Sunday, December 31, 2017

5 For 2017: How'd I Do?

1. I am getting that tattoo, damn it.

Well, that didn't happen. I know exactly what I want to get and where I want to get it and I just have to make the appointment and do it. Guess what's rolling over to 2018? That's right...  I am getting that tattoo, damn it.

2. I'm declaring this my Year of Books

I did do a ton more reading than I had in years past this year...  I haven't been reading exclusively from the list and I have taken some detours (Lincoln In The Bardo, Hyperion, The Fall of Hyperion) but I think I'm going to make it a goal to finish this list in 2018.

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Before The Fall, Noah Hawley
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Ulysses, James Joyce
Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse
Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks
Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson

3. I want to up my writing/blogging game.

I started 2017 with maybe 8K in pageviews... right now, I'm ending the year with 25K in pageviews. I'd call this one a qualified success. But going forward, I want to try and make it even better and make it more of a 'thing' if that makes sense. If the main rule of social media is to have your own website to build your channels off of, then I want this blog to be the foundation of whatever the hell it is I'm doing going forward.

4. I want to be my best self.

This was pretty vague, but I'm journaling. I'm doing my Tai Chi. I'm practicing gratitude whenever I can and trying to stay positive? Does this count? In general, I try not to be an asshole whenever I can, but I don't always succeed. I think the bigger thing is that I always try.

5. The Great Debt Snowball of 2017

Our first year at trying to apply 'adulting' to our financial management went well. We had some wobbly months, but are ending the year on the right note. We paid off two credit cards this year and assuming the dogs don't bankrupt us like they did in the back half of 2017, I feel good about getting something else paid off this year and putting us in the driver's seat for 2019.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

This Week in Vexillology #241

We're wrapping up 2017 with two more flags featuring the letter 'B', this time a duo from Africa: Benin and Burkina Faso. (I'll be off for a couple of weeks for the holidays ostensibly to do my annual year end review as I scratch my head and puzzle at how to take this modest little blogging venture of mine to the next level, whatever that is- though this year, I'm really combining holidays with a scoop of paternity leave as the arrival of Baby #3 is imminent!) Our two flags this week are actually pretty cool in their own way and while they dip into the traditional color scheme/design pattern seen across West Africa quite a bit, they're striking in their own way.

First up, Burkina Faso:
Okay, mild tangent time: I have an incredible twitch when it comes to globes in antique stores and Burkina Faso is one of the countries that I use to figure out just how old the globe is, since there was a bit of a coup d'etat there that changed the name of the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso- along with the name change, the flag changed as well. (The old flag of Upper Volta was a horizontal tricolor of black, white and red standing for the three tributaries of the Volta River, the Black Volta, the White Volta and the Red Volta.) The current flag was adopted on August 4th, 1984 as the national flag.

According to the flag's wiki-page, the pan-African colors are said to symbolize a break with the colonial past and the unity with the other African ex-colonies. The red also stands for revolution and the green is for the abundance of agricultural and natural riches. The star placed over the stripes stands for the guiding light of the revolution.

Next up, Benin:
Benin had a bit of a Socialist period between 1975-1990 where they had a pretty vanilla flag which was green with a red star in the upper left corner and that was it. Their current flag was the original post-independence flag that replaced the French Tricolor and they happily brought it back after the Socialist Government fell in 1990. The colors are (once more) pan-African in nature and honor Ethiopia as the oldest independent country in Africa. The yellow and green stand for the northern savannas and palm groves in the south and the red stand for the blood shed by those who fought for the independence for the country from France.

There's really not a whole lot more to the flag of a Benin than that, I'm afraid.

Remember until next time, (which will be in 2018), keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Albums2010 #96: Songs of Experience


At the outset, I should admit that I've only listened to parts of Songs of Innocence and since this album is intended to be a companion piece to that album, I'm probably going to have to back track to listen to that one as well, just to get the full effect. (Songs of Innocence, of course, was the infamous album that just sort of showed up in your iTunes a few years back- for free, mind you- but regardless of whether you wanted it or not.) But any new U2 album is going to pique my interest, so I found this one on the old Spotify and gave it a listen.

Songs of Experience is enjoyable enough and shows flashes of interesting moments, but didn't really do much for me overall. I feel like it sort of balanced between trying to recapture the sort of sound that the band went for in All That You Can't Leave Behind and pushing into something new and different. I remember listening to All That You Can't Leave Behind and thinking, 'man, I don't know where U2 have been, but now they're back.' This album makes me sort of excited in parts and sort of bored me in parts and that's not really a mixture I dig coming from this band.

There is a consistent bright spot though and I think that's The Edge. His guitar work on this album is excellent and produces hooks that growl and get at you and make you wonder why there's not of The Edge cutting loose and doing his thing. (One of the highlights of The Joshua Tree concert this year was their performance of 'Bullet The Blue Sky'- dude ate his Wheaties and then some.) It's not all bad though: 'The Blackout' hearks back to the growly days of tracks like 'Discotheque.' And the early tracks of the album were interesting enough to keep me listening, none of them really stood out until 'American Soul' (which my sketchy notes describes as 'good, but lots of talk about love- which is something that could be said of the album as a whole. Don't get me wrong: at this point, Bono gonna Bono, no matter what you say, but it would be nice to hear U2 explore ideas of love that don't relate to a global, humanity level type of love again.)

