Monday, December 3, 2018

Bookshot #114: Artemis

The Martian was such a good book that when Andy Weir wrote a sequel called Artemis, I knew I was going to have to grab it and read it at some point. Happily, Christmas of last year was good to me and it's been sitting in my queue until about a month ago, when, frustrated with Thomas Pynchon and Gravity's Rainbow, I decided to pick it up and use it as a 'palate cleanser' to keep  my sanity as I trudge on through Gravity's Rainbow.

As palate cleansers go, it was exactly what I needed. However, Weir established himself as an author of fast-paced massively entertaining books with The Martian and suffers no sophomore slump with Artemis- it went fast- probably too fast to be honest, but what can you do with a book that you don't want to put down?

The story opens in Artemis, the first city on the moon, where porter and part-time smuggler Jazz Bashara delivers some contraband to wealthy businessman Trond Landvik- Jazz knows both Landvik and his daughter Lene quite well, but on this particular occasion they're entertaining a new associate, by the name of Jin Chu, who holds a case marked with the name ZAFO. Trond offers Jazz a big score: he wants to take over Sanchez Aluminum, whose by products help produce oxygen for the entire city. The score is easy: smash their harvesters and then Trond will appear with a supply of oxygen and the equipment and money necessary to take over their contract.

The money is too good for Jazz to say no so she borrows some welding equipment from her estranged father, Ammar and gets a small robot called HIB from an associate of his. She disguises herself as a tourist and visits the Apollo 11 site, placing HIB outside the airlock and positioning him so he can open the airlock for her. Another friend of hers makes a device that makes it appear as if she's still in her quarters- so the next day she sets out across the moon to where the harvesters are working and manages to destroy all but one. She's spotted and eventually caught upon her return to the city by Dale, her former friend. He agrees to remain silent if she agrees to be friends again, which she reluctantly does.

Heading back to Trond's place, she finds him and his bodyguard murdered- and putting two and two together hunts down the associate she saw at his house, Jin Chu. He lures her into a trap with Trond's killer, but Jazz manages to escape with the mysterious case labelled ZAFO in tow. They're soon both taken into custody by the city's police chief, Rudy.

Soon Jazz finds out the truth: ZAFO represents a major advance in fiber optics, virtually eliminating the attenuation factor that normal fiber cables provides and eliminates the need for repeaters as well- and here's the real kicker: the only place it can manufactured is outside of Earth's gravity- and it turns out the Brazilian company that controls Sanchez Aluminum is in fact, a crime syndicate who has sent an assassin to the moon to clean up the competition. (Namely: Trond.) If they're allowed to control ZAFO, they'll effectively run the city.

Jazz and her friends decide not to let that happen by destroying the smelter belonging to Sanchez aluminum, which would let Trond's daughter Lene seize their contracts and rebuild. They break into the plant and destroy the smelter, but create a deadly backflow of chloroform into the city. They race back to the city, trying to reach Trond's oxygen supplies in time and Jazz sacrifices herself to save the city- but gets rescued by Dale.

When she's fully recovered, Lene pays Jazz what her father promised he would. Jazz buys her father a new welding shop to replace one she destroyed as a teenager, but then ends up paying the rest to a city administrator to avoid deportation- and she convinces the administrator of her value as an 'authorized' smuggler who keeps undesirables out. With lucrative opportunities on the horizon thanks to ZAFO Jazz, back at square one gets back to work.

