Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Squawk Box: The ABC Murders/Wild, Wild Country/Sunderland 'Til I Die

I've been on a documentary kick lately and Squawk Box this month features two of them: the excellent Wild, Wild Country and probably one of the best sports documentaries I've seen in awhile, Sunderland 'Til I Die. (We've also got The ABC Murders, which has John Malkovich stepping into the role of Belgium's premier detective, Hercule Poirot.)

We'll start with Sunderland 'Til I Die. Amazon followed Manchester City around for a season in All Or Nothing and if you want to watch something shiny, gleaming and beautiful in action, it's worth checking out. (I caught a couple of episodes of it- at some point I'll get back around to watching the rest.) But if you want a taste of the real divide in England's soccer landscape, there's no better place to start than with Sunderland 'Til I Die.

Away from the gleaming stadiums and the wealth of the big clubs at the top of the Premier League, the eight episode documentary series opens with newly relegated Sunderland struggling in England's second division, The Championship. Their manager Simon Grayson is struggling to find a line up that works- they're under financial pressure to bring the right people in during transfer windows. Their owner, Ellis Short isn't willing to put more money into the club. They're bringing new goalkeepers. They have players that they're trying to get back from injury- and the results just aren't coming for them and by the new year, they're in yet another relegation fight, lurking at the bottom of the table.

So, they bring in a new manager Chris Coleman. They've got no money to spend, so they have to try and make do with more or less the players that they've got and they get some great results down the stretch that don't completely extinguish hope, but they just can't seem to put two wins together and get any momentum- and it's kind of a stunning twist on what you expect from the genre of the sports documentary, but there's no happy ending at the end of this: Sunderland are relegated again, this time down to League One.

The documentary goes into all aspects of the club: the anxiety of the staff members behind the scenes, as they worry about their jobs. The struggle and frustration of the players when the results won't come. The frustrations of the fans- and the incredible loyalty they show to their team, even at the end of another brutal season which seems them relegated again- but the club is also sold, it's debts are cleared and there's the glimmer of hope with a final victory over Wolverhampton and with new owners ready to make a difference and build for the future.

Next up, is Wild, Wild Country. It's been out on Netflix for nearly a year now, and I've seen the odd preview for it and I hadn't actually sat down and watched it until now and wow, this is the craziest true story I think I've seen. The story begins with the Indian guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who grew a following in India in the late 60s, preaching against socialism (he wasn't about selling all your worldly possessions), as well as the usual collection of attributes you'd associate with a guru- but he also preached a more open attitude to sex, which caused controversy in India where he became known as 'the Sex Guru.'

Eventually running afoul of the government, Rajneesh decided in the late 70s to move to the United States and found a city in the wilderness with the help of his associate Ma Anand Sheela- and that's where it gets crazy, because they found their city in the wilderness of eastern Oregon and immediately run into problems. Locals take them to court for violating land use rules: they purchased a ranch and they were building a city. In response, the Rajneeshees brought up property in the local town of Antelope and made it clear that if they couldn't build their city, they would happily take Antelope instead. The citizen of Antelope actually tried to disincorporate to stop them- but failed. And then it gets crazier, because the state got involved and tried to shut them down- so then, they tried to take over the county. Oh and their hotel got bombed. Oh and there's a split in the movement which leads to attempted murder. Oh and they literally shipped in thousands of homeless people from all over the country to try and win the county supervisors seat.

Did I mention that this lead to the largest mass poisoning in American history as well?

Finally, we have The ABC Murders. I'll be honest: I haven't seen any of David Suchet's turns as Hercule Poirot- which I've got to remedy at some point, but I know enough about Hercule Poirot to know that he's probably one of the most iconic detectives of 20th Century literature. I haven't caught Kenneth Branaugh's turn in Murder On The Orient Express- but John Malkovich in just about anything is a sure bet of a great time and sure enough, Malkovich delivers.

The movie opens with an older Poirot, increasingly uncomfortable in the somewhat xenophobic atmosphere of 1930s Britain. His colleague on the Police force, Inspector Japp (Kevin McNally) has retired and been replaced by a brash young Inspector Crome (an almost unrecognizable and excellent Rupert Grint) who doesn't trust Poirot and raises some question about what exactly his occupation used to be in Belgium. Poirot, on the other hand is getting letters from someone signed 'A.B.C.' taunting him and predicting murder. Crome dismisses the letter as a prank, but when Alice Asher is killed in Andover and Betty Barnard is killed in Bexhill, another letter informs Poirot that the next victim will begin with the letter 'C'.

Poirot gets the next letter, which tells him where the next murder will take place- but he's too late to stop the murder. Though this time, the family of the victim, Sir Carmichael Clarke officially hires him to solve the murder so, reluctantly, Crome has to let him help and learns to trust him a little bit along the way. They eventually find a suspect that fits the bill, but Poirot is not convinced and figures out who the real murderer is-- and his past is revealed.

My Verdicts:
Sunderland Til I Die: A must watch for soccer fans or fans of the sports documentary genre.

Wild, Wild County: Must watch full stop. Craziest documentary out there right now and one of the best Netflix documentaries of the past year.

The ABC Murders: John Malkovich steps into the role with near perfection and Rupert Grint is incredible in this as well. At three episodes, it's not that long of a watch either. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Netflix & Chill #59: Free Solo/The Dawn Wall

Free Solo
Watched On: Hulu
Released: 2018
Directed By: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%

The Dawn Wall
Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2018
Directed By: Peter Mortimer and Josh Lowell
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Not really competing documentaries, but certain adjacent documentaries Free Solo (on Hulu) and The Dawn Wall (on Netflix) celebrate two monumental achievements in the world of climbing that took place over the course of the last three to five years. Climbing has always fascinated me. I've never seen the movie Cliffhanger, but that image of Stallone hanging off the cliff stuck in my brain as a kid and I seem to remember making up a game on the playground based off of it. I also enjoyed the hell out of Vertical Limit.. So documentaries about what climbing is actually like and actually involves are something I can get behind.

I was far more familiar with Free Solo than I was with The Dawn Wall. I remember reading the news coverage that followed Alex Honnold's achievement of climbing El Capitan without a rope and I was even more excited for a documentary so we could see it happen close up- and when I saw that the documentary had landed on Hulu, I more or less watched it immediately. The filmmakers do an excellent job of illustrating the scale of El Captain at various key moments throughout the film- just when you're thinking that it doesn't look that bad, then they zoom out and you realize just how big El Capitan actually is and just how small Honnold trying to climb it- and it takes you breath away.

The first part of the documentary is sort of you thinking, 'he's not actually going to do this, is he? This would be crazy?' and for sure, the success of the climb has to be largely due to the incredible about of preparation and practice that Honnold put in before making the attempt. He tested out every part of his chosen route before he tried it. He did some practice climbs in Zion National Park and in Morocco. I would say if there's an overarching theme between these documentaries it's probably that of obsession. Both Honnold and his counterpart in The Dawn Wall, Tommy Caldwell (who actually appears in Free Solo, helping Honnold to prepare for his climb) is that they're both more or less obsessed with climbing and until they either conquer The Dawn Wall or free solo El Capitan, they'll never be truly satisfied. Between the two, Honnold comes across as the more single minded of the two.

The actual climb is tense, silent and by the end my palms were starting to sweat-- even though you know that Honnold succeeds, just the idea of it- the idea of being wedged into a crack of granite that high off the ground where the slightest slip could be the difference between life and death. It only adds to the craziness and the immensity of the achievement.

In contrast, The Dawn Wall is more of technical problem that Tommy Caldwell and his partner Kevin Jorgenson have to solve. Essentially a sheer face of granite that had never been climbed before, the two climbers spend six years studying possible routes and mapping them out before making the actual attempt. Caldwell has something of an interesting back story: he became a relatively young climbing prodigy and was actually held hostage on a climbing trip in Kyrgyzstan for six days before seeing an opportunity to push their final and sole captor off of a cliff in order to escape.

You get the sensation that conquering The Dawn Wall is Caldwell's attempt to exorcise some ghosts of that- but at the same time, there's more of a puzzle aspect to it that's fascinating. They know that there are multiple possible routes up the wall, but they have to find them and join them together in one route. The ascent itself, when it begins involves Caldwell and Jorgenson taking it one pitch at a time and they take turns going, so that they each have to complete each section of the route for it to 'count.' Everything seems to proceed according to plan until Pitch 15, where Caldwell succeeds and try as he might, Jorgensen can't seem to crack it. Eventually, Caldwell decides to push on with Jorgensen taking on a support role as the media coverage of the attempt increases- but ultimately, Caldwell decides that if they're going to do this, he wants to get Jorgensen past that Pitch and caught up with him so they can make the top together.

