Wednesday, January 31, 2018

I Didn't Watch The State of The Union

I didn't watch the State of the Union last night for the first time in what seems like a very long time indeed. I didn't watch it out of some form of virtue-signalling protest. I didn't watch it because it started at about eight o'clock at that is prime time for bedtime for the kids. And anyone with kids will tell you: you don't mess with bedtime.

Also, I just didn't care. I know in some areas of the flaming dumpster fire that is our political discourse these days that's a hanging offense. "You didn't care? How dare you not care! Aren't you against [insert controversy of the week here]?" or my favorite, "Well, you have the privilege of not caring about this stuff." No, it's not about my privilege. (That's an entirely different conversation.) I just genuinely did not care, because it did not matter.

Both ends of the political spectrum live in parallel universes, I decided. They're going to listen to the same speech and come to wildly divergent conclusions and those conclusions are so wild and so divergent that at this point, why even bother listening? The President could have announced he was ending the war on drugs, emptying our prisons and using the savings to implement Universal Health Care and it still would have been denounced and the actions of a dangerous authoritarian possibly on the payroll of Russia's FSB. He could have announced he was moving the capitol to Omaha, ending tax breaks for the NFL and giving every American a free AR-15 and it would have still been considered a Star-Spangled Awesome speech.

So, I didn't watch. And I am surprisingly at peace with that decision, because as I predicted, the wildly divergent conclusions are already competing with each other to see just how wild and how divergent they can be. For instance, Donald Trump Just Asked Congress to End The Rule of Law. To be fair, I haven't read the transcript of the speech, but I'm betting that if I do, I won't find that specific request anywhere. HuffPost's take was all about the 'hidden extremism' in the President's speech and charmingly tried to insist that the real story was all about what the President didn't say. (Though if that's your angle, then you can deduct just about anything you want from what the President didn't say. Aliens are real! Chemtrails exist! We didn't actually land on the moon! He didn't say it in the speech, so it must be true- right?)

The reaction on the other end of the spectrum was no less telling. Alex Jones (while warning that the Deep State may soon nuke Washington DC, amongst other things) hailed the 75% approval rating for the speech. Fox was more interested in how glum the Democrats were looking and USA Today wanted to talk about how the President is learning to govern with 'heart.'

In the times we live in today, the truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in the middle. The reactions to the speech I've been reading this morning and have been generally positive. How much of the policy proposed in the speech will actually come to fruition? I've no idea- but generally speaking you can say that same thing about every policy proposed in every State of the Union speech I've ever heard. It's the President saying, 'hey, things are okay- and if they're not okay, at least we're all breathing, right?' and usually, this sentiment is followed up with "hey, wouldn't it be nice if we did a bunch of stuff." Those two sentiments don't necessarily translate into policy becoming reality.

So, in general: the State of the Union has become the President reassuring the American people that things are more or less okay and wishing for things most of which probably won't come to pass at all. On a good year, it's an informative way to check-in to see what the President is up to. In years like these, when people will  pick the truth that they want to see from it, no matter how crazy it seems, it's just exhausting.

I didn't watch the State of the Union last night. And I didn't care.

Monday, January 29, 2018


Adopt-A-Team: Well, December was not good to Defensa y Justicia...  since last we checked in on December 7th of last year this is what it's looked like:

L to San Martin
L to San Lorenzo
L to Velez Sarsfield

As a result, Defensa has settled back to 9th place in the Superliga standings... working purely off of the table, I would say that San Lorenzo is probably the most expected of their three losses. (San Lorenzo is currently in second, six points back from Boca Juniors at the top of the table.) San Martin is sort of their mid-table cousins, so I feel like that could have gone either way, but Velez Sarsfield is gettin' down there in the table. Can't be dropping points there, people. But let's see how February shakes out:

Argentinos Juniors
Chacarita Juniors

They also start the Copa Sudamericana (something I'll have to learn about for the next edition of Sportsyball) with the first of two legs against America de Cali...  but, looking at what's on the menu for their league ties, I'd would expect wins against Tigre and Chacarita (who are at the way way way bottom of the table) and given their recent form, Argentinos Juniors and Patronato could go either way- but given where Defensa is sitting compared to those two teams, I'd be anticipating wins/draws there as well. They don't play Boca Juniors until April, so they've got opportunities ahead of them.

Arsenal: Okay, here's where I am on Arsenal. Alexis is gone. They got some money for him, instead of letting him walk for free. I am okay with this. Now they need to back up a truck full of money and give Mesut Ozil whatever he wants. I think if they can bring in Aubameyang from Borussia Dortmund and give Ozil different types of playmakers to create for, they could be a move or two away from being a very dangerous looking team indeed. Of course, the defense is...  suspect at times and Arsenal can go from looking like they can beat anyone to looking like they can beat no one in the space of a single game. So it's not a cure all to their problems, but securing Ozil and giving him the right people to play off could be the foundation they've been looking for.

Of course, this is Arsenal, so the odds of any of this actually happening are probably pretty low. But like most Arsenal fans, I live in hope.

Since December 7th, this is what it's looked like for Arsenal:

D to Southampton
D to West Ham
W over Newcastle
W over West Ham (League Cup)
D to Liverpool
W over Crystal Palace
D to West Browm
D to Chelsea
L to Nottingham Forest (FA Cup)
D to Chelsea (League Cup Semi Leg 1)
L to Bournemouth
W over Crystal Palace
W over Chelsea (League Cup Semi Leg 2)

So... not awful overall, but not exactly scintillating stuff either. They're into the Finals of the League Cup, so hooray for that, but for a team that's sort of owned the FA Cup for the past couple of years, crashing out to Nottingham Forest was a bit galling. (Since Forest really aren't that good.) The loss to Bournemouth was... just disheartening, but they looked really good in their first post-Alexis match against Crystal Palace. (Not sure if that was because of Palace's woes or just the relief of getting the Alexis drama over and done with, but we'll see.)

Heading into February, they've got Swansea City, Everton and Tottenham on deck for Premier League action. Two legs of Europa League against Ostersund and then the League Cup Final against Manchester City at the end of the month. They're six points out of the top four and sitting in 6th place right now. Winning the league is probably out by now, but if they can put together a good run in February and heading into March, a run at the top four is eminently possible. They're technically only eleven points off of second place, so...  who knows. But: if they can keep Ozil, finish in the Top 4 and get at least one trophy out of this season, it won't have been a bad one.

Football Wrap-Up: College football is officially in the off season and...  sigh...  Alabama won the National Title once again in an all SEC match-up that I was really really hoping that Georgia would pull out the win, but alas, it was not to be. (Props to Oklahoma and Georgia for puttin' on a show in Rose Bowl though. That was an excellent game.) Iowa won their bowl game against Boston College, which broke Iowa's bowl losing streak in a fairly satisfying way. (And thank goodness, we won't have to go back to the Pinstripe Bowl for a few years because the field was frozen, the attendance was desultory and there are more exciting destinations, damn it. Like Nashville.)

If there's an off season story that will dominate the headlines, it's probably the growing scandal at Michigan State. There's been talk of something brewing since last summer (at least on the football podcasts I listen to) and the Larry Nasser story has been out there for awhile, it's just the sheer number of victim impact statements that helped it to all boil over and break it into the mainstream. The President is out. The Athletic Director is out. I'm willing to be the Board of Trustees (with the possible exception of the apparently one member who had their head screwed on straight about the magnitude of this scandal) is going to replaced as well. Investigations are starting and deservedly so... and I think it's got the potential to pretty much burn the place down. While both Men's Basketball Coach Tom Izzo and football Coach Mark Dantonio still have their jobs, I'm willing to bet they won't by the end of the year if not a lot sooner.

In the professional world of football, the Minnesota Vikings had this glorious moment and then went ahead and lost to Philadelphia the very next week 38-7. Tom Brady and the New England Patriots remain Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, so I'm sure they will win their umpteenth Super Bowl next week. As always. (But, on the upside: Minnesota managed not to lose by shanking a field goal. And they'll always have that moment... it's just a shame that a promising start against Philly collapsed so quickly.)

Bracketology: So... the Iowa men's team is very much not good at basketball this year. Like, we're not making the tournament and will probably limp to our usual first round exit of the Big Ten Tournament. It's kind of been a shocking step back from where people thought the men's team was going to be this year (everyone was sort of expecting a tournament appearance- maybe going a little further in the Big Ten Tournament, that kind of thing) and people are sort of scratching their heads as to what the hell is going on.