Overall: Fast-paced, entertaining and almost impossible to put down, Weir's jump from Mars to the Moon is perfectly executed and leaves the reader wanting more. If you think this is tailor made for the big screen, well so did Hollywood. There's a movie already in development aiming for a 2020 release date. Weir has some interesting touches: Kenya is the power behind Artemis, thanks to a far seeing economic minister who lands a massive private space investment for her country and leverages it to become administrator of Artemis. There's also a refreshing diversity of countries that move beyond the usual 'space countries' like America and Russia. Put together it makes for a thrilling and believable vision of the future. My Grade: **** out of *****

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Netflix & Chill #54: Outlaw King

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2018
Directed By: David Mackenzie
Starring: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, Tony Curran, Callan Mulvey, Stephen Dillane
Rotten Tomatoes: 63%
Pick: Mine

I've been seeing previews and pop-up ads for this for weeks now, so I finally broke down and gave it a watch, curious to see what it would be like. My perception of Robert The Bruce (at least on film) is largely colored by the way he's treated in Braveheart- which was...  odd, if I remember correctly. He was sort of the leader everyone wanted but weak enough to make compromises with the English and betray Wallace- but eventually he turns out okay and wins the day at Bannockburn.

A film that focuses solely on Robert the Bruce? It feels interesting to me. Braveheart was free to tell the story of Wallace with it's embellishments and dubious history, but Robert The Bruce feels more embedded in history than the story Braveheart told. Outlaw King brings his story to life.

First, you've got to give Chris Pine some serious props. Not every actor can carry an accent. (See: Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson in K-19: The Widowmaker) but Pine carries a Scottish accent perfectly throughout this movie. It sounds good and he doesn't overdo it either, which I think helps the cause and keeps him in character more effectively throughout the movie.

The story begins in 1304 outside Stirling Castle where John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), Robert Bruce (Chris Pine) and the rest of the Scottish nobility surrender to King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). During the celebration in the camp, Bruce spars with the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) and learns that the King has given him his goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) to marry. During the celebration, James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) arrives to ask for his land back, but King Edward turns him away. Both Prince and King then leave Scotland, leaving it's management to Bruce, Comyn and the head of the English Garrison at Perth, de Valence (Sam Spreuell.)

Two years later, after collecting taxes, Bruce realizes how unpopular the English are when he gets caught in a riot after the public display of the quartered body of William Wallace and he starts planning a revolt. His family and, perhaps surprisingly his English wife, Elizabeth agrees with him. Bruce then tries to persuade John Comyn to join him, but Comyn instead threatens to inform Edward about the plan and Bruce, in a panic, kills him. The clergy of Scotland offer Bruce a pardon, but only on the condition that he accepts the crown of Scotland. He does so- though not many Scottish nobles support him. He heads to Scone anyway where he's crowned the King of the Scots.

Edward I declares him and outlaw and sends Prince Edward to Scotland to find him and capture him. De Valence gets a little too ambitious and moves against Bruce before the Prince arrives- Bruce wishes to avoid bloodshed and challenges De Valence to single combat. The latter accepts, but wants to wait until the next day. Bruce agrees but De Valence launches a surprise attack on their camp at Methven and Robert is forced to flee with only fifty men. He loses a brother to treachery as they attempt to flee and another brother is executed when Prince Edward finds Elizabeth and Bruce's daughter Marjorie. Then, he launches a guerilla campaign against the English, taking castle after castle and burning it, gaining support as he does so.

Finally, Edward I has had enough and goes to Scotland himself to try and end the rebellion once and for all. He dies along the way, leaving Edward II to try and complete the task. The Scots meet the English at the Battle of Louden Hill and despite the odds being against them, defeat the English, securing Scotland's freedom. Bruce is crowned King of Scots- his wife and daughter are eventually returned. Edward II is murdered by his own lords (in a somewhat unpleasant way if you know your history) and eventually, a descendant of Robert The Bruce unites the crowns of England and Scotland.

Overall: It lacks the epic touches of Braveheart, but it's a solid movie that doesn't skimp on the battle scenes and seems to be fairly historically accurate- at least compared to Braveheart. Chris Pine portrays Bruce as a patriot intent on winning back freedom for his people- but the historians seem to think that Bruce would have been more canny and ambitious than warm and personable- which would seem to be more in line to his portrayal in Braveheart. The more restrained story told in Outlaw King, however, makes it a less flamboyant and grand film. I don't think that's a bad thing, however. My Grade: *** out of ****

Saturday, December 1, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #275

This Week In Vexillology is finally back! I sort of put everything on the back burner to focus on my third novel for NANOWRIMO, so blogging has been light for a month now- but I'm back and I'm ready to get after it again and what better way to do that than to continue our Tour of the Counties of England with the next two counties up: Kent and Essex.

