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I’ve been too busy to blog about the Mueller report, which is probably just as well since it’s one of those potboilers that is going to be unfolding for quite awhile.

And I’m not sure what I could add, but I’ll give it a shot.

1. It’s hard to comment more on the report until we see it – which it seems every Republican in America does not want to happen. Which should tell you something about their “total exoneration” nonsense. It’s safe to assume there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s damaging to Trump, even if he can’t be actually prosecuted for any of it.

2. And in fact, we don’t really know that he can’t be, at least as far as the Obstruction of Justice part. Mueller left it open, possibly because he’d decided he went as far as he could go with it and wanted to make sure the work continued – perhaps with Congress.

3. Predictable MAGA hysteria notwithstanding, there’s now a lot of hand-wringing, soul-searching and fingerpointing about how the media got the Trump-Russia story wrong. Or did they?

Matt Taibbi certainly thinks so. Timothy L. O’Brien of Bloomberg thinks Matt is kinda nuts.

As usual, I’m somewhere in the middle. I think Taibbi is cherrypicking radical examples (Maddow, MSNBC in general, Daily Beast, Jonathan Chait’s New Yorker story, etc) to paint the entire media with the same brush, but I do agree with his overall concern – that the media had to be really careful how they treated the Mueller investigation, especially at a time when Trump is actively stoking up anti-media fervor and labelling all critical stories of him as one-sided Fake News. And in the end, many of them gave in to their sensationalist tendencies that turned out to play right into his hands.

On the other hand, the build-up of the Mueller case was as much the product of people on Twitter and social media who passed around otherwise sober stories as though they were smoking guns. Liberals and other anti-Trumpers were reading more into what was there, conflated allegations with proof, and were banking on Mueller to nail the bastard, put him in jail and save the country, even though anyone who paid the slightest attention knew that Mueller was never going to do that. His job wasn’t to arrest Trump (which he probably can’t do anyway) – it was to look into specific allegations and report his findings to the AG, who would then decide what to do with them. And even if the AG wasn’t a pro-Trump appointee, the most he/she would likely do is hand over to Congress for impeachment proceedings – which, as I mentioned earlier, isn’t going to happen.

So I think media coverage was only part of the problem.

Also, I don’t agree with Taibbi’s claim that RussiaGate was a myth that the media clung to because it was the perfect explanation for why they totally failed to see Trump’s election victory coming. It may well be the case that Trump didn’t actively conspire with Russia to win the election, but it’s already well established that (1) Russian hackers did in fact attempt to influence the outcome of the election, (2) they succeeded, and (3) there was some sort of oddball connection between Trump and Russia that Trump and his associates did not want revealed to the point that they were willing to lie to the FBI and Congress about it. Indeed, five Trump associates are now in jail precisely for doing that, and a sixth one has been arrested. You can thank Mueller for all of those, as well as the 26 Russian nationals, three Russian companies, one California man, and one London-based lawyer who have also been indicted.

Some myth.

I take Taibbi’s point that the media is supposed to respect the “innocent until proven guilty” tenet of due process, and it’s true that the media’s sensationalist tendencies tend to blur those lines, especially with TV news. But let’s not pretend there was no basis for the Trump-Russia stories, or that the Mueller report proves the entire mass media industry got it wrong.

4. Meanwhile, as you might imagine, I am not at all impressed with Team MAGA’s “Total Exoneration b/w Democrats and Fake News Media Colluded to Destroy Trump” line, complete with the authoritarian schtick of naming names, accusations of treason and making “recommendations” that TV producers think twice about booking anyone on their list.

But then I’m not the target consumer – the MAGA base is. They’ll be screaming the “baseless witch hunt” conspiracy between now and the next election, and every effort by Demos to investigate further (and the media’s coverage of it) will be presented as evidence of that – and their base will devour every word.

Taibbi argues that’s why Demos and the media really need to move on from Mueller (at least until the report is released) if they want to maintain credibility – why hand them ammo if you don’t have to? That might be true, but it’s also true that Team MAGA manufactures its own ammo, so they’d be screaming “baseless witch hunt” even if Mueller had produced smoking guns.

5. Meanwhile, there is of course also the matter of all those other federal and state investigations into a wide range of shenanigans allegedly committed by Trump and/or his minions, as well as the question of whether Trump colluded with Russia in a different way (i.e. by giving them sanctions relief for the express purpose of enriching himself even though he knew at the time Russia was attempting to hack the election).

Those should continue to be investigated and reported, of course, but as far as impeaching Trump or convincing the GOP to abandon him, you can pretty much forget it. The witch-hunt narrative is pretty much set in stone, and the GOP is all-in with Trump at this stage. In terms of election strategy, it’s probably time to stop using scandals as a weapon – Trump has essentially immunized himself from that (and it certainly didn’t stop him from getting elected in the first place).

Going nowhere,

This is dF
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The book reports will continue until morale improves.

No, I don’t know what that means.

Things Fall ApartThings Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve never read Chinua Achebe before, but he’s been namechecked by a lot of people as one of those writers you need to check out if you want to read more fiction from Africa. This is his first novel (published in 1958) and not only is it regarded as the first significant English-language novel to originate from Africa, it’s also heralded as a literary classic in its own right – and having now read it, I can see why.

The story takes place in Nigeria in the 19th century, and follows Okonkwo, a man at the top of the social order of his clan in the villages of Umuofia, which he had to achieve entirely on his own since his layabout debt-laden father left him with nothing to inherit. Consequently, Okonkwo is tough, mean, angry and cruel, even to his own family, and completely obsessed with his own masculinity. The first half of the story tells how he came to power – the second half tracks his downfall due to a mix of bad luck and the arrival of white British missionaries and colonists who disrupt the traditions that Okonkwo relies on to advance and maintain his position and success.

It’s a depressing and disturbing read, not least because Okonkwo is a textbook example of toxic masculinity – he hates women, beats his wives regularly, wishes his daughter had been born a man, and despises any man who shows the slightest sign of weakness (to include himself). A lot of this is reinforced by the traditions of his culture, but even other men in the village aren’t as hardcore as Okonkwo. So he’s just about impossible to like. At the same time, it’s an engrossing story, thanks to Achebe’s excellent prose that draws the reader into the culture Okonkwo inhabits and portrays him as a monstrous yet tragic protagonist. Things get really interesting when the missionaries show up, representing both the positive and negative impact of Christian missions at the time on traditional cultures. For such a short novel, there’s a lot to unpack here, and plenty of scenes stick in the mind.

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth (Hilo Book 1)Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first time reading Judd Winick, and I confess I mainly picked this up in part because it turns out I’m friends with one of his cousins who hipped this book to me when it came out. That said, I also liked the art style on the cover, so I decided to give it a shot.

As the title implies, Hilo is a boy who literally falls from the sky and crashes into the Earth like a meteor, with no memory of who he is or where he’s from. He’s discovered and befriended by DJ, a nerdy 13-year-old boy, who lets Hilo stay at his house. This first volume involves Hilo figuring out why he’s here, which may have to do with the giant robot ant trying to kill him. There’s also a subplot with DJ being reunited with his old childhood friend Gina and dealing with being an underachiever in a family full of overachievers.

I can’t say it fully resonated with me, but then I’m not the target demographic – I think 13-year-old me would have enjoyed this a lot. Also, the art is great, the story well paced and the humor is reasonably wacky – it would make a good TV series on Cartoon Network.

City of IllusionsCity of Illusions by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is Ursula K Le Guin’s third instalment of the Hainish cycle, and (as far as I know) the first in the series to have some kind of continuity from a previous book, although it also works as a standalone novel. This one takes place on Earth (Terra), which is now a post-apocalyptic barbarian wasteland ruled by the Shing, an alien race who defeated the League of Worlds and took over Earth 1,200 years ago.

This is the backdrop for the story of a man with golden cat eyes and no memory or identity at all who stumbles out of the woods into a village. The locals take him in, and he builds up a new identity as “Falk”. Eventually Falk is told he needs to find out where he is from, who erased his previous memory/identity and why. To do this he must go to the city of Es Toch where the Shing rule. Very much walking ensues, during which Falk meets a lot of strange barbaric tribes along the way, and eventually finds out that everything he has learned is wrong. Or is it?

