Thursday, January 31, 2019

1,556 Miles Update #1

Okay: so, I started out strong, which is not all that unusual- but I picked up a nasty cold in the back half of the month that knocked me off my rhythm for a couple of weeks, but despite all that: I got on the old pink bike three times a week all month long. I did Kettlebell a couple of times this month (I need to work on that in February) and didn't manage to do any tai chi at all.

Intermittent fasting too sort of took a hit when I picked up that cold- so I have to get back on that horse, so hopefully in February I can get back on that horse a little bit more effectively again. I think if I can get through February more consistently I'm going to try and take the next step. If I can control when I eat, then I have to start working on what I eat next.

So January is in the books and it went...  okay. I got areas to improve on for February, but it wasn't a complete failure. Which brings us to the challenge. 1,556 miles from Duluth to Laredo (virtually, anyway) and here's my starting point:


All told for the month of January, I logged 102.9 miles on the old Big Pink Bike, which means I got about this far on my challenge:
        
Which is actually much better than I thought I'd do, to be totally honest about it. That's pretty good for a month of working. It also means that where I ended up looks like this:
                
One month down, eleven to go!

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Epic Bookshot #4: The Mars Trilogy

Kim Stanley Robinson has long been one of my favorite writers. I don't know if rolling your eyes and being like 'oh, it's science fiction' is something that people do anymore- but yes, he does write science fiction, so if you have hang-ups about genre fiction and get all snooty about it- just be aware. However: if you do have those hang-ups then I can recommend no better starting point for your journey of discovery into the awesomeness that is science fiction than with his Mars Trilogy.

Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars chronicle the colonization and eventual terraformation of Mars. Red Mars starts with the journey out to Mars and the initial first one hundred colonists. They are mainly drawn from America and Russia- but there are some other countries represented as well: Hiroko Ai is the botanist from Japan, Michel Duval the psychologist for the colonists is from France. But really, this is a joint Russian-American affair and the key players begin to emerge. John Boone is the first man on Mars from an earlier mission- he's coming back to Mars and this time to stay. He uses his celebrity as the first man on Mars to his advantage, but fame has it's drawbacks. Frank Chalmers is the other powerful figure amongst the Americans. He's more of a Machiavellian political operator than John is and, as more colonists begin to arrive and Mars' population starts to grow he becomes very powerful indeed.

For the Russians, there's Nadia Chernevesky, who is an Engineer who loves to build. She is sort of the sensible counterpart to the head of the Russian delegation Maya Toitovna, who finds herself caught between Frank and John in a love triangle that will come to define Maya's character arc throughout the next two books. Arkady Bogdanov is the radical amongst the bunch, advocating for the colonists to create an entirely new way of life on Mars unencumbered by the old ways of Earth.

The early days of the colonists on Mars are dominated by debates over terraforming, leads by Sax Russell (who is in favor of terraforming) and opposed by Ann Claybourne, who wants to keep Mars pristine and not wreck it's environment. Ultimately, the powers that be want to go ahead with terraforming, but the fight over it's scope and how far they should go sets up a conflict that lasts throughout the entire trilogy.

As Earth begins to be dominated by transnational corporations, the situation on Mars deteriorates as more and more people arrive before they can effectively be incorporated into the emerging Martian society. Red Mars ends as that situation explodes into Revolution and soon, many of the first one hundred colonists are dead and the survivors are forced into hiding.

Green Mars sees the process of terraformation evolve to the point where plants can survive on the surface of Mars. It also sees the underground begin to plan and prepare for the right moment to retake the surface, now dominated by the transnational corporations who won the Revolution at the end of the first book. It also introduces a second and third generation of Martians, who would come to play key parts in the effort to launch another revolution- this time with the goal winning independence from Earth. Ultimately, this succeeds- but it's a success that is not without it's problems. A longevity treatment has been discovered and the increase in human life spans combined with the population pressures on Earth are making the demographic situation very untenable. Ultimately, however this is a problem that our heroes get to tackle in Blue Mars.

The final book of the trilogy is the one that covers the most time span- though the early portions where they hold a constitutional convention to set up a new government for Mars are fascinating and probably (because I have two degrees in Political Science) my favorite part of the entire trilogy. Robinson hits the accelerator after that and shows us how humanity spreads out into the rest of the Solar System with settlements as far away as Neptune and even Pluto. But not everything is great: the older the characters get the more they see a phenomenon of 'quick decline' where old people drop dead of some kind of heart attack and are unable to be revived. After Michel dies of this, Sax sets about trying to solve the problem, but ultimately decides he cannot conquer death and focuses on memory instead- as the oldest generation is having more and more memory problems the older they get. He is successful at this and the characters gather for one more reunion at their original landing site (now a museum) to regain their memories- and then prove to be a pivotal factor in one last revolution- this one ends peacefully however.

I can't tell you how many times I've read these books by now and they are still amazing. My copy of Blue Mars long since fell apart, so I've had to move that to Kindle- but the ideas that Robinson explores are fascinating and his depiction of Mars and the transformation it goes through is hauntingly beautiful. A blurb on the back of my copy of Red Mars from Arthur C. Clarke says that 'they should be required reading for the colonists of the next century'- which I think is about right, not to mention extremely high praise.

What struck me re-reading these books this time around is that they are more a product of their time than I think I realized. The notion that business/corporations would eclipse nation states as the primary movers of power in the world feels like a very late 80s-early 90s notion to play with. It's not entirely wrong: you can only look at the close, almost symbiotic relationship industry has with government in this country realize that Robinson's prediction was somewhat prescient back then. I would argue that they haven't taken that next step to become state actors themselves. Instead, it almost seems like the internet first disrupted the traditional corporate superstructure and now it seems to be reconsolidating and coming back together again, to the detriment of consumers. Could I see us ending up in a transnat/metanat situation as envisioned by Robinson? Maybe. But I feel like more of the symbiosis between government and business will continue- but even that can lead to backlashes at the ballot box- assuming we don't ditch democracy altogether.

I also enjoyed Sax's pursuit of a cure for the quick decline as well. It's something that I didn't really twig to all that much in earlier reads- but grappling with the notion that death can be defeated is something that isn't talked about when writers tackle things like longevity. Sax ultimately decides the question is too big, even for him. It's a concept that people play with a lot in science fiction, but there's usually very little exploration of the idea. 'People live longer' shrug, is how it's normally dealt with. Robinson delves into the idea thoughtfully and with powerful effect I think.

One of the greatest science fiction trilogies ever written, The Mars Trilogy remains eminently worthy of the title of Epic Bookshot and is still one of my favorite science fiction trilogies. My Grade: **** out of ****

Friday, January 25, 2019

Free Write Friday #5: Blood Alley

The age of steam. Airships rule the sky and Victorian houses vie for power. In a dark alley two gentlemen meet. They adjust their monocles and tip their top hats cordially before drawing their sword canes. There can be only one.

South of Canal Street was where the young and the rich went to party. The spires of the city loomed above everything, stretching high into the darkness above. The sound of the airship horns echoed dimly in the streets as the late night flights came to rest on their moorings at the grand air dock that had been erected out of the bay. It was a long, pyramid like structure that was always lit up- like a light house for ships of both water and air.

Tucked in between Portland Road and Trinity Way was an alley. It was a fairly normal alley, if such a thing was possible. There was garbage, fire escapes, creaking iron balconies. Clothes lines strung between building on the upper floors. It didn't have an official name on the map, but everyone called it 'Bloody Alley.' There were casinos, bars that catered to the wealthiest of tastes and dive bars that were little more than shacks with roofs, walls and tables. There were whorehouses and brothels. South of Canal Street catered to every taste. It was also where the rich scions of the Republic would meet in the dead of night to settle their petty feuds and insults to their honor.

