Monday, December 31, 2018

5 For '18: How'd I Do?

Looking back on 2018, I'd say that I did a fairly good job with my goals. It wasn't perfect. (See #3). But I'm overall happy with how I've done for 2018:

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

2. Finishing my Year of Books: Well, this is now entering it's second year- but that's not to say that I haven't been reading: I have! I've got reviews scheduled out until February. I'm gonna keep right on reading, but I'll keep trying to work my way through this list.

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

3. This is my Year of Health. Well, as usual I'm terrible at this part. My tai-chi fell off. My diet remains shitty. I did, however, ride a day of RAGBRAI this year and not die. It was about fifty miles total and was probably the hardest feat of physical endurance I think I've ever put myself through. (I walked up a grand total of one hill too.) So, partial credit for this one- but I do need to get my act together this year and do something systemic in terms of lifestyle improvement and weight loss.

4. Up my writing game. I got both The Prisoner and The Assassin and The Arrows of Defiance fully on the Draft2Digital platform and out to way more channels than I had before. NANOWRIMO was an unqualified success: I've got a working draft of my next book in the bag.

5. House projects...  well, we moved into a new house. So.... that happened. Wasn't planning for that when 2018 started. We've been doing things with the new house- I imagine that will continue over the course of 2019 but we don't really have any specific big huge projects in mind- other than a breakfast nook we're already planning. We'll see where next year takes us.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #277

This Week In Vexillology, we're heading back across England for our next two counties on deck in our grand tour of the many flags of England: Worcestershire and Herefordshire.

First up, let's start with the sauciest of England's counties...  Worcestershire! How does one find Worcestershire? Well, it's actually pretty easy because naturally, there's a city called Worcester and it's just southwest of Birmingham. Find it on the map and you're smack dab in the middle of Worcestershire. (The sauce: was created by two chemists- John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins in the first half of the 19th Century and has been generic since 1876 when the High Court of the UK ruled that their company- Lea & Perrins did not own the trademark to 'Worcestershire.')

All right- so let's talk about their flag:
Adopted on April 8, 2013 and registered with the flag institute, it was designed by Elaine Truby who won the contest held by BBC Hereford & Worcester. I'm sensing a theme with a lot of these county flags- because the shield features the county's 'famed black pear' which was used by units from Worcestershire and what battle? Oh that's right: the Battle of Agincourt. The waves of blue represent the flood plain of the River Severn that runs through the county and the green is worn by the county's cricket team.

Next up, Herefordshire. As it turns out, there's method to my madness, because Herefordshire is right next door to Worcestershire- and like Worcestershire, there's a town named Hereford smack dab in the middle of it- more or less. While Worcester has their sauce- and apparently, pears, Hereford has beef. 

Here's their flag:
Here's the interesting thing about this flag: it's not yet officially. Nothing has been registered with the flag institutes and there are multiple proposals apparently floating around out there in the ether. But this is what Wikipedia provided me, so we're going to go with this one until they get around to make it official. This particular proposal is actually the Banner of the Arms of the Herefordshire Council- so their Council gets to use it. But, because it's an Armorial Banner, the official explanation is all full of terms from heraldry: "a river running through a red background with a lion passant guardant above and the head of the bull below." I'm assuming the latter is for the county's beef. I'm going to guess that the river is the River Wye.  Not sure what the lion's about or the red though.

Another two counties down! Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, December 21, 2018

Squawk Box: Winter Grab Bag

Latin History For Morons: I can't remember when I first heard about John Leguizamo's new one man show, Latin History For Morons...  I want to say it was on NPR, but I might be wrong- it could have been just a random Netflix ad that I stumbled across. (This is going to bug me now, I just know it.)  ANYWAY: Leguizamo takes the viewer on a trip through Latin History, as he tries to help his son with a school project for his history class- finding a hero. Debates about diversity and representation in America today tend to go absolutely nowhere in a hurry, but if you want to try and understand why it's so important and how much of a difference it can make to people, watch this special. Ultimately, it's an exploration of history that a lot of people may not be familiar with. (The Spanish Conquest, the decimation of the indigenous people as well as the early history of Latinx people in the United States). But the end is beautiful, as his son, having been fed so many potential heroes by his Dad decides that he's going to be his own hero. Fathers and sons, representation, history you might not have known about and some humor to boot: this one is worth watching.

Bumping Mics: Joe Rogan brought in Dave Attell and Jeff Ross for an interview on his podcast and having listened to the two and half-three hour episode, about halfway through I decided about halfway through to just go ahead and dig up their special to see it for myself. Spoiler alert: it's worth a watch. Netflix is awash in comedy specials these days, but Attell and Ross stand out for first- being a double act and second, their style of roasting each other and the audience is incredibly funny. Roasting is an art form that I think can go wrong easily, but Attell and Ross prove that they are masters of the art form and have plenty of friends (Bob Saget, Amy Schumer, Gilbert Gottfried, Bruce Willis, etc) stop by and help turn the tables right back on then some. It's three episodes and if you're doing a deep comedy dive and want to mix it up a little bit, Bumping Mics is not your average comedy special and is worth a watch.