Of Le Guin’s first three early Hainish novels, this one works the best for me. It gets off to a slow start, but picks up speed the closer Falk gets to Es Toch, and it’s when he arrives that the real fun begins. Le Guin explores the implications of having your identity erased and restored (what then to do with the identity you’ve constructed in the interim?) and the problems of discerning truth from illusion – i.e. if someone tells you that they just told you a lie, are they lying when they tell you that they lied? I felt there was more meat to chew on here, and Falk was a more fleshed-out main character.

The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions (Japanese Devil Fish Girl #1)The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions by Robert Rankin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of Rankin’s work, though I took a break for a quite awhile, mainly because the series that starts with this novel was released in trade paperback, and I was waiting for the cheaper mass market versions, which it turns out were not forthcoming. Fiddle de, fiddle dum. Anyway, this kicks off Rankin’s take on the steampunk genre, and doubles as a sequel to HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Around ten years after the Martian invasion was defeated (for which the British Empire took full credit), British engineers have reverse-engineered Martian spaceships, and now there is steampunk tech and space travel, and it turns out there are also Venusians and Jupiterians, who are much more friendly. Or are they?

This is the backdrop for the story of George Fox, an innocent lad with big dreams who works for Professor Coffin, who runs a sideshow circus with freakish attractions. Together they end up on an epic quest to find the ultimate sideshow attraction – the fabled Japanese Devil Fish Girl, who may or may not be a goddess. This being Rankin, there’s also lots of conspiracy theories, a monkey butler, and cameos from famous historical figures, including PT Barnum, Charles Babbage, Nikola Tesla, Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill, regardless of whether or not they were technically alive in 1895, because who says you can’t do that?

I’m not big on steampunk, but I do like Rankin’s humor and his lyrical, whimsical writing style, and he does tell a good tall tale. He also has a lot of fun with the premise, and while he does sometimes go a bit overboard with the British Empire love, and the bit with the jungle cannibals is in questionable taste, they do serve as a satire of Victorian adventure literature that tended to put a premium on both British Empire and stereotypical jungle savages as convenient dangers for the hero to wallop, which I think is what Rankin intended. Anyway, I liked it.

A Fall of MoondustA Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Written in 1960 – well before Apollo 11 landed on the Moon – this novel from Arthur C Clarke imagines a future in which mankind is colonizing the solar system and numerous bases have been established on the Moon to the point of enabling tourism, which includes tours of the surface on “dust cruisers” that ski on the film of dust covering the ground. The moon dust also collects in lakes – some of them quite deep.

That’s the backdrop for the basic plot, in which the dust cruiser Selene sinks into the so-called “Sea of Thirst” without a trace following a rare moonquake. As Captain Pat Harris tries to keep his passengers alive (and calm), on the surface Chief Engineer Robert Lawrence is racing against time to locate the submerged Selene and rescue the passengers and crew.

This is the kind of stuff Clarke generally does well – create a hard-science future and throw the characters (usually scientists) into a situation that they have to repeatedly science themselves out of. Like pretty much all of Clarke’s books, he’s less adept at the human characters – especially when it comes to women and relationships, or really anyone who isn't a male scientist or engineer, who as a group Clarke tends to portray as calm and professional (he also stacks the deck here by making the majority of the Selene’s passengers academic types, perhaps to insure against the inevitable panic scene). In any case, it’s a relatively fast-paced rescue story that holds up surprisingly well (apart from the moondust itself, which is the major scientific inaccuracy, which Clarke himself acknowledged in post-Apollo editions).

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Done and dusted,

This is dF
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Apparently they’re planning another Woodstock festival this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original.

Because, you know, the 25th and 30th anniversaries went so well.

Anyway, the lineup has been announced, and NPR ran a piece on it with the following headline:

Can Woodstock 50 'Re-Create The Magic' Of The Original Festival?

Here’s my short answer:


Here’s my slightly longer answer:

Hippie jokes aside, Woodstock was a one-off product of its time, unprecedented in scale and ambition – so much so that the organizers lost control of it early on. Which was in a way in keeping with the times themselves.

To be clear, I think the mythos of Woodstock gets overplayed a lot. But it WAS a culturally significant moment because of the youth-culture ideology that drove it, the sociopolitical changes in play at the time, and the unique role of rock music as an interactive motivational soundtrack for those changes.

Rock was still new and evolving in the late-60s to the point that it was part of the anti-establishment social movement itself. Consequently, I think Woodstock 1 has the reputation it does precisely because the music was integral to the youth movement at the time.

By contrast, pop/rock today feels relatively static and part of the institution, and structurally independent of sociopolitical movements. Yes, youth are starting to get engaged politically again (gun control, climate change, trans rights, #BLM, #MeToo, etc), but the music is mostly incidental or at best reactive to that. Certainly none of the big-name acts I've seen booked for WS50 have much to do with whatever new social movements are underway (their particular political beliefs and opinions of Trump notwithstanding) – maybe Miley Cyrus, but apart from that, not really. 

The organizers may have their hearts in the right place, but it sounds like to me they have no understanding of what made Woodstock 1 'magical' in the first place. In the end, Woodstock 50 (like WS25 and WS30) is just another overpriced corporate-sponsored music festival with a classic brand, and nothing more. 

This concludes my TED Talk.

Goin’ down to Yasgur's Farm,

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I’ve seen all the dithering about Rep Ilhan Omar (D-MN), her apparent tendency to say things about Israel that play into anti-Semitic tropes, and the subsequent House resolution to condemn anti-Semitic speech, which eventually blossomed into a more generic anti-hate speech resolution.

Aaaaaand you know, blog.

1. Having read Omar’s comments, I’m inclined to believe that she’s genuinely trying to raise legitimate questions or criticisms of Israeli government policies and the lobbying influence of groups like AIPIC, but has a tendency to express them in ways that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic dog whistles.

That in itself is something I think needs to be discussed a lot more than it is, for a couple of reasons.

One: the thing about dog-whistles is that by nature they have double meanings – they allow you to say racist/anti-Semitic things without actually explicitly saying them. The obvious problem is that they often tend to be terms or phrases that people often say with no racist intention whatsoever. Which means if someone says them, it is entirely possible the person said it without knowing it could be taken in a racist way.

I know this because I’ve seen a lot of comments blasted as racist and anti-Semitic that I had no idea had that kind of connotation. As an easy example, I had no idea that “sleepy-eyed” was a slur against Jews until Trump described Chuck Schumer that way. So I can see why Omar could easily fall into that trap.

Two: If we’re basically saying that we have to be very careful about how we talk about Israel because it might accidentally conform to some anti-Semitic conspiracy trope, we are in essence allowing the anti-Zionist conspiracy kooks to direct the conversation. We are allowing them to dictate how we talk about it and what we can and cannot say, which is making it extremely difficult to have conversations about legitimate issues because if we say the wrong word – regardless of the intention of the speaker – we’ll be handing ammo to the Nazis or playing into their rhetorical hands.

That last bit may be true. And I do believe that words have power, so it’s good practice to use them carefully in any situation, especially when it comes to public discourse, although not to the point of crafting bland sentences that say nothing, convey no emotion whatsoever and offend no one.

I’m just troubled by the notion that anti-Zionist conspiracy kooks have successfully turned any discussion about the Israel-Palestine issue into a verbal minefield. It gives them power that I’d rather not be giving them, if you see what I’m saying.

2. I’m not really impressed with the Republicans jumping all over Omar on this because they clearly only seem to care about anti-Semitism when Democrats do it. Right-wing anti-Semitism is a far more frequent and bigger problem – not least because it has actually resulted in people getting killed. Most Republicans haven’t had a thing to say about that, and when they do it’s usually some half-assed “both sides” trope.

Also, given recent history and the fact that a lot of conservatives are still warning about Sharia Law as if they actually know what it is and how it works (they don’t), I’m reasonably sure their sudden interest in condemning anti-Semitic rhetoric has a lot more to do with the fact that (1) it’s coming from both a Muslim and an upstart freshman who they associate with the dreaded AOC squad, and (2) it’s a political opportunity to get Demos to either throw one of their hot riding stars under the bus or make excuses for her, which enables Republicans to keep turning a blind eye to their own anti-Zionist wing. Honestly they’d be fine with either outcome.