It's not one of the songs that sort of gets mentioned when you look at articles about this album, but I enjoyed the hell out of 'Red Flag Day.' It's fast, catchy and has great hooks and is honestly probably one of the only songs that sort of stuck in my head from this album.

Overall: I think I've got to tackle Songs of Innocence to see if it somehow compliments this album or enhances my enjoyment of it. I might even go back and reassess it a bit after I do that as well. But this was sort of a forgettable album for me- with a few exceptions here and there, but I found myself longing to go back and listen to U2 albums of yore, since so much of this album felt like songs I had heard before. My Grade: ** out of ****

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Epic Bookshot #1: Winston S. Churchill's The Second World War

According to Goodreads, I started reading this on February 4th, 2012. I finished it on December 8th, 2017. That's almost six years to get through all twelves volumes of this series and it feels as if an incredible weight has been lifted off of my shoulders.

You can say a lot about Churchill and goodness knows people have, but the man could write. I'll be honest though: I have an abridged one volume version of his A History of The English Speaking Peoples knocking around somewhere and I vastly prefer that one volume to this twelve volume monstrosity. Partially, I think it's because when properly constrained, Churchill can write history that is both compelling and informative. When left to his own devices, however, he can, well, carry on and on and on and on- and that, combined with Churchill's own admission that the twelve volumes about The Second World War are about giving his own version of what happened to ensure the old phrase, 'history is written by the victors' is more or less the case. The fact that Churchill includes just about every piece of correspondence, report and telegram he ever wrote during the course of the war just makes an already length story even longer, if that's possible.

Not that it's all bad. Churchill is nothing if a completist and gives a thorough accounting of the Second World War and front a different perspective as well. I've always thought American accounts of the war- certainly what I was taught in high school, were somewhat truncated. The Second World War didn't begun until 1941, it seemed and the first years of the war were glossed over with ease. Not so here and if you've got the itch to really go deep on the topic, these volumes do provide an incredibly complete picture of just what a global conflict this was. 

I think that's what I liked most about these books. I got to learn all about Tobruk and the British campaign in North Africa against the Italians. There was also far more fighting in southeast Asia than I was aware of, especially the British campaigns against the Japanese in northeast India and into Burma. The Battle for the Atlantic and the incredible problem of U-Boats is dealt with in thrilling and complete detail as well. (I had no idea just how much of a threat the U-Boats posed- at their height, they really did pose a mortal threat to the British war effort.)

The build-up to D-Day and the problem of integrating the Free French back into newly liberated France (and just dealing with DeGaulle in general) is a fascinating topic that's discussed at length as well as exhaustive accounts of the Quebec, Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam Conferences and how the grand plans for a post-war settlement sort of unravel a bit as the Allies start to bicker over the details. By the final volumes of the series, you get a sense of how Churchill was starting to feel that British interests were being marginalized by the US and USSR, especially over the matter of Poland. Poland was the impetus for the British going to war in the first place it's very obvious that Churchill feels that Poland gets a raw deal. 

Churchill's grand plan to invade from the Adriatic with an eye to cutting off Soviet advances in Eastern Europe seems oddly prophetic, but by that point in the war, there were just too many moving parts in the Allied Command Structure and it seems that Churchill was listened to politely and then they went back to the original plan of a landing in Normandy. He also gets a little upset when the Soviets start advancing into places that they weren't technically supposed to go and you can sense some of his frustration as the Soviets and the Americans sort of set up the post-war world by gently marginalizing the European powers.

Overall: if you're looking to tackle a great and grand historical challenge, you could do far worse than making your way through these twelve volumes. Churchill's voice as a primary source for the events that unfolded throughout the war is a valuable and informative one, so if you're just a casual history buff, it's interesting stuff. If you're a serious World War II buff, then these 12 volumes probably should bump up to 'must read' for you. (I'd also recommend The Liberation Trilogy by Rick Atkinson, if you're looking for a more America-centric World War II series- I read the first volume, but it was excellent enough that I feel confident about the next two.) Just for the sheer volume of history that's jammed into these books and because this series really does fall under the category of 'Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About The Second World War But Were Afraid To Ask' I'm going to have to say, ***** out of *****

Monday, December 11, 2017

Squawk Box: An Oddly Mismatched Trio

I'm shaking off the cobwebs of the great and grand Star Trek Cycle and catching up on a lot of shows that I've missed and this month's Squawk Box is a kind of a good example of 'catch-up' featuring a oddly mis-matched trio of brilliant television: American Vandal, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and, of course, the second season of Stranger Things.