This article from BHGP sort of encapsulates the frustration perfectly for me. And I 100% agree with them in that Fran should not be fired over this season and I do wish the psychotic end of the fan base would take a deep breath, calm down and remember where this program was when McCaffery took over as head coach. He's earned a season or two like this in my book. (Now, two seasons of this in a row might be a different story- but steps back are to be expected. I just think no one was expecting this season to be quite this large of a step back.)

In general, the sports franchises that I support have helped me temper my expectations quite a bit and although I'm not as much of a basketball fan as I am a football fan or a soccer fan, I do like me a basketball game now and again. In general, when it comes to my personal Iowa expectation, I feel like post-season appearances more often than not, consistent finishes in the upper half of the conference and going moderately deep in the B1G Tournament is probably Iowa's wheelhouse, given the depth of the conference. In general, I feel like- apart from the B1G Tournament, Iowa's more or less meeting my personal expectations. (And of course, now that I just wrote all this, news has leaked out that Iowa handed McCaffery a contract extension and upped his buyout to $10 million, which only underlines what I've said all along: I want a new AD, damn it.)

On the other hand, the Iowa women's team is considerably better at basketball than their male counterparts. (I don't know if we'll get to a women's game this year or not, but if you haven't gone to see them in action, well you should- and not just the year, but every year. Coach Bluder and her staff have been churning out fun, great teams for years now and it's kind of a bummer that they can't get more butts in seats.) Iowa's women were ranked as high as number 20 at one point, but they've picked up some injuries and are currently 15-5 and slipping a bit in the standings.

Who's going to come out on top of the basketball mountain? I'm only sort of plugged into the basketball world right now- but it feels like it could be interesting come March.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Netflix & Chill #37: A Futile and Stupid Gesture

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2018
Starring: Will Forte, Domnhall Gleeson, Martin Mull, Thomas Lennon, John Gemberling, Matt Walsh, Rock Glassman, Jon Daly, Seth Glass
Rotten Tomatoes: 50%
Pick: Mine

I was bored and watched this movie on a whim, having absolutely no idea what to expect. The story of the rise of the National Lampoon seemed like it had a lot of potential and could be pretty interesting. And by and large, it was pretty interesting.

The movie opens with an 'older' Doug Kenney (Martin Mull) arguing with someone off camera about how to start the movie about the story of his life. When initially, we see a brightly lit slow motion seen of a young Doug passing some jumping cheerleaders on his way to a funeral, 'older' Doug declares that it's a shitty way to start a movie and instead recommends fast forwarding to his first years at Harvard.

The genesis for National Lampoon started with Doug Kenney (Will Forte) who always seems to declare that he's from Chagrin Falls, Ohio meeting Henry Beard (Domhnall Glesson) a more typical Harvard attendee from old Eastern money. The two of them eventually found their way to the Harvard Lampoon where they ended up churning out a parody novel of Lord of The Rings called Bored of the Rings. Graduation eventually rolls around and Henry is all set to go to law school, but Doug persuades him to take the Lampoon national and after quite a few false starts they get it up and running.

And incredibly, it works. (Though Doug manages to get married and divorced along the way.) Soon enough, the Lampoon is expanding into radio and Doug is taking on more and more of the editing and the work and trying to hold it all together and eventually, it's all too much and he has a break down and takes a leave of absence from the publication for awhile. But not before assembling the who's who of the comedy world including, Bill Murray (Jon Daly), PJ O'Rourke (Nelson Franklin), John Belushi (John Gemberling), Harold Ramis (Rick Glassman), Christopher Guest (Seth Green), Gilda Radner (Jackie Tohn) and a bunch of other people whose names I didn't quite recognize, but are probably really famous and important and I've seen them in a bunch of stuff.

Doug cracks under the strain of it all eventually- the magazine is flying off the shelves and they expand into radio and then a stage show. He takes a leave of absence, but it's all different when he comes back and he gets assigned a special project which he turns into National Lampoon's Yearbook which turn out to be an early genesis for the ideas that would form the basis of Animal House.

The investors that started the magazine have a five year buyout contract and when the day finally rolls around, Henry cashes out and goes his own way. Doug remains with the magazine until he too leaves to direct National Lampoon's Animal House. After the movie, he's riding high, trying to figure out what to do next- he found himself a new girlfriend, Kathryn Walker (Emmy Rossum) who supports him and tries to get him to confront his issues and come to terms with the death of his brother. (That funeral at the start of the movie? It was his brother's and Doug has been struggling to measure up in his parents eyes ever since.) With the emergence of Saturday Night Live taking a lot of the talent and writers from National Lampoon, Doug heads to Los Angeles and tries to make it as a screenwriter, but ends up doing a lot of cocaine instead.

Eventually, Caddyshack emerges from the mountains of cocaine, but Doug's addictions keep spiraling down leading to his eventual (presumed) suicide. The two Dougs (Mull and Forte) watch as his friends and family attend his funeral and Doug's parents realize how love and respected he was.

Overall: I don't really know what to think about this movie...  it's a fascinating story to tell with an excellent cast, but part of me feels like it should have been funnier, somehow. Or maybe explored the psyche of Doug Kenney a little more than it did. Using Martin Mull as a kind of narrator/fourth wall bending Greek chorus was interesting and I almost would have liked to see more of it. I honestly had no idea what happened to Doug- I assumed since Martin Mull was narrating that he was still alive and well, but nooooooooooooooope! (That was kind of a bummer.) My Grade: ** 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, January 27, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #245

File this under: The More You Know, but Monday is, in fact, Kansas Day. Yes indeedy, our neighbors to the south have a day that celebrates their admission to the Union in 1861. According to Wikipedia:
Annual Kansas Day celebrations include school field trip and special projects to study the history of Kansas, pioneer-style meals, special visits by students to the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas, performances of Home On The Range, the Kansas State Song, and special proclamations by the Governor of Kansas and members of the Kansas Legislature.
If that doesn't sound like an excuse to get lit and party, I don't know what does! (Though in another fact for 'The More You Know' file, I didn't know that 'Home On The Range' was the Kansas State Song.) But, in honor of Kansas Day you might be able to guess what flag we're going to look at this week...  that's right... it's Kansas:
Adopted September 24, 1961, the flag of Kansas is...  sigh. Well, put it this way: some day states are going to roll up their sleeves and start moving away from the whole 'seal on a bedsheet' thing and design some really kickass flags. But that day hasn't arrived yet, so Kansas remains... Kansas.

First of all: I'm going to award some bonus points for the sunflower on top of the seal. It's a distinctive symbol of the state (which, no surprise is 'The Sunflower State') and helps Kansas stand out a little bit from the other states in the 'seal on a bedsheet' crowd. However, I'm going to add some demerits for the name below the seal. I hate it when states do this...  if you have to put the name of your state on your flag to make sure people recognize it, you're doing it wrong.

Second of all: Kansas almost had something way cooler than a state flag. From 1925-1927, it actually had a state banner. (Personally, Kansas, you should have stuck with the banner. Would have been way cooler than just another state flag.)

In the center of the flag, you've got the Great Seal of the State of Kansas. As with most seals, it's got a lot going on- not that you can really tell by looking at the flag. You've got: a landscape with a rising sun (the east), a river and steamboat, which stands for commerce, a settler's cabin and a dude plowing his field which stands for agriculture, a wagon train heading east which stands for American expansion and pioneer life and Native Americans hunting American bison. The cluster of thirty four stars at the top of the seal represents Kansas being the 34th state accepted into the Union. At the very tippy-top,  you've got the state motto: 'Ad Astra per Aspera'  which is Latin for 'To The Stars through difficulties.'

And that's the flag of Kansas! Happy Kansas Day to all my peeps in Kansas and remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, January 26, 2018

Psephology Rocks: The Most Interesting Election You've Never Heard Of

There's an election this weekend that's getting pretty much no attention in the American media (because, the President might have tried to do a thing sometime maybe possibly, we're not sure) and I'm honestly not sure how much attention it's getting overseas either- outside of the country in question that is. But to me, this is probably one of the most interesting elections you've never heard of in a country you probably weren't expecting. That's right: Cyprus is heading to the polls this weekend and it's kind of a big deal.