Here's Kent:
Here's the thing: I've been to Kent... I tagged along with an Aunt and Uncle for a trip down there one summer and it's beautiful. The houses have all these weird, white little chimneys- the views south east toward Dover are beautiful. There's tons of history there-- we saw Cantebury, we saw Dover Castle... It was amazing and I'd love to show y'all a photo or two of the place, but here's the thing: I can seem to find any at the moment. (I'm going to work on that some.)

Oh, the directions are even simple: find Dover and you're in Kent. (Easy enough, right?)

Their flag is beautiful... the white horse has been a symbol of Kent dating back to the old Jutish Kingdom of Kent back in the 6th Century. The current flag dates all the way back to 1605 and was used by the Justices of Kent for many years. The arms featuring the horse were granted to the Kent County Council on October 17th, 1933 and again in 1975. The flag was accepted as official on the basis of it's traditional use and historic roots with the county.

Next up, Essex:

I am... somewhat shook by this flag, kids. Consider the following video clip:

This pretty much sums up Essex quite nicely. It's sort of a weird blend of New Jersey and Laguna Beach? (Weird could also be 'hellish') but it seems to work. Don't really have a good explanation on what the flag means. Wikipedia has a one sentence description: "The flag of Essex is ancient in origin and features three Saxon seaxes on a red field." And that is it. But I also love the contrast between the video clip above and the flag. This is not the flag that I would have expected Essex to have. Which in and of itself is the most Essex thing ever.

And there's the next two flags of the counties of England... remember until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, November 30, 2018

NANOWRIMO: The Last Day

The actual total is: 70,684 words- but 50,000 words was never my goal with this. I wanted to use NANOWRIMO to kick start my third book. It was in desperate need of a kick in the ass. I had a few chapters here and there and I knew how it was going to end, but I felt like I was writing myself into corners and circles and I was tired of it. So, I sat down and made an outline- two to three days of frantic outlining and then November 1st, I started writing and I didn't stop until I got it all done.

I have what I wanted: a working draft of my third book. Is it perfect? Not in the slightest. Is it anywhere close to being ready to publish and let out into the world? Not at all. But I have a starting point to work with and that's amazing. My first two books had to be carved out of a pile of words and made, forged into the books they became. I'm going to have fun beating this one into shape, but for now I'm going to take a well-deserved break and let it flavor up a bit before I jump back in and start the revising process. My goal is to get it into good enough shape to fling it out into the world for real in 2019- if I do my job right, then I might be in a position to jump in and do this again- this time though, for real, from scratch and the very beginning.

The process was interesting and yet very boring: I had an outline and I just followed that and took everything one section and one chapter at a time. A lot of times with my writing, I like to tinker around a lot- I like to get things 'perfect' and sometimes I overthink them. This time I just plowed through and kept right on going- all with the goal of getting to that elusive working draft that I wanted.

This is my first 'win' for NANOWRIMO. I sure hope it won't be my last.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Brexit: An Uninformed Opinion

I'm continually astonished at the internal politics of the British Conservative Party. We here on this side of the Pond only think we've got rough and tumble politics. There are headlines for days when Cocaine Mitch McConnell raises his voice above a creaky growl or when Ted Cruz gets shouted at by some unemployed baristas while he's trying to eat human meat at the secret Lizard Person Restaurant in D.C. that everyone knows about but no wants to mention out loud in public.

