Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Kinnick House Thing

I've been watching the unfolding controversy over the whole Kinnick House controversy that's embroiling Manville Heights in yard signs with a certain amount of anarchic amusement. In general, I tend to roll my eyes at any NIMBY-type movement and start rooting for the other side out of sheer bullheadedness.  Plus, it's not like this is a Rose Oaks type of situation, where actual poor people and minorities are getting screwed. No, this is a rich neighborhood, where a rich guy wants to build a second home for his family and of course, all the other rich folks are up in arms about it.

I saw the yard signs denouncing the 'PARTY VENUE ON LUSK AVENUE' and like many I'm sure that read them, my first question was, 'where the hell is Lusk Avenue?' And, thanks to Little Dude falling asleep in the car, I decided to track it down and see what the fuss was about. I've decided that unless you're either a. a resident of Manville Heights or b. Irving Weber's Ghost that's been in Iowa City since time began, you won't be able to find Lusk Avenue without consulting Google Maps. I had to pull over to figure out where the hell it is, otherwise, I never would have found it.

Once I did find it, I took this attractive looking picture of a piece of open space that I assumed would be the logical place for a 7,500 square foot house. Isn't it pretty?
Well, turns out, I was wrong. According to the news articles, the house is slated to be built at 101 Lusk Avenue, (click the link to find out what it looks like, at least according to Google Maps.) Now, I'm curious: how the hell are they going to build a 7,500 square foot anything in a space that small? (Well, at least it looks small. The lot size, at least according to this handy dandy link seems to go all the way to the railroad tracks. So there's space there.)

So there's a petition, there's a website- NILE SAYS NO, damn it. NO KINNICK HOUSE IN OUR 'HOOD. My general reaction: 'meh.'

Yes, Lusk Avenue is narrow and fire trucks may well have trouble turning down it, but the argument that taxpayers are going to have to pay for upgrades to the infrastructure is idiotic. They will anyway at some point. It's a narrow, tiny ass cul-de sac that has seen better days. Sooner or later the city will get around to upgrading it, so why not make it sooner?

Calling it a 'party venue' seems a bit disingenuous as well. There's no evidence to suggest that the people building this thing are going to use it as a party venue. Yes, it's large, but I don't know, they might have a large family, you know. Maybe they all like to go to Iowa games together? Who knows. They said they wanted it as a second house, and well, I'm going to take them at their word. Yes, it's a large second house, but they're rich. That's how you get to afford to build a house in Manville Heights.

There might be something to the notion that it could become a must see for the Hawkeye faithful, but I'm not buying that either. I mean, you've got to actually find Lusk Avenue for one thing.

On balance, I have to admit that I'd probably feel differently about it, if I actually lived in Manville Heights. But I don't! So I can smile, laugh and say 'Build it now! Build it now! Build it now!'

Monday, August 29, 2016

Bookshot #91: On Writing

I don't know why it took me so long to finish this book. I don't even remember when or where I got it, which is kind of sad, but I burned through half of it and then put it down for a very long time, until about a week ago, I picked it up again and blazed through the rest. On Writing is a fascinating journey conducted by none other than Stephen King, who, I think we can all agree, might know a thing or two about writing.

Starting with his life story- more or less, King charts his early interest in writing, which eventually lead to his early struggles to break through and then his break through and then all the rest that followed including his descent into drug and alcohol addiction and his way out. For the second part of the book, King starts to do something amazing: share his knowledge about writing and what makes good writing and, more to the point, how to be a better writer.

I think it's the tone of the book that makes it special. It's not stern and unbending, it's not a dense and hard to dig through- King keeps the tone conversational and smooth. It bobs right along and it's a page turner- which seems appropriate, given the number of page-turners Mr. King has churned out over the years. But at the core of things, it's the fact that it's Stephen King writing that book that blows your mind. The guy writes books that people read. There's no pretension of high literature or art. No metaphors or similes, just one of the most successful authors out there telling you what he honestly thinks about writing. How amazing is that? People have always wished they could pick the brains of various experts out there- everyone has to have had that idle thought now and again. 'What would it be like to talk to [fill in personal inspiration/sports hero/favorite whatever/whomever]?' This book is probably the closest you can come to actually doing it in real life.

True story though: I've honestly never read that much Stephen King. I'm not really a horror guy, to be honest. My parents did have a copy of The Eyes of The Dragon lying around which I remember reading as a kid. But The Stand? The Dark Tower series? Haven't a read a word of them. Though after racing my way through this one, I think I'm going to have to find a way to sneak them into my rotation- though when I'll find the time, I haven't the faintest idea.

Whether you're into writing and want to be a writer (or already are a writer) or you just appreciate reading about people who have a passion for a subject, whatever it is- this book is empowering as it is entertaining. King's enthusiasm for writing is infectious and you can't help (especially if you want to take your writing somewhere, like I do) but want to run out to the store, buy pen, paper and get to a desk and buckle down and do some writing. After all, to paraphrase and slightly mangle that one quote from Shawshank, 'if you're not busy living, you might as well be writing.'

