Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Let's Talk Taxes

Look, I get it. The GOP is going to cut taxes. That's how they do. But here is what I think the GOP doesn't get sometimes: while people might not want a massive government, they don't want minimal government either. Finding the balance between the two, it seems to be me, would be the responsible and political beneficial move for a party really interested in constraining the size of government, But that's the problem with a lot of our politics today: nobody's interested in being responsible anymore.

That's why I can't believe that I'm about to type this: I agree with Governor Reynolds. Now, to be fair- the numbers cited in her plan seem pretty damn similar to what the Senate is tossing around (and I haven't seen an analysis on how it will impact state revenues either), but on paper at least the Governor's plan at least makes a head nod to protecting the state budget priorities. I'm assuming that some form of tax reform will be passed this session (one can hope for an outbreak of common sense down in Des Moines, but I'm not willing to do that) so if I have to choose, I'll stick with the Governor's plan rather than the slash and burn plan being tossed around in the Senate.

What I'm curious about though is this: why the sudden plunge toward tax reform madness? Maybe I need to go back and check my state tax returns a little bit, because I feel like my Federal taxes bite harder than any of my state taxes. All of these Republicans down in Des Moines are pushing the notion that Iowa is high tax state all of a sudden and I'm sitting here like, 'since when?'

If Iowa's corporate tax rate is the highest in the region, I'm willing to listen to arguments to cut that, especially if it makes Iowa more competitive and business friendly. However, any such discussion on corporate taxes needs to be coupled to reform of the corporate tax incentives we seem to have going on in the state. I was not crazy about $200 million in tax breaks to land Apple when at the end of the day there's only going to be 50 permanent jobs created. Cedar Rapids is nervous about Rockwell Collins, Iowa City is losing a product line at Proctor and Gamble and we lost out on a Toyota plant to the Southeast. But sure, spend $200 million in corporate welfare to land Apple- because that's a good use of incentives to bring jobs to the state. All 50 of them.

Up until recently, I've always been comforted by the fact that Iowans are, at their core, farmers and farmers tend to be pretty sensible I've noticed. We've been remarkably immune to the radical shifts in the political pendulum and whether it's Republicans or Democrats running the show down in Des Moines, we've always seemed to have a solid credit rating, a good sized rainy day fund and leaders that aren't willing to get drunk, go to the casino and bet all the state's money on red. That common sense approach to state politics has taken a beating these last few years and I'm really hoping that voters start to get tired of it this November and send a message that we need to get back to 'slow and steady wins the race.'

Kansas and Oklahoma are having hard conversations right now because they went all in tax cuts and it didn't work out. 20 percent of schools in Oklahoma are only holding classes four days a week. Their highway patrol has mileage limits because the state couldn't afford to put gas in their tanks- and they're a state with a healthy petroleum industry. Kansas is straight up telling people, 'don't do what we did.' Whatever you feel about the changes to Iowa's collective bargaining laws, they stopped short of what Wisconsin did with theirs. One can only hope a similar sense of prudence stops us short of following Kansas and Oklahoma down a ruinous rabbit hole.

The real talk about taxes shouldn't be how much do we cut? It should be: how much government do the people want? Because some things people are willing to pay for- and expect to function regardless of who's in charge.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Netflix & Chill #39: The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2004
Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, Anjelica Huston, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Michael Gambon, Bud Cort
Rotten Tomatoes: 56%
Pick: Mine

The Elder Spawn loved reading Fantastic Mr. Fox so much that I surprised him and sprung for the movie, which he also loves. But watching it again made me get an itch to watch some more Wes Anderson movies, so I decided to revisit The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou and it was far more delightful and charming than I remember it being.

Following his success with The Royal Tennenbaums (another movie I need to rewatch), Anderson sets the stage for The Life Aquatic by opening the movie at a film festival in Italy. The latest documentary from Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) and instead of the wonders of the ocean, it deals with a tragedy as Steve's best friend and chief diver, Esteban (Seymour Cassel) is eaten by a creature that Zissou describes as a 'jaguar shark.' His crew thinks he has 'the crazy eye' and isn't quite sure they believe him, but for his next project, Zissou is determined to find the shark that ate his friend and kill it.

The crew of Zissou's ship prepares to launch their next expedition to find the jaguar shark and we meet many of them, including, Eleanor (Anjelica Huston) his estranged wife and chief financial backer, Pele dos Santos (Seu Jorge), Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe), the first mate and other crew members ranging from Vikram Ray, the camera man to the group of unpaid interns from the University of North Alaska. Zissou's plan to find the jaguar shark hits an immediate snag as he has no money to finance the documentary.

The money problem looks to be solved thanks to the appearance of Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) a longtime fan of Zissou who thinks he might be Zissou's son. He offers his inheritance to finance the film which angers Eleanor, who believes that Steven is taking advantage of Ned, so she leaves. Zissou presses ahead with his expedition- with a reporter, Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett) who is pregnant and along for the ride to chronicle the voyage. Ned and Steve both develop infatuations with Jane and a rivalry develops between them as a result.

First, they stop at a remote station owned by Alistair Hennessey (Jeff Goldblum) a nemesis of Zissou who is far more successful than he is, They they head into unprotected waters where they are hijacked by Filipino pirates, who take their bond company guy hostage and all of Ned's money to boot. Hennessey rescues them and tows them in to Port-au-Patois where Zissou convince Eleanor to rejoin the crew to go and rescue Bill, which they do. (Picking up Hennessey as well, who was also kidnapped.)

Everyone rescued, Ned and Steve go up in the helicopter one last time to try and find the jaguar shark, but something malfunctions and they crash. Ned dies of his injuries and is buried at sea and finally, at long last, Steve finds the jaguar shark and is moved by its beauty and out of dynamite so decides not to kill it. Their documentary, dedicated to Ned is premiered to great acclaim and the crew heads back to the ship ready for their next adventure.

Overall: I'm pretty sure I owned the soundtrack to this at one point, since it features Seu Jorge singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese which is as awesome as it sounds. All the charming Anderson touches are there and the cinematography is beautiful. I think I would happily own this movie- I don't think I thought it was that good when I saw it the first time, but now, I think it'd be great just to have on a shelf so I could pop it in now and again and be charmed by the life aquatic. My Grade: *** and a 1/2 out of ****

Saturday, February 24, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #249

I have no idea why I picked the flag of Andalusia for this week. I've been scratching my head about it for a little bit now and I just can't remember if there was a reason or not. But, Andalusia seems like a happening place, so this week in vexillology, we've got the flag of Andalusia:
This is the civil and state flag of the region and it was adopted in 1918. The assembly that adopted the flag also adopted a charter based on the Antequera Constitution that wanted Andalusia to be an autonomous republic inside a federal Spain. (Not unlike what the Catalans had going for them right up until their declaration of independence- however that's going.) What's the 4-1-1 on what the flag is all about? Well:
La bandera blanca y verde vuelve tras siglos de guerra a sembrar paz y esperanza bajo el sol de nuestra terra. (Or, 'The white and green flag comes back after centuries of war to sow peace and hope under our land's sun.)
On the flag, you've got the Coat of Arms of Andalusia. So let's go ahead and talk about those as well...