Jock Cavendish, son of the Earl of Cavendish entered from the south end of the alley, his second, Edward Barrington IV stepped forward with him while the rest of his retinue remained at the entry way, as was customary. Cavendish and Barrington both hailed from the Northlands of the Republic and dressed like it. They were in kilts with sporans in the style of their respective clans. They each wore the traditional dueling sash of their houses and were wearing the monocles that anyone who was anyone had to wear to be taken seriously these days. Sword canes in hand, they advanced down the alleyway.

Approaching from the north end of the alleyway George Monmouth and his second Delilah Quinten Stagg IV stepped forward. Monmouth was dressed in his usual florid doublet and pantaloons, sword cane in his hand, monocle over his eye. Delilah was dressed in leather from head to toe, her boots jangling and her long hair tied back into a pony tail.

The four of them met in the middle of the alley.

"Ill met by moonlight, fair Cavendish," Monmouth sneered.

"Monmouth," Cavendish said.

Barrington and Stagg stepped forward. "Are all the conditions satisfactory?" Barrington asked.

Stagg nodded. "They are. You serve as his second?"

"I do," Barrington replied.

Stagg turned to Cavendish and Monmouth. "Last chance, gentlemen. If you wish to make amends and apologize we can forget this whole sorry business and go have some fun. New casks of madeira were brought in on the Minerva, or so I hear."

"It is not I who must apologize," Monmouth said.

"I was told that a gentlemen never apologizes for telling the truth," Cavendish replied.

Barrington and Stagg exchanged a long look and sighed. "Very well," Barrington said. "Stand back to back, gentlemen." Monmouth and Cavendish stood back to back. "Ten paces acceptable Lady Stagg?"

"It is," she replied. "At your count."

Barrington began counting off the paces one by one. The chatter from the respective retinues at either end of the alleyway began to subside and as Barrington reached ten, a tense silence filled the alley. Both Barrington and Stagg stepped to the far side of the alley as Monmouth and Cavendish turned. They each took the time to straighten their monocles and then with his typical bombast, Monmouth drew the sword from his cane and rushed at Cavendish. Cavendish neatly side stepped at the very last moment and then drew his own sword from his cane and the duel began in earnest.

Cavendish was more deliberate and strategic in his style than Monmouth, which, to Barrington and Stagg seemed to give him an advantage, but Monmouth was faster than he was, which forced Cavendish onto his back foot and threw off his game plan.

"Did you put a wager down?" Barrington asked Stagg.

"A lady never kisses and tells," she replied.

"So you did," Barrington smiled. "And a sizable one as well."

"If you're going to bet, bet big," Stagg replied with a smile of her own. "Though in my case, I tend to bet like a drunken sailor more often than I should."

"You really think Monmouth is that good?"

"I really think these two fools are going come to their senses and we'll all be drinking by the end of the night," Stagg said.

Barrington sighed. "I wish I shared your optimism." He winced as Cavendish only barely parried a thrust from Monmouth. "Unfortunately, Cavendish is very protective of his sister's honor."

"Which remains intact," Stagg pointed out. "Unlike that of Monmouth's fiancee."

"I am forced to concede your point," Barrington admitted.

Stagg chuckled. "They're both sort of contemptible in their way, aren't they?"

"The privileges of the upper class," Barrington said.

"You don't look like you come from poverty," Stagg said.

"My family are minor nobles from the west," he replied. "We weren't poor, but we weren't as rich as either of them," he nodded toward the combatants.

"That's more or less my story as well," Stagg said.'

"May I ask, my lady?" Barrington said.

"I am not betrothed, no," Stagg replied. "I have no intention of becoming that way anytime soon,"

"I live in hope-" Monmouth had not turned fast enough and Cavendish's blade had caught him on the side of his torso. Blood was visible through the tear on the shirt. Monmouth staggered back and that was all that opening the Cavendish needed. He pressed forward, slashing, slashing and forcing Monmouth backward until finally Monmouth tripped and fell. Cavendish pointed his blade at Monmouth's throat.

"Yield."

"Never," Monmouth spat.

"Yield," Cavendish replied. "My honor has been satisfied."

"Mine has not," Monmouth said.

"Enough," Stagg called. "Let's go and get drunk."

"I agree," Barrington said. "Yield, Monmouth."

From either end of the alley the respective retinues added their own calls for Monmouth to yield. The night was still relatively young and there was plenty of time for them to enjoy the night.

"Yield, Monmouth," Cavendish said. "Please. I have no wish to kill you. Let's go get drunk."

Monmouth's face screwed up and twisted with rage and then he shouted. "Damn you! Never!" He slapped Cavendish's blade away and tried to thrust upward but Cavendish was too quick for him and plunged his own blade downward. With a shuddering gasp Monmouth arched his back for a long moment and then collapsed and went limp, dead. Stagg sighed. "Damn it."

"Must have been a lot of money," Barrington said.

"It was," Stagg replied. "I should be able to afford to get a cask of that madeira though."

"Why my lady," Barrington said, as the rest of Monmouth's retinue came down the alley to retrieve the body and take it away to be buried. "Don't you have duties to attend too?" He nodded toward the retinue.

She shrugged. "I only did it as a favor to his brother," she said. "He was always a hotheaded impetuous pig. His family knew it would be the end of him."

Cavendish approached, his face ashen and pale. "Are you all right?"

Slowly, he nodded, adjusting his monocle. "I am," he said. "That was... regrettable. Please," he nodded to Stagg, "convey my deepest condolences to his family."

"I will."

Barrington and Stagg watched as Cavendish walked back to his retinue and they made their way out of the alley and out of sight. Monmoth's body was carried out of the alleyway at the opposite end. Then they were both alone.

"So," Stagg said offering her arm to Barrington. "The Minerva should be docked by now. With fresh casks of madeira in her hold. And I happen to know the view of the city from her airship berth is stunning."

Barrington slipped his hand into the crook of her arm. "Why that sounds lovely, my lady."


Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Squawk Box: Bodyguard/Killing Eve

Squawk Box this month features of a pair of excellent British imports, one of which landed on Netflix and the other on Hulu. I caught some buzz about Bodyguard from the Parentals who said they were excited for it to drop on Netflix over here because they were hearing excellent thing about it from extended family across the pond. Killing Eve, on the other hand I think I heard about through the odd Buzzfeed article about how awesome Sandra Oh was in the show. Turns out that both shows more than lived up to the hype.

Starring Richard Madden as Sergeant David Budd, the titular bodyguard assigned to the 'tough talk on terrorism' Home Secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), Bodyguard opens with Budd taking his kids back home to his wife, Vicki (Sophie Rundle) on the train. He wades into a possible terrorist incident, locating and then talking down and disarming a would be suicide bomber, Nadia Ali (Anji Mohindra) before getting his kids home safely. For the successful resolution of this incident on the train, Budd gets assigned to Montague.

Outwardly stepping up to embrace his new role as bodyguard to the Home Secretary, privately, Budd is struggling to control his PTSD (he's an Army vet, who served in Afghanistan) and his marriage is crumbling around him. Montague, however, proves to be more dangerous than Budd realizes. Her bill to give the police and security services increased powers and surveillance authority is extremely controversial. She's ambitious and forces within her own party suspect that she's going to use the bill to launch a bid to take over the leadership and become Prime Minister. In the backdrop of the controversy over the bill the police and security services are squaring off: the police don't like that much of the responsibility for counter terrorism would be transferred to the security services. The partnership and cooperation between the two sides is bumpy as it is, but as Montague increasingly favors the security services, Budd is ordered by his superiors to spy on Montague and from there, the intrigue only gets deeper and deeper.