American Vandal I read about courtesy of NPR and gave it awhirl based solely on their enthusiastic review only to find it was as brilliant as advertised. A satirical take off of Netflix's Making A Murderer, American Vandal plunges into the depths of the social strata of Oceanside High as the school is reeling from an ambitious act of vandalism: 27 dicks were spray painted onto 27 cars in the faculty parking lot and class clown and school ne'er do well Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) has been expelled for the crime. A couple of members of the AV Club/Morning TV Show for the high school, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) are convinced that Dylan has been framed and start a documentary intending to answer the question that everyone is asking: Who did the dicks?

With a first season of eight episodes about thirty minutes a piece, American Vandal is an easy watch and goes quick, but what makes it worth watching is it's unflinching commitment to it's satire. This works and works brilliantly because the show plays it straight, tackling the mystery with a deadly seriousness that would fit right in to any True Crime show on television. The characters tackle theories, chase leads, get breaks in their 'case' and by the end of the show, the central question of American Vandal is answered, but it's not quite the answer you were expecting.

While Vandal provides pitch perfect satire, Amazon's The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is the latest offering from Gilmore Girls (and Bunheads) creator Amy Sherman-Palladino and the promise it showed in it's pilot, which debuted in the spring during Amazon's pilot season is more than fulfilled with the rest of the first season. Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) is a Jewish housewife living in New York City in 1958 with her husband Joel (Michael Zegen) and appears to have the perfect life. They've got two beautiful children, her husband has a good job and moonlights as a comedian at night- she's got it all, until it all falls apart. Turns out her husband has been having an affair with his secretary and leaves her and Midge gets drunk, goes down to his usual comedy club and delivers an impromptu stand up set that the audience loves.

The house manager, Susie Myerson (Alex Borstein) tells her that she has the talent to be really good at comedy and a post-arrest meeting with none other than Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) convinces Midge to go for it. The season mainly involves Midge figuring out how to do just that as her family and her in-laws push for her to reunite with her husband. Her husband Joel realizes that he's made a mistake and wants to come back. By the end of the season, Midge seems to be getting her life back together and the first season ends in a way that's going to leave you begging for more (thankfully, Amazon has picked up this show for a second season.)

Sherman-Palladino's talent for intelligent writing and razor sharp, lightning quick dialogue is once again given a beautiful platform on which to shine. This is the beautiful period piece you never knew you wanted and Rachel Brosnahan is incredible as Midge and with Tony Shalhoub, Marin Hinkle, Kevin Pollak and Caroline Aaron as the parents of Midge (Shalhoub and Hinkle) and Joel (Pollak and Aaron), the cast is operating on all cylinders and it's a joy to watch and funny to boot.

Finally, Stranger Things is back for a second season and the return trip to the Upside Down is just as entertaining as the first go-round. A year after the disappearance and then reappearance of Will and the disappearance of Eleven, the kids are trying to move on, but it's difficult. Will is still traumatized by the events of the previous year. Nancy is still struggling with the fact that she knows the truth about what happened to Barb, but Barb's parents still think she's missing. Hawkins Lab is under new management with Dr. Owens (Paul Reiser) and Will's Mom, Joyce Byers has a boyfriend, the local Radio Shack man, Bob (Sean Astin.) There's also a new girl in school, Max (Sadie Sink) whom both Dustin and Lucas develop a crush on.

As the one year anniversary of Will's disappearance approaches, his nightmares and flashbacks to the Upside Down start to increase, as does the reappearance of strange things happening. Eleven (who, as it turns out, escaped from the Upside Down almost immediately after vanquishing the monster in Season 1) has hidden away in a cabin and is being cared for Sheriff Hopper, but, when his overabundance of caution starts to feel more like keeping Eleven locked away and less like keeping her safe, she rebels and sets off looking for answers to her origin. (Which she finds.) In the meantime, strange creatures keep emerging, Will's condition starts to deteriorate at the Upside Down seems ready to break through into our world and it's up to Eleven and the gang to stop it.

Stranger Things still has it in Season 2 and then some... like every 80s movie you've ever loved, it's a perfect slice of exciting, paranormal, nostalgia and I can't wait to see where it goes in Season 3.

Overall, this was an interesting mix of shows to make my way through. I enjoyed them all, but I think by far, the Gold Medal has to go to The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel...  yes, it's a period piece which may not be your thing, but the writing is intelligent, the performances amazing and the dialogue crackles. I'd probably but Stranger Things and American Vandal at about level- Stranger Things continues to take all the nostalgia buttons and just mashes them repeatedly with incredibly entertaining results. Either, all three shows in this trio are worth watching. You should check them out.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Netflix & Chill #34: The Bonds of Timothy Dalton

Watched On: Amazon Prime
Released: 1987 (The Living Daylights), 1989 (License To Kill)
Starring: Timothy Dalton, Maryam d'Abo, Joe Don Baker, Art Malik, Jeroen Krabbe, Carey Lowell, Robert Davi, Talisa Soto, Anthony Zerbe
Rotten Tomatoes: The Living Daylights- 71%, License To Kill- 77%
Picks: Mine

James Bonding has made it's way back into my podcast rotation and they've tackled both the Timothy Dalton Bond movies in recent episodes and thanks to Amazon Prime getting every non-Daniel Craig Bond movie, I decided to give both of them awhirl and watch them again. I've always felt that Dalton got kind of a bad rap as Bond. The Living Daylights is probably one of my all-time favorite Bond movies and License To Kill...  not so much. (My main beef with License To Kill was Felix not dying, which made Bond's revenge tour seem somewhat pointless to me, but on a revisit, I've actually changed my mind.)