Overall: A nice, compact volume backed with wisdom and a revealing look into the life of one of the most successful authors of the past few decades, On Writing is a download of wisdom from one of the greats that is impossible to put down and, if you haven't read it already, it's begging to be picked up. **** out of ****. If you haven't found the time to read this book, find it. You won't regret it.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

This Week In Vexillology #179

The Olympics are over, so This Week In Vexillology, we're returning to our regularly scheduled programming with the flag of Armenia!
First of all, let's talk about the country itself. Armenia as a country is old, old, old- the Kingdom of Armenia was at it's height in the 1st Century BC. The Armenia Apostolic Church is recognized as the national church- the world's oldest. So as an idea, as a country, as a people, Armenia has been around for a long long time. Armenia spent centuries under the domination of various other powers in central Asia before being split between Russia, Persia and the Ottoman Empire. The current country is about 10% of what is considered 'historical Armenia' and their people fell victim to the Armenian Genocide before falling under Soviet Domination after a brief period of independence during the 1st Armenian Republic.

Getting back to independence wasn't easy. Glastnost and Perestroika brought demands for better environmental care for Armenia, because communists are, of course, all about the environment. There were also nasty tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia that continue today (see: Nagorno-Karabakh) that culminated in an out and out pogrom of Armenians living in Baku in 1990. (Oh and helping all of this was a 7.2 earthquake that hit in 1988.) Needless to say, Armenia wanted out and headed officially for the exits on August 23, 1990.

Armenia didn't waste time after declaring independence on August 23rd, 1990- they adopted their flag the very next day- a very nice horizontal tricolor of red, blue and orange, designed by Stepan Malkhasyants, per Wikipedia. Officially (as in, what's written down in the Constitution of Armenia) the red represents the Armenia highland, the Armenian people's continued struggle for survival, maintenance of the Christian faith and it's independence and freedom. The blue is for the will of the people of Armenia to live beneath peaceful skies and the orange is for the creative talent and hard-working nature of the Armenian people. Unofficially, there are simpler interpretations, like: red for the blood of the people killed in the Armenian Genocide, blue for the pure sky and orange for Armenia's courage.

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

Friday, August 26, 2016

Boozehound Unfiltered: Ron Burgandy Blended Scotch Whiskey

When I first heard of this, I was dubious. It seemed like a publicity stunt, to be honest. As this article from Forbes points out, foodstuffs that are marketed as tie-ins to movies tend not to be all that memorable- (the author of the article cites Ghostbusters Cereal as his exception to the rule, but I'd counter that with Ecto-Cooler) and he would be right. But here's the thing, whoever decided to do this actually put a little bit of thought into it, because at the end of the day as this review from Slate noted, this stuff? It's not terrible.

Its a blended scotch, not a single malt, so budget wise it's a lot more reachable than single malt, hovering around the $25-$30 buck mark at the store I snagged this at on our super fast visit up to The Cities last month. The blend is 60% malt and 40% grain and includes whiskies from Speyside, the Highlands and Islay.

But how is the whiskey itself? Let's check it out:

Color: Dark amber/honey

Body: Deep, rich and delicious, there's lots of dark fruits here. Figs, plums and raisins seem to be the most prominent.

Palate: If there's a weak point, it's probably here. It does sit lightly on the tongue and there's a nice touch of spice, and while vanilla and figs are prominent in the taste, it just doesn't work that well for me. It feels weak and watery when it should be smooth and robust. It's kind of a let-down given how good this stuff looks and how nice it smells.

Finish: Gradual but firm, the burn sort of sneaks up on your a bit, but it isn't harsh. So there's that anyway.

Overall: Ironically, it's the kind of hooch I can imagine a local television anchor actually drinking. It is genuinely not that bad. But the flip side of that: it's not that great either. A solid offering from Mr. Burgundy that's drinkable, this should make me sing, 'I love scotch, scotchy, scotchy scotch' but it doesn't quite get there. It smells great, but ends up as sort of a 'meh' experience. My Grade: C+

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

True Confessions: I Let My Kid Rig CandyLand

Look, good parenting means teaching your kids to follow the rules. I get that. It's about learning how to play fair and the art of winning and losing, but at some point along the way, after umpteen million games of CandyLand, I just stopped caring. I mean, it's CandyLand. It teaches kids colors and counting and how games work. If you're 4 years old, I get that it can seem pretty damn cool. 

But for an adult? It's awful. This is the Caillou of Board Games with it's obnoxious characters (Gramma Nut, Princess Lolly, Queen Frostine, Plumpy, and whatever the hell the rest are) and obnoxiously bright colors. There are literally no stakes. I mean, who gives a shit about getting to Candy Castle? What the hell is the point of the damn game?

So yeah, at a certain point, I stopped giving a shit. I know, I know. That makes me a bad parent, but it was also kind of amusing to watch Little Man figure out how to count cards so he got the orange one right off the bat and could take the Rainbow Bridge and get ahead. Then he moved up a notch and starting shuffling the deck himself, so he could put Queen Frostine in 'just the right place' so he could get a big jump on plodding old me way at the back. We don't have the new, fancy version with the spinner, so we're stuck with cards. He learned the recognize which of the cards was Plumpy (the guy way at the beginning of the board that will really screw you if you're on the verge of finding the Candy Mountain. Or the Candy Castle. Or whatever it is.) and freak out and try and obfuscate and switch cards.

I'm not completely useless. If he gets a card he doesn't want (though I noticed that Plumpy and the other disadvantageous cards have gone missing. Imagine that) he's gotta keep it and deal with the prospect that he might not win. 

You know what we need to get? Chutes and Ladders- and I know the modern version of Chutes and Ladders isn't much better than CandyLand, but my Grandma had an old school version of Snakes and Ladders. It was ancient- I don't know how ancient it was, but if she had found it in a bazaar shipped in from British India, before it well, became just India, it wouldn't have surprised me. She brought it with her every time she came to visit. And if you think getting Mr. Plumpy in CandyLand is a bad break, then you didn't know snakes like these. I remember there was one big long bugger that was at like space 98 on the board. Hit that and you went all the way back down to like space number 2. It was vicious. And it was fun.

