Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Some Sprinklings of Good Ideas

There was a Vox article that was making the rounds on the Conservative blogosphere the other day that was getting the usual amounts of derision for being hysterical about President Trump, so I got curious and went to the source. And while the derision was somewhat well deserved, because yes, there is the usual sackcloth and ashes routine evident in the early 'graphs, but by the middle of the article, things start to get interesting.

I don't really accept the initial premise of the article, namely that President Trump is the chief symptom of a system that's badly broken. The system has been broken long before that and the rot keeps spreading because no one really wants to have a national conversation and sit down and talk about it. The ideas that made me sit up and pay attention:

1. Eliminate midterm elections by having the House, Senate and president serve concurrent four year terms. Meh. I love the idea of extending the House term to four years though... I feel like two is just not long enough to really get anything done before you're worrying about re-election again. I wouldn't put all the elections in one year though. Leave them more or less where they are- which means 1/3 of the Senate would be up with the House some years and with the President other years, which I'd be okay with. Bonus Idea: Ditch term limits and impose a mandatory retirement age on Congress instead.

2. An explicit right to vote in the Constitution. Endorsed! I see the nugget of common sense in voter identification laws... if you need an ID to get into a bar or drive a car, then why not to vote? Do I think that voter fraud is as nearly widespread as some on the Right claim it is? No. Do I think voter ID requirements are being used as a political tool to repress the vote of the political opposition? Absolutely. If you're going to do it, then it needs to be free, universal and readily available to all citizens. (Don't tell me it can't be done: everyone manages to get their social security cards and the Selective Service finds your behind just fine when you turn 18.) If it can't meet that standard, then away with it! Bonus Idea: Election Day should be a National Holiday.

3. The Fair Representation Act: Here's the lowdown on this... in general, I'm less thrilled at the idea of pure proportional representation than a lot of people because it does make you lose that representative link to your specific district- or at the very least, it dilutes it a bit, which makes the concept a hard sell to people in single member district systems like ours. A mixed system would preserve those district links while allowing a some proportional representation to reflect voter preferences more accurately than they do now. Constitutionally, there's nothing standing in the way of this, but there is a law passed in 1967 that does mandate single member districts. The mandate was imposed for some very legitimate reasons at the time, but the decades that followed have seen a decline in the competitiveness of Congressional elections and more safe seats than contested ones. I think given the historical context of the mandate, undoing it would have to be done in a carefully proscribed manner, but for sure, more room for states to experiment is something I'm down with.

4. Allocating Electoral votes proportionally: This wouldn't have helped Mrs. Clinton win last November, but it's a twist on the Electoral College that I think is more likely to happen that outright abolition. For right now, it's bad for Democrats. It takes more votes from states they traditionally 'need' to win (California, Illinois, New York) and doesn't really take that many from the more traditional 'Red States' though it would make Texas worth a visit. It'll be a cold day in hell before either party puts 'building a better democracy' ahead of their own interests, but this would make a more representative, better system. Suddenly, every Congressional district in every state matters. Which would, at least, bring the Electoral College back into line (at least to me) with the Founder's original vision for it, which was to keep the small states from being drowned out by the big ones.  Democrats in Texas suddenly have a reason to vote in this system, so would Republicans in California. (Here's FiveThirtyEight's take on it, here's 270toWin's.)

The ideas that made me blanch a little bit:

1. Public financing for elections: ugh... I know this is a popular notion that gets floated, but I'm not for it. I don't think it's a panacea to the whole 'money in politics' problem we have and it's got the potential to be easily turned into a poll tax in the wrong hands. What I am in favor of? Transparency, transparency, transparency! Every donation, every ad, every PAC, every 501(c), we should all be able to know who is donating to which candidate or candidates and who is funding, founding, bankrolling every single dollar. If I'm forced to accept the odious notion that 'money is speech' then it occurs to me that speech should be open, public and everyone should get to hear it.

Peeps, ideas like these are what I look for in both parties and candidates I support. I don't know if I'll ever make a serious run for elected office, but if I do, expect ideas like these to show up somewhere in my platform. We need, need, need to be talking more about political reform in this country. We need Constitutional amendments. Real ones, that have a hope in hell of getting out to the states. We need a national conversation on how to make our democracy better, because if there's one thing that unites us in the exasperating times we live in, it's the notion that our system can be and should be better than it is.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Albums2010 Musings: On Pulitzers

So. Kendrick Lamar's album DAMN. won the Pulitzer Prize last week and there was the predictable out pouring of the usual mixture of 'yassssss' and 'why?' I was surprised because well, I didn't know there was a Pulitzer Prize for Music and because honestly, I hadn't realized that it had taken this long for a hip-hop album to win it.

Looking back at the Albums2010 archives, I was kind of surprised to see some hip-hop pop up here and there. In general, it's not really a genre I connect with, but in many ways, I treat it the same way as I do country. When I hear something I like, I like it. That's lead me to discover groups like Atmosphere, Eyedea, Talib Kweli and Hieroglyphics along the way, but I still wouldn't consider myself an expert enough to talk about hip-hop in any sensible way. I had looked at DAMN. before, toying with the idea of reviewing it, but it's an important album and I'm a white dude who's not that good at writing about music anyway, so I didn't want to attempt it and end up showing the world my ass in the process.

In the frothy wake of the hot takes following Mr. Lamar's win, this Slate article landed in front of me: 'Classical Music Needs Kendrick Lamar More Than It Needs The Pulitzer.' Now this perked me up a bit and having read the article, I spent the afternoon listening first to DAMN. and then to the Black Panther soundtrack, trying to figure out if there was anything to this assertion. And you know what? I think the article might have a point. DAMN. surprised me. It surprised me because of how intricate and detailed the craftsmanship was throughout the album. There's subtlety in the composition of the music and versatility in Lamar's lyrics that honestly made me stand up and pay attention at points. 

I liked listening to it as well...  that sort of kind of took me aback a little bit, because if I go into an album blind, having never even heard any of it before, normally it takes me a listen or two to really get into an album, you know? But as I was listening to it, I realized that it wasn't too loud or obnoxious, it had waves, you know- like the tide ebbing and flowing and managed to give off a really chill vibe without undermining the gravity of some of the topics that Lamar delves into on the album. 

When I followed that up with the Black Panther Soundtrack (I still haven't seen the movie yet... something I really need to fix at some point soonish) I got more of the same. The choices, the music, the craftsmanship...  I can see why the original article drew the line between Classical Music and hip-hop, because if Kendrick Lamar composed a symphony or a concierto, I would listen to it.

Here's the thing, though: if he does (and it'd be pretty cool if he did) we shouldn't be that surprised about it. After all, if hip-hop can take a doorstop of a biography about Alexander Hamilton and turn it into a musical that manages to entertain, inform and breathe new life into a figure of the American Revolution we tend to forget about, there's really not a lot it can't do it. 

Seriously though: Chernow's biography of Hamilton is 832 pages and just listening to the Hamilton Soundtrack (no, I haven't scored tickets to go and see the damn thing yet- another item amongst many that I'm planning on getting too) it's amazing how the medium can translate what to many would be dry and dusty history into something that's vibrant and alive. It's a stroke of absolute genius to imagine Cabinet Battles between the founding fathers as rap battles, but that's what Lin Manuel Miranda did and while that seems like an idea you'd see in a Schoolhouse Rock somewhere, in Hamilton, it actually works on a level you don't expect. (I loved every second of the Hamilton soundtrack and I can't wait to figure out when we can go and see it in person.)