It's British, so at six episodes, it's a quick watch- and I won't go any deeper on the plot, because I don't want to reveal any spoilers- but the shortness of the series doesn't allow for a single wasted moment or beat. Bodyguard plunges you headlong into a cascading pile of mysteries and twists and turns, stretching and building the tension almost to the breaking point before bring the series to a resolution that you won't see coming and will leave your jaw on the floor. This is one show you absolutely shouldn't spoil for yourself, it's a masterpiece of suspense and absolutely worth your time. My Grade: **** out of ****

Killing Eve was incredible. It's not often you see either a movie or a television show that offers a new twist on the spy vs spy genre, but Killing Eve delivers one hell of a twist and does so in a refreshing way that leaves you practically begging for more (which we're officially getting in April). Sandra Oh lights up the screen as Eve Polsastri who is working behind a desk at MI-5. When Villanelle (Jodie Comer), a gifted assassin who is young, beautiful and extremely prolific leaves a trail of high level murders across Europe, Eve theorizes that the assassin might be a woman. Her superiors dismiss her theory, but Eve conducts an unauthorized interview with the only witness who confirms it. The witness is then murdered in hospital with a nurse and two guards, which leads to Eve being fired.

However, her theories attract the attention of Carolyn Martens (Fiona Shaw), the head of the Russia Section of MI6, Martens gives Eve a team and the resources to track Villanelle down and apprehend her. What follows is a cat and mouse game across Europe as Eve puts more and more together about Villanelle and her past and Villanelle realizes that she's been hunted by someone who is as tenacious as she is. Eventually their mutual obsession collides in ways that no one saw coming. 

Another British import, so it's a relatively short and delectable eight episodes long- Killing Eve doesn't quite carry the same intensity as Bodyguard does, but it's the cat and mouse aspect of Killing Eve that makes it quality television. Two female characters, protagonist vs antagonist, going head to head...  sparks fly. Fiona Shaw as Carolyn Martens? You have to a do a double take before you realize that yes, that is Aunt Petunia from the Harry Potter movies and she about steals every scene she's in with Sandra Oh. Charming, stylish, sexy and refreshing, this show is the cat and mouse game you didn't know you were missing and is one hundred percent appointment television. My Grade: **** out of ****

Monday, January 21, 2019

Shutdown Theater

If this cheerful prediction that it will take some kind of shutdown related disaster to get both sides talking and the government reopened doesn't make you incredibly angry, well then I don't know what to tell you- except that it's illustrative of a fact that, to me, anyway, is more of a threat to our democracy that the current occupant of the Oval Office: our legislative branch is increasingly moribund and ineffective.

Yes, that's right. To me, the real and growing problem is Congress. I'm not the only one who's tuned into this problem. Joe Rogan had Lawrence Lessig on his podcast talking about much the same thing. Despite the dubious motivations* behind a lot of these think pieces- there's been a raft of 'plans to fix the Senate' floating around out there. The New York Times, doubled down on the reform proposals offers a two part proposal on how to fix the House.

The ongoing stalemate over the government shutdown only throws the problems of Congress into sharp relief. While 800,000 Federal workers are going without paychecks- many of whom are, in fact, expected to work without pay, Congress still gets paid. They are some of the highest paid legislators in the world earning on average $174,000 a year. (They're not the highest paid. I believe that honor might go to Australia.) Some members are voluntarily not taking a paycheck, which is good. But the stalemate over the government shutdown that's now entering it's fifth week is turning into nothing more than a piece of political theater- albeit on the backs of 800,000 Federal workers who are going without pay and have missed one paycheck already.

Like so much of our discourse these days, it's all about posturing. It's all about virtue-signalling. It's all about pandering. It's all about whataboutism. While they're still getting paid, Congress has neither the motivation nor any conceivable reason to get off their asses and get something done to get the government back up and running. (It would also be interesting, given how diverse the the state legislature and their pay rates, to figure out what percentage of their time Congress actually spends of legislative duties and adjust their pay accordingly- because I doubt that it's 100%.)

Now, depending on your point of view or political leanings you could argue that it's not Congress' fault that the government is shutdown to begin with. In one sense, I absolutely agree with that point of view. President Trump has two years of Republican majorities on Congress to get his wall built and he couldn't get it done. He ended protections for DACA recipients and is now trying to offer a three year restoration of the very protections he ended in an effort to end the shutdown. (In his defense, his position appears to have shifted from a wall the entire length of the southern border to 230 miles of additional barrier.)

Where I disagree is the notion that Congress has to make a deal with the President in the first place. That's the real frustrating part about all of this. Congress holds all the cards here. Congress could negotiate a deal, pass it and present it to the President as a fait accompli. If he wants to veto it out of pique or symbolism, they could override his veto. When they're waiting for a couple of planes to collide or for an outbreak of foot and mouth disease to kick start or something, then something has gone terribly awry.

"But Mitch McConnell won't bring any bills to the floor!"

True. Cocaine Mitch is playing surprisingly sensible politics- from his point of view. No point in sending the President a bill he's going to veto. Fair enough- but this fact alone is why none of them should be getting paid. Their basic job function is to keep the machinery of government running. We can argue about the size and scope of government until we're all blue in the face- that's fine. But Cocaine Mitch is just one man. And there are 99 other Senators and 435 Congresspeople many of whom won't be as rich as him. Taking away the pay of all of them ratchets up the pressure on the leadership of both parties to sit down and hammer out a deal- either one they can live or one that the President can live with too.

They justify these salaries of theirs by citing the cost of maintaining two residences. That's fine. But when they fail at their most basic job functions, then they shouldn't be getting paid either. The Speaker shouldn't be going to Afghanistan. Lindsey Graham shouldn't be going on trips to Turkey. Congressional Democrats shouldn't be taking junkets to Puerto Rico. The First Lady shouldn't be taking military planes to Florida. The Treasury Secretary shouldn't be going to Davos.

All of them should be in session until a deal is done. Without pay, until a deal is done. Without their fancy insurance, until a deal is a done. And because the President has threatened to declare a 'national emergency' to build his damn wall, Congress should do the right thing, the proper thing, the Constitutional thing and work out a veto proof compromise that both Republicans and Democrats can live with and send it down Pennsylvania Avenue. If the President wants to veto, override his damn veto and re-open the government. Reassert the independence of the legislative branch and maybe remind the Executive Branch that they can only take their newfound powers so far.

*I'm getting real tired of the 'because we got screwed by [thing x] in the Constitution we should reform and/or abolish it to make sure our side doesn't get screwed any more.' That's a real dumbass way of thinking about it... the pendulum always swings back. If you want to reform or abolish something, that's fine- but don't think of it in terms of how it can benefit 'your side' (though it'd be great if we could do away with this tiresome political binary) think about how it can screw 'your side' as well. If both sides of the equation work well for your reform idea, then let's talk about it.  

Saturday, January 19, 2019

This Week In Vexillology #280

This Week In Vexillology, our tour of the counties of England continue and we move north from Suffolk and Cambridgeshire to take a look at our next two counties on deck, Norfolk and Lincolnshire. Let's start with Norfolk:

How do you get there? Well, find London and head northeast until you find Norwich and you're in the heart of Norfolk. It's more or less the tip of that big round thumb that juts out a bit into the North Sea. It's low lying, arable land- so lots of agriculture and if there's a claim to fame that sticks out to me, it's probably the fact that Iceni lived there and revolted against the Romans, lead by none other than Queen Boadicea herself. (There are probably other cool things too, but that's the thing that I liked the most.) Let's talk about their flag:

Adopted on September 11th of 2014, the design of the flag of Norfolk dates back to the 12th Century and the first Earl of Norfolk, Ralph de Gael. Probably the most interesting thing about this flag is the band that run along the diagonal: ermine is a local symbol and it also might be a reference to Brittany where Ralph was Lord of Gael- the Ermine also features on the Breton flag. The Breton connections of the flag are interesting to me- Cornwall has a more direct connection to their flag, and is geographically closer- but to see tendrils of Breton symbols make their up to Norfolk is interesting from a geographic and maybe even a culture point of view- but probably not from a historical point of view when you consider the centuries long mess between England and France.