Of course, in today's world, you can't get Snakes and Ladders. You have to get Chutes and Ladders. Slides and Ladders. Something ubiquitous and non-threatening and ladders. No, screw that. We need to get metal about this. SNAKES AND LADDERS, bitches. That's the game we need. There's a great quote from Terry Pratchett that I always think about when I think about Grandma and her old Snakes and Ladders board.
"Gods prefer simple, vicious games, where you Do Not Achieve Transcendence but Go Straight To Oblivion'; a key to the understanding all religion is that a god's idea of amusement is Snakes and Ladders with greased rungs."
Little Man's got a birthday coming up. I think I we need to make this happen.

So, yeah. I let Little Man rig CandyLand. I'm lazy, because he's four and CandyLand is relatively low-stakes in the grand scheme of things. When you're 4, you need your illusions. The rest of the world lies ahead of you and shit gets harder from here. CandyLand works when you're 4. But he's heading into preschool in about a week and that means it's time for Chutes- or, if I can find it somewhere online, Snakes and Ladders.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Squawk Box: Games of the XXXI Olympiad

I don't know why an American television network can't seem to figure out how to do decent Olympic coverage, but they can't. NBC's coverage has been universally panned as riddled with unnecessary tape delays, commercials, fluff and human interest stories instead of sports and an intense focus on all things Team USA related at the expense of the larger story going on at the games themselves. (Though I'm willing to give them some leeway on that last score. This is America, after all, so in competitions like these, it's generally Team USA and 'all them other people from the funny foreign places.')

But in general, it sort of sucks. Why did I spend so much of prime time watching swimming, swimming, swimming and nothing but swimming? Why did gymnastics wait until an ungodly late hour of the night to even begin? I don't care about Michael Phelps vs Ryan Lochte! At this point, their whole rivalry is a horse that NBC has beaten to death years ago. From across the pond, the Telegraph has a particularly scathing review that's worth reading, but buried deep in the article is this god-awful section:
John Miller, NBC Olympics chief marketing officer, claimed a month before the Olympics that women were more interested in 'the journey' of each competitor than the sport itself.
"The people who watch the Olympics are not particularly sports fans," he said.
"More women watch the Games than men, and for the women, they're less interested in the result and more interested in the journey.
"It's sort of like the ultimate reality show and mini-series wrapped into one."
 Oh, so that's why their coverage sucks out loud. They're pandering to some sexist notion of what women actually want...  ugh. (That's not the worst of the sexism, by the way. More fun gems await you in that Telegraph article, but hey, there's this too! Yay!)

Call me crazy, but the whole point of the Olympics is the actual damn sport. I don't care about the fluff and the human interest pieces- now, do you want to have a special hour on like Sunday nights or late nights devoted to 'THE JOURNEY' or whatever NBC execs think the ladies want to hear about, then go for it. But in today's world, there's is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for not showing every single bit of these games LIVE. Especially since Rio is like an hour ahead of Eastern Time. (Then, your primetime coverage can be all the exciting highlights/medal finals that people missed at work, if they aren't watching live.)

But the whole excess fluff, not enough sport problem has been around since I was in high school. In fact, I think I gave what was supposed to be a five minute speech on a topic of my choosing about how much the media coverage sucked, but no one stopped me, so my speech ended up being thirteen minutes or so- and that was in the 9th Grade.

What didn't suck? Streaming. It sucks that it takes a cable subscription to get at the full range of streaming options, but holy cow, was it nice to just pick a sport I wanted to watch and just watch it without incessant commercials and god awful commentary. Plus, it meant that I could catch sports and events that would never in a million years see the light of day on prime time coverage.

In today's world, there's just little to no excuse for being so bad at this. There's little to no excuse for not actually showing the games live- or, more to the point, showing all the medals being awarded. That should be the goal. And while NBC is paying out the behind for the rights to the Olympics, they're undoubtedly making money hand over fist. Or someone is, and if it's enough money, they don't have to care about how they do this.

But, watch the streaming model. Cable ain't going to be around forever and I can envision a day where NBC pops up and says, 'hey, want to watch it all? 20 bucks gets you full access- with or without a cable subscription.' I'd happily pay for the privilege to watch what I want, when I want to watch it- without inane commentary and all the excess annoying things that go along with it.

(Slate had an interesting interview with Dwight Stones that's worth a listen. Needless to say. he's not a fan of NBC's Track and Field coverage.)

Saturday, August 20, 2016

This Week In Vexillology #178

This Week In Vexillology, we're wrapping up our little trip down NGO Lane with the final NGO of our trio, the flag of the United Nations:
Adopted on December 7, 1946 the flag is pretty basic. A white UN Emblem, surrounded by two olive branches on a blue background. But if you dig a little deeper, you actually find out that there's a little bit more to it than that. The olive branches are simple: they're a symbol for peace. The world map? All the people and countries of the world.

But, if you dig into the Wiki-Page, you find that there are some interesting design choices and elements here. For a start, the color blue was meant to be the opposite of red, which people associate with war. While the projection is basically a projection of the world as seen from the North Pole, the original design- way back in 1945- chopped off bits of Argentina at the Southern Hemisphere, since Argentina was not planned to be an original member of the United Nations. They changed that, and shifted the view so that no one country was in prominence.