Nanette: I think I saw Monica Lewinksy interviewing Hannah Gadsby for some big event that Vanity Fair was holding and she mentioned Nanette and how incredible she thought it was- and so, well, I went off and tracked that down and watched it. (Also: Monica Lewisnky now works for Vanity Fair. The more you know, I guess.) I had no idea what Nanette was about when I went to watch. Hadn't read a review. Hadn't done any research or digging on it. Was vaguely aware that it had been released awhile back and there was some mild buzz on my Facebook feed about it but that was about it. I really don't want to say much about it, because if you haven't seen it, then it's better if you go into it knowing as little as possible about it, because it'll be exponentially more powerful that way. Nanette is powerful. It's unexpected. It's a beautiful deconstruction of what comedy is and how comedians who aren't men grapple with the basic structure of it that forces them to confront the tension of their own existences. Unexpected, surprising and powerful, Nanette is the comedy special you need to watch. It'll take your breath away.

Salt Fat Acid Heat: If Netflix is rapidly becoming the home for comedy specials of every possible variety, the other niche it seems to be carving out some excellence in is food. They've got plenty of the Great British Baking Show, Chef's Table is always a must watch. Michael Pollan had an excellent series, Cooked that's worth a watch and now joining all of them is Samin Nosrat's four part series Salt Fat Acid Heat. Based on her cookbook of the same name, Nosrat, who ended up as an apprentice in Alice Waters' restaurant Chez Panisse. As she learned more about cooking, she began to notice that good cooking revolves around four main elements: salt, fat, acid and heat- her exploration of those elements was the basis for her award winning book and now the small screen as well. Each episode of the series is devoted to one element. Salt finds Nosrat in Japan, Fat in Italy, Acid in Mexico and Heat back home in California. The visuals are excellent, the food looks amazing and perhaps most important of all is Samin Nosrat herself. She's charming, exuberant and absolutely looks like she's enjoying every bite of food she takes. Beautiful, delightful and delicious, Salt Fat Acid Heat is another great addition to Netflix's pantheon of food shows.

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Season 2): I love Amy Sherman-Palladino. I've made my way through Gilmore Girls multiple times. I've seen Bunheads. Her dialogue is blindingly fast and whip smart- which is a combination that is pretty rare on television. But after creating not one, but two genuinely good- if not outright great television shows, you've got to wonder how it feels to somehow find another way to level up, because with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Sherman-Palladino seems to have found new heights for her particular brand of fast, whip smart dialogue. The fact that Mrs. Maisel is a period piece set in the late 50s just makes it all even more perfect. Picking up from where last season leaves off, Season 2 finds Midge and her Dad chasing down her Mom, Rose to Paris where she moved too. She's convinced to come home and Midge continues to build her career, while being hampered by her gender and her ongoing feud with Sophie Lennon (whom she pissed off last season.) Her estranged husband finds himself moving back in with his parents and then straightening out their business- before contemplating the idea of opening up his own club. The end of the season sees Midge getting ready to go on a major tour after a turning a television gig that seemed like it was going to be a bust into a major victory for her career growth and wanting to spend one last night before she leaves with someone who really loves her, which turns out to be her estranged husband Joel. Charming, funny, whip smart with blindingly fast dialogue, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel remains a genuine delight.

Sens8 (Series Finale): Picking up where the last episode of the second season left off, the finale opens with our heroes still trying to rescue Wolfgang from the clutches of the evil Whispers. They plan a hostage exchange to recover him. They figure out what Jonas is really up to and what Angelica was really after. There's a bunch of other revelations- including the fact that there's a pro-Sensate faction working to gain control of BPO that wants to eliminate the evil Chairman behind the drone program that Whispers is responsible for. The resolutions seem rushed, but it all works with the exception of Kala getting shot and Rajan and Wolfgang providing the worst possible CPR ever seen on camera- until she connects back with Wolfgang and starts telling them want to do. Ultimately, the gang lives happily ever after. Nomi and Amanita get married at the Eiffel Tower. Nomi's Mom, who has never really accepted her, eats a pot brownie and realizes what an idiot she's been. Instead of a generous honeymoon offer from BPO of literally anywhere they want, Amanita and Nomi (and the rest of the gang) all- because this is Sens8 after all, have a big old fashioned orgy. (Or, as the wiki-page says: 'a transcendent sexual experience.') I loved this show... it had a fascinating premise and tons of potential. I don't want to sound like a prude though, but... man, did those people have a lot of sex. I know that's an odd complaint to have about a show. (I mean, who doesn't love to watch an orgy?) But to me, I would have loved one or two less sex scenes for more time with these characters and their story. That's probably six of one, half a dozen of the other at the end of the day- but this finale was a beautiful end to a series bursting with promise and potential. I'll miss this show.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Do We Have To Talk About 2020?

The first polls (in Iowa, anyway) for 2020 dropped last weekend like an unwelcome dog turd onto your carpeted bedroom floor. It's that time again. The 2016 election seems like it was just yesterday and yet here we are, getting the circus prepped and ready to go yet again. There were no real surprises on the Democratic side of the polls: Biden, Bernie and potential flavor of the month/possible real deal Beto O'Rourke were all at the top of the heap followed by a veritable smorgasbord of candidates behind them. The Republican side was a little more interesting: two thirds of Republicans are still #TeamTrump, but about an equal amount would welcome challengers as well- so it seems like they're at least willing to listen to alternative pitches.