I started with Dalton's debut, The Living Daylights. 007 is assigned to aid in the defection of a high level KGB General, but disobeys his orders to shoot the sniper allegedly sent to kill General Koskov when he notices that she is a cellist in the orchestra. Shooting the rifle from her hands, he instead uses the Trans-Siberian Pipeline to smuggle the General over the border into Austria and then to Britain. Being debriefed, Koskov tells MI-6 that the new head of the KGB, General Pushkin has brought back the old policy of 'Smiert Spionam' or 'Death to spies'- but before Koskov can tell them more, he's kidnapped and allegedly taken back to Moscow. Bond is assigned to track Pushkin to Tangier and kill him in retaliation for the deaths of various agents.

Bond has a different notion, however and before heading to Tangier he flies to Bratislava to track down the cellist, Kara Milovy. She confirms that Koskov's defection was staged and reveals that she is actually his girlfriend. Bond convinces her to go with him to Vienna, ostensibly to be reunited with Koskov. In Vienna, another MI-6 agent is killed by Koskov's henchman and the duo leave for Tangier. In Tangier, Bond confronts Pushkin, who claims to have no knowledge of the assassination program and reveals that he canceled an arms deal between Koskov and the American arms dealer Whitaker because he was about to arrest Koskov for corruption.

Kara on the other hand, has developed some suspicions about Bond and promptly sells him out to Koskov who places them both on a plane to Afghanistan. Once in Afghanistan, Kara figures out that her would-be boyfriend is kind of a jerk, she and Bond escape to the Mujaheddin where they figure out that Koskov is going to buy a bunch of opium from them and use the profits to keep buying the Soviets weapons to continue the conflict. Everyone escapes Afghanistan and goes back to Tangier where Koskov and his associates are arrested and then Kara, now living in London gives a concert for everyone.

Dalton's next (and last) Bond movie, License To Kill is actually more of an outlier than I remember ti being. It's largely set in the Caribbean, which stands in stark contrast to it's predecessor, which saw Bond going to Bratislava, Vienna, Tangier and Afghanistan. It opens with DEA agents stopping James Bond and his friend Felix Leiter on the way to Felix's wedding. Drug kingpin Franz Sanchez is nearby and they have a shot at bringing him in, which they do. Then they parachute down to Felix's wedding. Sanchez, of course, bribes a DEA Agent to get out of prison and his crew kidnap Felix and his new bride, maiming him and killing (and it's heavily implied, raping) her.

Bond is ready to hunt down Sanchez to bring him to justice, but M appears in Key West, giving him an assignment in Istanbul and ordering him to leave the hunt for Sanchez to the Americans. When Bond refuses, M revokes his license to kill and Bond goes on the run, becoming a rogue agent and starting an infiltration of Sanchez's organization with some clandestine assistance from Q and teaming up with Pam Bouvier, an ex-CIA agent along the way.

Bond is close to assassinating Sanchez, but is foiled in his initial attempt by Hong Kong Narcotics Bureau Agents (apropos of pretty much nothing) and is captured by them and about to be turned over to MI6 when Sanchez raids the house and rescues him and after framing one of Sanchez's henchmen, Bond soon finds himself in the Inner Circle of the drug kingpin.

Sanchez takes Bond to his base, where Bond learns that Sanchez's drugs are dissolved in oil and then disguised as fuel to ship it safely to Asian market, but Bond is finally recognized. He sets fire to the lab, wrecks Sanchez's base and chases him down in a plane before finally getting his revenge by using the lighter that Felix and his wife gave him as a wedding gift to light Sanchez on fire.

Overall: both these movies are underrated in the franchise as a whole and Dalton I think gets kind of a bad rap as Bond, because he's actually pretty damn good in the role. The Living Daylights is one of the few Bond movies that I think holds up as just a good movie and not just a good action movie. Along with Octopussy it probably fits more comfortably into the role of 'Cold War thriller/action' than any other films in the franchise. However, it does suffer somewhat from the multiple endings and codas and it just never seems to end...  it's like The Return of The King of Bond movies because it never seems to end, but that's the only flaw in an altogether kick-ass debut for Dalton.

I like that he follows it up with License To Kill though. It really is an outlier in the franchise in so many ways and it's shockingly violent. I remember Felix getting his legs eaten off by sharks, but I don't remember Della's death being so violent and watching it again, Bond's thirst for revenge and his ultimate revenge on Sanchez seems very believable indeed. I feel like after Roger Moore's tenure, Dalton's approach to the character was more of a return to the Sean Connery era with a sterner more violent and gritty approach to the character and overall it works well for him. It's almost worth wondering what his third Bond movie would have been like- but I also think Goldeneye is one of the best Bonds ever made, so I'm fine with Dalton being 'two and done' in the role. Both his movies still stand up well and remain worth visiting again. My Grade: The Living Daylights *** and 1/2 out of ****, License To Kill *** out of ****

Saturday, December 9, 2017

This Week In Vexillology #240

We're dipping back into the 'Lost Archives' for the last two weeks of 2018 and focusing on the countries that begin with the letter 'B'. Why? Well, I just sort of feel like it knocking off some 'B' countries...  so, this week, we've got Belarus and Bulgaria and next week we'll tackle Benin and Burkina Faso.