When Jorgensen finally does crack the pitch, it's one of the most beautiful redemptive moments in the entire film. After he cracks that, the two of them fly up the rest and conquer The Dawn Wall together, solving a six year puzzle at last.

Overall: both are fascinating stories about something I knew very little about, but I feel like the promise and peril of doing the impossible is paid for by the ceaseless obsession these climbers show with getting the job done. But maybe that's the lesson here: to do impossible things, you've got to be obsessed and there aren't that many people who are willing to do that. My Grades: Free Solo, **** out of **** and The Dawn Wall, **** out of ****

Saturday, March 9, 2019

This Week In Vexillology #284

This Week In Vexillology is back and we're heading north for our tour of the counties of England-- this week we're going right up to the border with Scotland to take a look at the flags of Northumberland and Durham.

First up, Northumberland. How do you get there? Well...  there's a 'north' in the name for a reason- if you head all the way up to the north of England, past Leeds and Bradford all the way up to Newcastle and go directly northwest of that and you're more or less in the county proper. (I've got a book in my queue that deals with the history of the borderlands and the Border Reivers that ran in the area of Northumberland...  don't know if the Nixon Clan ran in that part of the border, but the whole place is sort of on a 'bucket list' to potentially visit when we next back to the UK.)

Here's their flag:
This is a flag of the historical county of Northumberland-- it's the banner of arms of the County Council. The arms of the county council were granted in 1951 but the flag wasn't registered with the Flag Institute until 1995. The exact origin of the arms was seems to be somewhat murky. They were originally attributed to the ancient kingdom of Bernicia. But weirdly, the wiki-page for the flag says that the arms were 'fictional' but inspired by Bede's description of a flag used on the tomb of St. Oswald in the 7th Century.

Overall, I like it. The colors are bright and the design is striking...  it also comes with a guideline: top corner, nearest the flagpole should be gold.

Next up, County Durham. How do you get there? Well it's actually pretty easy... south of Newcastle, north of Middlesbrough, you'll find the city of Durham- the county itself runs between Sunderland and Hartlepool on the coast and sort of juts inland to the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Here's their flag:
Registered with the Flag Institute in 2013 after an online competition to create a flag of the county. Chosen from six finalists, the winners were twins Katie and Holly Moffatt and their dad James Moffat- which is kind of a nice family story. The flag features the Cross of St. Cuthbert counterchanged in the the county colors of blue and gold. One of the early Celtic Saints, St. Cuthbert's tomb is located in Durham Cathedral- hence, his association with the county.

I always love counterchanged flag designs and County Durham has a particularly striking one- I love the combination of blue and gold and the contrast with neighboring Northumberland and their bright colors of red and gold is quite nice.

So there you have it- the next two flags in our tour of the counties of England. Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, March 8, 2019

Free Write Friday #8: The Illusion of Power

The revolution will not be televised, the revolution will be live. And therein lies your predicament, because you're the one that has to tell the mob that just stormed the capital that everything they fought for was a lie.

Power, the butler reflected, was an illusion and The President had been a master of it. He was waiting patiently in the President's office for the mob to arrive. This wasn't going to go well, he knew, but someone had to tell them the truth and the President had decided that the butler was the perfect man to do it. He was in his late 60s, his hair silver, his face wrinkled with age. His suit was immaculate, as it always was and he had been a faithful servant to the President and his regime for nearly three decades. So, with a wave of a hand, the old man had said, "You tell them. You tell them the truth."

And then, of course, the bastard got into his helicopter- the plain, unadorned, green one- the real one and not the shiny white one he used for photo ops and flew away.

The butler went over to the sideboard and, picking up a glass, poured himself a measure of brandy and took a sip. The President hadn't been a bad boss. He was always perfectly polite and pleasant- he went out of his way to treat the servants with utmost courtesy, it's just that he felt the need to keep up the illusion of power as part of the prestige of the office. And at first, that sort of made sense. The people responded to it. He would be in every parade, resplendent in his military uniform, smiling and waving, handing out candy to the children, shaking hands with anyone and everyone he met. He would go to the most obscure towns in the most backward province in the country and dazzle them all with a speech and a smile and would leave to rapturous crowds cheering his name.

He was a genius at this stuff. When there was an earthquake in the capital, he opened the palace grounds to house the homeless. When there was a famine in the south, he loaded up trucks full of food and water and spent weeks distributing aid to the people. He was beloved. But the economy couldn't get better- in fact, it got worse. The legislature became more and more corrupt. The President got older and fell out of touch with the people and what they wanted. His son was killed in the brief border war with their neighbors. His daughter ran off to the mountains and joined the rebels. His wife died. The streets had become emptier and emptier. The palace had become more and more deserted. The last few years had been sad to witness.

But now, the end was near. The butler strode over to the double windows that lead out to the balcony that overlooked the Avenue of The Motherland that ran the from the very outskirts of the capitol right up to the Presidential Palace itself. The mob was getting closer, but they were taking their sweet time about. Someone was directing them somewhat. They were chanting something indistinct and with a sigh the butler went back over to the President's desk and sat down in his opulent chair and kept sipping his brandy.

The crowd noise grew closer and closer and then he heard them hammering at the metal gates that lead to the palace. He heard them crack and a deafening cheer told him that they had breached the gates. Minutes later, he could hear them starting to smash and destroy things down below and there were the sound of footsteps on the stairs and then the doors to the President's office burst open with a thunderous crash and they were finally here.

They stared at him in puzzlement.

"Well, it's about time too," he said. "I've been waiting."

"Who are you old man?" The young man at the head of the mob looked angry and was carrying what looked to be a cudgel of some kind with nails hammered into it.

"I'm the butler."

"The butler?"

"Yes, the butler," he replied.

"Where's the President?"

"I'm afraid you missed him," the butler replied. "He flew away."

"You're lying!" Someone behind the young man with the cudgel shouted. "Yeah! Bring us the traitor!" Someone else added.

"I assure you I have no reason to lie," the butler said. "He wanted someone to remain behind and tell you all the truth."

"The truth is that he's been hoarding the wealth of the Motherland while his people starve!" The young man with the cudgel said. "We're going to ransack this place until we find it and then give it back to those that he stole it from!"

"That's where you're rather amusingly wrong," the butler said.

"Wrong?"

"There is no money," the butler said.

"Liar! Where did he hide it?" More and more of the mob came into the room, crowding to the sides of the President's desk and forming a half-circle around it.

The butler sighed. "It's an illusion." He pointed to the books that lined the bookshelves at one end of the room. "Those books? They're fake." He pointed to the windows that overlooked the grounds. "Those windows? Not at all bulletproof." He pointed to the floor. "Even the marble is fake."

The mob greeted this with silence.

"But, the cars, the parades," the young man with the cudgel said. "He drove around in a Rolls Royce while the rest of us were starving."

"My dear boy, that was a Lincoln town car that was over fifteen years old. A little paint, some new decals and it looked a great deal like a Rolls Royce, I'll grant you that."

"You're lying."

"Liar!"

"He's a running dog bootlicker of the regime!"

"Have you found anything?" The butler said. "Anything at all? If he's been hoarding the wealth of the nation, it has to be somewhere, right?"

Silence again. The young man with the cudgel looked around. "Does anyone have a gun?"

"I do!" Someone called.

"Shoot the window," he said.

There was the sharp report of a gun and the window behind the butler shattered. There was a stunned silence.

"The President believed in maintaining the illusion of power. He didn't want the prestige of the office to suffer. He had about as much money as you all do by the end," the butler said.

"But he fled! He left! He transferred the money overseas!"

The butler chuckled. "Wouldn't you leave?"

"Why didn't you?" The young man with the cudgel said with a curious look on his face.

The butler drained the last of the brandy. "Because he wanted someone to know the truth. Not that I convinced you."

There was another long moment of silence, before someone shouted, "Seize him! We'll get the truth out of him one way or the other!"

With a sigh, the butler stood and mob rushed forward, seized him and dragged him away.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

1,556 Miles Update #2


Okay, this is where I left off at the end of January and the beginning of February. I sort of fell off the pace in February a bit-- and March is going to be weird, since we're going down to Texas over Spring Break- so I sort of did a February + early March thing for this post and the next update (hopefully in early May) will be a Late March + April update. 

How are things going? Pretty well, I think. Intermittent fasting seems to work quite well for me-- I sort of miss breakfast sometimes and I ease up on the weekends a bit, just so I can enjoy breakfast with the family, etc. But overall the principle is appealing: I can't necessarily control what I eat (well, I can, I just choose not too) but I can control when I eat a hell of a lot easier. Going into March though, I want to start focusing on a couple of different things.

