Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Squawk Box: The Looming Tower/The First

Squawk Box this month features two limited series, both from Hulu: The Looming Tower and The First. I would probably put both of these shows squarely into the category of 'good, but not great' but for entirely different reasons. The Looming Tower suffers somewhat from the fact that everyone knows how the story is going to end, while The First aims incredible high and tries to deliver the goods but sort of gets lost in a muddle of family drama instead.

The Looming Tower is a ten episode mini-series based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright. It tells the story of the growing threat of Al-Qaeda in the mid-to-late 1990s and details the rivalry between the FBI and CIA and how it might have contributed to the tragedy of September 11th. Jeff Daniels stars as John O'Neill, the chief of the FBI's New York Counterterrorism Center known as I-49 who is convinced that Al-Qaeda is targeting the United States for attack. Joining him as a new agent is Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) a Muslim Lebanese-American FBI agent who joins the squad and eventually becomes a protoge of O'Neill's- he is infuriated by the perversion of Islam by the terrorists and goes undercover into their gathering spaces to try and gather information on their activities.

Opposing them- and really, they're made out to be the villains of the story, is the CIA Counterterrorism Center known as Alec Station. Headed initially by Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) and then by Diane Marsh (Wrenn Schmidt) the CIA members of the team all believe that their agency is prepared to combat terrorist threats and, more importantly, that they are the only ones who can. Throughout the series, they consistently withhold information from the FBI while both teams work together to thwart possible terrorist attacks on American soil.

Ultimately, they don't succeed and it's not at all clear that any lessons were learned from it. Here's the thing though... I wanted to say that the events depicted in the series are too close, from a historical point of view, but it has been damn near two decades since September 11th. Which means that proximity to the events shouldn't be as much of an issue, yet to me, it feels like one. There's no new insights to be had here. No real groundbreaking thoughts. It's Zero Dark Thirty for a streaming service. Which is perfectly fine and even good television at the end of the day, but that's all it is. I feel like it could have been more.

The First is shorter than The Looming Tower by two episodes and centers around Sean Penn's astronaut Tom Hagerty. The series opens with Tom watching a mission to Mars launch from the comfort of his home in New Orleans. It feels like he should be on the ship, but he's not- which turns out to be a good thing, because it explodes shortly after launch. Tom runs to the launch site and frantically coordinates clearing away the balloons and the celebratory decorations before the stunned and grieving families arrive.

The failure of the mission and the death of the astronauts throws the entire Mars program into doubt, which sends Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone) the CEO of the launch provider, Vista to Washington along with Tom to lobby the President and Congress for funding to complete the mission. Meanwhile, the ground team lead by Eitan Hafri (Oded Fehr) work on finding out what happened to the first mission while planning for the second-- Laz, wants Tom to come back onboard, but Tom is reluctant.

We find out through flashbacks about the struggles that the various members of the team go through about their decision to go to Mars and Tom's is tinged with tragedy, as his daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron)  is struggling with the tragedy of her mother, Diane's (Melissa George) suicide and her own addiction to drugs. She relapses at least once over the course of the series and Tom is wracked with guilt over wanting to go to Mars but not wanting to abandon his only child in the process. Ultimately, he asks for her permission to go, and initially, she won't give him an answer either way- but eventually, relents and absolves him of his decision and the two of them come to- if not forgiveness, then at least an understanding with each other as Tom and the crew depart for their journey to Mars.

It's an honest and interesting look at the human struggle behind spaceflight, so I'll give The First some credit: it's a new and even fresh take on the whole 'space' genre. That said: I think eight episodes was way too short. There wasn't enough time to really meet and connect with the other characters and their struggles. There was some science-y stuff, but not enough. While Sean Penn can indeed act, eight episodes of him looking anguished over what at the very core of it, is a selfish decision gets to be a bit much after awhile. Plus: it's called The First but you don't actually get to see any of them set foot on Mars. And now that it's been canceled, we'll never see them set foot on Mars at all.