Next up? Lincolnshire.
How do you get there? Well, find London, head straight north until you hit Peterborourgh. Keep going north a bit and you're pretty much there. It more or less sit between Hull and Peterborough and is northwest across The Wash from Norfolk.

So, let's talk about their flag! I like this flag, actually because we have a little bit to talk about when it comes to it. So many other county flags out there are historical in nature, so I'm stuck saying 'well, it's historical' and not much else. More contemporary designs usually have more of an explanation behind them and Lincolnshire, happily is no exception. It was adopted on October 24th, 2005. The red cross in the center is St. George's Cross, which stands for England. Yellow in the flag stands for the crops grown in the county as well as the somewhat unfortunate nickname for the residents of said county 'yellowbellies.' The fleur-de-lys in the center is a symbol of the city of Lincoln. The blue stands for the sea on the east coast as the skies of Lincolnshire. The green stands for the rich lush fields of the fenlands.

So, there you have it: Norfolk and Lincolnshire... until next time, keep your flags flying- FREAK or otherwise!

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Boozehound Unfiltered: Loonshine

A fantastic Christmas gift from the Missus, Loonshine Liquor is the first offering (launched in 2014-- though- they've done more since then) from Loon Liquor of Northfield, Minnesota. Just looking at the bottle, they already kind of had me: locally sourced organic ingredients? In a whiskey? Sure. I'm all in. Gimme. But when you go their website and read their story- it gets even better. These two guys launched a microfunding campaign that raised $11,500 which enabled them to get an SBA Loan and then in November 2013 they became the first two people in Southern Minnesota to get Federal permission to produce spirits in over 100 years.

Organic. Locally sourced. And small, locally owned business that literally started as an idea two dudes had? What is not to love about this? Well, if the details don't get you interested I'm happy to report that their product more than lives up to the hype. Loonshine has a barley and wheat grain bill and is filtered through in-house crafted birch charcoal. Here's what I got when I did my tasting:

Color: Pale and almost clear, there's just a hint of the palest shade of yellow when you hold it up to the light. Honestly, this is probably the lightest colored whiskey that I've ever tasted that's not straight up moonshine. The color gives you pause a little bit just for the moonshine factor... you're honestly kind of bracing yourself for a real nice kick in the face, as Moonshine is often inclined to do- but with Loonshine, you get a pleasant surprise instead.

Nose: The nose on this is hard to figure out-- if I had a guess, I might point to the barley used in the grain bill because there's a savory, almost grainy smell to it but the more you smell it, there's an underlying sweetness to it as well. It's not harsh at all-- the alcohol content doesn't singe my nose hairs or anything, but it's intriguing. After a lot of sniffing, I settled on 'spicy grain' or maybe rye bread of some kind. The nose on this is one of the most complex and unique I've ever encountered.

Body: Oh man, this is nice. It's well balanced on viscosity but it just melts in your mouth. Buttery smooth mouthfeel and there's a little bit of spiciness there, but it's not at all harsh. No burn here, just seriously gorgeous delicious stuff.

Finish:  Oh this is nice... so nice. So smooth. It warms gradually and just goes down a treat. It's like buttah! But whiskey, which makes it better.

Overall: Delicate, smooth and buttery this is one of the best whiskies I've had in awhile. I love the fact that it's locally owned, locally sourced and organic- and best of all, it's all because two dudes just sort of decided to make some whiskey one day. Amazing story, amazing product. My Grade: **** out of ****

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Psychology of Masculinity

A minor internet brushfire erupted a few days ago when the American Psychological Association announced it was issuing it's first ever guidelines for practice with men and boys. On the face of it, it didn't seem like that big of a deal- I dug a little deeper and actually read some of the APA's summaries of the guidelines and it's less bad that it's being made out to be. Consider this 'graph from the APA:
But something is amiss for men as well. men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United State sand represent 77% of homicide victims. They're the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime. They are 3.5 times more like than women to die by suicide and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women's. Boys are far more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls and they face harsher punishments in school- especially boys of color.
Seems eminently reasonable, right? Certain segments of the Right have been banging on this drum for years now. There's a 'War On Boys' in our educational system. Men commit suicide more. Men work in more dangerous jobs. Men are on strike. It doesn't take much digging to find the 'won't somebody think of the men' segment of the internet- so I don't understand why the hell these guidelines are causing such a shit fit. The APA seems to be acknowledging, 'hey, there's a problem here and we should probably figure out how best to tackle it.' Isn't that what these people have been wanting for awhile now?

"Grown Men Are The Solution, Not The Problem" proclaimed the National Review. The APA was declaring war on 'traditional masculinity.' "So long, masculinity, you're a relic of unenlightened times," proclaimed another headline. Psychologists have become 'activists, not healers' and you only have to look at the demographics of psychologists to see the real problem! As a field it's becoming overwhelmingly female!

I haven't done a deep dive into a lot of the literature on the 'war on boys' business, but I know it's out there. As a man, I find a lot of it both interesting and annoying. Interesting because if concepts of femininity and what it means to be a woman can be explored through things like feminism, it kind of makes sense that me that you'd see similar explorations of what it means to be a man in 21st Century. That's all fine- I may not particularly agree with the notion that these explorations need to be conducted through the lens of feminism exclusively- but it makes sense. Traditional gender roles have shift a lot in the past five decades alone- dudes trying to figure out what it all means in a contemporary context makes sense to me.

Where it becomes annoying is that a lot of it seems unnecessary. I don't need to fit into a box. I don't need definitions. I believe there are many different ways to "be a man" and trying to force men and boys into defined 'boxes' of masculinity, traditional or not is an incredibly unhealthy message to send- to young boys especially. I would really, really love to never hear the words 'toxic masculinity' ever again. The idea that you're telling young men that who they are is wrong...  that it's unhealthy. It's sickening and disgusting. Any starting point needs to be there. You can't send the message that somebody is wrong. If we were talking about 'toxic femininity' or about how 'traditional femininity' was bad, people would lose their damn minds. We need to start the conversation somewhere else.

That, however, doesn't mean that we shouldn't have the conversation at all. Basically, it all comes down what I would describe as the Billy Elliot problem. Basically, if boys want to dance, they should be able to dance. I mean this is 2018 and to be honest, I'm not sure anyone should care all that much. True story: I was in ballet for like ten minutes when I was a wee lad. Didn't stick, because here I am writing this blog post instead of being the lead in a production of Swan Lake somewhere or something- but if they want to dance, let them dance. To me, that just seems like common sense- but when the Eldest Spawn who had previously claimed pink as his favorite color came home from kindergarten and announced he wasn't going to where pink any more it was kind of soul crushing to realize he was picking this crap up from the playground- because- and I had to really sit myself down and think about it, just to be sure- he wasn't picking it up from me.

The fact that he brought that home from school suggests that the Billy Elliot problem is more embedded in society than people think. (The whole Kevin Hart thing is kind of illustrative of this as well. As a comedian, his tweets may well have been intended to hold a mirror up to the preposterous and ridiculous fears we have- or they may well have been his actual fears, but the fact is that as little as a decade ago, they were real fears for a lot of men out there. They probably still are, for a lot of men, but not nearly as many men.)