Okay: again, there is a design critique to be made that the 'Coat of Arms On A Flag' is the equivalent to the American sin of 'Seal On A Bedsheet' but these Coat of Arms are unusual enough that I sort of gave them a pretty close look. The more traditional elements of a Coat of Arms are absent. There's no shield, there's no historical ties to the region or anything like that. What you do have, though, are lots of nods to the region itself.

The two pillars are, of course, the Pillars of Hercules on either side of the Straits of Gibraltar. The dude in the middle? It's none other than the man himself, Hercules seizing and taming two lions, each representing the power of animal instinct. Below the Lions, you've got the legend, 'Andalucia Por Si, Para Espana Y La Humanidad' and above the Latin inscription 'Dominator Hercules Fundator'. (Which is super hard to read, I know, but is actually what is written up there.) Rough translations of both mottos- the Spanish: 'Andalucia for itself, for Spain and for humanity.' and the Latin: well, Google Translate came up with: 'Her dominator founder.' Go home Google Translate, y'all must be drunk.

Overall: 'meh' flag, but really interesting Coat of Arms. There's something retro about them that makes me think 70s and they might be too 70s, really. (The city flag of Madrid provides a good example of what a contemporary update to your Coat of Arms might look like). But a lot of the inspiration for them came from the city arms of Cadiz and I think this is a fairly faithful adaptation of those for the wider region.

So, that's Andalusia. Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Weird New Flavors of Diet Coke, Ranked

Food marketing is the worst. I say that because whenever some company somewhere comes out with NEW FLAVORS and TASTE THE DIFFERENCE, there's a little part of my brain that always goes, "Ooooh, I'll have to remember to try that." Doritos (damn them!) are a prime example of this. Mountain Dew and it's ever increasing colorful kaleidoscope of flavors is another. And while technically I'm supposed to be on the soda wagon right now, I had to jump off to try the weird new flavors of Diet Coke.

Diet Coke, until I discovered the hipster joys of LaCroix was my jam a few years back. Even though for the vast majority of my life, I never really drank soda and when I did, it was the regular stuff and I thought Diet stuff tasted weird, at some point I went all in on the Diet soda, probably in a misguided belief that it was somehow healthier for me, but really because I was in college and a healthy dollop of rum took away the weird Diet taste. At a certain point, I realized that I had gone too far and I couldn't go back as regular soda tasted horrendously sweet to me (and still does) but I'll always have a soft spot for Diet Coke and Diet Dew.

So, naturally, when The Weird New Flavors of Diet Coke were launched in an obvious attempt to appeal to the youthful hipsters of America, I decided to run down all down so the Missus and I could try them and come up with the Definitive, 100% Accurate Ranking. This is what we got:

1. Feisty Cherry: Cherry is not a weird flavor for Diet Coke, so really it's not that big of a jump to get behind this one. It might, maybe, have more of a 'black cherry' taste to it, but to me it just tasted like a Diet Cherry Coke.

2. Ginger Lime: Probably the most subtle of the new flavors, again this wasn't that hard to get behind. You can taste the lime, but the ginger sort of gets lost in a sea of coke flavors, but nothing particularly wrong with it. I don't think I'm going to rush out and buy it by the case load, but I also wouldn't pour it down my sink either.

3. Twisted Mango: Truly, the individual that thought 'I know, wouldn't a Diet Coke taste great if you added some mango flavor to it?' is a twisted individual indeed. The mango flavor is initially subtle but becomes more pronounced as the soda warms up which is...  somewhat disturbing. At the end of the day, you're drinking a mango flavored Diet Coke and wondering why someone thought a mango flavored Diet Coke was a good idea.

4. Zesty Blood Orange: there's nothing zesty about this flavor, in fact, the orange was a massive misfire as it overwhelms the Diet Coke and you end up drinking a Diet Coke flavored Blood Orange Soda which is about as disturbing as one might imagine.

Honorable Mention: Regular Diet Coke. If you have no idea why anyone would want to ingest any flavor of Diet Coke, keep right on drinking the regular stuff. It's really hard to go wrong with Plain Old Diet Coke.

Overall: none of these flavors is enough to lure me back into soda full time. Some of them taste better than others do, but none of them made me go, "I need to buy a case of this as soon as possible" which is probably not the reaction that Coca-Cola was hoping for. (Semi-Serious question though: whatever happened to Vanilla Coke? Now that was delicious.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Shouting Is Not A Policy Position

It's depressing to think about, but it's nearly been 20 years since Columbine and we still can't seem to come together as a nation to tackle this problem. I don't think I have any answers. My position on guns has evolved over the years, as most of the people I know who own guns genuinely do use them for hunting and it's not trophy hunting, it's 'filling your freezer with deer meat' kind of hunting.

You know what I would like though? I'd like to stop posting the same articles and the same Facebook memes after every single one of these tragedies. It doesn't do anything. It doesn't advance a sensible conversation. It doesn't craft policy that can lower the number of gun deaths in this country. So, from the top, let's talk about what's unhelpful and what's not:

First: put down the cudgels. Guns are one of the many issues that the left and the right use to beat on each other in our ongoing culture wars and it needs to stop. (There are many of these cudgels that both sides use. The Right likes to ferment moral panics about a variety of issues. The Left likes to rail about guns, usually while knowing very little about them. Both sides beat each other up over abortion. The cudgels of the culture war never actually create compromise or solutions to any actual problems underneath the shouting.)

Second: let's talk about unhelpful things to say in this debate. "Fuck your thoughts and prayers." Not particularly helpful. "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Also not helpful. (Another variation I saw: "I'm waiting for my AR-15 to jump up and kill me.") Mass shootings are also not because of the following: a lack of prayer in schools, not enough guns in schools, the changing culture because '30 years ago everyone could bring their rifle to school and work on it in metal shop,' violent video games, violence on television, a lack of faith in general, Muslims, Women, Feminists, Gays, single family homes, Men, Christians, white people or white nationalists.*

Third: let's talk numbers. The '18 school shootings in 2018' number that's floating around out there? Wrong- and before you think it's just right-wing propaganda pushing the notion- it is, in fact, The Washington Post that says so. The '33,000 gun deaths a year' number? Something of a misnomer... if you look at this data taken from 2014, some surprising things emerge: 2/3rds of those deaths are suicides and the overwhelming majority of those suicides are men. (So when people talk about 'mental health' it's not just a red herring. They kind of have a point.) That leaves about 10K homicides by gun, which is still seems pretty high, but mass shootings are, in fact a small fraction of even that number. The data tells me pretty convincingly that we don't have one overarching 'gun' problem, we've got about six or seven and yelling 'BAN ALL THE GUNZ' isn't going to solve it. (Oh and that data: sourced from which includes links to where they got the data and the methodology they used. So see for yourselves.)