So, first, for those that don't know- here's Cyprus:

(If you're looking for an easy way to find it, well, find Turkey and head south. If you've reached Egypt you've gone too far.) You see the little dotted line running through the island? That dotted line is what makes this election so damn interesting to me, because you see since 1989, Europe's last divided capitol has been right there in along that dotted line. The northern third of the island is, in fact, a separate country: The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It's been that way since 1974 and isn't- as far as I know, anyway, recognized by anyone except Turkey. The southern half of the island of has remained as the Republic of Cyprus

The Cypriot Conflict has fascinated me since my undergraduate days, when- and I wish I could remember which class this was- I wrote a paper on it. I know this is kind of a NERD ALERT thing to say, but it was one of the best papers I wrote as an undergraduate and damn it, I didn't even bother to keep it. My fascination was further deepened by stumbling across this article from all the way back in 2005 on the city of Varosha, which has remained sealed off and empty since the 1974 Turkish Invasion. (The description in the article sounds fascinating-- apparently there's a car dealership somewhere in there that still has models from 1974 just sittin' its showroom like it ain't no thing.)

But anyway: long story short, the conflict and division in Cyprus is kind of a big issue in their politics and the possibilities for peace are always on the agenda and this year appears to be no different. So how does it all work in Cyprus?

For President, it's pretty simple. They've got a five year term, which is renewable once for a maximum potential period in office of ten years. The vote is direct and popular- so there's no shenanigans with electoral colleges or anything like that. To win, you need to get more than 50% of votes 'validly cast.' If no one reaches that bar (and there are nine candidates for President this year, so you can see how this might be a possibility) then the top two vote getters head back to the polls the next week for a second round. (The wiki-page on this is oddly specific: it's the next week on the corresponding day. So if Round 1 is on a Friday, Round 2 is the very next Friday. Which is oddly specific, but kind of cool- depending on how many rounds you end up going- I'm assuming not more than two, usually.)

The Legislature gets a little more complicated. Terms are five year- same as the President, but it's a unicameral legislature, which I thought was a little unusual, but it's actually not. 59% of governments in the world are unicameral. (So, the more you know- I guess?) The number of seats is actually 80, but the 24 seats reserved the Turkish Cypriot community have remained vacant since the 1960s, so for all practical purposes, you've got 56 seats going on. Seats are allocated by proportional representation, and there are three observer members for the Maronite Christian, Catholic and Armenian minorities.

Their political party spectrum seems to mirror a lot of what you see under this set up- there are two bigger parties (Democratic Rally/DISY and Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL) but there's also the Democratic Party (DIKO) which came in 3rd in the last election with nine seats. Below that, Cyprus has five other parties that won seats at their last parliamentary election and at least four more that didn't. Digging into a little more, it looks like you've got to score at least 3.6% of the vote to get a seat. (If you want to get super-nerdy about it, they use the Hare quota to allocate their seats.)

So, what's at stake this Sunday when Cyprus votes? Well, peace for one. The prospects for reunification seem pretty dim, given the bellicose tone Turkish politics have taken of late. But the sectarian divisions that have haunted the country since independence show know sign of easing... when seats in the legislature are still reserved for Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriots instead of just 'Cypriots' then you know it's going to take a long time to overcome that history- but perhaps voters can make a start on Sunday.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

What Is 'Americanism' Anyway?

January means that the State Legislature is back in session down in Des Moines and now that they are, the usual mix of "ugh, really?" to "what the hell are they thinking?" legislative proposals are starting to leak out. One early example of the latter category has been the bill floating around to create 'Bible Literacy' classes in Iowa's public schools. (There are already 'Bible As Literature' courses out there as well as other courses on the religions of the world, which makes this proposal something of a head scratcher.) Plenty of people have weighed in on that proposal already, but the other example that made me scratch my head a bit was a proposal to require more emphasis on 'Americanism and patriotism' in Iowa's schools.

I know this proposal is coming from a good place and perhaps even a valuable place. The sacrifices of our veterans should not be forgotten and yes, our children should be graduating from high school with a solid understanding of civics and citizenship and what it means to be an American. That said, the 'concerns' referenced in the article are awfully vague. What do they mean by 'not enough time teaching pupils about the sacrifices of veterans and the freedoms held by American citizens?' Give me examples. Are school districts cutting corners? Distorting curriculum? Which school districts? If civics and history education is being short changed, it'd be awfully nice to get some concrete examples of it.

Our flag still flies outside of every school I've ever driven past in this state. I don't know about today, but certainly when I was kid in elementary school our days started with the Pledge of Allegiance. We had government courses, history courses- in 4th grade, most of our social studies class was devoted to studying the history of Iowa itself, which was kind of cool. (Not to mention the article cites the Des Moines School District having ROTC units at a couple of their high schools, something that I'm sure would make heads implode in Iowa City- for all the wrong reasons.)

I don't think patriotism is something that can be taught. You either have it or you don't. And what is 'Americanism' anyway? How is that even a thing? The problem I have with this being a legislative proposal is that too much of concepts like 'patriotism' have been hijacked into our contemporary political discourse without anyone stepping back to consider how subjective the term is and how it means different things to different people.But I think we can always find ways to do better and in the spirit of that, I have a couple of suggestions.

First of all: let's make sure every high school graduate in Iowa can pass the US Citizenship test. (I helped my parents study for it. Its not the highest bar to clear.) If there's a basic barometer when it comes to civics education, this seems like the obvious choice- at the very least, let's administer it and see where Iowa's students land- because this article from AEI is a few years old, but it paints a pretty dismal picture of the state of civics education in America.

Second of all: let's make sure every student in Iowa knows about Iowa's history- especially in the Civil War. The issue of Confederate monuments has been a hot-button one these past couple of years. Iowa has a Congressman who keeps a Confederate flag on his desk, which only underlines the importance of our students understanding the sacrifice that 76,242 Iowans made to defend the Union. One of the coolest experiences I've had was going down to Shiloh for the 150th Anniversary celebrations. The Iowa Memorial down there is one of the largest in the park. If money grew on trees, someone should make sure every student in Iowa has the opportunity to go down there and see it.

Civics education, to me, should be as clear eyed as possible. The more people know about the history and foundations of their country, the more they'll understand their country and their place in it. All you can do is give people the knowledge. What they build from that knowledge is entirely up to them.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Albums2010 #97: Melodrama

The end of a year usually brings with it multiple 'best of [insert year here]' lists, so for this month I went down the rabbit hole of a couple of 'Best Albums of 2017' lists before finally deciding to give Lorde's album, Melodrama, a listen. I was, of course, familiar with Lorde thanks to her hit single 'Royals' (which was apparently inspired by an old photo of George Brett of the Kansas City Royals, which is a fact that still tickles me to this day.) I had not, however, given a full album of hers a listen and as everyone who knows more about these things seemed to think that this album was pretty awesome, I gave it a go.

Melodrama opens with 'Green Light' which is seems kind of an odd start to the album, but grabs you with the chorus ('I'm waiting for it/that green light/I want it') and pulls you into and once you're in, you're in with this album. The next track that grabbed my attention was 'Homemade Dynamite' which is an interesting concept in and of itself (can one actually make homemade dynamite?) but it also was an interesting shift in tone for the album. 'Green Light' is more of an 'electropop' sort of an opener, while this seemed more of an almost hip-hop flavored track, which was nice.

In fact, if there's an interesting aspect to this album, it is that shift in tone. Lorde can go from electropop to mournful ballad with 'Hard Feelings/Loveless' and have a little fun with tracks like 'Perfect Places' and 'Writer In The Dark.' Reading through the wiki-page for the album, a little more about the concept behind it gets fleshed out. The money quote:
It explores the theme of solitude, in the framework of a single house party with the events and moods than entail it.
That sentence pretty much makes this entire album make perfect sense to me. There is a lot of solitude, grief and loneliness running through this album, but it's not a sad album per say- just sort of a, I don't know- the word 'ennui' keeps springing to mind. I think it sort of fits an early adulthood kind of a mood perfectly- you're not in college anymore, you've got worries, you're out on your own. You're dealing, appropriately enough, melodrama. (At least some of the time.)

(Random wiki-rabbit hole: Lorde apparently has a neurological condition called sound-to-color synesthesia, which means when she hears certain notes, colors appear. She talks about out in the third 'graph of this NY Times article, but my mind is still kind of blown about how her process would even work or what it would even be like.)