3. Anyway, the Demo house resolution has been passed, and they managed to do it without calling out Omar specifically. But it's unlikely that the issue will go away, even if Omar manages to express herself more carefully.

Which doesn't seem likely – not because she’s uninterested in avoiding anti-Semitic word traps (I think she is) but because (1) Omar tends to speak honestly from the heart – which is admirable, but the heart can get us in trouble sometimes when we let emotion control our tongues (especially on Twitter), (2) politics has always been about twisting yr opponent’s words around and pretending they said something that they didn’t, even if your twist makes no sense whatsoever, and (3) it’s 2019 – this is the age of manufactured outrage. Omar could tweet something about a bad experience with Wal-mart’s exchange policy and every pundit on Fox would spend three hours each on how outrageous it is that Omar is harassing and terrorizing hard-working Americans in an all-American company like Wal-mart. Or something.

Freedom of speech (just watch what you say),

This is dF
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Well that escalated quickly, didn’t it?

"Rommel?" "Gunner Who?": A Confrontation in the Desert by Spike Milligan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Spike Milligan is one of those legendary comedians who gets namechecked by lots of comedians I admire, and I’m aware of his role as a co-founder of The Goons, but I’ve never actually seen much of his stuff, and I haven’t read any of his books. So when I found this in a charity book sale, I figured it was a good excuse to try him out.

This is Volume 2 (of 7) of his WW2 memoirs, covering January to May 1943, in which his artillery unit arrives in Algeria and fights its way to Tunis. It’s a mix of embellished diary entries, fake dialogue between Hitler and other Nazi officials (and occasionally Churchill, Mussolini and others), drawings and humorously illustrative photos (many of them not actually from WW2). And I’m not really sure what to make of it.

On the one hand, there’s a lot of funny bits, and the slapdash, jumbled narrative (such as it is) conveys what it’s like to be a soldier on the ground without the benefit of a bigger picture of what’s going on. On the other hand, I’m not really a fan of war memoirs, though they’re better when they’re funny. Still, I think Milligan didn't strike the right balance between refusing to take the war seriously and conveying the seriousness of what it was like to be in the war. (The casual racism, sexism and homophobia of the time doesn’t help, although at least it’s honest.) I don’t think this will put me off investigating Milligan further, but I don’t think I’ll be checking out any more of his war memoirs for awhile.

Pebble in the Sky (Galactic Empire, #3)Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is Isaac Asimov’s first novel (although, confusingly, it’s the third novel in his Empire series), and I’ve always wanted to read it, as I really enjoyed Asimov’s Foundation series and his robot novels. The premise is also pretty good: an unspecified nuclear accident suddenly transports innocent bystander Joseph Schwartz into the far future in which the Galactic Empire has been established and Earth – regarded as a barbaric radioactive backwater – is run by the Society of Ancients that believe (contrary to all scientific evidence) that humankind actually originated on Earth.

The story follows Schwartz, an Earth scientist named Dr Shekt (who has developed a machine to help humans learn faster) and an archaeologist named Bel Arvardan who is visiting Earth for research purposes – namely, to prove that the Society of Ancients are right, only to eventually discover that Earth is planning to rebel against the Empire (again), and this time they might win.

Which would be great, except Asimov’s writing here is disappointingly clunky, with sudden and jarring shifts in viewpoint, clumsy foreshadowing and sometimes terrible dialogue, all of which proved rather distracting for me. His handling of the one primary female character, Shekt’s daughter Pola, also hasn’t aged well. There are some good scenes, and Asimov’s attempts to address issues like racism and bigotry are admirable. But this was a letdown for me – not least because I know he could write far better than this.

The Complete Yes MinisterThe Complete Yes Minister by Jonathan Lynn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Yes, Minister is probably one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, not least for its smart writing and savage-yet-subtle political satire. That said, when I saw this in a charity book sale, I only hesitated because I didn’t know if I just wanted to read the show scripts. But this omnibus (which covers all three seasons of the series) isn’t just scripts, but all the shows rewritten as short stories in the form of Minister Jim Hacker’s recorded diaries, along with other memos, BBC transcripts and interviews to cover bits of the show that Hacker wouldn’t have been able to talk about as he wasn’t present at the time.

As such, this collection offers not only a different presentation of each episode, but a lot of bonus material – the equivalent of DVD commentary and extras – in the form of backgrounders, context, some explanations of British govt terms and acronyms, and plenty of witty commentary from the “editors”, among other things. So I learned a lot, and also got a deeper sense of the three main characters – Hacker, Sir Humphrey Appleby and Bernard Wooley (who I always assumed was the main character, for some reason – it seems I may have been mistaken there). Still, it’s arguably a better experience to watch the show than to read it, especially when it comes to the dialogue pacing and performances of Paul Eddington, Derek Fowlds and Nigel Hawthorne that really made the show such a delight to watch.

Between PlanetsBetween Planets by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Robert Heinlein was doing YA sci-fi decades before YA was a thing, and this 1951 novel is regarded to be one of his better works. As it happens, this was the first Heinlein book I ever attempted to read, but despite being 13 (a.k.a. the target demographic), I didn’t finish it – mainly because I was only just getting into sci-fi novels and my expectations had been set by Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, which is totally unfair, I know, but did I mention I was 13?

The premise is a good one – the human colony on Venus stage a rebellion against the Earth-based Federation, which makes life complicated for teenager Don Harvey, who lives on Earth but has dual citizenship thanks to his parents being from both planets. With war looming, his parents instruct him to join them on Mars, but Don’s journey gets complicated fast as events unfold and he finds himself under suspicion of being a spy – especially after an old family friend asks him to deliver a package to his parents.

The story itself is okay and goes in a direction I didn’t quite expect, although – like a lot of Heinlein – it hasn’t aged too well in terms of science (i.e. Venus having a breathable atmosphere) and cultural stereotypes (i.e. the bit about Chinese immigrants on Venus). And for my money, at least, Don Harvey is one of Heinlein’s typical “rugged American individualism” characters that I find a bit annoying, although his naïve ideologies do get a walloping by reality. Anyway, I can see why 13-year-old me didn’t get into it. 53-year-old me thought it was all right, but I’m getting to the point where I’m thinking I’ve read enough of him for the time being.

Tall TalesTall Tales by Al Jaffee

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you know Al Jaffee’s name at all, it’s probably because you read Mad Magazine on a fairly regular basis at some point in your life. Like me. One of the many things Jaffee did outside of Mad was a newspaper strip with a unique gimmick – a vertical format rather than the usual horizontal or four-square panel format. The strip, “Tall Tales”, were one-shot visual jokes that took advantage of the format. It ran from 1957 to 1963, and this book collects what Jaffee thinks are the best of the lot.

Most are pretty good, some are laugh-out-loud funny, but I mostly got a kick of the gimmick itself and how Jaffee made maximum use of it to create a gag. Some of the humor is dated, but if you’re a fan of Jaffee or a comic-strip aficionado, I’d highly recommend this.

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Walking tall,

This is dF
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Trump has declared his national emergency over the wall (or lack thereof), and I only just now have found some time to blog it, but luckily this may be the easiest blog post ever, so it won’t take much of your time.

1. There of course is no emergency except for the one that exists in Trump’s empty little head. And there are no reliable facts or statistics to back that up except for the super-secret ones Trump makes up in that same head. Which says a lot, because he could only get away with this in a time where people have conned themselves into believing that any fact that contradicts their worldview or their POTUS is fake news.

2. Obviously this raises some issues over the ability of a POTUS to use otherwise legal national-emergency powers to circumvent Congress when it doesn’t give him what he wants. That said, I am generally not impressed with the modicum of Republican handwringing over this. We’ve seen this before – Trump does/says something radical/insane, some Republicans say, “Well, I don’t really agree …” then they eventually back him.

Some people have tried the “Look, if you allow this, the next Democratic POTUS will have the same powers and the precedent to use them for, say, banning assault rifles, and it’ll be all yr fault” argument. Unfortunately, we tried that back when when Bush Jr was President – he started wars all over the Middle East after 9/11 and gave himself wartime powers to curtail liberties, set up torture camps , etc to “fight” terrorism, and Demos made the same argument – “You realize if Hillary becomes President, she’ll have all these powers too, right?” Repubs didn't care then, and when Obama became POTUS they just complained about Presidential overreach as if it was never a problem until Obama took office.