First up, we've got Belarus:
Infamously known as 'Europe's last dictatorship' the flag of Belarus was adopted on June 7th, 1995 and was modified again on February 10th, 2012. It's a modification of the old Soviet-era flag which was adopted in 1951. There were some obvious tweaks made to the flag: the symbols of communism have been removed and the ornamental pattern on the hoist, set against the flagstaff was changed as well. The original pattern was white on red and this one is red on white.

There's no official interpretation for the colors of the flag, but President Lukashenko has stated that red represents freedom and the sacrifice of the nation's forefathers, while the green represents life. Given Lukashenko's stranglehold on power, his explanation might not be official codified into law, but it's about as official as it can get. (It's also worth mentioning the white-red-white flag, which was the flag of the Belarusian People's Republic (very short lived) and served as the immediate post-independence flag of the country between 1991 and 1995. It's also used widely by opposition folks/people in the Belarussian diaspora.) (Sorry for the second parenthetical here, but The BPR from 1918 produced the oldest government in exile that's actually still going today, which is kind of incredible when you think about it.)

Next up, we've got Bulgaria:

The white-green-red tricolor of Bulgaria has been around since the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, when Bulgaria gained it's independence. During the Communist period, the flag sometimes contained the state emblem, but the current flag was readopted in 1991 and confirmed as the flag of the country in 1998.

Weirdly, the wiki-page for the flag is pretty bare of details on just what the colors mean. And the Law for the State Seal of National Flag of the Republic of Bulgaria, which is cited in it's entirety on the wiki-page is somewhat unhelpful, describing the flag as 'a national symbol which expresses the independence and sovereignty of the Bulgarian state.' So, I went deeper into the internet rabbit hole and found this webpage, which states that the white represents peace, the green the fertility of the soil and the red one stands for the courage of Bulgarians. I have nothing other than the 'because the internet said so' to back up that interpretation, so take it with a grain of salt. But in general, it seems like a plausible enough one.

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

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Sportsyball: Tennessee Dumpster Fire Edition!

Adopt-A-Team: Well, good news is that Defensa y Justicia seems to be doing okay! We last checked in on October 13th and since then, we've had a loss to San Lorenzo, a draw with Olimpo and then four wins in a row, over Temperley, Lanus, Banfield and Godoy Cruz in that order. Right now, they're sitting at sixth place in the Super Liga Table. In short, for being where they are in the table, they seem to be doing what they should be doing at this point in the season. The draw with Olimpo (currently relegation bait along with Arsenal and Chacarita) is really the only bad result of the run. Yes, San Lorenzo thumped them pretty good, beating them 3-1, but San Lorenzo is second behind Boca Juniors in the table with an 11% chance to win the whole thing at this point in the season according to FiveThirtyEight anyway.

We'll see if they can keep it up, but it's somewhat heartening to know that apparently I'm not the kiss of death to whatever team I follow around for a season. (Weird side thought: I wonder if anyone broadcasts Superliga games in the US? Hmmmm...  might have to check into that.)

Coaching Carousel: With the college football season coming to an end, the coaching carousel began to turn almost immediately. In terms of major programs, this is what we started out with:

Oregon State: hired Washington OC and former Beaver QB Jonathan Smith. Everyone seems happy with this. 

Arizona State: fired Todd Graham with a ludicrous contract and are I guess going to hire Herm Edwards?

UCLA: hired Chip Kelly

Nebraska: unless Scott Frost goes to Florida State, should be hiring Scott Frost. If they don't, I have no idea what they're going to do, except possibly set the entire state on fire.

Arkansas: fired Brett Bielema and their AD, I've heard Mike Leach being mentioned for this job, but I've heard Mike Leach being mentioned for all the jobs at this point. (They hired SMU's Chad Morris, which seems like a good thing.)

Mississippi State: hired Penn State OC Joe Moorhead, which sparked a ton of Moor Cowbell billboards, which is kind of cool, but general opinion seems to be that Mississippi State made a really, really good hire.

Ole Miss: got some yummy NCAA sanctions and took the tag off their Interim HC to ride it out.

Texas A&M: lured Jimbo Fisher from Florida State for stupid amounts of money.

Florida: hired Dan Mullen away from Mississippi State- general consensus seems to be this was a good move for them.

Florida State: They got Willie Taggart from Oregon...

