Monday, July 30, 2018

#26: Ride A Day of RAGBRAI

I mapped it out, just to be sure and from our drop off point to that beautiful beautiful intersection where The Missus and The Spawn were waiting for me on the other end, I went 51.5 miles on a bike.

I did it. I did a day of RAGBRAI.

I freely admit I was a little bit nervous going into it. I had been training and I had managed to do every distance in between the towns on the day's route, but I hadn't gone out on as many long rides as I would have liked, so I had no idea how the day was going to go. As it turned out, the day went pretty well- and it didn't start getting really hard until the end.

The weather was perfect. There were clouds, a beautiful cool breeze and the day took it's sweet time warming up. We were two miles outside of Harper to start and it was an easy ride into Harper and then it was off to Keota, five and a half miles down the road- which was another relatively easy jaunt, all things considered. I was feeling pretty good about the experience, taking it all in, soaking in the details of experiencing rural Iowa at bike speeds instead of car speeds. I think that was stuck out the most for me in the early going. You don't notice the little details or how green the fields really are. You grow up here and just sort of become immune to the landscape around you sometimes. It was experiencing Iowa from a whole different vantage point and I enjoyed that.

People watching was also fun in the front half of the day. There were so many different types of bikes and different types of riders and crazy, unique and wonderful ways to do this- and, more to the point there were so many of them! I mean, I knew RAGBRAI was a big deal, but until I got to Wellman (seen in the picture above) I don't think I realized what the sheer numbers that do this crazy thing looked like up close. It was mind-blowing and so so cool. It also was a huge motivating factor as well. It's hard to feel sorry for yourself and doubt your ability to keep riding when a retiree or a kid passes you 'on your left.' If they can do it, anyone can do it. (It was also college jersey day and I think between the three of us we managed to see most of the B1G represented- except Rutgers! Someone needs to send an invite out to Piscataway and get 'em out here next summer so they can at least complete the pictures of everyone was taking.)

Getting to Wellman was the hardest part- it was the longest haul of the day at 13 miles- but I had told myself going into this that if I could make it to Kalona, then I would have done a good job. After Kalona, it was all- well, not all downhill, but after the halfway point if you can get to Riverside, you may as well get to Hills and if you can get to Hills, you may as well grind it out and get to Iowa City which is exactly what I did. There were hills between Hills and Riverside that just about did my knees in, but blessedly after that it was gloriously flat, so the trouble went from my knees to my ass. My ass quit shortly after Hills, so there was a lot of stopping on the final surge into Iowa City. The numbness would go away gradually and be replaced by burning fire and pain.

But I did it. I walked up one hill the entire day (which I think is pretty good for your first time out) and rode the rest.

Could I do the whole week? I think the best answer I have right now is 'ask me after my legs stop hurting.' I think it would for sure require a time commitment and serious training and probably a road bike or a hybrid and not a mountain bike, which is what I used. Would I do another day? Probably. I would for sure be game for part of a day even- though upon reflection I think I was probably blessed with excellent weather and a relatively decent amount of climb. Had there been more hills or more heat, I don't know if I would have made it the whole way.

But all that being said, I did make it. Which seems kind of crazy to me- but it also denies me the excuses going forward. I biked 51.5 miles in a single day and lived to tell the tale about it. Who knows what else I can do?

Saturday, July 28, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #264

This Week In Vexillology, we're dipping back into the Lost Archives to take a look at the flags of not one, but two Sudans: Sudan and South Sudan. Let's start with the non-directional Sudan:
The current flag of Sudan was adopted following the 1969 military coup of Gaafar Nimeiry- prior to that, they had a blue-yellow-green horizontal tricolor that they used for a flag. The current flag is based off of the Arab Liberation Flag, elements of which can be seen on the flags of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the flag of Palestine- the latter of which is almost entirely identical to the flag of Sudan except their 'triangle' is red and the stripe sequence is black-white-green.

The red in the flag represents the struggle for independence and the country's martyrs. The white stands for peace, light and optimism- but it also stands for the White Flag League which was a nationalist group that opposed colonial rule in 1924. The black stands for Sudan (in Arabic, 'Sudan' means black, which I didn't know!) It also represents the black flag of the nationalists who fought in the Mahdist Revolution in the 19th Century. Green stands for Islam, agriculture and the prosperity of the land.

Next up, the directional Sudan, South Sudan:
 The most interesting thing about the flag of South Sudan is that it's older than the country itself: it has been around since 2005, but wasn't officially adopted until the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed that ended the Second Sudanese Civil War and paved the way for the independence of the country in 2011.

The south has always been predominantly Christian in Sudan, which makes for an interesting but important differentiation between the two flags. While you can see pan-Arab colors and the stripe sequence seen in Egypt's flag on Sudan's flag- South Sudan's colors are more pan-African and their stripe sequence is seen in Kenya's flag. The black in the flag stands for the people of South Sudan. Red is for the blood shed for the independence of the country. Green is for the agricultural and natural wealth, land as well as progress. White stands for the peace attained after years of the liberation struggle. Blue stands for the waters of the Nile River and yellow is for the unity, hope and determination of all people.

So there you have it...  the flags of two Sudans. They similarities and differences between the two are subtle, but incredibly important when you jump into the history of the two countries. Until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Boozehound Unfiltered: Roknar Rye

I made a point of tracking down some Colorado whiskey when we went to Colorado last year, so it only made sense to continue that tradition when we went to Minnesota. I can't remember when exactly I first heard about Far North Spirits- but I do remember that I liked what I heard and wanted to track down a bottle of their Roknar Rye Whiskey.

We've been to the Twin Cities many times over the years and whether it was my early exploration of Surly or other things, Richfield Liquor has been my go-to for many a trip. Just north of the Mall of America, it's conveniently located, right on a highway and relatively easy to find. I headed there first in my quest for whiskey and, shockingly, for the first time ever, struck out. Not to be deterred, I tracked down another liquor store closer to our hotel in Eden Prairie, and where Richfield Liquor had let me down, Eden Prairie Liquor did not and I claimed my prize:
The design of the bottle and label sticks out first. It's clean, minimal and well designed- it stands out on a shelf and makes the product within the bottle look even better. (Though the color of this stuff alone is gorgeous enough to make me pay attention- such a beautiful, deep shade of amber.) Aren't convinced that 'Far North Spirits' is far north enough? Well, they added the coordinates for the farm, malthouse, distillery and cooperage, so you don't have to take their word for it- which is a beautiful touch that instantly had me fiddling with Google Maps to see what I could get it to do.

Speaking of which: I don't know if I'll ever get either the money or the ambition to open my own distillery, but if I ever do, I'd do it the way these guys doit. Not only it Roknar a farm to glass whiskey, it's a single estate whiskey- which I'm not sure I've ever tasted before. Everything is made in Northern Minnesota: 5% of the rye is custom malted in Fisher, MN. Barrels are made in Park Rapids, MN and the rest of the rye is grown on their farm near Hallock, MN. Eyeballing it on a map, I'd say all three of those locations are north (if only just) of both Fargo, ND and Duluth, so I'd say that more that lives up to the name of 'Far North Spirits.'

Let's talk whiskey though:

First Impressions: I think this is one of the first 100% rye whiskies I've ever tasted and the aroma was what made me sit up and take notice right at first. The viscosity is well balanced: this is neither weak and watery or heavy and syrupy. There's also a lot of spice to the finish.

Color: dark gold/dark honey when you hold it up to a light, a beautiful shade of amber when you don't.

Body: The aroma of this stuff is unusual... after a lot of sniffing, I concluded that there was a piney, woodey smell to it with almost a hint of sweet tree sap. (Far North's own tasting notes tell a different story, but I don't like doing tasting after reading someone else's tasting notes because I don't want to end up in a confirmation bias situation you know? If someone tells you 'candied orange peel' that's probably what you're going to end up looking for.)

Palate: There's a crisp burst of sweetness on the tip of the tongue with this one... initially, I wanted to say oranges, but on subsequent tastings it became more crisp in nature- almost like apples or other orchard fruits followed by a burst of spice.