Fourth: before we rush into passing more laws, can we at least talk about why the laws we have don't appear to be working? A flaw in the background check system let this psycho get a gun. This other psycho shouldn't have been able to get a gun either. And while Dana Loesch may not be everyone's cup of tea, she raises a good point here. What's the point of the system if states don't fully conform to it? Senator Rubio pointed out that new laws wouldn't have prevented a lot of the recent tragedies and people jumped up and down on him for it- but The Washington Post had his back and pointed out that he was right. Am I going join the chorus on the Right calling for the head of the FBI to resign over this? No. But there is a problem somewhere in the system and it needs to be fixed.

In a perfect world, we'd ban the sale and manufacture of all semi-automatic weapons for civilian use and treat the rest the same way we do automatic weapons.We'd strip gun manufacturers of their legal immunity for their products and let the CDC and the NIH study the problem of gun violence so we can maybe come up with a solution. And then we'd take a page out of history and start designing the safest schools in the world so we don't have to send our kids to school at gunpoint.**

But we don't live in a perfect world, so at the very least can we fix the background check thing?

*Also not helpful: Repealing the 2nd Amendment is a nice dream, but if you can find enough states to vote for it, good for you. Ditto with 'ARM ALL THE TEACHERS'- that notion lasts until the first teacher's cheese slips off their cracker and they shoot up their own classroom- plus hey, there's this also that makes seem like a really good idea.

**The last time there was a school fire that killed ten or more kids was in 1958. As a nation, we came together and made our schools safe. And it worked. Something similar can be done for schools and psychos with guns. We've just got to stop shouting at each other long enough to decide what it is.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Albums2010 #98: Divide

The Missus is all about Ed Sheeran and therefore, I've learned to get used to listening to the old ginger crooner, so when I was scrambling around, trying to find an album to review for this month, it hit me: why not take Ed Sheeran's latest album Divide out for awhirl and really see what it was really like- and no real surprise it was a pretty good listen- if you're super into dreamy dudes with a guitar this will be 100% in your wheelhouse.

So, Divide.

The thing that stands out about this album is that there is a mix of sounds throughout this album. It's not all soft love songs and acoustic guitar, which I think makes it a strong album, because there is a little bit of everything for everyone. The tracks that stood out for me- in no particular order: 'Nancy Mulligan' an Irish tinged up tempo ballad telling the romantic story about how his grandparents met and got married. 'Bibia Be Ye Ye' is an a bouncy, African-tinged (specifically: Ghana) track that just makes you want to dance. 'Barcelona' is another up-tempo track that makes you want to dance- though this time the flavor is Spanish. 'Galway Girl' gets a lot of grief out on the interwebs, because well, how are you going to top Steve Earle? But it's still a good song! 'Shape of You' is probably the track with the most radio play (and weirdly, it got him into a wee bit of trouble with TLC of all people.)

'Castle On The Hill' is probably my favorite track, simply because it gets me all nostalgic for my youth and reminds me of how utterly old I'm becoming. It's also a good track.

So all the up-tempo tracks are really really good. The slower ones: 'Supermarket Flowers' is a tribute to Sheeran's late grandmother who died while he was making the album- it's absolutely beautiful and if you don't shed at least one tear thinking about your own grandmother who's already left you then you have no soul. 'Perfect' is just a beautiful love song that he wrote for his fiancee. 'Happier' is a sort of love lost/love unrequited/the one that got away ballad that Adele and T-Swift dabble in, but Sheeran does a perfectly excellent job with. 'Hearts Don't Break Around Here' is another one that stands out- mainly I think for the refrain, which seems to stick in the head a bit. 'How Would You Feel' rounds out the best of the slower tracks.

The 'meh' or 'didn't really stick in my head tracks': 'Dive', 'New Man', 'What Do I Know?' and 'Save Myself.'

The one questionable choice, weirdly enough is the opening track, 'Eraser.'  All credit to Ed for attempting a pretty decent wrap, but at the end of the song, he's still a ginger trying to rap. Not awful, but it stands out as a weaker track on an album full of solid to excellent work.

I'm not really a 'dreamy dude with guitar' kind of guy usually, but I'll make an exception for this album. My personal barometer for any given album tends to be how many tracks I like on any given album divided by the total number of tracks on an album, which means that Divide scores an 12/15 (I'll throw in 'Eraser' just for kicks) on my personal scale of awesomeness.

Overall: This is a really good album...  I would 100% buy it again and enjoyed listening to it. (Hopefully, the Missus and I can cross off an item on her bucket list and get to see Ed Sheeran later in the year somewhere!) My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, February 17, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #248

We're heading across the border, This Week In Vexillology to celebrate Yukon Heritage Day by taking a peek at the flag of the Yukon Territory:
Adopted on March 1st, 1968, the flag of the Yukon was chosen following a territory-wide competition to celebrate Canada's centennial of 1967. Out of 137 designs, Yukon College graduate Lynn Lambert was the lucky winner. A prototype was sent to Ottawa to get all heralded up and stuff and they sent back an amended version, but they stuck to their guns and kept the original winning design.

The flag itself is a tricolor defaced with the Coat of Arms of the Yukon. ('Defaced' is a technical design term and not meant to be derisive.) The three colors of the tricolor part of the flag are pretty easy to break down: the green represents Yukon's forests, white stands for snow and blue stands for the lakes and rivers of the territory. The coat of arms is placed in the center above a wreath of fireweed, the flower of the Yukon. Let's break down the Coat of Arms a little bit more:

If you were curious, yes that is an Alaskan malamute standing on what's supposed to be a mound of snow. Below that in the 'chief' or upper part of the shield, you have a red cross representing England a disc surmounting it in in a pattern called 'vair' which is the heraldic equivalent of fur for all the fur-bearing animals in the Territory. Below that, the lower section of the shield represents the mountains of the Yurkon- the gold disks stand for the mineral wealth of the territory and the two wavy lines stand for the rivers of the territory.

(I've seen some criticism of 'coats of arms' on flags here and there, but I'm not a design snob and while this flag may well be the Canadian equivalent of a 'seal on a bedsheet' I'm actually down with this flag. I dig the colors. I dig the Coat of Arms- I mean, how can you not love a Coat of Arms featuring a Malamute? I mean, for serious now.)