The final placing of the projection was shifted still further, with the Prime Meridian and the International Date Line forming the vertical diameter- this also moved North America away from the center of the emblem.

Is it one of the dreaded 'seals on a bedsheet'? Pretty much, but the political debate over the placement of the projection of the world map is kind of interesting. How relevant is the United Nations in the 21st Century? To be honest, I'm not actually sure any more. I feel like back in the 90s, we did a hell of a lot more with the United Nations than we do now. But I might be wrong...  they're working on getting a new Secretary-General I thought, but we'll see how that goes as well.

Until next time, keep your flags flying, FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, August 19, 2016

They're Scared Because They're Calling Everyone Else Crazy

Ugh, this meme*:

First of all, it's wrong. At least when it comes to Johnson. Seriously, go look at his website and see for yourself. And lo and behold nowhere do the words, 'I WANT TO OUTLAW SCHOOLS' actually appear. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Does the government waste our money? Yes. Should we abolish the Federal Department of Education? It's not the worst idea in the world, but it's hardly a radical idea either. Pretty much every Republican Presidential Candidate since I've been alive have wanted to do the exact same thing.

Is it fair to Jill Stein? Debatable. She hasn't exactly helped herself this time out, but her platform remains solid- and more to the point, especially when it comes to political reform, comprehensive and ambitious. She's raising issues that need to be talked about.

Look, I get the arguments against third parties, I do. I get that any sustained, long term success is going to involve building a solid infrastructure on the local, then state, then national level and then going from there. I also think that the Greens and the Libertarians are too wedged into their little corners of the political spectrum to ever be a serious threat to either of the mainstream parties. Plus, our system doesn't allow for large numbers of parties, but one, even two smaller parties with actual representation on any level in a sustained way would force coalition building onto a political establishment that gets too much joy out of finger pointing and accusations of obfuscation.

I've been listening to both of Dan Carlin's Podcasts for awhile (Common Sense and Hardcore History, both of which are excellent if you're in the market for a podcast) and he pointed out something that resonated with me. When the Establishment is under threat- and 'establishment' in this case, refers to the mainstream wings of both parties, that together really aren't that far apart on the issues when you get down the brass tacks- then the challenges to their dominance are usually referred to as 'crazy' or some kind of 'threat' to the status quo.

It's not new, as Carlin pointed out. LBJ had his infamous Daisy Girl ad. Richard Nixon ran as a law and order candidate portraying George McGovern as crazy. Ronald Reagan was going to kill us all because, well he was crazy. It's a classic formula: when the Establishment is scared, they'll call everyone else crazy. Shut up, they'll tell you. Get in line. Suck it up and vote for the our guy.

Do I know who I'm going to vote for yet? Nope. But when I see memes like this one, it both pisses me off and makes me happy all at the same time. The Establishment is scared- and if they're not scared, they're uncomfortable. And you know what?

I'm okay with that.

*Reading the comments on the Facebook post that came with it, I was somewhat heartened to see a whole bunch of people pointing out what bullshit descriptions of Stein and Johnson these are. Good. Maybe it'll piss people off enough to vote for them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Big 12 Expansion: Too Little, Too Late?

The Expansion Carousel is turning at an ever-increasing pace. The Big 12 is reportedly meeting with up to 17 schools and has a timeline that seems to be hovering sometime in the end of September for a potential decision on expansion candidates, but wrinkles have emerged that are worth talking about- because there are any number of reasons to believe that this round of expansion will probably be the last before the inevitable emergence of four, sixteen team super conferences. The question is, will there be a Big 12 Conference left when we get to that point?

But let's talk about the wrinkles...

First up, BYU: they were seen as the best candidate for membership in the Big 12, but then their honor code became an issue. Being a religious institution, they're not down with LGBT folks, which sports fans and football coaches might not care all that much about, but college presidents for sure do. I'm not saying that they're totally out of the picture- because of the available schools, they've got the strongest national brand and profile, which should satisfy the Big 12's network partners, but this complicates things. Potentially to a deal-breaking point. So put a question mark on BYU.

This leaves Houston and Cincy as obvious candidates if the Big 12 wants to get back to actually having twelve members. (If 14 is the number and BYU proves to be too much of a political liability for the college presidents, then Colorado State or Boise State probably moves to the forefront of the western options. I'd say some combination of ECU, UCF or USF could be possible for the east.) But playing the guessing game brings us to our second wrinkle:

Does any of this even matter? 

No, seriously. There's a serious argument to be made that the Big 12 is about five years behind the curve here. ESPN is bleeding money and subscribers. Fox Sports 1 isn't bleeding money, but it isn't exactly in bringing in the big bucks either. There are reasons to believe that the traditional cable model is breaking down. Somewhere, someone is going to figure out how to stream live sports the same way Netflix did for movies and Hulu did for television. I don't know if it'll look like Netflix or Hulu- I think that's too simplistic in many ways, but they'll figure out how to cut cable out of the picture.  And then what?* (There's a very good reason that the conference's TV partners are reportedly unhappy.)

If this expansion was driven by media markets and cable deals and we're in the twilight of cable as we know it, then what else do you  need to expand for other than to grab cash and money for when the next earthquake hits and the super conferences everyone is convinced will happen emerge. The other conferences already have the cash flow in place. The SEC, the Big 10, hell, even the ACC have stability and cash flow- stupid amounts of money almost. They're in a position to leverage that into whatever comes next. The Big 12, with no network and no good options doesn't have that. 

