socialized, single payer model (for reasons both ideological and fairly sensible- $3 trillion is a hell of a lot of money and a lot of people would argue that they're not getting all that much out of it.) But here's the kicker. In 2016, the Health Insurance industry made an estimated $13.1 billion. That's a health insurance industry with jobs and salaries many of which would go bye-bye if we went to single payer. That's what makes a lot of these major radical changes so unlikely to me... there's industries with a not inconsiderable amount of money that will be invested in maintaining the status quo and I don't care how many laws you pass or taxes you raise. At the end of the day, $13.1 billion is a huge investment in the status quo. Until you provide incentives to change that, ain't nothing gonna change.

Third: I think we're both closer and further away than we think to 'socialism.' In many ways a lot of the structure of the welfare state that we take for granted has been in place for decades now, thanks to the New Deal. Radical transformations seem somewhat unlikely, given our current politics, but a renewal of the New Deal or even a New New Deal of some kind (though I wouldn't brand it as such) could well be feasible to sell to the American people. Medical bankruptcy shouldn't be a thing. People shouldn't worry about securing access to world class medical care. Also, the price of health insurance for individuals should be cheaper. There should be more distance and carefully constructed boundaries between business and government. There should be more regulation of business from government- not necessarily a bureaucratic avalanche of red tape, but effective regulation. Anti-corruption and draining the swamp may have been a rallying cry for President Trump, but anti-corruption efforts are fast becoming a serious policy plank for the Progressive left- and they're not unreasonable things either. Senator Warren's plans for the economy may well make economists and policy wonks shudder, but she's not that far off the mark when it comes to the corruption stuff.

In short, I'm leery of all this ideological talk. I prefer concrete policy proposals that lead to real solutions to problems. Too often, our political system prefers to keep problems around because they can soak them up for votes instead of actually solving them. If I come down on the side of anything, it's probably pragmatic utilitarianism. Take what's possible to do and use it to achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people and actually do something and I'll be right behind it.

In short, the people screaming about socialism and what it all means seem to be more wedded to their pet ideology that concrete results. I'm vastly more interested in the latter than the former.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Bookshot #111: The Hero With A Thousand Faces

I've always loved mythology ever since I was a kid. I devoured Greek myths. I was that kid who read The Illiad and The Odyssey multiple times and enjoyed them greatly when I did so. I still get irrationally angry about what Disney did to Hercules. (Spoiler Alert: they royally fucked it up. Hades was never the bad guy, Hera was. Kevin Sorbo and  Hercules: The Legendary Journeys does a far better job at staying true to the mythology.) So, it's kind of surprising to me that it's taken this long to pick up Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces and read it.

The heart of the book is Campbell's theory that the important myths from around the world have survived for thousands of years because they all share a similar and important structure, which Campbell calls the 'monomyth.' Campbell explores this myth and it's structure throughout the book- but does so in a fairly unusual way that kind of through me a little bit at first, but by the end of the book, begins to make a lot more sense. Instead of what I would have done, which would be to explore the similarities between individual myths from around the world, Campbell lays out various stages of a hero's journey and finds the myths from all over the world to provide evidence for that journey.

His hero's journey goes a little like this: the hero receives a 'call to adventure', if he accepts that call, then he has to overcome various tasks and trials along the way- either alone or with the help of others. At the climax of the journey, the hero survives a severe challenge- if they survive, they get a boon or a gift of some kind. The hero then has to decide whether or not to return to the ordinary world with their boon or gift of some kind- and if they survive the return journey, then their boon usually brings some tangible good or improvement for the world.

Not all myths contain the complete cycle of the hero's journey- some only focus on a party of it, or deal with the stages , but inevitably, traces of the cycle can be found in myths from across the world. Some of these stand out as being more complete than others. The stories of Osiris, Prometheus, Buddha, Moses, Mohammed and Jesus are all compared throughout various parts of the book and their similarities are talked about at some length.

The influence of this book on the popular culture of the past few decades cannot be overlooked: Bob Dylan, George Lucas (for Star Wars), Jim Morrison, The Grateful Dead, Stanley Kubrick, Disney cites it's influence on Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and The Beast. It's been used by JK Rowling, Richard Adams and Neil Gaiman. (There's also mentions of Community, Lost, The Matrix Trilogy...) So in other words: this idea of the monomyth and the hero's journey is an incredibly important one that had more of an impact on our culture than I previously thought.

I have this feeling that this is a book I'm going to come back to again and again and again. If it left me with an impression, it was that you could read it a dozen different times and learn something new each time. As a result though, my reading felt shallow at times- like I wasn't getting to the bone of the narrative. What I did love was exploring the different myths from around the world and seeing how similar they are. When Campbell says 'around the world' he means it and you delve into myths as close as the American southwest and as far away as New Zealand. (It (sadly) didn't occur to me when I was reading the book, but one of the criticisms of the book involves Campbell's repeated look at mythology from a masculine point of view, but he had a pretty good thought about that.)