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

Friday, February 16, 2018

My Biennial Rant About The Olympics

Bitching about NBC's coverage of the Olympics is almost an Olympic event in and of itself, at least here in the United States anyway. Everything's on tape delay- even the events that are nominally 'live', the streaming has gotten better, but still is nowhere near as good as it should be and there are far far too many human interest puff pieces that take time away from you know, the actual sports themselves. With all that in mind, as is tradition, it's time for My Biennial Rant About The Olympics*, so sit down, pull up a chair and enjoy!

Maybe it's my increasing age, but I actually find myself with less to complain about than usual this time around. I think it's the presence of NBCSN that's helping the cause for these Olympics. They're showing a good mix of events during the day- many of them live and even the prime time events aren't nearly as sloppily packaged as they have been in years past. If I was in charge of broadcasting the Olympics though, my principle would be a simple one: every event should be broadcast live and streaming should be awesome and, more importantly, it shouldn't require a log-in. (Which it still does.)

In the age of cord-cutting, there is simple no excuse for having barriers to your streaming platform. You should have a website that goes live and people should be able to stream every damn thing they want and you know what? Throw some banner ads in there- hell, throw commercials in there. Don't tell me you can't make money by lowering the barriers to your streaming of the Olympics, because that's bullshit. You can. If ESPN can run three different streams of the Rose Bowl- at the same time, you can figure this out NBC. I have faith in you.

But oddly enough, I feel like NBC is inching toward sanity with their coverage which is a pleasant surprise. They seem to have a program focused on figure skating called 'Olympic Ice.' Local news seems to be partnering with them to do a 'what's it really like at the Olympic games' segment called 'The Olympic Zone.' You just need a 'Medal Zone' like a 'Red Zone' feature to show every medal being won and maybe like a half hour daily human interest block and concentrate on sports for the rest and you might getting somewhere. But for sure: lower barriers to streaming!

While the coverage is getting better, The Olympics themselves have sort of seen better days. Nobody wants to host them, because it's a huge pain in the ass and costs are insane. Hosting them has become a prestige project for authoritarian regimes who don't care about costs and an increasingly hard sell to dubious members of the public in democratic countries as well. Cities are usually left with crumbling venues that don't get used and few, if any, see solid legacies and gains from hosting the games.

Plainly, the model needs to change- and I think the IOC is aware of that. Hopefully some reforms start to take root and revitalize the games, but two ideas that I'd be about are simple ones: joint bids- even ones that cross borders, like the proposed Seattle-Vancouver bid that was being talked about a few years back and moving to a regional/national model for the games. Of these two, i think the former is far more likely than the latter, but I think the latter makes more sense over the long term.

A regional/national model would enable the IOC to put events where the infrastructure is best equipped to support them. For instance, take a hypothetical summer games here in America. You'd have cities bid for the opening/closing ceremonies and whoever wins could have their pick of events- the idea would be to maximize tickets solid/attendance, but you'd also farm some out to other cities to help with costs. For instance, if you put Olympic Wrestling in Los Angeles, you'd probably get a pretty good crowd. But, if you put it on the campus of Penn State, Iowa or Oklahoma State- hell any Midwestern college campus, you'd be playing to packed houses of devoted wrestling fanatics. You can find an equivalency in just about every other sport I can think of. Put some distance running up in Oregon, for instance... or swimming where the swimmers be at.

To be fair, I don't know how well this model would translate to other countries, but sharing the wealth would take the pressure off of individual cities and spread costs out some, which I think might increase the appeal of hosting the games a bit more.

In the end though, as much as I might complain about the Olympics, I'm always going to watch them. There's sports you don't see on your television every day. Stories that inspire you, even if they are packaged with soft lighting and inspirational piano music. It's something I look forward to, every two years- and listening to the kids be all 'Whoa!' and 'That's so cool!' at the snowboarding this past week makes me think they'll be looking forward to them as well.

*I seem to recall in 9th Grade English we had to give a speech on any given topic and I think my topic was how much the coverage of the Olympics sucked that year. I'm pretty sure we had a five minute time limit, but no one ever gave me any indication of how long I had gone over, so I ranted for a full thirteen minutes about it. No, I can't recall what grade I got either. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Who Decides The Canon?

When I read the article that Duluth was planning to remove Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird from their school's literature curriculum, I sort of sighed. This isn't a new trend, in the grand scheme of things. Some school district somewhere is always getting into trouble for banning a book or removing a book from their curriculum- but removing books from a classroom because of language contained in them, however insensitive should give everyone pause.

I think if you're in the business of education, you have to find a way to balance the sensitivities of your students of color with the need not to whitewash (and yes I'm aware of the irony of using the word 'white' in that word) some very ugly parts of our history. I've got a collection of short stories by Flannery O'Connor kicking around on a bookcase somewhere and I started reading them, but then I had to stop, because she used the n-word more than Jay-Z does on his latest album- hell, probably in his entire discography.

Now, O'Connor is writing from the point of view 1920s Georgia. It's both horrifying to see how people spoke back then and heartening to see the progress we've made since then, but I can see why educators would want to be sensitive to the excessive use of words like that, because if it's hard for me to read as an adult, then without placing these novels in the proper context, it would be easy for teenagers to misunderstand. (This article points out that To Kill A Mockingbird does have a 'white savior narrative,' which is a fair criticism, I have to admit.)

The good thing in this controversy is that people are having a debate about literature, which I'm all about. But whether you think removal of the two books is a good thing or a bad thing, it does raise the question: who decides the canon? And what's the best possible canon of literature you can pick for the students of today?

I think you have to acknowledge from the outset that whatever you pick, the kids will probably hate it- at least in the class at the time. I hated The Great Gatsby when I read it in school, but came to appreciate it more when I picked it up a few years ago. Same thing with The Catcher In The Rye: I hated in high school but appreciated it more when I read it in a non-school setting.

The second thing I think you're going to want is flexibility. Not every school district or every state is going to want to have their kids read the same books. So, let's look at my ideal canon:

1. Shakespeare. I know he's not sufficiently 'woke' for some people these days, but if you're studying the literature of the English language, you have to include him. I'm not sure about every high school out there, but the 'traditional' chestnuts seem to be 'Romeo and Juliet' and 'Hamlet' but I would avoid those, because The Bard has far more interesting plays out there.

2. Regional authors. For example, if I'm a student in Nebraska, I should probably be reading some Willa Cather. If I'm in Minnesota, I should be reading Maud Hart Lovelace, Sinclair Lewis, Laura Ingalls Wilder- you get the idea. Students should be reading some literature that connects to where they live.

3. World Literature: if you're teaching a world lit class, authors from Africa, Central and South America and Asia should all be at the top of your list before you get to anyone from Europe. (Shusaku Endo, Chinua Achebe, Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel Garcia Marquez are all good examples- though my personal experience tends to be more with South America than Asia or Africa.)