If you want to fit every John Wayne stereotype of masculinity, you should be free to do so. I don't think being all stoic (though, depending on who you talk too- stoicism is en vogue in some quarters these days) and repressing your emotions is that health and someone should tell you that. You shouldn't feel like you have to hide your real feelings away. You want to cry at a sad movie? Go ahead. I know it'll probably make people roll their eyes to read this, but real men aren't afraid to feel things and let their emotions show. Taking care of yourself and keeping yourself in good shape isn't a a bad thing. Taking care of your family and your loved ones isn't a bad thing either.

Do men face problems today? Yes. Should psychologists maybe consider how best to tackle those problems? Yes. Do we have to change how we talk about masculinity for anything useful to come out of this never-ending shouting match? Yes. Does society have a lot of work to do to end the stigma of mental illness and addiction? HELL YES. Is it increasingly silly with our divorce rates, the amount of both genders in the workforce and the increasing majority of women on our university campuses to put the words 'traditional' next to words like 'family' and 'gender roles' and 'masculinity'? Indeed it is. While I'm happy that the APA has recognized that men face problems today, the debate that's erupted from the recognition only proves that the debate and discussion about masculinity today has a long way to go before anything useful can actual emerge from it.

UPDATES: Well, this seems to be the trending topic of the week...  this article makes some good points and Gillette ran into the buzzsaw of 'Get Woke, Go Broke' yesterday, which was incredibly disheartening to see. Though some of the more cynical replies have a point: their bigger problem is probably that beards are in style and there are better blades out there than theirs. I know I haven't used a Gillette razor for years now. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Netflix & Chill #56: Sorry To Bother You

Watched On: Hulu
Released: 2018
Directed By: Boots Riley
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Jermaine Folwer, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews, Patton Oswalt, David Cross, Danny Glover, Steven Yeun, Armie Hammer
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
Pick: Mine

I can't remember when I first saw a preview for this movie, but the fact that it centered around a telemarketer sort of intrigued me. Having done a six month stint as a telemarketer and two rounds at Wal-Mart over the years I can confirm that there are some truly shit jobs out there and a movie that tells the story of one of them made me interested at least- but Sorry To Bother You is more than just another story of another workplace we haven't seen before.

Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) lives in his Uncle's (Terry Crews) garage with his girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson) who is an artist. Struggling to pay rent, he takes a job as a telemarketer at a firm called RegalView. He has some trouble connecting with customers until an older co-worker (Danny Glover) advises him to use his 'white voice' to make sales- Cassius does so and his success goes through the roof.

His co-worker, Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is forming a union to rally the workers for better pay and working conditions and recruits Cash, Detroit and their friend Sai to the cause. They launch their initial protest and Cash expects to be fired, but gets promoted to the elite 'Power Caller' position. He gains access to the luxury Power Caller suite where's told to always use his 'white voice.' He learns that RegalView secretly supplies arms and unpaid human labor from the corporation WorryFree. He's initially uncomfortable with the job and using his 'white voice' all the time, but he can afford a new apartment and pays off his Uncle's home. His hours get longer and longer  and he stops participating in the union and his relationship with Detroit starts to fall apart...  when he crosses the union picket line he gets hit in the head with a can of soda, which goes viral on the internet and becomes an internet meme.

Invited to a party with WorryFree CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) and Lift offers Cash what he thinks is cocaine. Looking for the bathroom, Cash finds a horse-human hybrid who begs him for help and learns the truth about what he thought was the cocaine. Lift reveals that WorryFree wants to make their workers stronger and more obedient by making them into the horse-human hybrids that Lift calls 'equisapiens.' The powder that Cash thought was cocaine, was, in fact, a powder that genetically modifies the user to change them into equisapiens-  Lift assures him that what he snorted was, in fact, cocaine and Cash refuses a $100 million offer to become one and act as a false revolutionary to keep the employees in line.

Trying to get the news of the equisapiens out there, Cash goes on television shows to try and get the video played, but it backfires. The hybrids are hailed as a scientific achievement and WorryFree's stock goes through the roof. Cash apologizes to his friends and leads a final stand against the Union. He reconciles with his girlfriend, Detroit and they move back into his Uncle's garage- but then Cash begins to grow horse nostrils and full transforms into an equisapien- once he's fully transformed he leads a mob of hybrids to Lift's house and breaks down the door.

Initially, I was somewhat skeptical at all the critics and buzz hailing this movie as a 'powerful critique of capitalism.' The longer this movie has sort of sat with me, the more I realize that I sort of agree with that. In a lot of places, workers are treated as little more than commodities. Maximization of profit is king, consequences be damned, the life blood of your company be damned. What makes Sorry To Bother You so damn effective isn't the unionization or the fight better working conditions or salaries or any of that- anyone with half a brain knows that a good job and good benefits are increasingly hard to come by for a lot of people- especially people of color or those fortunate enough to be born into the right socio-economic class. What's chilling to me is the idea of the equisapiens: it's pure magical realism absurdism science fiction, whatever you want to call it- but you know damn well that some corporation somewhere leaned back in their chairs and said... "hey, that's not a bad idea, actually." And that to me is the true power of this film: it illustrates what's a fundamental problem of our modern economic system today: for too many companies today there is nothing they wouldn't do, no worker they wouldn't exploit to make more money for themselves.

Overall: Dark, absurdist comedy at it's finest this movie grew on me quite a bit, the more I thought about it. Excellent cast, great story and one hell of a directorial debut from Boots Riley. My Grade: *** out of ****

Saturday, January 12, 2019

This Week In Vexillology #279

Our grand tour of the counties of England continues with our next two counties up- we're heading back east across England to my home county of Cambridgeshire and it's next door neighbor of Suffolk!

First up, Cambridgeshire

I was born in Cambridge, but I can't say that I have a particularly close relationship with my birthplace- it's not like I get back there a lot. But that being said, I'd like to get back there and get to know the place of my birth a bit better. I've done the usual things- the wandering through the colleges, punting on the river, etc- but if there's a 'someday, maybe' on my list, it'd be to spend a few months there and actual live there for awhile to see what the place is really like. In the mean time, my home county has a great motto: Corde Uno Sapientes Simus, "With one heart let us be wise."

How do you get there? I've always perceived Cambridge as being north east of London, but it's more straight north. Cambridgeshire itself is in the Fens and is more or less between Bury St. Edmunds, Bedford and Peterborough. Bonus historical fact: Oliver Cromwell was born at Huntingdon.

What about the flag? Well it was registered on February 1st of 2015 with the Flag Institute...  the three crowns represent East Anglia, which is the historical region of Cambridgeshire. The wavy lines represent the River Cam and the shade of blue associated with Cambridge University.

Next up, Suffolk:
So where is Suffolk? Well my impression of Cambridgeshire being to the northeast of London was wrong, but Suffolk is northeast of London-- find Ipswich or Bury St. Edmonds and you're pretty much there. Low-lying arable land it seems like Suffolk is farm country It's also got the interestingly named city Bury St. Edmonds, which is actually were St. Edmond, king of the East Angles was buried- but weirdly the 'Bury' in Bury St. Edmonds doesn't actually refer to the verb 'to bury' it's etymologically connected with the word 'borough.'

Registered with the flag institute on October of 2017 and it's a design of the banner of arms of Saint Edmund which features with two gold arrows passing through a gold crown. The crown is a Saxon crown for the martyred Saxon King and has been featured as a symbol of his for centuries.

And those are the flags of Suffolk and Cambridgeshire!

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

Friday, January 11, 2019

Free Write Friday #4: Alpha Centauri Tales

Twelve pilgrims gather in the canteen about a spaceship bound for sacred Earth. These are the Alpha Centauri tales.

