Monday, February 29, 2016

February On Medium

Not much to report this month- I decided to accelerate my 'Reinvention' series by combining 'The Personal and The Pipedreams' into one post. I'll be wrapping that up next month- but for now, stop by and check out:

The Reinvention: The Personal and The Pipedreams

In the short fiction department, I dug deep into the archives and found the perfect story for Valentine's Day (which I feel might be bending my self-imposed rules a little bit, but I was hoping to use February to push forward on Book #3 a bit, but that quickly fell by the wayside.) Anyway- just for Valentine's Day, please check out:

The Rose

Enjoy! Hopefully I can produce something worth reading in March.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

This Week In Vexillology #155

This Week In Vexillology, we're heading back across the Atlantic and down the Caribbean to take a look at the other half of the island of Hispanola, with the flag of the Dominican Republic:

Adopted on November 6, 1844 for national and civil usage, the red and blue in the flag are taken from the flag of Haiti, which once controlled the Dominican Republic until it's independence in 1844. A movement known as La Trinitaria (it's kind of a weird historical parallel, but the three men that formed the movement to win the country of independence found their female counterparts in the Mirabal sisters, whose assassination by Trujillo galvanized opposition to his regime.)  was formed to free the country and succeeded in doing so- the white cross is the symbol of that independence movement. (The Coat of Arms I'll break down in a second- but it only appears on the flag for national and state usage- the regular, every day civil flag doesn't have them.)

After independence, the Dominican Republic had a rough go of it, briefly reverting to colonial status before finally securing it's independence in 1865 after another conflict. The 20th Century saw an eight year occupation by the United States and dictatorships which included Rafael Trujillo. (If you're interested in a fictional account of the latter days of the Trujillo regime, go find Mario Vargas Llosa's The Feast of the Goat and read it. Right now.)

So, these are the coat of arms that appear on the flag. The motto on the blue scroll above the shield is the password of the independence movement. The red scroll below bears the name of the state. The shield is quarters in the colors of the flag with six spears, three on each side supporting the flag, The small gold cross and the open Bible (yes, that's supposed to be a Bible, opened to John 8:32) which bears the verse, 'Y la verdad os hara libre'  or, 'And the truth shall make you free.' A bay laurel branch appears on the left and a palm frond appears on the right. 

And that's the flag of the Dominican Republic! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying, FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, February 26, 2016

My Vote Project: Schaudenfreude City

Let's just go ahead and say it: Donald Trump, in all likelihood is going to be the Republican nominee for President. I had some hopes for Nevada... Trump didn't seem able to break through that 35% ceiling and the numbers were suggesting that, once the non-Trump vote was able to consolidate somewhat, he'd turn into a pumpkin and we could all go home. And then Nevada happened and blew that idea straight out of the water.

Trump break through that 35% ceiling, soaring to 46% and leaving behind Rubio (24%) and Cruz (21%) in second and third place respectively. Carson and Kasich pulled up 4.8% and 3.6% respectively- but no one has any idea what Carson is doing in the race any more and Kasich had written off Nevada and moved on to other things (like Michigan and saying things like this- which should really cause him to reassess his entire campaign.) Anyway- the idea that non-Trump votes will go universally to non-Trump candidates just doesn't hold up, I don't think. (A Trump preference cascade? It could be coming.)

I don't get it. The dude was a pro-choice Democrat like ten seconds ago and now he's well on his way to being the Republican nominee for President and he's doing it by committing heresy after heresy and not giving a damn about it. Maybe that fits the mood of the country- maybe our give a damn is broken and if that's the case, then you could argue that Trump is the perfect candidate for these times we live in. But... man oh man, why? The dude spits out word salads instead of policy positions, throws temper tantrums in public and gets away with it and not to mention the fact that while I think the immigration system is broken, I don't want hordes of Trumpian Brownshirts conducting door to door round-ups of illegal immigrants next year. There has to be a not insane solution to this problem. One that doesn't take us down the road to something that (sniff, sniff) well, if it smells like fascism and looks like fascism, maybe it actually fucking well is fascism.

The Republican Debate last night didn't seem to help matters any. Where the hell was this Rubio in January? Where the hell were these attacks in November or December? The other candidates have spent months dismissing, laughing and waving Trump away. They're not laughing any more- and it may be too damn late. (I feel like Kasich, while not attacking Trump directly might have missed out on a chance to lift himself above the fray, but I also think in a situation like this, being the grown up at the kid's table helps- and he certainly came across that way.) Maybe something will shift before Super Tuesday, but I feel like if Cruz, Rubio and Kasich don't win Texas, Florida and Ohio, it's Trump. If two out of three win their home states, we could be headed for a brokered convention.

The Democrats seem to be heading toward 'conventional wisdom' again. Despite the fact that I think it's mainly wishful thinking on the part of Conservatives at this point, I don't think Hillary Clinton is going to get indicted- either because there's straight up not enough there- or, more to the point, what we don't know and she must know about the current administration. But I still wonder... there are whispers and it just won't seem to go away and if something doesn't go away after this long, you have to wonder if there's not a touch of truth to it- somewhere.

Maybe the electorate on the Democratic side of things has a few more surprises left in it- but I think another solid Clinton win in South Carolina means that Bernie is looking at increasingly few pockets of territory where he can expect to potentially win. (New England, Minnesota/Wisconsin, the Pacific Northwest would be my bets.) This means his path to an upset and the nomination is looking increasingly narrow.

So where does this leave me and my vote? Nowhere good- in fact, I have to face up to the possibility of tactical voting this time around. How does that play out? Something like this:

The two mainstream, Corporate parties nominate people I detest (Trump) or dislike (Clinton) and I have to hold my nose and pick one to avoid the other being elected. The nice thing is that in this scenario, I have up until Election Day to decide, really- if polls in Iowa are close enough to make a difference, I might pull the trigger on this notion. If polls are outside the margin of error one way or the other, then that frees me up to consider other options. The third permutation to all this is if the national picture is pretty damn obvious- to the point where it won't matter where Iowa's electoral votes fall that too, would free me up to consider other options as well.

I hate it... especially since it's hardly a wasted vote if all the two mainstream, Corporate parties do is make shit worse, but Trump? As President? Nope. Nope. Nope. Can't do it,won't do it and if it's close enough to make a difference to vote for the other candidate, I might have to do it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' --A Review

It took the Missus and I a good month longer than the rest of the known universe- but we did it, we made it to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and you know what? This was a movie that lived up to the hype and delivered on everything you could have possibly wanted in a new Star Wars movie. I fully admit that I felt a little bit of trepidation when they announced the new trilogy. The prequels had been... underwhelming (and quickly overshadowed by The Clone Wars, at least in my book.) It seemed like a risky bet- with so much hype, there was a danger that they wouldn't be able to deliver. But with a good screenwriter, a great cast (including many stalwarts from the original trilogy) they delivered a new story, new dangers and left lots of intriguing, unanswered questions for people to ponder as they await the next sequel. (I'm going to assume that everyone has seen this movie by now, but just in case, I'll try and keep it as spoiler-free as possible. But, be warned.)

Set thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker has vanished and the Rebel Alliance's victory over the Rebels has been somewhat of a pyrrhic victory. While there is a new Republic, much of the galaxy is still frozen in conflict between the remnants of the old Empire- now reformed as The First Order and The Resistance. The movie opens with a resistance pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) landing on the planet Jakku to meet with an elder who had a clue to Luke's location. While there, the First Order attacks the village and Poe is captured, but his droid, BB-8, flees.