Kids, I'm telling you, it ain't nothing on the internal politics of the British Conservative Party. Game of Thrones? Pshaw. Who needs it! Get yourself some popcorn and a live blog from The Guardian or the Beeb and you'll have entertainment for days... it is, I imagine, somewhat like being trapped in a burlap sack with three hundred and thirty feral cats, most of whom are in heat. Someone might have a good time in a situation like that, but it probably won't be the Head Cat in Charge.

Look, there are fundamental problems with the EU as it's currently set up. It does involve surrendering a certain amount of sovereignty in the name of greater political and economic cooperation- but it comes with a lot of conveniences and economic benefits that it seems like a lot of Europeans are willing to go along with- at least to a point. I don't think Brexit is an isolated thing. I think if you pop the hood on any given European country and rooted around a little bit, you'd probably find that people aren't all that thrilled by having dictates handed down to them by a bunch of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. If strange women lying on their backs in ponds and handing out swords is no basis for a system of government, we can hardly be surprised when voters think the same things about the EU's distant, vaguely democratic governing structure.

So, yes, articles like this which want to save British democracy by 'taking back control'* aren't entirely wrong. But they all suffer from one fatal flaw: I don't think the Conservative Party under David Cameron called the referendum to actually give the voters a say in whether they wanted to Brexit or not. I think it was about shutting up the Eurosceptic wing of his party. I think it was about outflanking UKIP.** I don't for one second think that he actually thought the country would vote to leave...

And that's the flaming bag of dog shit that was handed to Theresa May and to be honest, she's done about as well you could expect for someone holding a bag of dog shit that's on fire. Granted, she illustrated why snap elections are never a good idea*** and thought she had a plan, which got laughed out of the room after Chequers and then managed to hammer out a deal with the EU which she presented to her Cabinet only to find out that as with such big, messy important things, the compromises necessary to produce anything at all please absolutely nobody.

To me, it was obvious that the politicians were only saying they wanted to Leave when they started negotiating with the EU to begin with. The British Government has been prairie-dogging this particular turd for months now, unsure if they want to shit or just get off the pot altogether. My preference would have been to shit from day one. (If you say you're going to do something, then do it. I don't really have an opinion on Brexit one way or the other. I can see why people wanted to Leave and I can for sure see why folks wanted to Remain.) Prepare for a No Deal Brexit. Send out your envoys to negotiate trade deals. Get some economic love going with the major Commonwealth countries. Figure out a deal with Ireland. And granted, I know, its far far more complicated than that. Undoing four decades of ties with Europe isn't something that one can do in a paragraph- but for crying out loud, you'd think that if they were committed to honoring this non-binding referendum of theirs that the Conservatives would have, I don't know, been ready to implement something with a modicum of competence on day one?

Preparing for a No Deal Brexit from Day One would have been a good start. Accepting that the EU was never going to give the UK a good deal from Day One would have been another. They don't want to give other member states ideas- it goes back to that fundamental problem with it's distant, vaguely democratic governing structure. People (he said, with no scientific basis for his assertion whatsoever) probably aren't crazy about having national governments be subject to some damn council somewhere else. They'll put up with it, because you know- EU passports, man. But I'm willing to bet they're not crazy about it. So they can't give the UK a nice pat on the back and an amicable divorce, because that would give voters in other countries ideas. And they can't be having that.

The bargaining chip for the UK should have been the divorce bill. The EU wants something like 39 billion pounds and any British Government coming to the table without a flaming bag of dog shit in its hand should have had the spine to say that not one pence would be paid until they get a deal they can live with.

So what now? Damned if I know. It's the greatest train wreck on planet Earth at the moment. Assuming Theresa May hasn't used up her nine lives by this point, I think she survives- if for no other reason than I don't think the Tories like Boris Johnson all that much and they probably like the thought of Jacob Reese-Mogg even less (I mean, I wasn't around when Stanley Baldwin was Prime Minister. It might be a novel experience to see what Reese-Mogg would be like in 10 Downing Street. Like Back To The Future cosplay gone awry.) The irony of ironies of course is that Scotland is watching carefully. Northern Ireland doesn't seem thrilled the prospect of being a doorstop or a backstop  or whatever the hell they're supposed to be. After staving off a vote on Scottish independence, a botched Brexit could lead to just that- with a bonus possibility of a united Ireland to boot.