Overall: If you liked Zero Dark Thirty and docudramas about events you've already lived through, then The Looming Tower will work just fine for you. If you're a space nut or a Sean Penn fan, I'd recommend watching The First, but if you're hoping for Mars, prepare your expectations for low Earth orbit instead and you'll probably be okay with it.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Netflix & Chill #57: Spiderman Into The Spider-Verse

Watched On: The Big Screen!
Released: 2018
Directed By: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfield, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Pick: Mine

I took the boys to see this over the holidays and am just now getting around to sitting down and banging out a review of it. But I'll make it short, sweet and to the point: this might be one of the best Spider-Man movies ever made.

The story begins with Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) on his way to an affluent boarding/charter school which he won a lottery to attend. His father, a police officer by the name of Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and his mother, Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez) a nurse have high expectations for Miles and despite wanting to go back to the public school he used to attend and feeling like doesn't fit in at his boarding school, he can't quite escape the fact that he might actually belong there. His Dad views Spider-Man as a menace, while Miles admires him- and sneaks out after school to visit his Uncle, Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) who estranged from Miles' father and takes him to an abandoned subway station where he can practice his graffiti- while there, he's bitten by a radioactive spider.

He returns to the station the next day to search for the spider, but finds a particle accelerator built by Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber) who is trying to break through to other dimensions to find versions of his dead wife and son who died in a car crash. Miles watches as Spider-Man attempts to stop Fisk, but is gravely wounded by the Prowler and Green Goblin. Spider-Man (Chris Pine) seeing Miles and recognizing that he has spider powers as well, gives him a USB port to plug into the accelerator in order to destroy it and warns Miles that the entire city is at risk if Fisk turns it out again. Fisk then kills Spider-Man as Miles watches.

Miles tries to master his abilities, but damages the USB drive in the process. Despondent, he goes to Peter Parker's grave and meets Peter B. Parker (Jack Johnson) a depressed and worn down Spider-Man from another dimension who is divorced from Mary Jane and who's Aunt May is dead. He reluctantly agrees to train Miles and help him create a new drive in exchange for getting back home to his own dimension. Breaking into the Kingpin's facility, they get the data that they need, but the Kingpin's chief scientist (Kathryn Hahn) warns that Peter will deteriorate and even die unless he gets back to his own dimension. Miles and Peter, of course, wind up getting into trouble and then get rescued by Spider-Woman (Hailee Stanfield) and soon enough they find other Spider-People from different dimensions as well: Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage.)

Together, with the help of this universe's Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) they band together to take down Fisk and get back to their own dimensions-- but not before Miles finds out some secrets about his family and finally learns to master his abilities as Spider-Man for himself. Peter returns to his dimension, revitalized and ready to try and repair his broken marriage to his Mary Jane. Miles settles into his responsibilities as Spider-Man in his own Universe and, at the very end of the movie Gwen Stacey figures out a way to contact him across dimensions, setting up the inevitable (and personally anticipated) sequel.

First of all: it looks beautiful. It combines contemporary CGI with hand drawn animation in a way that is visually stunning and really does feel like you've stepped right inside a comic book. Absolutely like nothing I've ever seen before in animation.

Second of all: wow! The possibilities! The story! The Spider-People all over the place! It's such a massive breath of fresh air for the franchise because it links Miles Morales into the existing Spider-Man franchise by establishing the concept of a multi-verse, but it also allows Spider-Verse to branch out into I don't even know how many different directions! This honored the origin story of the original Spider-Man while establishing a brand new one (several brand new ones!) in a way that felt organic and entirely authentic. I think the fact that Miles Morales as a character has been around for a little bit and is already quite established in the comics helps this film avoid any of the usual fanboy charges that seem to stalk all these films as well.

Finally and this is probably the biggest thing for me: the boys were absolutely entranced for pretty much the whole movie. Even the Medium Spawn paid attention to it-- it was the perfect introduction to Spider-Man for my boys and that made me very happy indeed.