Finish: spicy and warming, this is a pleasant finish indeed

Overall: Spicy and complex, this 100% rye is a whiskey worth finding if you're craving a different flavor of whiskey and happen to be in the Medium White North. I want to find me some more rye whiskey, because this was seriously good. My Grade: **** out of ****

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Maybe It's Just Tuesday

I'm sure I'm not the first person to ask this, but you get to thinking, you know. The Missus and The Wee One were away for a weekend up in Des Moines, so it was just me and older two kiddos, hanging out at the mall and as I'm walking down the long spine of the mall where the carousel is along with the other little rides are they wanted to play on when it hit me: is my generation going to be the last generation hang out at the mall?

I mean, malls are nothing particularly special- I'm not sure I'm going to be sorry to see them go, to be honest. They were sort of massive temples of consumerism that seemed to be somewhat struggling with the economic realities of today. They were undoubtedly very cool in the 1980s and when I was growing up- but that was when we had arcades in the mall. That was when you had stores like Sam Goody and B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. That was when Best Buy still sold CDs- which now seem to be heading the way of vinyl.

It's an odd moment to be living in. Everything seems to be dying, but dying isn't quite the right word for it. There's no decay. There's no rigor mortis. There's no dusty and crumbling empty corners. There could be, but so far there's not. And I think that's kind of the tipping point where we're at, you know. Do we crumble to dust or change into something else? And what are we evolving into?

We're at a tipping point and no one knows what's going to happen next. We have a President who seems to have taken Palmerston's old dictum of 'nations don't have permanent friends, only permanent interests' to heart on the world stage. I wouldn't mind so much if he didn't seem to be hell bent on undermining the system of alliances and international institutions that were the bedrock of the international order of the last century. That system may not have prevented every war, but it sure as hell didn't lose the peace. Do we really want to toss it aside so cavalierly?

It's the same thing on trade. Could we get better trade deals? Probably. I have no objection to that in principle, but in practice you're playing Russian roulette with a gun that may well be fully loaded. If you're in the widget making business, you can make different widgets if you get entangled in a tariff taboo- it's a lot harder for farmers to change crops when the soybeans are already in the damn ground. (And hey- the powers that be are apparently waking up to that reality as well.)

I listened to a podcast with a man by the name of Andrew Yang who's already running for President under the banner of implementing universal basic income. (BTW: Mr. Yang joins Mr. Delaney on my shitlist. It's too damn early to be starting these shenanigans, fellas. I haven't recovered from the last election year.) Mr. Yang made a persuasive if slightly apocalyptic case that automation is coming, probably in the next ten or twelve years and it's going to wipe out a lot of jobs. You may have all the qualifications in the world to do a job that's about to be rendered obsolete by a computer and then what are we going to do? (Apparently give everyone a thousand bucks a year?)*

But here's the thing: I'm not convinced it's a decade away. I read articles like this and I'm not convinced either. I don't think whole industries will disappear overnight. There's too much blowback and too much money at stake for that. It's the reason that I've worked in higher education for nearly a decade now and a decade ago they were predicting it was all going to go to hell and blow up and a decade later, higher education is still here. It's been squeezed, no doubt- but it's still here. And while my faith in the mandarins who watch over the various satrapys of higher education is somewhat limited, pressure can do amazing. When applied to lumps of coal in just the right amount, it's been known to produce diamonds.

I'm watching a documentary on The Vietnam War right now (I know, cheerful happy and fun stuff, right?) And I'm sure it seemed to that generation that the world was coming apart at the seams and everything was going to hell in a handbasket. I'm sure every generation feels like this at some point in their lives, so I can't discount the possibility that I'm just feeling what everything else is feeling.

But maybe I'm not. Maybe we're living balanced on a tipping point unlike any in our history and nobody knows what could happen next.

Or maybe it's just Tuesday.

*Never mind automation- though I do think it's coming in some form another. 3D printing is far more interesting, to me. Imagine the possibilities if you can make everything you want.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Netflix & Chill #46: A Wrinkle In Time

Watched On: DVD (Redbox)
Released: 2018
Starring: Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Pena, Storm Reid, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine
Rotten Tomatoes: 39%
Pick: Mine

I made it a point to read the book before I ever got around to watching this movie and it's still kind of shocking to me that it was as big of a box office disaster as it turned out to be. As adaptations of source material go, this movie does an excellent job bringing the book to life. That's not to say it's a bad movie, however. It just feels a little flat in places- but that's not necessarily it's fault.

The movie opens with thirteen year old teenager Meg Murry (Storm Reid) struggling to adjust to both her school and home life, ever the disappearance of her father, Alex (Chris Pine), nearly five years before. No one is certain what happened to Alex, but Meg and her mother, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) think that he proved his theory and was transported to another world.

That night, Meg's brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) welcomes a mysterious stranger, Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) to their house. Before she leaves, she reveals to Kate and Meg that the tessarect that Alex was working on was, in fact, real. The next day, one of Meg's classmates, Calvin (Levi Miller) shows up and they go visit the house of Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) who speaks only in quotations and seems to already know Charles Wallace.

When the three kids find themselves in their backyard, a giant Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey) appears and reveals that three ladies are astral travelers and leads them through a tessarect taking them to the distant and beautiful planet of Uriel. Mrs. Whatsit transforms into a beautiful flying green creature and takes the three of them into the upper atmosphere where they see The IT. The IT, they learn is a dark shadow/entity that's taken over the planet Camazotz. The three women think that Meg's father has been captured and taken there. To confirm that, the tesser to another planet where a seer known as The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis) resides.

The Happy Medium confirms that Meg's father is, indeed, imprisoned there. He explains that the IT represents all the bad emotions in the universe and only the good people can fight it's encroaching spread. The Three Mrs. propose they go back to Earth to regroup, but Meg's strong will to find her father diverts the tessarect to Camazotz. Upon arriving, Mrs. Which, Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who are unable to stay as the darkness of the IT is too strong, but they give Meg three kids: Mrs. Who's glasses, the knowledge of her faults and a command never to separate.

The trio treks through various traps on the planet until they finally reach a beach, where they meet the IT's bodyguard, Red. (Michael Pena). He offers them food and tells them that Alex is safe and happy, but when they are starting to feel comfortable Charles Wallace tells them that the food tastes like sand. Red then starts repeating the times table and hypnotizing Charles Wallace taking control of his mind.

Meg and Calvin find themselves in an empty room, which Meg uses Mrs. Who's glasses to get out of the room and free her father. Reunited, they attempt to free Charles Wallace, but he and Red use the IT's power to drag the three of them toward the brain at the center of the IT. Alex opens another tesser and prepares to get Meg and Calvin out there, but Meg overrides herself out of the tesser and goes alone to rescue Charles Wallace herself. Her love for her brother and her acceptance of her own imperfections frees both Charles Wallace and Camzotz itself from the IT. They all return home, Meg's family reunites and Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit leave Meg with the knowledge that she can now tesser herself.

Overall: This was a faithful adaptation of the book- maybe even a good adaptation of the book. But I think it felt flat in places because of the book- if that makes sense. The Honest Trailer mentions that the character of Calvin just sort of shows up, randomly- which is true, but also is pretty much what happens in the book. They also make a slight change at the end in the book, Meg, Calvin and her father escape to the planet Ixtel and Meg has to overcome her anger at her father's abandonment of Charles Wallace before she can go back and rescue him. In the movie, the whole sequence on Camazotz feels underdone. In the book, it feels like a more satisfying climax. I don't know if that was why this movie felt a little flat, but when you're dealing with wrinkles in time, the last thing you want is a movie set to 'wrinkle release.' My Grade: ** out of ****

Saturday, July 21, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #263

This Week In Vexillology we're doing something a little different. I was digging around for inspiration and I stumbled across this article from that was published all the way back in 2013 ambitiously entitled The Coolest Flags In Human History. I'm not going to break down every flag on their list- some of them are quite cool and I've done them before like The Most Serene Republic of Venice. Others I own, like British Columbia. Some of are thankfully consigned to the ash-heap of history (Rhodesia and pre-1994 South Africa.) But out of that list, here are two of what I consider to be the coolest:

This, along with Northern Ireland are the two flags of the British Isles that I don't own- and it's probably the one Isle that people outside of the UK probably overlook. Yes, it's the Isle of Man:

How cool is this flag? The central symbol is a triskelion, which features three armored legs with golden spurs on a red background. It's been the official flag of the island since December 1st, 1932- before that, the flag was simply the Union Jack. The symbol is taken from the Coat of Arms of the Island- and has appeared on versions of it as far back as the 13th Century. In Manx, the flag is known as ny tree cassyn or "the three legs" and as to why it was originally adopted on the island, no one really knows. (The Manx Language is another fascinating rabbit hole worth diving down, though I'll admit I need to brush up on the Gaelic languages and their origins.)