At this point, these polls are more of an announcement- a civil defense siren that the circus is coming, so buckle up and get ready.

Here's the thing that I'm wrestling with a little bit: what does conventional political wisdom even mean in a world where President Trump became, well, President Trump. Everything that I knew (or thought I knew) about how politics works indicated to me that there was no way (no freakin' way) that he would have one- I believed that on Election night of 2016 and yet here we are. The real question hovering over this election is a simple one: is the conventional wisdom reverting to the Pre-Trump mean or are we in completely uncharted territory here?

If you were hoping that the Midterms would provide some sort of an answer well, think again. Iowa's results were sort of a microcosm of the weirdness: the Democrats flipped two Congressional seats and made a serious run at flipping a third, lost the Governor's race by a hair and didn't really make much of a dent in the State Legislature. Maybe all politics is local. Maybe the national results were more about the President. Maybe it all means everything. Maybe it means nothing at all. Who the hell knows?

Nate Silver broke down a pretty exhaustive list of potential candidates and looked at their favorable vs unfavorable- I'm going to use his list for my own breakdown:

Returning Contenders: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders... fairly or unfairly, I think age is going to be a factor here for both candidates- not that President Trump is a young man, by any stretch of the imagination, but I think (think) voters want some younger energy this time around. That impression might be pure ephemeral bullshit on my part, but it's going to be a factor. Biden's also run for President before, unsuccessfully and has a record a mile and a half long that could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view. Bernie's biggest problem, I think is going to be that his run in 2016 moved the Democrats left into his 'lane' on a lot of issues. Whether he can get the band back together for another go round is an open question.

The Senators and The New Guy: Beto, Klobuchar, Harris, Warren, Booker, Gillibrand and Brown. I'll be honest: I'm not sold on Beto. I'm open to persuasion at this point (not just for the Democrats, but for all parties and candidates at this point in the cycle) but I think the fact that he's telegenic, Irish-Catholic and young get a lot of Democrats all verklempt for a new Kennedy to rally around and it might well work for him. I'm just not sold on it is all. I don't want to be seduced this time around. I don't need young hotness and youthful energy. There needs to be substance to get me off the bench to vote for a person and with Beto, I'm seeing tons of sizzle but don't yet have the substance.

The rest of the Senators are an interesting bunch. Booker I think could be a formidable candidate. People seem to like Sherrod Brown because he's from Ohio, which is smack dab in the Rust Belt that caused the Democrats so many problems in 2016. I think Kamala Harris is going to run, regardless. The interesting wrinkle here is what Warren, Klobuchar and Gillibrand end up doing. I don't know enough about Gillibrand yet to have a sense of how she'll do, but I think Amy Klobuchar is on a lot of people's radar as a dark horse-potentially serious contender- if she runs, she could emerge from the pack pretty quickly I think.

The Governors: Hickenlooper, Bullock, Inslee. Hickenlooper and Bullock are the interesting ones in this category- probably Bullock more so than Hickenlooper. Inslee...  sigh. I think he would do well, but I also think he'd get tagged with the 'Crazy Left Coast' thing that might hamper him somewhat. Colorado (Hickenlooper) and Montana (Bullock) however are more interesting example to look at- especially the latter. If a Democrat can win in Montana, one can argue they can probably win a lot of other places too. Name recognition, however, is going to be a factor because I don't think a lot of people know who Governor Bullock is yet.

Meh: Castro, Garcetti, Delaney. Castro is too prominent of a Latino politician to ignore. I'm not crazy about Mayors running for President, but Garcetti seems like a more credible choice than say, Rahm Emmanuel and Delaney has practically lived in Iowa since 2016- and I'm pretty sure he was the first candidate to officially declare. His hard work might yet pay off. But until these three show me something they're kind of [insert shrug emoji.]

No Thanks and 'Who?': Holder, Swalwell, Bloomberg, Steyer, Yang I have no idea who Swalwell is and I'm going to say 'No thanks' to Steyer and Bloomberg. Yang is the Universal Basic Income guy and I think that issue should be out there in the primary, but I don't know if he's going to go anywhere with it. (I'm guessing not.)

Just Hear Me Out: Clinton I know, I know- I can hear your screams of 'Please, God Nooooooo!' But just hear me out on this one. If Clinton runs again and right now, that's a really big 'if', but who knows then she's going to be entering the race with precisely zero momentum, probably not a lot of money and precisely zero expectations. Could be another run is dismissed by voters as nothing more than an exercise in ego and vanity and she flames out quickly. But on the other hand, a third Clinton run with her back against the wall, in the trenches with the rest of them for a bare and bloody knuckled political free for all? A Clinton run where she has shake the hand of every eligible voter in Iowa and New Hampshire? There's just something about a run where she's the scrappy insurgent that makes you wonder...

Don't Forget: Tulsi Gabbard, Richard Ojeda. There's some buzz around Gabbard floating around out there and she's never been afraid to buck the Establishment and Richard Ojeda immediately got my attention when he jumped into the race. Whether or not they go anywhere remains to be seen.

Like it or not, the circus is back in town.