The message is clear: only presidents in the Opposition Party have too much power. Presidents from your own party never ever do, even when they have the exact same powers. And they will never see the dissonance between these statements no matter how much time you take to explain it to them.

3. I don’t know what the outcome of the lawsuits will be, but I will say I don’t think it matters from a political POV because, as some have already pointed out, Trump – ironically – doesn't really want a wall that badly. He wants to be seen by his base demanding that wall and scrapping with libtards to get it so he can get cheap pops at his ego rallies. It doesn't matter if the courts rule against him, because he can simply blame the libtards, the activist judges and the fake news media. And his base will accept that.

Over the wall,

This is dF
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And so it’s a new year of reading fun!

Though I’m off to a slow start this year, thanks mainly to having spent the month (1) hunting for a new flat to move into and (2) moving into it (which we did this week). But it’s not like I set a goal of reading 42 books again this y–

Oh wait. I did.

Oh well, it's not like Goodreads will rescind my membership if I fail. And I’m sure I’ll make up for lost time once everything settles down a little.

Random Walk: a Novel for the New AgeRandom Walk: a Novel for the New Age by Lawrence Block

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve been a fan of Lawrence Block since the mid-80s, but somehow I missed this book that came out in 1988. And there may be good reason for that – it’s a novel that not only steps outside his usual turf (crime novels) but also didn’t do well at the time (also unusual for a Block novel, at least by this point in his career).

According to Block, he just had this idea of a man in Oregon who isn’t satisfied with his life, hears a voice suggesting he literally walk away from it all, upon which he packs a bag, starts walking east and keeps going – and Block ran with it until three weeks later he had a novel. A mysterious force compels others to join Guthrie’s walk, protects them from the elements and even provides healing miracles. This being Block, there’s also a very nasty serial killer on the loose somewhere in the Midwest.

As always, Block is good at keeping you turning the pages, if only to find out (1) where all of this is going and (2) what the serial killer has to do with anything. However, the eventual explanation for the walk isn't very convincing, and the resolution regarding the dual narratives – while perhaps daring – beggars belief even within the New Age spiritual framework Block employs, which itself is problematic. As a fan, I did enjoy watching Block try something different (although the serial killer angle is vintage Block), and it was a nice try. But ultimately I couldn't suspend my disbelief enough to accommodate it.

The Lottery and Other StoriesThe Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read several of Jackson’s novels before and liked them, so I was keen to try this collection of her short stories – not least because I’d read “The Lottery” when I was in high school. The striking thing about it is that it shows Jackson didn’t just write horror stories – most of the stories here are more focused on suburban middle-class angst, with the protagonists often dealing with the pressures of conformity, deception, duplicity, etc.

That said, these aren't exactly slice-of-life mini-dramas – Jackson manages to put a unique twist on many of them, and her eye for social observation is sharp as a tack, especially the ones that tackle heavier themes like racism. That said, I have to admit I prefer Jackson in weird/horror mode, and while a couple of stories here fit that description, “The Lottery” is the main attraction. It perhaps says a lot that it’s the last story in the collection – as if putting it first would overshadow everything that follows. Or maybe it’s like bands who save their biggest hit song for the finale.

View all my reviews

Winning isn’t everything,

This is dF
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Because you can’t possibly have enough “Best Of The Year” lists on the Internet.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: If yr favorite movie of 2018 isn’t here, it’s likely because (1) I didn’t get a chance to see it, (2) it hasn’t been released in Hong Kong yet, or (3) I did see it but didn’t like it as much as you did. Also, if some of these seem kind of old, it’s because their release date was 2017 for yr country, but 2018 for Hong Kong. See?


1. The Shape of Water
In which Guillermo del Toro basically reimagines Creature From The Black Lagoon as a love story, in which the creature is held in a secret govt lab for cruel experiments, where mute cleaning woman Elisa bonds with him. It’s as weird and tragic as you’d expect, and it’s a nice twist on a classic horror movie.

2. 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
I went in not really knowing much about it apart from the cast and the director – both of which were enough to convince me to see it. I really enjoyed Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, and any film with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell seems like a good bet. It was – it’s a powerful story about what happens when the rage of loss is compounded by injustice, and the depths people sink to when desperation sets in.

3. Muppet Guys Talking
This Frank Oz documentary was originally filmed in 2012, and Oz sat on the footage for years before finally having the time to edit it down to a feature-length doc. The title says it all – it’s mainly five Muppet performers (Oz, Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz and Bill Barretta) sitting in a room talking about Muppet history, the characters they played, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and Jim Henson. It’s a simple concept, and it works wonderfully – all five performers are good storytellers and have plenty of great anecdotes to share. Essential for anyone who’s a Muppet fan.

4. Black Panther
I only saw a couple of MCU films last year (Infinity War was not one of them because I’ve been assured it’s really for fans only, a.k.a. people who have seen all the MCU films and remember every detail about them), but Black Panther was by far the best of the bunch for me for a couple of reasons: (1) it’s a character I’m not as familiar with, compared to Captain America, Hulk Iron Man, etc, so it offered something different, and (2) the rich worldbuilding of Wakanda, and reasonably well-developed characters (by MCU standards, anyway), to include the villain, Killmonger. Like with all MCU films, the rollercoaster CGI action is overdone, but that’s the price of admission.

5. All The Money In The World
The strange but true tale of the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty III, which I only tried because Ridley Scott is usually a dependable director and he’s good at this kind of film. Of course the race to find Paul and secure his release is interesting, but the film also succeeds as a family drama and an indictment of greed so engrained that it will drive people to put money before family. It’s flawed in places, and of course they made up some of it. But I’ve learned to expect that with “true” stories. DISCLAIMER: It was only after seeing it that I found out this was the film where Kevin Spacey was edited out and replaced by Christopher Plummer. All I’ll say is that it looked seamless to me – I’d never have guessed if TwitterBook hadn’t told me.

6. Isle Of Dogs
I’ve said before Wes Anderson is one of those directors you either like or you don’t, and this doesn’t change that. This animated homage to Japanese cinema is one of his better films – not quite as good as Fantastic Mr Fox, mainly because the characterization isn't as strong, due to it being more of an ensemble cast. But it’s full of Anderson’s usual dark humor and visual panache.

7. Bohemian Rhapsody
Oh, YOU know. And I have to say that as flawed as it is – and it is flawed, from the standard dialogue and rock’n’roll clichés to the unnecessary revisionist history (“Fat Bottomed Girls” coming out in 1974, Freddie Mercury adopting his Tom From Finland look in the late 70s, etc) – I liked it. I think it’s partly because the music is great, the cast (not just Rami Malek, but everyone) really look and act like the band, and I’ve read interviews with Brian May who says the film isn’t meant to be real life but a “painting” of Freddie, so I figure if he’s okay with it, why should I complain? That said, I maintain that if you’re going to call the film Bohemian Rhapsody, there should be at least one sequence in the film where they play the whole song through in its entirety.

8. Early Man
The latest animated film from Nick Park. I think I would have liked this less if I’d seen any trailers for it – it’s more fun to watch it unexpectedly go from a prehistoric comedy to a satire of English football. Once it does, it’s pretty predictable, and there are moments where I felt they could have done a little more with the material. But it’s still a goofy, fun and enjoyable film.

9. Incredibles 2
I don’t think we really needed an Incredibles sequel, but we got one anyway, and it’s pretty good for what it is, maintaining more or less the quality level of the first one, as well as the themes of how vigilante superheroes don’t quite fit into a world of real-world laws and regulations, and the challenges of raising kids with superpowers. Anyway, it’s one of the better superhero movies on 2018.

10. Solo: A Star Wars Story
I have so much to say about this, and you can read it all here. For the capsule review, I’ll just say that as a straight-up big-budget space-adventure film, it’s actually pretty good fun. As a Star Wars film, it’s predictable as far as the established characters are concerned (Solo, Chewbacca and Lando), and it doesn't really add much to the characters that we didn’t already know. Also, I’m one of those fans who feels that Han Solo didn’t need an origin story – part of Solo’s appeal has always been his braggadocio and exaggerating his own accomplishments, and the references to the Kessel Run work better when you don’t know how he did it.