Next up- and buckle up, kids, because we've got this flag:
First of all: COOLEST FLAG EVER.  All the other flags from history can go home, because this badass tiger flag wins the grand prize. Unfortunately, history doesn't really care how cool your flag is, because in this case, the Republic of Formosa was proclaimed on May 23rd 1895 and extinguished by the Japanese on October 21st of that same year. Here's the interesting historical mystery that I'm finding...  there's not really a good explanation that I can find for what it means. This is a pretty good picture of a current replica that's on display in the National Taiwan Museum

This is a pretty good explanation of the meaning behind it- it seems kind of boring, but the Qing of Mainland China had a dragon on their flag, so the Taiwanese wanted to distinguish themselves from their mainland counterparts and went with a tiger instead. I don't really have a 'vexillology related' stop on my bucketlist, but no kidding: I would go to Taiwan to see this bad boy. It's super cool.

For real, before we go: go check out all the flags on that list and see them for yourselves. They're worth a peek. Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, July 20, 2018

Tintin, Ranked

What can you say about Tintin? He's been around for decades- was one of the most popular comics of the 20th Century. He's spawned a television cartoon (which I remember watching on Nickelodeon) and more recently a movie (two more of which are apparently coming, though it's been awhile since the movie dropped.)

He hasn't been free from controversy- Tintin In The Congo is hard to find these days for a reason, the least of which is (what I'm guessing) the somewhat 'problematic' portrayal of Africans in the Belgian Congo when the reality of that chapter of colonial history was dark indeed. For sure, if there's an aspect of these books that makes me cringe somewhat, it's his portrayal of Africans. Herge's portrayal of Latinx individuals and cultures tends to be a bit better, though his portrayal of indigenous folks and Asians is somewhat mixed. He's excellent in The Blue Lotus, somewhat less so with his portrayal indigenous people in Tintin In America.

Some of these books are better than others...  some of them I would put right up there as masterful works of the medium. I've had all of these books for awhile now and so I decided to sit on down and rank them. So, from the top:

Cigars of The Pharaoh/The Blue Lotus: I don't think I ever realized that these two books were so tightly connected. I knew that they were somewhat connected, but The Blue Lotus is pretty much a direct sequel to Cigars of The Pharaoh. The introduction of Rastapopulous (seen again in The Red Sea Sharks) what starts as a trip to Egypt and dabbling in 'curse of the Mummy' type drug smuggling conspiracies leads to an oddly timely sequel set in a China that's on the verge of war with Japan. (Herge manages to be pretty...  progressive? direct? about knocking down western stereotypes of China.) By itself, I would say The Blue Lotus might be one of the best Tintin books of the bunch. For sure, Cigars and Lotus represent the best of the sequel pairings of the series.

Tintin and The Picaros: The gang returns to San Theodoros to try and free Bianca Castafiore from the clutches of General Tapioca who has imprisoned her on charges of being a spy. Jungles, guerillas, revolutions, carnivals- this one has it all and might be my personal favorite of the series.

The Castafiore Emerald: The one where they don't go anywhere, Bianca Castafiore comes to them and loses her emerald in the process. Fun, humorous and full of light comedy this is one of the best in the series to me. Herge proves that he doesn't have to send Tintin all over the globe to carry an great a story.

Destination Moon/Explorers on the Moon: Man, I really want to put these two at the top of the pile, because given the fact that they were published first in 1952, seventeen years before we landed on the moon, they hold up really, really well. (Plus, given that SpaceX is working on perfecting reusable rockets that land just like this one does, it seems oddly prescient in many ways.) One of the best Tintin stories, hands down.

The Black Island: This one kind of threw me for a loop at first. It starts almost in media res, with Tintin going to help a plane that's made an emergency landing and getting shot for his troubles, but it turns into a satisfying, complex page turner that eventually leads Tintin to a mysterious island off the coast of Scotland where he nabs a gang of international forgers.

King Ottokar's Scepter: I always tended to like the character of Captain Haddock and the subsequent adventures involving him, but this one is a solid solo Tintin adventure that plays around with Cold War style intrigue between the Balkan nations of Syldavia and Borduria (the rivalry between the two surfaces again in The Calculus Affair.) I believe this is also the first appearance of Bianca Castafiore.

The Secret of the Unicorn/Red Rackham's Treasure: Along with some elements from The Crab With Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham's Treasure make up the bulk of the first Tintin movie (apparently, more are coming!) But as treasure hunt stories go, this pair are really good. I'm almost tempted to rank them higher, but The Blue Lotus is just so damn good. Also, this is the first appearance of Professor Calculus, so that adds to the fun.

The Calculus Affair: Another Syldavia/Borduria caper, this time it's Professor Calculus and one of his inventions that are caught up in the action as both nations seek to possess his sonic technology for themselves (as it's capable of leveling cities.)

Land of Black Gold: some thing is wrong with the world's oil and Cold War tensions and some very familiar geopolitics send Tintin to the Emirate of Khemed to find some answers. Turns out it's a conspiracy involving Dr. Mueller and the enemy of the Emir, Bab El-Ur.

Tintin In Tibet: probably one of the ones I've read the most and it still holds up. Tintin and Captain Haddock head to Tibet in search of Chang (from The Blue Lotus). Tintin is convinced that Chang is alive because he saw him in a dream, which makes the motivation for his trip somewhat... odd, but it works out in the end. Also: there's a Yeti.

The Seven Crystal Balls/Prisoners of The Sun: A twist on the usual 'curse of the mummy' tale, these two focus on an Incan mummy that is brought back to Europe by the archaeologists that discovered it and they're cursed in the process. Tintin and Captain Haddock head to Peru to find Professor Calculus when he's caught up in the affair thanks to inadvertently putting on an Inca bracelet. Solid stuff all around.

Flight 714: Herge dabbles in science fiction a bit with this one and it's got rather mixed results. I don't particularly like it and I don't particularly hate it and I'm pretty sure it implies that Rastapopulous gets kidnapped by aliens and that's the end of that, but it's a solid middle of the pack offering.

The Crab With Golden Claws: the introduction of Captain Haddock is a rather middle range affair, to me. It's decent enough-Tintin busts another drug smuggling ring and meets Captain Haddock along the way- though Haddock's character evolves somewhat from the 'pathetic drunk' seen in this book and is the better for it.

The Shooting Star: a meteor lands near the North Pole and the race is on between scientific expeditions to get to it first. Pretty 'meh' overall and somewhat undermined by a controversy over the villain of the book, the financier Mr. Bohlwinkel, who used to be called Mr. Blumberg for all the reasons you might think.

The Red Sea Sharks: It's back to the Middle East for Tintin and company, this time they're uncovering a conspiracy of human trafficking/slave trading on the Red Sea, exploiting Africans who are on the Hajj to Mecca. Depictions of Africans remain Herge's weak point and somewhat problematic by today's standards- but there are worse portrayals.

Tintin and The Lake of Sharks: An adaptation of an animated movie I've never actually seen, I'm honestly not sure where to put this one in the rankings. As adaptations go, it feels like a faithful one- when placed against the wider canon of the Tintin universe, however, it falls short with a general shrug and a 'meh' reaction upon completing it.

The Broken Ear: Decent enough. A South American 'fetish' is stolen from a local museum and Tintin heads out on an adventure in South America to track it down and eventually does so. However, I have to rank this one down near the bottom for a couple of reasons. Herge's portrayals of indigenous folks are...  somewhat problematic, though as far as I know the Arumbayas are completely fictional, so it's not like he's messing up the culture of an existing tribe. What earns this one a few demerits to me, however, is Tintin's unfortunate use of blackface as a disguise. It's the only time you ever see him do it and it's...  not necessary.