The underlying point to all the hot takes is this: there's not a lot that hip-hop can't do, it seems. We shouldn't be surprised when an album like DAMN. wins the Pulitzer any more than we should be surprised that someone can take dry and dusty history and turn it into a hip-hop musical that's a smash success. A lot of the classical musical giants will endure for a very long time indeed, but the question we must confront today is this: what music from our century will endure for a very long time indeed? I don't think it matters what the genre is, people notice quality. They notice artistry. They notice craftsmanship. DAMN. has all of that and more- will Kendrick Lamar be in the same orbit as Mozart or Bizet two centuries from now? I don't know. But I wouldn't bet against it.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Netflix & Chill #42: Thor Ragnarok

Watched On: DVD
Released: 2017
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Pick: Mine

Thor: Ragnarok opens roughly two years after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron with Thor still searching for the Infinity Stones and trying to figure out what, if anything, is coming- because he's still convinced that something is. Haunted by visions of the climactic final battle of Ragnarok destroying Asgard, he is imprisoned by the fire demon Surtur in Muspelheim. Surtur reveals that Odin is no longer on Asgard and that Ragnarok is coming once Surtur unites his crown with the Eternal Flame that burns in the vault of Asgard. Thor, for his part, defeats Surtur and takes his crown, believing that he has prevented Ragnarok.

Thor returns to Asgard to find his brother Loki posing as Odin. Thor quickly unmasks Loki and forces him to help find Odin, whom Loki left on Earth. Returning to Earth, they find Odin (with an assist from Dr. Strange), but Odin has some bad news: he's dying and his death will allow Thor and Loki's sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett) to escape from the prison she has been sealed in. The fact that they have a sister is sort of news to Thor and Loki, but Odin explains that he had imprisoned her and written her out of history after he feared she had become too ambitious, too eager to conquer all the nine realms.

Odin dies and Hela is released. In short order, she's destroyed Mjolnir, thrown both Loki and Thor off of the Bifrost Bridge, returned to Asgard, killed the Warrior Three and was planning to rule Asgard and conquer the other Nine Realms via the Bifrost, but Heimdall had the good sense to steal the sword that controls the bridge and hides away with the rest of Asgard and it's citizens. Hela, while displeased by this, appoints Skurge (Karl Urban) as her executioner and starts searching for the sword.

Having been thrown out of the Bifrost, Thor crash lands on Sakaar, where is captured, subdued and taken to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) by 142 (Tessa Thompson) who Thor recognizes as one of the Valkyrior who were killed defending Asgard from Hela long ago. Forced to compete in the Grandmaster's gladiator tournament, Thor is surprised to find himself facing none other than Hulk. Eventually, he convinces Hulk and 142 to go and save Asgard with him and in the process of escaping, they free the other gladiators and start a revolution against the Grandmaster in the process.

They return to Asgard and face down Hela and her forces. Hulk takes on the giant wolf, Fenris, while Thor and 142 fight Hela's army of the dead. The gladiators from Sakaar show up to help evacuate Asgard's civilians, but Thor loses an eye and then receives a vision of Odin which tells him what he has to do. Realizing that Asgard's strength is in it's people, he has Loki unite Surtur's crown with the eternal flame, releasing the demon and unleashing Ragnarok which destroys Asgard and (seemingly) Hela along with it.

His people now homeless, Thor is crowned King and decides to head to Earth.

Overall: Thor is one of the best things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and this movie was just plain fun from start to finish. It's an absolute delight and draws on the best source material from the original comics. (No kidding: Jason Aronson's run on Thor is one I'm seriously considering collecting along with Walter Simonson's original one. Excellent, excellent comics.) I always love actors that just have fun with the role they're playing and Cate Blanchett looks like she is enjoying herself in every scene she's in. Jeff Goldblum is perfect as The Grandmaster. Tessa Thompson was awesome on Veronica Mars and continues being awesome here. It all works. I have no idea what the plan is for the MCU going forward, but if they want to do another trilogy of Thor movies, I'm down. My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, April 21, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #257

You know what I'm starting to realize? Canada has some really good flags. No, seriously. British Columbia is somewhere in my personal top ten list of all time favorite flags and a couple of provinces over, the more I look at the flag of Saskatchewan, the more I like it. Check this sucker out:
Adopted on September 22nd, 1969 after a province wide competition that brought in over four thousand entries, Mr. Anthony Drake of Hodgeville, Saskatchewan created the winning design. And to be honest, there's a lot to like about it. There's a minimal amount of colors (I know professional vexillologists out there get all up in arms about 'too many colors! there's too many colors!' but it doesn't necessarily bother me all that much.) and the design is minimal as well. A horizontal bicolor with two symbols on it makes this flag look pretty sharp.

Let's break it down.  The coat of arms was granted first as just a shield by King Edward VII in 1906, the rest was requested by the province for their Heritage Year in 1985 and granted by Queen Elizabeth II the following year in 1986. In a wise design move, they just put the shield on the actual flag, which dovetails nicely with the colors without the added business of the beaver, the lion, the deer and the motto mucking it up. The shield itself is a lion passant- usually, the default colors are gold with red tongues and claws, but interestingly enough, on a gold field, they're red with blue tongues and claws, which is far more noticeably on the actual coat of arms than the flag. (I think it's there, but you have to squint. A lot.) Below the lion, you've got three gold sheaves of wheat that represent the agriculture of the province and the heraldic sheaf of wheat has pretty much become a symbol of the province itself.

In the fly of the flag, you've got the western red lily, the floral emblem of the province. The upper green half of the flag represents the forests of the north, while the lower golden half represents the prairie wheat fields of the south of the province.

In general, I think this is a pretty cool flag, but it could have been cooler. In 1964, for the 60th Anniversary of the Province, another competition was held to design a flag for the occasion and Sister Imelda Burgart of St. Angela's Convent at Prelate was selected out of 241 entries and she came up with this:                                                                                                                                               
This flag was flown through the Centennial celebrations of 1967 and supporters were actually hoping it would become the actual flag of the province and it's easy to see why. The use of the shield and the horizontal bicolor remain, but the cool part to me is the stylized sheaf of wheat. I've got nothing against the western lily as it looks pretty cool as well, but the stylized wheat? Man, that's on another level. 

The symbolism is also pretty similar to the current flag. The red stands the fires that once ravaged the prairies, the green stands for agricultural cultivation and life, the gold stands for the wheat fields. 

Both of these flags are, in my book, pretty damn cool. Good job, Saskatchewan!

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

Friday, April 20, 2018

Sportsyball: Wenger Finally Out

I woke up about two hours ago, sat up, rode that feeling of gathering consciousness as the blood in your body starts to rush downward with the forces of gravity, like a rain stick. Fighting through clouds of sleep, I grabbed the stack of clothes I had set aside the night before and staggered into the bathroom to take a shower. As is my usual, lamentable, habit, I glanced through Twitter quickly to make sure World War 3 hadn't started overnight while I slept. (You laugh, but when the Japanese Earthquake/Tsunami hit, I was asleep. That was a bit of jarring and sobering thing to wake up too.) But there it was: #MerciArsene, trending everywhere on the soccer Twitter.

