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:

https://medium.com/@thequixoter/the-executioners-daughter-5aa338268336

And if you're all about Wattpad:

https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/159283163/write/621066698

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

Sportsyball!

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?

Melinda.

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.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Netflix & Chill #47: Black Panther

Watched On: DVD (Redbox)
Released: 2018
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Pick: Mine

There was so much hype surrounding this film that you would have to believe it almost impossible for the finished product to live up to the hype, but at this point, it would be foolish to bet against Marvel. They've hit far more than they've missed and with Black Panther they might have produced not just their best film ever, but the film of the 'superhero' era that we're currently going through.

The movie opens with the story of Wakanda itself. Five tribes are warring over a meteorite that contains vibranium. One warrior ingests a 'heart shaped herb' and gains superhuman abilities, becoming the first 'Black Panther.' He unites all the tribes save one, the Jabari, who retreat into the mountains into the nation of Wakanda. Over the centuries, they use the vibranium to develop advanced technology and hide themselves away from the world by posing as a Third World country.

Then the movie flashes forward to 1992, where Wakanda's King T'Chaka visits his brother N'Jobu (Sterling K. Brown) who is working undercover in Oakland. The king accuses his brother of working with the black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) to steal vibranium from Wakanda. N'Jobu's partner reveals himself to be Zuri, who confirms the suspicions of the King. After a brief struggle, the King is forced to kill his brother. He then leaves, taking all evidence with him, as far below, a child watches them go.

In the present day, following the death of T'Chaka in Captain America Civil War, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to assume the throne. He and Okoye (Danai Gurira), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the bodyguards of the King extract Nakia (Lupita Nyongo), his ex-lover from a mission in Nigeria so she can come home to attend the coronation ceremony with his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright.). At the ceremony, the leader of the Jabari Tribe, M'Baku (Winston Duke) challenges T'Challa's claim to the throne, but is defeated by T'Challa who persuades him to yield instead of die.

When Klaue resurfaces along with Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan) to steal a Wakandan artifact, T'Challa is persuaded by his friend W'Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) to go and attempt to bring Klaue back alive to face justice. Taking Okoye and Nakia with him to Busan, South Korea, the Wakandans learn that CIA Agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman) is there to buy the artifact as well,. In the ensuing firefight, Erik extracts Klaue and Ross is injured protecting Nakia. Instead of pursuing Klaue, T'Challa takes Ross back to Wakanda, where their technology can save him.

T'Challa confronts Zuri (Forest Whitaker) about N'Jobu and the truth of what happened that night and it is there he learns of the existence of N'Jobu's son, Erik Stevens who became a US Black Ops soldier and adopted the name Killmonger. He, for his part, kills Klaue and brings his body back to Wakanda, where he reveals his identity and challenges T'Challa's claim to the throne. Meeting him in combat, he defeats him and throws T'Challa over the waterfall where he is presumed to have died. Killmonger takes the purple herb and gains the power of Black Panther, burning the rest. He then orders that advanced weapons and technology be shipped to Wakandan operatives around the world to help oppressed people of color in their struggles.

Nakia, Shuri, Ramonda and Ross flee to the Jabari Tribe for aid, where they find a comatose T'Challa who was rescued by M'Baku in repayment for sparing his life. T'Challa is healed by a dose of the purple herb that Nakia managed to rescue and returns to confront Killmonger. He is eventually defeated and stabbed, but refuses to be healed, choosing to die a free man rather than face jail.

T'Challa, for his part, decides that Wakanda can no longer hide itself from the world and begins to change their policies of isolationism.

Man, I don't even know where to begin with this movie. It's a glorious monument to the entire idea of Afro-Futurism. In terms of representation on screen they absolutely nail it: the cast is like a who's who of the most talented actors of color in Hollywood right now. If you would have thrown Denzel Washington, James Earl Jones, Oprah Winfrey and like Viola Davis or Alfre Woodard into the cast I think the universe might have imploded with the awesomeness of it all. I can count on one hand the number of 'white' characters that get significant screen time outside Ross and Klaue- and for a movie that's about a nation in Africa, set in Africa, telling the stories of Africans that doesn't just feel right, it's another absolutely correct decision. Hollywood doesn't get representation right all the time, but in this case, they did. And that's worth noting and celebrating.