First, I want to get back on the Kettlebell and Tai Chi train. Theoretically, I jump on the Big Pink Bike Monday-Wednesday-Friday and that leaves Tuesday and Thursday to do something. If I can get to a point where I'm doing something that could be defined as 'exercise' five days a week by the end of the year, I'm going to call this a success. 

Second, I want to focus on what I'm eating. I need to get better at eating less crap and eating healthier things. (Or at the very least, just delicious well prepared food.)

So, let's get down to it. At the end of January, I put in 102.9 on the Big Pink Bike and I added another 79.2 miles which puts my grand total at 182.1 miles, which means my maps looks like this:

That's a nice amount of progress I think...  through the tangle of the Twin Cities and safely out onto the other side. Can I make it to Des Moines by May 1st? Stay tuned to find out, I guess! As to where my end point looks like on the pretty Google Earths, well it's this:
Two updates down, plenty more to go!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Bookshot #117: Conversation In The Cathedral

At this point, I don't really know what else I can say about Mario Vargas Llosa. Every book of his I've ever read has been powerful, incredible and straight up amazing. It's been awhile since I've read any Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Amado or Isabel Allende- and I still need to sit down and read more of Jorge Luis Borges- but Vargas Llosa belongs with the best of them- if for no other reason than his novels make you learn things you didn't necessarily know before. (Especially about the history of Latin America.)

Another thought I've had: I wonder what his novels would be like in Spanish? I might actually have to sit down and attempt one of his books in his native language just to try and see if his writing style comes across in a different way.

So: Conversation In The Cathedral. Set in 1950s Peru, this book rather elegantly states the question that the characters ponder throughout the course of the book: "At what precise moment had Peru fucked itself up?" The two main characters are Santiago and Ambrosio, who have a chance meeting in Lima one day when Santiago is chasing a story and he finds his father's former Chauffeur, Ambrosio, working for the dog pound. Heading over to a local water hole known as The Cathedral, the two of them have a few drinks and catch up, each of them pondering what had gone wrong with their lives.

Santiago is the black sheep of a rich family, working at a tabloid newspaper and rejecting his families wealth. In University, he had flirted with the Communist Party- mainly because he was interested in a fellow classmate of his, Aida- but after a student strike/uprising is put down by the regime, his interest in radical politics wanes and is soon abandoned. His father is a Senator and regime ally, Don Fermin who longs for Santiago to stop his rebellion and come back to go to law school so he can take over the family business- but it's his father's potential involvement in the murder of a notorious prostitute and mistress of a powerful regime ally that really sparks the story to life, especially when it comes to Ambrosio.

Ambrosio, as it turns out knows more about the murder than he wants to admit and he tells Santiago his story and how his life more or less lead him first away from Lima, with a wife and a child and then back to Lima without them after his wife died and he more or less abandons his child/leaves her with their land lady out in the country.

If the disillusionment both men feel at the state of their country wasn't the point of the book, the ending would feel somewhat unsatisfying- but in as it's set in 1950s Peru, a period of political and societal stagnation and malaise (at least that's what I took away from this book- I'm not finding much out in the interwebs that would disagree with that assessment) the disillusionment is the point. The ending works. It's melancholy and not particularly happy, but it fits. Life can be nothing but a series of unfortunate tragedies many of which can mean next to nothing at all for a lot of people. It's far too easy to be disillusioned by everything.

Vargas Llosa's style is somewhat difficult to wrap your head around at first. It seems very jumbled at first- with dialogue shifting from one character to another one conversation to another, but the deeper you get into the book, clarity emerges and you begin to see the stories of Santiago and Ambrosio swing into focus. His style is sort of what makes me wonder about how these novels read in Spanish- it'd be interesting to see if there are nuances and aspects to his style that are different in his native language than in English- it sure seems like that would be the case, just because of translation, but how much is lost in translation would be interesting to find out too.

Overall: a melancholy and powerful glimpse into the history of Peru, Mario Vargas Llosa proves yet again why he's one of the best writers in the world. I'd probably slot Conversations In The Cathedral in between Feast of the Goat and The War of The End of The World-- the former was more accessible and the latter considerably more dense, though both were amazing books. His style takes some getting used too, but what's nice about this book is that the more you read, the clearer everything becomes- it's like lifting a curtain, slowly. My Grade: **** out of ****

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

A Modest Proposal: A Flag for Cedar Rapids (Blue Diagonal)

Okay, I should state at the outset of this that I am in no way, shape or form, a graphic artist. I did this in about a half hour using MS Paint so obviously, there are other better programs out there that could make this look even better than I think it does. (Granted, I'm a little biased here, but I think it looks halfway decent- and would probably look even better if I had an ounce or two of artistic talent.) So: if you haven't heard the news, Cedar Rapids is looking into getting a new flag, which naturally makes the flag nerd in me squeeeee with delight. There's no official design contest open as of yet-- so I have plenty of time to work up some more proposals or at the very least, make this one look a little better than it does.

But when KCRG asked the question on Twitter, this was more or less the initial concept that sprang into my brain. I think my official answer to the question was this:
Between Bohemia and Moravia, I settled on Moravia, as historically it lies in between Bohemia and Slovakia, which made it seem like a nice bridge between the two-- but the color scheme is what immediately threw this initial notion off. This is the Eagle of Moravia:
Multiple problems emerge immediately. If I want a blue diagonal with the gold diamond in the center of it-- then what do the other two cantons of the flag look like? Do I fimbriate the blue diagonal with something and then have a blue diagonal and a blue canton? Is that too much blue? Would a red and white checkered eagle look good on a background other than blue? How do the Moravians feel about this? Are there copyright issues I don't know about?

Basically, it posed too much of a design problem for me to overcome. Do I think you could use an eagle (maybe not this eagle) in another design and checker it red and white to represent the Czech and Slovak heritage of the city? I do. I might sit down and do some more research on it and work up a second proposal here in a month or two and do it right. But in this design, I just couldn't get it to work the way I wanted it too. So I dropped it...

I did some basic research into the history of Cedar Rapids-- I learned that Linn County isn't named after anyone in particular. (Oh, all right. It's named after this guy, a Senator from Missouri.) Cedar Rapids itself was named after the rapids of the Cedar River (which I guess at one point had red cedars growing along its banks? Are there still any of them around?) The Sac and Fox tribes were original settlers of the area as well.

So all that knowledge acquired, let's break down the Blue Diagonal flag:

The blue diagonal stands for the Cedar River, which I was pleased to find out actually run more or less northwest to southeast through the city. The white border along the blue diagonal stands for the foam of the rapids that give the city its name.

The gold diamond in the center obviously represents May's Island, where the government offices are located. (Cedar Rapids shares the distinction with Paris as being one of two cities in the world to have their governmental offices on an Island.)

The green in the lower canton stands for the verdant fields and agricultural of Iowa, while the gold in the upper canton stands for the corn that Iowa produces in such quantities. (If that's a little too on the nose, you could also go with 'the sun that shines down on the state to help things grow.')

Which brings us to the tree: I can't draw. Obviously, in a perfect world, this would be The Tree of Five Seasons, since Cedar Rapids is the city of Five Seasons. But, like I said, I can't draw, so you'll have to settle for a stylized tree with five sides to it, each representing one of the Five Seasons that Cedar Rapids is all about. (You shouldn't ignore the red cedar though: the flag of Lebanon technically has a green cedar, that doesn't look anything like a red cedar, but if you don't want to go with the actual tree of Five Seasons, a red cedar with five branches would tie back into both the city's name as well as it's history. Which would be kind of cool, I think.)

So, that's my first crack at making a new flag for Cedar Rapids. Whatever process they choose to use to design their new flag, though- I'm just happy that they are. Flags have been incredibly potent symbols throughout history and still are today. A new flag to promote some civic pride is never a bad thing in my book. (Now I just have to poke Iowa City again and see if I can get answer on the status of our flag as well.)

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Netflix & Chill #58: Fyre Fraud/Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened

Fyre Fraud
Watched On: Hulu
Released: 2019
Directed By: Jennifer Furst, Julia Willoughby Nason
Rotten Tomatoes: 76%

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Watched On: Netflix
Released: 2019
Directed By: Chris Smith
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%

Competing documentaries on different streaming services about the same subject? Sure I'll watch 'em both and compare and contrast to deliver a doubleheader review for your reading pleasure. There's a lot of similarity between the two documentaries, just because they cover the same disastrous subject matter: namely the story of the Fyre Festival which was hyped the next big thing in music festivals in 2017. Except when attendees arrived, nothing was as glamorous or as swanky as they were promised- in fact, quite the opposite. It was a trainwreck of a logistical nightmare: the swank 'glamped-up' bungalows were not in evidence. The private island that was supposed to island? (That belonged to Pablo Esscobar?) That fell through, so it wasn't even there.