Overall: I love mythology, so of course I loved every minute of this book. But I also loved the deeper meaning behind it...  it's easy to see why it's had such an influence on so many artists of various mediums over the year. The monomyth speaks to humanity's deeper struggle find meaning in the world. My Grade: **** out of ****

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Netflix & Chill #49: The Last Jedi

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2017
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Pick: Mine

The Last Jedi picks up right where The Force Awakens left off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) handing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) his old lightsaber on the planet of Ach-To. He throws it away and reveals to Rey that he has no interest in joining the Resistance and has, in fact, exiled himself from The Force in the wake of his failure to train Kylo Ren to be a Jedi. R2-D2 persuades Luke to train Rey as a Jedi, but unbeknownst to Luke, Rey and Kylo (Adam Driver) begin communicating through the Force, which puzzles the two of them at first, but they gradually begin to have visions of the future where they're partners.

The Resistance, meanwhile, is on the run following the attack on Starkiller Base. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) organizes a counterattack that takes out the First Order dreadnought, which allows the rest of the fleet to escape to hyperspace, but the Resistance soon realizes that the First Order is tracking them through hyperspace and the attacks continue. Kylo Ren goes out in a TIE fighter and hesitates to attach the bridge of the lead Resistance ship when he senses the presence of his mother, Leia (Carrie Fisher). His wingmen, however, have no such hesitation and blow up the bridge, destroying most of the Resistance leadership, and incapacitating Leia, who only survives by using the Force. The new leader, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) sets coordinates to an old rebellion base (though she doesn't tell anyone that.)

Disagreeing with the strategy, Poe helps Finn (John Boyega), BB-8 and the mechanic Rose Tico (Kellie Marie Tran) to go to the planet of Canto Bight in an attempting to find the source and location of the First Order's tracker, using the services of DJ (Benicio Del Toro), an underworld code breaker.

While the others are on Canto Bight, Kylo reveals what really happened between him and Luke that caused him to choose the dark side of the force to Rey and when confronted with this, Luke confesses that for a moment, he thought about killing Kylo when he sensed that Snoke (Andy Serkis) was corrupting him, but only for a moment- but it was long enough that Kylo destroyed the new Jedi Order in retaliation. Rey is convinced that Kylo can be redeemed, so leaves to go and try and do that, without Luke. Luke prepares to burn down the Jedi Temple, but hesitates to do so- Yoda's (Frank Oz) ghost then appears and summons a bolt of lightning to set it alight, telling Luke that Rey has all that she needs to learn and tells Luke to learn from his failures.

Holdo reveals her plan: to evacuate the remaining Resistance members using transports. Poe believes her actions cowardly and leads a mutiny against her while Finn, Rose and BB-8 infiltrate the resistance ship, where Finn and Rose are captured by Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). Rey also lands on the ship and Kylo brings her to Snoke, who claims to have facilitated her mental connection with Kylo to bring them together in his presence. They struggle and eventually after a plot twist, Kylo and Rey fight over Luke's lightsaber which splits in two.

Leia recovers and stuns Poe, which allows the evacuation to begin- but when DJ double crosses Finn and Rose, their plan to escape undetected is revealed and the transport ships are destroyed. Holdo then sacrifices herself by taking her ship into hyperspace and ramming into Snoke's ship. Rey escapes in the chaos and so do Finn and Rose and they all end up on Crait for one, last desperate stand against the First Order. Rey draws the TIE fighters off in the Falcon, and Luke shows up to do battle with Kylo Ren, buying time for the Resistance to escape- sacrificing his life in the process. The Rebellion, Leia declares, is reborn.

I think merely the return of Star Wars with The Force Awakens was going to get people excited and for sure, it was a great return of the franchise, but The Last Jedi takes everything up a notch. It grabs you by the scruff of the neck and starts running faster and faster and faster, jam packed with action and great character moments and a sense of pulse-pounding urgency that never lets up until the final confrontation at the end of the film. You almost miss with Rian Johnson is building to, because you're having so much fun and the movie seems fully intent on making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs, it's moving that fast, but the final confrontation on Crait is a beautiful confrontation that is epic movie-making at it's finest. I don't understand how people could hate this film, because I enjoyed every second of it.

Overall, Star Wars came back at a solid 8 and The Last Jedi dials everything up to 11 with epic results. The scenes between Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are especially poignant, given her passing not long after this film ended and it absolutely sets up Episode IX for an absolutely spectacular finish and raises the pressure on J.J. Abrams to stick the landing on this new trilogy. The bar has been set very, very high with The Last Jedi. I can't wait to find out if Episode IX can clear it. My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, September 1, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #268

It's been a busy month: we're settling into a routine in our new house and I'm training someone right now at work, which means the majority of my brainpower gets shoved to one side and stuck in a blender. It's also getting harder and harder to find inspiration for these weekly posts. I'm just not feeling it of late, which is okay. That happens from time to time. Life ebbs, flows, goes in and out. So expect the next few weeks to feature the last of the Lost Archives and maybe by the time we get deeper into the fall, I'll have found a bit of inspiration to get back to digging up new flags to feature.

But enough of all that...  This Week In Vexillology we've got a double shot from Africa. First up, Ghana:
The first country in Africa to kick start the wave of decolonization, Ghana adopted their flag in 1957 and then re-adopted it again in 1966 after a brief four year hiatus between 1962-1966.  It's the second country after Ethiopia to feature the Pan-African colors of red, yellow and green. (Weirdly, just looking at the geography of it all, it seems like Ghana had more of an impact that Ethiopia did in many ways- there's a lot of this color combination in West Africa and far less in East Africa closer to Ethiopia. (Their proximity to the Arab world might have something to do with that though... pan-Arab colors seem to exert a design influence just as strong as the pan-African ones do.)