Tintin In America: the worst of the bunch.. The plot isn't all that great (Tintin takes down Al Capone in a not particularly engaging way) and it's hurt by the fact that it's a collection of stereotypes of America ranging from 30s gangsters to the Old West to some truly cringeworthy portrayals of Native Americans that would be seen as massively racist in today's world.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Epic Bookshot #2: The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy

For my second Epic Bookshot, I spent a few months winding my way back through the zany and humorous science fiction antics of Douglas Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I've always enjoyed these books, but it had been awhile since I had plunged into them- so it was a treat to work my way through them again, especially the last two books: So Long And Thanks For All The Fish and Mostly Harmless. These are the two books I've read the least, especially Fish.

First of all, I suppose we have to touch on what makes this particular 'franchise' so fascinating: it's existed in just about every medium you can think of. It started as a radio show and has continued as a radio show over the years (I still have the cassette tapes we used to listen to on family vacation.) It's been a stage show, comic book, a TV series on the Beeb in 1981, a video game in 1984 and a feature film in 2005. Here's the hook with all of these mediums: every time it's moved into another iteration it's never been exactly the same. It's why the movie is different from the TV show, there are subtle differences (though not many) between the radio show and the TV series as well.

Which brings us to the 'second of all', the books themselves:

The series opens with The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, where Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace by pass and the two survivors Arthur Dent and his friend, Ford Prefect (who is, in fact, from Betelgeuse and not from Croydon) manage to sneak aboard the Vogon ship that did the destruction. They meet up with Zaphod and Trillian (another survivor from Earth) and together they make their way to the ancient plant Magrathea, where they learn the truth about Earth thanks to Slartibartfast, a Magrathean who won an award designing the fjords of Norway. Basically: Earth is a giant super computer which was attempting to find the question to the ultimate answer of life, the universe and everything. (They already know the answer: '42') It turns out that the answer might be in Arthur's brain, but instead of getting his brain dissected, the protagonists escape and head to...

The Restaurant At The End of The Universe, (the second book.) Before they get there though, Zaphod is diverted into another conspiracy to find the location of the man who really runs the Universe. The editor of the Guide, Zarniwoop helps him to locate him- but only after the crew eats their dinner and gets stuck on a stunt ship about to plunge into a sun. They all blind teleport away, Zaphod and Trillian back to the Heart of Gold and Zarniwoop and Ford and Arthur to the Golgafrinchin spaceship which crash lands on what they realize is prehistoric Earth. (Trillian and Zaphod meet the man running the Universe, who lives in a shack with his cat and decide he's got things running smooth enough and leave.)

Life, The Universe and Everything sees Arthur and Ford return to the present through a space-time eddy into Lord's Cricket Ground where they meet Slartibartfast who enlists their help to fight an ancient evil. The inhabitants of Krikkit long ago set out to destroy all life in the Universe and now they're back. Our heroes prevent this and then go about their separate ways.

So, Long and Thanks For All The Fish is the next book and probably the one I've read the least, so it was probably the book I enjoyed the most overall. Arthur finds himself back on Earth and everything is more or less like it was when he left. He meets and falls in love with a girl named Fenchurch (who is a passing reference from the very first book) and discovers that the dolphins have provided a replacement Earth in their Save The Humans Campaign. Eventually the two meet up with Ford and go hitch hiking one last time to find God's Last Message to His Creation, which Marvin The Robot gets to read before dying.

Mostly Harmless is the final novel in the series... (yes, I know there's And Another Thing... and The Salmon of Doubt and I'm being a true Adams compleist I should include them, but I don't own them, so therefore, ain't gonna read them.) Weirdly, this is also the one that feels most like a novel novel, if that makes sense. Life was adapted from a Doctor Who story that Adams wrote. Fish was also not adapted from radio script, but this one feels longer and more... I don't want to say fleshed out, but it's more substantial, maybe? (That's not the right word either. Let's just say it's got a different tone from the west of the series? That's probably closer to the mark.) Well, this one features Arthur who loses Fenchurch, has a daughter he never met and settles down on the planet Lamuella to become 'sandwich maker' to the natives there. Ford evades a takeover of the Guide by the Vogons and steals the Guide Mark II. Random (Arthur's daughter) steals the Guide and goes to a parallel Earth to try and meet her mother and ultimately causes the removal of all Earth's from all probabilities.

Overall (and I guess thirdly): this is one of the great works of science fiction of the last century. There's a reason you find these on all those 'check off the books you've read' listicles that float around the internet- it's one of those rare series that transcends it's genre using humor. That, I think is a far more difficult way of writing that people can understand. Science fiction doesn't have to be ponderous and deep and meaningful and full of wonder and awe and escapism and transport you to other worlds. It can be smart and intelligent as well. I don't know if that's what Adams had in mind when he started writing these books, but that's what he delivered.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Sportsyball: Post World Cup Edition

World Cup: This was a fantastic World Cup. Probably the best I can recall since 1998, which is kind of appropriate since 1998 was the last time France won the whole damn thing. In general, I'm a fan of 'not the usual suspects' winning the whole thing. Italy being out helped that cause. Germany being decidedly non German and losing to both Mexico and South Korea and crashing out in the group stages. Brazil being good but not their usual level of good. Argentina continuing the waste the dwindling prime of Lionel Messi. By the time you got to the semifinals, you had two teams that people expected (France and Belgium) and two more teams that you probably didn't (Croatia and England.)

England was enjoyable to watch. Normally that shouldn't be a sentence that out of the ordinary to type, but England was enjoyable to watch. They had an identity. They had young guys and a refreshing paucity of egos. They were all about pushing forward and trying to score goals. Multiple goals! If there was a bus, England left it in the parking lot where it belonged and didn't just sit on a single goal lead! THEY WON A PENALTY SHOOTOUT! Normally, watching England is an incredibly frustrating experience- this year it was the polar opposite. The results were hard to argue with: England posted its best result since 1990.

As much as I was quietly rooting for Belgium to live up to their 'on paper' talent levels, France looked slightly sleepy at times in the group stages, but got rolling in the knockout stages. This Pavard goal should be preserved in amber for all time. Kylian Mbappe announced himself as the next great superstar of the sport and made this insanely beautiful pass (which Olivier Giroud promptly fucked up and didn't turn into a goal.) And sure enough, France got into the final and despite a valiant effort by Croatia to make it interesting and Pussy Riot to make it even more entertaining than it was, they won!

Qatar is going to be weird. It's going to be in the winter and there's the whole issue of slave labor being used to build stadiums. If I'm honest, I'm kind of looking more at 2026 when it comes to North America...  but before we even get to either 2022 or 2026, we've got to head back to France next year, for the Women's World Cup in 2019!

I hope England continues playing football exactly like this- only ever-so-slightly better! I hope the USMNT makes it to 2022! (I also hope the Dutch get there as well... I missed the Dutch this time around.) At the end of the day, this one was an amazing World Cup! Can't wait until the next one!

The B1G Numbers: A couple of interesting podcasts episodes- one of Hawkeye Nation and the other of their sister podcast Bigger Ten got the old wheels turning on a couple of interesting debates/discussions that Miller & Deace got into in these episodes. First question is probably the most thought-provoking one: Should Iowa be expecting more success given our revenue ranking?

We're 18th in the nation in revenue, but 54th in the standings of the Director's Cup which measures the success of schools across all sports overall. Now I can't say that as a fan I pay attention to or give a shit about the standings of the Director's Cup. It seems very 'inside baseball' to me, but as a measure of the overall success on the field, it seems to be a pretty good barometer. And there is a pretty hefty gap between where our revenue is and where the overall success on the 'field' is. In the podcast, the usual thesis was applied: outside of football and men's basketball the amount of give a damn that fans usually have drops off pretty severely. Sure, wrestling has their hardcore fans and women's basketball has a following and now that they're tasting some success so does Iowa baseball, but really it's the big two that drive fan interest and fan perception of what 'success is.'

Miller & Deace seemed to land on the opinion that football is pretty consistent and decent, but men's basketball is still off the pace set back in the Dr. Tom and Lute Olson eras (consistently upper tier of the B1G, making the tournament three out of every four years.) But where I think their thesis of the big two driving fan interest falls down some is with Iowa baseball.