Ant-Man and The Wasp
The other decent MCU film of 2018, in which Ant-Man is under house arrest and estranged from the Pyms because of some other MCU film I couldn’t remember, but that changes when it turns out that during the first film he somehow became quantumly entangled with the original Wasp, who is believed lost in the sub-atomic realm. The Ant-Man films get by mainly on having their own specific sense of humor (Paul Rudd and Michael Pena are still great) and the writers having fun with the concept of being able to shrink and enlarge objects and people at will. This one also has a more interesting villain with Ghost.

The Crimes That Bind
This Japanese film is based on the last instalment of the Detective Kaga novels by Keigo Higashino. It’s also the last of the film/TV franchise based on those novels. I haven’t watched those, but I have read one of the novels, and I do like lead actor Hiroshi Abe (who has played Kaga before and does so here), so I gave this a shot. The story involves Kaga helping a young police detective investigate the death of a woman in Shiga in part because he suspects the case has a connection to the unsolved mystery of his own mother’s death 16 years earlier in the same town. Like a lot of Japanese murder mysteries, the truth is both insanely convoluted and melodramatic, and the film gets by mainly by good performances from Abe and Nanako Matsuhima (as a theatre owner who was the last person to see the victim alive).

Mission Impossible: Fallout
By now the M:I franchise template is pretty solid – insane action sequences, insane technology, insane plot twists, insane interdepartmental squabbles, and insane Tom Cruise putting stuntmen out of work. And that’s okay, since the franchise tends to work best when the writers and director embrace the utter insanity of the premise, take the “impossible” part literally and run with it. Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie does all of that and more. This time out, Ethan Hunt is out to recover three stolen plutonium MacGuffins that a terrorist group called The Apostles (formed from the remains of The Syndicate, which Hunt defeated in the previous film) are attempting to acquire. Insanity ensues.

A Korean monster movie with a slight twist in that it’s a period piece, taking place in the 15th century during the Joseon era. Following reports of a giant monster killing villagers and spreading a plague, King Jungjong asks disgraced general Yun Kyum to investigate whether the “monstrum” is real or a rumor spread by his political enemies to undermine his leadership and stage a coup. It’s a great set-up for what turns out to be a predictable story with average CG and a cop-out ending, and I think director Huh Jong-ho could have waited longer to reveal the truth behind the monstrum. But for all its flaws, I found it interesting.


The Meg
Actually, the film overall was better than I expected – not great, but I was entertained. My main disappointment is that Jason Statham didn’t kill the megalodon by kicking its head off.


A Wrinkle In Time

My Twitter feed was full of people who loved this live-action version of the classic novel (which was one of my junior-high reading staples), and … well, it didn’t work for me. I thought it just tried too hard to be Amazing (cue “this is Amazing” reaction shots from all the characters every time they arrived at a new planet), the dialogue just doesn't flow at all, and the three Mrs Ws are kind of annoying. And while I understand why Ava DuVerny and the writers stripped out the Christian elements of the book, those elements were also crucial to explaining more or less what is going on and why, and what the Mrs Ws have to do with anything – without that context (or a workable replacement), the result is a generic good vs evil arc with no good explanation as to who the Mrs Ws are and why it’s up to the Murry children to fight IT to save their dad.


Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

This is the direct sequel to Jurassic World, both in terms of bringing back Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and Blue The Velociraptor, and in terms of the fact that the whole story depends on just about everyone besides them being a complete and utter idiot with absolutely no memory of anything that happened in the previous films. The “save the dinos” angle is interesting in that it echoes the original film’s point that the regenerated dinosaurs are in a sense victims of man’s arrogance, but the bad guy plot is beyond ludicrous and the set-up for the next film isn't that convincing.

The balcony is closed,

This is dF
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Well, sure you do.

I’ll open with the fact that I changed the criteria this year in that I’m no longer limiting myself to music I bought, mainly because my music budget has been slashed considerably to the point that it’s hard enough to put together a Top 10, and there’s almost always going to be more albums I want to buy than I can actually afford. So now I’m including albums that I have streamed online, either via Spotify or NPR First Listen and whatnot.

That expands the field considerably, although not this year, since I only decided to implement this policy a month ago. But this year’s field is certainly bigger than the last couple of years.

As for that field, as usual it seems most of the best albums, as usual, came from the old pros instead of new artists. Even more telling, perhaps, is that it seems 2018 was the year for cover projects, whether paying tribute to a particular artist or covering a classic album. And there’s nothing wrong with that – you don't always have to write your own material, and as long as you bring something new to the table – or can at least demonstrate why the song is worth covering – it’s all good.

Is that a major indication of the state of music in 2018? Probably not. As Tom Waits once said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “No one ever says we have enough songs. There’s always room for one more song.”

That said, overall I felt 2018 wasn’t really a knockout year for music. I like everything in this Top 10, but only a couple really made a big impression on me. This was also a year where albums from several artists I really like (Janelle Monae, Neko Case, The Breeders) didn’t really connect with me, whether because they were underwhelming or overhyped – which is of course my problem, not theirs.

So here’s what impressed me the most this year.

TOP 10 DEF LPs OF 2018

10. Angélique Kidjo, Remain In Light (Kravenworks)
In which Kidjo covers an entire Talking Heads album. It works – which is perhaps unsurprising, given how the original was influenced by Afrobeat rhythms. For the most part, Kidjo takes that element and puts it at the forefront. It’s interesting too that she seems to have opted for the Stop Making Sense versions of these songs, tempo-wise. David Byrne reportedly loves it.

9. Ry Cooder The Prodigal Son (Perro Verde/Fantasy)
This has been billed by some music journalists as Ry Cooder’s gospel album, though that’s overselling it. While there’s some gospel covers here, Cooder (who openly admits to being non-religious) is more interested in gospel as an American roots music style – which makes a kind of sense as gospel is probably the only form of American folk music he hasn't done yet. Like with most Cooder albums, the vocals don’t always do the material justice, but musically it’s beautiful, fun and rowdy as required.

8. Hedgehog, Sound Of Life Towards … (Tai He)
Hedgehog are a band from Beijing who specialize in indie rock, albeit the kind of indie rock where they play around with different templates rather than stick to one formula – a little Pixies here, a little Nirvana there, a little Blonde Redhead thataway, etc – although none of those comparisons really tell you what they sound like. In any case, this is (I believe) their tenth album, and it’s a pretty solid set of songs with some pretty nifty arrangements.

7. Mighty Jabronis, Mighty Jabronis (Bandcamp)
The Mighty Jabronis are the latest music project featuring Cat Taylor, who fronted Nashville hardcore legends Rednecks In Pain and later Fun Girls From Mt Pilot. Their main gimmick is to combine punk rock and pro wrestling (and Cat has actually done both), so all their songs are wrestling-themed, as are their cover songs (to include a parody of a Loverboy hit). It may be a gimmick, but it’s a good one and it’s catchy fun. You don’t have to be a fan of wrestling to like this, but it will help you get a lot of the in-jokes.

6. Kim Wilde, Here Come The Aliens (Wildeflower/Edel)
Yes, THAT Kim Wilde (a.k.a. “Kids In America”). She’s still around, and has been recording more or less steadily since her 80s heyday, apart from one ten-year break.. I was a fan of her first four albums released in the early 80s, and this – her 14th album and her first in five years – sounds like she and brother Ricky haven’t changed their production standards (or keyboards) one jot since then, except the guitars are louder to the point that at times it sounds like the 80s-era Billy Idol comeback album we didn’t ask for. The few ballads are too generic for me, but overall I have to say I liked this more than I expected I would. If you like 80s pop ladled with Eurocheese and not taken too seriously, this is actually a lot of fun.

5. Cambodian Space Project, Spaced Out In Wonderland (ABC)
Cambodian Space Project is a Cambodian 60s psychedelic pop tribute band from Cambodia who do a mix of covers and originals. Sadly this may be their final album, as their lead singer, Channthy, was killed in a traffic accident in March last year. I think this is their best album to date, mainly on the strength of their selection of Western classics to which they apply their Cambodian pop-rock sound (like “Paint It Black”, “Proud Mary” (the Ike and Tina version) and “Summer Wine”). The original songs are a mixed bag – some work great, some don’t – but the album is worth the price of admission for their cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”.