BB-8 eventually meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who resides on Jakku, stripping ruined Star Destroyers for parts and components, while Poe is interrogated by the mysterious Kylo Ren before being freed by a Stormtrooper who wasn't all that keen on fighting for The First Order anymore and also fleeing to Jakku. While Finn (the now ex-stormtrooper, played by John Boyega) believes Poe to be killed in their crash landing, he sets out to find BB-8 himself. Eventually, he finds BB-8 and Rey and soon, The First Order finds them as well. Together they flee Jakku in a very familiar ship, only to find themselves picked up by another, larger ship piloted by none other than Han Solo and Chewbacca.

Examining BB-8's map, they find it to be incomplete and Han agrees to help Rey and Finn and together they head to the planet Takodana to meet with cantina owner Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyongo) who reveals that she has the lightsaber of Luke Skywalker in her possession. While Rey refuses to take it after experiences disturbing visions that seem to indicate she could use the force, Maz gives the lightsaber to Finn and agrees to help get BB-8 to The Resistance. Unfortunately, everybody else shows up to try and get BB-8 as well and a pitched battle ensues, which sees Rey captured by The First Order, who unleash the fury of their Starkiller Base against the Republic.

Reunited with Leia, Han, Finn and Chewbacca agree to go to Starkiller Base to get Rey back, even as Poe and the rest of The Resistance prepare to attack Starkiller Base to destroy it. After a final confrontation, Rey has what she needs to find Luke Skywalker and eventually she does, presenting him with his lightsaber.

There's a lot to like about this movie: it's tightly written and doesn't waste a moment- once it gets going, you better hang on, because it doesn't let up until the very end of the film. While yes, I can see some similarities to the very first Star Wars, there weren't enough parallels (at least for me) for me to jump aboard the 'it's just a remake' complaint bus that's out there. This feels different, it feels plausible and complicated. While it would be nice to think that after the yub-nub dance, things were all hunky dory, real life probably would have been a whole lot messier, given the galactic scale of the Empire itself. The exhaustion and weariness that seem to emanate from General Organa when we met her again really resonate and illustrate three decades of dashed hopes and close victories gone wrong. The fact that The First Order just essentially built a bigger, badder Death Star doesn't surprise me either. A totalitarian regime would hold onto it's obsessions.

But the real strength of the movie is the questions is leaves unanswered. Who the hell is Rey? Where has Luke been all this time? What's with Supreme Leader Snoke? Why does Kylo Ren fly into uncontrollable rages all the time? J.J Abrams did it. He made a Star Wars film that reminded me of why I loved the original Star Wars to begin with and left me curious and excited to see where this new trilogy would go next.

Overall: I'm just going to keep this real simple: this movie was absolutely everything I ever wanted in a new Star Wars movie. **** out of ****

Monday, February 22, 2016

Does Your Campus Have A Food Pantry?

Normally, I don't pay attention to the mass emails that flood my inbox at work, but for whatever reason, this one caught my eye. "University of Iowa Food Pantry Survey" it said, and it was from the University of Iowa Student Government. It was a short email and this is what it said:
With the cost of college on the rise, the cost-burden of housing increasing, and wages being outpaced by inflation, poverty and food insecurity is a more pervasive issue on many of our nations college campuses. Campus food pantries look to alleviate this issue of food insecurity faced by you and many of your colleagues and classmates.This is a survey gauge the level of food insecurity University of Iowa students face when attending Iowa to develop a food pantry.  Please take the time to fill out this short and anonymous survey on your experience with food insecurity.
It also included a link to the survey (which is here.) Now, this appears to be real. So far, my hard drive has yet to melt down and alarms have yet to start blaring indicating that the firewall has been breached and is shredding our servers at work. So I'm going to come to the conclusion that this is, in fact, very real.

The student government is gathering information to assess the need for a possible food pantry on campus.  Let's repeat that and take stock of the world we live in where this is a real fucking email. This is really happening. This is a thing. 

I find myself both sad and outraged that this survey is even necessary. Everyone knows that college costs too much, but there's a palpable difference between knowing the numbers and finding the proof in your inbox. Students might be going hungry. That's how much college costs. Students might be having to choose between going to class and paying tuition and eating food. That's how much college costs.

And maybe we don't need a food pantry on campus. I sure as hell hope not- but the idea had to come from somewhere. The Student Government (I would hope) wouldn't send out this out in a vacuum. Someone- enough people- had to make enough noise to make a survey worthwhile. Someone wanted to find out if we needed one of these things.

This can only lead me to conclude the following:

1. If you have to choose between food and tuition, choose food.
2. If your product costs so much that people have to choose between paying for it or eating, make a cheaper product.

I saw something about a Dia Sin Latinos up in Madison float by the other week- what about a Day Without Millennials? All these Baby Boomers need our blood, sweat and tears to pay for their retirements. And in the system we have yet to inherit, that they still control, their love of these creaking, sclerotic bureaucracies that proliferate administrators instead of educators, that start arms races for college amenities- the cost of which get passed on to students- this should be the struggle that defines our generation.

Should college be free? I don't know. (In the debate between tuition free vs debt free, I tend to come down on the side of debt free, but there are merits to both arguments- and for sure, it needs to be a hell of a lot cheaper.) But if I'm not wrong about this- and man, I really hope that there's something more to this- then something needs to change.

Boozehound Unfiltered: Aberfeldy 12 Year

Whiskey is an expensive vice and I've got a backlog of my own I'm trying to clear out so I can make room for more and that means, on occasion, I conduct judicious raids on the Parental Liquor Cabinet, as my Old Man, sharing in my vice, tends to have a few bottles of his own going. With a potential move on the horizon and the house being inspected by our prospective buyer, the boys, the dogs and I decamped for the Parentals and I went digging- and came up with a bottle of Aberfeldy 12 Year Old single malt.

I took to the internet and started learning about Aberfeldy- it's a Highland malt (which is a nice change, as I'm heavy on Islays right now- with an Ardbeg and a Kilchoman in my liquor cabinet) and was founded by John Dewar and sons in 1898. They use Scottish barley, yeast and water- and the water was the interesting part. The distillery uses the waters of the Pitilie Burn which runs nearby and- get this, there are apparently deposits of real live gold in the stream, which is why Aberfeldy calls itself 'The Golden Dram.'

Here's the thing: when whiskies like Talisker make a big deal of their proximity to the ocean, I can sort of buy in- there's a certain saltiness to that dram that puts you in mind of the wild, open isle of Skye and the spray of sea water- as a critical consumer, you might take it with a grain of salt and chalk up a lot of it to brand positioning, but there's just enough in the dram to make you wonder. With Aberfeldy though, I have to ask: just how much gold can their be in the Pitilie Burn? And more to the point, what would the presence of gold do to the chemical composition of the water and just how much does that alter the end product? (The first question stems more from my skepticism with whiskies and how they market themselves, the second I would be genuinely fascinated to find out more about.)

But, to the whiskey:

Color: Just for laughs, since the boys were being refugees at the Parentals during our house inspection, I asked the Madre what color she thought it looked like. Her response: "Piss." My final verdict was honey-caramel gold. Which seems like three choices instead of one, but hear me out: the shade wasn't dark enough to land solidly in honey or amber- but it wasn't brown enough to be caramel or gold either. So I made up a color- so sue me.

Body: Lots of fruit in the nose of this one, but I surprised myself by actually deciding that the fruit with the mostest, as it were was melon- there were also lots of floral notes and just a touch of spice- what spice, however, I couldn't nail down. (My brain always wants to default to cinnamon or nutmeg and I want to try and be more specific than that- so I can, you know, get better at this.)

Palate: This was the real surprise of the Aberfeldy: it's beautifully light, but not weak- which seems like a rarity to me- but then again, I haven't tried that many whiskies- or at least not as many as I'd like. The viscosity is closer to water than syrup, but the flavor profile doesn't drop off in the taste- there's a nice hint of citrus peel in the initial taste.