Overall: An excellent and beautiful addition to the Spider-Man franchise, Spider-Verse breaks new ground, sets up intriguing possibilities all over the multi-verse and delivers one kick-ass movie to boot. This is a movie that I have a feeling is going to end up as a birthday or Christmas present for at least one of the boys this year. My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, February 9, 2019

This Week In Vexillology #282

Our tour of the counties of England continues this week with our next two counties on deck-- now, in a twist, I was going to go with Derbyshire and Leicestershire, but the latter doesn't seem to have a wiki-page for it's flag- and it's flag seems to be that of it's county council and not of the county itself. I think this is the first county I've come across that doesn't have a historical flag or hasn't seen a move to create it's own flag. So for now, I'm going to mull it over and see if I want to include county councils and 'count' them in this tour or not. I might come back to Leicestershire-- I might not. But this week, we're keeping Derbyshire and skipping over to Nottinghamshire instead.

Let's start with Derbyshire:

The first and most obvious question: where the hell is Derbyshire? Find Manchester and if you sort of go east from Manchester and find Sheffield and then go dead south from Sheffield until you find Derby and you've found Derbyshire. Very roughly speaking, the county is ringed by Birmingham, Stoke-On-Trent, Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester. What is the county famous for? Well...  there's Bakewell Tarts and Derby County football (one of these days they're going to get promoted to the Premier League) but really, it's the Peak District that gives the county it's natural beauty and probably the large portion of it's 'fame.' Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is from Derbyshire. Portions of The Princess Bride were filmed there. D.H Lawrence, Walter Scott and Tom Stoppard have also set various works of literature in the county.

So let's talk about their flag. There's a lot to like about it- it follows a pattern we see in a lot of county flags, using St. George's Cross as a foundation for their own flag, but Derbyshire makes their cross a little thicker than usual, which makes it stand out a little bit. The blue being lighter in color helps the green cross pop out a little more which in turn, focuses your attention more on the rose at the center of the flag. Overall, it's a really effective design.

It was designed by Martin Enright and, like so many county flags, came after someone noticed that another county (specifically, Cornwall) had their own flag and wondered if Derbyshire had something of their own. A campaign was launched and eventually on September 22nd, 2006, the flag was unfurled and subsequently registered with the Flag Institute.

The blue and the green were chose to represent the green countryside of the county as well as it's rivers and reservoirs. The rose at the center of the flag is a Tudor rose, which has been the county badge since the 1470s-- though, it's gold in color, to differentiate it from the emblems of Yorkshire and Lancashire- and the gold also apparently stands for quality.

Next up, Nottinghamshire:
Finding Nottinghamshire is actually pretty simple. Find London on the map and then follow the M-1 north to Leeds and at some point you'll slide past the city of Nottingham. Head slightly north-north east of that until you're more or less directly between Chesterfield and Lincoln and you'll be smack dab in the middle of Nottinghamshire. Located on the Roman Fosse Way, settlement in the region dates back to Roman Times. (Also: if you've ever been to the UK and find yourself on a very straight road for an extended period of time, it's probably Roman.) It shouldn't be a galloping shock to find out that the legend of Robin Hood is very popular here-- but also, Lord Byron and D.H. Lawrence hail from the county and Nottingham Forest is kicking around the English Championship while Notts County and Mansfield Town are toiling in League Two.

So, let's talk about their flag. Again, no surprise that Robin Hood is the central element of the flag. And St. George's Cross appears as a design element again- though, in contrast to the thicker version that Derbyshire uses, this one is more conventional and bordered with a white line. The flag's wiki-page doesn't include an official explanation of the shade of green, but what with Robin Hood being so central to the flag, 'Sherwood Forest' or 'forests in general' seem to be a logical leap that I'm willing to make. The Robin Hood silhouette is specifically James Woodford's bronze statue of Robin Hood which is located in the city of Nottingham.

And that's Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, February 8, 2019

Free Write Friday #6: Welcome To The Core

The Core World, a massive world where all members of every single sentient race are reincarnated, is descending into chaos as an unprecedented number of 7 billion humans are reincarnated due to a mass extinction event.

I always get nervous when the moons are full. Not that you can really see them that well—there are too many hyper towers and skyscrapers and the light pollution is horrific until they kill the lights in the Justice Tower Complex and it abates somewhat. So that was my first signal that it was going to be a bad shift.  The second signal was when, on their way out of the door, Gelsanganaranix, whose species didn’t really have a name other than ‘blue’, said with a sneer, “I hope you have a quiet night.”

“Thanks, Gels,” I said. “I hope your mother turns purple.”