The rumors that had been flying for weeks were apparently true. Arsene Wenger, who had been manager at Arsenal for 22 years, was retiring at the end of the season.

It's been two hours and I'm still honestly not sure how I feel about all of this. The narrative in the Arsenal commentariat seems to have shifted from, 'man, he's gotta go' to one of relief, gratitude, melancholy and sadness that a legend is heading for the exits. And I feel that's right, really. This is a manager who has given literally decades of his life to the club and however frustrated the fans might have been with him at times, myself included, 22 years at a club combined with all the titles and phenomenal achievements that come with it means that you deserve a send off worthy of the time you've put in there and I think he'll get that. (I just hope the results on the field can give it an added sweetness- seriously, people: we've gotten Peter Cech his 200th clean sheet- can we get some points away from the Emirates to end the season? I'm loathe to even mention the Europa League- really crossing all the digits for good results now though!)

I was 13 when Wenger's tenure with the club started and the more I think about that, the more this feels like one of those 'moments' that you get to cross of a list somewhere. The Cubs had never won the World Series. The Red Sox had never won the World Series. No one had won the Triple Crown since I had been alive. (Also: I had never seen the election of a Pope until I was 22 and there's always been a Queen of England.) Arsenal's only ever had one manager, to me.

My interest in Arsenal has waxed and waned over the years. I feel like I don't have the deep connection with the club that some people have and that's largely because for years, there really wasn't Premier League matches on regular television anywhere in the states. Sure, you could get them on channels like Fox Soccer Plus (I seem to remember watching what I feel like was an Aston Villa v Middlesborough match that might have featured Paul Gascoigne sometime in high school on really grainy, terrible, late 80s quality footage.) But Arsenal sort of became my teams largely because of Dennis Bergkamp doing things like this in the World Cup and the fact that when I was in high school, everybody loved Manchester United because of David Beckham and then when he moved to Real Madrid a good two-thirds of them became Real Madrid fans because of David Beckham and that irked me a little bit.

Arsenal were good at the time. Any Scousers in the extended family wouldn't disown me for liking them. (Unlike, say, a Manchester team... though I've never asked them about liking Everton. I wonder what response that would get.) So, they became my team. And for most of the rest of my high school career, my fandom consisted of checking the league tables on the BBC Sport website to see how they were doing. The arrival of the Premier League on American television was a game changer. My fandom was no longer an abstract thing. I could watch actual games. Live. In my living room. It was incredible and utterly inconceivable to think about when I was in high school.

Since then, it's sort of dawned on me that being an Arsenal fan is, in many ways, like following Iowa football. When they're good, they can be very good indeed. And when they're not they're...  not. And usually they have enough alleged talent on the field to make you absolutely incandescent with frustration when it's the latter and not the former at play in front of you.

A change has been needed for awhile now, in my opinion and while it's perhaps not leaving on the highest of high notes as Mr. Wenger might deserve, there's still an opportunity to send him on his way on a high note both on and off the pitch. Hopefully, that happens.

In the meantime, I suppose I should add my voice to the chorus: Merci, Arsene.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The Most Chaotic Timeline

I had a terrifying thought the other day. What if everyone's a little bit right?

No, seriously, think about it. We are, if the media is to be believed, in 'the end stages of the Trump Presidency' (also media: no, we're not.) The right wing internet has been waiting patiently with baited breath for the Inspector General's report on what exactly went down with the FBI, DOJ and the 2016 election. Each side is convinced that there's 'something' there, where ever 'there' is, but what if both sides find what they're looking for?

Seriously: what if everyone's a little bit right?

I'm no longer buying the Trump/Russia thing. It's entirely possible that I'm wrong about this, but I feel like unless Mueller is playing three dimensional space checkers, that ship has kind of sailed. While the administration does inexplicable things like stepping back from fresh sanctions, it's also been risking World War 3 with Russia by pitching missiles into Syria. Been expelling Russian diplomats after the nerve agent scandal over in the UK. If, as has been suggested the Kremlin has 'something' on Trump, I have to believe that they would have used it by now, because this is not the relationship you'd expect with a guy who allegedly have by the short and curlies.

I think that's why we've seen a shift toward the lawyer and the Stormy Daniels mess. I think a few more people will go down for the Russia thing, maybe the lawyer will go down for this mess or some alleged misdeeds, but I don't think they'll get that smoking gun and even if they do, I'm not convinced it's going to matter. Until the President's popularity ratings start to crater with Republicans, I don't think he'll be in any danger- why? There's a risk that this investigation starts to look like a fishing expedition and if a narrative emerges that the Establishment is trying to take down the President by any means necessary then the 'douse it all in gasoline and light it on fire' voters that put the President where is aren't going to throw him overboard. If anything, they'll just cling to him harder.

I buy the whole 'election shenanigans/improprieties' thing a little more, but not by much. I think fever dreams of a deep state conspiracy will remain just that, fever dreams. But what I do think, is that there will be enough wrongdoing and impropriety found to justify the shrieks of 'perfidious Deep Statism' emanating from the right. Something weird went down with the whole Clinton Investigation- especially given the fact that then FBI Director James Comey took a mulligan on the whole damn thing not ten days before the election last November.

In short: I expect a whole bunch of people go to jail and a lot of shouting to ensue and unless there's something else. Which there might well be, I don't know. Everything I've just written and you just read could well be 100 percent wrong. I think if there's one thing about this current Presidency that I know for sure- other than mental exhaustion and constant exasperation with the state of the world in general, it's that it defies prediction.

Why do I keep writing about the unfolding trainwreck going on all around me? I don't really know. Partially because it's everywhere and you can't escape it and if it's everywhere and you can't escape it you may as well take the time to check in with your thinking from time to time and see how you really feel about it. The idea of everyone being right about everything- at least a little bit- amuses me somewhat. If people's heads are going to explode over every goddamn thing these days, we might as well have some fun with it and go full on Scanners right? Let's make everyone's head explode!

The idea might amuse me, but it also worries me a little as well. Assuming the #BlueWave isn't just a Twitter hashtag and it actually happens, the last thing I want is the Democratic Party launching an impeachment drive that will undoubtedly be seen as nakedly partisan. (And oh the sweet irony if they end up doing it over the Stormy Daniels matter... because lying about a beej under oath was none of our fucking business, but having an adult entertainer sign a non-disclosure agreement so you can get bent over and spanked with a copy of Forbes that has your face on the cover- that's a moral bridge too far. If that is what this impeachment ends up being about, then I give the fuck up- there's only so much hypocrisy I can take, after all. Keep Calm and Win Some Fucking Elections Already, Democrats. In the immortal words of Admiral Akbar, Impeachment: "It's a trap!")

Whatever happens, truly this is the most chaotic of timelines.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Albums2010: The Archives

This project began eight long years and two blogs ago with this post. I'm going to finish it out next month on May 19th, exactly eight years to the day after it began with the very last album on my list. Some were lost to the Unfortunate Wordpress Experiment (that I really shouldn't have done to begin with and should have worked harder to archive all the stuff I wrote that year) but all in all, it's been one hell of a journey, I think.