Finish: It comes on in a rush, which would normally worry me, because if you front load your finish too much, then you end up with more burn than warming, which isn't necessarily pleasant- but the initial rush fades

Overall: Solid and complex, the Aberfeldy 12 Year Old is a respectable dram- however, while I enjoyed the complexity of the body, it didn't make my socks roll up and down all that much. And while I didn't take a first pass at this whiskey, I did try it twice and the second time around, I just drank it and didn't examine it so much and it didn't really make a lasting impression on me. So, I'm going to have to go with a solid: B

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Why Not A Real Democracy?

So, this floated by me on Twitter a few days back and it's worth following the link and reading the Tweetstorm (there's a more readable summary here)- go and read it, it's only 50 Tweets long, but the interesting question is asks comes at the very end: "Who needs a third party when the existing two parties have become powerless to stop insurgencies from within?"

Well, have they? Over my shoulder right now, CNN is eagerly awaiting a Hillary Clinton victory speech after her victory in Nevada. She maintains a lead in South Carolina and has both the money and infrastructure to probably do better over the long term than Sanders. The ongoing Republican trainwreck has less to do with Trump and more to do with egos- consider New Hampshire: Trump won with 35% of the vote- but if you take Kasich, Bush, Rubio and for the sake of argument, Christie and add their vote percentages together, you get 45%. (The difference in vote totals is equally as stark: 127,320 for all the 'establishment' candidates to 100,406 for Trump.) The winnowing of the field, followed by what usually is an orderly and efficient coronation has yet to occur for the GOP because no one is dropping out. I expect that might change after tonight- rumor has it that Jeb! staffers are already sending out resumes, but then again, if Jeb! can hold onto his money, then why not keep going?

So while it may seem that the two parties have become powerless to stop insurgencies from within, the reality (I'm guessing) is that the rise of social media means that these insurgencies are more possible than they were before and it will take longer for the establishment to re-establish 'conventional wisdom' as it were. Social media isn't, then, changing a damn thing- it's merely serving as a pressure valve for discontent to be blown out early and often before both the institutional mechanisms of both parties do what they normally do and nominate people they can live with. (On the Republican side, this might go some distance to explaining why Establishment GOP Senators have made it clear they would prefer Trump to Cruz- Cruz, if Trump wasn't taking his voting block, might well represent a mortal threat to their control- plus, it does appear as if the Senator from Texas has not given one fuck about making friends with his GOP colleagues- all of whom seem to heartily detest the man. In short, Trump they can do business with. Cruz is coming with the pitchforks and burning torches.)

While I don't think I can rate the premise of the final tweet offered by the author (at least not anymore- if Bernie had won Nevada, it might be a different story), it does raise an interesting point: could insurgents who would normally be 'third parties' merely hijack an existing party structure to take power? I'm not entirely sure- while I'm convinced that the real political earthquake is going to come when a small dollar candidate like Ron Paul (or Bernie Sanders) gets a nomination and wins an election thereby rendering irrelevant an entire donor class/establishment, the odds of that happening seem increasingly long, merely because a small dollar/social media based model may get you significant amounts of votes, but it doesn't (yet) seem to be enough to overcome the institutional controls the parties themselves have in place.

Which brings us back to the question: why the hell can't we have more options? There are two large obstructions in the way: structure and power. Structurally, the first-past-the-post, single member district system we have (like most other western democracies with a few variations here and there) lends itself to lower numbers of parties. (In non poli-sci dork terms: that's 'person with the most votes wins, one representative per legislative district'.) The United States, unlike Canada and the UK hasn't evolved into a 2.5 party system or developed a regional party- all of which it could do, but that brings us around to the second obstruction- that of power.

I took the Political Compass Test about a week or so ago and was surprised when it dropped on the libertarian/center left side of the spectrum. An interesting Facebook discussion followed with my cousin (who's currently on the front lines of the refugee crisis in Greece and probably too busy to spend hours debating with me.) She believes that social democracy (a.k.a 'The Nordic Model') is the best form of government and views my strain of libertarianism with distaste. My contention then (and now) is that the difference in scale* makes a 'Nordic Model' impossible to attempt in the United States without a massive decentralization of power. So to me, libertarianism isn't the problem- it's the potential solution.

And power is really the true mechanism that keeps the business/political/media elites in place- while the rise of social media makes it possible to challenge the entrenched elites, until you attack the structures that keep them in place, I can't credibly believe that an internal insurgency/3rd Party challenge would ever work- you saw it in the reaction of the GOP to the question of Trump vs. Cruz. They know damn well Cruz would burn them to the ground if he could- Trump they can do business with. While the tension in the Democratic side of things has been less obvious, no doubt Democratic power brokers would have 'worked around' a President Sanders** rather than bent to his will. It's the same reason why 'hope and change' or the lack thereof left such a bitter taste in the mouths of many who supported President Obama. Yes, it's ridiculous to assume the system can be changed by one person 'doing things differently.' But it's not ridiculous to assume if that person attacks the very ramparts of the entrenchment that keeps Washington D.C. doing business as usual year in and year out. Rhetoric didn't do it. I doubt calls for a revolution will either.

Real change means breaking the ballot access monopoly that the two parties hold nationwide. Real change means talking about things like proportional representation, multi-member districts or even ranked choice voting. Real change means taking on those barriers to entry- not in an expectation that a hundred parties will suddenly blossom out of nothing, but rather creating the conditions where one or two could challenge the corporate parties and their hegemony. And change doesn't have to begin nationally- states were envisioned by our founders as laboratories for democracy and until we fulfill that promise and start asking ourselves if there is a better way, little if anything is going to change.

So why not a real democracy? Can we try one of those for a change?

*Roughly speaking, the population of Scandanavia as a whole is 24 million or so. California alone has 38 million- and the Untied States has 300 million. European style 'social democracy' has never been attempted on a scale this large, which is why I don't trust the Federal Government not to fuck it up. Now if a single state or groups of states want to get together and build their own versions of 'social democracy', they should be allowed to- but you can't force a country this big into one model without problems somewhere- which is why I prefer the regional model, myself. It's smaller, easier to handle and has a higher chance of success. Problem is, the last time the United States had a 'regional movement' we had a Civil War. So I don't think the notion is going to play all that well.

My personal strain of libertarianism tends to want a minimal state, but gets uncomfortable at hewing too closely to libertarian economics especially- but let's not pretend that what we have is real capitalism any more than what the Soviets had was real communism. Until we once and for all break the ties between government and business, I just can't buy in. (Democracy and an actual free market? A novel concept.)

**My doubts about the ability of a Sanders Presidency to break through the entrenched institutional power structures of the country stem precisely from what this Tweetstorm Talks about. Yes, he can craft an insurgency and challenge- but can he win? And if he wins, can he govern? If Congress is controlled by New England/Vermont Democrats- maybe- but there's a difference between a Democrat from Vermont and a Democrat from say, West Virginia. Any chance of success on his part requires bridging the gap between the two- a Bernie victory in South Carolina could signal that he's capable of that- in which case, conventional wisdom, would once again, have to wait for another day.

This Week In Vexillology #154

We're taking a bit of a detour this week in vexillology to take a peek at a couple of geographic oddities, which, like all geographical oddities, continue to fascinate me. (Parenthetical time! I've always had this weird thing about geographical oddities- places like Carter Lake,Iowa or the Kentucky Bend have always fascinated me and the flags we're going to look at this week fall squarely into that category.)