Pre-Hellerball, if anyone gave a shit about Iowa baseball I never met them. Ever. I mean, I knew we had a baseball team and it played games and stuff, but was it relevant? Did people care? Not really-certainly not in the numbers that they do now. Which proves to me that the right AD (which I don't think Barta is) making the right investments and the right hires can generate interest and success. Iowa baseball proves that with our fanbase, 'if you build it, they will come.'

So, do I think Iowa should be expecting more success overall, given our revenue ranking? Yes, I do. There's no reason to me why we can't be more competitive across the board in all sports. I think women's basketball is probably the best kept secret on campus. I don't know why they can't get more butts in seats, but I think the Athletics Department should put it's shoulder onto the problem and see if they can get some more buzz around that program. Field Hockey, given it's record over the years should be the same way. You can argue that maybe we shouldn't care so much about 'non-revenue' sports, but a sport is a sport. If we're going to spend money on facilities and scholarships, as fans we should expect silverware in the trophy case. I know I sure do.

The second question (from the Bigger Ten podcast) is an early preview of the Realignment Bingo that's a couple of years away from starting up again. If (or when- probably when) the B1G goes to sixteen, who do we take? Right now, M&D seemed to be of the opinion that it's the ACC who's on the backfoot. The Big 12 is within striking distance of the SEC in terms of dividends and the SEC is right up there with the B1G, but the ACC is lagging and they were late to the network game.

I think it's too early to get into the prognostication game just yet- but I do think if it all starts up again, Georgia Tech is getting an invite. I know we've been all about geography and maintaining a footprint so far, but I think demography is destiny and planting our flag in Atlanta is going give the B1G far more than any other school I can think of.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #262

It's Bastille Day, so where else are going to turn to but the country of France? Now, we've already looked at The Tricolor itself (and there's really not much more you can say about one of the most iconic flags in the human history- and yes, I'm comfortable putting it right up there with the most important of them) but France has plenty of regional flags that are worth taking a peek at as well and that's where we're going This Week In Vexillology... a delightful trio of French regional flags.

First up, is the flag of Brittany:
Brittany is the administrative region of France that juts out the most to the west...  if you can find Normandy on the map and move southwest, the peninsula you're going to hit is Brittany. The name of the region is derived from the settlers from Great Britain who fled the Anglo-Saxon invasions between the fifth and seventh centuries. As a result, it's maintained a lot of it's Celtic heritage, including a language (Breton) that has more in common with Welsh and Cornish than with French.

Plus: how cool is that flag? First created in 1923 by Morvan Marchal who drew inspiration from the flags of the United States and Greece, who were seen as symbols of liberty and democracy at the time. The nine horizontal stripes stand for the traditional dioceses of the duchy. The black stripes are for the French speaking dioceses of Dol, Nantes, Rennes, Saint-Malo and Saint-Brieuc and the white stripes are for the Breton speaking dioceses of Tregor, Leon, Cornouaille and Vannes. The symbols in the canton (which I guess are ermine?) recall the arms of the Duchy of Brittany.

Next up, Auvergne:
A former administrative region of France, it was merged with the neighboring region of Rhone-Alpes to become Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes in January of 2016. Where is it on the map? Well, find the southern city of Montpellier on the map (it's just west of Marseille) and head north until you hit Clermont-Ferrand. Then, you're in the heart of Auvergne.

Historically, this region is worth nothing because it was the home of Vercingetorix and his tribe, the Arverni, a powerful Gallic tribe that defeated Julius Cesar in 52 BC before eventually being defeated by the Romans. The flag itself is an armorial banner- the official designation is, "or a gonfanon gules ringed and edged vert." There doesn't appear to be an explanation of the arms, it's said to stand for the a banner used by Eustace III, the count of Auvergne when he seized Jerusalem in 1099.

Finally, the flag of Franche-Comte:
Let's start with the obvious: where the heck is it? Well, it's nestled right along the border with Switzerland- if you find Bern and head northeast until you get to Besancon, you've found the Franche-Comte. It got merged with Borgogne in January of 2016 to become Bourgogne-Franche-Comte. Literally the name means 'Free Country' and it's been around for centuries- either as part of the neighboring Kingdom or Duchy of Burgandy or as it's own entity.

Another banner taken from heraldry, it depicts: "on a field of azure seme with bars of gold, a crowned lion rampant with tongue and claws gules." (Whatever that means...  ugh, again, heraldry is something I'm going to have to sit down and learn I guess.) It's derived from a blazon that was created in the Middle Ages by Otto IV, the Count of Burgandy to replace the eagle, which was formerly the symbol of Burgandy. Otto wanted to change the symbol to reflect a closer relationship with the Kingdom of France.

And there you have it! Three flags of France for Bastille Day! Until next time, keep your flags flying, FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, July 13, 2018

The Virtue of Minding Your Own Business

Dad shaming is now a thing. I'm not sure why it's a thing, but I suppose if Mom-shaming is a thing, it would be inevitable that at some point, Dad-shaming would have to follow. Who is the unlucky Dad who is getting raked over the online coals of outrage? Justin Timberlake, of all people, who had the temerity, the nerve to post a perfectly lovely picture of his kiddo online. 

What was wrong with this picture? Well, his son has long hair.

Yeah, that's right. People got all butt hurt and bent out of shape because the kid has long hair.  It's the usual reasons ("boys shouldn't have long hair!" "he looks like a girl!") you are probably thinking and it's incredibly disheartening really, because he seems like a happy enough kid and both Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel seem like doting parents who really love the little dude, but the more I read about it and the more I heard about it, the angrier I got. Why do people care? Why do people feel this constant need to offer their opinion and shit all over random pictures of joy on the internet? Why can't people mind their own fucking business for once?

Look, I've got a kiddo with long hair. Not as long as Timberlake's kiddo, but pretty long. We could cut it. People kind of intimate that we should cut it now and again, but both Grandmas love his long hair and he's got kind of a large noggin (so do I, it's a family thing) so we don't want to make his head look any larger than it already is unless we absolutely have too. As it is, having some long hair on his head makes it look pretty damn proportional, so it works for me.

And- and here's the most important point to me, he's pretty happy about it. 

That should be the end of the discussion to me. Does the kid look happy? If he does, then shut your mouth. Justin Timberlake doesn't comment on photos of your kid and judge your kid, does he? (I mean, he might, I don't know... but it doesn't seem like the kind of thing he would do.) Then why oh why oh why, would you think it would be okay for you to do the same thing?

("Well, he's a celebrity and he's putting himself out there for the world to see, he should expect that!") Yeah, I don't need to see your ill-thought out internet meme all over my Facebook wall or the umpteenth ad for whatever multi-level marketing scheme your pushing on all your friends either, but do you see me shitting all over your hopes and dreams? No. I have better things to do with my life and more to the point...  it's none of my fucking business.

Parent shaming makes me absolutely insane. It's a hard enough job as it is without internet randos who know nothing about you offering their unasked for opinions on a variety of topics- but when you want to share a moment of joy, because given how messed up the world is, the more moments of joy we share with each other, the better of we all might be- when you decide to squat and take a dump all over that? Not cool. If you can't say anything nice, then don't say anything at all- and mind your own damn business.

Basically, if you abuse or molest your child and if you don't vaccinate your child because of some dumb shit you read on the internet, or do some other thing to actively harm your child, I will judge the ever loving shit out of you, because you deserve it. But that's about it. I don't care how long your kid's hair is. I don't care what they wear. I don't care what they eat. None of that is my business, so I'm not gonna say a damn thing about it.

People always seem to be wringing their hands and bemoaning the state of discourse and culture these days, but to me, if we as a nation, collectively came together and decided to mind our own damn business, so much would improve almost instantly. #PermitPattys? Gone. Shitty snide comments on the internet? Gone. Kindness? Would rise. Moments of joy and amazement that make the internet so worthwhile might actually be able to break through the noxious clouds of negative for once and shine through more brightly.