4. Jean Grae and Quelle Chris, Everything's Fine (Mello Music Group)
I’m not familiar with Quelle Chris, but I’ve been a fan of Jean Grae from back in the late 90s when she was rapping under the name What What. This is their first full-length collaboration, a concept album about the state of the nation and how all of us – but racial minorities in particular – often say “everything’s fine”, even if we’re on the edge of losing it, because it's what we’re expected to say, whether it’s about our personal lives or the society around us. It’s musically inventive and packs a bigger punch than any so called gangsta rap.

3. Kristin Hersh, Possible Dust Clouds (Fire Records)
This is Hersh’s 11th solo album, and if you’ve ever heard her previous albums, this doesn’t vary too far from her usual songwriting template – in fact, the biggest deviation is the heavy, distorted production and what sounds like greater use of effects pedals, which gives it a more layered sound, though not to the point of being overproduced. What’s really striking is the occasionally ambitious songwriting structures and the fact that Hersh can take the same three or four basic sets of chord changes and somehow still make them sound fresh.

2. Laurie Anderson and Kronos Quartet, Landfall (Nonesuch)
This is music from their multimedia show about Anderson’s experiences when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, so in a sense this is an incomplete experience – but the music holds its own, though it’s when Anderson recites her spoken-word bits that it really comes to life. But the music speaks for itself to the point that the song title is often all you really need to create your own visuals in your head.

1. Juliana Hatfield, Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (American Laundromat)
Just like it says. Hatfield does mostly the hits and a few album tracks, and while most critics have complained that she didn't do enough to take ownership of these songs or mess around with them enough – which is technically true – I thought she struck almost the right balance between tribute and doing her own version. Admittedly there’s a couple of songs where I found myself wishing she’d done just a little bit more with it. That said, her voice is perfectly suited for ONJ’s songs, and she sounds like she really had a blast recording these – and her enthusiasm is contagious, because I’ve really enjoyed listening to it. Your own opinion will likely depend on how much you like ONJ and to what extent you expect cover versions to reinvent the original song.


David Byrne, American Utopia (Todomundo/Nonesuch)
This is Byrne’s seventh solo album, and it’s part of larger multimedia project called Reasons To Be Cheerful, Byrne’s attempt to find optimism in the current grim reality, even if that means pointing out that dogs, chickens and bullets are lucky that they don’t have to worry about sociopolitical problems. Of course, there’s nothing here to beat his Talking Heads material, but taken on its own terms, it’s his best solo effort in awhile.

The Damned, Evil Spirits (Spinefarm/Universal)
The Damned return after a ten-year break with their 11th LP, with more or less the same line-up they've had since 2001’s Grave Disorder (including original members Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible), except that Paul Gray is back on bass. Musically it’s sort of a return to form, with producer Tony Visconti catching them somewhere between Machine Gun Etiquette and Phantasmagoria music-wise, although the horn section may be a bit much. Like all latter-day Damned albums, it pales in comparison to their classics, but there’s a lot to like here – Vanian sounds as good as ever, and a fair number of songs here show they still have a sharp eye for social observation.

Gwenno, Le Kov (Heavenly)
This is Gwenno Saunders’ second solo album after leaving the Pipettes, and where the previous one was a sci-fi concept album sung in Welsh, the main theme here is that all the songs are sung in Cornish as a protest against the British government’s proposal to cut funding for teaching and supporting the Cornish language. In any case, it’s more ethereal retro-psychedelic pop, and I like it.

Nona Hendryx & Gary Lucas, The World Of Captain Beefheart (Knitting Factory Records)
12 Beefheart classics served up by Gary Lucas (the last guitarist to serve with Beefheart) and Nona Hendryx filling in on vocals – which sounds weird on paper but it really works. If nothing else it provides a new perspective on Beefheart’s music (the song selection covers a pretty wide range) and shows that even his weirder songs were more mainstream than they sounded at the time.

Thought Gang, Thought Gang (Sacred Bones)
This is the legendary jazz/spoken-word side-project of David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti, created somewhere between the second season of Twin Peaks and the prequel film Fire Walk With Me, in which Badalamenti and his jazz musicians would improv music to go with whatever weird scenario Lynch would pitch at them. A couple of tracks surfaced on the Fire Walk With Me soundtrack, but the whole album (recorded in the 1990s) was only just released late last year. It sounds more or less the way you’d expect – Lynch fans may dig it, but beyond that, it’s hard to say.

Tony Joe White, Bad Mouthin' (Yep Roc)
This is the final album from Tony Joe White, who passed on shortly after its release. It’s a good note to go out on. Here, White performs the first two songs he ever wrote (before his breakthrough hit “Polk Salad Annie”), but the real attraction here is the covers – mainly classic blues songs, but also “Heartbreak Hotel”, which White transforms into a dark blues lament.


Marc Ribot, Songs of Resistance 1942-2018 (Noise Inc/Anti-)
It seems there were quite a few protest albums or songs released this year for some mysterious and inexplicable reason. This was the most interesting of the bunch for me. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of protest songs – a mix of originals and classic songs from World War II anti-Fascist Italian partisans, the US civil rights movement and Mexican protest ballads – inspired not just by the 2016 election and the subsequent return of neo-Nazis, but the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world. Ribot’s eclectic musical style can make for some uneasy listening at times, and I think the older songs work better in the sense that they’re more timeless (as opposed to the new songs that point fingers and name names, which is fair, but I don’t see myself listening to many of these five years from now). But it’s a great idea, and it helps that Ribot roped in some great guest vocalists – Steve Earle, Meshell Ndegeocello, Justin Vivian Bond, Fay Victor, Sam Amidon, and Ohene Cornelius. Oh, and Tom Waits, whose rendition of “Bella Ciao” is worth the price of admission alone.


Metric, Art of Doubt (BMG)
For me, Metric is one of those bands that put out one great album (Fantasies) and – at least for me – have not yet managed to clear that bar again. On first pass, their latest seemed to be trying a little too hard to come up with anthemic air-punchers, but with each new listen, some songs are starting to grab my attention, especially the title track. I didn’t get a copy until around November, and sometimes it takes a while for an album to win me over – that may well be the case here.


Banäna Deäthmüffins, Kawaii Five-0 (Terribly Frog Records)

Yes, it’s a shameless plug. But why not? Yr all lucky I didn't put it in my Top 10.


Various Artists, Make Mine Mondo! (Ace)
This collects novelty songs, garage rock, rockabilly and 60s pop psychedelica from Doré Records, a small LA label run by Lew Bedell, a former stand-up comic who welcomed just about any oddball who showed up with a master tape looking for a record deal (which included Kim Fowley, Mike Curb and Shel Talmy, among others). Bobby Troup is probably the most recognizable name here, but the whole comp is a lot of fun – not just for the Doctor Demento fodder (The Zanies’ “The Mad Scientist” and “The Blob”, The Altecs’ “Gorilla Hunt”, Johnny O’s “Meet The Bongo Man”) but also bands like The Wrench, Chuck Miles and The Styles, Spencer’s Van Dykes, and Basil and the Baroques, among others.

Tomorrow: the films!

Mondo bizarro,

This is dF
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I meant to post this ages ago, and I’m obviously late to this discussion, but with a Top 10 Films list about to be published, I figured I could post this for posterity to fulfil my obligations as both a blogger and a Star Wars fan.

So anyway, back in October I finally saw Solo: A Star Wars Story, which was a flop by Star Wars standards. My not so hot take:

1. I went in with low expectations – and it probably helped. As a straight-up big-budget space-adventure film, it’s actually pretty good on its own merits, especially if you can forget that the main character is supposed to be the Han Solo of the original Star Wars trilogy – which surprisingly isn’t all that hard, since Aldren Ehrenreich plays Solo his own way rather than try to do an Harrison Ford impression, which very likely would not have worked even if it was a good impersonation.

2. However, it IS part of the Star Wars canon, and the three main problems for me were (1) the Kasdans tried too hard to reference the original films (did we really need another scene of TIE fighters chasing the Millennium Falcon through a field of space debris?), (2) it’s often predictable as far as the established characters are concerned (Solo, Chewbacca and Lando), and (3) it doesn't really add much to the characters that we didn’t already know. Also, I’m one of those fans who feels that Han Solo didn’t need an origin story – part of Solo’s appeal has always been his braggadocio and exaggerating his own accomplishments, and the references to the Kessel Run work better when you don’t know how he did it.