4. American Literature: here's where things get interesting. I don't think you can stick with the traditional Mark Twain/Harper Lee/F Scott Fitzgerald thing anymore, because I don't think they represent the American experience as a whole. Authors like Octavia Butler, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, John dos Passos, Sherman Alexie, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz all have a place in the canon, because when combined with the usual suspects you get a truly complete picture of literature of America. It shouldn't be either or. It should be both.

5. My Personal Wishlist: 'The Martian Chronicles', by Ray Bradbury. 'The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress' by Robert Heinlein (though you could make a case for 'Starship Troopers' or anything else), 'Dune', by Frank Herbert.

So, my Dream/Ideal Lit Class:

Shakespeare + World Lit (Not From Europe) + American Lit (Old Classics + Diverse Voices) + My Personal Wishlist = a well rounded canon. The more voices, the better in my book. But what about you, dear reader- what authors should students be reading in the classrooms of today?

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Netflix & Chill #38: The Cloverfield Paradox

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2018
Starring: Daniel Bruhl, Elizabeth Debicki, Aksel Hennie, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris O'Dowd, John Ortiz, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi
Rotten Tomatoes: 17%
Pick: Mine

I watched Cloverfield and thought it was pretty good- a nicely contemporary take on a Godzilla like monster that rampaged through New York City. (This predated the new Godzilla by a bit so at the time, all we had to go on was the Matthew Broderick/Jean Reno one with that awful P. Diddy/Led Zeppelin mash-up of Kashmir in the soundtrack.) I didn't bother with 10 Cloverfield Lane. I'm not sure why. I just never really felt an urge to go and see it and it's never caught my eye at a Redbox enough to say, 'hey, let's watch that.' So I'm still not sure why I even bothered with The Cloverfield Paradox- other than it's arrival in the world was sort of a Super Bowl surprise courtesy of Netflix so I was curious to see if it was a surprise worth watching.

Spoiler alert: it's not.

Set ten years in the future when the Earth is suffering from a global energy crisis, the space faring nations of the world have built a particle accelerator in space which they hope to use to provide the planet with infinite energy. Some alarmists fear that it will open portals between dimensions and allow horrors to destroy the planet. Among the crew is Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who was reluctant to leave her husband, Michael a doctor, and is still grieving the loss of her children in a house fire.

Their tests prove unsuccessful for two years until they finally seem to get a stable beam until it overloads and the next thing you know, they're lost, the gyroscope they need to help them navigate is missing and a strange woman is trapped in one of their walls. It doesn't take them long to figure out that the woman, Mina Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki) is a member of their crew- just from an alternate universe. And after that, weird things start happening (as they tend to do on space stations where the lights flicker a lot) and to make a long story short: they figure out where they are and eventually get the particle accelerator to work so they can go home. Naturally there are only two survivors and when they get home?

Well, Ava's husband Michael starts yelling at Mission Control for letting her come back down to Earth because the monster in the original Cloverfield? Well, he's back and brought plenty of friends with him.

I really don't want to spend a lot of time on the plot of this movie, because it was less of a plot and more a collection of every sci-fi/horror movie cliche you can think of...  it wasn't a total trainwreck, because it was...  mildly entertaining? I guess? But you knew pretty early on that there either be one or two survivors and that if they managed to get home it would probably be all messed up, because you know, particle accelerator.

The cast does the best with what they have: Gugu Mbatha-Raw has been excellent in everything I've ever seen her in. Daniel Bruhl, David Oyelowo and Zhang Ziyi also bring their considerable talents to make the movie better. However, the one member of the cast that comes pretty damn close to stealing the show is Chris O'Dowd. The 'comic relief' (who of course, meets an unhappy ending) O'Dowd's approach is pretty subtle in many ways. He's not going for funny, but between his asides and one liners he consistently gets there and proves to be one of the best parts of this movie.

Where are they going with this franchise? I have no idea and there are rumors of another Cloverfield movie lurking in the ether already, but I feel like it might be time to wind this sucker down, because I have no idea where they could possibly take it next. (I've always thought that looking what happens after these sort of monster/disaster movies would be interesting, but who knows. Wait! I know! Plot Twist: Cloverfield 4: Pacific Rim.)

Overall: A bundle of science fiction cliches, The Cloverfield Paradox more than earns its 17% rating from Rotten Tomatoes. Gugu Mbatha-Raw remains excellent in everything I see her in and if there's a reason to watch this movie, it's probably Chris O'Dowd. My Grade: ** out of ****

Saturday, February 10, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #247

We're dipping back into the 'Lost Archives' this weekend and heading back to Central Europe to take a look at the flag of Hungary:
True story: we had goulash last night for dinner (American-style goulash and not the more traditional Hungarian version) AND I'm still listening to Mike Duncan's excellent Revolutions Podcast which is currently tackling the revolutionary year of 1848 that convulsed so many countries in Central Europe. Plus, I think paprika is probably one of my favorite spices. So I'm all about Hungary.

The exact form of the flag has been official since May 23rd, 1957, but the tricolor has been around since the Republican movements int he 18th and 19th centuries and the colors have been associated with Hungary for even longer than that- dating all the way back to the Middle Ages. (More specifically, the colors were taken from the Hungarian Coat of Arms that's been in the same form since the 15th Century, but they also were showing us as early as the 12th and 13th Century in the arms of the Arpads, the founding dynasty of Hungary.)

The evolution of the flag is somewhat interesting to read about- they went horizontal instead of vertical to avoid confusion with the flag of Italy, but they also kept the tricolor as a nod to France and their revolution. (Theoretically you could have pulled a Mexico if you really really wanted to keep the vertical tricolor and thrown the arms in there as well to differentiate it from Italy, but I think Italy has variant flags that include their arms as well, so maybe that wouldn't have been as helpful.) In general, the tricolor + coat of arms combination has been pretty constant since 1848- there are some exceptions though. There was a Hungarian Soviet Republic that was around for like a minute in 1919 that used a solid red banner- but even post-WWII Communist Hungary went with tricolor + coat of arms, leading to this:
And then this, following the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956:
It's interesting, having listened to a whole bunch of episodes on 1848 and their Revolution to see how strongly Hungary's national identity shines through in the evolution of their flag. The Communists didn't have the balls to ditch the tricolor post-WWII and post-1956 they toned down the hammers, sickles and the big-ass red star and toned up the national tricolor again. It makes me wonder if Hungary's strong sense of national identity was enough to almost trump ideology. A lot of former Communist countries went back to older pre-Communist flags following the fall of the Soviet Union or went in a totally different direction post-independence. I'd have to check to be sure, but it'd be interesting to see if there were any other countries that sort of broke the mold during their communist period.