The flag was designed by Theodosia Okoh and the red represents the blood of those who died in the struggle for independence, the gold stands for the mineral wealth of the country and the green stands for the rich forests and the natural wealth. The black star is a symbol of African emancipation. (The black star came from the flag of the Black Star Line, which was a shipping line incorporated by Marcus Garvey.)

Similar to the flag of Ireland (there is green, white and orange) the flag of Ivory Coast was adopted on December 3rd, 1959. There's a few different interpretations of what the colors mean. During the debate about making the flag, they went with orange for "the color of our rich and generous earth; it is the meaning of our struggle, the blood of a young people in its struggle for our emancipation." White, "peace, but the peace of right." and green, "hope of course, for others; but for us, the certainty of a better future."

Then we had this:
"the orange stripe expresses the splendor of national blossoming, while also serving as a reminder of the Northern Savannas. The white stripe glorifies peace in purity and union of hearts and is the pledge of our success; and the green stripe, expression of our hope for the future, recalls the luxuriant virgin forest of Ivory Coast, the first great sources of national prosperity. The vertical alignment of the strips symbolizes the dynamic youth which heads for the future under the national motto 'Union, Discipline and Work."
Which is a little more complete as explanations go. Then there's one last one worth throwing out there as well. "The flag unites the colors of the three great landscapes of the Ivory Coast: green forest, white lagoon and orange savanna."

Whichever explanation works best for you, it's a unique flag and I like it.

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

Saturday, August 25, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #267

After a week off (we were in Minnesota for a wedding), This Week In Vexillology is back with a double shot from the Lost Archives of the Unfortunate Wordpress Experiment...  we're heading down to South America this week with the flag of Venezuela:
(True story: I actually have this flag...  it's just buried somewhere, thanks to our move.)

Venezuela's flag is the one designed by Francisco de Miranda for his attempt to liberate the country in 1806 from the Spanish. Venezuela at the time was part of the Viceroyalty of Gran Colombia, which is why you see similar colors/configurations in the flags of Colombia and Ecuador. But the fascinating genesis for these colors specifically apparently came out of a conversation he had with the philosopher Goethe at a party in 1785.

Goethe told Miranda that his "density is to create in your land a place where primary colors are not distorted" He expounded further:
First he explained to me the way the iris transform light into three primary colors, then he proved to me why yellow is the most warm, noble and closest to white light; why blue is that mix of excitement and serenity, a distance that evokes shadows; and why red is the exaltation of yellow and blue, the synthesis, the vanishing  of light into shadow. It is not that the world is made of yellows, blues and reds; it is that in this manner, as if in an infinite combination of these three colors, we human beings see it... a country starts out from a name and a flag and it then becomes them, just as a man fulfills his destiny.
That is such a great quote and such a deep origin story for this flag. (In later diaries, Miranda references a yellow, blue and red standard of the Burgers' Guard of Hamburg.) The current symbolism has yellow standing for the riches of the country, the wealth of the soil, gold, sovereignty, harmony, justice, agriculture as well as the Sun. (That's...  kind of a lot.)

The blue is for the Caribbean and the red is for the blood that was spilled gaining independence from Spain. The seven stars represent the seven provinces that were signatories to their Declaration of independence: Caracas, Cumana, Barcelona, Barinas, Margarita, Merida and Trujillo.

Now, I know what you're thinking: there are eight stars on that flag. And what's up with the Coat of Arms? Well the 8th star represents the province of Guyana- which is roughly everything west of the Essequibo River in modern day Guyana, which Venezuela still claims and was part of the country at the time of independence. The eight star, along with the coat of arms was added in 2006 by Hugo Chavez and despite the approval of the Venezuelan government, the opposition refused to recognize the changes. So I guess if you're down with Chavez and his regime, you'd be okay with this flag. If you're not, just remove a star and the Coat of Arms and there's the flag of your Venezuela.

It's the last of South America's national flags from the Lost Archives, so give it up for Venezuela! And remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, August 24, 2018

"The Executioner's Daughter"

It's #ShortFictionFriday, so I'm awfully pleased to present "The Executioner's Daughter."

The germ of this story came out of a recent episode of Hardcore History that I listened to (specifically 'Painfotainment') which mentioned that the job of executioner was traditionally seen as 'unclean' and people weren't usually allowed to touch them and they had to wear special robes when they were out and about in public. They were sort of a profession apart and had a tendency to marry into other families of executioner's. For some reason, that part just sort of stuck in my head and my brain went back to Venus and the world of the floating cities and colonies that I had thought up with "That's Venus, Baby" and so, Lo Shen City came into being and it all sort of fell out of my brain from there.

It feels like there's more to the story than this and as I was writing it, I began to wonder if Ruthie and her story were somehow connected to two other short stories that I had written ("That's Venus, Baby" and "Illumination on Titan."). I don't have an answer to that question yet, but I feel like these three stories occupy the same universe, if that makes sense. Whether or not they'll intersect and become a story themselves (or even a book) I don't yet know.

In the meantime, I hope you like the story.