How's that for a Brexit no one saw coming?

*'Taking Back Control' sounds an awful lot like 'Make America Great Again' or that probably forgotten Howard Dean slogan from '04: 'We're Going To Take Our Country Back.' The latter always perplexed me a bit. I mean, where did America go? Did it move in with Mom? Was there a custody battle of some kind?

**UKIP is a ridiculous name for a political party. It makes me think of fish. "You kip?" "Yes, please, but only on toast." "You kip if you want too, this fish is not for turning. Unless it's done on that side and you need to add some lemon."

***Do Tory Prime Ministers not read history anymore? Edward Heath called a snap election back in the 70s by asking the somewhat unfortunate question, 'Who Governs Britain?' The voters, somewhat surprised by the question decided that whomever it was going to be, it wasn't going to be Edward Heath anymore.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Worth Putting Into Words

I think it was Monday when I noticed that #SurvivorDay was trending on Twitter. I figured out quickly what it was and read through Tweet after Tweet, recognizing the familiarity of the pain of those left behind by suicide. Then, I really thought about doing what I usually do- which is keep it to myself. Never share, except with those very closest to me. It's not something that I've ever thought I could put into words, but for whatever reason, between those Tweets yesterday and one strange, beautiful moment over the weekend, I thought that now might be a good time to try.

(Maybe it's the weather or something in the air, but we're on our second welfare check of the day already. It's entirely possible that I'll write this post, read it, delete it and decide once more that it's not something that I can put into words. If you're reading this paragraph, then you'll know I decided to post it anyway. Because maybe some things are worth putting into words.)

So, Survivor Day.

I felt a tornado go by me once. I was in the library downtown and my ears popped as it roared through, carving a path of destruction through the rest of downtown, up Iowa Avenue and then out to the northeast. They sounded the all clear and we stumbled out of the library into darkness. There was no power. There were no street lights. Power lines were down all throughout the city. Gas lines were ruptured and you could hear them hissing in the darkness as you picked your way through the debris. Trees were everywhere. It was goddamn natural disaster.

So yeah, Survivor Day seems like a pretty accurate way to describe it, because suicide is a natural disaster for the people left behind. You're left standing in the rubble. Numb. Bruised. Broken. And you're not at all sure what to do with yourself. You run on automatic for awhile and eventually you come back to life, but everything is ever so slightly askew. Your universe is out of balance and always will be. That's really the hardest part to come to grips with.

"Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." You hear this so much, but it's true. It may not feel like it's ever going to get better, but it will. It may take weeks or months or years or finding the right combination of meds and therapy. You can be better though. It'll take time, but you can be better. So, if you're out there, reading this, please stay.

It's been a few years, so it's different now. The rubble has been cleared away, the house rebuilt. But it's different. You remember what it looked like before. It'll never look quite right to you again and the grief surprises you, often in ways you least expect.

We gave Kelvin a haircut over the weekend. His bangs were hanging over his eyes again and he was looking like a miniature version of Davy Jones from The Monkees. We took the plunge and gave him a buzz cut- because when you're in a house full of boys, you may as well keep it simple and just have shearing weekends every so often. As I was sitting there on the floor, looking up at him, holding the towel around his neck, so he wouldn't get too itchy we were laughing at him squirming and giggling when it tickled. As more and more of hair fell to the ground though, an extraordinary thing happened. For just a moment, one beautiful moment, I realized I was looking at my little brother.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Sportsyball: Purple With Frustration

Gather round, kids and let me tell you the story of why I hate Northwestern so much. It all begins, some years ago when the Missus, The Quiet Man and I were stuck at one of those random tables you find at weddings. You know the ones: you're not family but you're not in the bridal party, so you sort of get categorized into the 'friends' category and then sit around and stare at each other until someone begins to make random, awkward conversation.