But what does it all mean? Well, the colors have been attributed to virtues: red for strength, white for fidelity and green for hope- something which was confirmed by the new Constitution in 2012. (But there's also an alternative explanation, which has red standing for the blood spilled for the fatherland*, white for freedom and green for the land/pastures of Hungary.)

And that is pretty much all there is to the flag of Hungary! Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

*Another thing it would be interesting to look into: which countries are 'motherlands' and which are 'fatherlands.'

Friday, February 9, 2018

Squawk Box: The Good Place & Manhunt: Unabomber

Squawk Box this month tackles two shows that couldn't be more different: the off-beat (yet surprisingly deep and intelligent) sitcom antics of The Good Place and the true crime docudrama Manhunt: Unabomber. I'm not sure what to think of the former and I still can't quite believe that the latter aired on the Discovery Channel and assembled the amazing cast it did.

I don't know what to think of The Good Place. The Missus and I gave the pilot episode awhirl and didn't really know what to think of it (she had just finished Love Sick, an excellent Netflix show if you're in the market for something to watch and then she moved onto Atypical) but I was curious enough to burn through the rest of the twelve episodes to see if I could make up my mind about it and...  I still can't.

I tend to picky about sitcoms. If they're funny enough to make me laugh out loud on a regular basis (like Arrested Development) then I'll pay attention, get invested and actually watch. If they're only mildly amusing, then I'll sort of throw them on as background noise while I do stuff and sort of check in from time to time (like Grace and Frankie). The Good Place sort of falls someplace in between on my personal sitcom spectrum. It opens with Eleanor (Kristen Bell) being told by Michael (Ted Danson) that she's dead and in heaven. She gets to learn the rules of 'The Good Place' as it's called and meets all the other people in 'The Good Place' including her soul mate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) who is an ethic professor from Senegal.

The rules of The Good Place are pretty simple: you accrue points while you're alive by doing good deeds and lose points for unethical decisions. If you're good enough, you go to The Good Place if not, you go to The Bad Place (which seems to be the equivalent of hell) for an eternity of torture and pain. Eleanor gets shown all the 'amenities' including her house which includes clown art, because why not, but then, plot twist! Turns out they've got the wrong Eleanor- this particular Eleanor made a living selling a supplement to the sick and elderly that was worthless and was crass and uncaring- in short, she was not a good person and chaos begins popping up in The Good Place as it reacts to her presence and misbehavior.

You would think that the concept alone would give this show the survival probability of a snowball in hell, but curiously this works. It infused with a sort of shiny ethereal charm that reminds me a lot of Pushing Daisies and then, just when you think it's going for sweet and charming it turns into a surprisingly intelligent and deep discussion of morals, ethics, philosophy and what makes a person really and truly good. This show wasn't at all what I was expecting, but it's refreshing to see a show that brimming with intelligence and exploring some seriously deep shit- especially a sitcom. (There are some twists and turns worth talking about, but I'm won't, because spoilers.)

In contrast to The Good Place, Manhunt: Unabomber isn't exactly a fun, happy time, but it is a fascinating one. The story of the FBI's manhunt for the Unabomber and the tools they used to catch him, Manhunt: Unabomber is a taut, eight episode ride that features an outstanding performance from Paul Bettany as Ted Kaczynski who bounces off Sam Worthington (who plays Special Agent Jim Fitzgerald) perfectly.

The break in the case comes courtesy of Fitzgerald, a newly minted and much heralded profiler who zeroes in on the idea of using linguistic patterns to find the man they're looking for, developing a practice of forensic linguistics as a result. Fitzgerald struggles to adapt to the tight knit Unabomber task force, who prove to be tough to sell on new theories about the case they've been working on for years, but he finds an ally in street agent Tabby Milgrim (Keisha Castle-Hughes) and works to convince his bosses that he's onto something.

The Unabomber has been oddly inactive for awhile, but when his manifesto surfaces with a threat to bomb a plane, authorities at the highest level must wrestle with a decision to publish the manifesto or not. (Chris Noth is excellent as usual as Agent Don Ackerman and Jane Lynch is a solid and surprisingly delightful choice to play then Attorney General Janet Reno.) They ultimately decide to do it and eventually, Ted's writing style is recognized by his brother, David (Mark Duplass) who reports it to the FBI who initially dismisses the link, but Fitzgerald knows better and gets the evidence they need to get their man.

Interwoven between this, they flash forward to just before the start of Kaczynski's trial. Agent Fitzgerald is living high in the mountains, alone and is initially reluctant to help the FBI again- but the Feds are eager to avoid a trial, thinking that Kaczynski will turn it into a media circus and could potentially get off as a result. Fitzgerald is a broken man in many ways. His marriage imploded in the stress of working the case and he is no mood to re-engage with a case that has cost him so much professionally and personally. But he gets back in the ring with Kaczynski one more time and eventually convinces him to enter a guilty plea and finally bringing the Unabomber case to a close and finding some peace in the process.

There seems to be a weird fascinating with the crimes of the 1990s of late in television. American Crime Story tackled OJ and is now moving onto Gianni Versace. The Network formerly known as Spike has a Waco mini series about to start dropping and the Discovery Channel tackled the Unabomber. I only vaguely remember the basics of this case, but the mini series talked about a lot and made me want to learn more about it- so there's that, I guess. It feels a bit like the Discovery Channel sort of snuck this is under the radar a bit, because I remember seeing nothing about it when it was actually airing, but hopefully Netflix gives this series the exposure and the praise that it deserves- because it deserves a lot. Paul Bettany is good in just about everything he's in, but he's really good here and they assemble a capable and talented cast to back him up. Plus: at eight episodes, it's nice and short- and worth watching.

My Verdicts:
The Good Place: sweet, charming and thought provoking enough I'll probably watch more if it shows up on Netflix again. Don't think it quite qualifies as 'appointment television' though.

Manhunt Unabomber: 8 episodes with Sam Worthington and Paul Bettany? Sit down and watch this already.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Here I Was Thinking A Chip Is A Chip

Apparently, men and women eat chips differently. Very differently, if a recent interview of PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi is to be believed. I'm still trying to digest (ha!) the flavor of what she was trying to say with this, but apparently dudes really get into eating their Doritos. They lick their fingers with 'great glee' and 'when they reach the bottom of the bag, they pour the little broken pieces into their mouth.' Women would love to do the same thing, but don't, I guess. The ladies hate the loud crunching (especially in public) and 'they don't like their fingers generously.' Oh and the whole, pouring the little broken pieces into your mouth? The ladies don't do that either.

And here I was thinking a chip is a chip.