Here's a Medium link:


And if you're all about Wattpad:


Read it! Review it! Enjoy it! Feedback is always welcome- I just hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Can We Stop Being Quite So Gleeful About This

Look, I don't like Alex Jones. He's the human embodiment of that feeling you get when you reach up and realize that a bird just took a particularly vile shit on your head. I don't like his websites. I don't like his particularly vile brand of insanity. I didn't cry when he was booted off of Facebook, Twitter and every other social media platform out there.

No one has a right to be on a social media platform. You voluntarily sign up, click the little box to agree to the term of service and there you go. If you violate the terms of service, then you get booted off. It's a pretty simple formula. It's also why you don't rely on one social media platform to promote whatever it is you do- whether it's double scoops of crackpot conspiracy theories with a drizzle of lunacy on the top or just you photography business or writing. It makes you too vulnerable- if you build a business on Facebook and Facebook alone, you're one tweak of a line of code away from being wiped out. It's why all these people decrying the deplatforming of Alex Jones are missing the point: he knows all this. He's going to be just fine.

Is this a free speech issue? This is where it gets murkier to me. No one has a right to a megaphone. No one has a right to a platform. So where does the muck come in?

To me, one of the largely unexplored problems in this country is the nexus between government and business. It's getting hard- in fact, it's been hard for quite awhile now to tell where one ends and the other begins. At a certain point,  we need to start asking the question: is corporate censorship okay? Right now, it might be easy to say, "well, sure. It's their business and their platform." But if you go back to those messy ties between business and government, it gets slightly uncomfortable. How easy would it be for the President to make a quiet phone call to the Zuck and get someone shut down? How easy would it be for Congress to pressure Facebook to do the same thing- all through 'perfectly legal' means? Sure, the First Amendment says clearly that the government can't infringe on your right to free speech, but in an environment where the lines between corporations and government are getting blurrier and blurrier when does a corporation 'enforcing the terms of service' of their social media platform become a tool for the government to shut down speech it doesn't like?

Too much consolidation of information platforms allows for control of a large portion of the information we see by fewer and fewer companies who get to set the rules (obviously) as to who can see/say/post on their platforms. It's a trend that I'd like to see reversed and instead of crackbrained plans to take over the Internet, it would be great if Congress could step in and break some of these tech giants up a bit. I don't know if breaking up some of these companies would completely solve the controversies surrounding corporate censorship and deplatforming, but it would at least turn the wheel of the car left so we don't head down a road where three of four big companies can effectively censor content on the major social media platforms that the majority of us these days use. (Or at the very least, it would slow our progress down that road. I'm not naive enough to think that it would stop progress entirely- but it's something to hope for.

The other thing to consider (and to be cautious about.) It's one thing to cheer when this sort of thing happens to people you don't like. It's very easy to wallow in schaudenfreude about Mr. Jones, because well, he richly deserves what he got and as I mentioned earlier, he's going to be just fine. When all the big social media platforms and the FCC get together and kick you off their platforms, it just feeds a certain amount of twisted truth into his Strategic Petroleum Reserve sized stores of paranoia. This is an early Christmas gift for Mr. Jones- because, after all, it's not paranoia if they're actually out to get you.

So it's easy to cheer about Mr. Jones and his troubles. But people (especially on the left, I've noticed, but not exclusively) need to stop and think: would I be okay if this happened to someone I like?* Companies merge and get brought and sold all the time. If a billionaire buys up Twitter or Facebook and starts shadow banning progressives and liberals because 'they violated the terms of service' would you be okay with that? If the answer is no, you wouldn't, then maybe stop being quite so gleeful about this.

*This sentiment should be carved into walls everywhere: if you're going to change the rules of the game, ask yourself if you could deal with your new rules being applied to YOU. (Because people who change the rules to benefit themselves never think it's going to come back to bite them.) If the answer is no, then don't change the rules. 

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Netflix & Chill #48: The Death of Stalin

Watched On: DVD (Redbox)
Released: 2017
Starring: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Paddy Considine, Rupert Friend, Jason Isaacs, Olga Kurylenko, Michael Palin, Andrea Riseborough, Paul Chahidi, Dermot Crowley, Adrian McLoughlin, Paul Whitehouse, Jeffrey Tambor
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
Pick: Mine

The words 'directed by Armando Iannucci' got my immediate attention when the trailers for The Death of Stalin started making their way around the internet late last year and early this year. The guy behind Veep, The Thick of It and the excellent movie, In The Loop has an excellent track record of producing razor sharp satire, dark comedy and raising profanity to a beautiful artform. (Seriously: when Malcolm Tucker uses the words 'marzipan dildo' in an insult, it's a strangely beautiful thing.) So I was already on board just with Iannucci alone.

But then there was the cast: Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale? You'll recognize a lot of the names, but I think I'd probably seen just about everyone in this film in something or another over the years and it all works, really, really well.

As the title suggests, the film tells the story of the death of Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin), who is paralyzed by a stroke after receiving a note from a pianist, Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) who tells him that he's ruined the country. His death sets off a mad scramble from the members of the Central Committee who rush to praise the fallen leader and mourn appropriately (trying, literally, to 'out-grieve' each other) while at the same time jockeying for position to succeed him. Initially, it seems that the head of the NKVD, Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is on the front foot. He moves the NKVD into position to oust the Red Army from their security duties in Moscow and guides Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) into the leadership, hoping to use him as a puppet.