Tennessee: God Bless the Tennessee Volunteers...  I have absolutely no interest in the SEC and have zero connection to the program, but watching this flaming train wreck unfold on my Twitter feed has been the delight of my post-Thanksgiving existence. In the space of about a week and a half, they've attempted to hire Greg Schiano, David Cutcliffe, Mike Gundy, Jeff Brohm, Dave Doeren, Kevin Sumlin and Mike Leach before firing their Athletics Director John Currie and putting their Barry Alvarez/Tom Osbourne equivalent Phillip Fulmer in as the new AD. Guess what they still haven't done yet? Oh that's right...  hired a damn coach. (Though it sounds like as of this morning, they might have finally found their new Coach, bringing nearly two weeks of entertainment to an end.)

Hawkeye Football: So, it ended at 7-5. In general, against a brutal schedule, I'm okay with the results... I'd really like to win our Bowl match-up against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. Ferentz teams have, as a rule tended to peak in November- the good ones, anyway- so the offensive inconsistency/feast or famine aspect of their play was especially frustrating to deal with for some games. But on balance, do we have a lot to complain about? Not really. I had zero expectation for this season and it ended up being a winning one with flashes of brilliance and promise that could bode very well for the next couple of years. It's really hard for me to be upset about a winning season with a first year starting QB. We came close to beating Penn State. We thumped Ohio State and Nebraska. We kept Floyd at home by beating Minnesota and beat a legit good Iowa State team in Ames. Losing to Northwestern will always rankle me a bit, but the two losses that really stick in the craw are Wisconsin and Purdue, the latter more so than the former.

To me, we should have beaten Purdue and while it was probably a big ask to get two out of three between Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin, I feel like 66 yards of total offense was inexcusable as well. They should have been 8-4 this year. But given the questions on offense and defense and a new QB plus this schedule?  7-5 is just fine.

The whole question of Ferentz fatigue is starting to rear it's ugly head again, but given the Coaching Disaster unfolding at Tennessee and the bloodbath this year in general (there are a ton of openings this year) stability isn't something to sneer at it. I think Brian Ferentz has the opportunity to earn a shot at the top job when Kirk retires, but only if the next few seasons are consistently above average/meet expectations. Do I think Brian should be the automatic heir apparent? No, I don't... Iowa isn't the biggest job in college football, but it's not exactly the smallest job either and I'd be somewhat leery about handing the keys to someone with no actual head coaching experience. If Iowa's offense can buck trends and win a Big Ten Title or major bowl in the next five years, however, he's probably the next coach.

So, let's talk 2018 and make a stupid early prediction for next season:

Northern Illinois- W
Iowa State- L
Northern Iowa- W
Wisconsin- L
at Minnesota- W
at Indiana- W
Maryland- W
at Penn State- L
at Purdue- W
Northwestern- W
at Illinois- W
Nebraska- W

So, just going with my gut right now I have them at 9-3, but the non-conference isn't exactly easy next year. We can't come out flat against Northern Illinois or Northern Iowa or we'll get beaten. Iowa State I feel is due for a win at some point in the rivalry and it might be next year. It might not, but I feel like that one is probably going to be another overtime. They're going to be hungry and we have to be hungrier there. Wisconsin I just really really want us to get more than 66 yards against them at home. Minnesota and Indiana will not be walkovers, but I feel like those are winnable road games. I'm not sure how much Penn State has returning, but playing there is always tough. We better beat Purdue and Northwestern next year, especially the latter. Illinois... who knows and Nebraska will be in year one of a new Coach, so I feel good about that one as well. As always, I'll revisit these predictions close to the start of the actual season and reserve the right to change them.

(BTW: September next year is going to suck from a 'day job' point of view. Four home games in a row plus Iowa State and Wisconsin here? Ugh.)

COYG: Well, Arsenal is back in the top four and thanks to a delightful North London Derby victory over Spurs is above Tottenham in the table as well. Since we last checked in, this is what we have going on:

L to Watford
W over Red Star (Europa League)
W over Everton
W over Norwich City (League Cup)
W over Swansea City
D vs Red Star (Europa League)
L to Man City
W over Tottenham
L to FC Koln (Europa League)
W over Burnley
W over Huddersfield
L to Manchester United

Do I think Arsenal is going to catch Manchester City and win the League? At this point I'm not sure anyone will- do I think they have a shot to go deep/win in the Carabao Cup, Europa League and the FA Cup (whenever that gets going)? I do.  They've also made some interesting moves behind the scenes, bringing in Borussia Dortmund's chief scout Sven Mislintat and former director of football from FC Barcelona...  not sure what both of those hires mean quite yet in terms of on-field product, but everyone seems to be pretty stoked by them. (I really hope they can resign at least Mesut Ozil... Alexis is probably gone next summer though.)

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Bookshot #103: Norse Mythology

This book was another birthday purchase and is the perfect intersection between my appreciation of the writing of Neil Gaiman and my long time love of all things mythology related. While most of my mythology obsession was when I was much younger and centered around Greek mythology*, I've always been curious about Norse mythology but never seemed to be able to find a really good one volume book on Norse mythology- until now that is. (I do have the actual Prose Edda kicking around my Kindle somewhere, but I haven't gotten back to it yet.)