My favorite track on this album is probably 'Perfect Places' because it kind of reminds of a little bit of that Natasha Bedingfield song, 'Unwritten.' I have no idea why, but there was a summer where I was mildly obsessed with that song- it was my mood booster in a year where I sort of needed a mood booster more often than not. 'Perfect Places' takes me back to that summer a little bit and I like that.

Overall: my first Lorde album was an awesome experience. I can see why this one made so many 'Best of' lists for last year and I'll probably give her next album a listen as well. Would I buy this album? You know, upon reflection, I think I probably would. It's pretty good. My Grade: *** 1/2 out of ****.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #244

I did the research for the flags this month last month and then I forgot why I picked the flags I picked so have had to dive back into Wikipedia to figure out why I picked 'em and this week, it took me awhile to figure out why I selected the Pitcairn Islands- turns out they were first discovered on January 26th, 1606 by Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros. The islands were made more famous by the Mutiny on the Bounty and they remain a British Overseas Territory today, though with a dwindling population. (Unfortunately, they attracted a certain amount of infamy about ten years back when seven men- which accounted for nearly a third of their population, were charged with a variety of sexual offenses.) This is their flag:
The flag of the Pitcairn Islands is similar to the flag of a lot of other former British colonies or overseas territories- the Union Flag is in the canton and the coat of arms for the Islands are in the fly. The coat of arms features a shield depicting anchor and Bible from the HMS Bounty, which stand for the ancestral history of the people of the islands, most of whom are descended from the sailors who mutinied on the Bounty in 1789. The green triangle flanked by blue on either side of the shield represents the island rising from the ocean. At the top of the shield, you see a flowering slip of miro (which I guess is a flower) and a Pitcairn Island wheelbarrow perched on top of the helmet.

The Coat of Arms was granted by royal warrant all the way back in 1969. The flag however, wasn't adopted until 1984. It's design was suggested by the Island Council in 1980 and officially approved by Queen Elizabeth II in 1984 and flown for the first time in May of that year during a visit by the then Governor.

And that's the Pitcairn Islands! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Squawk Box: The Crown, Season 2

Season 2 of The Crown consumed a hefty chunk of my December and it's with no small amount of sadness that we bid the current cast goodbye at the end of the season to be replaced the next season with brand new faces. Olivia Colman is the only officially confirmed replacement I've seen so far- she's stepping into the role of The Queen, while rumors of Helena Bonham-Carter taking over as Princess Margaret from the excellent Vanessa Kirby are swirling I don't think that's been confirmed yet and I have no idea who's replacing Matt Smith as Prince Phillip.

The season opens with Elizabeth and Phillip discussing the state of their marriage aboard the royal yacht in Lisbon, recognizing that divorce is not an option and that they're stuck with each other. Five months earlier, Elizabeth becomes convinced that Phillip is having an affair after finding a photo of Russian ballerina in his briefcase. Harold MacMillan tries to convince Prime Minister Anthony Eden not to pursue a military solution to the Suez crisis. Suez, of course, dominates the early episodes- Louis Mountabatten tries to warn Elizabeth about the secret plan concocted by Britain, France and Israel to seize the canal without support from either Parliament or the United Nations, but despite her sharp questioning of Eden, she ultimately gives her support on his advice and the military action begins.

Of course, it turns out to be a complete disaster- and Eden is eventually ousted to make way for MacMillan, but there are more pressing matters afoot. Phillip has been gone on his royal tour for months, his private secretary, Michael has accompanied him leaving behind an increasingly unhappy wife who is contemplating divorce. Royal secretaries worry that their divorce will lead to questions about the Royal marriage and it does, which leads to the rest of the conversation on the Royal Yacht that we see in Episode 1. Phillip's makes it clear that he doesn't want to be outranked by his sons and is given the title of Prince Phillip.

The first three episodes were something of a trial, to be honest. While Phillip is off on his man voyage, there's a lot of internal angst and the supposed tension in the royal marriage seems very forced to me. (It seems more like a perception thing: Phillip's private secretary is philandering and therefore, Phillip must be as well, even though there's scant evidence of that presented in the show. It's sort of, implied, here and there. But never explicitly.)

Things get a lot more interesting after the first three episodes...  there's Margaret drama to be had, as she accepts a marriage proposal and then breaks it off, only to find a dashing photographer to intrigue her in the form of Anthony Armstrong Jones whose photo of her shocks the Royal Family when it's published in newspapers. There's Nazi drama with the abdicated King Edward VIII as war files reveal exactly how deep his relationship with the Nazi high command went. Princess Margaret gets engaged to the photographer (eventually, which the subsequent amounts of drama and early 60s Bohemian swinging in swinging London.) 

In terms of, 'interesting tidbits of history I don't know', the episode 'Marionettes' which details the criticisms of Lord Altrincham, whose push to get the monarchy to adapt to post-war, post-Suez society actually had far reaching influences on the institution itself- one of his suggestions, namely to broadcast the annual Christmas message is still practiced today. The other episode that sort of caught my eye was 'Dear Mrs. Kennedy' which dealt with the meeting between the Queen and Mrs. Kennedy and the subsequent results of that meeting. 

Much, of course, has been made of the episode 'Paterfamilias' which explores Prince Charles and his rather miserable time at Gordonstoun School in Scotland. It also marks the first time that the show gets into Prince Phillip's backstory and into his head almost and tries to unpack what makes him tick, with decidedly mixed results. He seems like a good husband, great father and all around 'good soldier' in the grand scheme of the monarchy at one instance and then yet haunted, bitter and demanding of his children the next. Matt Smith has been brilliant in this role because sort he of kept both ends of that spectrum in balance, but this is an episode where I think it sort of gets away from him and it seems out of character.

The second season ends with, what else? The Profumo Scandal, which brings down the MacMillan government and sees a pregnant Elizabeth retreat to Scotland to wrestle with her suspicions that Phillip is somehow tied up in the scandal. There's sketchy evidence at best linking Phillip to it, but nevertheless Elizabeth remains insecure in their marriage, but is somewhat reassured when Phillip reaffirms his love and support for her.

Overall: The Crown remains an excellent, ambitious piece of television and I'm interested to see how the next season turns out with the new cast. I'm going to miss Claire Foy, Matt Smith and Vanessa Kirby. It seems like a risky move, considering the talented cast they have now, but entirely in keeping with how ambitious this show wants to be. My Grade: **** out of ****

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

'9-1-1' and the Importance of Being Seen

The debut of Fox's new show '9-1-1' was something I had circled on my internal calendar for awhile now. I had initially heard that it was in development last summer, starring Angela Bassett. I was excited about it, because the initial news seemed to be that the show was going to be about 911 Dispatchers. Turns out, it includes police and fire as well as 911 dispatchers, which was a little disappointing, because there are plenty of shows about police and firefighters, but precious few about dispatchers, but what the heck, I thought. I'll take it.

It's not something I write about often and when I do, its usually pretty tangentially, but I've been working as a 911 Dispatcher for the local campus police for nearly a decade now. Having long since resigned myself to the fact that dispatch will forever be a voice on the radio when it comes to television and movies (or the cops will just magically know where to go) I was excited to see that someone was taking the time to portray 911 Dispatching on screen.

So I was somewhat surprised by the vehement reaction to this show on line. The 911 Subreddit hated it. Reaction on a few dispatcher Facebook groups I follow wasn't much better. And I can sort of understand why. The cocky young firefighter who takes the truck out to pick up the ladies for sexy time? He would have been fired. The cop taking on a home invasion without a single backing unit in evidence? Unlikely to happen. Not to mention answering every 9-1-1 call with, '9-1-1, what's your emergency?'

That last one really sticks in my craw a little bit. I mean, I get it. The whole conceit (or theme) of the show is that everyone has an emergency in their lives and yes, it can include the people that come running to your emergency. There might be 911 centers out there than answer there calls like that, but the overwhelming majority are going to want to know the location or address of your emergency first and foremost.

Is it a perfect television show? No, I'd say it's off to a bit of a rocky start. But there's good mixed in with the not-so-good. This is probably the first television show I can remember which shows First Response from phone call to resolution. The second episode where the characters are all talking about getting over a bad call and how to deal with losing people? A lot of that rings very true to me as well. Is there going to be dramatic license taken? Of course. It's a television show... I've watched many an episode of Grey's Anatomy with the Missus, who's a nurse and I know damn well that there's plenty they get wrong. A show like 9-1-1 is going to be no different.