Opposing Beria is Khrushchev (Buscemi), who attempts to enlist the support of Molotov (Michael Palin), who was out of favor and on Stalin's enemies list at the time of his death. Beria, however, releases Molotov's wife to buy his loyalty. Both Beria and Khrushchev try and win victories by gaining control over Stalin's son, Vasily (Rupert Friend) and his daughter, Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough.) Khrushchev is sidelined by Beria who gives him the task of organizing Stalin's funeral while pushing Malenkov to adopt liberal policies such as releasing prisoners and loosening restrictions on the Orthodox Church which Khrushchev had been pushing for.

Khrushchev gets a lifeline with the appearance of Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) who demands to know why the Red Army had been confined to barracks by the NKVD. He agrees to provide the armies support to overthrow Beria, but only if the rest of the Committee agrees. Khrushchev then undermines Beria by allowing trains to resume to Moscow letting mourners into the city- the NKVD opens fire on them, killing 1,500. He then lies to the Committee and Zhukov and insists that he has Malenkov's support. The Red Army movies into position and they arrest Beria, Khrushchev coerces Malenkov into signing the papers for Beria's trial. They find him guilty of treason and sexual assault in a kangaroo court and then execute him.

Khrushchev, now extremely powerful indeed, gives Svetlana a ticket to Vienna and assures her that her brother will be cared for. The movie ends with Khrushchev, now Supreme Leader in his own right, having removed his co-conspirators, watching a concert given by Maria Yudina while above him, future leader Leonid Brezhnev, watches.

I don't know how Iannucci manages to pull off this high-wire act, but he does. The movie pulls no punches about the horrors of Stalin's regime, showing the NKVD making their nightly rounds to snatch people from their homes to uncertain (often unpleasant) fates, but it also shows the absurdities of it as well. When the concert that opens the movie ends, Stalin calls and demands a recording of it, so the director has to stage the concert again with an entirely new audience to deliver Stalin what he wants.

The comedy is dark. Deep, dark, black comedy- but the cast of this movie is absolutely brilliant. Jason Isaacs as Marshal Zhukov just about steals the movie right out from under Steve Buscemi's Khruschev and produces some genuine laugh out loud moments in the process. No one bothers even trying to pretend to have a Russian accent, which I think is the correct decision, because it allows the cast to occupy their roles more comfortably and completely. Tambor portrays Malenkov as being twitchy and overmatched, which he more or less is. Beale is icy cold as Beria and Palin plays Molotov as a man who's been through a lot, but is recovering his sense of opportunity and power as the movie unfolds.

Overall: a darkly hilarious look at a very bloody and overlooked chapter of 20th Century history, The Death of Stalin is a masterpiece of black comedy with a cast that delivers the goods. Steve Buscemi seems slightly unconvincing as Khrushchev at the start of the movie, but by the end of the movie there's no doubt: he is Nikita Khrushchev and he's the man in the charge. My Grade: **** out of ****

Thursday, August 16, 2018

So, We Moved

It probably ranks as one of the craziest things we've ever done, but in the space of about two weeks flat we went from exploring the possibilities with the bank to actually emptying out our house and moving in the space of about three days.

What made us move? Well, my parents have been building a house and trying to sell their current house- but the market just hasn't been sending them any offers. Like, no offers at all. They tried reducing the price with no luck and finally they made us an offer we couldn't really refuse and we went ahead and did it. That's right. We're buying my parents' house.

I was more ambivalent than I expected at first. Our current house is beautiful and it's been a great home for us for over two years now- and my parents' house, well... it's their house. Both the Missus and I have sort of wondered aloud during this process whether it's ever going to feel like ours- and I think it will, eventually- especially since we've both decided that after this, we're never, ever moving again. Like ever. We might die in this house- that's what packing up and moving your entire life in the space of about three days flat will do to you.

Our once and future house? Well, it's got space. More space than we'll probably know what do with or ever need. It's also closer to both of our works and even when Hoover closes down next year, it'll be safely inside a school boundary, so, barring so lunatic boundary drawing on the part of the school board (which I can't rule out), we should be good for a school attendance zone for all the kiddos as well.

The first night in the once and future house, I took the Elder Spawn and the Medium Spawn and walked down to the playground at Hoover so they could get their ya-yas out. As we were leaving, I turned and saw the familiar outline of City High's bell tower framed against the setting sun. It was then that I realized how much I had missed that particular view. I have no idea if the Spawn will ever appreciate that view as much as I did as a kid, but that's not really important. I love the idea that they'll have a chance to see it.

As for our old house: we went over to bury a St. Joseph statue near the FOR SALE sign, to hopefully get a quick sale. I went back inside to turn off the lights in the house and had a melancholy moment as I turned them off one by one. There are a lot of memories in that house. I loved that it was on the edge of town where the skies are darker and you can see more stars. I loved the sunsets and the sky- so open and clear. It was a beautiful house with a lot of memories. I don't think either the Missus or myself were planning on writing a new chapter just yet, but here we are. New house. New chapter.

Life, apparently, is just full of surprises.

Monday, August 13, 2018


Adopt-A-Team: Well, it's that time of year again. Time to pick a new team to follow around for a season to see what happens to them. I shuffled around my league choices (this year I went with Liga MX, Ghana's Football League, The Turkish Superliga and the Chinese Super League) and the winner turned out to be the Turkish SuperLig. So I went to the website, looked at the list of teams and immediately realized that there was really only one choice: Trabzonspor.