“Bite me, meat stick,” it replied. Purple was a highly offensive color in their culture. Then it left and I made some coffee and settle down for my shift.  Central Dispatch at the Justice Tower Complex was usually a relatively simple assignment. Process new arrivals and send them down the right junctions to be reincarnated and either returned to their home worlds or released out into The Core to find their species enclaves to begin new lives. It was dull, work and nights were usually fairly steady, but never as insane as your average day cycle or even evening cycles. The night cycle was where it was at.

And for the first four hours, everything went just fine. I forget about Gels and his use of the ‘q’ word. I forgot about the moons being full. I processed a shipload of Tau Cetians that had gotten caught in a black hole. I handled a family of refugees from Vercingetorix IX. There was a steady stream of marine-based alien life from the moons of Calamar- it was mating season and they hadn’t quite figured out how to evolve past the pesky and annoying habit of dying once they reached their mating grounds and did the deed.

I was on my third cup of coffee when the trouble really began. An incoming alarm sounded, which isn’t all that unusual, but the rumbling that followed wasn’t at all usual. I brought up the main screen and checked.  Somewhere in the western spiral arm of the galaxy…  I zoomed down. Sol. Third planet. There was a civilization there, but a relatively primitive one, not yet connected to the rest of the Galactic Federation. Pre-Interstellar flight… and…  oh no. A coronal mass ejection? That meant…

The Core’s system for handling incoming arrivals could take a lot. When the Untaxians and Orions had gone to war, we had been getting arrivals for days, in batches of hundreds and thousands at a time. But this… alarms began sounding as the system groaned under the strain. Another new, alarm- one that I had never heard of began to sound. I whirled around and ran over to the main control panel to see what it was. It was teal green and said WARNING: MASS EXTINCTION EVENT.

I ran back to my console and opened a channel. “All units, all units respond back to the Justice Tower Complex. We have a Mass Extinction Event underway.”

There was a long silence before I heard the first units respond. Then the supervisor appeared on the vid-link. “Stravanka, this better not be one of your-“ she paused as she saw the chaos behind me and heard the noise. “By all the moons,” she gasped.

“Not a joke ma’am,” I yelled. “I need help. Now.”

“We’re on the way,” she replied. Then the vid screen went blank. More alarms start going off and adding to the cacophony of noise. I ran over to the window and watched. The arrival port—whatever it was, no one has even really figured it out. It’s just where you show up for reincarnation was pulsing an odd and disturbing shade of puce that I had never seen before. Then, they began to arrive.

It was horrifying to watch, in a way. I mean, everyone comes to a soft landing, more or less. You don’t just go splat when you hit the arrival port. But it was a rain of beings. Sentient beings. Falling in a stream out of the arrival port. The counter on the wall was going crazy, running through numbers faster than I thought possible. Hundreds, then thousands, then millions, then billions and it kept going higher and higher and- I ran back to the main control panel and opened up all the assignment lanes and kicked them into high gear. Normally, we try and sort by species as best we can but now, with so many coming all at once, we couldn’t risk jamming the system. It was all hands on deck- and I hoped like hell that the system would be able to handle it.

The flashing lights out of my window let me know that my units had arrived to triage the scene as best they could, but I was concerned with making sure the system didn’t seize up or break. So far it was handling it- but-

The next few hours were a blur and before I knew it, the moons had set and the first hint of the sun was appearing in the northern sky. The sound of the door opening made me turn  and I snapped to attention as the Chief walked in.

“Damn fine job tonight, Stravanka,” it said. “Damn fine job.”

“Thank you, Chief.”

“I didn’t even know that mass extinction events were still possible,” The Chief said. “How many did we end up with?”

“Little over seven billion,” I replied.

“Eesh,” The Chief replied.

“We’re having a hell of a time figuring out where to put them all, Chief,” I said. “It’s not like they’ve got a home to return to.”

“We’ve dispatched the fleet to assess the situation,” The Chief replied. “It might not be totally irretrievable. We can always terraform them a place.”

“True,” I replied.

The Chief shook their ganglia, a look of amazement on their face. “A mass extinction event, who would have thought it.”