A lot of punditry is just people talking out of their asses. I get that, but when people present argument much like the one I made in the previous paragraph- it's convincing. One last round of expansion, grab as much cash as you can and when the grant of rights is up, everyone head for the door. 

Predicting the eventual demise of the Big 12 could be foolish. I could be wrong about all of this. It could be that some magical candidates emerge and everything stabilizes. Maybe cable figures out a solution to the cord cutting problem and we'll all by happy with our networks and everything will remain as it is now, more or less. But, let's say the Big 12 breaks up. Who goes where? The ACC, SEC, Big 10 and Pac-12 are all at 14 teams. So they'll be looking to add two more apiece. Rough thoughts/predictions:

Oklahoma goes one way, Texas goes another.

Texas won't follow A&M into the SEC.

You'd think that Iowa State should be nervous, but it's got an academic profile that could keep it a seat if and when the music stops.

Politics is an interesting factor in all of this. If the Kansas schools and the Oklahoma schools are a package deal, where do they go?

I feel like weirdly, TCU would fit in the SEC, but Baylor would fit in the Pac-12.

Where do Texas Tech and West Virginia land? Or do they?

All of this is predicated on the notion that this latest round of expansion won't be enough to hold the Big 12 together. It may work. The emphasis there is on the word 'may.' It could be that some expansion will convince the Big 12 that it's better to hang together instead of hanging separately. If the cable model collapses in on itself over the next five to ten years, they might come out looking lean, mean and smarter than the rest. Or, they could wait until their grant of rights expires and then head for the exits.  Either way asking if it's too little too late could be an important question to consider in this latest round of conference expansion.

*The Quiet Man mentioned that baseball is moving toward every team having their own network. So you'd pony up the cash to get all the games for your team... the Dodgers are dipping their toes in this pool.  I hate this notion. As much as I like the Twins, I'm not paying for a whole network of their games. I suppose something like this is inevitable, but I think it alienates casual fans. You've got to be all in with this model and that's a gamble. If it works, then great. If not then I don't know what that does to a sports bottom line. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Albums2010 #81: Soundtrack to 'Brokedown Palace'

So, I churned out another piece of short fiction, which I ended up calling Silence. But that sort of lead me down the memory hole a little bit- first to this song, and then to the entire soundtrack to Brokedown Palace.

If you don't remember the film, well, that's not surprising- because it came out in 1999 and didn't do all that much at the box office, but Clare Danes, Kate Beckinsale and Bill Pullman starred and basically, Danes and Beckinsale are the young, adventurous travelers that go to Thailand, party hardy a little too much with a random dude that plants heroin in their luggage. So they go to prison and Pullman is the lawyer tasked to get them out. He gets one of them out but not the other. And that's pretty much the movie.

But weirdly, it has a pretty good soundtrack. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the soundtrack is probably the best part of the movie. Thinking back on it, I think that 'Silence' had to have been getting radio play- because I can't think of another reason I would have gone out of my way to track down the soundtrack- which in turn, lead to a certain amount of curiosity about the movie- so I had to track that down and watch it to see what it was about.

So, movie: 'meh', soundtrack: pretty damn good.

It's very late 90s, in many respects. Moist's 'Leave It Alone', Nelly Furtado's 'Party's Just Begun', Plumb's 'Damaged' and Delerium/Sarah McLaughlin's 'Silence' all sort of fall into that post-grunge, vaguely melancholy, but yet not type of a sound, while tracks like 'Naxalite' from Asian Dub Foundation, 'Fingers' from Joi, the cover of 'Rock The Casbah' by Solar Twins sort of have a vaguely techno/EM/90s dance feel to them. That might strike some people as a contrast that's oddly contradictory, but it also reflects the tone of the movie- which is what a soundtrack is supposed to do.

I mean, you've got happy, party, club-drugging going on and then suddenly, heroin, Thai judicial system and Thai prison. Weird mix, overall, right? (There's also a trio of tracks that are heavy on the drama with 'Even When I'm Sleeping' from Leonardo's Bride, 'The Wind' from PJ Harvey and 'Deliver Me' from Sarah Brightman.)

Having run through this again, I have to say that the song that flung me down the rabbit hole back in the day- Silence, doesn't actually stick out or hold up all that well on further reflection. It's an earworm of a song, but its a bit waily and sort makes me think of Evanescence in many ways and the whole vaguely Goth thing just doesn't work for me now the way it did back then. But, there are a trio of tracks I think you could probably keep off of this soundtrack:

First, Contradictive by Tricky/DJ Muggs. Love this song. Very, very chill and the lyrics are nicely introspective. I mean, 'reflect on your life' is something we should all do from time to time, right?

Second, I'm going to go with Party's Just Begun by Nelly Furtado. Whatever happened to her? Is she still out and about doing things? (Again, very chill, very nice song.)

Third, I'm going to award a tie to Policeman Skank by Audioweb and Naxalite by Asian Dub Foundation. (The latter because I secretly hope there is actually an Asian Dub Foundation somewhere out there that's dedicated to make dubs of Asian films. Or Asian dubs of every other film?)