Before we get to my soccer reasoning, we have to detour back to my youth when I spent many days and many hours pouring through the Times Atlas of European History where I developed a weird obsession with the Empire of Trebizond. It was there on the map for a few centuries and grew longer and shorter and took little bits of what is now Crimea now and again, but to me, it was the fact that it served as the last historical post-script the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople fell in 1453, Trebizond persisted until 1461.

So, Trabzonspor was an easy choice. Plus, look at this crest:

Bad. Ass. Love the colors and the curves of it and, they've got a cool nickname: Karadeniz Firtinasi...  the Black Sea Storm. (Also: Bad. Ass.) They came into being in 1967, after a merger of several local clubs that dated back to the 1920s. (According to this, two of the old clubs, Idmanocagi and Idmangucu had a rivalry that was 'equal to the Fenerbache and Galatasary rivalry.' That's pretty damn impressive.)

The Super Lig itself seems to have a similar structure to the Premier League. The season runs August to May, all eighteen teams play each other home and away. Three points for a win, one for a draw, none for a lost. Tiebreakers include total points, then head-to-head record, then goal difference and then goal scored. The team with the most points at the end of the season wins, lowers three teams get relegated to the 1. Lig division and the the top three teams from 1. Lig get promoted. (They've even got a playoff system in the 1. Lig. So yeah, this is pretty much exactly the structure of the Premier League.)

I'm excited about this season and learning a little more about the Turkish Super Lig!

Hawkeye Football Predictions:Well, we keep losing players for various reasons, two for unspecified team violations, one for an OWI and another for an unfortunate public intox, so the Northern Illinois game just got potentially very interesting. Half of these predictions will probably be wrong, but who cares. It's fun:

Northern Illinois: W, but with a '?' behind it now because we're down four players due to suspension.

Iowa State: L, this is more of a coin flip than people think, so I could easily be wrong here, but they're getting better. One of these years, they're gonna get it and it might be this year.

Northern Iowa: W
Wisconsin: L, but I wanna believe. If it's a night game, anything is possible.
at Minnesota: W
at Indiana: W
Maryland: W
at Penn State: L
at Purdue: L, because we always lose to someone we have no business losing to. This year that could easily be Minnesota, Indiana or Illinois, but I'm going with Purdue, because I don't think they're going to be an easy out for much longer.
Northwestern: W
at Illinois: W
Nebraska: W

I have them going 8-4, which seems about right. Depending on how the chips fall, it could be higher and it could be lower, but we'll see how the season shakes out. It's going to be an interesting one, that's for sure.

Arsenal: Well, the post-Wenger era is underway. Arsenal lost 2-0 to Manchester City to open the season. I have no idea what they're going to look like and how they're going to be this season, but... there's the outline of something there. If Emery is really about coaching players up, he's got a respectable baseline and room to improve and really, that about all you can ask for at this point.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #266

If there's one thing that just about everyone in the world of vexillology can agree on, it's that there are an awful lot of somewhat woeful and just plain boring state flags out there. One of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible did an episode focusing on just that topic- mainly with eye toward skewering municipal flags out there that are just as bad, if not worse. A lot of cities spent the last few years working on addressing the problem: Tulsa, Pocatello and although it's not quite official yet, Milwaukee are all trying to up their flag game.

So why not states?

It's talked about now and again. Both Nebraska and South Dakota have toyed with the idea, but it never seems to go anywhere. Minnesota has an unofficial flag out there in the world. But there's never been a widespread movement to get away from the infamous 'Seals On A Bedsheet.'

There have, however, been some noteworthy attempts redesigning all 50 states. The United We Stand Project from the Bressler Group was the first one I found. My original post about it was lost in The Unfortunate Wordpress Experiment, but when I dug it back up, I was pumped to find out that they had updated some of the flag designs from their original post!

If there's one thing about the Bressler redesign that I both understand and dislike, it's their use of red-white-blue throughout their designs. I mean, I get it: the whole purpose of the project was to promote national unity and giving each flag a theme/unifying elements makes sense. That said, the landscape of America is a whole spectrum of colors and it would have been nice to see some of those reflected in their flag redesigns.

They only redesigned twelve of their original flags: California, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah. Here are three of my favorites.

First up, Nebraska:
I know, I know...  it's not the most striking redesign, but it works. The red strip on the bottom stands for the Great Plains, the blue is the sky and the white triangle stands for it's hills. The more I look at it, the more I like it. Its remarkably representative of Nebraska's actual topography. It's all flat in the east/right and then starts to get some elevation on the west/left.

Next up, Oklahoma:
I'll quote directly from the description:
"Oklahoma is based on the Choctaw words, 'Olka Humma,' which translate to 'red people.' The current flag has preserved the relationship between the Anglos and the Natives with an Osage shield crossed by a peace pipe and an olive branch. I wanted to preserve the idea of this relationship. This design is based on a Parfleche war shield. The points on the symbol represent some of the dominant tribes that live in Oklahoma- Cheyenne, Kiowa-Comanche-Apache, Chickasaw, Muskogee (Creek), Cherokee, Osage and Seminole"
Sometimes you just need to take it straight for the source material itself.