That's pretty much how it went at this wedding. We listened to them talk about how they had gone up to Door County and rented a cabin for the weekend. And how they played badminton on the beach with their friends, all of whom seemed to have obnoxious, upper class names like Mitchell (or Muffy). Eventually, the awkward small talk phase of the evening began with an inquiry on how we all knew the bride. The Quiet Man and I explained that we had gone to high school with her, which lead to the following exchange:

Mitchell (or Muffy): Oh, so you guys went to Iowa then?

Me: Yep.

Mitchel (or Muffy): Beaten you guys four out of the last five years in football! We put that in our family Christmas letter.

Instantly, kids, Northwestern went from the nerd school that I couldn't care less about to the one school I hated more than any in the conference. (Nebraska slots in just behind them solely for their moronic and ridiculous insistence on having a Black Friday game which inevitably throws a wrench into my Thanksgiving plans every other year.) Whenever we beat Northwestern, I always think of Mitchell (or Muffy) and how sad their Christmas letter is going to be this year. When we lose to Northwestern, my blood boils at the thought of Mitchell (or Muffy) gleeful crafting their Christmas letter on expensive boutique artisan paper and including the news that once more Northwestern has beaten Iowa and made us look like fools. (Mitchell (or Muffy), of course, write on their boutique artisan paper with a pen so expensive, it's rage inducing.)

Is all of this just a little petty?  Well, yes. But it's Northwestern versus Iowa. The legend goes that back in the 80s, when Pat Fitzgerald was a player, one of Hayden Fry's teams evaporated Northwestern by a bunch of points. After the game, Fry said something to the effect of 'Hope we didn't hurt your boys too much.' That one, off-handed remark seemed to encode levels of petty, gleeful rage into Northwestern football that has only grown with the decades. They seem to revel in beating Iowa. They get amped up for it. Every year, they seem to come down to the metaphorical gun fight with big, scary looking guns and it's only about halfway through the second quarter that we seem to realize that we're holding a butter knife because we left our six shooter in the team bus.

All of which brings me back around to this: I hate losing to Northwestern.

I think the biggest challenge facing the Iowa football program is probably how to manage Kirk's eventual exit/retirement. I don't know if we'll ever get another Coach to stay here twenty years like he has- and increasingly, tenure such as his seems to be the exception and not the rule, but knowing when to say goodbye is probably the hardest part- especially if you're still relatively young and you still feel like you've got gas left in the tank.

Perfectly competent and average football is nothing to be sneezed at. Plenty of programs have fired Coaches and in retrospect probably regretted it. (See: Minnesota and Glen Mason, Tennessee and well, the last ten years or so.) I'd like to think my expectations are somewhat realistic compared to other folks in the fan base. I don't expect to make the playoff every year. I'm not asking to compete for the 'natty. I also remember when it was pretty cool just to make a bowl game.

But when you begin to see diminishing returns on your baseline for success, it's time to step back and ask if we should be better than this. Maybe this question is premature. Maybe they get monumentally pissed off and unleash three games worth of frustration on Illinois and Nebraska and we finish 8-4. Or maybe we continue to be maddeningly middling and we finish 6-6. But for so long, Iowa's brand of football has been sold to fans as a bowl of Grape Nuts. It's not particularly exciting. It doesn't necessarily look all that great. But if you eat it long enough, you'll see the health benefits.  But the problem with eating Grape Nuts is that eventually you get sick of 'em- but they're also healthy enough for you that you can't really justify not eating them.

We lost to Northwestern. I hate losing to Northwestern. I'm not really sure I'm on the 'fire everybody' bandwagon just yet, but I know for damn sure I'm getting mighty sick of Grape Nuts.