“Maybe we make sure they can do interstellar travel before we send them somewhere?” I suggested. 

“It’d be easier on the system that’s for sure.”

“I agree,” The Chief said. “Whatever the bigwigs figure out, we’ll make do. We’re The Core, after all. There’s always another mega habitat or four we can build.”

“Welcome to The Core,” I replied.

“Welcome to The Core,” The Chief repeated.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

2020 Candidates, Konmaried

Yes, unfortunately, the circus is getting back up and running again, so that means we're going to start talking about 2020 here and there and by March we're really going to be talking about 2020 and by the fall we're all going to be sick to death of 2020 and by the time election day comes around in November of 2020 it's going to be a wonder any of us actually bother to vote at all. But anyway: people are starting to run for President. Like, a lot of people. I'll probably revisit this list as it gets smaller over the next few months but for now, here's the comprehensive list I used.

It's way too early to get a sense of what the dynamics of the 2020 race are going to be like. It's going to be interesting though: none of these Democratic candidates are nearly as polarizing as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. (As always with Mrs. Clinton: a lot of the garbage flung at her over the decades has been extremely sexist and more than a little unfair. However, you can't deny that in 2016, she was a candidate that people either absolutely loved or absolutely hated and there was very little wiggle room off of those two polar opposite reactions.) What this President is going to do against a candidate that people don't find to be all that polarizing is going to be fascinating to find out.

So, let's get sorting. There's like a million and a half of these people, so it's hard to put together a good ranked list yet, but we can sort, find out which of these candidates doesn't bring us joy and which needs to be folded neatly into thirds and put back in a drawer until next year.

These Candidates (Potential Or Actual) Bring Me Joy:
Kamala Harris: strong start, but a lot of question marks about her record as a prosecutor.

Amy Klobuchar: really hoping she jumps in, because really, why not? Bipartisan record, focused on policy. Midwestern.

Cory Booker: His opening ad might have overdone it with the inspirational rhetoric, but I've always thought he was an interesting guy. Downside: if we elect the first vegan president we'll never hear the end of it.

Pete Buttigeig: Mayor of South Bend. Young. Interesting issues. Gay. Married. Veteran. If he makes it to the fall, he could catch fire. Has the young telegenic thing going for him with policy specifics to boot.

John Delaney: has practically moved to Iowa since 2017. Been doing the work long before anyone else got into the race at all.

Sherrod Brown: Little bit of Biden, little bit of Bernie but a couple of decades younger. Plus, he's Rust Belt, which could help.

John Hickenlooper: Governor that as far as I know has a decent record in a purple-ish state.

These Candidates (Potential Or Actual) Might Bring Me Joy:
Julian Castro: I really want him to separate himself from the pack a little. So far, so 'meh.'

Tulsi Gabbard: has shown willingness to challenge party orthodoxy in the past, but has also had photo ops with Assad.  Need to do more research here.

Steve Bullock: Governor of a Red State, doesn't look like we're going to hear one way or another until Montana's legislative session wraps up in May.

Elizabeth Warren: The DNA test might well prove to be her undoing, but she's tough on Wall Street- I just don't know if Leftist Populism is going to be able to overcome Trump-Flavored Populism.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Was a Conservative Blue Dog Democrat until about ten minutes ago in the grand scheme of things. Could be a sign of a politician willing to have their views evolve. Could be seen as opportunistic- and so what if she was a Conservative Democrat like ten minutes ago? So was the President.

Beto O'Rourke: I really dislike the gooey eyed media coverage and verbs like Kennedy-esque. His whole blogging stint seems like the most unconventional way possible to test the Presidential waters, but does conventional wisdom even matter anymore? I mean, look who's President.

Joe Biden: Uncle Joe! Has the working class blue collar thing going on that should play well in the Rust Belt. But isn't all that great at running for President. Plus, fair or not: he old.

Bernie Sanders: Feel the Bern One More Time? Maybe. He's moved the Democrats to the left. Has the name recognition and it would actually be pretty interesting to see how he'd do against President Trump. But downside: he old.

These Candidates (Potential Or Actual) Don't Bring Me Joy:
Marianne Williamson: Oprah's spiritual guru. Talks a lot about 'miracles.'