Between the two, I think I'd been inclined to give the nod to Hulu's Fyre Fraud, if for no other reason that it scores an interview with the man behind it all, Billy McFarland. It also seems to be a more thoughtful exploration of the power of social media and how shallow it can be- pretty much most of the time. It deals with the rise of that most noxious term, 'influencer' and how one Kylie Jenner post sent Fyre Festival viral.

In contrast, Netflix's Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, focuses more on the event itself- how the planning went awry, how the attendees arrived and how the fraud exploited so many people and left the native Bahamians that worked tirelessly to try and pull off the festival wondering when, if ever, they were going to going to get paid. (If one good thing came out of this mess, it's that these documentaries caused the internet to do something good for once and help out of one of the victims with a GoFundMe.)

I didn't really pay too much attention to this at the time, but there was a certain amount of schaudenfreude about the whole thing and you can kind of wallow in it with both these documentaries. Not all of us have the cash to hop on a fancy chartered jet to the Bahamas to go to what was billed as the most exclusive hot new music festival. You can't help but feeling a certain amount of glee as you watch people with way more money that sense get what many people would consider to be their just desserts. But in contrast to that, the amount of people exploited, the amount of people who didn't get paid- it's sobering. And it's a reminder that wealth might give you the privilege to go to exclusive tropical music festivals, that same wealth can be used to exploit.

Social media, too, plays an interesting role in these documentaries. If you're convinced that social media is an incredible tool to connect people and is key to being an entrepreneur, then these documentaries will sort of prove you right- albeit in a twisted kind of way. If you think that it's a giant distortion machine that obscures the reality of what actually going on the real world, these documentaries will prove you right. If you think that social media is superficial and shallow- well, you get the picture at this point, right? These documentaries will prove you right.

What I didn't know: Ja Rule, of all people, somehow wound up in this mess- which is probably the most random thing about both of these films. Also, the wiki-page for Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened reveals something sort of interesting: Jerry Media, the social media agency that was responsible for the promotion and covering up of this mess. Don't know if that compromises the integrity of their documentary, but it is certainly worth raising an eyebrow over.

Overall: If you're curious to learn more about this mess and why it happened and what was done about it, both of these documentaries will tell you everything you want to know. Because Hulu scored the interview with the man behind it all, Billy McFarland, I'm inclined to give Fyre Fraud the nod, but really, it's just one half of a whole. So, watch both. My Grades: Fyre Fraud, **** out of ****, Fyre, *** out of ****

Saturday, February 23, 2019

This Week In Vexillology #283

This Week in Vexillology, we're tackling one of the big fish in England's happy fish pond of counties with a triple header...  yes, this week we're doing all the ridings of Yorkshire!

In terms of how to get to Yorkshire, it's pretty easy because it's a pretty big place. If you throw a dart at the north of England there's a good chance you'll probably hit Yorkshire. If you're looking for York in particular, then find Leeds head to the northeast and you'll hit York proper. In terms of the ridings of Yorkshire: for the East Riding, find the city of Hull and stay on the north side of the Humber and you're in the East Riding. The North Riding doesn't seem to want to show up on Google Maps, but North Yorkshire does...  it's more or less all the pretty parts of Yorkshire north of Leeds and south of Middlesborough. West Yorkshire is pretty much Leeds, Bradford, Huddersfield and points between.

So, let's talk about their flags. First up, East Riding:
Registered with the Flag Institute in 2013 as the winning entry in a design competition. It features the white rose of Yorkshire set against a bicolor of blue and green. The blue stands for the sea and maritime activities of the riding and the green stands for the rich agricultural land of the riding. Now, the initial thought I had was: why aren't the blue and the green swapped- as that would mirror the actual geography of the riding- but it turns out there's a reason for the blue being so close to the hoist. It represents the connect to the rest of Yorkshire-- (the white rose on a blue background) and the green represents it's position in the county-- the farthest 'right' geographically.)

Next up, North Riding:
Registered with the Flag Institute in 2013 as the winning entry in a design competition, it features a yellow edged blue cross on a field of green with the white rose of Yorkshire in the center. The yellow and blue are taking from the arms attributed to a local saint, Wilfrid, who was a major figure in the history of the region. With the green field, the three colors stand for the natural features of the north riding: the green for the Moors of North Yorkshire, the blue and yellow for the coastline of the North Sea (and it's sandy beaches.)

Finally, the West Riding:
Another winning entry in a design competition, you'll never believe this, but it was registered in 2013 with the Flag Institute. It features a 'rose en soleil' device, which was first used by Edward IV when he took the throne, which combined the White Rose of York with the Sun emblem used by his predecessor Richard II. It's been used by the West Riding in it's Coat of Arms. It's placed over a red Nordic cross on a field of white, which reflects both the colors of the English flag as well as the Anglo-Scandinavian history of the area, tying together the heritage and the history of the region.

So there you are- the three flags of the Ridings of Yorkshire. Remember, until next time keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Friday, February 22, 2019

Free Write Friday #7: The Hangover

You are a hungover wizard who can't shake the feeling you fucked up last night.

The door crashed open with a song that felt like thunder on the inside of his skull. Dwayne, or as he preferred to be called, Margol The Magnificent sat bolt upright on the couch in his office and immediately wondered where he was and what was going on. The sight of his assistant, Melanie came into focus. She was looking at him with an expression of contempt and disgust written all voer her face.

"What did you do?"

"I don't," Margol groaned. "I don't remember," he said. "There were dancers and a lot of... beers. And then someone figured out how to turn the beer into Jaegermeister and then we turned water into tequila and then... oh man, my head."

"What the hell are you even wearing, Dwayne?" Melanie asked as she strode into the room. "Those aren't even your robes."

"Don't call me Dwayne," he said. "It's Margol. The Magnific-" His stomach lurched and he half rolled, half fell out of bed and as he landed painfully on the floor he was somewhat pleased to note that he had the foresight to place a garbage can within easy reach of the bed, which he know emptied the contents of his stomach- which wasn't much- into. "cent. Magnificent," he said.

"You're disgusting, Dwayne," Melanie said. Then she turned around and flung open the drapes that obscured his office. Daylight poured into the room which caused Margol to grab at the garbage can again to bury his face in it to block out the light. That in turned caused him to smell the contents of the garbage can and his stomach heaved again.

"You gotta get up."

"What? What far?"

"You've got your tenure hearing today."

Margol groaned and rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. He clutched at his head again. "Is that today?"

"Yes, you idiot," Melanie said. "What the hell were you thinking going out last night?"

"I wanted to celebrate," he replied. "Fizban over in Necromancy got his tenure appointment yesterday and mine was today and-" Something was bothering him. A feeling of dread and not just nausea and remorse filled him. "We did something. I-"

"You got horribly drunk and made multiple bad life choices," Melanie said. "Now get up...  there's a shower in your bathroom. Go use it."

"There's a shower in my bathroom?"

"Well there is now, Dwayne.," Melanie replied. "I have some magic skills as well."

"Thanks, Melanie," he groaned as he rolled over onto his stomach and pushed himself up. With an effort he reached up and grabbed the edge of the bed and pulled himself into a standing position.

"I'll brew up something to help with the hangover...and maybe to make you smell better," Melanie said.

"Thanks, Melanie," he replied again and staggered across the room and into what had been his bathroom, but now contained a large, luxurious shower that was already running and putting out clouds of multi-colored steam. He flung off the robes and stood naked in front of the open toilet for a moment, wondering if he was going to vomit again. Instead, he let out of a massive belch that tasted like a noxious mixture of tequila and Jaegermeister and nearly did vomit again, but managed to resist the urge to do so and stepped into the shower again.

What had they done last night? He scrubbed himself as best they could as flashes of the night came back to him. It was the damn turning water into tequila that had done it. It wasn't unusual for the Fellows of Merlin College, Cambridge to do such things. One legendary prank had turned the entire River Cam a rather charming shade of electric blue one year. That was life at England's premier college of magic and wizardry. Dwayne had been lucky to get a teaching spot here, never mind a full professorship and tenure- if he got it was going to be set for life. But that assumes he could figure out what the hell they had done last night. There was that little voice in the back of his head, poking, prodding, whispering: You fucked up, Dwayne. You fucked up so big.

The shower disappeared with a pop and he suddenly found himself standing naked in an empty bathroom- he was dry, however and he had to admit that whatever spell Melanie had cast, he felt a lot better. Another pop and a fresh sent of robes appeared in thin air in front of him. They were dress robes and looked fantastic. He smiled as he pulled them on over his head. Melanie had done it again. She was brilliant. Adjusting them slightly, he stepped out of the bathroom and Melanie was waiting for him with a steaming mug of...  something green.