It's also obvious that they took great care in crafting Wakanda down to the finest detail to make it feel as authentically African as possible. The linguistics nerd in me got curious as to the origins of the Wakandan language and it turns out it's Hausa, a choice which I absolutely love and it's a one hundred percent real language that you can go and learn if you want to. (Plus: this probably makes Black Panther the first major Hollywood blockbuster to use a major African language as much as it does in history.)

Overall, once you get through all the layers of awesome that are just the cast and the construction of the movie, the story itself is amazingly awesome as well. It's a story about fathers and sons and legacies and choices and colonialism and racism and revolutionaries and overcoming the past to construct a future all your own. By the end of the movie, the evidence is insurmountable: Black Panther is the jewel in Marvel's ever-expanding crown. Long live the King. Wakanda Forever. My Grade: ***** out of *****.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #265

Before I plunge into our regularly scheduled programming, I've gotta give a shout out to The Quiet Man, who mentioned in passing that Milwaukee was attempting to get a new flag and that there was an unofficial 'People's Flag' that they were trying to get adopted as the city's official flag. I was going to maybe use it for this week's entry, however, it turns out that there's an entire beautiful (and I do mean beautiful) website that break it all down in far more detail and with far more love and attention than I could ever do.

So, if you're in Milwaukee, love Milwaukee or just love flags (like I do), get yourself over to https://milwaukeeflag.com and learn all about it- and if you're so inclined, purchase one of these good lookin' flags for yourself. Also: Milwaukee, what the heck are you waiting for? Adopt this bad boy.)

TANGENT'S DONE...

Let's talk about the flags I wanted to talk about it this year. We're jumping back into the Lost Archives to take a look at the flags of Somalia and Somaliland. (If you want a brief rundown on what's going on in Somalia, this is a pretty recent news update from a page that does pretty solid foreign policy work that I visit from time to time.)

So, let's start with the flag of Somalia:
Adopted on October 12th, 1954 it was created during the transitional trusteeship period of their history before independence. Designed by Somali scholar Mohammed Awale Liban, it became the flag of the Somali Republic after independence. It's an ethnic flag- and the star is a five pointed Star of Unity that represents the areas where the Somali ethnic group has traditionally resided: Djibouti, Somaliland, the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, the North Eastern Province of Kenya and Southern Somalia.

If you're thinking that the shade of blue bears more than a passing resemblance to the flag of the UN- well, you'd be right! Originally it did recall the UN's role in their transition to independence during the trusteeship period, but today, it officially stands for the sky as well as the bodies of water which flank the country: the Gulf of Aden, the Guardafui Channel and the Indian Ocean.

Next up, the flag of Somaliland:
First off, I suppose we should start with the basic question. Where the heck is Somaliland? Well... if you imagine the entire country of Somalia in roughly the same shape as a sideways looking number 7, then Somaliland would be the short part on top. (There's also Puntland, just to confuse things.) Officially, it's an autonomous region of Somalia- unofficially, it's declared independence and has democratically elected governments that are attempting to seek recognition of it's independent status. So far, no one has elected to recognize them. They're more or less in the same territory that was the former colony of British Somaliland before it was united into greater Somalia in 1960.

The present configuration of the flag was adopted on October 14th, 1993. The interesting part isn't the design of the flag itself...  I know that sounds weird, but stay with me: it's got the Pan-Arab colors of green, black, white and red and on the green stripe, you've got the Sunni Shahada, the Declaration of Faith similar to that seen on the flag of Saudi Arabia. Because of that, it's actually forbidden to fly the flag at half-mast, because it's seen as disrespectful. Even when Presidents or other important people die, the flag doesn't fly at half-mast. It's actually a criminal offense to do so! (And similar rules apply to the flags of Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq... )

I haven't been able to find another other explanations for the colors other than the 'Pan-Arab colors' but there are a pretty unusual amount of alternative/variant flags that are worth taking a peek at.