Overall: If the soundtrack to your movie is better than your actually movie, you've probably got problems, but this actually holds up pretty decently, all things considered. Not sure how you'd judge it against other soundtracks out there- I'm sure Tarantino has but together a few that would be better than this one is, but for another trip down the rabbit hole to the late 90s, it's not a bad time. Just don't watch the movie and you'll be fine. My Grade: B-

Saturday, August 13, 2016

This Week In Vexillology #177

This Week In Vexillology, we're sticking with International Organizations, but we're stepping away from the world of sports for the flag of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization instead:

I've always liked the flag of NATO. It looks sharp as hell and kind of kick-ass to be honest. Did the Warsaw Pact* have a flag? In the immortal words of Eddie Izzard, 'do you have a flag?' Because NATO has one hell of a flag. I dig it. I'm going to even go further and say that this flag helped us win the Cold War. If Rocky can claim some credit, so can this flag. It rocks.

So what's the flag of NATO all about? Well, it's been around since October 14th, 1953 and some nice symbolism behind it. The dark blue represents the Atlantic Ocean (I'm guessing the northern part, since well, it's 'The North Atlantic Treaty Organization')The circle stands for unity among the member states. The compass rose in the center represents the direction toward the path of peace, the goal that the organization strives for.

There's a lot of people that seem to think that NATO is sort of a relic of the Cold War, but I actually kind of dig the organization. I feel like in general, it's a source of stability for the western democracies and keeps them talking- and it's a good thing. Plus in French I'm pretty sure the acronym is OTAN.  NATO/OTAN seems like a really cool avant garde techno group.

So there you go: NATO! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, August 12, 2016

How Do You Fix The Olympics?

As the Rio Olympics reach the end of the first week of competition, so far, things seem to be going okay. I say 'so far' because we've got a lot of Olympics left, but for now, they don't seem to be the smoking dumpster fire that people were predicting. The Opening Ceremonies, despite the usual tedious commentary and umpteen million commercial breaks from NBC, were beautiful without being over the top ridiculous- and that Olympic Torch (or an actual cauldron in this case) probably ranks right up there as one of the coolest I've ever seen.

But with the Olympics, you get the usual chorus of voices crying out that the Olympics are irretrievably broken and need to be fixed. There's a growing sentiment that there's something to this notion- complaints of financial mismanagement and boondoggles have been around for decades- Montreal was dealing with the fall out for decades afterward and Denver actually backed out of hosting the Winter Games because well, people were pissed off about the cost- amongst other things. White elephants and crumbling remains of venues past are scattered throughout every host city you can think of, but lately you get the sense that the usual calls for reform might actually be building to something concrete.

Consider 2024- Boston, who had been selected as the candidate city for the United States ran screaming in the other direction from the prospect of hosting the Olympics. The people of Bah-stahn said not only 'no' but 'hell no.'  The 2022 Winter Olympics went to Beijing pretty much after every other city had looked at their budgets and/or asked their voters only to be told not only 'no' but 'hell no.'

So, the Olympics finds itself in a bit of a pickle. Stick with the current model and those pesky voters, if given an opportunity will probably give the IOC the middle finger before signing up for a billion dollar,  multi-year boondoggle followed by a hangover that lasts decades in many cases- which means that the Olympics then flips to autocracies and dictatorships that don't give a shit about the money and wants to use it to burnish the prestige of their regimes. (See: Sochi 2014 and to some degree Beijing 2008, though I think the latter was far more about announcing China's arrival on the world stage than trumpeting communism.)

If you're the IOC, you need a plan. There are ideas out there- Seattle and Vancouver wanted to float a joint bid at one point, but got told no because bids can't cross national boundaries. That's stupid. Change that- let cities partner up, get creative and share the load a little bit. (Copenhagen-Malmo, Vienna-Bratislava, Helsinki-Tallinn, hell even San Diego-Tijuana if you really wanted too.)

A lot of people seem to like the idea of making a permanent venue somewhere- like Athens, Vancouver or Olympia itself. I see the sense of that- it would avoid the usual hassle of building venues from scratch every four years. However, part of the attraction of the Olympics, I think is that it helps people discover different parts of the world- that doesn't help you balance the checkbook if you're a potential candidate city, but I can see why people both like and dislike the idea.

But what if you relied on existing infrastructure that will be in use before, during and after the games? Facilities aren't white elephants, cities don't have to spend billions on building new venues and everyone walks away happy.  Let's look at a hypothetical: Minneapolis-Saint Paul.

Consulting the interwebs, we find the following sports venues already in places in the Twin Cities Area:

Target Center
Target Field
US Bank Stadium
Williams Arena
Mariucci Arena
TCF Bank Stadium
Xcel Energy Center
CHS Field
MLS Stadium (Coming Soon)

There's got to be more than this, but you get the idea. There's a hefty amount of existing venues already in and around the Twin Cities Metro area- do you have to build anything shiny and new? Not in the least bit. You've got Lakes a plenty for things like rowing and I'm sure you can find some sand somewhere for beach volleyball, but the bulk of your venues are already there.  So what are you left with?

Where to put the athletes? Well, the University of Minnesota has dorms a plenty- plus, if you run short there, there are a variety of other smaller colleges around the metro area to lean on as well.

Transportation infrastructure? There's already two light rail lines that should get you into the general area of most of the venues- and they're working on another light rail line out to the southwest 'burbs next- so it's not like they're not investing in that anyway.

In short, you could have the Olympics in the Twin Cities with relative ease and probably at a significantly lower cost than a lot of recent games simply by using infrastructure that's already in place.

But wait, Tom! Doesn't that sort of limit the Olympics to richer nations where cities have extra cash to invest in things like stadiums? You would think so- but here's the kicker: who says the Olympics have to be held in just a city? Maybe your capitol city doesn't have the infrastructure to host the Olympics- but maybe your entire country does?