"What is that?"

"Never you mind," she said. "Just drink it."

Obediently, he took the mug from her and gulped it down. It fizzed and burned a little bit and almost made him choke, but after a second, the burning turned to a fantastic warming sensation that spread fro the center of his chest out to ends of his fingers and the tips of his toes. "I feel amazing!"

"Good," Melanie said. "That means it worked. Now, go and get tenure."

"Yes ma'am," Dwayne (or Margol. Though he was feeling more like a Dwayne still.) walked through the open door of his office and headed down the hall to the stairs and toward the Dean's Office. Dean Filberto The Fabulous had his own house across the wide, verdant lawn of Merlin College. Despite the temptation to ignore all the 'Keep Off The Grass' signs and to just run across the grass, Dwayne forced himself to follow the gravel paths and not to run, however much he wanted too. Finally, however, he reached the Dean's house and knocked on the door. After a long moment, Dean Filberto opened it and, seeing who it was, essayed a smile that made Dwayne pause.

"Ah, Professor Margol," he said. "Do come in."

"Thank you Dean Filberto," he said. "We're waiting for you upstairs in the drawing room. I'm sure you'll remember it."

"I don't believe I've ever had the pleasure of seeing your drawing room," he said as he followed Dean Filberto up the stairs.

"Oh," Dean Filberto said, with that smile on his face again as he paused at the double doors that lead into the drawing room. "I don't think that's true," he opened the doors and lead Dwayne inside. Dwayne's expression froze and a cold feeling settled into his gut as the memories of what they had done last night came flooding back. The evidence all over the walls certainly helped jog his memory. Splashes of what looked like paint were all over the walls-- except, it wasn't paint. It looks as though the wood paneling had been redecorated by someone trying to control an out of control power sprayer. Shades of pink, purple and green were all over the walls and the three professors on the tenure board were doing their best to look solemn. "I don't mind redecorating now and again," Professor Filberto said, "but I do enjoy that portrait," he pointed over at the wall.

Someone had added a caption to it: "Dean Filberto the Flatulent." Dwayne closed his eyes and wished he could be literally anywhere else. Melanie was right. He was an idiot. And man, oh man, had he fucked up last night.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

So Long, Lucky's

Lucky's Market, one of  the anchor tenants for the Iowa City Marketplace announced last week that it was set to close in early March. Which, naturally leaves Eastsiders wondering what the Iowa City Marketplace is going to do know and what, if anything, can replace that bacon. (Because their bacon was incredible. I will definitely be pouring one out for Lucky's bacon when they close.) There are already a lot of desires floating around there: there's a petition circulating for a Target Marketplace to go in there. People are hoping that New Pioneer Co-op will give up on it's infatuation and quixotic dreams of a bigger and better space downtown and come to the east side, but I think- I hope, that the owners of the Iowa City Marketplace really sit down and think about what could work there long term- and I hope some outside the box, genuinely creative solutions are on the table too.

I'm not against another grocery store. Way back in the day we used to have a Randall's over there. And there was an Econofoods where Slumberland is now in Pepperwood Place. So a multiplicity of grocery store options isn't exactly a new problem for Iowa City. I think if Lucky's was the victim of anything it was probably really bad timing. Both Natural Grocers and Trader Joe's entered the organic/boutique grocery market shortly after they opened and in a town with two Aldi's, multiple Hy-Vees and an existing local co-op brand in New Pioneer that had pretty deep roots in the community.

So if they go the grocery store route, it would either have to be more mainstream but different enough to attract it's own customer base. (I think Target would fit the bill, but I don't know how sustainable it would be over the long term.)

The really interesting thing to consider is what to put in there if you don't want to go with another grocery store. You've got to think about the evolution of the concept of the mall. The whole notion of big, indoor shopping malls I think is dying somewhat and when you see articles full of bad news for large retail chains- Sears just barely survived. Younkers is in trouble. Payless is closing. Then the idea of something large, mainstream and national might not seem like a good idea.That doesn't mean that it can't work, it just means that you'd really have to find the right fit and the right chain to put in there. What that chain might be, I don't know. (Apparently Dollar General really wants to expand to which I'd say 'thanks, but no thanks.' Someone else thought it seemed ideal for a furniture store of some kind- which again, I'd say 'thanks, but no thanks.')

So, let's say you look at the 'replacement chain/tenant' model and find it somewhat wanting. Then you've got to move onto the 'creative, outside the box' options. So far, I've got two notions:

First, a food hall. Iowa City's food scene is okay... I know that seems sort of odd to say, but when you stack us up against Des Moines and even increasingly, Cedar Rapids, we do seem sort of okay. To the best of my knowledge, I don't know of any food halls in Iowa- the closest thing to what the concept appears to be would maybe be NewBo up in Cedar Rapids, but the notion seems more involved than that. But something like this together with the movie theater and you could have a legitimate draw not just for the East Side but for the community as a whole. Include some kind of a community space for events at the like and the Iowa City Marketplace might actually start to feel like a marketplace. The idea would be new, different and hopefully delicious.

Second, and this is more a personal pet peeve of mine: a big gigantic Powell's sized bookstore. Having typed this, I know there's no way in hell it'll ever happen, because despite being a City of Literature, we have like a pitiful amount of bookstores. If we're going to include this on our branding and wrap ourselves up in the City of Literature thing, it'd be nice if it was more than just an exercise in marketing. Literature as a word includes 'all written works' but also has that pesky snootiness attached to it's definition 'especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit' which is just like nails on a chalkboard to me. When I write, I want to write something that people enjoy reading. If I'm lucky, it'll transport them somewhere else for a half and hour here and there. If I'm extremely lucky, maybe someone will give me a sexy publishing contract and I'll get to play in the majors for awhile. If I am incredibly lucky, I'll win and award for it. If somehow the stars align and my muse sings the story to end all stories to me and I write it down, I'll reach that 'lasting artistic merit' thing.

But really, I aim for the first part. Everything else (should it happen) it just a bonus after that. Literature is for everyone and every writer should write like it. Being a UNESCO City of Literature is amazing. It's a great honor for this city. But let's not kid ourselves: it's not for everyone. And a store, a project, a community gathering place that chips away at that implied exclusivity of the concept would be something I would love to support and love to see take root in the east side.

(I know this is probably a pipe dream, but it's my pipe dream, damn it.)

Third, and this is purely me pulling something out of my hat because three seems like a good number to have- but what about a creative marketplace? The Farmer's Market is seasonal in nature, but what about an etsy like space where local crafters can hock their interesting products? I've no idea how sustainable this idea is- or even if there's interest in it, but I know they were looking at putting a STEAM Lab in there at one point and I'd support that too. Anything creative. Anything for creators would be fine by me.

Just don't put Dollar General in that ginormous space, okay. That's really all I ask. And don't be afraid to get creative.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sportsyball: Back In The Saddle

Adopt-A-Team: Last time we checked in with Trabzonspor was the end of October and happily, they're still doing pretty well- currently sitting at sixth in the table- probably on the outside of Champions League qualification and not really in it for the League title, but there's still some football left to be played. So here's what they've done since October:

W vs BAK (Turkish Cup)
D vs Bursasport
L to Yeni Malatyaspor
W vs Fenerbahce
W vs Kayserispor
D vs Sivas Belediyespor (Turkish Cup)
W vs Konyaspor
D vs Besiktas
W vs Sivas Belediyespor (Turkish Cup)
W vs Rizespor
W vs Balikesirspor (Turkish Cup)
L to Istanbul Basaksehir
W vs Balikesirspor (Turkish Cup)
D vs Sivasspor
W vs Ankaragucu
D vs Umraniye (Turkish Cup)
L to Galatasaray
L to Alanyaspor

Okay, the good news: they're doing pretty well in the Turkish Cup-- they're through to the Quarter-Finals, which is decent enough. The bad news: they can't seem to beat any teams ahead of them. They've lost to league leaders Basaksehir as well as Galatasaray and Yeni Malatyaspor. Their loss to Alanyaspor isn't great, but it's not awful either given the length of the season and how far they've been going in the Turkish Cup. They've got plenty to play for down the stretch and with matches against Fenerbahce, Yeni Malatyaspor and Besiktas, they have some opportunities they could potentially take advantage of as well.

At the end of the day, I'm just happy that they're not relegation bait. (Defensa y Justicia is actually sitting in second place in the Argentine Superliga and NEC Nijmegen is hanging out in 15th Place in the Eerste Divise table, so my prior teams are doing well, sort of.)