So there you have it...  Somalia and Somaliland. Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying: FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, August 3, 2018

Squawk Box: The Vietnam War

I had wrapped up a couple of other shows that I was going to include in this post for this month, but after some reflection, I decided that Ken Burns' ten part epic documentary The Vietnam War was worthy of standing alone. There was just too much I took away from it to justify throwing in a couple of other shows to make one long super post. It wouldn't have done it the justice it deserves.

So, right off the bat. If you're into history, military history or just really good documentaries, you need to start watching this. Burns- being the mind behind Baseball and The Civil War and other epic documentaries is a master of the art and his look at America's most divisive war is a powerful story of the mistakes that were made that got us bogged down in a horrible quagmire, as well as a warning to future generations to avoid those mistakes- but I think it was probably this melancholy truth that stuck with me the most: we think we've changed a lot as a nation in the decades since Vietnam, but in reality, we haven't changed that much at all.

The historical irony of it all is obvious from the first episode. A young Vietnamese man approached the American delegation at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 with a petition pleading with President Wilson to fight against French colonization of his country. He never got anywhere near Wilson, of course, but at least he tried. Flash forward a few decades later and the OSS (the precursor of the CIA) parachutes in medical aid to an important Viet Minh guerilla leader who is fighting against the Japanese. They patch him up and get him better- turns out that young man and that Viet Minh leader are the same guy: Ho Chi Minh. 

The documentary moves through the French attempts at recolonization after World War II and the deteriorating situation that slowly but surely saw the French withdraw and the Americans replace them, all in the name of containing communism. As our involvement escalated, variations on the phrase 'The American people were not told' gets heard time and time again- but it was also obvious from the get go that Presidents of both parties had a very bad feeling about this, but kept getting drawn further and further in and found themselves unable to provide clear cut objectives on what the hell the point of it all was. The division of Vietnam was never intended to be permanent- at some point, there were supposed to be elections to reunite the country, but the Cold War policy of containment couldn't risk elections going the wrong way.

(It's worth a slight parenthetical here to point out that this war felt uber micromanaged by the politicians- more than I think it should have been and in ways that I'm fairly confident in saying would be well nigh unthinkable today. I can never be President, so I can say this confident with the knowledge that I'll never have to make those decisions, but it seems to me that the President should tells his Generals, 'People, I want to do A, B and C here. Tell me how we do that.' The Generals then present him or her with a plan and then the President says, 'Great. Now go do it,' and gets the hell out of the way as much as possible. When the documentary mentioned in passing that Johnson was picking his own bombing targets- that instantly made me think, 'that's not how that should work, right?')

Burns talks to veterans of both sides of the conflict, which I think is a good move. History being history, it's usually never presented in a very complete way- and, as it turns out, there were horrible military mistakes on the other side as well. Both the Tet and the Easter Offensive bloodied the North Vietnamese horribly and left them with no tangible military results to show for it. On the other side, you hear story after story of American soldiers fighting like hell to kick the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese off a hill and paying a heavy price for it, only to withdraw and have them reoccupy the same damn hill a week later.

As the story marches through the 1960s and toward the 1970s, attention turns back to America, where a rising tide of discontent against the war broke open and sparked some of the most massive public demonstrations of public discontent in American history. Johnson ultimately decided not to run for re-election in 1968 and the subsequent riots at the Democratic convention helped Nixon win the Presidency on a platform of law and order and ending the war.

(Another parenthetical: Nixon is both fascinating and irritating as a President. Obviously hungry for power, it's his insecurities that confuse the hell out of me. You'd think a guy that completed one of the greatest political comebacks of all time would be more confident in his abilities, but he was working behind the scenes before the election to pass messages to the North Vietnamese telling them he could give them a better deal than Johnson would- and had LBJ been a little more cold blooded, he would have outed that fact to the general public. He also went up against McGovern in 1972- who botched the selection of his running mate and didn't get the endorsement of organized labor- which I totally didn't know- yet was paranoid enough to bug the DNC and start Watergate rolling to his inevitable conclusion.)

Nixon begins a policy of Vietnamization and troop drawdowns immediately and ordering the bombings of Cambodia and Laos as well as resuming the bombings of North Vietnam when they couldn't get the peace talks going- but it was when he opened China and began exploiting the divisions in the communist bloc (still one of the most brilliant foreign policy moves on the last century) that you saw real progress toward a deal- a separate peace though, that ended America's involvement and more or less abandoned South Vietnam to its fate.