For our first flag, I'm going to drop a name you've probably never heard into your life: Transnistria...  if you've never heard of Transnistria or have no earthly idea where it is, well, you're probably not alone in that. One of those weird, post-Soviet conflict zones (along with Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia) Transnistria is a tiny strip of land between the River Dniester and the eastern border of Moldova with Ukraine. It broke away following a conflict in 1992 and has remained partially free ever since as Moldova has been unable to reestablish control over the region. (Cheerfully, after Crimea was readmitted (or stolen, depending on your point of view) into Russia, the President of Transnistria also asked to join back up, so this place might bubble up in the news in a semi-serious way at some point.)

As a whole, the place seems to be something of a mess as there are significant numbers of Transnistrians who are also Moldovan citizen, Russian citizens and Ukrainian citizens. (It's also got a delightful reputation as being very corrupt- a problem that Moldova also grapples with.)

So that's Transnistria. Now get a load of this flag:

So, here's the weird thing about this flag. It's identical to the old flag of the Moldovan SSR. I guess after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Transnistrians didn't want to flag the new flag of Moldova and just kept right on using the old one. It remained so popular that it was officially adopted on July 15, 2000 as the flag of the breakaway region, but here's the kicker: Transnistria isn't a socialist state.

Yeah. Weird, huh?

The next flag I want to take a look at this week is of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad:


Sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland, Kaliningrad Oblast is that random piece of the Russian Federation that's just hanging out next to the Baltic Sea. (As I'm writing this, Google Maps is informing me that in the Oblast's Capital, the city of Kaliningrad, it's a balmy 30 degrees and about 2 AM. Which is kind of cool to know, in a way.) The exclave was taken by the Soviets in 1944 and they kept it after the end of World War II. They changed the name from Konigsberg to Kaliningrad (naming it after one of the original Bolsheviks, Mikhail Kalinin.) They folded it into the Soviet Union and tried to make it a part of Lithuania, but the Lithunaians said no. After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a secret attempt to sell it back to Germany, but the Germans weren't interested so it stayed in the Russian Federation.

It's flag is pretty interesting- adopted on June 9th, 2006- before then, the exclave had no flag and even today, there's no official definition of what the colors of the flag stand for. The popular explanation is that the silver castle with open gates means hospitality, the dark blue is for the Baltic Sea, the yellow for the wealth of amber and red for (depending on who you talk too) either something called 'the active man principle', the Red Army, the 'bellicose past of Prussia', the Hanseatic League or some other historical connection with Poland or Brandenburg. (The monogram above the castle is that of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, who was in charge during The Seven Years' War when Russia briefly controlled parts of the region.)

So there you have it- two unusual regions and their flags! Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Bookshot #86: The Lions of Al-Rassan

There's always been plenty of Guy Gavriel Kaye books around the Parentals' house, but I have never managed to pick one up and actually read it- until now. I don't really know how to categorize The Lions of Al-Rassan, either- it's not fantasy in the traditional sense, so don't expect elves, orcs, dwarves and the like- but it's not straight historical fantasy either, for while the realm of Al-Rassan might bear a resemblance to medieval Spain, it's not quite an exact parallel either.

The empire of the ruling Asharites has decayed and the once powerful land of Al-Rassan has crumbled into a series of warring city states and petty kings as the story opens. A shocking act of violence ordered by the increasingly powerful King of Cartada, throws together Rodrigo Belmonte, the most fearsome commander the Jaddites of the north have, the court physician Jehane and the poet and assassin Ammar Ibn Khairan. As the chaos in Al-Rassan grows and the last remnants of the once great kingdom are threatened by forces within and without- Belmonte and Ibn Khairan find themselves serving the same master for a time as Jehane finds herself increasingly torn by her growing feelings for both men. But even as the fates of all three become increasingly intertwined, events outpace them all to tear them asunder as the fate of Al-Rassan itself hangs in the balance.

(Yes, I know that's a pretty generic plot summary, but bear with me.) Where to begin with this book? Well, the writing is mind-blowingly good. You feel like you're reading a dense, complex book- but in reality if you step back and look at it, the language is somewhat spare and deliberate- you feel like not a chapter is wasted and not a word is out of place, which just increases the power of the narrative. While I found the majority of the book to move at a fairly sedate, steady pace, Kaye trips events into fast-forward for the last third of the book and I found myself somewhat stunned to realize that I was emotionally invested in these characters in a way that I haven't experienced in a long time. This is an incredibly written book. If you love good writing and haven't picked up Guy Gavriel Kaye yet- move him to the front of your reading list and do so. You won't regret it.

While Al-Rassan isn't an exact clone of medieval Spain, the historical parallels are interesting and don't take a History degree for the reader to pick up on. The ruling Asharites find their parallel in the Islamic rulers of long-ago Spain. The Jaddites of the north and their three kingdoms? The Christian Spanish and Castillo, Leon and Aragon. Jehane and the Kindath are obviously meant to be Jewish.  Kaye's obviously deep knowledge of the 'source material' he is drawing upon only helps to deepen the effectiveness of the narrative. Kaye aims for big, grand, epic and a story that transports the reader to another world and more than reaches his goal- he nails it to the wall.

It's been awhile since I've seen El-Cid, but there's a haunting element of tragedy and melancholy from that movie that you can see touches of in this book, with characters concerned with honor and battling their feelings and their duty- yet despite that, the characters also feel well-rounded and real. The marriage between Rodrigo and his wife Miranda is just about perfect (Miranda is probably one of my favorite characters in the book.) Though the relationship between Ammar and Jehane and how that evolves over the course of the book is probably a close second.

If you read this book and reach the end underwhelmed by Kaye's writing or the incredible narrative he waves throughout the course of this book, the ending will convince you. He leaves the reader hanging with one hell of a cliff hanger and then flings two decades into the future for an epilogue that takes it's sweet time about answer a question the reader is dying to know before ending with a mournful image that ties back to the very beginning of the book in a truly exquisite way.

Overall: It's been a long time since I've been so thoroughly engrossed and entertained by a book and it's been an even longer time since I found myself so emotionally invested in a book and it's characters. Oh and if you were curious, Guy Gavriel Kaye can write. I've got at least three books on my menu to tackle, but once those are done, I think I'll have to find another of his books and give it ago. But in the meantime, **** out of ****. If you're a fan of fantasy, historical fiction or just plain good writing, find this book and read it. You won't regret it.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

This Week In Vexillology #153

Well, this is weird. I get my handy-dandy reference guide out and you know what they have this listed under? Moldavia.  And yet, when you look this shit up on the internet, you find the flag of Moldova. 

Hmm, so what's the difference? Well, it appears that the fo'shizzle country that exists today is, in fact, Moldova. The historical region that occupied roughly more of less the space space up until 1859 was called Moldavia. If you notice a similarity to the flag of Romania, that's not a coincidence- the two countries were unified at one point and share strong ties and affinities today.

So what's with the whole deal between Romania and Moldova? Well, it goes back aways to the 19th, where Moldavia, that old historical region was split up. The eastern part got folded into a shiny new Oblast of the Russian Empire- the Oblast of Moldavia and Bessarabia, while the western part joined with Wallachia to form the Kingdom of Romania. Now, after World War I and the Russian Revolution both parts of Moldavia switched sides and became Greater Romania. Looking at the handy-dandy map on Wikipedia, it seems like (if I'm reading it right) that Bessarabia then is what makes up most of Moldova today,  Either way, I think you could set relationship status to: It's Complicated and call it good. Give it a century or two and I'm sure everyone will be back under the same roof, so to speak, but for now, in our current historical epoch, Moldova is independent and has a pretty decent flag show off to visitors. (There's also the little matter of Transnistria, but we'll get to that next week.) 