Looking back at my blogging history, I've begun feature after feature and just sort of forgotten about it after awhile- this has been one of the few that have stood the test of time and gone the distance with me. There were many times when it's felt like a chore- there were many times when I've wondered why I'm even bothering to do this at all, since music just isn't my thing and I can't really get beyond, 'this album is good/great/excellent or bad/meh/terrible' when I review them. But, I persevered... so without further ado, here are the archives of the Albums2010 Project:

#1: U2- The Joshua Tree
#2: Aerosmith- Big Ones
#3: Fleetwood Mac- Rumors
#4: Bob Marley and The Wailers: Legend
#5: The Clash- London Calling
#6: Jethro Tull- Minstrel In the Gallery
#7-#9: The Genesis Trifecta
#10: Wishbone Ash- Argus
#11: Green Day- Dookie
#12: Hootie & The Blowfish- Cracked Rear View
#13: Dave Matthews Band- Before These Crowded Streets
#14: Counting Crows- August and Everything After
#15: Garden State
#16: Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols
#17: The Cure- Disintegration
#18: Derek and The Dominos- The Layla Sessions
#19: Kings of Leon- Aha Shake Heartbreak
#20: Led Zeppelin- II
#21: Cream-Disraeli Gears
#22: Pink Floyd- Meddle
#23: Dire Straits- Brothers In Arms
#24: Coldplay- A Rush Of Blood To The Head
#25-#26: Abraxas and Supernatural
#27: Led Zeppelin- Zoso
#28: Days of The New
#29: Rancid- ...and out come the wolves
#30: Motorhead- Ace of Spades
#31: Bruce Springsteen- Darkness On The Edge of Town
#32: Rolling Stones- Exile On Main Street
#33: Tantric
#34: Gary Jules-Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets
#35: Snow Patrol- Final Straw
#36: N.W.A- Straight Outta Compton
#37: Arcade Fire- The Suburbs
#38: Mumford & Sons- Sigh No More
#39: Lady Gaga- Born This Way
#40-#41: She and Him Vols 1&2
#42: Amy Winehouse- Back To Black
#43: Dusty Springfield- Dusty In Memphis
#44:  Peter Tosh- Legalize It
#45: Hieroglyphics- 3rd Eye Vision
#46: Girl Talk- Feed The Animals
#47: Carole King- Tapestry
#48: Eyedea- By The Throat
#49: U2- Achtung Baby
#50-#56: The Quiet Man's Techno Extravaganza
#57: Foster The People- Torches
#58: fun.-Some Nights
#59: Florence + The Machine- Ceremonials
#60: Atmosphere- Seven's Travels
#61: Imagine Dragons- Night Visions
#62: Daft Punk- Random Access Memories
#63: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis- The Heist
#64: Gogol Bordello- Trans-Continental Hustle
#65: Tig Notaro- Live
#66: Cake- Comfort Eagle
#67: Abums2010 Revisited: Dookie Turns 20

#68-#80 were, alas, lost forever to the mists of time in the Unfortunate Wordpress Experiment.

#81: Soundtrack to 'Brokedown Palace'
#82: Patti Smith- Horses
#83: Talking Heads- Remain In Light
#84: Jamiroquai- High Times
#85: R.E.M.- Out of Time
#86: Aesop Rock- None Shall Pass
#87: Stevie Nicks- Trouble In Shangri-La
#88: Phish- A Picture of Nectar
#89: Guardians of the Galaxy- Awesome Mix Vol. 2
#90: The Joshua Tree, Revisited
#91: The Beatles- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
#92: Phoenix- Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
#93: LCD Soundsystem- american dream
#94: Future Islands- Singles
#95: Portugal The Man- In The Mountain In The Cloud
#96: U2- Songs of Experience
#97: Lorde- Melodrama
#98: Ed Sheeran- Divide
#99: The New Pornographers- Twin Cinema

That's all of 'em. Looking at this list, I'm actually impressed at some of my choices. I totally forgot that I listened to #46, #48, and #65. I have no ideas on how to end this project... (I just listened to the entire Hamilton Soundtrack for the first time, which is now on repeat in my brain and I noticed in my review of #96, I said I'd back track to listen to U2's Song of Innocence, which I haven't done either.) So I have options- you're just going to have to wait to find out how this is going to come to an end.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #256

I really wanted to find the clip from that episode of The West Wing where White House Counsel Oliver Babish reveals he was planning on taking a vacation to Sarawak and the President promptly responds, 'Asia's best kept secret.' (It's Season 2, Episode 19 'Bad Moon Rising' if you want to watch it for yourselves. Just sort of imagine it instead of this paragraph, okay.)

So, as you might have guessed that This Week in Vexillology, I went back to the source of my flag obsession for inspiration and we're going to take a look at the flag of the Malaysian State of Sarawak. Before we get to the flag, we should probably ask the obvious question: where the heck is it?


Sarawak is situated on the northern chunk of the Island of Borneo- it's the red part. That little grey divot in it right at the top next to the white chunk of land is Brunei. The white chunk of land at the top of Borneo is the Malaysian state of Sabah. It's got an interesting history. From 1841 to 1946 it was governed by the White Rajahs- descendants of a British soldier and adventurer Sir James Brooke, who founded the Kingdom of Sarawak. After World War II, it became a British Crown Colony until 1963 when it became one of the founding members of the Federation of Malaysia.

From 1963 on, it's flag had an interesting evolution. It started out with this:
                   
This flag was the flag of the Old Kingdom of Sarawak from 1870-1946 and was brought back upon the foundation of Malaysia. The central portion of the flag (both sides of the cross and the crown in the middle) were kept as a shield in the usual British blue ensign for the flag of the Crown Colony. In 1973, they decided to update the flag to this:
                     
This was called the Triskati and remained the state flag of Sarawak from 1988-1973. It's actually got some symbolism behind it, as the blue triangle represents the unity among the people of Sarawak, red stands for courage and perseverance and white for honesty and purity. But after the end of the Cold War, problems started to emerge, because it bore a passing resemblance to the flag of the Czech Republic.  For the 25th Anniversary of it's independence with the Federation, they adopted their current flag:
                    
Going back to the same colors as the old Kingdom, the new flag retained many aspects of it's original symbolism but made some important changes to bring it into the modern era. The cross has been replaced with a diagonal band of red and black, which removes any overt references to Christianity. Weirdly, as of 2010 Christianity is the largest religion in the state (42.6%) with Islam just behind (32.2%). The state itself has no official religion, but the Federation does: it's Islam. So I have to wonder if the change was more a national political move than a local one, but who knows. The crown was also replaced with a nine pointed star- this was to remove any references to a sovereign monarchy. 

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

Friday, April 13, 2018

I'm Not A Zoo Exhibit, I'm A Dad

"Americans Love Seeing Swedish Dads Out With Their Kids."

I suppose my first mistake was clicking on the article to begin with, but props to Slate for actually acknowledging that it's something of a problem. What, oh what, is the genesis of this article? Well, apparently when Americans go to Sweden they see Fathers out and about with strollers, watching their kids on the playground and just automatically assume that all those men must by nannies of some kind.