Arsenal: let's just look at the results, shall we- since October 30th of 2018:

W vs Blackpool (League Cup)
D vs Liverpool
D vs Sporting
D vs Wolves
W vs Bournemouth
W vs Vorskla (Europa League)
W vs Tottenham
D vs Man United
W vs Huddersfield
W vs Qarabag (Europa League)
L to Southampton
L to Tottenham
W v Burnley
D v Brighton
L to Liverpool
W vs Fulham
W vs Blackpool (League Cup)
L to West Ham
W vs Chelsea
L to Man U (League Cup)
W vs Cardiff City
L to Man City
W vs Huddersfield
L to Bate (Europa League)

Ugh, this team, I swear. Hector Bellerin being injured doesn't help us, I know that. The great Mesut Ozil Drama continues. Aaron Ramsey is gone baby gone and we're stuck with The. Worst. Possible. Owner. you could ask for. It all looks a bit grim, to be totally frank and if I was any kind of a bandwagoneer I would have found another team to cheer for. But alas, I'm stuck with them and I suppose like Iowa football, when the moments of glory come (because they're going to come, right. Even the Rams made the Super Bowl, even if they didn't do anything much once they got there) they're going to be that much sweeter because I stuck with this team. So Arsenal forever damn it!

I would like this team to finish in the Top 4. The good news is that Chelsea seems to be playing about as well as Arsenal is at the moment, so it's possible. The bad news is that Man U has ditched Mourinho and are playing like mid-30s divorcee ready to let their hair down and live life again and go to Jamaica and meet Taye Diggs and-- oh wait, that's How Stella Got Her Groove Back. My bad. So who knows if that's possible. The hiccup against Bate Freakin' Borisov in the first leg was hardly inspiring either. No margin for error there in the second leg.

I don't, however, want to ask for the moon and be disappointed so just do what you need to do against BATE and beat Southampton and Bournemouth- or at the very least don't lose to either of them. Something, anything to get back on better form would be nice.

Iowa Hawkeyes: Well, we're in the depths of the Winter Sports Season and things are actually going pretty well across the board. Men's basketball is sitting at 20-5 overall, 9-5 in the conference ranked 21 in the AP poll. They've got Maryland, Indiana, Ohio State, Rutgers, Wisconsin and Nebraska left before the end of the regular season and the B1G Tournament. Despite needing two buzzer beaters to get past Northwestern and Rutgers, I can't see them losing all their remaining games and I think for sure they'll win more than two of them unless the wheels really come off the wagon, and I don't think they will. I think they're playing way too well at the moment for that.

While the men are having a hell of a bounceback year, the women's team is even better: they're into the Top 10 in the latest polls, sitting at 21-5, undefeated at home, they just secured first place in the conference by beating Maryland for the first time since 1992 and they've got games at Indiana, at Nebraska and one last home stand against Northwestern to wrap up their season. They look to be on track to host first and second round games in the NCAA and finally attendance seems to be matching the product they're putting out on the court. Their game against Maryland snuck them over the 10,000 mark for the first time this season and a sell out for Senior Day on March 3rd would be incredible.

Wrestling I still don't understand, but they're good. (Not really at that much of a surprise, though they're getting some stick for not having wrestled Penn State or Ohio State-- but they're rounding out the season by going down to Oklahoma State, so there's that, I guess?)

In 2019, football is undefeated and it's way too early to talk about their prospects for the fall yet. Though we have to go to Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska, so that's kind of... ugly.

Should this interminable month ever end, it'll be March. And that means Bracketology is coming... assuming we're not on vacation when the Tournament really gets going that is. I'll have to check the dates...

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Squawk Box: The Looming Tower/The First

Squawk Box this month features two limited series, both from Hulu: The Looming Tower and The First. I would probably put both of these shows squarely into the category of 'good, but not great' but for entirely different reasons. The Looming Tower suffers somewhat from the fact that everyone knows how the story is going to end, while The First aims incredible high and tries to deliver the goods but sort of gets lost in a muddle of family drama instead.

The Looming Tower is a ten episode mini-series based on the book of the same name by Lawrence Wright. It tells the story of the growing threat of Al-Qaeda in the mid-to-late 1990s and details the rivalry between the FBI and CIA and how it might have contributed to the tragedy of September 11th. Jeff Daniels stars as John O'Neill, the chief of the FBI's New York Counterterrorism Center known as I-49 who is convinced that Al-Qaeda is targeting the United States for attack. Joining him as a new agent is Ali Soufan (Tahar Rahim) a Muslim Lebanese-American FBI agent who joins the squad and eventually becomes a protoge of O'Neill's- he is infuriated by the perversion of Islam by the terrorists and goes undercover into their gathering spaces to try and gather information on their activities.

Opposing them- and really, they're made out to be the villains of the story, is the CIA Counterterrorism Center known as Alec Station. Headed initially by Martin Schmidt (Peter Sarsgaard) and then by Diane Marsh (Wrenn Schmidt) the CIA members of the team all believe that their agency is prepared to combat terrorist threats and, more importantly, that they are the only ones who can. Throughout the series, they consistently withhold information from the FBI while both teams work together to thwart possible terrorist attacks on American soil.

Ultimately, they don't succeed and it's not at all clear that any lessons were learned from it. Here's the thing though... I wanted to say that the events depicted in the series are too close, from a historical point of view, but it has been damn near two decades since September 11th. Which means that proximity to the events shouldn't be as much of an issue, yet to me, it feels like one. There's no new insights to be had here. No real groundbreaking thoughts. It's Zero Dark Thirty for a streaming service. Which is perfectly fine and even good television at the end of the day, but that's all it is. I feel like it could have been more.

The First is shorter than The Looming Tower by two episodes and centers around Sean Penn's astronaut Tom Hagerty. The series opens with Tom watching a mission to Mars launch from the comfort of his home in New Orleans. It feels like he should be on the ship, but he's not- which turns out to be a good thing, because it explodes shortly after launch. Tom runs to the launch site and frantically coordinates clearing away the balloons and the celebratory decorations before the stunned and grieving families arrive.

The failure of the mission and the death of the astronauts throws the entire Mars program into doubt, which sends Laz Ingram (Natascha McElhone) the CEO of the launch provider, Vista to Washington along with Tom to lobby the President and Congress for funding to complete the mission. Meanwhile, the ground team lead by Eitan Hafri (Oded Fehr) work on finding out what happened to the first mission while planning for the second-- Laz, wants Tom to come back onboard, but Tom is reluctant.

We find out through flashbacks about the struggles that the various members of the team go through about their decision to go to Mars and Tom's is tinged with tragedy, as his daughter Denise (Anna Jacoby-Heron)  is struggling with the tragedy of her mother, Diane's (Melissa George) suicide and her own addiction to drugs. She relapses at least once over the course of the series and Tom is wracked with guilt over wanting to go to Mars but not wanting to abandon his only child in the process. Ultimately, he asks for her permission to go, and initially, she won't give him an answer either way- but eventually, relents and absolves him of his decision and the two of them come to- if not forgiveness, then at least an understanding with each other as Tom and the crew depart for their journey to Mars.

It's an honest and interesting look at the human struggle behind spaceflight, so I'll give The First some credit: it's a new and even fresh take on the whole 'space' genre. That said: I think eight episodes was way too short. There wasn't enough time to really meet and connect with the other characters and their struggles. There was some science-y stuff, but not enough. While Sean Penn can indeed act, eight episodes of him looking anguished over what at the very core of it, is a selfish decision gets to be a bit much after awhile. Plus: it's called The First but you don't actually get to see any of them set foot on Mars. And now that it's been canceled, we'll never see them set foot on Mars at all.

Overall: If you liked Zero Dark Thirty and docudramas about events you've already lived through, then The Looming Tower will work just fine for you. If you're a space nut or a Sean Penn fan, I'd recommend watching The First, but if you're hoping for Mars, prepare your expectations for low Earth orbit instead and you'll probably be okay with it.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Netflix & Chill #57: Spiderman Into The Spider-Verse

Watched On: The Big Screen!
Released: 2018
Directed By: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman
Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfield, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin, John Mulaney, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Pick: Mine

I took the boys to see this over the holidays and am just now getting around to sitting down and banging out a review of it. But I'll make it short, sweet and to the point: this might be one of the best Spider-Man movies ever made.

The story begins with Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) on his way to an affluent boarding/charter school which he won a lottery to attend. His father, a police officer by the name of Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and his mother, Rio Morales (Luna Lauren Velez) a nurse have high expectations for Miles and despite wanting to go back to the public school he used to attend and feeling like doesn't fit in at his boarding school, he can't quite escape the fact that he might actually belong there. His Dad views Spider-Man as a menace, while Miles admires him- and sneaks out after school to visit his Uncle, Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) who estranged from Miles' father and takes him to an abandoned subway station where he can practice his graffiti- while there, he's bitten by a radioactive spider.