Andrew Yang: the UBI guy! Props to him for pushing the issue into the conversation, but don't think this is his year.

Jay Inslee: Saw something that he was going to run on Climate Change and just that. Maybe run on the importance of vaccines, instead?

Jeff Merkley: Consistent on Civil Liberties. Have no idea if he's going to run or not.

John Kerry: Nope. We tried this before in 2004, remember?

Michael Bloomberg: Hard pass.

Bill De Blasio: Super hard pass.

Terry McAuliffe: Meh.

Michael Bennett: Nice speech on the Senate floor during the Shutdown, but is it enough for a Presidential run?

Eric Swalwell: who?

Eric Holder: Not against this notion, necessarily. I seem to remember him being a decent attorney general, but it's a crowded field.

Tim Ryan: who?

Wild Cards:
Howard Schulz: the panic and immediate MUST DESTROY mode that Democrats went into was laughable. I'm not a fan because I don't want billionaires thinking they can just run for President because they're bored or whatever. The reality so far is that he seems to be a complete muddled mess and the only way I can see him catching fire and becoming Ross Perot is if Hillary Clinton ran for an won the nomination again. If we get a repeat of Trump-Clinton then yes, I think the country will be quite happy to vote for someone else. Anyone else. But the odds of the voters warming up to a non-orange colored billionaire don't seem that great. Nominate someone who's not wildly out of step with the general electorate and you'll be fine, Democrats.

A GOP Challenger: I think it depends on how the rest of President Trump's year goes. I think it depends on what, if anything, there is Mueller's Final Report. But Larry Hogan? John Kasich? I don't see a credible primary challenger at the moment, but you can't rule it out either.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Bookshot #116: Gladstone

God bless Roy Jenkins. The man was an incredible historian, a verbose writer and a biographer extraordinaire of I don't know how many British leaders- but he also deserves some recognition for producing books that can double both as paperweights and doorstops if necessary, because dear Lord in heaven, does the man write exhaustively about his subjects.

Gladstone is one such staggering achievement. His biography of Churchill awaits my attention at some future date- (I'll need some time to recover from Gladstone.)

Jenkins immediately teases the reader from the opening pages: he considers Gladstone to be the greatest person to hold the office of Prime Minister- and then spends the next seven hundred pages or so making his case. But that initial hook was enough to get me interested. I didn't know a lot about Prime Ministers outside of the 20th Century. I have William Hague's biography of Pitt the Younger still kicking about somewhere that I need to tackle. I read an excellent history of the full breadth of the Napoleonic Wars that opened my eyes to the complexities of that particular conflict and of course, I knew who both Gladstone and Disraeli were and honesty, found the latter far more intriguing than the former.

By the end of this book, however, I'd changed my mind and was convinced. It's hard to think of another Prime Minister that dominated British politics the way Gladstone did over the course of the 19th Century. He was Prime Minister for twelve years, spread out over four terms. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer four times. He formed his last government, in 1892 at the ripe old age of 82. So, he's got the longevity in office to back up the claim that he's the G.O.A.T of British Prime Ministers- but there are other things to consider too.

Probably the biggest is Ireland: Gladstone sensed (correctly, as it turned out) that something needed to be done about Ireland and some form of devolution or as it was called back then 'Home Rule' was the most likely solution. Convinced by the rightness of his cause, he tried to force a bill through the Commons once and his government collapsed because of it. Coming back into office for one last time, he tried again and got the bill through the Commons only to see it go down hard in the House of Lords. The Liberal Party actually split over the issue and it kept them out of power as the majority party for at least two decades. I think that was probably the biggest thing I took away from reading this book: Gladstone knew that it was going to split his party. He knew there were going to be long term electoral consequences to this- but he also knew that giving Ireland some form of Home Rule was in the national interest and so he did it anyway. By that point in his career, his domination of both Parliament and his party was such that he was probably the only leader of any stature that could get that done by sheer force of will. He ultimately failed, but one has to wonder how the history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it came to Ireland would be different if he had succeeded.