There's so much garbage being written out there about the state of masculinity today on both ends of the political spectrum that it's hard to find anything useful buried under the mountains of shit, so I suppose I should open with the obvious one. I'm not a Nanny. I'm not a baby-sitter. Those are, in fact, my children and yes, I am their father. I'm not some kind of exotic zoo exhibit you can gawk and reading this article honestly made my jaw drop. Do people really think this when they see Dads outside, you know, being parents? And more to the point, do other Dads not take their kids places?

I mean, I get it, to a degree. The logistics of loading up the kids and taking them anywhere is enough to give you pause, but that's not a gender-based issue. (Just ask any Mom who needs groceries.) I had all three of them with in Trader Joe's the other week and one was grumpy because he was 6, the other was grumpy because he had just woken up from a nap and the baby was getting hungry. It was like tight-rope walking over an active volcano in public, but they took turns melting down so we managed. When you need to pick up food so you can eat that night, needs must. You just do what you gotta do.

Same thing with playgrounds. During the summer if I'm off for the day, nine times out of ten we're going to get out of the house and go somewhere. Otherwise kids be climbing the walls and going crazy. If there's one thing I've discovered, it's that letting kids get their yayas out is usually (usually) the key to a better day for everybody concerned. 

In short, I do most of these things anyway. I mean, why wouldn't you? I think that's what confuses me the most about this article. Do I live in a country where it doesn't occur to Dads to be out in public by themselves with their kids? You kind of knew it was going to come back around to paid family leave, since we're talking about Sweden, but the article has a point there.

I work a weird job, schedule wise. It's not a Monday-Friday 8-5 kind of a gig- about which I am very thankful- but I suspect that despite this country's backwardness on the issue of paid family leave, that 'traditional' schedule for many jobs probably goes a long way to explaining the paucity of Dads out and bout with their kids. I suspect, but I don't know, that given the opportunity, more Dads would be all too happy to get out and about with the young 'uns. 

Pulling out for a second to take a big picture look at things, I'm increasingly convinced that we're living in a weird historical moment- and that's not just because of the current occupant of the White House, either. So many of our institutions and systems are anachronistic and sclerotic in many ways and so I feel like it's only a matter of time before the Monday-Friday 8-5 kind of gig becomes a relic of the past. (I'd also like to say that someday, maybe we'll joined the ranks of civilized countries and mandate some paid family leave, but who the hell am I kidding there?) If and when it does, maybe we'll see more Dads taking advantage of the time and getting out there more. I sure hope so.

I'm fortunate that I have a job that let's me take time with the kids and go places with them. It's sad to me that not every day has the opportunity to do so. But that being said: me lugging my kids around a grocery store and carting them off to a playground isn't some kind of weird cultural phenomenon that should generate clickbait for your website. It's me. Being a parent. Nothing more. If you want to start somewhere with this issue that doesn't involve Congress, how about this: let's normalize Dads being Dads. It'd be nice to go somewhere with the kids and not wonder if people are giving me side-eye and getting all gooey over the fact that I'm parenting my children.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Embracing The Flaws

There's really nothing more gratifying than reading something you've written and realizing to yourself, 'hey, this isn't half bad.' I'm currently in the long, gentle process of giving my first two books a polish and it's strange how at peace I am with them all. Normally, I tend to be my own worst critic. I think a lot of people work that way- and not just people who write, but of late, I think I've kind of been giving myself a little bit of a break with these first two books.

How did my writing process for these books work? I'm not entirely sure I could tell. It just sort came out of me in a rush and when it was done I realized several things. First was, 'holy shit, I've got a lot of words on my hands' and second was, 'there's got to be a book under here somewhere.' Turns out there was- it just wasn't the book I expected to write, because much in the same way that Star Wars worked, for some reason the best part of the mountain of words I had on my hands was the middle of the story.

So then I began sorting and shuffling and discarding and writing and re-writing plot points until finally I had something that seemed like a book in front of me. Then I wrote and re-wrote and revised some more and I had a slightly better book in front of me. And then I made some tweaks and polishes and shoved it over the finish line.

Is it perfect? No. But having done a pretty deep dive on the first book to see what I could clean up, I'm more than willing to embrace it's flaws. It's a little rough around the edges, but the me that wrote that book? I honestly think it was probably the best writing I could manage at that time in that moment. Maybe I rushed it over the finish line too fast... (that's been suggested to me before) but I write so much it's ridiculous and at the time it was incredibly important to finish something for once. I had momentum going with the first book. It was my, "I can do this" book.

And so, it became The Prisoner and The Assassin.

I wasn't done with the story yet, because, you see the advantage, weirdly enough of starting in the middle is that you know how the story of your characters is going to end and, more to the point, you know all the history that has come before. I think at some point in the process and I wish I could actually say when, because it's kind of important, the characters started to come alive for me. I think before that point, I could tell you a plot all day long, but I didn't have a good grasp on characters yet. I could tell you a story, but to me, the trick sort of became to bring the characters to life so they could tell the story. Once I figured that out, it became easier in a hurry.

I haven't done a deep dive on the sequel yet. (That's The Arrows of Defiance.) I'm planning on starting that here soon, but I did a quick read through of it the other day and was pleasantly surprised (yet again) by what I read. It wasn't bad. It wasn't bad at all. Most of the time when I dive back into totes of what I've written in the past and pick it up to read it, I cringe and want to burn what I find. It's a novel experience to be able to look back on your work in hindsight and realize that while it's a little rough around the edges, it's not bad at all.

Is it 'good enough'? (Because, in the words of Brian Grazer, 'good enough equals shitty') Again, my answer is no. It's the best writing I had in me at that time. Does it have flaws? Is it a little rough around the edges? Yes, it is. It suffers somewhat from being a sequel. (Which made writing it so much harder than it needed to be. Next book is totally unrelated to anything that's come before and will not have a sequel. Period!) But overall, I think the story is the story of my characters.

And that's really what makes me happy about giving these books a polish. I still love these characters. I still feel deeply invested in their story and the work that went into creating these books. (Spoiler Alert: but I know their story isn't finished yet. There's at least one, maybe two- hell maybe even three books lurking there. I just have to write a couple of more that aren't part of that story so I can come back to them with fresh eyes.) I want to get these books pushed out there a little further than they are. I'd like to get them slightly better covers so they look their Sunday best. Then, I want to sort of release them into the world and keep on writing.

They're not good enough.

They've got flaws.

But, they're a beginning. And I'm going to embrace that beginning, because in hindsight, they're not making me cringe. That means something.

Monday, April 9, 2018

In Defense of The EPB

You ever see those random articles on MSN and click on them? They're usually inoffensive, charming things like, 'BEST BURGER IN EVERY STATE' or 'The Best State Fairs According To The People That Go To Them.' If you're bored, you click on them, work your way through- or, if you're like me, check Iowa and then Minnesota and not much else- and then move on with your day. But one of these random MSN articles ticked me off a little bit ('The ugliest building in every US state, according to people who live there'), because not only did it label the English-Philosophy Building as an ugly building- but it labelled it 'The Ugliest Building In the State of Iowa.'

Whoa there, MSN. Them's fighting words, because I'm here to tell you: the EPB isn't even the ugliest building on the University of Iowa Campus, never mind in the whole damn state.