He returns to the station the next day to search for the spider, but finds a particle accelerator built by Wilson Fisk (Liev Schreiber) who is trying to break through to other dimensions to find versions of his dead wife and son who died in a car crash. Miles watches as Spider-Man attempts to stop Fisk, but is gravely wounded by the Prowler and Green Goblin. Spider-Man (Chris Pine) seeing Miles and recognizing that he has spider powers as well, gives him a USB port to plug into the accelerator in order to destroy it and warns Miles that the entire city is at risk if Fisk turns it out again. Fisk then kills Spider-Man as Miles watches.

Miles tries to master his abilities, but damages the USB drive in the process. Despondent, he goes to Peter Parker's grave and meets Peter B. Parker (Jack Johnson) a depressed and worn down Spider-Man from another dimension who is divorced from Mary Jane and who's Aunt May is dead. He reluctantly agrees to train Miles and help him create a new drive in exchange for getting back home to his own dimension. Breaking into the Kingpin's facility, they get the data that they need, but the Kingpin's chief scientist (Kathryn Hahn) warns that Peter will deteriorate and even die unless he gets back to his own dimension. Miles and Peter, of course, wind up getting into trouble and then get rescued by Spider-Woman (Hailee Stanfield) and soon enough they find other Spider-People from different dimensions as well: Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage.)

Together, with the help of this universe's Aunt May (Lily Tomlin) they band together to take down Fisk and get back to their own dimensions-- but not before Miles finds out some secrets about his family and finally learns to master his abilities as Spider-Man for himself. Peter returns to his dimension, revitalized and ready to try and repair his broken marriage to his Mary Jane. Miles settles into his responsibilities as Spider-Man in his own Universe and, at the very end of the movie Gwen Stacey figures out a way to contact him across dimensions, setting up the inevitable (and personally anticipated) sequel.

First of all: it looks beautiful. It combines contemporary CGI with hand drawn animation in a way that is visually stunning and really does feel like you've stepped right inside a comic book. Absolutely like nothing I've ever seen before in animation.

Second of all: wow! The possibilities! The story! The Spider-People all over the place! It's such a massive breath of fresh air for the franchise because it links Miles Morales into the existing Spider-Man franchise by establishing the concept of a multi-verse, but it also allows Spider-Verse to branch out into I don't even know how many different directions! This honored the origin story of the original Spider-Man while establishing a brand new one (several brand new ones!) in a way that felt organic and entirely authentic. I think the fact that Miles Morales as a character has been around for a little bit and is already quite established in the comics helps this film avoid any of the usual fanboy charges that seem to stalk all these films as well.

Finally and this is probably the biggest thing for me: the boys were absolutely entranced for pretty much the whole movie. Even the Medium Spawn paid attention to it-- it was the perfect introduction to Spider-Man for my boys and that made me very happy indeed.

Overall: An excellent and beautiful addition to the Spider-Man franchise, Spider-Verse breaks new ground, sets up intriguing possibilities all over the multi-verse and delivers one kick-ass movie to boot. This is a movie that I have a feeling is going to end up as a birthday or Christmas present for at least one of the boys this year. My Grade: **** out of ****

Saturday, February 9, 2019

This Week In Vexillology #282

Our tour of the counties of England continues this week with our next two counties on deck-- now, in a twist, I was going to go with Derbyshire and Leicestershire, but the latter doesn't seem to have a wiki-page for it's flag- and it's flag seems to be that of it's county council and not of the county itself. I think this is the first county I've come across that doesn't have a historical flag or hasn't seen a move to create it's own flag. So for now, I'm going to mull it over and see if I want to include county councils and 'count' them in this tour or not. I might come back to Leicestershire-- I might not. But this week, we're keeping Derbyshire and skipping over to Nottinghamshire instead.

Let's start with Derbyshire:

The first and most obvious question: where the hell is Derbyshire? Find Manchester and if you sort of go east from Manchester and find Sheffield and then go dead south from Sheffield until you find Derby and you've found Derbyshire. Very roughly speaking, the county is ringed by Birmingham, Stoke-On-Trent, Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester. What is the county famous for? Well...  there's Bakewell Tarts and Derby County football (one of these days they're going to get promoted to the Premier League) but really, it's the Peak District that gives the county it's natural beauty and probably the large portion of it's 'fame.' Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is from Derbyshire. Portions of The Princess Bride were filmed there. D.H Lawrence, Walter Scott and Tom Stoppard have also set various works of literature in the county.

So let's talk about their flag. There's a lot to like about it- it follows a pattern we see in a lot of county flags, using St. George's Cross as a foundation for their own flag, but Derbyshire makes their cross a little thicker than usual, which makes it stand out a little bit. The blue being lighter in color helps the green cross pop out a little more which in turn, focuses your attention more on the rose at the center of the flag. Overall, it's a really effective design.

It was designed by Martin Enright and, like so many county flags, came after someone noticed that another county (specifically, Cornwall) had their own flag and wondered if Derbyshire had something of their own. A campaign was launched and eventually on September 22nd, 2006, the flag was unfurled and subsequently registered with the Flag Institute.

The blue and the green were chose to represent the green countryside of the county as well as it's rivers and reservoirs. The rose at the center of the flag is a Tudor rose, which has been the county badge since the 1470s-- though, it's gold in color, to differentiate it from the emblems of Yorkshire and Lancashire- and the gold also apparently stands for quality.

Next up, Nottinghamshire:
Finding Nottinghamshire is actually pretty simple. Find London on the map and then follow the M-1 north to Leeds and at some point you'll slide past the city of Nottingham. Head slightly north-north east of that until you're more or less directly between Chesterfield and Lincoln and you'll be smack dab in the middle of Nottinghamshire. Located on the Roman Fosse Way, settlement in the region dates back to Roman Times. (Also: if you've ever been to the UK and find yourself on a very straight road for an extended period of time, it's probably Roman.) It shouldn't be a galloping shock to find out that the legend of Robin Hood is very popular here-- but also, Lord Byron and D.H. Lawrence hail from the county and Nottingham Forest is kicking around the English Championship while Notts County and Mansfield Town are toiling in League Two.

So, let's talk about their flag. Again, no surprise that Robin Hood is the central element of the flag. And St. George's Cross appears as a design element again- though, in contrast to the thicker version that Derbyshire uses, this one is more conventional and bordered with a white line. The flag's wiki-page doesn't include an official explanation of the shade of green, but what with Robin Hood being so central to the flag, 'Sherwood Forest' or 'forests in general' seem to be a logical leap that I'm willing to make. The Robin Hood silhouette is specifically James Woodford's bronze statue of Robin Hood which is located in the city of Nottingham.

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

Friday, February 8, 2019

Free Write Friday #6: Welcome To The Core

The Core World, a massive world where all members of every single sentient race are reincarnated, is descending into chaos as an unprecedented number of 7 billion humans are reincarnated due to a mass extinction event.


I always get nervous when the moons are full. Not that you can really see them that well—there are too many hyper towers and skyscrapers and the light pollution is horrific until they kill the lights in the Justice Tower Complex and it abates somewhat. So that was my first signal that it was going to be a bad shift.  The second signal was when, on their way out of the door, Gelsanganaranix, whose species didn’t really have a name other than ‘blue’, said with a sneer, “I hope you have a quiet night.”

“Thanks, Gels,” I said. “I hope your mother turns purple.”

“Bite me, meat stick,” it replied. Purple was a highly offensive color in their culture. Then it left and I made some coffee and settle down for my shift.  Central Dispatch at the Justice Tower Complex was usually a relatively simple assignment. Process new arrivals and send them down the right junctions to be reincarnated and either returned to their home worlds or released out into The Core to find their species enclaves to begin new lives. It was dull, work and nights were usually fairly steady, but never as insane as your average day cycle or even evening cycles. The night cycle was where it was at.

And for the first four hours, everything went just fine. I forget about Gels and his use of the ‘q’ word. I forgot about the moons being full. I processed a shipload of Tau Cetians that had gotten caught in a black hole. I handled a family of refugees from Vercingetorix IX. There was a steady stream of marine-based alien life from the moons of Calamar- it was mating season and they hadn’t quite figured out how to evolve past the pesky and annoying habit of dying once they reached their mating grounds and did the deed.