The chimes echoed throughout the ship, summoning us to canteen so the ceremonial first meal marking the start of the pilgrimage. The canteen wasn't much, but then again neither was the spaceship- spartan and basic, it was little more than a long table set in a wide, empty room toward the front of the ship with huge windows to one side of it so we could all see the first glimpses of our destination.

I was the fourth to arrive, slipping into my seat and looking out at the dust and fog of the Oort Cloud that surrounded the sacred system. Soon, the fog would lift and we would be there, well- not there, our final destination would take awhile to reach yet, but we would in the sacred system. We could begin the prayers and contemplation necessary to purify ourselves before we reached sacred Earth.

I had decided to tell my tale and the tale of my fellow pilgrims. It came to me one night in a dream and I thought it would be a suitable penance to extract from myself as we journeyed into the heart of the sacred system. The majority of humanity had long since fled to the stars and over the centuries, adaptations and biological changes had grown more pronounced as humanity adapted to whatever conditions it found out in the stars. Now these new off shots of humanity were often accused of losing their humanity altogether. We had fled to the stars and created whole new species, they said. Humanity was no longer one species, many said. There was no purity left in our lives. So, we return.

We return to the cradle, our womb. Some, like myself are sentenced as penance- in my case for a life of debauchery and drunkeness as well as to forgive a debt I could not repay. I was more curious than anything else. After all, who would pass up the opportunity to go to sacred Earth?

The chimes echoed again and snapped me out of my reverie as more and more of our pilgrimage party arrived in the canteen. Soon, we were all seated around the table and food was brought. We tucked into our food, some casting glances at the windows, trying to see if the dust and fog had begun to life. Though, I suppose, if I am to chronicle these tales I should introduce the players and tell you a bit of each of them.

THE KNIGHT
Yes, there were knights again. The Order of St. John had re-emerged after centuries and lead the colonization of Altair. This knight, she was proud, tall and fair, honorable to the extreme and seeped to the bone in chivalry. If she had a name, she would tell none of us- but she told us plenty of how she had won her honor defending the city of Palatye on Altair against a horde of the heathen Seljuks. She had seen the new library at Alexandria being built and had been one of the four knights to light the sacred lamps that spread the light of knowledge to all the systems that Order of St. John controlled. But she carried a secret that she had promised not to reveal until we stood on the ground of sacred earth.

HER SQUIRE
Where you have knights, you have squires and this one was fresh from the siege of new Picardy, her  tresses were long, her appetites lusty and she was tall and almost bird-like, the hallmark of many who had grown up in low gravity environments. Attentive to the needs of her mistress, she was a proven fighter, an accomplished singer and, by all accounts, a vigorous lover- at least if the voyage from Proxima Centauri had been any indication.

THE MINER
He traveled alone, his eyes covered in opaque, thick rimmed glasses as he was not used to the light. A lifetime spent mining asteroids in the darkness of deep space had left his skin pale and sallow. He was a solo prospector, drifting from asteroid to asteroid, with only his robot mining machines as company. He had struck rich, an asteroid with a core of solid magratheum, which in an instant had made him a wealthy man indeed. Now, he wanted to pay homage to the Gods that had sent him this good fortune.

THE PRIESTESS
Shastra Valada, high Priestess of the First Church of Minerva was clad in her ceremonial robe of snow white owl feathers, her face was proud and regal but her manner kind and modest- if that makes sense. She looked the part but didn't play the part in the slightest. Other than her feathered robe the only other sign of office that she carried was her trident ringed with the talons of various species of owl. She was on her way to rededicate the temple of Minerva on Sacred Earth, to purify herself and prepare for guiding her followers through the long years ahead.

THE NUN
She had a nun with her

THE FOUR PRIESTS
And four priests.

THE PLAYBOY
Cornelius Archibald Vanderbilt IV, or Cav as he insisted on being called dressed in the most flamboyant colors possible, as befitted the fashion of the rich and powerful that held sway over the Denebian system. He caroused. He drank. He gambled. He was a lecher who pursued men, women and sentient beings of every gender you could name. One too many crashes of his family's pleasure barge and one too many arrests had around the ire of the family matriarch, Agatha Vanderbilt. The font of his families money, she had declared, would be cut off unless he went on pilgrimage to Earth. Whether it would mature him or reform him remained to be seen.

THE MARINE
A tall mountain of a man, Andrew Jones had a long scar running down the side of his face, which he claimed to have received fighting the infamous Pirates of Irokon, who made their home in the nebula below Orion's belt. He had seen landings at New Prague. Fought in the great war that had threatened to consume the whole of Orion itself. After that last great battle, with ships aflame in the skies above New Bratislava he had lead the assault on the Mahdi's stronghold and with his last bullet had been the man to strike the fanatic down. There, in the rubble, in the burning, fetid death of the city, he had vowed to never fire another bullet or take another life again. He was going to Earth for enlightenment and a spiritual renewal.

And there there was me, the Writer. The Gambler. The Drunkard. Trying to tell the tale of the pilgrimage to sacred Earth to pay my debts, to begin another chapter. To tell another tale. The twin suns of sweet Proxima Centauri lived in my dreams. I longed to feel their warmth again, free of the debts that were threatening to drown me. We were all assembled now. The waiters were bringing the food and the wine. And the chimes sounded one more time and we turned from glancing at the plates of steaming food to the windows behind us. While we had been watching them bring the food and wine, the dust and fog of the Oort Cloud and the Kuiper Belt had vanished. Before the ship stood the reddish heart of the first planet on our journey to the sacred earth: Pluto.

HERE ENDS THE PROLOGUE OF THIS BOOK AND HERE BEGINS THE FIRST TALE, WHICH IS THE KNIGHT'S TALE...

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

So, Let's Talk About The Arena

I've worked quite a few basketball games this season so far and have logged far more minutes in the bowels of Carver-Hawkeye Arena that I usually do in any given season. In general, I arrive at my scheduled time, head to my Hobbit Hole and hunker down and do my thing for the course of the game. It's not usually that big of a deal or particularly hard or stressful work. It's just work. It makes for a nice post-holiday paycheck.

But here's the thing: I've never actually taken the time to really stop and look at the Arena. I'm somewhat plugged into the local Hawkeye Sports Commentariat on Twitter. I see the grumblings occasionally about how bad the atmosphere is in Carver, but I never really paused to consider why that might be until this past Sunday when I slowed down, took my time getting to my Hobbit Hole and kind of really looked at the Arena. I mean, when you get right down to it- what's the point of an arena anyway? There's seats, there's a court, there's a concourse with food and assorted swag you can purchase. In every respect, Carver-Hawkeye perfectly fulfills the basic requirements. You go, you watch game, you get soft serve and/or Carver Dog of indeterminate quality, you go home. What more do you people want?

I think part of the problem is age. You go from 'Historic Kinnick Stadium' which has been carefully renovated to preserve old and new, is full of brick archways and brick in general- and when you're not there for a football game, it's a pleasure just to look at the architecture of the place. (Also, they don't usually add the 'Historic' part in italics, but they sure seem to say it that way over the PA.) You feel the history in Kinnick Stadium. In contrast, Carver-Hawkeye Arena opened the year I was born. It just turned 36 actually (Happy Birthday, Carver!) so it's hard to feel the sense of history you get in Kinnick.

If you look at places like Williams Arena up in Minnesota or Assembly Hall down in Indiana, they're almost palatial and you can feel that sense of history- even if pieces of the ceiling do fall down on the latter location now and again. You get a sense that Iowa used to have that when they were still playing basketball at the Field House (which would have been legit cool to see I think- and I often wish they were able to play a game now and again over there.) Carver on the other is the soft serve vanilla ice cream of basketball arenas: perfectly servicable in every possible way and on occasion the best thing you've ever experienced.