3. On the other hand, Solo is a fun movie. It’s been criticized for being lightweight compared to The Last Jedi and even Rogue One, but since the original film succeeded as a fun space adventure, I can’t be too hard on Solo for attempting the same – surely there’s room in the SW canon for different kinds of films.

Maybe you can say Solo plays it too safe and doesn’t take chances compared to TLJ and R1, and that's true. But that’s how it is with prequels featuring established and beloved characters – yr beholden to the future to the point that you can't monkey around with it too much. Which is why I’d really rather that future standalones introduce new characters (as Rogue One did) and tell new stories that don’t simply fill in the blanks (as Rogue One also did, ultimately).

Indeed, the biggest problem with Solo isn’t that it’s fun, but that it doesn’t contribute anything to the canon apart from character backstory that, as I say, we arguably didn’t need. The original Expanded Universe that Disney eventually scrapped proved that there’s plenty of room in the Star Wars universe for innovation and new ideas – the new batch of post-Lucas Star Wars films have also proven that. By comparison, sticking with established characters feels like a step backwards to me.

4. I don’t think that’s why it flopped – I think that’s ultimately down to Disney’s overambitious decision to release it just six months after TLJ, and at a time when it had to compete with other major Disney franchise tentpoles. But I also think releasing a film featuring a younger version of such an iconic set of characters was always going to set the film up for disappointment.

So overall: I think it’s a fun film, and the second best prequel film, but of the Star Wars films to date, I would rank it pretty much below everything that isn’t the Lucas prequel trilogy.

Punch it,

This is dF
defrog: (life is offensive)
The 116th Congress is in session, and the new designated Enemies Of The People are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib for dancing and swearing, respectively.

And the internet is demanding I address these serious and grave issues. So here’s what I got:

1. You can’t say that on C-SPAN

All I really have to say about Rashida Tlaib’s “impeach the motherfucker” quote is: (1) Congresspeople swear all day, every day, and (2) at this stage, no one in the GOP gets to criticize or lecture anybody on civility and decorum.

Also, I’m pretty sure all the controversy is less about the MF-bomb and more about the I-word. Even most Demos don’t really want to talk about impeachment openly – at least not as if it’s a goal, mainly so that they can deflect the inevitable accusations from Repubs that the Demos planned to impeach Trump all along for no good reason. Which would be ludicrous, of course, but then so is politics, where the rule of the game is to always phrase things in ways that you can always claim meant something other than what you actually said.

2. You down with AOC? Yeah, you know me

Having seen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dance video, I honestly have no idea why anyone might have thought it would be a thing.

But I have a pretty good idea why they hoped it would be a thing.

AOC is basically the new Obama, in the sense that conservatives absolutely and viscerally hate her for the same reasons they hated Obama: (1) she’s young, (2) she supports democratic socialist policies*, (3) she’s non-white, and (4) liberals absolutely adore her. What’s worse (for them), she doesn't take stick from anyone and gives as good as she gets. She’s smart, she’s confident, she defeated a trad Demo to get her seat and she’s got a fan base. Worst of all, she might actually inspire young people in 2020 to do what she’s just done.

All of which makes her dangerous, politically speaking. If she wasn't, conservative pundits wouldn't waste so much time trying to discredit her. So – like with Obama – conservatives will criticize literally everything she does or says or wears (no matter how minor or inconsequential) as though it was the most scandalous and discreditable thing in the world. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, it pleases the base and triggers the libs, which seems to be a nice consolation prize for many conservatives these days. Even getting her to quit Instagram would be considered a victory.

So we’re going to be seeing a lot of this. Given how well that’s going so far, I can’t say I’m not looking forward to future AOC smear attempts backfire as spectacularly as the dance video.

You should be dancing yeah,

This is dF

*Technically Obama differed from AOC on this point – he was more to the center. But conservatives swore blind then and now that he was full-on Commie, so I think it counts.

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I meant to post the November edition November 30 but got seriously sidetracked, and then I spent the second half of December on an extended road trip in the US for the Christmas holiday. So this is a combined Nov/Dec instalment.

And that wraps up the 2018 Goodreads Reading Challenge, in which I pledged to read 42 books. The first book on the list below marks Book #43. So I pretty much nailed it.

And so here’s how I read my way to the end of 2018.

Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church (The Church and Postmodern Culture)Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church by James K.A. Smith

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about how postmodernism is a major challenge to Christianity, but denunciations of postmodernism often sound unconvincing to me, if only because it often sounded to me like too many people use “postmodern” as a descriptor with little indication that they understand the underlying philosophy. This book by James K.A. Smith (who is both a Christian and a philosophy professor) argues that postmodernist philosophy is highly misunderstood by theologians, and that if you read the works of postmodernist philosophers Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault closely, you’ll see that contrary to postmodernism being anti-Christian (i.e. anti-religion), it actually strengthens Christianity’s position in a postmodern world by bringing it back to its traditional apostolic roots.

For the most part, Smith makes a lot of very good points, and does a really good job of explaining what the core tenets of Derrida (“Nothing exists outside the text”), Lyotard (postmodernity is “the incredulity of metanarratives”) and Foucault (“power is knowledge”) actually mean, and how they aren’t as anti-Christian as they seem if you just take them at face value. His use of films as an illustration of each point is also engaging. Where it falls apart for me is the end, where Smith ties all of this into his view of how the church should evolve by adopting “radical orthodoxy” (a topic he’s written about extensively elsewhere) – which may be a valid point of view, but in terms of practical application it seems unconvincing and unrealistic to me, not least because Smith’s views are rooted in catholic orthodoxy, so his points are going to be lost on denominations that aren’t.

So as a call to action in regards to church reform, I don’t think the book really works. But it will definitely get a discussion started, and that’s a good thing. If nothing else, I think it’s a good primer on understanding postmodernist philosophy, and makes a good case why it’s not the boogey man some Christian leaders make it out to be. But obviously, an open mind is a prerequisite.

The Serpent of Venice: A NovelThe Serpent of Venice: A Novel by Christopher Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to Fool, Christopher Moore’s rewrite of King Lear that puts the jester Pocket at the center of the story. This time, Moore stretches the concept further by mashing up Othello, The Merchant Of Venice and (for no apparent reason except for fun) Poe’s “The Cask Of Amontillado”, whilst throwing in a horny dragon for good measure. To say nothing of Marco Polo.

I’d offer a plot summary, but it’s arguably better if you dive in without knowing too much. Suffice to say that Pocket is betrayed in Chapter 1 by Brabantio, Antonio and Iago, and spends the rest of the novel seeking revenge whilst being caught up in the various plots, subplots and double dealings of the various characters in the story.

As with Fool, there are tons of bawdy shagging jokes (which Moore frankly overdoes here). On the other hand, he does a great job of not only blending the various stories into a (mostly) coherent narrative, but also poking fun at Shakespearean conventions (the use of the Chorus character, for example) and shining a harsh spotlight on the racism and anti-Semitism of the times, particularly regarding the infamous character Shylock. Overall, it’s a rare case of the sequel outshining its predecessor.

The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’ve never read Paulo Coelho before, though of course I’ve seen his books everywhere. I’ve never been particularly inspired to read any of his stuff, but I came across this at a charity book sale, and I figured since this is his most famous book, this would be the perfect excuse to give him a try.

And … well.

The book is nominally about an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago who is encouraged by a Gypsy and a mysterious vagabond king to seek out his Personal Legend – which is to travel to the pyramids of Egypt to find his treasure. But all of that is really just a vehicle for Coelho to ruminate on the meaning of life, love, and listening to your heart to tap into the Soul Of The World to fulfil your destiny. Which is fine as far as it goes, but as a reading experience it just didn’t click with me.

That’s not to say Coelho isn’t a good writer – he is, and this book has a fable-like quality to it. The problem isn’t so much the narrative or his philosophical/religious views, but a lack of suitable balance between the two. Oftentimes it feels like Coelho is trying too hard to say Important Profound Things About Life, and Santiago as a character seems to learn these things too intuitively, as if out of convenience to keep the narrative moving along. I wouldn't rule out trying Coelho again – I’d like to read his book about his pilgrimage on the Road of Santiago de Compostela, which I’ve become interested in lately – but I can’t say I’m in any hurry.