I was on my third cup of coffee when the trouble really began. An incoming alarm sounded, which isn’t all that unusual, but the rumbling that followed wasn’t at all usual. I brought up the main screen and checked.  Somewhere in the western spiral arm of the galaxy…  I zoomed down. Sol. Third planet. There was a civilization there, but a relatively primitive one, not yet connected to the rest of the Galactic Federation. Pre-Interstellar flight… and…  oh no. A coronal mass ejection? That meant…

The Core’s system for handling incoming arrivals could take a lot. When the Untaxians and Orions had gone to war, we had been getting arrivals for days, in batches of hundreds and thousands at a time. But this… alarms began sounding as the system groaned under the strain. Another new, alarm- one that I had never heard of began to sound. I whirled around and ran over to the main control panel to see what it was. It was teal green and said WARNING: MASS EXTINCTION EVENT.

I ran back to my console and opened a channel. “All units, all units respond back to the Justice Tower Complex. We have a Mass Extinction Event underway.”

There was a long silence before I heard the first units respond. Then the supervisor appeared on the vid-link. “Stravanka, this better not be one of your-“ she paused as she saw the chaos behind me and heard the noise. “By all the moons,” she gasped.

“Not a joke ma’am,” I yelled. “I need help. Now.”

“We’re on the way,” she replied. Then the vid screen went blank. More alarms start going off and adding to the cacophony of noise. I ran over to the window and watched. The arrival port—whatever it was, no one has even really figured it out. It’s just where you show up for reincarnation was pulsing an odd and disturbing shade of puce that I had never seen before. Then, they began to arrive.

It was horrifying to watch, in a way. I mean, everyone comes to a soft landing, more or less. You don’t just go splat when you hit the arrival port. But it was a rain of beings. Sentient beings. Falling in a stream out of the arrival port. The counter on the wall was going crazy, running through numbers faster than I thought possible. Hundreds, then thousands, then millions, then billions and it kept going higher and higher and- I ran back to the main control panel and opened up all the assignment lanes and kicked them into high gear. Normally, we try and sort by species as best we can but now, with so many coming all at once, we couldn’t risk jamming the system. It was all hands on deck- and I hoped like hell that the system would be able to handle it.

The flashing lights out of my window let me know that my units had arrived to triage the scene as best they could, but I was concerned with making sure the system didn’t seize up or break. So far it was handling it- but-

The next few hours were a blur and before I knew it, the moons had set and the first hint of the sun was appearing in the northern sky. The sound of the door opening made me turn  and I snapped to attention as the Chief walked in.

“Damn fine job tonight, Stravanka,” it said. “Damn fine job.”

“Thank you, Chief.”

“I didn’t even know that mass extinction events were still possible,” The Chief said. “How many did we end up with?”

“Little over seven billion,” I replied.

“Eesh,” The Chief replied.

“We’re having a hell of a time figuring out where to put them all, Chief,” I said. “It’s not like they’ve got a home to return to.”

“We’ve dispatched the fleet to assess the situation,” The Chief replied. “It might not be totally irretrievable. We can always terraform them a place.”

“True,” I replied.

The Chief shook their ganglia, a look of amazement on their face. “A mass extinction event, who would have thought it.”

“Maybe we make sure they can do interstellar travel before we send them somewhere?” I suggested. 

“It’d be easier on the system that’s for sure.”

“I agree,” The Chief said. “Whatever the bigwigs figure out, we’ll make do. We’re The Core, after all. There’s always another mega habitat or four we can build.”

“Welcome to The Core,” I replied.

“Welcome to The Core,” The Chief repeated.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

2020 Candidates, Konmaried

Yes, unfortunately, the circus is getting back up and running again, so that means we're going to start talking about 2020 here and there and by March we're really going to be talking about 2020 and by the fall we're all going to be sick to death of 2020 and by the time election day comes around in November of 2020 it's going to be a wonder any of us actually bother to vote at all. But anyway: people are starting to run for President. Like, a lot of people. I'll probably revisit this list as it gets smaller over the next few months but for now, here's the comprehensive list I used.

It's way too early to get a sense of what the dynamics of the 2020 race are going to be like. It's going to be interesting though: none of these Democratic candidates are nearly as polarizing as Hillary Clinton was in 2016. (As always with Mrs. Clinton: a lot of the garbage flung at her over the decades has been extremely sexist and more than a little unfair. However, you can't deny that in 2016, she was a candidate that people either absolutely loved or absolutely hated and there was very little wiggle room off of those two polar opposite reactions.) What this President is going to do against a candidate that people don't find to be all that polarizing is going to be fascinating to find out.

So, let's get sorting. There's like a million and a half of these people, so it's hard to put together a good ranked list yet, but we can sort, find out which of these candidates doesn't bring us joy and which needs to be folded neatly into thirds and put back in a drawer until next year.

These Candidates (Potential Or Actual) Bring Me Joy:
Kamala Harris: strong start, but a lot of question marks about her record as a prosecutor.

Amy Klobuchar: really hoping she jumps in, because really, why not? Bipartisan record, focused on policy. Midwestern.

Cory Booker: His opening ad might have overdone it with the inspirational rhetoric, but I've always thought he was an interesting guy. Downside: if we elect the first vegan president we'll never hear the end of it.

Pete Buttigeig: Mayor of South Bend. Young. Interesting issues. Gay. Married. Veteran. If he makes it to the fall, he could catch fire. Has the young telegenic thing going for him with policy specifics to boot.

John Delaney: has practically moved to Iowa since 2017. Been doing the work long before anyone else got into the race at all.

Sherrod Brown: Little bit of Biden, little bit of Bernie but a couple of decades younger. Plus, he's Rust Belt, which could help.

John Hickenlooper: Governor that as far as I know has a decent record in a purple-ish state.

These Candidates (Potential Or Actual) Might Bring Me Joy:
Julian Castro: I really want him to separate himself from the pack a little. So far, so 'meh.'

Tulsi Gabbard: has shown willingness to challenge party orthodoxy in the past, but has also had photo ops with Assad.  Need to do more research here.

Steve Bullock: Governor of a Red State, doesn't look like we're going to hear one way or another until Montana's legislative session wraps up in May.

Elizabeth Warren: The DNA test might well prove to be her undoing, but she's tough on Wall Street- I just don't know if Leftist Populism is going to be able to overcome Trump-Flavored Populism.

Kirsten Gillibrand: Was a Conservative Blue Dog Democrat until about ten minutes ago in the grand scheme of things. Could be a sign of a politician willing to have their views evolve. Could be seen as opportunistic- and so what if she was a Conservative Democrat like ten minutes ago? So was the President.

Beto O'Rourke: I really dislike the gooey eyed media coverage and verbs like Kennedy-esque. His whole blogging stint seems like the most unconventional way possible to test the Presidential waters, but does conventional wisdom even matter anymore? I mean, look who's President.

Joe Biden: Uncle Joe! Has the working class blue collar thing going on that should play well in the Rust Belt. But isn't all that great at running for President. Plus, fair or not: he old.

Bernie Sanders: Feel the Bern One More Time? Maybe. He's moved the Democrats to the left. Has the name recognition and it would actually be pretty interesting to see how he'd do against President Trump. But downside: he old.

These Candidates (Potential Or Actual) Don't Bring Me Joy:
Marianne Williamson: Oprah's spiritual guru. Talks a lot about 'miracles.'

Andrew Yang: the UBI guy! Props to him for pushing the issue into the conversation, but don't think this is his year.

Jay Inslee: Saw something that he was going to run on Climate Change and just that. Maybe run on the importance of vaccines, instead?

Jeff Merkley: Consistent on Civil Liberties. Have no idea if he's going to run or not.

John Kerry: Nope. We tried this before in 2004, remember?

Michael Bloomberg: Hard pass.

Bill De Blasio: Super hard pass.

Terry McAuliffe: Meh.

Michael Bennett: Nice speech on the Senate floor during the Shutdown, but is it enough for a Presidential run?

Eric Swalwell: who?

Eric Holder: Not against this notion, necessarily. I seem to remember him being a decent attorney general, but it's a crowded field.

Tim Ryan: who?

Wild Cards:
Howard Schulz: the panic and immediate MUST DESTROY mode that Democrats went into was laughable. I'm not a fan because I don't want billionaires thinking they can just run for President because they're bored or whatever. The reality so far is that he seems to be a complete muddled mess and the only way I can see him catching fire and becoming Ross Perot is if Hillary Clinton ran for an won the nomination again. If we get a repeat of Trump-Clinton then yes, I think the country will be quite happy to vote for someone else. Anyone else. But the odds of the voters warming up to a non-orange colored billionaire don't seem that great. Nominate someone who's not wildly out of step with the general electorate and you'll be fine, Democrats.

A GOP Challenger: I think it depends on how the rest of President Trump's year goes. I think it depends on what, if anything, there is Mueller's Final Report. But Larry Hogan? John Kasich? I don't see a credible primary challenger at the moment, but you can't rule it out either.