There's a virtue to minding your own business that we should seek to rediscover. At the very least, parents should do each other a solid and just be nice. Especially where kiddos are concerned.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Road Blog: I-29

When I drive, I tend to get really quiet and sort of lose myself in the landscape around me for long periods of time. It drives The Missus (and a few other people down the years who have driven with me) a little nuts, because I don't really talk. I mean, I can talk and I do talk, because being silent is boring and sort of impolite when you've got someone sitting next to you, but my default state when I'm driving is usually silence, because I'm just taking it all in.

Roads and driving long distances have been a part of my summer routine ever since I was a kid. We'd be rousted out of bed at about 3 AM and my mother would take the first leg of the driving, taking us across Iowa in the pre-dawn darkness until we would arrive in Omaha where we'd stop for breakfast. I have vivid memories of the road: catching sight of the Rocky Mountains for the first time, coming through the mountains at night and seeing the lights of Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and San Francisco emerging out of nowhere, coming over the crest of that hill near Burnsville and seeing the Twin Cities across the wide open valley in the distance.

For all that people complain about car culture, it's still the easiest way to see this amazing country of ours.

Vacation this year was a modest, if hectic affair. The baby is still too little to go anywhere a long way a way and we went to Omaha to pick up  my nieces to bring them along for the ride. We went over to Des Moines and up I-35 to Minneapolis for the first leg of our journey, but out return journey took us through Worthington and down to Sioux City and then back down to Omaha on I-29.

That particular route I had traveled once before, but going the other way. I left from a family Easter gathering in Omaha to go north to Mankato to turn in my thesis and get my master's degree over the finish line. I-29 was dead and empty and so I drove faster than I should and promptly got a speeding ticket just south of Sioux City. Going the other way was more of a leisurely affair.

I-29, though: it's 750 miles and runs from the Canadian border all the way down through the eastern edge of the Dakotas and the western edge of Iowa and Missouri to Kansas City. There was a campaign by residents of the states further south of Kansas City (Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana) wanted to extended it further south to New Orleans and portions of that were completed- but make up Interstate 49 instead. Interestingly, the Fargo to Canada chunk of the freeway was originally designated as Interstate 31. No freeway was planned south of there, but eventually, they connected I-29 from Sioux Falls to Fargo and just named the whole damn thing Interstate 29. (If you're into minor bits of historical detail: I-29 runs through the Platte Purchase in Missouri, which wasn't originally part of Missouri.)

The first portion of the drive wasn't on I-29 though. We followed Highway 60 south from Worthington and across the border. Past Sibley (which didn't smell that bad, actually) and Hawkeye Point (which I was always strangely obsessed with as a kid- I'd always love finding the highest point marker for each state in our Rand McNally atlas and I'd never thought I'd have any reason to go near Hawkeye Point- until I met the Missus who lived maybe five miles away from it.) and through Sheldon and Alton until it's terminus at LeMars.

We had a pit stop at LeMars for ice cream (because it's kind of obligatory, really) and then continued south of Highway 75, which swung around Sioux City through rolling green hills that reminded me a lot of the way we approached San Francisco* before connecting with I-29.

I don't know enough about the topography of the place to say for sure, but if I had to guess, the relative isolation of the interstate is probably due to it's proximity to the Missouri River. Looking on the map, 29 to the east and Highway 75 to the west seem to former boundaries for an insanely wide flood plain and there's not a lot of habitation in between them. The further south you get, the emptier it feels and off the the east you see the long line of the Loess Hills that creep closer and then get further away and then come very close indeed before retreating somewhat to the east again.

I can't remember where exactly you can first catch sight of downtown Omaha. I want to say it was somewhere around Missouri Valley, but it may have been closer to Loveland or even Honey Creek, but it was insanely far away, a lonely glimpse of a far distant tower. It was very close to the river at this point, so the land was flat, farm fields and rivers that were carefully bordered by high, engineered banks, presumably to contain them.

There was also this clump of trees that were completely bare of any branches or greenery, almost as if they were in a swamp or just dying slowly. You could imagine people working and living their whole lives in those fields, toiling in the shadow of that faraway glimpse of the towers of the city far away. (It's the kind of post-apocalyptic spark that sort of embeds in my mind and invariably finds it's way into my writing.)

Approaching Omaha from the north was strangely beautiful and remarkably easy to accomplish- though that might be down to it being a Sunday rather than any other day of the week. Soon enough, it was over with though. I cut over on I-480 through downtown Omaha to meet up with Interstate 80 out on the other side and soon enough, we had reached our destination.

*I have this memory of driving through these hills covered in golden grass and wondering where the hell the city was, because we were getting closer and closer and closer and there was no sign or indication of a city anywhere. We just drove over a hill and it was kind of... there. Vegas is much the same way, depending on how you approach. There's just miles and miles of desert and then, suddenly... Vegas. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Netflix & Chill #45: Spider-Man Homecoming

Watched On: DVD (Redbox)
Released: 2017
Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Pick: Mine

I've been waiting to see this movie for a very long time and I'll just get it out of the way right at the top of the review: I absolutely loved this movie. Instead of yet another origin story, we get a Spider-Man movie. No, 'with great power comes great responsibility' no inevitable romance with Mary Jane Watson. So much baggage that seemed to have weighed down this franchise is jettisoned and what results is probably the best Spider-Man movie to date.

The movie opens immediately in the aftermath of the Battle of New York, which took place in the first Avengers movie. A local salvage contractor, Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is eager to bring in his crew to start cleaning up the Chitauri technology and repairing the damage, but the government has other ideas. Anne Marie Hoag (Tyne Daly) head of the newly formed Department of Damage Control (a partnership between Tony Stark and the Federal Government) informs Toomes that they're taking over the salvage effort. Toomes, facing financial ruin, persuades his employees to keep the technology they've already salvaged and starts to construct advanced weapons to sell.

Flash forward to eight years later and Peter Parker is just settling back into life in Queens after the events of Captain America: Civil War. He quit the school's academic decathalon team to focus on his crime-fighting as Spider-Man. After Tony Stark deems that he's not ready to be a full member of the Avengers, Peter is eager to prove his worth to Stark. When he witnesses an ATM heist using advanced weaponry, he intervenes and returns to his apartment, only to find his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) waiting for him.

Attempting to find the owners of the advanced weapons, Peter is warned off by Stark, but continues his research, eventually tracking one of the criminals to outside of Washington D.C. He rejoins the Academic Decathalon Team to go to the National Finals in D.C. and uses that opportunity to sneak out and attempt to stop another weapons heist. He fails and ends up being locked into a DoDC facility for the night. He figures out that the power core he and Ned retrieve turns into an explosive when exposed to radiation and races to the Washington Monument to save his friends from certain disaster when it explodes and threatens to send their elevator plunging to destruction.

Getting a tip from local criminal Aaron Davis (Donald Glover) Peter then tracks the criminals to the Staten Island Ferry and intervenes- but it all goes wrong and Stark (as Iron Man) has to intervene to help Peter save the day. He grounds Peter and take back the suit as a result.

Peter goes back to being a normal high school kid and asks his crush, Liz to go to the homecoming dance with him. When he picks up Liz, he figures out that the man behind the advanced weapon trading, Toomes, is actually Liz's father. Toomes, for his part, deduces that Peter is actually Spider-Man. Peter then deduces that Toomes is going to hijack a shipment leaving from Avengers tower. He intervenes once more and saves the day in his home made spider suit, capturing Toomes and the cargo and earning an offer from Stark to join the Avengers. He turns Stark down, for now, anyway and return to his apartment to find his new suit waiting for him. Just as he finished putting it on- Aunt May walks in.

Overall: As I said at the top: I absolutely loved this movie. None of the movies have ever really been able to portray Peter Parker as an honest to goodness high schooler but this one manages it and then some. Tom Holland is just about perfect for this role and his fellow high schoolers feel like high schoolers and not 20 and 30 somethings playing high schoolers. As the Vulture, Michael Keaton is excellent portraying a villain that's actually pretty complex and in a strange way, sympathetic. But what I love the most about this film is that it all springs from the events of the first Avengers movie. The exploration of consequences is an interesting theme that the MCU has played with before (the Sokovia Accords and the aftermath of Age of Ultron) but it's one that resonates here. My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, July 7, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #261

We're back! After a much-needed hiatus in June, it's time to hit the ground running with our usual 4th of July Special. As you're reading this, we should be either in the Medium White North or passing through it's neighbor to the southwest, South Dakota. (I don't think we've locked in our final itinerary yet, but we're close. It may or may not include a stop in Sioux Falls.) I did some checking of the archives and it turns out that in the distant past, I knocked off Minnesota in another 4th of July Special, so I can't really do that. (Though adding a flag of Minnesota and a bottle of good Minnesota whiskey are on my wish list for vacation.)