Monday, December 17, 2018

The Best of NPR's Top 100 Songs of 2018, Ranked

It's the end of the year, so naturally the internet is awash with 'Best of 2018' lists and NPR is just one among many outlets joining in the end of the year rush. NPR's music coverage always fascinates me a little bit- from their Tiny Desk Concerts to their album reviews, I'm always a little surprised at who they find because, it always seems like I've never heard of any of the people they bring in for performances.

So, when they put together their list of the 100 Best Songs of 2018, I took a gander through the list and was once again, not surprised to find a list full of songs that I had never heard of. Now, I get it: music is not really my jam. I listen to it, I enjoy it and in general, I like what I like and don't worry too much about anything else. There's a whole ocean of new music out there that people consume and dissect every day that I know absolutely nothing about- so when I say 'songs I've never heard by artists I've never heard of' that's not to meant to be a judgmental statement. Just because I've never heard of the vast majority of these artists and their songs doesn't mean they're not great- if anything, my lack of knowledge probably speaks to my relatively narrow musical tastes than anything else.

I approached this fairly methodically. I made my way through the list listened to every song on it that I could find an active link for. (Most links on the article took you straight to the song- some didn't and proved just as hard to find on the YouTubes or the Googles.) If I liked the song, I listen to all of it- at minimum, I'd try and listen to at least half of any given song just to give it a fair shake. I reduced the overall list of 100 down to 48 songs that I liked enough to write down. From there, I boiled it down to these 25:

25. Kacey Musgraves- Space Cowboy (not what I was expecting and the lyrical twist of inserting a comma into space cowboy, making it 'space, cowboy' struck me as particularly clever.)

24. Jay Rock w/Kendrick Lamar, Future and James Black- King's Dead 

23. Now, Now- MJ

22. Caroline Rose- Jeannie Becomes A Mom

21. 47Soul- Mo Light

20. Eric Church- Drowning Man

19. Yves Tumor- Noid

18. Amara La Negra- What A Bam Bam

17. The War and Treaty- Jeep Cherokee Laredo

16. Natalie Press- Short Court Style

15. Leon Bridges- Bad Bad News

14. Parquet Courts- Wide Awake

13. The Decemberists- For Once In My Life (click the link and read the statement from Colin Meloy below the video. It's worth a read and makes the video that much more powerful I think.)

12. Courtney Marie Andrews- May Your Kindness Remain

11. Superorganism- Everybody Wants To Be Famous

10. Mac Miller- 2009

9. Public Practice- Foundation (very funky- reminds me a lot of Talking Heads or Blondie.)

8. The Carters- APES**T

7. Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats- You Worry Me

6. Drake- Nice For What

5. Brockhampton- San Marcos (The chorus on this...  so so so good.)

4. Neko Case- Last Lion of Albion

3. Death Cab For Cutie- Gold Rush (Been missing these guys lately. Nice to see them back.)

2. Janelle Monae- Make Me Feel (Apparently, I need to listen to her album, because this song was amazing.)

1. The 1975- Love It If We Made It (Sort of sums up my general feelings on 2018. I would indeed love it quite a bit if we made it through whatever the hell this time period is going to be remembered for. And soon, please.)

(No, I didn't put Childish Gambino's 'This Is America' on the list- it was number one on NPR's actual list. You'd probably find it on a ton of 'Best of' lists for this year and that's fine- but I also feel like it went so viral so fast it's sort of in a category all by itself. And, as always, all taste is thoroughly subjective, so feel free to disagree with any and all of my choices.)

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Netflix & Chill #55: Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

Watched On: Redbox
Released: 2016
Directed By: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katerine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell
Rotten Tomatoes: 74%
Pick: Mine

I had been wanting to watch Fantastic Beasts for a long time and finally, I sat down and watched with the kiddos over the weekend and it was... well, I don't really know how to feel about it.

Set in 1926, the film opens with British Wizard Newt Scamadaner (Eddie Redmayne) arriving in New York on his way to Arizona. While wandering around New York. he stumbles across a rally being held by the New Salem Philanthropic Society, whose leader, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is railing against witches and wizards warning the public that they're real and very dangerous. While watching her speech, a Niffler escapes from Newt's magically expanded suitcase and runs into a bank, where it causes havoc as it attempts to steal as many shiny objects as it can get it's hands on. Attempting to retrieve the Niffler, Newt encounters No-Maj (American for 'Muggle') cannery worker Jacob Kowalksi (Dan Fogler) and the unwittingly swap suitcases.

Meanwhile Newt is arrested by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the USA) Witch Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who is a demoted Auror hoping to regain her position by bringing in Newt as a dealer of illegal magical creatures. Unfortunately, since Jacob and Newt switched suitcases all Newt has is a suitcase full of baked goods and he's released. Back at Jacob's apartment however, the several magical creatures escape from Newt's suitcase.Tina and Newt track down Jacob and the suitcase and then take him back to Tina's apartment where they introduce him to her sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who is a Legilimens (mind-reader/telepath.) Together, they track down the missing creatures from Newt's suitcase getting two out of three before Tina returns the suitcase to MACUSA. They get arrested again and sentenced to death (which seems like a massive escalation, IMHO, but hey, something creepy killed a Senator, so it has to be one of Newt's creatures.)