What about logistics? This was a novel new complaint I saw on Twitter. People leave early to get to their cars and beat traffic. I can sort of understand that when we're up by thirty against a team like Savannah State. It stretches credibility that people can't park close enough for their liking. The Dental Lot is right across the street. Finkbine Commuter isn't that far away. Nor is Lot 43 North or any number of side streets in and around the arena. Curbside parking right next door isn't going to be possible for everyone. Wishing for closer parking seems kind of like a bullshit cop-out. After all, unless you're in the Gucci Lot at Kinnick (Lot 43 West) you're gonna have to do some walking to get there as well... yet curiously, people don't seem to have nearly the same issue with that there than at the Arena.

Is it kind of tucked away in a limited footprint? Yes, it is. But is there a pressing need to expand parking for the arena? Not that I've seen.

There's also the little matter of scheduling... when a decent sized chunk of your games fall in between semesters it might require a little creativity to pack the joint... things like theme nights help, but if you're a local and your kiddos are off school on winter break, the price just isn't right for you to load everyone up, go down to the arena, park, get all the kiddos into the arena, get tickets if you don't already have them, find your seats and then get the inevitable pleas for soft serve and hot dogs out of the way...  it's not an impossible sell for a lot of people, but if the price isn't right, given the option, a lot of people will just stay home.

I mean, it's not like the Athletic Department isn't trying...  there's pyrotechnics now and we had an Ugly Sweater game a few games back. (I totally forgot my ugly sweater that game and was kind of bummed.) I just feel like their sense of creativity is in about second gear (where the senior citizen end of the fan demographic probably likes it) when they should be taking the opportunity to put things into fourth. Throw the spaghetti at the wall. See what sticks. Sell out the Arena for men's and women's basketball-  that should be the goal... get some more butts in seats.

Which brings us around the chicken v egg question of it all: does the product on the court help or hurt you? I think it's a little of both. Obviously, when your team is good you're gonna have more fans in the building. But I also think there's an argument to be made that if the overall experience is fun, it doesn't matter if your team wins or loses- though obviously, the former is preferable to the latter.

We tried to go see a Hawkeye Soccer game last year and they had a Field Hockey game going on at the same time. There were inflatables, face painting and people just brought lawn chairs and blankets and people just plopped down at the edge of the pitch to watch the game. If it wasn't for the rain and the lightning, we would have spent a nice, chill and more importantly fun afternoon watching the match. Football is sort of a leviathan. Fans and alumni are going to come to town from all over the place to watch the game and do tail gating and all the trimmings. Basketball doesn't have that advantage- but some thoughtful proposals to improve the fan experience at the arena and to maximize the fun could get more people to go.

In the meantime, I will keep lurking on Twitter and tallying complaints...  just to see if a wish list emerges of what people actually want for an 'atmosphere' at the Arena...

Monday, January 7, 2019

Where Does Change Come From?

I got into a Twitter discussion with The Quiet Man in early December that ended with a thought provoking statement on his part: "I always wonder if change is possible w/the current system or if it needs to be changed."

Both.

I think the answer has to be both, because that's the way our constitutional system is designed and it's also the way a hyper-connected society has more power than it ever has before. Every society and every country you can name me is going to have an entrenched elite of some kind that is resistant to change- they're at the 'top' of the heap, whatever that particular heap is for any given country and they like where they sit.

From a strictly American point of view, everything is centered around those three little words: 'We, the people.' The mechanism for real, lasting change is entirely in the hands of the voters and our representatives. Constitutional amendments can be passed by Congress. An Article V, Convention of States can be called. The problem, I think with contemporary society is that change- real, honest to goodness systemic change is pretty damn difficult to achieve. Hell, getting Congress to pass a bill feels like something of an impossibility these days. So in the age of Amazon Prime and online grocery deliver, when we're all slaves to the conveniences of modern technology.

Change doesn't arrive like magic with the click of a mouse button and free two day shipping. It takes work. It takes debate. It takes arguments. It takes consensus. All of which are in short supply these days- it's easy for people to say, 'well, our side should just be able to do what we want and everything would be better.' That's the dynamic we're stuck in right now- it's simultaneously scary and irritating all the same time. Scary because if the pendulum swings far enough and wide enough to hand one side or another power enough to actually make changes, then I could see things going sideways and destabilizing the entire country very easily. Irritating because despite all the think pieces about Congressional apportionment and the Senate, no one is willing to do the work to make the real change.

Partly this is because the system runs on talk. It's ephemera really. We shout at one and other over issues large and small. Politicians posture and make speeches. We tweet. A thousand Facebook memes are launched- and nothing really gets done about it. Part of that is a feature and not a bug... the entrenched elites benefit far too much from the way things currently work to be interested in actually solving a problem or two. The other part of it really is a bug. Social media is the worst possible medium for meaningful and substantive discussion on the issues of the day and in a country where we talk to our neighbors less and our sense of community is, if not being lost, then evolving into something we haven't quite figured out our ability to talk to one and other seems to be slipping away as well.

I wanted to be more analytical about this post. I was doing dives into Wiki-pages on William Jennings Bryan and Reconstruction. I was trying to learn about preference cascades and how common they are. A brief and totally non-rigorous glance at history reveals a few interesting things: change can happen through excess- the Gilded Age lead to the Progressive Era. It can happen through backroom deals and the shenanigans of smoke filled rooms- and not always for the better as the Presidential Election of 1876 proves. It can happen we the people decide that they've had enough and chip away at an injustice little by little until the cracks are running through the edifice of injustice and it crumbles once and for all, as we saw with the Civil Rights Movement.

So, is it hopeless? As much as you might think so, I don't think it is. Ranked choice voting is a good example of this- there was a recent controversy in Maine about it that was finally resolved- but more and more cities are using it for municipal elections. It's out there, building slowly, city by city, creeping into the public consciousness. Marijuana and to a certain degree gay marriage worked in kind of the same way...  once one state legalized it, more were bound to follow. I also think, if you cut through the noise and bullshit of everything, we're not as bad off as you might think. Social media magnifies all the wrong things. Cable news doesn't help on that score either. You'd think we were standing on the edge of a precipice to very bad things indeed, but I think...  when push comes to shove, I really think that there is more that unites us than divides us.

The system does need to change. The system can change. It's just up to us to make it happen, one way or the other. It's trite as hell to bring it back to that tired old saw by Gandhi, but it's kind of true, really: be the change you wish to see in the world. I think we could all do a better job of that.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

This Week In Vexillology #278

Our tour of the counties of England continues this week- we're staying up in Midlands as we make our way back across England to the east. Our next two counties up? Warwickshire and Northamptonshire. Let's talk about Warwickshire first:

Unlike last week's counties Worcestershire and Herefordshire, there doesn't appear to be any one product or tradition that Warwickshire is known for. It's got Warwick Castle and Royal Leamington Spa, I guess...  that counts for a lot. In terms of where it is, well, if you find Coventry on the map head south you'll be in Warwickshire. The county actual stretches up and around Coventry- which used to be smack dab into the county until it became it's own metropolitan area. Here's what it's got going on for a flag:
Well, this is pretty cool. A bear and a what heraldry seems to think is a 'ragged staff' even though it looks more like a tree without branches or a really tall stump of some kind. It was officially adopted and registered with the Flag Institute in August of 2016 and secured the sanction of both the Lord Lieutenant and High Sheriff in the process. The symbol of the bear and staff dates back to the Middle Ages, making their first appearance on a seal used by the Beauchamp Family, who became the Earls of Warwick all the way back in 1268. (Hey- this one didn't come about because of Agincort. That's kind of cool.)