The last one was probably the hardest to pick, but I'm going to have to go with South Carolina. The redesign for New Hampshire is very striking, and their update on Minnesota made for a more interesting flag, but I'm still not in love with it. But check out South Carolina:
It lacks the Palmetto Tree on the current flag, but the crescent moon is taken directly from the 'Moultrie' or 'Liberty' Flag. There are direct historical connections to the current flag of South Carolina... the part that tickles me about this redesign is that if you didn't know what the current flag of South Carolina looked like, this one honestly would make you think that it was a redesign of say, Turkey's flag. Or the Ottoman Empire's flag. And for various reasons that tickles me greatly.

I hope these redesigns keep coming and I hope some state, somewhere picks up one or two ideas and launches a redesign of their own.

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

Thursday, August 9, 2018

My Favorite Character To Write

So, someone asked me recently: "Who was your favorite character to write?" That sort of threw me for a loop for a second, because I had never really sat down and thought about it. Here's the thing: both The Prisoner and The Assassin and The Arrows of Defiance (coming to Draft2Digital soon, I swear) represent one end of the story of these characters. For some reason, everything sort of started in the middle of their overall story. I have the entire story of all of these characters in my head somewhere- so when I sat down to think about the answer to that question, it was with the full arc of these characters in mind. So keep in mind, my answer is probably somewhat colored by events in my head that are going to be in the two books I'm going to have to sit down and write at some point to complete the story of all these people I've come to know so well.

But all that being said: Who was my favorite character to write?


Here's the origin story: Melinda is just starting college when everything goes to hell. Washington D.C. is nuked by forces unknown. The West Coast is devastated by a series of electro-magnetic pulses that send it all crashing back to the Stone Age.* She's in Minnesota, her family is in California and the fate of her family is what largely hangs over her head at first. It's in the depths of this darkness that she meets Chelsea and the two develop an 'odd couple' type of a friendship. Melinda is everything that Chelsea is not. She wears leather jackets and old vintage t-shirts from bands that no one has ever heard of. She changes her hair color a lot. She has tattoos and piercings and big, heavy, black army boots that she wears. She doesn't like going out. She doesn't like doing what everyone else does. She's very aware of the political situation deteriorating around her and is worried that the promises the Federal Council makes to the country about a four year interim period to reconstruct the government will be broken.

And there's the other contrast between her and Chelsea: Melinda knows what's going on, but is too cynical and jaded to believe that she can do anything about it. (Chelsea, at this point, has absolutely no interest in politics- and it's not until the politics of the day shatter the carefully perfect life that she's built for herself that her character arc truly begins.)

I think that's the core of what makes Melinda so interesting to write. She finds a cause to believe in and then has to sort of evolve to become a person that joins a cause** and fights for it. She does, eventually (obviously) and that sort of changes her further. Once she's in, she's all in and she's fight for what she believes in with a stubborn tenacity that makes her an increasingly important player in The Great Revolt the states launch against the Federal Council.

The failure of the Revolt haunts her. I think it probably haunts a lot of people who have lived through- Steven and Kevin have their ghosts to wrestle with as well. I think it's not losing the fight that bothers her the most- I think it's the failure to convince the country at large of the rightness of their cause that bothers her the most. Who would stand purely on principal in today's America when the status quo benefits the people in power in large ways and small? (This is the genius of the soft authoritarianism of the Federal Council, at least in my head. Keep the states happy and a veneer of normality/democracy, would people care?)

Her dogged belief in fighting for what she wants serves her well once Steven is captured, ten years prior to the start of Prisoner. At this point in her character development, it makes sense to me that she'd put herself in a position to train, watch and wait for an opportunity to get him back. She's found a partner, love, best friend and when he's taken from her, she's going to go and get him back. (The whole subplot of Native American guerillas/nomadic traders I think I did okay with... I tried to make sure it didn't tip over into a bundle of problematic cliches and I think I managed it. Plus the overall concept made sense in my head: if communications are compromised and you can't trust the government not to read your mail or open your packages, who can you trust? Native Americans would have no reason to trust or love the government, so it made sense to me they could become like an informal trading/postal service all over the Mountain West.)

Steven and Melinda as a couple sort of clicked to me. I know some people will think that's ridiculously heteronormative and slightly cliched, but they worked. They're more of a real relationship and have more foundation under them that Kevin and Chelsea did. For Kevin, Chelsea was the unattainable woman he spends a lot of time chasing until she lets him catch her. But Chelsea is always going to have a single minded dedication to her obsession with winning back the country and that gets in the way of their relationship and is a large reason why those two fall apart (yet they can't quit each other, as the both Prisoner and Arrows show.) Steven and Melinda understand each other, support each other, respect each other. They both deeply feel their obligation to causes larger than themselves and support each other to achieve it.

So yeah. My favorite character to write? So far, it's been Melinda.

*The attacks that set up the events for both of my books are curiously irrelevant to my overall story, which sort of makes me wonder now and again but at the same time, it feels real in a way as well. The Iraq War sort of proves my point. It was the first war in our history where, unless you knew someone over there fighting, it was curiously abstract and impersonal in many ways. It was an image on a television screen. Afghanistan is much the same way. Which also goes to my point about the growing distance between those who serve and those that don't- it's sort of creating a separation between the military and civilian 'cultures' of the country. 