Incredibly, they escape yet again and track down the true source of the attack: an Obscurial, which is a magical parasite that can develop in magic children when they suppress their abilities. Turns out that Credence (Ezra Miller) who is a child being raised by witch hater Mary Lou Barebone is the host of the Obscurial- a very powerful one indeed. After a final confrontation, Credence is disintegrated and Graves (Colin Farrell) is revealed the be none other than Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) himself.

Hell, even after summarizing this movie I'm still not sure how to feel about it. Are there Fantastic Beasts? There sure are. Should they be more central to the plot? Definitely. I don't care about Credence (a waste of Ezra Miller) or Mary Lou Barebone (a waste of Samantha Morton.) Also, Jon Voight is in this movie for like a minute and a half and I don't know why. And don't even get me started on Colin Farrell... his entire character was a waste of space and a massive waste of his not inconsiderable talents.

This movie feels like two stories mashed into one and it would have been far better if Newt had come to America searching for a fantastic beast instead of being on his way to Arizona to release one. If you're going to call a  movie 'Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them' there should be more fantastic beasts and more finding of them- but hey, that's just my crazy notion. I don't care enough about MACUSA or Grindelwald to be really all that interested in the political machinations and rules all that much and that's kind of a shame, because that part of the story seems considerably more important than the Fantastic Beasts part of it.

Had it been me, I would have Newt on the hunt for a Fantastic Beast that could only be found in America. I would have had him visit Ilvermorny instead of just hearing about and if you must bring Grindelwald into this mess, have him be after the same beast that Newt is and that's your final confrontation. I'm assuming that the business with Credence is going to get explained in the next movie- but I don't like movies that set up their sequels in such annoying ways.

Overall: [shrug emoji], this movie could have probably should have been so much more than it was. It starts out with such promise- it looks like it's going to be Newt's story and his movie as well, but ends up being all about Grindelwald and I'm not sure how to feel about that. Also: given how talented this cast is, they sure underuse a lot of really great actors in this movie. In general, this feels like a cake without the frosting. Tasty enough, but not nearly as delicious as it could have been. My Grade: ** out of ****

Saturday, December 15, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #276

Our tour of the counties of England continues this week in vexillology with the next two counties on deck: Oxfordshire and Berkshire. So let's start with the basics: where the heck are Oxfordshire and Berkshire?

Oxfordshire is kind of easy: find London on a map, head northwest until you find Oxford and believe it or not, there's some logic here, because Oxford is, in fact, smack dab in the center of Oxfordshire. (Crazy! Who knew!). Berkshire, on the other hand gets a little harder to pin down due to it's status. It's one of the historic home counties of England, but it's ceremonial, historic and a 'non-metropolitan county without a county council'. Because Windsor Castle is located within its traditional boundaries, the Queen recognized it as the 'Royal County of Berkshire' back in 1957.

According to the counties wiki-page, it's been governed by six unitary authorities: Bracknell Forest, Reading, Slough, West Berkshire, Windsor and Maidenhead and Wokingham. So...  it's kind of an interesting case. If you find Reading on a map and kind of follow the M4 past Newbury onto the North Wessex Downs that's more or less where Berkshire is. It's actually the one county so far that doesn't show up on Google Maps when you google it.

So, let's talk flags. Oxfordshire: 
First impressions: this is a bad ass flag. That bull looks like it's going to mess you up, which is sort of at odds with my general impressions of Oxford. It's a beautiful, idyllic university town which is the home of Inspector Morse, who doesn't exactly seem like he's a Detective straight out of Homicide: Life On The Streets. I love the diagonal across the middle- it sort of pulls the whole damn design together. I would buy this flag. Hell, I would get a flagpole and fly this flag.

This flag was officially registered with the Flag Institute on October 9th 2017. The basic field color of dark blue is associated with Oxford University. The long, wavy white stripes symbolize the River Thames and on top of that sits the red ox head (Oxford, of course is the place where the ox fords the river.) The sheaf of wheat in the upper right hand corner and the tree in the lower left hand corner represents the woodlands and agriculture of the county. 

Next up, Berkshire:
First impressions: this flag is...  underwhelming. The phrase 'look what I made with MS paint' sprung into my head but I realize that's probably a little unfair. It was recognized by the Flag Institute on March 2nd 2017 and is considered a traditional flag. The symbol of the stag and oak dates back to "Michael Drayton's 1627 poem Battle of Agincourt, where he describes the men of Berkshire under the symbol of "a Stag, under an Oake that stood."" The stag has twelve points on his antlers- which is a reference to the 'royal stags' and the counties position as a Royal County. Together, the stag and the oak represent the county's forestry and deer herds.

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

Thursday, December 13, 2018

So, We Got A Dog

So, we got a dog. (Just one dog, this time.) Her name is Tallulah and she's a Great Dane. The decision to get a dog was a long time in coming. We lost both Winston and Sophie very quickly and the fact that it was so quick I think made us not want to rush into getting another dog quickly. There was something relatively nice about being dog free- at least for a while. You don't have to worry about your cats as much if you want to sneak off for a weekend- you can just throw extra food down and they'll leave you little piles of puke and hairballs here and there as thanks.