But, let's get to South Dakota:
Right off the bat: Sigh. Another Seal On A Bedsheet. Someday, states are going to start getting better about their flag designs and hopefully we'll see a reversal of this trend, but I'll give South Dakota this: it's not a boring Seal On A Bedsheet. The color is unusual enough that it stands out and the sunburst around the seal makes it interesting to look at. As a Seal On A Bedsheet goes, it's a step above the rest.

The current configuration of the flag was adopted in 1992, which makes it relatively new as state flags go. Before 1992, the inscription below the seal read 'The Sunshine State' and before 1963, the seal was actually a full on sun. But, I guess South Dakota realized that Kansas was 'The Sunshine State' and wanted to stand out a little more and while many states have sunshine, there's only one state with Mount Rushmore.

The seal is a little hard to see, but it's got a pretty comprehensive wiki-page. The outer ring has 'State of South Dakota' written at the top and 'Great 1889 Seal' written at the bottom. It was actually designed when the state was still a territory in 1885 and then adopted when it became a state in 1889. The inner circle has the state motto 'Under God The People Rule' (which is actually kind of a cool motto, the more I think about it.) And a picture that features hills, a river with a boat, a farmer, mine and cattle, which are meant to stand for the commerce, agriculture, industry and natural resources in the state.

(There was a proposal in 2012 to change the flag, but it fell short. The pitch and design are found here and I would be all about it if South Dakota went with this design. It looks pretty cool.)

And that's South Dakota! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying, FREAK or otherwise!

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Squawk Box: Troy, Longmire and Babylon 5

Editor's Note: I'm changing up the format of Squawk Box a bit because I feel like it's getting way too long and way too disorganized and I want to streamline it a bit.

Nerd Watch: Troy, Fall of A City. Y'all. I cannot begin to tell you how much I love The Illiad. When I was a kid, Greek mythology was my jam and The Illiad was the toast on which I smeared it on. I've read a variety of translations multiple time and I have been waiting and hoping for a really good adaptation of The Illiad for most of my life. The movie Troy was disappointing enough that when I saw Troy: Fall of A City appear on Netflix and gave it a try, I was somewhat apprehensive, but by the end of episode one I was all in. This. Was. Incredible.

The show opens with the birth of Paris (Louis Hunter), whose birth is perceived as a curse, thanks to black blood and a vision by a very young Cassandra (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) of the destruction of the city. King Priam (David Threlfall) and Queen Hecuba (Frances O'Connor) on the advice of their seers abandon the baby, but he's found by a shepherd and raised in the hills near the city. When grown, Paris- unaware of his true origins is confronted by the Zeus (Hakeem Kau-Kazim), Hera (Inge Beckmann), Athenta (Shamilla Miller) and Aphrodite (Lex King). The Goddesses wish to know which of them is the most beautiful and Paris chooses Aphrodite. This pisses off both Athena and Hera, but Aphrodite rewards Paris by promising him riches and the most beautiful woman in the world.

In short order, Paris finds out he's a Prince, is welcomed back by his family and is sent to Sparta to do a trade deal with King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong). Instead of doing that, however, he falls for Helen (Bella Dayne) and the two run back to Troy, which begins the whole tragic saga.

The story that unfolds is familiar and yet drenched with an impending sense of tragedy. Agamemnon (Johnny Harris) joins with his brother Menelaus to launch a thousand ships and an army to go get Helen back. Artemis (Thando Hopa) demands a sacrifice for favorable winds, so he's forced to sacrifice his daughter to get them there, at an act which haunts him for the rest of the series. (And, presumably, incurs the wrath of his wife, Clytemnestra, which leads to another unfortunate ending which we don't get to see on camera.)

The Greeks arrive and I found myself anticipating, wondering if they were going to get the story right and every single time, they didn't disappoint. Achilles (David Gyasi) is humiliated with the loss of Briseis and refuses to fight. Patroclus takes up his armor and his killed by Hector. Hector, in turns, is killed by a vengeful Achilles. The horse! They do the horse thing! And it works! David Gyasi is so good as Achilles...  he's a more introspective Achilles looking for a pure and honorable fight and wrestling with the pressure of being 'the perfect warrior.' Hector (Tom Weston-Jones) is somewhat less charismatic than I feel Hector should be, but it's a solid performance. Hector comes across as an honorable man, who loves his wife, Andromache (Chloe Pirrie) and his son, little Astanyx. Joseph Mawle is incredible as Odysseus, the brains behind the operation, who doesn't really want to be there and is a secretly (I think) honorable man. (Oh man, the scene at the end where he has to throw the baby off the wall... so brutal. So, so brutal.)

TL;DR: If you've been waiting for an excellent adaptation of The Illiad, then you've got it right here with Troy: Fall of A City. I don't know if this is a one time mini-series or not (I'm hoping not), because they leave both interesting possibilities to explore The Odyssey (though how you can beat the Armand Asante adaptation of that, I don't know... I still remember him shooting that arrow through the axe handles) or The Aenead. My Grade: **** out of ****

New Watch: Longmire. Anyone who's flipped through A&E anytime in the past five years has probably seen some kind of advertisement for this show- even though A&E decided not to renew it after the third season and Netflix picked it up for the subsequent three and now has all of them available for streaming. A modern Western crime drama, Longmire is based off the 'Walt Longmire Mysteries' written by Craig Johnson and is centered around Walt Longmire (Robert Taylor) who is the sheriff of Absaroka County in Wyoming. He's assisted by his Deputies Branch Connally (Bailey Chase), 'The Ferg' (Adam Bartley) and Moretti (Katee Sackhoff). His daughter, Cady (Cassidy Freeman) is a local lawyer and his best friend, Henry Standing Bear (Lou Diamond Phillips) help him investigate many crimes in and around his jurisdiction.

As a contemporary western, this show works. Robert Taylor imbues Walt with a certain amount of gravitas and just enough anachronistic tendencies (he refuses to own a cell phone, for example) to make you think that the character would fit into the old west and be just fine. The proximity of the fictional Absaroka County to a Cheyenne Reservation allows the show to explore issues of Native American life today-- and to give the show full credit, that's something that, if handled incorrectly, could go very wrong in multiple ways, but they approach those explorations carefully and respectfully enough to do it right.

As a crime drama, this works really well. Crime dramas usually make me yawn, but the setting and the characters in Longmire are compelling enough that I stuck around and once this show had it's claws into me, I couldn't stop watching. It falls down a little bit here and there, though: a Sheriff and three deputies for an entire county? (It's actually not that much of a stretch. Niobara County which is the least populated county in Wyoming has a Sheriff, an under-sheriff and two deputies.) None of them carry portable radios and they never seem to wait for back-up even in situations and they don't seem to have a 911 PSAP anywhere in their fictional county, they have Ruby the Secretary instead. (That last one is a long standing complaint of mine- cops in these crime dramas always seem to know where to go without needing a Dispatcher, which just aint't true- though shows like 9-1-1 don't exactly help resolve my irritation.)

TL;DR: If you like a good western and a good crime drama, you can't go wrong with Longmire. My Grade: *** out of ****

Nostalgia Watch: Babylon 5. I've watched Babylon 5 before and own about three seasons on DVD, but when it came back to streaming (this time on Amazon Prime), I fell down the rabbit hole almost immediately. Even if science fiction is not your jam, you have to admire the ambition and epic scope of the show and the impact it had on the television landscape of today. The big serialized story arcs of Game of Thrones and Lost? That kind of serialized story telling was pioneered on this show, which was conceived as a 'five part novel for television.' So the arc for all the characters? It was all pre-planned. Going back through and watching it again, you can see the seeds of character development be planted and start to grow over whole seasons of television, which makes the payoff, when it comes, all that much more satisfying.