But at least this show doesn't treat dispatch as an afterthought. At least this show sheds a light on 9-1-1 dispatchers and what they do. We live in a time when 9-1-1 dispatchers are more often than not providing life saving instructions as soon as they pick up the phone. We live in a time where the 9-1-1 system, which has been at the cutting edge of telecommunications technology for decades is now struggling to keep pace. When APCO is trying to persuade the Federal government to reclassify dispatchers as Protective Service Occupations instead of 'office and administrative support, a show like this, however flawed you may find it, provides an important opportunity for Dispatchers to be seen.

Does this show present a total accurate picture of 911 Dispatch? No. But it does (so far) a decent job of telling the story of what it can be like on the other end of the phone. It shows what a difference great dispatcher can make and most importantly of all, it's an opportunity push the industry and the job itself into the wider cultural zeitgeist. (Assuming this show goes the distance that is.) The opportunity to be seen is reason enough for me to keep this show on my DVR.

Plus, I don't care what anyone says: it's still better than 'The Call.'

Monday, January 15, 2018

Boozehound Unfiltered: Russell's Reserve

A delicious addition to my collection courtesy of the Parentals for Christmas, I had no idea what to expect from Russel's Reserve other than a my Dad telling me that it was Cask Strength and therefore likely to be a little strong. I got a chance to have a wee dram of it to celebrate The Youngest Spawn being born and finally got a proper tasting in late last week and I can report that it is indeed, strong stuff. But that doesn't mean it's not delicious either.

Russell's Reserve is a Single Barrel Bourbon matured in American White Oak barrels It's non-chill filtered and a hefty 110 proof. (The description also references an 'alligator' char, but I have no earthly idea what that might be other than, 'it makes this stuff tastier.') This delicious stuff falls under the wings of Wild Turkey (which to be honest, I enjoy greatly. Probably more than I enjoyed Maker's Mark, though I should probably revisit that at some point) and is the brainchild of the only active father and son duo of bourbon master distillers in the world: Jimmy and Eddie Russell.

(Honestly between this and Four Roses- which is my other Christmas present this year, this stuff is making me want to go back to Kentucky again- though perhaps this time we'll head up to Lexington and check out some distilleries around there. Or some other beautiful sites in the Bluegrass State.)

But enough of my tangents and babbling. Let's give this a taste, shall we?

Color: The color on this stuff is absolutely gorgeous- it's a deep, dark, rich shade of amber that comes very close to matching the color on the label itself. Everything about the color alone promises a delicious, tasty experience. It's a great hook, right off the bat.

Nose: Strangely enough, banana. I think it's probably the first time drinking whiskey that I can say that I've gotten a whiff of banana, but there you go. It took me the longest time to figure it out- but nothing else fit. Banana is there, but toffee is the underlying sweetness here. There's also a tantalizing hint of nuttiness of some kind that I want to call nutmeg. I know for sure it's not cinnamon.

Palate:It's nicely balanced. The viscosity isn't too syrupy and it's not too watery either- but the cask strength becomes immediately obvious. This is good stuff, but it's strong stuff.

Finish: Like a punch in the face, this stuff hits you hard and in a rush, but the warming afterward is gradual and universal. It will warm the cockles of your heart and then some. 

Overall: Smells beautiful, looks beautiful and tastes amazing. It's strong stuff, but unique and enjoyable. Would I buy this again? Well, I didn't technically buy it all, but if someone asked me 'hey, should I buy this stuff?' I would say, 'hell yes!'  My Grade: **** out of ****

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Netflix & Chill #36: Bright

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2017
Starring: Will Smith, Joel Edgerton, Noomi Rapace, Lucy Fry, Edgar Ramirez, Ike Barinholtz
Rotten Tomatoes: 27%
Pick: Mine

Set in an alternate version of the present where human rub shoulders with orcs, elves, centaurs and dwarves after fighting with them for thousands of years, Bright opens with LAPD Officer Darryl Ward (Will Smith) returning to duty after being out of action due to being shot by an orc. Ward is reluctantly partnered with Nick Jackoby (Joel Edgerton), the nation's first orkish police officer. Humans aren't crazy about him due to his race, orcs hate him because of his position and to top it all off Ward isn't crazy about his partner because Jackoby apparently let the assailant that shot him get away.

Responding to a report of a crazy man waving a sword around, they find a Shield of Light devotee, whom Ward and Jackoby arrest and take back to the station. On the way back there, he tells Jackoby in Orkish that two officers are part of a prophecy and that Ward is blessed. Once back at the station, however, Ward is approached by internal affairs, who say that believe that Jackoby but his ethnic loyalties above his uniform and let Ward's assailant get away. They want Ward to get Jackoby to confess on tape, so they can fire him.

Ward and Jackoby head back out onto the streets and respond to a disturbance at what they find out is a Shield of Light safe house. Inside, they find a bunch of bodies and a torso of a still living elf-woman embedded in the wall and one survivor, a young elf named Tikka who has a wand. Magic wands are exceedingly rare and powerful and can only be used by what's called a 'Bright.' Things take a turn, however, when four officers arrive as backup and decide to kill Ward and Jackoby and take the wand for themselves.

Ward is coerced into going back outside to Jackoby, but instead confronts him about the incident that got him shot. Jackoby admits letting the suspect escape, but only because he cornered the wrong orc and realized that responding officers would probably shoot him on sight. Ward then makes the decision to shoot down his corrupt colleagues and he, Jackoby and Tikka flee with the wand. Unfortunately for them, everyone find out that they have the wand and gangs both human and orkish want it for themselves. To top it off, there's a Federal magic taskforce that's on the case and in hot pursuit as well and dark elves intent on using the wand to resurrect The Dark Lord, a mythic figure who will take over the world.

After fighting their way through just about everyone, Ward and Jackoby end up in Shield of Light safehouse where they are trying to heal Tikka and in one last desperate confrontation with the dark elves, Ward grabs the wand, discovering that he himself is a 'Bright' in the process and blows up the dark elf, taking out the safe house in the process.

The next day, Ward and Jackoby meet with the Feds and while Jackoby volunteers the truth, Ward sees that the Feds want to keep the incident quiet and emphatically denies it had anything to do with magic or police corruption. Satisfied, Ward and Jackoby are released and honored by the city for their actions.

I was genuinely shocked that this movie only scored a 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, because I thought it was a genuinely good movie. I guess maybe I could see the point of the critics to a degree: if you're watching this movie looking for social commentary, then the commentary to be found in this movie is ham-fisted and not exactly subtle or all that uplifting. If, on the other hand, you wanted to see what a fantasy epic would look like in a contemporary setting, then Bright will knock your socks off. I love the fact that they just drop you into this version of Los Angeles like it's just another afternoon and while the 'racial' tensions depicted in the movie probably don't land well when applied to contemporary police-community relations, I found them to be plausible at least. (I think a footnote in a Discworld novel said something along the lines of: "white and black got along fine and ganged up on green.")

Overall: This was a solid, entertaining movie that gave a tantalizing glimpse of what fantasy can do when dropped into a contemporary setting. Plenty of authors from Jim Butcher to Kim Harrison and Charlaine Harris have shown what you can do with the genre when mashed up into our contemporary world. Bright is one of the few movies that's attempted to do something similar and the results are amazing. I love that they don't bother to explain the world you're dropped into, they just do it. And it works. The cast is great, the story excellent and you're left intrigued by the possibilities of this world and wondering what else they could do with it. My Grade: *** out of ****

Saturday, January 13, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #243

This Week In Vexillology, we're heading over to Africa, but not for another trip into our 'lost' archives, but for the flag of MOSOP or the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Here's what their flag looks like:
The Ogoni people live in the Niger Delta in what today is the Rivers State along the coast of Nigeria just east of Port Harcourt. Why do they have a movement and a flag? Well, back in the 1950s Royal Dutch/Shell found a commercial viable oil field in the Niger River Delta and began oil production. Normally, you wouldn't think that would be all that much of a problem beyond the normal risks for oil spills and other nonsense, but then, there's this- according to Wikipedia, between 1976 to 1991 there were reportedly 2,976 oil spills which amounts to about 2.1 million barrels, but the horrifying part is that those spills in this area alone accounted for about 40% of Royal Dutch/Shell spills worldwide.