Next up, Northamptonshire.
Right next door to Warwickshire, you've got Northamptonshire which is known as 'The Rose of the Shires' and actually has some history worth talking about before we get into the nitty-gritty of it's flag. The history of the place stretches all the way back to Roman times and there was a castle that was build for William The Conquerer at Rockingham and was used all the way up through Elizabethan times. Fotheringay Castle- now ruined, was where Elizabeth the First imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots. But the real interesting connection is to George Washington of all people: his family hailed from this county and only emigrated in 1656 to America. His ancestor, Lawrence Washington was Mayor of Northampton a few times and purchased Sulgrave Manor- the family home from Henry The Eighth in 1539.

Random, but cool history- I dig it.

As for it's flag: it was registered with the Flag Institute in September of 2014 and it was the winning design of a public vote. The cross stands for the county's location as a crossroads of England. The colors come from the local cricket team and the town's football team and the black border represents the leather industry that is so popular and important in the county. The rose was taken from historic depictions of roses used to represent the county.

There we have it: Warwickshire and Northamptonshire...

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

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Bookshot #115: Use of Weapons

Iain M. Banks is rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors full stop. I know a lot of people who hear the words 'science fiction' and get immediately turned off, but if you need to be convinced of the foolish notion that genre fiction somehow isn't 'good writing' or 'real literature' then you need to get yourself to an Iain M. Banks novel and read it. Stat. The ending of Consider Phlebas sat with me for days and the end of Use of Weapons literally made me drop my phone.

Before we get into the plot, we've got to touch on the structure first. This book is made up of two sets of alternating chapters- one set, numbered with English numbers (One, Two, etc) moves forward from the start of the book while the other, numbered with Roman numerals moves backward from the start of the book (XIII, XII, etc) both of which tie together in the brilliant ending to this novel- which seems absolutely crazy, but it works and more to the point, it works really really well- which I think speaks to the overall talent of Mr. Banks in writing this book.

The forward moving set of chapters deals with the attempts of Diziet Sma and a drone named Skaffen-Amtiskaw who have to locate and then persuade an old Culture Agent by the name of Cheradenine Zakalwe to come out of retirement to take another job. He has to find and make contact with an old colleague named Beychae in a politically unstable star system to further the aims of the Culture in that region. In payment, he wants to the location of a woman named Livueta.

The backward moving set describes earlier jobs that Zakalwe performed for the Culture before returning to his pre-Culture childhood where he lived with his two sisters and a boy around his age named Elethiomel, whose father has been locked up for treason.

As the both sets of the narrative reach their conclusion, the reader finally learns that the two boys commanded opposing armies in a bloody civil war on their planet and Elethiomel took one of Zakalwe's sister's hostage before killing her and having her bones and skin made into a chair and sent to Zakalwe, who attempted suicide upon receiving the chair.

Back in the present, Zakalwe extract Beychae and Diziet and Skaffen-Amtiskaw hold up their end of the bargain and taken him to the planet where the mysterious woman named Livueta lives. She reveals the truth about Zakalwe and completes the story- or so we think.There's a prologue and an epilogue that follow both stories- but they follow one after another, so it's unclear where they land in the chronology of the narrative sets.

Look, I'll be totally honest with the above summary: there's a few important details to have to hold back otherwise you'll spoil the entire book and this book is so good I don't want to spoil for anyone- and for real: I'm going to say this again and again and again: if you haven't picked up a book by Iain M. Banks yet, then what are you waiting for? This one is amazing. The structure, though confusing at first, pays off brilliantly at the end of the book and, as you usually find, Banks doesn't shy away from the exploration of deep themes and the Culture's role in development of the planet that Zakalwe is sent to to retrieve Beychae.

Overall: Incredible book. Easily vaults into my all-time top ten. My Grade: ***** out of *****

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

5 For 2019

Another trip around the sun begins and so too does the effort at self-improvement and professional and personal growth. Part of me doesn't know why I insist on doing this every year: resolutions hardly ever work. They're stupid. They never last. But another part of me thinks that it's important to at least try. You need some goals to set yourself, some metric to measure yourself by and writing them down and putting them out onto the interwebs to hold yourself accountable, at least in theory.

So, here we are again. 365 days. 2018 was decent. There are plenty of ways to improve. I need to develop some discipline and lose some weight and get healthy-- no more excuses there. It needs to happen this year.

Of late, it also seems like I'm happy to see the end of a year for one reason or another. I want this to be the year when I look back on it and realize that I've met all of these goals I'm about to list and then some. 1 day down, 364 to go:

1. Health: Okay, at the very least I want to end 2019 weighing less than I did when the year began. That is the bare minimum that I will accept here.  The real goals:

  • Lose 60 lbs
  • We picked up an exercise bike, so I wanna get my butt on that at least three times a week for 30 minutes. 
  • Eat less garbage. (Minimize soda, candy, chips.)
  • Drink more water (at least 64 oz a day.)
  • Kettlebell + Tai Chi at least two times a week.
  • I tried a 'mileage challenge' a few years back using I-80-- the idea was to virtually ride/walk/run my way the length of the interstate which is 2,000 miles+ needless to say that didn't go anywhere. But I like the idea of it, so I'm bringing it back- this time with I-35... 1,556 miles from Duluth to Laredo. We'll see how far I get with it.
  • I'm going to try intermittent fasting as well. (This one, we'll play by ear- the first few days have gone okay, but we'll see if I can make it a month.)
  • Accountability...  expect an update on my progress at least once a month.

2. Personal Growth: Google has added a Digital Well Being feature to it's phones and I want to use it to limit my social media. I think everyone's probably bad at this, but I want to get out of the habit of being so phone dependent. From when I get home from work to when the kiddos go to bed I've got about two-three hours to work with. I don't want to spend any of it on my phone. The full list:

  • Develop healthy digital well being habits and stick to them. 
  • Get back on the Duolingo train...  Arabic is coming, so soon all five of the languages I've studied will be available.  Time to get them up to snuff.
  • Podcasting. I have all the equipment... I just need to break it out and launch one. There's a lot of wrinkles to work out here, but I'm tired of it gathering dust and it's a skill set worth developing.
  • Ditto with YouTube. Learning how to make decent YouTube videos seems like something worth learning how to do.
  • More coding...  I don't know what to do with it, but I wanna keep learning.

3. The Writing Game: This one is easy...  I've got a working draft of a third book in the bag. I want to get into a position to publish either by the end of this year or early next year. The full list:

  • Get the third book done and out there.
  • Figure out how to market the first two books, Prisoner and Arrows
  • Although I still don't know how accurate the stats on Blogger actually are, I did hit the 50K in page views. This year, I want to double that and break 100K.
  • Keep on writing, keep on reading.

4. Professional Development: I'm not in a bad place, really. I've got benefits, a decent salary and a job that's actually interesting from time to time. The problem is that I've more or less peaked. The only way out is up or becoming a cop. The former is a supervisory position of some kind that straight up doesn't exist right now and the latter doesn't appeal to me at all. The full list:

  • Learn about and use my LinkedIn more. (Also: make sure I have a good LinkedIn.)
  • Get a GREAT resume together. (Also: make sure I can write amazing cover letters.)
  • Pursue 'low hanging fruit'/achievable cost effective certifications to diversify my resume and professional skill set a bit more. 
  • Figure out the great, unanswered question: if I'm not going to do what I'm doing for the rest of my life, then what's next. 

5. The Remains of The Day: Let's wrap up old resolutions once and for all...

  • Get another tattoo, damn it. I know exactly what I want. I just need to go out and get it.
  • Finish up my Year of Books: The Book of The New Sun by Gene Wolfe, Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, Ulysses by James Joyce