Gaiman happily stepped in and produced an eminently readable volume of Norse mythology that breathes new life into the tales from both the Poetic and Prose Edda while managing to put them into a contemporary voice that can appeal to as many readers today as possible. Gaiman starts the book with an introduction to all the major Gods (Aesir) in the pantheon, ranging from the familiar like Odin, Loki and Thor to names like Balder and Freya and Frigg as well. He opens with the creation of the world and then delves into stories like Odin and the Well of Mimir, which sees Odin sacrifice his eye to gain wisdom.

The stories flow nicely yet manage to stand just fine by themselves, which allows the unfamiliar to meet newer characters of Norse mythology. Freya especially stands out in multiple stories, but my favorite is probably 'The Master Builder', where Loki, in an attempt to get the gods a shiny new wall for Asgard, unwisely offers the builder Freya's hand in marriage if he completes the task on time. Freya needless to say is not pleased and pretty much openly tells Loki that if he wants to live, that the builder had best miss his deadline- which is the entirely correct response as well as a moment that endears her character to the reader.

Another standout: 'The Mead of the Poets', which tells the tale of where poetry comes from and how Odin, through various machinations stole the mead that gives the gift of poetry, which closes with this beautiful paragraph, explaining where the bad poetry came from:
No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin's ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similies and ugly rhymes, you know which of the meads they have tasted.
This both made me laugh and is a perfectly reasonable explanation for where the bad poetry comes from in my humble opinion. Eventually, of course, Gaiman gets to the end of all things and tells the tale of Ragnarok and the final battle of the gods, where they all meet their fates only to see the world born anew and the game begin again.

Like so many people out there, a lot of my limited knowledge of Norse mythology comes from the Marvel universe- which is kind of sad when you think about it, but the characters in my head all come from there and by and large they all hold up pretty well in this book. Odin seems just like Anthony Hopkins in my head and Loki seems just like Tom Hiddleston. Gaiman writes Thor as more of a meathead than Chris Hemsworth portrays him in the movies, but he has a flash or two where it sort of all matches up in my head. (I honestly don't know whether this is a fair comparison or not. I feel like in my head it is, from a literary point of view, it's probably dubious- though Walter Simonson's run on The Mighty Thor is well worth reading and draws on this mythology far more than the movies do.)

Overall: It's Neil Gaiman- have yet to read a bad book by him and this is no exception It's slim, compulsively readable- I read it very quickly indeed and if you've ever been curious about Norse mythology and don't want to jump all the way into something like the Prose Edda, this is an excellent place to start. **** out of ****

*I loved The Illiad and The Odyssey when I was growing up. Troy was a terrible movie. Disney's Hercules is just god-awful and butchered the mythology in ways that still enrage me. (Hades was NEVER a bad guy, damn it.) Kevin Sorbo's Hercules: The Legendary Journey's has probably done the best job adaption mythology the right way. Though there is that moment in Armand Asante's version of The Odyssey where he shoots the arrow through the axe heads that is just about damn perfect.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Netflix & Chill #33: Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Watched On: Amazon Prime
Released: 2008
Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Karen Allen, Ray Winstone, John Hurt, Jim Broadbent, Shia LaBeouf
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Pick: Mine

I listened to a recent episode of James Bonding where they talked about Indiana Jones instead (they called the episode 'Indiana Jonesing' which I dug) and that sort of got me interested in going back and revisiting the fourth and most recent Indiana Jones movie: The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I remember not really liking it all that much the first time I saw it, but upon second viewing, I am happy to report that despite the weird paranormal bits and the ridiculousness of escaping an atomic blast in a lead lined fridge, it actually was much better than I remember it being.

The film opens in 1957, with a group of Soviet commandos sneaking into a secret Army base to raid 'Warehouse 51'- in the trunk, they've got a kidnapped Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his associate Mac (Ray Winstone) who the leader of the Soviets, Colonel Spalko (Cate Blanchett) needs to locate a box in the warehouse containing a mummified corpse recovered from a crash site in Roswell in 1947. Jones initially refuses, but Mac switches sides on him, revealing himself to be a double agent working for the Soviets and he assists Spalko in locating the corpse, before escaping. (Of course, he escapes via bullwhip and jeep chase and ends up in a fake town that's about to be blown to hell by an atom bomb, which he escapes courtesy of the lead lined fridge, mentioned above, but he escapes.)

After that, he gets decontaminated and debriefed by the Army and sent back this college where, thanks to the Red Scare, he's put on a leave of absence to keep his job- but the dean of the college (Jim Broadbent) resigns to save Indiana's job. Kind of at a loss, he's approached by a greaser named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) who tells him that his old friend Harold Oxley (John Hurt) has found a Crystal Skull in Peru and lost his mind as a result and been kidnapped and just like that, Indiana and Mutt are off to Peru!