But, after a while...  you start to miss dogs. Cats can be affectionate. Cats can be loving, even. But only when they want too. You started to miss someone who is always happy to see you, no matter what. But we didn't want to rush into anything- both the Missus and I did research. We looked at breeders. We really thought about how much we both work and how much time we would have for a new dog. We knew we didn't want a small dog. A high energy dog probably wasn't a good fit for us either- though the Missus had a Boxer growing up and I had always liked that breed.

We thought about Bernadoodles, but then we looked at the price. We checked into Newfies and Bernese Mountain Dogs- but again, the price on the former and some sketchiness on the latter (at least on the website with the breeder we checked out.) Then, we found some Great Dane puppies up in Cedar Rapids.

The Missus and I had thought about Great Danes before. A co-worker of hers has Great Danes and spoke highly of the breed. Everything seemed to fall into place: the price point was good. We met the Mama and saw the environment the puppies were kept in. We looked for the right temperament. We checked into birth order.  And then, we went ahead and did it- we didn't run out and drop a chunk of change on any old dog. We sort of got this dog the way grown up, responsible pet owners should. (Which given the fact that our menagerie at its height included three cats and two dogs, is kind of an improvement I think.)

Miss Tallulah is a puppy, so she does plenty of puppy things- chewing, playing, figuring out the cats. But she's also a sweetheart. She cuddles with everyone. Loves all the boys- though Lachlan isn't a fan of her, as she tends to love him a little too enthusiastically when he's crawling around on the floor. Appropriately enough, to paraphrase the President, it appears that she's 'gonna be yuuuuuuuuge' which will be new and different for us- but we've always wanted a big huge dog and I think that's what we're going to get.

She's a great addition to our family so far- and we couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Epic Bookshot #3: The Dragonriders of Pern Trilogy

Another #EpicBookshot has been completed! (I'm tackling Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy next, so post #4 is probably going to be awhile in coming.) I went back to some of my all time favorite books, the touchstones of my childhood- Anne McCaffery's original trilogy for The Dragonriders of Pern: Dragonflight, Dragonquest and The White Dragon.

I can't remember how old I was when I first read these books, but I remember that my parents had an omnibus version of all three books that I think between my sisters and I (mostly me, though) read until it about fell apart- which I think it did at some point. But what I do know is that these books were the first sci-fi/fantasy books that I think I read on my own. My parents read us The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings* and, weirdly, The Hunt for Red October- but Pern was something I got swept away by all by myself.

That first line of Dragonflight, "Lessa woke cold" was probably the first book that taught me the power of the first line of any book. To me- in my personal canon- that line probably ranks right up there next to "Call me Ishmael" and "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself." (I know that's really shooting the moon when compared to all the great first lines in literature out there in the world, but it's my personal canon and this is one that's always stuck in my head.)

It's really the escapism of it all that appealed to me as a kid. I wasn't exactly Mr. Popular in school and Pern was the perfect place to get away from it all. I dreamed of having a dragon of my own and flying through the air wherever we wanted too. I dreamed of having a partner like Lessa (to kid me, I was obviously the main hero F'lar. Obviously.) I didn't stop with these three books of course- I read every Pern book I could get my hands on and it still ranks as one of my favorite places to visit- even if I don't get back there as much as I did when I was a kid.

Re-reading these books as an adult combines the pleasure of returning to my old literary haunts with a new appreciation for the world building and maybe some of the more problematic shortfalls in McCaffery's writing- at least from the perspective of a reader looking at these books today. So, let's break down the original trilogy, shall we?

They're all great books. But if you want to start with Dragonflight, I think it's important to note that the first part of the book, 'Weyr Search' was the novella that won McCaffery the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novella. (The second Pern story- 'Dragonrider' won the 1969 Nebula Award, which made McCaffery the first woman to win both awards.) So, if you're all about hitting the touchstones of science fiction, you've got to at least read Dragonflight. I love this book way too much to be able to find anything major to pick at- but I would say, when compared to the next two books in the trilogy, it feels way more like an origin story and can stand alone all by itself. Dragonquest and The White Dragon sort of feel more like sequels- though again, weirdly, I think The White Dragon could probably function fairly well as a stand alone novel.

If Dragonflight is your origin story, Dragonquest deepens the world and ups the conflict a bit- as all good sequels probably should (and usually do.) I think I like the explorations of culture clash, as Pern has to come to grips with the dragonriders from the past who are having plenty of trouble acclimating to four hundred years worth of changes in the planet. The tensions between the three main prongs of Pernese society are explored and the tension ratchets up to and an explosive climax ensues.

The White Dragon rounds out the trilogy and it might be- well, shit. I can't claim it as my favorite, because all of them are really my favorites. But there's something unique about this one- and it was actually McCaffery's first entry onto the best seller list. The story of Jaxom, who is introduced as a baby in Dragonflight and impresses/bonds with a unique white dragon, Ruth in Dragonquest- he finally moves to center stage for this book and it's an amazing turn. Not a new character, but a minor character we've already met. I love that. It's so organic. It's so natural and it works really really well.

So, does McCaffery seem 'problematic' by today's standards? I hadn't actually heard a lot of mention or critiques of her out in the world, as it were- but I did hear a random grumble on a podcast once about her female characters always seeming to need a man. In the context of another one of her series' that might be true- but I don't think it's necessarily true here. She doesn't feel dated. She doesn't feel problematic. (In contrast to say, Flannery O'Connor, because GOD DAMN does she use the n-word a lot.) It'd actually be interesting to find more criticisms of her writing out there- but she doesn't feel controversial at all and a lot of her books- including these, feature strong female characters and it's not like there's a shortage of female characters anywhere to be found.