The internet, predictably found out about this revelation and heads exploded and much mockery was had of the idea of 'Lady Doritos', but I think to be fair to PepsiCo, they don't seem to have plans to put bags on shelves anytime soon. (Though Nooyi did mention that they are 'looking at it' and were 'getting ready to launch a bunch of them soon.') I'm guessing, given the reaction, that any plans they had for putting their 'Lady Doritos' on shelves have probably been shoved into the nearest paper shredder pretty damn quickly.

Do you ever think that people who come up with this shit live in an entirely different universe from the rest of us? I mean- why do you we have to 'gender' snack food for crying out loud? What if ladies love the crunch and the fingers coated with flavor goodness and adjusting the bag to the right angle so you can get every morsel of goodness at the bottom of the bag in one go? And never mind that: what if dude secretly hate the flavor fingers and the broken pieces and the loud crunching, huh? Maybe I want a stealth Dorito to gobble up on the sly? Did you ever think of that PepsiCo?

The whole affair underlines two major problems. First, marketing aimed at women is incredibly backwards a lot of the time and strikes me as being a hop, skip and a jump away from being somewhat demeaning. We're supposed to be in a world where women are empowered and breaking through the barriers of gender stereotypes and yet there's pretty pink princess shit all over the store shelves. Tampon commercials are even worse and while I'm aware that I'm treading on thin and potentially problematic ice by saying this being a cisgendered dude, I find them to be incredibly annoying. No woman I've ever met thinks, 'ah, a tampon that absorbs better than my last brand. Now I can play tennis in my lily white romper!' 

I can't even imagine the pitch meeting for Lady Doritos. I mean, how do you say this out loud and not come across as incredibly tone deaf or worse, offensive? Thankfully, Doritos has gone through whatever concussion protocol they have in place to fix their bad ideas and had the good sense to tweet this:
(Honorable mention to this dude for a truly excellent notion. Maybe do this, instead, Doritos?)

Second of all, why you gotta mess with Doritos? I have a long and checkered history with Doritos and have an unfortunate tendency to eat them by the bag if left to my own devices. (There were a couple of glorious semesters in my undergraduate days when I subsisted off of Chinese delivery from Easy Place Chinese Place and Red Salsa Doritos- the former burnt down and the latter is no longer on the shelves.) Every time I see a new flavor, there's a part of me that thinks "Ooooh, I'm going to have to try that one." They're addictive. I love the crunch. I love the flavory goodness all over my fingers and tipping the bag up to get every last little broken piece. That experience is all part of the essential Doritos experience.

It doesn't matter what gender you are, the broken pieces and the flavory fingers and the crunch are why you eat Doritos to begin with. You'd be fools to mess with that.

Monday, February 5, 2018

So, I Read The Damn Memo

So, I read the damn memo. (Apparently, there's another one- this time written by Democrats lurking out there as well, so I guess I'll have to read two memos.)  If you haven't read the full text of the memo, well, The Atlantic went ahead and helpfully published it. So have at it and happy reading!

I honestly don't know what I was expecting from this much bally-hooed memo...  reading the reaction over the weekend, it seemed that it was, as all things are these days, entirely dependent on where you fall on the political spectrum. The Mandela Effect has popped up now and again in the cultural/internet zeitgeist (most recently in an excellent episode of The X-Files) but while collective false memory is assuredly a thing, when it comes to our political discourse these days it's a little different. You can read the same memo and come to such wildly divergent conclusions, it's like both ends of the political spectrum live in parallel universes.

So, depending on who you talk too: if you're on the left side of things, the Memo was no big deal. Worse, it was a complete flop and could possibly provoke a Constitutional crisis, because Trump. The Trump Train is heading to Impeachment Town, courtesy of Russia. Hashtag Resistance. Hashtag Blue Wave, etc, etc.

If you're on the right side of things, then things are a little different. The Nunes Memo is proof positive of perfidy on the part of Democrats. We need an independent investigation (oh goodie, another one!) of FISA Abuses. The whole Russia investigation is just a partisan witch hunt to bring down the President. Hashtag MAGA Hashtag Trump Train, etc. etc.

Well, over here in the real world (because obviously, my reality is the prime universe and all y'all are living in alternate (or darkest) timelines.) I've read the memo and this is what I think:

1. The narrative keeps flipping on the FBI and I can't figure it out. No one else can either...  I seem to remember whispers of anti-Clinton FBI agents working feverish for her indictment during the campaign, but wait! They were investigating Trump as well. Comey didn't indict Clinton in June and went from potential savior to villain (to the right) and then upstanding public servant to partisan asshole obviously out to get Clinton (to the left) in October when he tried to take a mulligan on his investigation by reopening it for like, half a second. Then Comey became a hero to the Left when Trump fired him (because he surely would have been retained by a President Clinton for her term, right?) My big takeaway: the somewhat disturbing news that the FBI was investigating both major campaigns and so far, has yet to produce a major crime from either campaign as a result of those investigations. Hardly reassuring on the part of the bureau.

2. If the Steele Dossier was the basis of the FISA warrants that is some horse shit right there... I know probable cause can be pretty fucking flimsy, but come on.  Political opposition research funded by the Democratic Party? Give me a break. You know what this does underline the need for though? Serious reform of the FISA courts. Their purpose was to protect the rights of American citizens, yet the courts reject a whopping .03 percent of requests from the government, they seem like less a tool for accountability and more like a rubber stamp. If one good thing can come out of this mess, let it be serious FISA reform, please. I understand that in this day and age national security can be an important and time sensitive thing, but getting a warrant should not be fucking easy. Agents of the government at every level should have to work for the damn things and have very good reasons for getting one. Assuming these facts are correct (one must always assume these days), then the basis for the warrants was flimsy indeed.

3. Does the derail the Russia Investigation? No- because it seems to have originated with George Papadopoulos and his shenanigans rather than Carter Page, who was the subject of the warrants described in the memo.

4. That said, I no longer have any idea what the hell the Russia Investigation is supposed to be investigating. I'm assuming Mueller has a better idea of where he's going with this than the rest of us do, but right now it seems to be 'all sound and fury, signifying nothing.' Let's play Occam's Razor for a second, kids:

The Democratic Party nominates a candidate with baggage (a lot of it sexist, bullshit baggage, but baggage nonetheless). This candidate has their thumb on the scales during the primaries, pissing off a good chunk of their party as a result. This candidate dreams of flipping states like Texas and Georgia and just assumes that Michigan and Wisconsin will fall in line like they always do and doesn't bother to even campaign in either state after the Convention and loses both states by inches as a result.


A reality show billionaire hijacks the Republican Party and proceeds to break every rule of decorum and convention in the Traditional American Political Rulebook. Says shocking, offensive things that should, but don't implode his campaign. But, promises to 'put America' first, while all the while engaging in a massive conspiracy with a foreign government to flood the internet with fake news about his opponent that everyone believes, thus helping him to win the election.