The Olympics don't have to be broken. They just need a little bit of creative thinking is all... which is, of course, precisely what large global organizations are just so good at.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Can We Talk About This CPD Decision?

Seems like every four years, the third parties sue to try and get into the Presidential debates and every four years they always get slapped down- the decision, handed down last week was not surprising- once again, their lawsuit got nowhere. What was different this time around was the legal tack the third parties employed as the basis of their suit- this time, they were arguing that the Commission on Presidential Debates protected a de-facto monopoly and was thus, illegal and that the 15% threshold represented a threat to the First Amendment.

When they launched the lawsuit last year, I thought it was a good idea. I mean the usual ways hadn't gotten anywhere- so why not try a different tack? And the anti-trust angle seemed to be a good way to go, but unfortunately, a Federal Judge was having none of it and the lawsuit was tossed- which means the third parties are on the outside looking in- barring a surge of support for Libertarian Candidate Gary Johnson- once again.

I'm not a lawyer, but I was interested enough in the topic to actually track down the decision and read it for myself- and having done so, I'm reluctantly forced to admit that while some aspects of the decision are absolutely absurd, others are far less so.

(Once again, keep in mind I'm not a lawyer.)

Let's start with the absurd: the Judge in question sweeps aside the anti-trust question by starting that "antitrust laws govern commercial markets and not political activity." In the wake of the Citizens United decision, which pretty much cemented the notion that 'money is speech' and opened the electoral process up to a flood of corporate and special interest money, you can't really make a reasonable argument anymore that there's a clear, solid delineation between commercial and political activities anymore. The line is blurred- whether it's blurred enough to warrant opening up private political entities (such as the CPD or even the Republican and Democratic Parties for that matter) to potential anti-trust violations, I don't know- but to dismiss the notion out of hand is ridiculous- and to pretend that there's a clear boundary between the two spheres anymore is patently absurd.

But, wait- there's more!
Plaintiffs’ alleged injuries are wholly speculative and are dependent entirely on media coverage decisions. The alleged injuries––failure to receive media coverage and to garner votes, federal matching funds, and campaign contributions—were caused by the lack of popular support of the candidates and their parties sufficient to attract media attention. 
Woof. Both the Greens and the Libertarians point out that without the exposure that a nationally televised debate would give them, they're nowhere in terms of garnering popular support or attention for their candidates- and they make a good point. A ridiculous amount of money changes hands between various entities over these debates and they are essentially free advertising for the two major party candidates. But this paragraph sets up almost a circular argument/chicken vs egg to me. So the Greens/Libertarians say that without the debates and the media coverage, they can't get enough support to get off the ground, the Judge said that it's all about media coverage decisions- if their candidates and positions to garner enough support to get media attention, that's their fault.

So which is it? Do the parties/candidates and the support they do/don't get lead to media coverage or does media coverage lead to support that parties/candidates do or don't get? I'm honestly not sure. (When Jesse Ventura ran in 1998, he spent 300k and went outside the box per Wikipedia- but, here's the thing- I'm pretty sure he also had his own radio show at the time. Which helped him get exposure and name recognition, which in turn, garnered him support- so that seems to lend credence to the idea that in order to get the support, you need the media coverage and not the other way around.)

The Free Speech question is where things fall apart for the Greens and the Libertarians- as much as I hate admitting it. There is a clear prohibition on forced speech and forced association- and as the CPD is a private entity and as the Republican and Democratic Parties are private entities, they get to make the rules for who gets into their debates. The slightly maddening part of it all is that as private entities they run the government and the First Amendment protection is from government infringement and the parties are private entities so it doesn't apply.

And yet...  if they run the government and make all the rules? Argh. It's frustrating because it seems like their should be a way in and there just isn't- at least not on First Amendment grounds from what I can see.

While I'm not a lawyer, I do have not one but two degrees in Political Science and here's what I know:

The type of voting system we have- the old 'first past the post' single member district deal- doesn't lend itself well to large numbers of parties. In fact, it tends to spit out- you guessed it- two parties. Maybe there's a third or a fourth smaller party in the mix, but in general there's nothing to suggest that opening the system up and leveling the playing field would pose an existential threat to the two major parties.

But let's say we do just that- we take redistricting to the Iowa model nationwide, we ban direct contributions to campaigns, make being on the ballot in all 50 states the only requirement to entrance to any debate sponsored by any entity- public or private- we make Election Day a national holiday and do pretty much everything we can to make the playing as level as possible- does that mean there will suddenly be a plethora of new parties bursting onto the scene?

Nope. There's still the little matter of building the infrastructure, getting the candidates and persuading the you know, voters that your ideas are better than the other parties. That's the way it should work, to me. That's a democracy I'd want to participate in. Thing is, I have a feeling that the American political system will remain a gigantic ball of suck until people get on board with the idea of wholesale political reform- and barriers to entry will remain high and (to me) unreasonable.

The only thing, at this point I can think of is for the other parties to stage their own debate. How they would get exposure for that, I don't know- whatever Larry King is doing, he had a third party debate on his show in 2012. It was nice to see, but I don't know what, if any impact it had. I'd go for ballot access laws and keep on keeping on. That's a bitter pill to swallow, but I'd like to think at some point in the future, people's desire for more options in the political marketplace will become demands that are too loud to be ignored.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Bookshot #90: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

If you're a fan of comics and you haven't read this book, stop what you're doing and go and find it. If, like me, you keep finding yourself enchanted by the sheer depth and complex beauty of Michael Chabon's writing and haven't read this book yet, put it on your list and read it. You won't be disappointed.