Look, if you're into science fiction/fantasy/dragons you've probably already read these books. But if you haven't- they're worth a read. Dragonflight feels more unique and probably the most fantasy-like of the three, but The White Dragon feels like a classic of blend of science fiction/fantasy that should land in a 'must read' list somewhere. These three books are always going to have a special place on my bookshelf because Pern is one of my favorite places I've ever explored. A touchstone of my youth, these three books started me on my way into Pern and a lot of other places beyond.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Bookshot #114: Artemis

The Martian was such a good book that when Andy Weir wrote a sequel called Artemis, I knew I was going to have to grab it and read it at some point. Happily, Christmas of last year was good to me and it's been sitting in my queue until about a month ago, when, frustrated with Thomas Pynchon and Gravity's Rainbow, I decided to pick it up and use it as a 'palate cleanser' to keep  my sanity as I trudge on through Gravity's Rainbow.

As palate cleansers go, it was exactly what I needed. However, Weir established himself as an author of fast-paced massively entertaining books with The Martian and suffers no sophomore slump with Artemis- it went fast- probably too fast to be honest, but what can you do with a book that you don't want to put down?

The story opens in Artemis, the first city on the moon, where porter and part-time smuggler Jazz Bashara delivers some contraband to wealthy businessman Trond Landvik- Jazz knows both Landvik and his daughter Lene quite well, but on this particular occasion they're entertaining a new associate, by the name of Jin Chu, who holds a case marked with the name ZAFO. Trond offers Jazz a big score: he wants to take over Sanchez Aluminum, whose by products help produce oxygen for the entire city. The score is easy: smash their harvesters and then Trond will appear with a supply of oxygen and the equipment and money necessary to take over their contract.

The money is too good for Jazz to say no so she borrows some welding equipment from her estranged father, Ammar and gets a small robot called HIB from an associate of his. She disguises herself as a tourist and visits the Apollo 11 site, placing HIB outside the airlock and positioning him so he can open the airlock for her. Another friend of hers makes a device that makes it appear as if she's still in her quarters- so the next day she sets out across the moon to where the harvesters are working and manages to destroy all but one. She's spotted and eventually caught upon her return to the city by Dale, her former friend. He agrees to remain silent if she agrees to be friends again, which she reluctantly does.

Heading back to Trond's place, she finds him and his bodyguard murdered- and putting two and two together hunts down the associate she saw at his house, Jin Chu. He lures her into a trap with Trond's killer, but Jazz manages to escape with the mysterious case labelled ZAFO in tow. They're soon both taken into custody by the city's police chief, Rudy.

Soon Jazz finds out the truth: ZAFO represents a major advance in fiber optics, virtually eliminating the attenuation factor that normal fiber cables provides and eliminates the need for repeaters as well- and here's the real kicker: the only place it can manufactured is outside of Earth's gravity- and it turns out the Brazilian company that controls Sanchez Aluminum is in fact, a crime syndicate who has sent an assassin to the moon to clean up the competition. (Namely: Trond.) If they're allowed to control ZAFO, they'll effectively run the city.

Jazz and her friends decide not to let that happen by destroying the smelter belonging to Sanchez aluminum, which would let Trond's daughter Lene seize their contracts and rebuild. They break into the plant and destroy the smelter, but create a deadly backflow of chloroform into the city. They race back to the city, trying to reach Trond's oxygen supplies in time and Jazz sacrifices herself to save the city- but gets rescued by Dale.

When she's fully recovered, Lene pays Jazz what her father promised he would. Jazz buys her father a new welding shop to replace one she destroyed as a teenager, but then ends up paying the rest to a city administrator to avoid deportation- and she convinces the administrator of her value as an 'authorized' smuggler who keeps undesirables out. With lucrative opportunities on the horizon thanks to ZAFO Jazz, back at square one gets back to work.

Overall: Fast-paced, entertaining and almost impossible to put down, Weir's jump from Mars to the Moon is perfectly executed and leaves the reader wanting more. If you think this is tailor made for the big screen, well so did Hollywood. There's a movie already in development aiming for a 2020 release date. Weir has some interesting touches: Kenya is the power behind Artemis, thanks to a far seeing economic minister who lands a massive private space investment for her country and leverages it to become administrator of Artemis. There's also a refreshing diversity of countries that move beyond the usual 'space countries' like America and Russia. Put together it makes for a thrilling and believable vision of the future. My Grade: **** out of *****

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Netflix & Chill #54: Outlaw King

Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2018
Directed By: David Mackenzie
Starring: Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Florence Pugh, Billy Howle, Tony Curran, Callan Mulvey, Stephen Dillane
Rotten Tomatoes: 63%
Pick: Mine

I've been seeing previews and pop-up ads for this for weeks now, so I finally broke down and gave it a watch, curious to see what it would be like. My perception of Robert The Bruce (at least on film) is largely colored by the way he's treated in Braveheart- which was...  odd, if I remember correctly. He was sort of the leader everyone wanted but weak enough to make compromises with the English and betray Wallace- but eventually he turns out okay and wins the day at Bannockburn.