Thanks to such environmental neglect, five decades of oil production has devastated the region- I hate leaning on Wikipedia so much, but I'll quote directly from them here:
In a 2011 assessment of over 200 locations in Ogoniland by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), they found that impacts of the 50 years of oil production in the region extended deeper than previously thought. Because of oil spills, oil flaring, and waste discharge, the alluvial soil of the Niger Delta is no longer viable for agriculture. furthermore, in many areas that seem to be unaffected, groundwater was found to have high levels of hydrocarbons or were contaminated with benzene, a carcinogen, at 900 levels above WHO guidelines.
In general, it sounds absolutely terrible and therefore is unsurprising that a movement to protest these conditions and the general awfulness of oil production in the region would spring up (and have it's own flag.) MOSOP was founded in 1990 by Ken Saro-Wiwa and currently is an umbrella organization of 11 member groups that represent more than 700,00 indigenous Ogoni. They mandate the use of non-violent methods to promote democratic principles in their campaign for social, economic and environmental justice in the Niger Delta region. 

Saro-Wiwa was tried by a special military tribunal for allegedly masterminding the murder of pro-government Ogoni chiefs and hanged by the military dictatorship of General Sani Abacha.(I actually vaguely remember the international outcry over his execution, though because I was 12 years old at the time, I don't think I really understood why it was a big deal.)

In the course of writing this post, I've been sort of scratching my head over how I found this flag and what possible connection it could have to the month of January: turns out Ogoni National Day is celebrated on January 4th.

Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Fire and Fury, Signifying Nothing

I want to preface this by saying the following: I'm a registered Independent that hates both of the two parties with a heat of a thousand fiery suns. I didn't vote for the current President- he is most definitely not my cup of tea. But the latest political hot button issue of the week (that is, until Oprah stole the show at the Golden Globes on Sunday) finds me in the uncomfortable position of wondering if those opposed to this current administration might have finally gone too far.

Michael Woolf's allegedly explosive book Fire and Fury on the Trump White House has been flying off the shelves. It's the new Fifty Shades of Grey and everyone is dying to read it. There seemed to be a groundswell of feeling this past week that by God, if we can't pin Russia on him, we'll just say he's crazy. That'll do it for sure.

Never mind the fact that President Mike Pence wouldn't exactly be an improvement on the current occupant of the White House. Never mind the fact that there are far more effective and more important reasons to oppose the policies of this administration- reasons that, could, for instance, lead to actual policies, that real life candidates could, you know, run on. No, let's write a book saying he's crazy. Because that's what our political discourse has come too in this country. If you miss the dunk on a winnable election, then it's got to be someone's else fault.

But that's not the worst of it: the damn thing may not even true. The author himself has admitted as much. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the parts of the book he's involved in 'complete invention.' Vogue Editor Anna Wintour called the claim she asked President Trump to be ambassador to the UK, 'laughably preposterous.' Perhaps the craziest part of all is that Mr. Woolf is convinced that this is going to be the thing that brings down President Trump. This book which parts of may or may not even be true. That's going to do it. This piece of dubiously sourced fan fiction is going to do the trick- it will in the words of the author, 'lift the veil from our eyes' about this President.

Well, it's lifting a veil from my eyes all right. Just not the one that Mr. Woolf was aiming for, I think. While the President is rightly being condemned for his calls for tighter libel laws and his reaction to the book was about what you'd expect from this President, this book risks the one thing I expect his opponents are hoping won't happen. It risks proving him right.

It's very easy to roll your eyes at the constant screaming about Fake News. But here we have a dubiously sourced book, parts of which might not even be true, whose sole purpose is to try and convince us that the President is crazy and unfit for his office. I loathe the fact that I have to say this, but if this piece of fan fiction isn't the definition of Fake News the President keeps ranting about I don't know what is.

And here's the stupidest part of all: reporting on all the ephemera (like every Tweet the President sends, this book, and increasingly, the Russia investigation) obscures the fact that the Democratic Party is both in dire straits and not that far away from flipping the script on this Presidency in short order.

Think about it: if the Democrats can hold all the states they won in 2016 (which isn't a given in the current climate, but just go with me on this) then all they need is to win Florida and flip Ohio, Michigan or Pennsylvania and President Trump is a one term President. That's it.

Do they have work to do on the state level? Absolutely. Is winning anything in 2018 or 2020 guaranteed? No. But if you find a message that can win in all 50 states, all this could go away very quickly- but if people are more concerned about the latest gossip that sells books instead of your message, it could be a long six years ahead.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Kidlit: The Berenstain Bears

Editor's Note: A New Year means it's time to play around with new features here on the blog, so I'm pleased to present the first edition of Kidlit, which will be a mixture of reviews, commentary and thoughts on the books that my kiddos are either reading or making me read to them.

Both the Elder Spawn and the newly promoted Medium Spawn love books, but while the Elder Spawn loves reading a book, the Medium Spawn has a mild obsession with them. I honestly think that if he could keep you in a room reading books to him for the entire day, he would and of late, he's been especially into The Berenstain Bears.

The Berenstain Bears had a weird moment in the pop culture zeitgeist a couple of years back, when many insisted that they were the proof that we have, in fact, slipped into an alternate timeline of some kind, as there are many people who would swear blind that they remember read about The Berenstein Bears and not The Berenstain Bears. While the election of our current President might convince many that we are in fact, living in the darkest of timelines, there's a more interesting explanation of the phenomenon: The Mandela Effect.

(Basically, it's a kind of collective false memory and it's sort of a fascinating rabbit hole to go down if you really think about it. I could swear that Sinbad did star in some kind of genie movie back in the 90s, but there's absolutely zero evidence that he did so. Shaq, on the other hand, starred in that cinematic classic, Kazaam. So there you go.) 

As books go, The Berenstain Bears have a pretty simple formula. There's a problem of some kind and Mama Bear and/or Papa Bear help either Brother or Sister Bear (sometimes both) learn some kind of an important life lesson. The stories can be saccharine and sweet and make you roll your eyes more than a little bit sometimes, but in general, there are worse kids books out there. I can't complain too much about them overall, but there are a couple of critiques that have jumped out at me.

First, these books work better when the kids are the focus. 'Get The Gimmes' is a perfect example of this. Brother and Sister get a bad case of 'the gimmes' and Mama and Papa have to figure out how to solve the problem (with a little assist from Gramps and Gran). All of which is fine, but Brother and Sister become secondary characters in this one in ways that annoy me. They just sort of whine and nod their heads when they're talked too. The focus is more on Mama and Papa realizing they have to up their parenting game. All of which is fine, but compared with say, 'The In-Crowd' or 'The Bully', 'The Gimmes' is weak sauce, because what kid is going to connect with a kids book delivering a lesson to their parents? (I can see why parents would want to read this book, obviously. But I also hate the idea of children's book that parents want to read instead of kids, you know?) These books are at their strongest when it's either Brother Bear or Sister Bear solving the problem and learning the lesson.

Second, there's moments of repetition that stick out like nails on a chalkboard. 'The Slumber Party' has a perfect of example of this, where the book says: "An angry and disappointed Mama Bear came to take Sister home." And then what does Mama say, right after that sentence: "I'm very angry and disappointed." Argh. I've found a couple of clunky sentences that jump out at me here and there reading a few of these books. (Don't worry: there's also inconsistent rhyming in some of the Thomas and Friends board books we have that bothers me too, so I have other complaints, never fear.)

These books have their detractors out there and I've read a few clunkers in the series here and there- and as the series has evolved, so have the questions- this fall collection features a Bear Preacher which opens up the whole issue of Bear Theology and how that all works. While the Thanksgiving story they present is pretty traditional, I sort of raised an eyebrow at the 'Native Bear' saying 'ME SQUANTO' and the pilgrims in their little play being all, 'He speaks English, what a miracle!' about it all. But really, my biggest question is about their house.

I mean, at the outset, I should say: I get it, it's a kids book. But the nerd in me has immediate questions. How many bedrooms does it have? Is it a split foyer or a multi-level type of situation? There's a root cellar (a literal root cellar) which shows up in 'Messy Room' and is that underneath the tree itself? Is the trunk on this bad boy thick enough to hollow out? How does it all work? If this artist can come up with floor plans for sitcom apartments, why hasn't someone come up with a floor plan for the Berenstain Bears tree house down the sunny dirt road in Bear Country? Come on, internet. Get on that.