Before we get to why MSN is wrong and should just sit there in it's wrongness, we should also probably talk about the other buildings on the list, because while some of them are genuinely ugly, others really aren't that bad- so the methodology behind this list seems questionable at best. For instance, The Denver International Airport is Colorado's ugliest building? Come on now. The Hesburgh Library at Notre Dame? Any aesthetic ugliness of the building itself is automatically cancelled out by Touchdown Jesus. So the list itself is questionable and I think that's partially because judging architecture is kind of a subjective thing when you get right down to it. There are some truly hideous buildings on this list. But purpose also matters: government buildings aren't built to be aesthetically pleasing, so really, you shouldn't be expecting that when you go into one.

But the EPB: built in 1966, it is, as everyone who has even the slightest bit of knowledge about campus knows, infamously riot-proof. (Why riot proof? Well, there were a lot of riots back in the day.) Exactly how much of that statement is true, I don't know- I've been told the roof can handle a helicopter (presumably so faculty members could huddle together on the roof to be the last folks out ahead of the rampaging student radicals back in the day) and I've also been told there used to be a cafeteria in the basement. What I do know is that no windows above the basement open, the windows are narrow and sort of set back- presumably making them harder to smash- and the top floor, where all the offices are at can only be accessed by pretty narrow staircases and either end and the elevator, which I would guess makes it easier to block off/barricade.

So for a start: it's riot proof. Freaking riot proof! (And while this plaintive complaint to the Daily Iowan asserts, 'I have no reason to riot.' Recent experiences on campuses suggest that riots are still all too possible and it never hurts to be prepared.) The official University description of the building talks a lot about things like Modernist architecture and uses vaguely squirm inducing terms like 'rectilinear geometry', but really, the building was a product of it's times. Brutalism and modernism rubbed shoulders while the EPB was being built and while the idea that a lot of campus buildings from this era were design to thwart riot attempts might be a stretch, in the case of the EPB, it's not. (It's probably also worth noting that there's some pretty solid literary history tied up with the building- plus, why you gotta hate on a building that scores a reference in John Irving's The World According To Garp?)

Is it the most attractive building on campus? No it's not. But it lacks the dated concrete ugliness of buildings like Hardin, the age and rickety appearance of buildings like Med Labs or the inspired lunacy of places like Bowen Science. It's a perfectly adequate, entirely vanilla building- at least from the outside. The interior does leave something to be desired: it's hallways are dark, it's classrooms are fairly dated- but it's also the home of the English and Philosophy Departments, so I like to imagine a lot of salty, bitter inner darkness of the occupants that is reflected in the buildings interior.

Are there uglier buildings on campus? Hell yes there are! Hardin Library and it's brutalist concrete angles come to mind. Despite the Dental Science Building allegedly looking like a tooth of some kind, it's not the prettiest building either. But if you really want a strong contender for the ugliest building in the entire state of Iowa, then the Mustard Yellow Windowless Borg Cube of the Century Link Building is my nomination. What an eyesore!

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Netflix & Chill #41: Coco

Watched On: DVD
Released: 2017
Starring: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguia, Edward James Olmos
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Pick: Mine

The Elder Spawn had been requesting to see this for awhile and to be honest, both the Missus and I were game for seeing it as well. We were talking about possibly going to see it in the theaters last fall, but we never managed to get that set up, so when I discovered that the Grandparents had it on blu-ray in their extensive collection downstairs, I snagged it and we gave it a watch. Spoiler Alert: it's a Pixar movie, so as per usual, they don't miss a beat.

In the town of Santa Cecilia, Mexico, Imelda Rivera was a wife of a musician who left her and their 3 year old daughter Coco to pursue his dream of fame in the world of music. He never returned, abandoning the family, so Imelda banished all music from her life and opened a shoe-making business instead.

Nearly a century later, her great-great grandson Miguel is 12 years old and lives with Coco and his extended family. In secret, he dreams of becoming a musician like Ernesto de la Cruz, a famous musician from his great grandmother Coco's generation. One day, shortly before the day of the day, Miguel knocks the picture frame holding a photo of Coco with her parents off of the family ofrenda and, removing the photograph, discovers that his great-great grandfather (who's face, is, of course, torn out) is holding Ernesto's guitar. Assuming that Ernesto de la Cruz is his great-great grandfather, he decides to enter the local talent show for the dya of the Dead. He enters Ernesto's mausoleum and takes the guitar to use in the show, only to discover he has become invisible to everyone in the village.

Realizing that he has been cursed for stealing from the dead, Miguel and his dog Dante travel across the marigold bridge to the Land of the Dead to figure out what they have to do get home. Turns out, because he took his Great Grandmother Imelda's picture off of the ofrenda, she can't go visit the family for the Day of the Dead- and, since Miguel needs a blessing from a family member to return home, she agrees to give Miguel her blessing, but only if he gives up his musical dreams.

Refusing to do so, Miguel runs away in search of Ernesto de la Cruz, intending to get his blessing instead. Along the way, he meets a down on his luck skeleton named Hector, who is desperate to try and get back to his family and agrees to help Miguel if he will take his photo back to the land of the living before his daughter forgets him and he disappears entirely.

When Hector realizes that Miguel has relatives and that he can go back whenever he wants, he attempts to return Miguel to them, but Miguel runs away and infiltrates Ernesto's mansion instead, learning the truth: Ernesto murdered Hector when Hector was ready to return to his family and passed Hector's songs off as his own- which means that Hector is actually Miguel's great-grandfather. Eventually, Miguel escapes from Ernesto and together with his family gets the required blessing to head back to the land of the living, where he plays some of Hector's songs for Coco, which helps revitalize her memory of him and Hector's true legacy is revealed and Miguel gets to fulfill his musical dreams.

Overall: Look, it's a Pixar movie. It's beautiful, the music is incredible, it's a gorgeous celebration of family, love and the traditions and culture of Mexico. It tugs at your heart strings (and yes, I'm man enough to admit that 'Remember Me' got me a little misty eyed. Okay, a lot misty-eyed damn it) and is more than up to their usual standards of excellence. As with all kid movies, my standard of 'is it good' is a simple one: does it entertain your kids and you? In Coco's case, the answer is a resounding yes. My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, April 7, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #255

Inspiration is sort of at a low ebb this week, so we're dipping back into the Lost Archives of the Unfortunate Wordpress Experiment and heading back over to Africa to take a look at the flag of Niger:
Before we start unpacking this flag, I suppose we should start with the obvious question: what's the deal with Niger? I mean, apart from a tangential involvement in some shady yellow cake deals over uranium that Bush The Younger's administration trumpeted as proof positive we needed to invade Iraq, it's not a country that's in the news a lot. (Granted, we live in America and you could probably say that about most countries in Africa. When you're busy turning local news into a right-wing propaganda outfit or just being terrible at your jobs, the media doesn't have a lot of room left over for solid international coverage of places like Africa.)

So, let's start with the basics. Where the heck is it?

Well, find Nigeria on your globe/Google Maps/Mapquest/atlas, etc and directly to the north of it, voila, you have Niger. (In my head, I always think of the pair of them as being the Victor/Victoria of countries. You know... Niger/Nigeria) As I'm writing this, Google is advised me that it's 3:45 PM and 107 degrees with 'widespread dusty.' So it's hot as balls and dusty as all giddyup at the moment.