The second thing worth noting, I think is probably electoral reform. I think I need to go back and read that biography of Pitt The Younger to really get a good handle on this, because British advancement toward universal suffrage didn't go in a simple straight line the way America's has*- in America, we went from white men who owned property to white men to (in theory at least) men and then to men and women and finally (in theory at least) everybody. The 19th Century seems to have been a slow, protracted fight about letting more and more people into the franchise while the Establishment/aristocracy/gentry clutched their pearls in horror at the notion of letting gasp the common people actually vote.

Finally, there's the speeches and the effect on modern political campaigns. There's little snippets of Gladstone's voice out there you can listen to to get- if not an idea, then at least a little hint at his oratorical style and his famous Midlothian Campaign is considered by many to be the foundation of modern political campaigning.

Gladstone had some quirks that are sort of hard to get used to- but probably made a lot of sense in the context of the Victorian Age. The early chapters are drowning in various theological debates about disestablishmentarianism (my favorite word) and it's...  complicated. And a little deep, but I think if you can make it through those chapters you'll be okay. Gladstone also had this thing where he would try and reform prostitutes by talking to them. (Also, a little strange.)

Overall: a doorstop of a political biography, Roy Jenkins states his case for Gladstone being the G.O.A.T right at the start and then proceeds to tell you everything you ever possibly wanted to know about Gladstone and 19th Century Politics and then some. Comprehensive and thorough, by the end of the book, Jenkins has made his case. Gladstone might well be the greatest to ever hold the office, but given the current mess of British politics, you can't help but wonder what he'd think of it all. My Grade: Jenkins remains the go-to biographer of British politics and Gladstone is no exception. **** out of ****

Saturday, February 2, 2019

This Week In Vexillology #281

We're heading back across England this week (after a random week off) to take a look at our next two counties on our Grand Tour of England. This Week In Vexillology, we've got Shropshire and Staffordshire.

First up, Shropshire. Tucked away on the Welsh border, Shropshire shows up in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as far back as 1006. The main town in the county is Shrewsbury and it's  demonym, interestingly enough is Salopian. (Which ties neatly into the county's motto: 'Floreat Salopia', or 'May Shropshire Flourish.') It's got the River Severn, the Shropshire Hills and this bad-ass looking hill called The Wreckin. What's the best way to get there? Depends on what you want to do-- you can find Birmingham and head northwest toward Wales or you can find Liverpool and head south. When you hit Shrewsbury, you've found Shropshire.

So, let's talk about their flag:
First impression: cool. I love the 'W' and the cat faces...  the colors are striking as well. The flag itself was registered with the Flag Institute in March of 2012. It's the banner of arms of the former Shropshire County Council that was awarded way back in 1895. The kitties? They're actually jaguars and are referred to as 'loggerheads' by the local folks- they date back to 1623. While England (to the best of my knowledge) doesn't have any native jaguars, the 'loggerheads' name seems to be a reference to the practice of carving some kind of face or motif into battering rams back in the day. The gold ermine pattern provides a contrast between the county flag and a lot of the city flags/county town flags which have a white ermine pattern.

Next up, Staffordshire. Right next door to Shropshire in the West Midlands, Staffordshire's largest city is Stroke-On-Trent and... the largest hoard of gold is discovered in a field near Litchfield in 2009? (I know Staffordshire has to be more interesting than that, but literally that's the only thing that jumped out at me on their wiki-page.) How do you get there? Well, find Birmingham and head north until you find Stafford. (Apparently Stoke-On-Trent has it's own metropolitan council and isn't- at least on the Googles, included in the boundaries of the actual county itself- but historically it is part of the county proper.) If you reach Macclesfield, you've gone too far.

Let's talk about their flag:
First impression: another striking flag. I love the colors. I love the knot. I love the simplicity of it- it's not busy, it's got a nice clean design. Registered with the Flag Institute in March of 2016, it takes a Stafford knot in gold and places it on the de Stafford Coat of Arms-- it also incorporates a portion of the arms of the Staffordshire County Council. The red and gold color scheme is seen on many arms found into the county including those of Keele University. There's not too much more to it than that, except that it's a perfect tie-in to the motto of the county: 'The knot unites.'

And that Shropshire and Staffordshire! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!