**This aspect of Melinda is something that I think bleeds over from my personality. I'm not a 'joiner' either.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Earhole: What I'm Listening To

Editor's Note: I wrapped up Albums2010 a couple of months back and I've been pondering on what, if anything was going to succeed it. The problem is that what I listen to isn't just music anymore and sometimes it isn't just an album. It might be a playlist or a song or a podcast or hell, just the plain old fashioned radio.  'What I listen to' is a definition that's constantly changing these days, as such, expect the unexpected with these posts.
So, what's going in my earhole this month?

Somehow, I've taken a left turn and ended up hip deep in the podcasts of the so-called Intellectual Dark Web and I'm fascinated, intrigued and oddly, for the first time in awhile when looking out at the barren cesspool of our discourse, ever so slightly hopeful. 

I suppose we should start at the beginning: what is the Intellectual Dark Web? Well, it emerged after this New York Times article late last year, which profiled a loose and diverse collection of intellectuals from across the ideological divide that were using a variety of mediums- but most especially the long form podcast to engage more deeply with issues and ideas in a way that is almost impossible with the current model of clickbait/cable news journalism. (They've also got a website as well, if you want to peruse them more.) 

I'm not listening to everything there is to listen to out there by the members of the Intellectual Dark Web, but I think I'm doing an okay sample. I've put the Joe Rogan Podcast back in my feed and added the Jordan Petersen Podcast as well as Waking Up With Sam Harris to round out the fun. 

When I first seriously began digging into podcasts, I tried the Joe Rogan Podcast on someone's recommendation and I just couldn't get into it. Three hours seemed like a long ass time commitment to me at the time, but this time around for some reason I actually got into it. Rogan doesn't really seem to have an agenda- he also just seems to find people that interest him and talk to them about their ideas and what makes them interesting. He's an engaged interviewer and genuinely wants to listen to and talk to the people he has on his podcast. Sometimes it might not work for you, the listener. (Joe Rogan is heavily involved with MMA/UFC which holds precisely zero interest for me), but other times, it's amazing. (His interviews with Leah Remini, Megan Phelps Roper, Michael Pollan and Candace Owens are all incredibly informative and interesting and not just on a surface level, but on a serious and deep one.)

Waking Up With Sam Harris isn't quite as free flowing as Joe Rogan is, but every issue he tackles, he tries to drill down to the absolute core of it. His interview with Andrew Yang is a perfect example of this. Yang is running for President on a platform of instituting Universal Basic Income to deal with what he feels is a coming tsunami of automation that will eliminate jobs and leave us in a situation where plenty of people will want to work and there just won't be any jobs for them to actually have. I don't know if Yang sold me on his article. I tend to find that a lot of prognostications do eventually come true, but never on the timescale that people predict. (Considering the fact that Uber is backing off of self-driving trucks right now, I'm inclined to think that maybe my skepticism is somewhat justified.) Wherever you stand on UBI (and there are good arguments for and against), by the end of that interview, I at least understood the issue  more than I did before. I could see the arguments for it and against it and how it could be implemented, if needed. And more to the point, I could see a set of circumstances where, if automation kills all the jobs, then we'll have to do something and UBI at least is a legitimate 'something' to offer. 

The Jordan Petersen Podcast is, of course, the podcast platform for the public intellectual of the moment, Professor Jordan Petersen. I began to hear Petersen's name not long after his interview with the BBC's Cathy Newman, which is one of the most fascinating examples of effective communication I've ever seen in media today. He listens intently, refuses to let Newman put words in his mouth and, more to the point, is very careful with his words. I think it's because he's been a Professor so long, but on occasion, he gets misrepresented in the media because his interviews tend to be a two way street. He'll ask the interviewer a question, posed as a hypothetical and of course, the media will twist that to imply that those are his actual views. Petersen's podcast so far seems to be a mix of his lectures, appearances on other podcasts/media and him interviewing other people. (His interview with Camille Paglia is incredible and a must listen.) I'm not sure what I think about Petersen overall yet- I think he's resonating because his writing and his thinking is appealing to something that people are looking for. I know that's an incredibly abstract statement, but it's hard to quantify why he's so popular. The culture overall is 'zigging' and he is offering a 'zag', if that makes sense.

I'm making my way through his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, so I'll be talking about Petersen some more at some point- but he's worth checking out. He's worth reading. He's worth listening to. 

Here's the real takeaway from this trio of podcasts or hell, even the Intellectual Dark Web overall. It's... a possibility. Right now, we're wrestling with Russian meddling in our elections, disinformation campaigns on social media and a model for journalism that is absolutely not equipped to counter either problem effectively. The model for 'big journalism' is based on maximizing clicks and ad revenue, which means that most of the time, facts and any notion of truth is tossed aside in favor of narratives and sensationalism. Podcasting as a medium is fairly new and it's getting more diverse all the time, but I don't think we've seen the full potential of the medium achieved. When it comes to exploring issues, promoting civil discourse and generally learning about anything and everything out there in the world today, podcasting can do a lot. This trio and the Intellectual Dark Web overall, proves that. 

I know I said that I'm not into prognostications, but deep dive podcasts like these are a possibility- I don't know if there's enough of them to call them an 'alternative' model to click bait/ad driven journalism, but there's a possibility they could be. And that possibility is interesting enough to make getting lost in the Intellectual Dark Web worth your time, energy and brain power.