From 1900-1958, Niger was run by the French as a colony- but instead of rehashing all the usual European colonial stuff, I actually kind of did a deep dive and tried to figure out what was going on in Niger before the Europeans showed up and it's actually kind of a hard question to answer. Part of that is down to my own general ignorance about pre-colonial Africa (something that I really should remedy, because there's a lot of history there that I don't have a clue about) but part of it seems to be because the question is genuinely hard to answer.

Niger seems to have been at the crossroads of a lot of historical empires. The Songhai Empire and the Mali Empire seemed to have covered portions of the country at points throughout the centuries, while a series of Hausa Kingdoms and the Kanem-Bornu Empire seem to be the immediate predecessors to European colonization.

Post-independence in 1958, things haven't been the greatest for Niger. Periodic drought, desertification and 80% of it's land being in the Sahara have pushed a lot of the population to the far south and west of the country. It's gone through five constitutions, four military regimes and seven republics so far. (I'm getting this from The Font of All Knowledge that is Wikipedia, so hopefully it's a little out of date, because it paints a rough picture.)

All of which brings us back around to the flag. Despite the turnover in governments over the decades, it's actually remained unchanged since independence more or less. It was adopted on November 23rd, 1959 and, like a lot of French Colonies it adopted a tricolor, albeit a horizontal one, in a nod to it's former French rulers.

There's not an official definition of the colors and symbolism of the flag, but a common interpretation seems to be that the orange represents the Sahara (or the Sahel, depending on who you talk to), the white stands for purity (or the River Niger) and the green stands for hope and the fertile regions of the south of the country. The orange circle stands for the sun (or independence.)

The ratio is pretty unusual, as the flag appears to be more of a square than a rectangle, but the flag's wikipedia page also noes that the significance of this shape is unknown and it's not used consistently by the Nigerien government across their print/media.

And that, folks, is the flag of Niger.  Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, April 6, 2018

Squawk Box: The Flash/Supergirl/Legends of Tomorrow

It took me awhile to catch-up on the trio of CW superhero shows that I actually enjoy. (I tried Arrow, but I just... I can't get into it for some reason, so I settled on this trio.) The Flash remains a delight albeit a frustrating one after it's third season. I love the way that Grant Gustin portrays The Flash- he imbues the role with a sense of wonder and delight at what he can do that makes this show- when it's at it's best, a lot of fun to watch.

However, the third season...  oh boy. Despite being told by literally everyone in his life that it was a really, really bad idea to mess with time, what does Barry do to start the season? He goes back in time and saves his Mom, setting up the events of Flashpoint, which dominate the entire season and consist of Barry apologizing a lot for doing the boneheaded thing that everyone told him not to do. There's a big bad speedster in town (Savitar) and Cisco figures out that he's going to kill Iris, so most of the back half of the season is spent figure out how they're going to stop him, which they eventually do- but at an unexpected cost.

On balance, I would say the first third to half of this season was a little annoying. Barry did the dumb thing everyone told him not to do and spent episode after episode apologizing for it. But once everyone gets over that, the fight against Savitar pulls the team together and by the end of the season, The Flash is back on the upswing once more- and in a nice touch, Barry agrees to enter the Speed Force prison to atone for doing the boneheaded thing that everyone told him not to do at the end of the season.

Since there's a plethora of CW superhero shows these days, the inevitable crossovers are a regular event these days- and while some of them work better than others, once nice aspect of the crossover mania is that Grant Gustin (The Flash) and Melissa Benoist (Supergirl) have just about perfect chemistry with each other, which make their crossover episodes with each other a joy to watch, to be honest. They are (as they say in a musical crossover episode that manages to somehow be charming and not cringey) super friends and it's enjoyable.

Benoist brings that same energy and charm to the title role of Supergirl. The first season started on CBS with Calista Flockhart onboard as Kara's boss, the media mogul Cat Grant, but with the move to The CW is Season 2, Flockhart makes an exit as a regular and shows up instead shoe-horned in to the season finale. (More on that later.)

Supergirl starts with the interesting premise: Kara Zor-El is sent to Earth from Krypton as a 13 year old to look after her more famous cousin, but enroute, he pod was knocked off course into the Phantom Zone where it stayed for 24 years, so by the time she arrived, Superman was all grown up. Not needing to teach her cousin anything, the series opens with Kara living a relatively normal life as an assistant to Cat Grant at CatCo media and hiding her powers.

However, when her adoptive sister Alex (Chyler Leigh) is in a plane that's going down, Kara intervenes to save her, revealing her powers in the process and eventually adopted the alias Supergirl. She finds out that when her pod was freed from the Phantom Zone, a prison of her Aunt's, Fort Roz also crashed on earth, bringing hundreds of alien criminals with it including her Aunt Astra and Uncle Non. She spends most of the season rounding up said criminals- finding out that her boss, Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) is actually none other than J'onn Jonzz, the Martian Manhunter and nursing a unrequited crush on James Olson (Mehcad Brooks).

Superman is noticeably absent for the first season, which I think is a wise move. There's an episode where he's sort of dimly seen coming to her Kara's aide (she's sort of in a daze, having had her bell rung by a bad guy especially hard) and other than that, they communicate through texts. It's not until Season 2 that we get a visit from Superman himself. (Tyler Hoechlin).

Season 2 actually gets a little more interesting: the presence of aliens on earth is revealed and many of them are living openly and legally on Earth, which, of course, creates tensions between the 'immigrant' communities and those that don't trust aliens being on Earth. But while that's a season long theme the show plays with, the more interest development centers around the arrival of Mon-El (Chris Wood) who turns out to be a Daxamite Prince who crash landed on Earth. (Interesting side note: I didn't know Krypton had a twin planet named Daxam, so his whole story line is a nice deepening of the overall mythos for me.)

James, who gets bored with being a sideline reporter, suits up and becomes a superhero named Guardian. Kara's sister, Alex, comes out of the closet and gets a girlfriend, Maggie. And of course, the whole love dating thing that Kara has going with Mon-El doesn't end well, because Supergirl can't have nice things, apparently.

All in all, I'll probably keep this in the Netflix rotation. It grew on me over the course of the first two seasons- the character arc for J'onn J'onzz is especially pleasing to me. I don't know how much they're planning to use Calista Flockhart going forward- and if it's 'not a lot' then I'll miss her, but if they do bring her back now and again, it'd be nice if they can figure out a way to do it that's not so... forced. She wasn't bad in the season finale, but I also feel like if you had taken her character out of the episode, it wouldn't have suffered one bit.

Rounding out the CW trio, is, of course, Legends of Tomorrow. Legends of Tomorrow is pure delightful cheese. Like premium Wisconsin cheddar I'm talking here and it remains ridiculously enjoyable and the second season of the show is going strong.

With the Time Masters defeated at the end of Season 1, the team, now headed by White Canary (Caity Lotz) is trying to guard the timeline themselves after the disappearance of Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) at the start of the season. However, they're opposed by a Legion of Doom consisting of the Reverse Flash (Eobard Thawne), Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough) and Malcolm Merlyn (John Barrowman) who are after the Spear of Destiny so they can rewrite their fates. The team is joined by new members: Vixen (Maisie Richardson-Sellers) and Steel (Nick Zano), a historian who develops the ability to transform himself into solid steel and is the grandson of Justice Society of America member Captain Steel.