While there, they figure out that the crystal skulls are leading to the mythical city of Akator (also known as El Dorado) and Mutt's mom is none other than Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who has also been kidnapped by Colonel Spalko and her merry Soviet Men. Chases through the jungle, dry sand and giant, flesh eating ants all follow before they get to Akator and find not aliens, but 'interdimensional beings' that, once the skull is returned to it's body, are thankfully they've been reunited and then bug the heck out of there, frying Colonel Spalko and her goons in the process. In the end, it turns out that Mutt is Indiana's son and finally, Indiana settles down and marries Marion at the end of the film. The wind blows his fedora off of the coat rack in the church and Mutt is about to pick it up when Indiana grabs it and puts it on his own head with a grin. He may be married, but he's not done with his adventures yet.

Originally, I didn't think the 50s B-Movie thing worked all that well for that movie, but on second viewing, I think I was wrong. As an Indy film, this works just fine for me. The most eye rolling part of the entire thing remains the lead lined fridge, but they get that out of the way early enough on in the movie that it doesn't ruin the rest of it. The return of Marion Ravenwood and having Marion being the one who eventually gets the ring on her finger seems like a perfect happily ever after for the franchise. There is another movie that's allegedly coming in 2020, but if for whatever reason that doesn't happen, Crystal Skull could prove to be a perfectly satisfying ending to the entire franchise.

Overall, this was much better than I remember it being. If I'm doing an Indiana Jones binge, I would no longer skip this movie, in fact, I'd enjoy the hell out of watching it along with the first three. (As '4' movies go, I'd say while Lethal Weapon 4 was enjoyable, Indiana Jones 4 was a better movie.) My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, December 2, 2017

This Week In Vexillology #239

We're kicking off December with our Second Trifecta of World Cup 2018 Qualifiers! Yes, we've got Colombia, Belgium and Switzerland. (Of our six, I think France has the potential to make the deepest run, but Belgium has ridiculous amounts of talent that didn't really go anywhere in Brazil, so I feel like if they don't go deep, it'll be disappointing. South America is getting gloriously deep these days, so while I'm bummed Chile didn't get in, I'll be cheering for Colombia instead!)

First up: Colombia!
Adopted on November 26, 1861 as the national flag and ensign, the flag of Colombia is the brain child of both Goethe and Fransisco de Miranda and once upon a time was part of Miranda's vision of a united 'Gran Colombia' which encompassed Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador (and I guess Panama too?) which is why you see the yellow-blue-red combinations running across all three countries. Historically, the color combination is due to something that Goethe told Miranda: "Your destiny is to create in your land a place where primary colors are not distorted." (There's a more in-depth explanation on the flag's wiki-page, but needless to say- it's complicated and has something to do with philosophy and how the iris transforms all light into shades of yellow, blue and red.)

The colors, thankfully do have their own meanings beyond complicated philosophical ones. The yellow stands for the riches of the country, the wealth of Colombian soil, gold, sovereignty, harmony, justice, agriculture and the Sun. Blue is for the seas on the along Colombia's coast, the rivers that run through it and the sky above it. Red is for blood spilled in the fight for independence, the effort of the people, the determination and perseverance and despite the fact that Colombia and her people have had struggles, they've also thrived.

All in all, pretty cool flag. I like that they sort of twist on the tricolor a little bit by giving the yellow more room in the flag than the other two.

Next up: Belgium!
I actually like the official proportions of this because I think it helps the flag standout from France and Germany- if that makes sense? Anyway, this bad boy was adopted on January 23rd, 1831 as the national flag. The roots of this flag go back to the August Revolution of 1830, where Belgium went to the opera and promptly decided they were sick and tired of this French and Dutch business and decided to riot and start their own country. Inspired (one hopes) by the July Revolution in France the month before, they initially flew the French tricolor from Brussels City Hall, but quickly replaced it with this flag.

The color combination comes from the Duchy of Brabant and a horizontal tricolor of red-black-yellow was used during the Brabant Revolution of 1789-1790, which briefly established a 'United Belgian States' before Austria knocked that shit off in their usual Hapsburgian fashion. (For like a half a second before France and their revolutionary wars sort of spilled over and occupied the place.) While that Revolution didn't fly, the memory of it lasted and proved to be a big influence on the Revolution of 1830 that got the job done once and for all and created an independent Belgium.

Finally: Switzerland!
The flag of Switzerland is one of two square national flags- the other being Vatican City. The various cantonal flags of Switzerland follow the model of the national flag and are square as well. There's no fancy symbolism to be found here, just a deep historical origin that has a couple of possible roots. First, there's the Theban Legion connection... basically, that was a Roman legion that converted to Christianity enmasse and was martyred enmasse for it's trouble. The Arma Christi, which were venerated by the forest cantons and which they were allowed to use in 1289 during a campaign somewhere. Or, it was first seen at the Battle of Laupen to differentiate troops of the Old Swiss Confederacy from those of the Habsburgs, which used a red cross and the St. Andrews Cross used by Burgundy.

Whatever the explanation, the white cross on the red banner has been a symbol of the Swiss for centuries now- and as one of the two square national flags out there I think we can all agree that it is very hip to be square.

And thus concludes our second World Cup 2018 Trifecta (which also, conveniently updates my 'Lost Archives' a bit as well.) Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying. FREAK or otherwise!