Their current flag was adopted on May 12, 1990 for national and civil usage and is a vertical tricolor with the arms of Moldova set in the center of the flag. The blue, yellow and red colors reflect Moldova's close ties to Romania. The coat of arms in the center break down like this: the eagle is holding an Orthodox Cross in its beak (again, another parallel with Romania) but while Romania's eagle holds a sword in it's claws, Moldova's holds an olive branch. The red and blue shield also departs from Romania- with an ox head, a crescent, a star and a rose- all traditional symbols of Moldova.

And that's pretty much the flag of Moldova! Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, February 12, 2016

My Political Compass

If there's one thing that this election has thrown into sharp focus, it's debate about what people believe and what it actually means- that's not a bad thing in my book. People can believe whatever they want to believe, but why you believe what you believe is more important than what, to me. Which is why if you haven't taken The Political Compass test, I highly recommend it.  This is where I landed:

This seems right to me... I know I'm a cultural libertarian and in general, I'd prefer power be given to individuals rather or regional/state/local organizations than vested in the Federal Government. If I'm convinced of one thing, it's that the more decentralized power is, the freer we all are- and the stronger our communities can be. But weirdly, when I found out what UK Parties I matched up best with based on their last general election, I was closest to their Green Party. And the current general election here at home? Well, again, a surprise... I'm closest to Bernie Sanders- though that's for a given value of 'close'- there's still plenty of distance between us.

Everyone talks about the 'libertarian moment.' People flirted with Ron Paul, Rand had a brief flicker of hope before wilting under the carnival of destruction that is the GOP race. If we're heading into a post-industrial economy, where people change careers four or five times over the course of their life and the whole concept of work may be dying out or on it's way to becoming obsolete, then I feel like a philosophy that gives individuals the tools they need to function in a fast-paced economy where you have to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, as it were is the best way to go. Clunky, large bureaucracies seem increasingly antiquated and part of the status quo- a status quo that seems increasingly untenable to me. In the age of the internet, there's no reason why power needs to emanate from the top down when it could easily do so from the bottom up.

That, to me, is why I can't fully jump aboard the Bernie Bus. It's hard to see how he changes the Establishment by making it significantly larger than it already is. The elites- and when I say that, I mean the political/media/business nexus- are so entrenched, their power needs to be decentralized back to the people for their power to be effectively changed. That, to me precludes any form of socialism. (And seriously, outside of Scandanavia, where does socialism actually work?) 

That's not to say that Bernie is wrong about everything. Breaking up the big banks? Fine by me. Infrastructure spending I have no problem with, because if my tax dollars should go to anything, it should be to roads and bridges and making sure they work. In this country- which is among the richest in the world is it is ridiculous that we don't have paid family leave or a living wage. It's troubling, if not outrageous that people have to choose between health care and rent. Or food. The questions are legitimate, the issues real- we just disagree on how to do it, which is fair, I guess.

I actually took this test twice and got the same result, so I'm pretty confident about my location on the 'compass' so to speak. This feels...  right to me. My little corner of the spectrum. Where do you stand?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

N.P.A: Fight The Power

This meme:

Pisses me the fuck off. I get tired, oh so very tired of telling people that no, I'm not going to drink the Kool-Aid of the hopelessly corrupt and morally bankrupt two party system.  I'm going to vote for a candidate whose policies and goals match my own beliefs and I could give three shits if they win or not. Yet as soon as Senator Sanders sells out and joins the Establishment he thinks he's going to burn to the ground with his legions of millennial fans, this meme is all up in my Facebook grill pissing me off.

Take Bernie's name out and put in Ralph Nader instead. Or Gary Johnson. Or Dr. Jill Stein (who was the only Presidential candidate to get fucking arrested for civil disobedience in 2012- not that any of you were paying attention. That's right, my candidate got arrested. What do you got?)  The same general idea applies to any 'third' party candidate you can name me. If enough people vote for them, they would win- but will people accept that if you substitute a non-sellout candidate that really isn't beholden to the establishment? No. I tell people I'm leaning toward voting for Gary Johnson and people either say 'who?' or say, "Why don't you want to vote for someone who can actually win?"

Ha! Like backing a 'winner' has done a damn thing for this country over the past two decades. My old economics teacher in high school didn't pound a lot of economics into my head, but he did say that elections in this country were like choosing between herpes and gonorrhea every four years and there hasn't been much evidence to indicate that he was wrong about that. (I suppose I should add that I did vote for President Obama in 2008 thinking that he would, perhaps, prove my old econ teacher wrong and he almost did.) But, still, every four years, people keep telling me, begging me to drink the Kool-Aid, to join their team, to put on the jersey and get out there and do some good.

And my response is still the same: fuck that noise.

I think- and I have thought for a very long time that in a country this size, we should be a vibrant, multi-party democracy that's governed by coalitions built on consensus and cooperation instead of by extremist ideologies (on both ends of the spectrum) that want to burn the other guy to the ground. But I've also got not one, but two very pretty degrees in Political Science and know darn well that that structure of our system isn't designed to handle multiple parties. First-past-the-post voting, single member districts in our legislature- it's designed to produce a low, manageable number of parties. If we're lucky, we might, someday evolve into a 2 1/2 party system (with a party like the LibDems in the UK were) or maybe develop regional parties (like Canada with the BQ or again, the UK with the SNP or PC). But if we want to have a real conversation (like Canada is) about making our democracy better, we need to be talking about things like ranked choice voting or proportional representation or multi-member district representation. Or if that doesn't appeal to the contrary, bullheaded stubborn streak that runs through our national DNA, then why can't we talk about devolution? Why can't we accept the premise that what New England should be allowed to do it's thing while the Midwest or the South does theirs? (It's also worth noting that in a democracy, we don't have to do any of these things. Just having the debate would be an incredible step forward in my book.)

After the last eight years, I don't know if I'll ever trust anyone running under the establishment banner again- even Bernie. If he had run as an independent, it might be different- but I don't see how you can reasonably expect me to believe he's going to change the establishment by joining it. That's like saying, 'oh, I completely wrecked my car, but if we get some really nice upholstery on it, it'll be just fine.' People want to believe candidates can fix the car and get it running again- which is understandable and I get where that hope comes from, I do- I've voted that way myself before- but, we need to face reality- the country needs to buy a new fucking car.

In 2012, I switched my voter registration to Republican so I could vote for Ron Paul (and more to the point against Rick Santorum, whose views I detest) and a few months ago, when I went to switch it back, I noticed that the old, trusty, 'Independent' option was gone (or might have never been there in Iowa at all- but damn it, it was there in Minnesota!). Instead, I had to register as NP or 'No Party Affiliation.' It still pisses me off and when I did some digging I found that around 2008 or so (I'm pretty sure the law was updated in 2011- but I've been wading through Legislative Language for a couple of days now to pin it down) Iowa changed some definitions around and mandated that in order to be considered a political party, parties needed to have a candidate for Governor or President receive at least 2% on the ballot- and they have to keep receiving hitting that number in order to keep their status. Other wise, they're considered a 'non-political party organization' or NPPO, which is a delightful amount of bullshit, as for example, the Greens and the Libertarians have party conventions, run candidates for President on a regular basis and in general, seem to be political parties by any reasonable definition- except for the State of Iowa's.

While my quest to discover why I'm forced to register as NP instead of Independent continues, I'm willing to bet it stems from this (and call me crazy, but it might have always been this way- my brain might be getting my wires crossed with Minnesota- but I swear I remember registering as an Independent in Iowa.) I noticed a money quote over on Deeth a few days back and it seems to confirm it:
(Tangent: No, it's no "Independent." The legal term in Iowa is No Party. I've never understood why people cherish that word "independent." Parties are a place you got to people and have fun.)
Gaaaaaah, the rage, the raaaaaaaaaaaaaaage...  of course we're not allowed to be 'Independent' in Iowa. That implies that we make up our own minds and don't march to the beat of anyone's drum, whereas No Party Affiliation gives the implication that we're the weirdo wallflowers at the Junior High Dance.