A film that focuses solely on Robert the Bruce? It feels interesting to me. Braveheart was free to tell the story of Wallace with it's embellishments and dubious history, but Robert The Bruce feels more embedded in history than the story Braveheart told. Outlaw King brings his story to life.

First, you've got to give Chris Pine some serious props. Not every actor can carry an accent. (See: Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson in K-19: The Widowmaker) but Pine carries a Scottish accent perfectly throughout this movie. It sounds good and he doesn't overdo it either, which I think helps the cause and keeps him in character more effectively throughout the movie.

The story begins in 1304 outside Stirling Castle where John Comyn (Callan Mulvey), Robert Bruce (Chris Pine) and the rest of the Scottish nobility surrender to King Edward I (Stephen Dillane). During the celebration in the camp, Bruce spars with the Prince of Wales (Billy Howle) and learns that the King has given him his goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh) to marry. During the celebration, James Douglas (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) arrives to ask for his land back, but King Edward turns him away. Both Prince and King then leave Scotland, leaving it's management to Bruce, Comyn and the head of the English Garrison at Perth, de Valence (Sam Spreuell.)

Two years later, after collecting taxes, Bruce realizes how unpopular the English are when he gets caught in a riot after the public display of the quartered body of William Wallace and he starts planning a revolt. His family and, perhaps surprisingly his English wife, Elizabeth agrees with him. Bruce then tries to persuade John Comyn to join him, but Comyn instead threatens to inform Edward about the plan and Bruce, in a panic, kills him. The clergy of Scotland offer Bruce a pardon, but only on the condition that he accepts the crown of Scotland. He does so- though not many Scottish nobles support him. He heads to Scone anyway where he's crowned the King of the Scots.

Edward I declares him and outlaw and sends Prince Edward to Scotland to find him and capture him. De Valence gets a little too ambitious and moves against Bruce before the Prince arrives- Bruce wishes to avoid bloodshed and challenges De Valence to single combat. The latter accepts, but wants to wait until the next day. Bruce agrees but De Valence launches a surprise attack on their camp at Methven and Robert is forced to flee with only fifty men. He loses a brother to treachery as they attempt to flee and another brother is executed when Prince Edward finds Elizabeth and Bruce's daughter Marjorie. Then, he launches a guerilla campaign against the English, taking castle after castle and burning it, gaining support as he does so.

Finally, Edward I has had enough and goes to Scotland himself to try and end the rebellion once and for all. He dies along the way, leaving Edward II to try and complete the task. The Scots meet the English at the Battle of Louden Hill and despite the odds being against them, defeat the English, securing Scotland's freedom. Bruce is crowned King of Scots- his wife and daughter are eventually returned. Edward II is murdered by his own lords (in a somewhat unpleasant way if you know your history) and eventually, a descendant of Robert The Bruce unites the crowns of England and Scotland.

Overall: It lacks the epic touches of Braveheart, but it's a solid movie that doesn't skimp on the battle scenes and seems to be fairly historically accurate- at least compared to Braveheart. Chris Pine portrays Bruce as a patriot intent on winning back freedom for his people- but the historians seem to think that Bruce would have been more canny and ambitious than warm and personable- which would seem to be more in line to his portrayal in Braveheart. The more restrained story told in Outlaw King, however, makes it a less flamboyant and grand film. I don't think that's a bad thing, however. My Grade: *** out of ****

Saturday, December 1, 2018

This Week In Vexillology #275

This Week In Vexillology is finally back! I sort of put everything on the back burner to focus on my third novel for NANOWRIMO, so blogging has been light for a month now- but I'm back and I'm ready to get after it again and what better way to do that than to continue our Tour of the Counties of England with the next two counties up: Kent and Essex.

Here's Kent:
Here's the thing: I've been to Kent... I tagged along with an Aunt and Uncle for a trip down there one summer and it's beautiful. The houses have all these weird, white little chimneys- the views south east toward Dover are beautiful. There's tons of history there-- we saw Cantebury, we saw Dover Castle... It was amazing and I'd love to show y'all a photo or two of the place, but here's the thing: I can seem to find any at the moment. (I'm going to work on that some.)

Oh, the directions are even simple: find Dover and you're in Kent. (Easy enough, right?)

Their flag is beautiful... the white horse has been a symbol of Kent dating back to the old Jutish Kingdom of Kent back in the 6th Century. The current flag dates all the way back to 1605 and was used by the Justices of Kent for many years. The arms featuring the horse were granted to the Kent County Council on October 17th, 1933 and again in 1975. The flag was accepted as official on the basis of it's traditional use and historic roots with the county.

Next up, Essex:

I am... somewhat shook by this flag, kids. Consider the following video clip:

This pretty much sums up Essex quite nicely. It's sort of a weird blend of New Jersey and Laguna Beach? (Weird could also be 'hellish') but it seems to work. Don't really have a good explanation on what the flag means. Wikipedia has a one sentence description: "The flag of Essex is ancient in origin and features three Saxon seaxes on a red field." And that is it. But I also love the contrast between the video clip above and the flag. This is not the flag that I would have expected Essex to have. Which in and of itself is the most Essex thing ever.

And there's the next two flags of the counties of England... remember until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!