Which is the simpler explanation? I know which one I'd pick.

I guess all I have to do now is sit and wait for the next memo to be released.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #246

We're starting February with a dip back into the 'Lost Archives'- heading back to Africa for a double feature, this week in vexillology we've got Ethiopia and Eritrea:
Adopted on October 31st, 1996, Ethiopia's flag is the original flag that set the design standards for so many other countries on the continent of Africa. The three traditional colors of green,  yellow and red date back to the beginning of the 20th Century. The green in the flag stands for 'the richness and fertility of the land', the yellow stands for 'religious freedom and peace' and the red stands for 'the sacrifice of our fathers, who spilled their blood in defense of Ethiopia.' The central emblem on the flag stands for both the diversity and the unity of the country. The blue in the emblem stands for peace, the star stands for diversity and unity and the rays coming out of the star stand for prosperity.

Right next door to Ethiopia, we've got Eritrea. Their flag looks like this:
The flag of Eritrea was adopted on December 5th, 1995 and bears a passing resemblance to the flag of the Eritrean People's Liberation Front, which helped lead the fight for independence from Ethiopia. The green in the flag stands for the agriculture and livestock of the country, blue is for the sea (in this case, the Red Sea) and red is for the blood lot in the fight for freedom. (Interestingly enough, the flag's wiki-page cites an interesting interpretation from the CIA World Factbook, which points out that the red triangle imitates the shape of the country itself- which is an interpretation I'm totally down with, by the way. I'll buy into that.)

The wreath has it's own symbolism: derived from the 1952 flag, the wreath replaced the gold star of the EPLF- the number of leaves I guess was fluid up until 1995 when it was set with a grand total of 30 leaves- each leaf symbolizes a year spent in civil war before achieving independence.

I'll take a mild tangent here for a second...  the whole history of Ethiopia and Eritrea is kind of complicated and caught up first in the European colonization of the continent (which Ethiopia managed to avoid- maintaining it's independence and serving as an inspiration for the Pan-African movement across the continent) but most especially, the whole mess seems to have started in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

The Italians had designs on Ethiopia- but already had Eritrea- they conquered the former and added it's territory to the latter, but then the British came along and kicked them out after 1941 and placed Eritrea under military administration until they could figure out what to do with the place after the war. The Great Powers, in their wisdom post-war, sort of forced a shotgun marriage between the two countries after the war into a federation that was supposed to afford Eritrea democratic rights and a broad scoop of autonomy, but the distance between what was supposed to happen and actually happened turned out to be pretty big and Eritrea wanted independence anyway. They just took awhile to get there.

The two countries remain uneasy neighbors to this day- and these are their flags. Remember, until next time, keep your flags flying, FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, February 2, 2018

Bookshot #105: Osman's Dream

My parents used to have (and I hope they still have) a Times Atlas of European History which I would read and look at almost religiously when I was kid and one of the forgotten states/empires that always fascinated me was the Ottoman Empire. It was crazy to think that Rome in one form or another persisted until 1453, when it was snuffed out by a rising Ottoman Empire- and the rise of the Ottomans was equally fascinating to watch unfold on the pages of the atlas. What would have happened had they taken Vienna in 1683? (I'm not sure, but it's one of great 'what if' questions of history.) Learning more about the Ottomans was one of my personal historical itches* that I had been wanting to scratch for quite some time and happily, Caroline Finkel stepped in to help out with an excellent one volume tome of Ottoman history, Osman's Dream.

'Tome' is probably the most accurate description of this book. The narrative runs to 554 pages with at least a couple of hundred more of footnotes and various appendices. Despite that, it sort of fell between, 'I can't put this down' and 'Dear God, let this book end sometime soon' on the spectrum for me. I could read about half a chapter at a time and given that the chapters were about 40-50 pages or even longer sometimes that, I thought was a fairly decent chunk of book to read at a time. Finkel is comprehensive and you can tell that she has researched the topic of the book exhaustively, but her style isn't as narrative-driven as say, Antonia Fraser, but it's not as detail oriented and 'full immersing you in the topic whether you like it or not' like Roy Jenkins and his biographies. Part of that, I suspect is down to the nature of the topic. When you're trying to fit six hundred years of history into one book, you don't really have time to faff around with your writing style or get lost in the minutia. But I've also read 'big topic' books like this that are eye gougingly boring to read and Finkel, happily avoids that fate.

The story itself, is a fascinating one. The founding myth of the Ottoman Empire (namely that it's founder, Osman, had a dream about conquering a great empire) opens the book and Mustafa Kemal and his grand speech marking the foundation of the Turkish Republic by making a founding myth of his own, closes it, so there's a nice symmetry there that you can appreciate. But it's tracing the rise of the Empire that's fascinating... Osman was from a fairly minor tribe in central Anatolia and with the Byzantine Empire in it's (seemingly) usual state of chaos, someone was primed to take advantage and start consolidating the Turkish polities of Anatolia and he did just that.

The arc of the next several centuries is punctuated by three main events: taking Constantinople in 1453, the siege of Vienna in 1683 and the Tanzimat reforms of the middle 19th Century. Constantinople made the Ottomans into a continent spanning empire and a world power that made the Christian powers of Europe tremble. The siege of Vienna was their high water mark and really and truly it was all downhill from there. The Tanzimat reform period is interesting because it was at least a recognition by the Ottomans that they needed to come to grips with the explosive forces of nationalism that lead to things like the independence of Greece and then Serbia and Romania. What's interesting to think about, reading it, is thinking about the possibilities if the Ottomans had embraced the reform movement even a century earlier. They were a multi-ethnic, multi-religious empire and maybe that was a kettle of chips that was going to be hard to hold together in the best of circumstances, but the tragedy of Tanzimat is that it was way too little, too late for the Empire. One throw of the dice and a couple of decent Sultans even a century earlier could have potentially changed the direction of the Empire.

While the rise and fall take centuries, reading about how it all imploded is equally fascinating as part of Mustafa Kemal's vision for Turkey involved sweeping away the diversity of the empire that preceded it. Finkel actually tackles the question of the Armenian Genocide in as neutral a way as possible- acknowledging that it happened while presents the pro and con cases for calling it a 'genocide' without falling into the traps of editorializing or passing judgement on the issue, which I find oddly refreshing, given today's current climate on controversial issues of history.

Overall: A bit of a hard hike to get through it, but packed with knowledge and really and truly an excellent one volume history of an empire that spanned six centuries. Must read if you're interested in that part of the world or just want to find out about the Empire that gave your footrest its proper name. **** out of *****

*I have A Short History of Byzantium somewhere on the bookshelf, which was a fantastic read, so I figured I might as well just keep going and find out about the Ottomans as well. Either way, worked out well for me as I got my knowledge on!