Happily, in terms of expanding mediums, YouTube helpful has all the episodes of the old Berenstain Bears cartoons from back in the day available that sheds a little more light on the interior of the house. (There's a guest bedroom that Mama and Papa paint at one point.) The cartoon is actually develops the characters and fleshes out the stories a little more than the books do, which is kind of a surprise and as an older cartoon it holds up pretty well. Full episodes are about 24-25 minutes long with single 'stories' being about 10-12 minutes a piece, which is kind of handy if the kiddos want to watch something, but you don't want to get stuck in cartoon hell for a full half hour.

Overall: As kid's books go, this is a classic, tried and true franchise that might make you roll your eyes now and again, but in general, imparts solid, entertaining lessons for your kiddos. The writing can be a little uneven now and again in painfully obnoxious ways, but in general you can't go wrong with the Berenstain Bears.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Netflix & Chill #35: Silence

Watched On: Amazon Prime
Released: 2016
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciaran Hinds, Liam Neeson
Rotten Tomatoes: 84%
Pick: Mine

Silence is a beautiful adaptation of a beautiful, moving book of the same name by Shusaku Endo. It opens with a Jesuit Priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) witnessing the torture of both his fellow priests and then the Japanese converts he has been trying to bring Christianity too. He seems rooted to the spot an unable to help any of them in anyway, only to describe the horrors that he is witnessing.

The movie then cuts to a few years later at a church in Macau, where Father Valignano (Ciaran Hinds) receives word that Father Ferreira has renounced his faith after undergoing the torture of the pit in Nagasaki. His students Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) persuade Father Valignano that they should go and find out the truth of what has happened to Father Ferreira. Valignano is dubious at first, as Japan is incredibly dangerous for Christians at the present time, but the two young priests persuade him and, with the help of an alcoholic Japanese refugee named Kichijiro (Yosuke Kubozuka) they set out for Japan.

Arriving in Japan, the Priests arrive at the village of Tomogi, where they find the Christian populations have been driven underground. When the authorities come looking for the Christians, they subject them to a religious test by making them trample on a fumie, a carved image of crucifix- those that refuse to do so are outed as Christians and imprisoned and tortured. The villagers, at the instruction of the Priests all trample- but the authorities then demand that they spit on a crucifix and call the Virgin Mary a whore and when they refuse, the three villagers are martyred. They are tied to crosses by the ocean shore and the tide eventually drowns them. Then, the bodies are retrieved and burned to prevent a Christian burial. Rodrigues and Garupe, realizing that their presence has put the villagers in danger, split up and go their separate ways.

Garupe heads for Hirado Island, while Rodrigues goes to Goto Island to find the last place where Ferreira lived, only to find it destroyed. Kichijiro finds him there and betrays him and he is taken to Nagasaki and imprisoned with other Japanese converts. The prisoners are put through the test of the fumie and all refuse to trample and then one of them is beheaded. Kichijiro (also imprisoned) is then brought out and he tramples eagerly and is released. Then Rodrigues is taken to a shoreline, where he sees Father Garupe and three prisoners approaching in the distance. The three prisoners are taken offshore in a small boat and are bound and one by one thrown into the sea in an attempt to get Garupe to renounce his faith. He refuses and drowns trying to rescue the last prisoner, while Rodrigues watches, restrained and helpless to do anything.

At long last, Father Rodrigues is taken to meet Ferreira. He tells Rodrigues that he renounced his faith under torture and has become convinced after 15 years in the country that Christianity is futile in Japan. Rodrigues denies this, but Ferreira insists. That night, Rodrigues hears the sound of five Christians being tortured. Ferreira tells him then that they have already renounced their faith- the authorities want Rodrigues to renounce his faith, which will end their suffering. He looks upon the fumie and hears an inner voice of Christ giving him permission to trample which he does.

The movie then changes points of view and a Dutch clerk narrates his experiences with the Apostate Priests over the next few years. The Japanese authorities use them to determine which objects are religious and which aren't and eventually Ferreira and then years later, Rodrigues die. His body is prepared for burial in a Buddhist manner and as the flames begin to consume his coffin, the camera zooms in and we see the crudely made crucifix he was given when he first arrived in Japan, tucked into the palm of his hand.

This movie has been a passion project for Martin Scorsese for nearly a quarter of a century and you can see why. This is a beautifully crafted movie and wonderful adaptation of an amazing book. Questions of faith, morality and the trials of your faith in turbulent times are themes that are all explored here and the suffering of the Japanese martyrs is especially powerful and raw to watch. Scorsese also plays with the concept of silence itself- the movie opens to the sounds of quiet and when Rodrigues hears the voice of Christ telling him to trample, the movie goes dead quiet, save for that voice. There are subtle touches that amplify the power of the movie throughout.

Overall: An incredible adaptation of an incredible book, Scorsese has assembled an excellent cast to bring his passion project to life. This was a movie worth waiting a quarter of a century for. **** out of ****.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #242

Two hundred and forty two of these posts later and we're into a new year and facing some new challenges: I'm starting to run out of flags. I don't know how I'm going to take these posts up a notch in 2018, but I'm going to try and dig a little deeper and go some places we've never been before and revisit some we have. So, This Week In Vexillology, we're heading back to Lithuania.

My original post on Lithuania was all the way back on March 22nd, 2014 and it's a bit...  slim. Slimmer than I would like, to be totally honest. Yes, Marko Ramius is from Vilnius and yes, you can make obscure references to The Hunt for Red October if you want, but if you go a little deeper, there's more to Lithuania than meets the eye. For instance, January 1st is Flag Day in Lithuania, which marks the anniversary of the day the Lithuanian flag was raised on Gediminas' Tower in 1919.

We've looked at the Lithuanian tricolor already, so let's take a peek at their Coat of Arms:
The knight on horseback has been a symbol of Lithuania and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania since around 1366- it's mentioned as a symbol of Narimantas, the second son of Gediminas. (Another symbol that dates from this period are the columns of Gediminas, which are seen at the bottom of the Parliamentary version of the full Coat of Arms.) By the 15th Century, knight on horseback had become the main representation of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The colors began to swing in the sharper focus in the next century- with the shield of the knight being azure and the double cross (which was derived from the Hungarian cross) began to be seen as part of the symbol.

The symbol itself gradually became to be known as the Vytis, though it's unclear as to where the term came from. It gradually seems to have emerged in the 19th Century and the double cross continues to play a role in the sub-national flags of Lithuania:
This is the flag of Vilnius County- but all ten county flags of Lithuania follow a similar design. The fringe outside is a border of the double crosses seen on the shield of the Vytis, while each county's flag usual features a portion or of all of the main symbol of their respective coats of arms. (I can't honestly find a good explanation for the Coat of Arms, but looking over the history of the national Coat of Arms, it seems like Vilnius has an earlier iteration of the arms, featuring a knight with a lance instead of a sword.)

So Happy Belated Flag Day, Lithuania! (According to Google Translate: "Laiminga veliavos diena, Lietuva!") And remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, January 5, 2018

Bookshot #104: The Fall of Hyperion

The end of Hyperion was damn near perfect: it finished off an incredible piece of literature and left me begging for more and happily, its sequel, The Fall of Hyperion ties up everything left over from the first book and brings the fates of all the characters to an amazingly satisfying conclusion. While Hyperion is structured around each of the seven pilgrims telling their story drawing on things like the Decameron and Chaucer's Cantebury Tales for inspiration, The Fall of Hyperion focuses more on the John Keats characters from the first book, introducing a second reincarnation, Joseph Severn, an artist.

When Severn dreams, he dreams of the pilgrims from Hyperion and what they are currently doing, which is of great interesting to the CEO of the Hegemony, Meina Gladstone who is monitoring the situation on Hyperion and what the believe to be the impending invasion of the 'Ousters.' While the political struggles and tensions within the Hegemony rise throughout the book, the pilgrims on Hyperion have to deal with problems of their own. Father Hoyt is the first to encounter the Shrike when he enters the Jade Tomb, hoping to relieve himself of the intense pain inflicted by his cruciform parasite- he tries to commit suicide, but the Shrike kills him instead. Instead of Hoyt reincarnating however, his mentor Father Paul Dure comes back instead.