Well, I've got news for everyone. I've never been a 'joiner.' I've never been sold on the idea that I've got to choose one or the other- and that goes all the way back to 4th Grade when I proudly cast my vote for Ross Perot in our KidsVote election. (I did it again in 8th Grade too.) I still don't know who I'm voting for in this election, but I know it's going to be the person I agree with the most- even if that person isn't one of the motley crew of lunatics and dreamers running under an Establishment Ticket. If Iowa demands that I register as N.P.A. then I'll continue to embrace the label and so should everyone else.

N.P.A.: Fight The Power!

(Damn, that would look good on a t-shirt, wouldn't it?)

Monday, February 8, 2016

Pinteresting #1: Super Bowl 50

Hey look, a new feature! This isn't a food blog, but I love to cook. There's sort of an inherent contradiction there that I've been wrestling with for awhile now as my blogging has never really fit into a solid category. I talk about politics, but this isn't a political blog. I review books and movies, but this isn't a review blog. And yeah, I cook too- but this isn't a food blog. When I moved back over to Blogger, I wanted to find a way to fuse some of the incoherence into something resembling an overall tone. Whether this works or not, I don't know- but for now, food, brewing, crafting (if I ever do any), landscaping and the like will find a home in Pinteresting. Hope you enjoy it.

Recently, I tried to make Taco Rolls and failed miserable at it- so when I found this recipe for Buffalo Chicken Garbage Bread over on Pinterest, I was intrigued. I knew where I had gone wrong with the Taco Rolls- too much meat, too little patience and the result was...  messy and not at all perfect and round like Pinterest said it should be. (Pinterest Fail!) And since I love all things buffalo chicken and we had extra pizza crusts taking up space in the fridge, I figured what the hell and gave it ago.  This is what I ended up with:

Ain't that pretty? Yes, it worked! It worked PERFECTLY. The recipe was as easy as promised- you cook the chicken, soak it some buffalo sauce (I used Frank's) and then just roll out your pizza dough, add some buffalo sauce, some ranch, chicken and cheese, roll it up and cook. I was a little concerned when I put it in the oven about oozing- but I guess I followed the instructions to tuck it up and under well enough to get a good seal on it. I'm also not sure whether the fact this pizza crust was a wheat crust had anything to do with it, but I got it out of the oven just in time as well- any longer and this sucker would have been on the wrong side of 'really brown' and heading toward burnt.

The results were a pleasant surprise.  Not only was this easy to make, but it sliced really well and it was simple and easy to eat- and it didn't even get that messy until you got to the center of the loaf and even then, it wasn't that bad (the chicken slipped out a little easier is all.)

Verdict: Pinterest WIN! And would totally make this again- this was easy and delicious- the best combination.

For the Super Bowl, I decided to try my hand at these:

I thought these looked amazing, so I figured why the heck not? I'm a fan of Kimchee, I'm a fan of pork belly and I'm a fan of nachos- so it seemed like a match made in heaven, but almost immediately, I had to deal with some curve balls. First: I couldn't find pork belly...  now, I suspect this might be because I didn't try hard enough, but Hy-Vee didn't have any, Lucky's had just run out, so I figured what the hell and got some cubed bacon ends instead.  Don't know if it was quite the same flavor, but it's bacon, so what the hell.  Second: I came up short on red pepper powder. I ended up using red pepper flakes, but I'm not sure if that's the same thing. (I have a sneaking suspicion that's a Korean Spice and not something you see in pizzerias all the time.) But I swung for the fences, cooked up my nachos and this is what I ended up with:

It wasn't quite as purty as the video, and- true confession- I forgot to put Kimchee on the first layer of the nachos, but people ate the overwhelming majority of these, so I must have done something right. 

Verdict: I guess, Tasty (seriously, those damn videos are the worst things ever. They all look so good) for the win! I would for sure try these again- just to switch up the regular old nachos.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

This Week In Vexillology #152

Kosovo kind of burst onto my personal geo-political radar in the late 90s when NATO intervened after inter-ethnic violence in 1998-1999 during the Kosovo War. I remember reading Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts* around that time and being fascinated that a whole nation (in this case, Serbia) could be still so passionate about a battle that happened 700 years ago, but that seemed to be a phenomenon that wasn't uncommon to the Balkans. (I also remember that awfully fun/tense/butt-hole clenching moment when the Russians landed and Pristina Airport before NATO did and there was some question about whether or not NATO would chase them back out of there- NATO wisely, I think, decided no.)

Other than the attachment of Serbia to the place- there was an Albanian element in the conflict as well that added to the geopolitical tension at the time, as there were fears Albania would seek to integrate Kosovo into a Greater Albania.  That hasn't happened, as Kosovo remained under UN Administration until 2006 when final status negotiations of the country began- which lead to it's independence in 2008.

Which brings us to their flag! Adopted on February 17, 2008, the flag is unusual in that it's the only country other than Cyprus to use a map as the main design element. The six white stars above the map of the country represent (officially) the six major ethnic groups of Kosovo: Albanians, Serbs, Turks, Gorani, Romani and Bosniaks. (Unofficially, the stars are meant to represent the six regions of the country as well.) The meaning behind the colors of the flag have yet to be defined but the overall design of the flag is similar to that of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There's really not much more to it than that... I wish the colors did have meaning behind them, but I'm sure they'll get around to it at some point- at least I hope so. One more fun fact above Kosovo: they name streets after President Bill Clinton there. Oh, he also has a statute.

So there you have it- the flag of Kosovo! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

*I also need to read this book as well. Kaplan references it a ton in his book and I've never gotten around to reading it. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

What The Hell Is This About #2: Flint

It's another sad reflection on the state of affairs in contemporary America today that I had no earthly idea anything was going on in Flint until a post by Michael Moore calling for the arrest of Michigan Governor Snyder floated by on my Facebook feed. Rachel Maddow seemed to be pretty pissed off about it as well.

So what happened? Well, the New York Times has a pretty good timeline of events and the thing that shocked me is that this has been brewing since 2014- when the city of Flint switched their water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in April of that year. Residents began to complain about issues almost immediately after, but the first real warning sign and alarm bell (at least to me) should have come in October 2014 when a local GM Plant stopped using water from the Flint River because it was corrosive to car parts. Yet people were told that the water still safe for people to drink...which does not compute in my brain even a tiny bit- perhaps if your water source is corroding car parts you should take a second look at where you're getting your water from? Maybe? Just going to put that out there...

If I'm understanding this right, basically the water from the Flint River was so corrosive, it stripped lead from Flint's aging pipe infrastructure and dumped it straight into their water supply- and one thing every scientist agrees on is that ingesting any lead is not a good thing. Even though Flint switched back to it's original water source in October of last year, damage was already done. Lead was already in the water. Different regulators seem to have different level as to what constitutes bad or alarming levels- but everyone is on the lead is bad team. The good news/bad news- at least described in this column- and yes, I wasn't crazy about the overall tone of 'well, it could have been a lot worse' either- is that the government has been pretty aggressive about going after lead and as little as a decade ago, something like this really could have been a lot worse. Not that I imagine that's particularly comforting to people in Flint, but at least the government doesn't have it's head all the way up it's ass on the issue. Just, you know, far enough to poison a large city in Michigan. (Proof of head-in-assness on the part of the government: apparently every major city east of the Mississippi is under reporting heavy metal levels in their water. Which in the wake of this seems like an incredible ill-conceived idea.)