The polarization that you see around the war makes you want to believe that we (as a nation) have put the ghosts of Vietnam to bed, but there's also a lot of footage and commentary from people on the ground that's depressingly familiar given today's climate.

Overall, it's Ken Burns. The man is a master of the medium and he plunges the viewer deep into a war that's incredibly important to have an understanding of. So many were sacrificed to a war without a clear objective for a policy of containment that as it turned out was nowhere near as important as it turned out to be, given the divisions within the Communist bloc that were emerging by the early 70s. There is one final historical irony worth noting, I think: fifty years ago, our POWs were being tortured in the Hanoi Hilton and today you can stay in a Hilton in downtown Hanoi. That doesn't make the sacrifice and the losses worth it, of course, but in a war drenched with ironic coincidences I think it says a lot about what the possibilities might have been for the future of both Vietnam and America if our leaders had managed to avoid this war altogether. My Grade: **** out of ****

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Bookshot #110: A Wrinkle In Time

Okay, true confession time: I had never read A Wrinkle In Time before. It's always been kicking around the bookshelves of the Parentals, but for whatever reason I never actually picked it up and read it as a kid. (Which is kind of unusual, because I read just about everything else I could get my hands on as a kid.) But with the release of the movie (which I didn't see when it was in the theaters, but I will probably get around to- at some point) made me get the itch to read the book before I watched the movie.

Meg Murry is smart, but she's always getting into trouble in school. Her little brother, Charles, is spooky smart. Her twin brothers Sandy and Dennys are probably are the most normal of the bunch. Her father has been missing for a couple of years now, vanished in some kind of secret government project and just as the family is beginning to think they're never going to see him again, in the middle of a dark and stormy night, Meg comes downstairs to find her little brother eating a snack with their new neighbor, the eccentric Mrs. Whatsit. When Mrs. Whatsit casually mentions that 'there is such thing as a tessarect', their mother, Mrs. Murry is shocked.

Soon enough, Calvin another neighbor boy, Meg and her brother meet up with Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which that sweep them away to another planet via use of the fifth dimensional travel method known as 'tessering.' The planet, Uriel is an Utopian world filled with centaur like beings who live 'in a state of light and love.' The three Mrs. W's reveal that the Universe is under attack from an evil being called The Black Thing that's consuming planets. They then take the children to visit another being, The Happy Medium, who shows them Earth. Earth is partially covered by it's darkness, but the great religious figures, philosophers and artists have been fighting against it's power.

The children then travel to the planet of Camazotz in search of Meg's father. Camazotz is a planet that has surrendered to the power of The Black Thing. Everyone is under the control of a single mind, the centralized hive mind known as IT. It attempts to take over their minds, but Calvin and Meg resist. Charles, on the other hand,  believes he can resist IT long enough to locate their father, but is consumed by the mind instead. Under it's control, he takes them to where their father is imprisoned.

Meg and Calvin free their father and in desperation as IT begins to break down their defenses the three of them tesser away, leaving Charles behind. They have to tesser through the Black Thing that surrounded Camazotz, which nearly kills Meg, but they land on the neighboring planet of Ixchel, where Meg is revived by one of the inhabitants, whom she names Aunt Beast.

She heals and as she does so, she overcomes her anger at her father for abandoning Charles back on the planet and makes peace with the idea that grown ups can't fix everything. Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Who show back up and tell Meg that she's the only one who can get Charles back. He was a baby when her father disappeared and Calvin has only just met him. Meg goes back, armed with gifts from the three Mrs. W's and successfully frees Charles Wallace and then they're tessered right back into their garden safe and sound back on Earth. Before the Mrs. W's could tell them what they were up too, they vanish.

Overall: You can certainly draw a line between Madeline L'Engle and  C.S. Lewis. There are references to Christianity and faith throughout the book, but on balance, while I feel their faith obviously informs the writings of each author, L'Engle has the lighter touch of the two. (There's no LION JESUS in this one!) It was, as you might expect, an easy enough read for an adult. The story is compelling and I can honestly say that this one was worth the wait. My Grade: *** out of ****