A glorious sprawling love letter to the early days and genesis of what would be the modern comic book, the story of Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay spans both the globe and decades- ranging from Joe's escape from Prague as the Nazis clamp down and close in, leaving his family behind to an uncertain fate, to Sam's fast-talking hustle that conceals a vast imagination and a talent for writing that meets it's match in Joe Kavalier's artistic abilities on the streets of 1930s New York City and helps bring The Escapist to life.

As Sam dreams up more heroes and heroines to join The Escapist, their fame and fortune only grows as the beautiful Rosa Saks enters their orbit and falls in love with Joe, who, having escaped from Czechoslovakia, now obsesses over liberating his family from the darkness engulfing Europe- only to find that the one chance he has to do so might have come too late. Like so much else, the lives of the trio are forever disrupted by World War II and when it's all over, their lives, dreams and ambitions are forever changed and altered.

I'm honestly surprised that no one has made a movie out of this yet- it's a little dense, in parts- but as a period piece, there are echoes of The Great Gatsby and it's tragic love story- and actual real life people (Al Smith, Stan Lee and other comics legends) wander in and out of the story. You can also tell that Chabon has done his homework about Houdini and the art of escapism (young Joe actually trains with a magician, Kornblum) who is proficient in the art- so the somewhat harrowing details of Joe's escape from Czechoslovakia feel real as well.

In fact, if you step back and look at it once you're done, it actually could work very well as a comic book/graphic novel, which is probably what Chabon intended- and to be honest, that's what I enjoy so much about his writing- it might take awhile, it might be incredible subtle, but in every instance where he sets a character or the plot up for something, it pays off- or it comes full circle. I remember reading a random sentence about mid-way through about something one of the characters is doing and had to go back several pages to find out when she actually started doing it.

The sheer amount of research that Chabon did for this book is also obvious- in fact, he acknowledges his sources at the end of the book and it's a long list- but the cumulative effect of that research is seen in the overall arc of the book. It transformative, even transportational in a way that you don't often find in many other period pieces. You feel like you've been dropped into the immigrant experience of 1930s New York. You explore the Jewish-American roots of many superheroes, the charges that comic books encourage homosexuality (especially tragic for Sam) and the journey from idea to product that is just a joy to read about.

I almost wish that they could have stretched the story just a decade more when the Silver Age of Comics really kicked off and they came back in a big way- but the way this ended- and it was in a way you weren't expecting at all, in many ways, was beautiful and just about perfect. I closed the book, put it down and said "wow."

Overall: Dense and involved, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is an epic adventure in every sense of the word at the dawn of what was become a defining genre of American pop culture of today.It might take you a little bit to dig into it, but once you're in, you're in- and you won't stop turning the pages until the end of the book. **** out of ****.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

This Week In Vexillology #176

Well, we're taking a detour this week- because last night marked the start of the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, what better way to get in the spirit of the games by taking a look at the main symbol of the games- raised last night along with the flag of Brazil in Maracana Stadium- yes, This Week In Vexillology it's the Olympic Flag:

(This picture is actually from the closing ceremonies in 2008 in Beijing- the Rio Games are barely a day old, so the internet isn't exactly awash with images to snag yet- but you get the basic idea.)

The main symbol on the flag is obviously, the Olympic Rings, which were designed in 1912 by Pierre de Coubertin, co-founder of the modern Olympiad. At the time, the rings were meant to represent the five world continents- Africa, Asia, America, Europe and Oceania- while the colors of the flag- the five rings and the white background were meant to represent all the colors that appeared on all the national flags of the countries participating at the time.

The bigger the Olympics became, the broader the definition of the meaning of the flag became as well. Per the (very extensive) Wiki-Page on the many, many Olympic symbols out there, the current view is that the symbol stands for an international movement that welcomes all countries to join- with the five rings representing the five continents of the world, interlocking when the athletes meet at the Olympic Games. 

Interestingly, there's a little bit of a contradiction when it comes to the whole, 'which ring stands for which continent' debate. Prior to 1951, blue was for Europe, yellow for Asia, black for Africa, green for Australia and Oceania and red for the Americas- but that was removed from the official definition of the symbols because there was no evidence to suggest that de Coubertin intended the rings to represent a continent based on color. Despite that though, the Association of National Olympic Committees places the logo of its continental association inside the rings of the corresponding color.

So, I'm not sure what to make of that. Seems like a weirdly unofficial/official definition of the rings/continents thing.

If you think that's confusing, well, then let's dig into what the hell happens to the Olympic Flag between Olympics. Turns out that flags hoisted over a host city stadium for the duration of the games get retired at the end of the games- but, the flags that are used at the closing ceremonies are passed on to the mayor of the next Olympic City in what's called the Antwerp Ceremony.

TL;DR of this whole mess: basically, the first flag was presented to the IOC in 1920 at the Antwerp Games. Afterward, they couldn't find it*, so they had to make a new flag for the Paris Games in 1924- that flag was passed to the next organizing city of the summer and winter games until the Winter Games in Oslo, when they made a flag just for the Winter Olympics to pass on to the next Winter Games while the flag from 1924 continued to be passed along until 1988, when it was retired in Seoul. (And thus, instead of the Antwerp Flag, it's now the Seoul Flag that gets passed along between Summer Olympics.) 

I'm not even going to get into the Olympic Hymn. You can read the Wiki-Page for that whole mess. In the meantime, until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

*They did actually end up finding it... in 1997- and got it officially returned in time for the Sydney Games in 2000.