Regulators seem to be dropping the ball all over the place- the EPA knew. State regulators knew. The Governor (and I'll get to the issue of accountability in a second) was getting told that everything was AOK, just jim-dandy and the water was safe. (Both Conservative and Progressive sources seem to agree that the EPA knew that the water was bad for months and didn't tell anyone.) But the failure- and it seems to be a failure on multiple levels of governance seems to stem from the fact that nobody wanted to deal with this- this quote, if accurate is especially damning:
"some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children's exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football claiming the departments are underestimating the impacts on the populations and particularly trying to shift responsibility to the state."
So, the people directly affected by this crisis, were, of course, politicizing the issue? Oh man, levels of W-T-F associated with that quote are rage inducing. What if it was your kids? If it was mine, I'd be chaining myself to someone's desk to get something fixed. (Plus, why are you still sending water bills to people? Fuck that noise.) Which brings me to the most important issue: accountability.

Democratic/Progs have been pretty damn vocal about this story- and good for them, because honestly, if not for the very loud drumbeat of people like Michael Moore and Rachel Maddow, I'm not entirely sure this would be as well-known as it should have been. They've also been pretty clear on the need for Governor Snyder to resign- though Hillary Clinton didn't quite go so far as Mr. Moore to call for his arrest. (Republican/Con sources have been asking if a Democratic Governor would have been subject to the same calls for his resignation...  my gut says probably not, but it's a silly point to make to begin with. There was a massive failure here and people were poisoned- does it matter what party people belong too as long as heads roll over this?)

An EPA Official has already resigned- and my instinct said that everyone should go from the Mayor on up- but this article dropped some knowledge on me, namely that the current Mayor, Karen Weaver was only elected this past November vowing to address the city's water problems and one of her first acts right out of the gate was to declare an emergency in the city- which seems sensible. So, while I've seen some (mainly Conservative sources) calling for her resignation as well, I think she gets a pass on this one as she got elected to fix things.

Should the Governor resign? I was initially unsure- I felt like since he made the mess, he should fix it, investigate it and find out what went wrong and if that investigation concludes that the failure that lead to this mess included his office then yes, he should resign- but if the people of Michigan can't trust him to fix the problem or find out what went wrong, then yes, he should resign. But really, that's up to Michigan. (This article from The Daily Beast and this article from Reason don't exactly paint the Governor's office in a good light though- really, whatever the motivations- if it does come out for sure that the decision to use the Flint River as the main water source for the city did come from the Governor's Office- then I know if I was a Michigan resident, I'd want his ass out. The buck has to stop somewhere and if there was a failure at multiple levels of government there should be accountability at multiple levels of government as well. (This broke last week from Mother Jones- and if it turns out to be true, then yes, Snyder needs to resign.)

Democrats/Progs have been beating the usual drumbeat of 'AUSTERITY KILLS' on this issue and with good reason- I understand that if you're broke, you've got some hard decisions to make about what stays and what goes to get you back in the black, but the one thing you should never, ever put on the chopping block is your water supply. I think I read somewhere that Flint's chief difficulty surrounded their pension obligations, which were considerable. But again- as much as I hate to admit it, if you really, really have to choose between retirement account or potentially compromising your water supply- and when I say really, really, I mean, like you have no other choice- salaries of elected officials have been cut, services are at bare bones, etc, etc- as shitty as it is, you shouldn't fuck with your water supply.

But with the expansion of Michigan's 'Emergency Manager' law championed by Governor Snyder and state Republicans to help clean up some of this fiscal mess, real questions are being raised about the democratic nature of such reforms and those questions seem especially legitimate when you find out that Flint's City Council voted to switch their water back to the original source and was overruled by the city's Emergency Manager- which undermines the most basic notion of democracy.

What always irritates me about austerity is that it's never handled in an even-handed fashion- politician never cut their salaries. Corporations shimmy their way out of taxes. And cuts, when they come down are from the bottom up and not the top down. At the end of the day, as a voter, I expect people I vote for to manage the money effectively- but if you've been wading through two decades of economic bad news like Flint has, managing the money effectively may be a lot harder than any pundit, would-be-blogger or journalist can imagine.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Squawk Box:The Return of The X-Files/The Shannara Chronicles

When I heard the news that The X-Files was coming back for a special, limited six episode run I was genuinely excited. We never really watched television together as a family growing up- my parents were more into us reading books than watching television, but by the time high school rolled around and we were all a little older they sort of relaxed the television rules a little bit and for whatever reason, we all sort of ended up watching The X-Files together.

So did it's much bally-hooed return work? Meh.  Kind of is the best I can say so far- the first episode of the new 'season' was both awesome and befuddling at the same time. Awesome, because it really was amazing to see Mulder and Scully back together on television again. It seemed right. Befuddling because the accelerated nature of a six episode arc seemed to force the writers to jam three episodes of conspiracy theory into one. (At least that's what I'm guessing.) The resulting execution was a bit mixed: Mulder seemed crazier than usual, but the mythology/conspiracy the show is laying out seemed clear, if slightly loopy- for a refreshing change of pace.

The second episode, 'Founder's Mutation' seemed to right the ship somewhat. Mulder and Scully were back and working a case- this time involving a mysterious suicide that was possibly tied to human experimentation being conducted by a geneticist to solve various problems of mutation. It combined the right amount of humor, horror and paranormal angles to make the overall episode seem like a welcome return to form- instead of the conspiracy jammed first episode, we were back on steady ground and it worked really well.

I've seen a lot of mixed reviews so far about the return of The X-Files and I can sort of see why. The shift in the show's 'conspiracy' didn't bother me that much, as the notion that it might not be aliens but really sinister government experiments was something they explored a bit during the original run of the show itself. (There was that whole business with the super soldiers and Mulder faked his own death after someone tried to tell him that it really wasn't ET, but humans after all.)  The dialogue did seem a bit forced in the first episode, but settled down a little in the second episode. I feel like part of the disconnect has to do with the fact that there's a whole period of time between Mulder and Scully that we haven't seen. They seem more exhausted and tired than usual- I'm hoping the rest of these episodes fill in some of those gaps and we get a better idea of where the two of them 'are' after all this time.

While The X-Files return was less than what I had hoped for, MTV's The Shannara Chronicles proved to be a strangely pleasant surprise. I had been nervous as hell when I heard that MTV was taking on Shannara- as I devoured most of those books when I was younger (The Sword of Shannara didn't really do it for me- The Elfstones of Shannara, The Wishsong of Shannara and the subsequent four book series The Heritage of Shannara on the other hand I read multiple times. So, so, so good.) But, MTV seems to have pulled it off- and, I think they've done so in a way that's actually going to attract and retain an audience that fits their demographic.

Wisely, I think they've dispensed with the flowery language of high fantasy and populated the show instead with beautiful young people and the occasional heavyweight actor to lend some gravitas where necessary. It seems strange, but it kind of works- John Rhys-Davies plays Eventine Elessdil, the Elven King and grandfather of Amberle (Poppy Drayton), Manu Bennett isn't quite what I pictured Allanon to be, but he's growing on me and lends a similar amount of heft where necessary. Austin Butler brings a mop of blond hair and the seemingly required sculpted abs to the proceedings as Wil Ohmsford.

I think The Shannara Chronicles is off to a good start: their portrayal of the druid sleep and Paranor was a different take from the books, but works really well with the overall aesthetic of the series. The landscape (since they shot in New Zealand) is, of course, amazing and they really seem to be doubling down on amping up the demons and the necessity of protecting the Ellcrys. I'm intrigued enough that I want to see where this goes- and I'm hoping that MTV's decision to 'pretty it up' pays dividends enough to build an audience to keep the show around. They started off (wisely, I think) with The Elfstones of Shannara, but it would be interesting to see if the move on to other books too- maybe season by season or every couple of seasons, just to make it more of anthology show.