Set ten years after the end of a devastating war between the Earth and Minbari, Babylon 5 is a space station in neutral territory where the various species in the galaxy can come and trade and negotiate their differences (it's sort of like a League of Nations with a council and everything.) A dark new power is returning however and the protagonists have to fight against it. There's so much to like about this show: the characters had 'exit clauses' written into their characters in case an actor wished to leave the show (Michael O'Hare departed as the lead after one season to seek treatment for mental illness and returned to close his characters arc out in the third season, is a good example of this.) I love the blend of fantasy elements with traditional science fiction, though sometimes, the parallels with Lord of the Rings get a little direct (the Rangers, the 'shadows', Zha'hadum) for my liking.

But where Star Trek took a more utopian view of the future, Babylon 5 recognizes that humanity's flaws and foibles probably won't evaporate anytime soon. In stark contrast to the secular humanist worldview of Trek, as an example, religion is alive and well in the B5 universe- both human and alien varieties, while it may seem like a relatively small aspect of the overall show, it's little touches like these that make the overall Universe feel richer, more complete and more realistic.

Each of the characters has an arc that ebbs and flows over the course of the show, but I've got to give a shout out to the Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari (Peter Jurasik) and the Narn Ambassador G'kar (Andreas Katsulas). Both their characters and their arcs are probably some of the best in science fiction, if not in television itself. Exploring themes of power and what you'd sacrifice for it (Londo) and issues of genocide, occupation and oppression (G'Kar), the two characters simultaneously hate each other and respect each other at the same time. It's fascinating, it's complex, it's incredibly well written and it's one of my favorite parts of the show.

TL;DR: Great science fiction and surprisingly important television, given how popular the serialized format it pioneered became, check this out for a messier, more complex and more richly imagined universe than Star Trek (I hate to say it, but in many ways it's true) and the characters and the writing are all delicious and satisfying. One of my all time favorites. My Grade: **** out of ****

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Bookshot #109: The Left Hand of Darkness

The Left Hand of Darkness had long been sitting on my bookshelf, part of the long list of books that I was planning to read at some point, but the passing of it's author Ursula K. LeGuin in January finally gave me the motivation to pick it up and actually read it. By all accounts LeGuin was one of the icons of science fiction and it was high time I read at least one of her books. And what a book to read... I don't want to say that it delivered on the hype, because 'hype' strikes me as the wrong word to describe one of the classics of the genre. But after finishing this book, I'd put it right up next to Dune, The Martian Chronicles and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress as a 'must-read' of science fiction.

Set on the icy world of Gethen, where it's always winter, and everyone is always one gender unless they're in 'kemmer' a cycle of sexual receptiveness and high fertility where the residents of Gethen can take on either male or female characteristics. The main protagonist of the novel is a male Terran named Genly Ai, who as been sent as an Envoy from the Ekumen, a coalition of humanoid worlds to see if Gethen is willing to join their coalition. He travels alone to the world to make contact, landing in the Kingdom of Karhide and spends two years attempting to convince the members of it's government to join the Ekumen. (He has companions with him, but they remain in stasis on their ship in orbit.)

The novel opens right as Genly Ai has been granted an audience with the King of Karhide, Argaven. The King's Prime Minister, Estraven, who helped him get the audience seems to believe in his mission, but the night before tells Ai he can no longer support Ai's cause with the King. This in turn causes Ai to doubt Estraven's loyalty, since he cannot read his mannerisms or body language effectively to figure out what prompted Estraven's withdrawal of support. The next day at his audience, Ai figures out why: Estraven has been exiled, ostensibly because he was too conciliatory toward the neighboring country of Orgoreyn in an ongoing border dispute. The King still takes the meeting with Ai, but rejects his offer to join the Ekumen.

After a detour to the dwelling of the people of the Handdarrata, one of the two major religions on Gethen, Ai pays for a foretelling that seems to predict the success of his mission and then sets off for the country of Orgoreyn, where he has received an invitation. He gets a warm welcome in their capitol of Mishnory, where he's pleased to find that their politicians are far more direct with him, but the exiled Estraven warns him to be careful and to not trust the leaders, as their secret police, or Sarf exercise true control over the country. Estraven's warning proves to be correct, for Ai is arrested, interrogated and sent to a work camp in the far north where he is forced into hard labor and given drug designed to prevent 'kemmer.' He falls ill and seems ready to die when Estraven surprises him once more by breaking him out of the labor camp.

Together, Ai and Estraven embark on a dangerous, long and arduous trek across the Gobrin ice sheet to get back to Karhide. The two of them eventually learn to accept each other's differences and Ai begins to finally understand Estraven, and by extension the society of Gethen. The two develop a close connection and Estraven finally convince Ai to wake his companions in the ship in orbit and send for them once they return, as he is convinced that Ai's reappearance in Karhide will force it's acceptance of joining the Ekumen. Estraven's prediction proves correct, as they reappear in Karhide and Ai sends for his companions- but Estraven, still under an order of exile in Karhide is killed attempting to flee back across the border to Orgoreyn. His death and the fallout from their reappearances triggers the fall of governments in both countries and they both agree to join the Ekumen, which complete Ai's mission.

The power of LeGuin's writing I think is to be found in her approach to the narrative. It's like a slowly blooming flower- you're not sure what you're dealing with at first, but as you read more and get deeper into the book you get drawn further and further in, so that it's only when you reach the end that you can truly understand how subtle and incredible this book actually is. In the opening chapter, we meet the characters including Ai marching in a parade in the capital so the King can place a keystone in a newly constructed arch. You completely forget about it until the end of the book when you read this:
Therefore for the first time it came plainly to me that, my friend being dead, I must accomplish the thing he died for. I must set the keystone in the arch.
That call back is so subtle and so powerful all at the same time, it rocked me back on my heels a little bit. The other interesting thing that LeGuin does is sort of world build as she goes. The chapters are interspersed with shorter vignettes about the mythology of Gethen, all of which helps draw the reader deeper into the world and by extension the story.

Overall: one of the iconic novels of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness imagines a world without gender and the struggle of an outsider to navigate it. While it's hailed as a masterpiece of feminist writing, I think readers might be surprised at how subtle it's feminism can appear. LeGuin doesn't sent out to make an explicit statement about the politics of gender- she just vividly imagines a world without it and in doing so makes a powerful statement indeed. ***** out of *****

Sunday, July 1, 2018

5 for 2018: An Update

2018 is over the halfway mark, so I dug back into the archives to see how I've been doing with the goals I set for myself way back in January. This is what I've found:

1. Getting another tattoo.  Still hasn't happened yet...  I know what I want. I just need to save some ducats and then make an appointment to go get it.

2. Finishing my Year of Books: This year of books thing might stretched into 2019 at this rate. I'm fighting my way through Gravity's Rainbow and I've got a couple of other of these on deck or ready to by read. Progress is being made, books are being read, but this specific list might elude me for another year, but we'll see. 

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. As usual my health goals start strong and fade as the year goes on. For the back half of the year, I think 24 form Tai Chi is within my grasp. I can (with some discipline) do Kettlebell at least once a week and with some luck and some more training, hopefully I'll be in good enough shape to do a day of RAGBRAI at the end of the moth. (In lieu of the 5K- which I still want to do, but...  let's go for one achievable thing at a time, shall we.) 

Ugh... the BMI thing? I don't really have a target weight... I just want to be able to see my feet and I can still do that. Do I need a target weight? I probably should aim for one, but it just...  doesn't bother me enough.

-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.

4. Up my writing game. I'm not precisely sure what this means, but for the back half of the year I want to get my current books sorted out and promoted a bit better, get my third book into revisions so I can get that out there next year and play around with ideas for a fourth and fifth book (and a sixth and seventh book after that...) So, I've got books in me and I'm working on getting them out. I guess this counts?

5. House projects. I still want to get our deck stained and get a new back splash in. The sink and the built-in bookshelf? Those might have to wait awhile. And we skipped the raised bed for a nice collection of pots for our garden. So two out of four isn't bad, assuming we can get those two done.

-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

There's 184 days left in 2018. Still plenty left to accomplish!