With food running low, and Sol's daughter getting younger with every passing minute, the Pilgrims demand The Consul bring his ship to them so they can get food and medical aid for those of them in need, but The Consul discovers that his ship has been impounded by the Hegemony authorities. So, they nominate Lamia and Silenius to hike back to Chronos Keep to get food. Silenius leaves Lamia to go into the City of Poets to finish his Hyperion Cantos and is attacked by the Shrike and impaled on the Tree of Thorns which is at least partially real. Lamia gets to Chronos Keep, but is attacked as well and plugged into the datasphere.

Colonel Kassad, meanwhile has begun his fight against the Shrike aided by the mysterious Moneta and he eventually succeeds in his mission, dying in battle. Lamia finds out about some of the motivations of the mysterious techno-core and they finally find out what Het Masteen (who vanished in the middle of the last book) has been up to and what his deal is.

In the meantime, things have gone sideways on Gladstone and the Hegemony. The Ousters- or at least, people they think are The Ousters have beached the web that connects all the worlds of the Hegemony together and suddenly the expected battle for Hyperion has become an apocalyptic battle for the future of all mankind. Both the pilgrims and Gladstone soon figure out who the real enemy at their door is and in an unusual twist, it turns out not to be the Ousters at all, but faced with an impossible choice, Gladstone makes a call that changes humanity's fate. The purpose of the Shrike is revealed, the fate of all the pilgrims is decided (actually, they do okay, with the possible exception of Kassad, who does die in battle.)

This was a damn near perfect sequel. It answered every question that you had been asking since the first book. It provided satisfying and complete ending for all the characters and left the door open to explore more of this universe- I'm assuming in Books 3 and 4, Endymion and The Rise of Endymion, which I'm going to have to get to at some point. (I don't know when... I'm plowing through a lot of books lately, but I've got to finish the series out now.)

Overall: an eminently worthy sequel, I raced through The Fall of Hyperion about as fast as I raced through it's predecessor. The influences evident throughout the book that range from the poetry of John Keats to the teachings of John Muir (along with Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Stephen Hawking and references to Jack Vance) are beautifully woven into the story to create a vision of the future that is stunningly unique. I'd say ***** out of *****

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The [Insert Number Here] Predictions for 2018

Resolutions are a popular game this time of year, but so is the most dangerous game of all: predictions. The [Insert Number Here] Predictions for 2018 is a common sight this time of year, but I think it's a lot more fun than blathering on about what a cleansing time of renewal the new year is, so I'm going to have some fun and offer Five Predictions for the Year Ahead. Let's see how wrong I'm going to be!

First, the Democratic Party will take back the House. (They might be able to snag the Senate as well, but I feel like even with the Alabama win, their path is a lot narrower in the Senate than it is in the House.) I also think that on the state level, Democrats will take back a chamber of the Legislature and that Iowa won't send Kim Reynolds back to the Governor's Mansion. I don't know if early indications of Branstad fatigue are real or just wishful thinking at this point, but the Democrats have a deep field with some serious candidates and if there was a year where they could get it done, ti seems like it could be this year. (The Medicare Mess, I'm convinced is going to be more of an issue come the fall than is it right now. UIHC is already struggling with not getting Medicare payments- imagine what rural hospitals are going through. Voters, especially rural ones- have the real potential to be pissed about this come November.)

Second, Tarantino's pitch for a Star Trek movie will go from internet buzz to actual reality. I feel like at this point in the Star Trek movie franchise, it's worth taking a swing at something like this just to see what it looks like. While I enjoyed Star Trek Beyond, Star Trek Into Darkness felt like a parboiled remake of one of the greatest Trek movies of all time and the news that the fourth movie was going to involve time travel somehow just makes it seem that nu-Trek is more interested in dressing up the old Trek movies than moving in a new direction. Tarantino would move Trek in a new direction. (Bonus Prediction: Uma Thurman will say her piece about Harvey Weinstein and it will be epic.)

Third, I really want to say that the Minnesota Vikings will win the Super Bowl, but Minnesota being Minnesota, I think they'll lose on a last second field goal instead. (Bonus Predictions: Arsenal will finish in the Top Four and manage to win everything except the Premier League which will give Arsene Wenger enough silverware to justify going out on top. They'll lose Alexis Sanchez to Manchester City, but keep Mesut Ozil- for now.)

Fourth, if there's a continent worth watching this year, it's probably Africa. I know the trendy prediction for the 'world news' category is the cheerful prospect of war with North Korea, but there's actually a lot going in Africa that we should, but probably won't be paying attention to. Zimbabwe is going to have an election that won't have Robert Mugabe on the ballot. The Democratic Republic of the Congo says it's going to have elections in December, but we'll see. (It's also in the midst of a refugee crisis that's being overlooked and/or ignored.) Sixteen nations in Africa have elections set for this year and South Africa is looking ahead to their election in 2019.

Fifth, I'm going to boldly predict that Iowa City's trend of housing developments with breathless, pretentious sounding names will continue. (There's a lot of names out there that make me roll my eyes like 'The Quarters' and 'The Crossings' and 'Rise'). I do feel like the steel and glass gargantuan construction book is probably going to start leveling off if the University's enrollment has reached a plateau, at least for now.

Predictions are the most dangerous game of all, so I'm fully expecting to be wrong on most, if not all of these predictions. (Here's hoping we avoid a war with North Korea!) That said I also feel good about all of my predictions as well. We'll see how right (or wrong) I end up being this December.

Monday, January 1, 2018

5 For 2018

1. Getting another tattoo: Yeah, yeah, you all heard this last year, but the crazy part is that I know exactly what I want, I know where I'm going to get it, I just need to stash away some ducats and get some time to go and do it. Didn't get it done in 2017, so onto the list for 2018 it goes!

2. Finishing my Year of Books: despite the seven books on my list from last year that I didn't read, the overall goal of my Year of Books was more than met. I'll be honest with y'all: I have book reviews scheduled out until March- that's how much reading I've gotten done. The original idea was a germ of a notion I picked up from Stephen King's On Writing (at least I think so), but basically it was this: to be a better writer, read everything. So, onward and upward to finish off my list:

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Ulysses, James Joyce
Use of Weapons, Iain M. Banks

3. This is my Year of Health. I'm going to be thirty-five this year and I'm going to have three kids and if there was ever an opportunity to get serious about being as fit as I want to be, I think it's this year. But this is a somewhat vague declaration, so let's break it out into specific goals for the year:

-Learn and master 24 form Tai Chi
-Kettlebell (a full routine) at least once a week
-Train for and specifically run a 5k
-I'm not a huge fan of BMI as an indicator of health, but I'd like to be closer to make ideal BMI than further away from it.

Why these goals? Well, 24-form Tai Chi seems the obvious place to take my tai chi. I have a kettlebell that is gathering dust that I want to start using again and running a 5K is something I've wanted to actually be fit enough to do for awhile now. All of these seem achievable. We'll see how I'm looking at the end of the year.

4. Up my writing game. My general philosophy has always been 'to do better.' I started last year with a blog that had about 8K in pageviews and ended it with over 25K in pageviews*, so whatever I'm doing, I'm doing something right, at least when it comes to the blog. My goal this year is to hit 50K for the blog. But more generally, I want to crafting a more coherent identity for my blog. I've always sort of had a 'whatever flies into my brain that's interesting' sort of approach to blogging and I want to make Lit City Blues more of a unique brand. People obviously take time out of their days to take a minute or two to read what I have to say- I want to make the time the take as worthwhile, creative and interesting as possible.

I also want to keep writing short stories and getting them out there so see if someone will publish them, relaunch both my books (The Prisoner and The Assassin and The Arrows of Defiance) and finish my latest book and get it ready for launch by year's end.

5. House projects...  I have this short list of things I'd like to around the house that are practical in nature this. They include in no particular order:

-Staining our deck
-Building a raised bed so we can start a garden
-constructing a built-in bookshelf in the house so we can consolidate all our books into one place
-Getting a farmhouse sink for our kitchen
-putting a new back splash in the kitchen

2018 is officially underway. I've got 365 days to see what I can do.

Game on.

*I'm not sure how accurate Blogger's stats actually are, but I purchased my own domain name through Google, which means if you Google 'Lit City Blues' this is the first thing you'll find (which is gratifying)- so I don't think SEO is a problem. I think it tracks unique pageviews, but I'm not 100% sure, so that 25K number might not be as accurate as I'd like. I know for sure it's not all me though, so some of y'all are reading what I right. Thank you for making this what it is and I look forward to making this even better in 2018.