Overall: I'll have to see if the next four episodes of The X-Files can make up for the rocky start to it's return, but The Shannara Chronicles might be onto something good. The X-Files: B, Shannara: B+

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Iowa Caucuses 2016

9:55 PM: Let's wrap things up:

Here's that Periscope Link to give you a notion of what my precinct was like just before the start of proceedings.  Busy, busy, busy, busy! (And I'm still sort of getting used to Periscope, so if I seem a bit unpolished, my apologies. I'll get better- oh and I also guess the links expire after awhile? So check it out while you can?)

Mobile blogging went well and looked good on my phone- but it turned into a gigantic block of text when I got on my computer, so I had to do some clean up.  In general, I'm super happy with tonight. TRUMP DID NOT WIN.  Rubio did MUCH better than expected and Bernie and Hillary are neck a neck for the Democrats.  Good job, Iowa.  I'm heading to bed- but will probably be lurking on Twitter for awhile.

9:25 PM: So, so relieved. Ted Cruz wins Iowa. I'm not really a fan of Cruz- to be honest, he seems like kind of a tool sometimes, but I'd rather tolerate a tool than be embarrassed by a xenophobic megalomaniac billionaire like Trump. WE MADE GOOD CHOICES AS A STATE. YAY! But, even worst news for Trump, Marco Rubio appeared in his rear view mirror, coming within 1% of shoving him into 3rd place. Fingers crossed this is enough for Rubio to vault ahead of the pack in New Hampshire and South Carolina- and hopefully some minnows will get out of the race. O'Malley and Huckabee are out. More to follow? I hope so.
Democrats are locked in a nailbiter... 1% separating Bernie and Hillary... not sure how that plays out yet.

7:16 PM: IT'S ON LIKE DONKEY KONG... living in between two caucus sites proved to be something of a pain in the ass when it came time to load up and come get the Missus from work as some ass hat in a VW SUV stuck his front end across a good chunk of our driveway but we got out. Another advantage of being a registered independent? Parking at UIHC has never been this easy.
Do I think we'll have a surprise or two? I think so... and undecided voters? Well I know of at least one in the Iowa Falls area who asked me for my two cents, so there will be some people making up their minds in the room so to speak.

I'll be posting a Periscope link in a bit to give people the idea of how busy our street is- and since I saw at least a dozen Republican voters running to SE Jr High after going to the wrong location, I just hope everyone checked their location first!!! Happy caucusing everyone!

5:36 PM: Well, we're getting closer to the appointed hour and I suppose its time to start talking about my personal hopes for the might ahead. This year, I'm not caucusing with either party. We were going to try and get me over to the Democrats so I could caucus for Bernie on behalf of the wife, who had to work today, but we couldn't swing a babysitter. (Yes, I know that Iowa has a law requiring employers to give employees three hours to go and caucus, but there's a health and public safety exception to that and she's a nurse, so she's s.o.l and kind of bummed about it.) It was tempting to go and vote anyone but Trump or Cruz with the GOPers but that whole train wreck has become increasingly dispiriting to watch and I just can't take it anymore.

But my real reason? I don't want to change my voter registration. I'm a registered independent, or as Iowa now calls it "no party" or "no party affiliation", which irks me because there are more than 2 parties out there and I'm not particularly enamored of either 'team' so why should I join? It's annoying but after inadvertently leaving myself registered as Republican after 2012 for far longer than I wanted too, I'm sticking to my independent guns this time around. 

But, hopes and dreams: for the Democrats, oddly enough, I think they should #FeelTheBern and pick Bernie. I don't agree with everything he says, but he does say a lot of worthwhile things, so why not? Plus, I keep hearing whispers about an indictment for Hillary over this email business. It's probably wishful thinking and praying on the part of Conservatives, but the whispers are still out there and do you really want that blowing up your election? Everyone says Sanders has an electability problem, but from where I'm sitting, so does Hillary. So, pick your poison, I guess.

For the GOPers, it would be great to end this Trump lunacy once and for all, even if it as the cost of elevating Ted Cruz. The more likely hope is that Rubio vaults Cruz for 2nd and picks up momentum enough to clear some of the field and make a run at New Hampshire. Do I think either of those things will happen? No. I think it's all Trump all the time. Unfortunately.  We'll know soon enough.

2:47 PM: Well, it turns out that Precinct 6 aren't into yard signs as much as I thought. We didn't do a thorough top to bottom survey of every street and I didn't get across First Avenue to check out the few blocks over there, but it was about what you'd expect. Maybe 6 to 8 Bernie signs, no Hillary signs and the only GOPer to get a yard sign was Carly Fiorina- she only had two, but they couldn't be better placed at the corner of First Ave and Bradford.

I don't think you can place much faith in yard signs, but it's interesting to note them as sort of a barometer of the mood of people. In 2012, I think I remember seeing far more Romney signs, even in Iowa City than I expected. This time around, it's pretty obvious that Iowa City is feeling the Bern. And if yard signs are anything to go on, Bernie is gonna do great in Johnson County.Which again, is pretty much what you'd expect, right? In the People's Republic of Johnson County, the interesting contest is going to be between Bernie and Hillary and if Hillary is pulling decent numbers here, it probably doesn't bode well for Bernie elsewhere, as if any place is going to buck the establishment and be more progressive than usual, it's Iowa City.

On the Republican side, it's hard to tell. Ron Paul did well here in 2012 (that's why I partied down with the GOPers in '12, to vote for Paul and against Santorum). Surprises could be expected. Fiorina, for instance could do well here. But I also wouldn't be surprised to see Rubio do well either. Cruz pulled a decent crowd down at the fairgrounds last night, but I'm not sure how he'd play with the urban Republican crowd.
4 hours to go!!! (I'm also going to try and upload an image- so wish me luck!)

(Hey look, my image made it! This was a real yard sign seen along Wayne Avenue in Iowa City. Presumably, it's been there since 2012.)

12:10 PM: Well, now my plans for the day have been sidetracked by a sleeping baby, but we'll see if we can get moving here soon. Right now, we're on movie number 2 for the day, the truly excellent Paddington, but I'm going to get us out and about to check out Precinct 6 here in Iowa City and see if we can get a sense of the neighborhood.

7:53 AM: See, the thing I hate about the wife waking up to go in for day shift is that I can never get back to sleep when she's gone. Or I get hungry and can't get back to sleep. Or my pillows won't lay right. Either way, I'm not asleep. And I'd like to be.

5:55 AM: I'm going to be doing all (or the majority, at least) of today's live blogging on my phone and I have no idea what this is going to look like on a computer. For that, I apologize in advance. But it's early morning here in the Hawkeye State and the race for 2016 gets underway... tonight. A mere 13 hours or so from now.

Right now, though, I'm in bed. The Missus is heading out to work. The Little Dude has been satiated with some milk and The Little Man, who crawled into our bed at some point, has finally grasped the idea that there's a WHOLE half of the bed available to him and is sleeping again. Really, I should probably do the same (and will in a minute.)

No predictions from me yet, but I did see that the Hamburg Inn had released the results of their Coffee Bean Caucus: for the GOPers, Trump and Rand Paul were 1 and 2, respectively. For the Dems, no surprise at all, it was all Bernie over Hillary. (The Coffee Bean Caucus is, of course, totally scientific and waaaaaay accurate.)

Anyway, we're off. Look for updates periodically throughout the day and I'll really get going tonight.