They spend this season chasing down the Legion and racing to get to the Spear of Destiny before they do- stopping in 1920s Chicago, Shogunate Japan, the Apollo 13 mission, World War I- so they can visit JRR Tolkein, of course- as one does, and persuading George Lucas to get back into film making after a very scary encounter with some aliens. (That episode was probably my favorite- this show is so delightfully bananas sometimes.) Eventually, after the usual amounts of derring-do, the Legends win the day and finally just as Mick Rory (Heatwave) is about to get his wish for some beach time Aruba, they crash land in Los Angeles to find dinosaurs roaming the streets instead. Ru-roh, Legends!

Overall, all three of these shows remain delightful. At their best they can be excellent genre television and given the uneven nature of DC's movie universe so far, remain probably their strongest media properties right now. (In a weird way: Marvel makes better movies and DC can make the argument that they do better television in many ways...) In a pinch I'd probably take The Flash over Supergirl, but Supergirl grew on me quite a bit over the course of watch two seasons- and both of these show are helped immensely by their stars. Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist could not be more perfectly cast as The Flash and Supergirl respectively. Legends of Tomorrow might be the most fun you can have on television right now, if superheroes are your thing. If you're looking for a show to binge on Netflix however, all three are worthy of your time.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The 100 Day Project

It's been a long, hard slog of a winter and I'm just tired of late. February always brings back memories. March was especially unkind this year, as we went from two dogs to zero dogs and then spent the last two weeks of the month suffering from some kind of seasonal plague that we're all only know starting to get over. I feel like this year needs a month or two to pry it up out of the mud and slap it back on the rails to get it going again, because man, do we need it.

So, when I saw the article for the 100 Day Project go by on Lifehacker, I was intrigued. "What," I thought to myself, "is this?" Turns out it's mainly an Instagram thing, where you can #100DayProject for any and all of your creative projects that you do. I don't know if I'll get to all one hundred days, but I feel like it's a good challenge to get my creativity flowing again as we move into the next season of the year.

I need this. I need something, I think. Between the winter that won't seem to go away and the ongoing dumpster fire that is our national life, I'm just honestly exhausted. People talk a lot about 'Red' America and 'Blue' America, but really, I'm becoming more and more convinced that there's a third America: the America that's just tired of it all and would vote for a sentient piece of moldy cheese if it would do something useful for once. I know, I know- you're not allowed to not care about things anymore. That's not permitted. Well, fuck you is what I say to that. The internet is awful, the world is going to hell in a hand basket and I need a good mental health cleanse of all this crap before it really gets down into my pores and I ended up needing a full colonoscopy to get rid of it all.

Nothing will change in this country- or hell, in this world, until we stop treating the people who disagree with us with such open contempt and vitriol. As incredible as it is to believe that we're still talking about the damn election after so many months, all I can think of is this: I know people who voted for both candidates and somehow I managed to get along just fine with them, even though we may disagree. There's shitty behavior on both ends of the spectrum. No, "but they do it!" is not an excuse in my book- what are we, six years old?

And like I said, I'm exhausted by it all.

So, I'm doing this 100 Day Project thing- and not just for creative things, but for my life. I want to get some of these projects around the house done. I want to start working out again. I want to play with my kids more and worry about the toxic waste dump on the news less. I've got projects in the pipeline that I want to see through to completion that I really should move a little further down the tracks.

Some coming attractions: a new piece of short fiction tentatively called 'The Executioner's Daughter', I want to get back into the third book (I've been doing a deep dive on solidifying my world build for it- I got about halfway through and realized that I had written myself into a corner that I couldn't really get out of and despite some temptation to just power through and get it all out, I want to make sure the first half is right before I do that.) The Missus and I snagged a pyrography kit a month or so ago, so keep an eye out some early attempts at wood-burning.

Basically, I'm just really, really, really tired of winter. I'm tired of being cold. It's making me tired and more than a little depressed and if some attempts at getting the creative juices flowing helps to combat the late season blues, then I'm all for it. So stay tuned.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Bookshot #107: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

The world today is grappling with the threat of terrorism on a global scale while never before, and while the human cost is horrifying enough, the damage to world history and culture can be almost as hard to watch. From the Buddhas of Bamiyan to the ruins of Palmyra the damage to the cultural heritage of the world incurred by terrorism has been high- so it's nice to read a book about ordinary people finding away to preserve and protect their cultural heritage from those that were seeking to destroy it.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells that story. It begins in the 1980s, when a young man by the name of Abdel Kader Haidara began an effort to collect ancient manuscripts in and around Timbuktu (and really, all over Mali) to help preserve them in a government library. Many of these manuscripts had been passed down from generation to generation and were kept in trunks locked away in houses, basements and other dwellings. Timbuktu had been a center for learning, culture and especially Islam for centuries and Haidara wanted to preserve it's history for future generations to come. 

The first part of the book is, in many ways the most interesting part. Author Joshua Hammer gives the reader a brief history of Timbuktu and it's place in North Africa- so if you're not familiar with the history of the area (and let's face it, most people won't be) it sets the stage and tells you why Timbuktu and these manuscripts are so important to the region- the sheer amount of knowledge that stretches back centuries is incredible. The work that Haidara had to do to overcome people's natural suspicion that he just wanted to take the books and sell them to some foreigners who would take them away from Mali was considerable, but ultimately successful.

By the end of the 90s and heading into the 2000s, Haidara seemed to have a good thing going. He had a library. He had conservationists. He was preserving a lot of books and manuscripts that were in bad condition. Timbuktu was finding its way back into the world, with the beginning of the Festival au Desert, which celebrated traditional Tuareg music as well as music from around the world. (Bono and U2 came to perform one year, I seem to remember a Robert Plant live album including a track recorded at this Festival floating around somewhere.)

However, by the end of the decade there were signs of trouble. Algeria was convulsed by Civil War. The Arab Spring roiled the region. Qaddafi was toppled in Libya. A dangerous vacuum emerged in the region and into it stepped an alliance of secular Tuareg rebels looking to set up their own state and the local offshoot of Al-Qaeda. Soon they were sweeping across the north of Mali and took Timbuktu, sending the national army into retreat and threatening the stability of the entire country. Soon an uneasy stalemate settled in, with the extremists in control of the north and the government forces hanging on in the south.

That's when this book really takes off, because Haidara read the writing on the wall pretty early when the same offshoot of Al-Qaeda destroyed some Sufi tombs during the fighting in Libya. Sure enough, the secular Tuareg rebels were shoved to one side by Al-Qaeda and Haidara's next mission began. With the aid of international donor money and grants, Haidara set up a network of courier and began a massive smuggling operation to get all 350,000 volumes in the collection out of Timbuktu and south to the relative safety of Bamako- all under the noses of the jihadists in control of the city. 

The truly astonishing part of the story: it worked. Haidara's couriers had to bribe their way past government soldiers. They had to talk their way past Islamic morality police. They had to travel by boat and by truck and they did. And so, when France launched a military intervention against the extremists and drove them back into the desert, Al-Qaeda broke into the library- only to find it empty. 

Overall: I'm honestly surprised that no one has decided to make this into a movie, because the book certainly reads like it's begging for a movie adaptation. It's quick, informative, thrilling and a beautiful reminder that in a world that seems so bleak a lot of the time sometime the good guys do win and win in a big way. My Grade: **** out of ****