A Drop Of The Hard Stuff (Matthew Scudder, #17)A Drop Of The Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the 17th novel featuring former NYPD cop and recovering alcoholic Matt Scudder, who makes a living as an unlicensed investigator. Scudder has aged and mellowed along with the series, but this one returns to his harder-edged days (set almost a year after he quit drinking) via a flashback frame – modern-day Scudder tells his friend Mick Ballou about Jack Ellery, an old childhood acquaintance who became a small-time criminal and an alcoholic. They meet at an AA meeting where Ellery tells him he’s making amends to the people he’s wronged (as per the 9th Step). Then Ellery is murdered, and Scudder ends up investigating.

Which sounds like a familiar set-up for your standard violent revenge tale. Luckily, Block has generally been good at taking a standard set-up and doing the unexpected with it, or at least something different – in this case, by staying true to Scudder’s character. The real story here is Scudder’s struggle to make it to his first anniversary as he delves deeper into Ellery’s past, and as his relationship with his girlfriend seems to be crumbling. Even the ending, which exercises another genre trope, goes against the grain of the set-up precisely because it would be out of character for Scudder to do anything else.

Credit to Block also for masterfully returning to a time period when NYC was a much darker and grittier place, and where being a PI required library visits, working pay phones and a pocket full of quarters. As a long-time fan of the series, I thought it was also nice to see Block bring back several of the regular minor characters from the early books. A few minor flaws aside, it’s a solid addition to the Scudder canon.

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A blast from the past,

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Recently the interwub has been raging over one of the most important questions of our time:

Is Die Hard a Christmas movie?

I have decided to weigh in on the debate over whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. For me, I have a two-pronged yet simple answer:

1. Die Hard is not a Christmas movie

Obviously, the question mainly hinges on the criteria of what counts as a Christmas movie in the first place, and according to various articles I’ve read, the criteria varies but is generally narrowly tailored to ensure that Die Hard counts as a Christmas film.

Basically: “If it takes place during Christmas, it’s a Christmas movie.”

Based on that criteria, I could say The Fugitive (1993) is a St Patrick’s Day movie.

My own criteria goes like this: “It has to take place during Christmas, and this should inform the narrative in some fashion, whether it treats Christmas as a secular or religious holiday, or as a positive or negative thing. If the story itself can play out regardless of the holiday, it’s not a Christmas film.”

I would argue this is true of Die Hard. The Christmas setting doesn’t add anything to the story, apart from perhaps a nihilistic counterpoint to the main narrative, but the story could have been set any time of year without losing anything essential.

Not that it matters too much – I’m reasonably sure that most people who insist Die Hard is a Christmas film fall into four categories:

(1) People who are just trolling or trying to be punk-rock to annoy people who like proper Christmas movies
(2) People who hate proper Christmas movies
(3) People who hate Christmas altogether
(4) A combination of the first three categories.

2. Die Hard is a retroactive NRA propaganda film that embodies and endorses virtually every value embraced by the current NRA leadership.

There’s practically a checklist:

• Good guy with a gun
• The good guy with a gun is working-class rugged individual who doesn't like people telling him what to do
• The villain is an educated intellectual AND a foreigner
• Federal govt incompetence
• Justification of excessive deadly force by law enforcement offers
• Specific repudiation of Miranda and other “rules” that hinder police officers from doing their job (which is killing criminals caught in the act of committing crimes)
• Bad guys reduced to one-dimensional evil targets that can be killed off with sneers and one-liners, after which their dead bodies can be used as messaging devices.
• Wholesale murderous violence as redemption, proof of manhood and a way to win a woman’s love and respect (or in this case, win it back)

Probably the only reason the NRA doesn’t use it as a training video is they can't get licensing permission.

Anyway, no matter whether you consider Christmas to be a secular or religious holiday, there is nothing in the above list that even remotely reflects what Christmas is about.

ADDENDUM: Even if we agree that Die Hard is a Christmas movie if you narrow the criteria sufficiently, it’s ALSO an NRA right wing fantasy movie.

I’m not saying Die Hard is a bad movie. On its own merits, it’s better than most 80s action movies, thanks mainly to Bruce Willis being an unlikely action hero, and Alan Rickman being so good.

But a Christmas movie? Only if you really hate Christmas. Or love the NRA.

I mean, we’re talking about a film where at one point the good guy takes the body of a man he just killed, sits it in a chair, writes a note in the guy’s blood to the villain, and puts a Santa hat on him. Which is not exactly in the spirit of the holiday.

It’s kind of psychotic, actually.

Like the current NRA leadership.

Ho ho ho,

This is dF
defrog: (onoes)
As you may know, Tumblr is banning all “adult content” from its site as of December 17th.

Industry experts reckon there are at least two reasons:

1. Apple booted Tumblr’s app from the App Store last month following reports that people were posting child porn.

2. The FOSTA-SESTA Act, which was signed into law in April, goes into effect in January. The stated objective of FOSTA-SESTA is to target and stop online sex trafficking. One way it purports to do this is by holding sites like Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, etc legally responsible for any posts that could be construed as solicitation for sex. Before FOSTA-SESTA, website providers were shielded from liability under Section 230 (“safe harbour”) of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Thanks to FOSTA-SESTA, that’s no longer the case. And thanks to the law’s predictably vague wording, the definition of what counts as solicitation for sex is wide open to interpretation.

So between that and the Apple Store – as well as the fact that Tumblr has been nervous about all the porn on its platform after Yahoo bought it (because of its advertisers) – evidently Tumblr decided the nuclear option was the most expedient path to compliance with both the App Store and FOSTA-SESTA.

The onset of FOSTA-SESTA is also why Facebook just updated its policies on sexual solicitation – and while it’s not the ban on LGBTs that some people have made it out to be, it does potentially make it a lot more difficult to talk about sex in any way at all – especially since Facebook’s track record of accuracy in spotting and flagging content that violates its policies is about as good as Tumblr’s (which is to say, not very good at all).

The whole saga is just dripping with irony on so many levels. For a start, I remember when the CDA was passed in 1996, it was widely castigated as the death of free speech on the internet because it used kiddie porn and “obscenity” as a canard for the GOP Morality Police to censor anything even remotely sexual.

Obviously, that didn’t happen, thanks in large part to Section 230. It’s possible it might still not happen, and the predictions about FOSTA-SESTA are overblown. After all, the internet is a big place, and it’s not like porn is hard to find.

On the other hand, one key difference between 1996 and 2018 is that the most widely used platforms for internet content are controlled by a handful of big companies that are no longer shielded by Section 230. At the risk of oversimplifying, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Apple, Google and Amazon effectively ARE the internet now in terms of how most people experience it and discover content. The amount of gatekeeper control these companies have over content is staggeringly huge, as is the number of people affected by their content policies.

Up to now, characters like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Twitter have always put the early internet’s free speech ideology at the core of their business model – which was great until they ended up having to defend the 1A right of KKK Nazis to go around Nazi-ing all over yr feed.

But now with Facebook in so much trouble over its content policies regarding fake news, election meddling, data collection practices and so forth, they’ve got such a huge red bullseye painted on their back that the last thing they need is to become the first FOSTA-SESTA test case – or worse, lose advertising business over it. Given all that, it’s not surprising that adult content is a hill they’re not willing to die upon.

Apple made that decision years ago with the App Store. Tumblr made that decision last week. I suspect others will do the same. It won't mean the end of online porn, but it will make it difficult to find. More to the point, it will probably also make it harder for sex workers, sex assault victims and sexual minorities to build communities of support on social media that, by many accounts, have been helpful to such people.

The other big irony here is that back in the day, we all thought that censorship of sexual content and mass surveillance of online activities would be carried out by the government. Turns out it’s the very Internet companies that advocated free internet speech in the first place.

All of which might be an acceptable trade-off if FOSTA-SESTA was actually effective at stopping online sex trafficking, or at least made sex workers safer. As this Vox explainer on FOSTA-SESTA points out, it actually doesn’t do any of that.

Coming back to Tumblr, BoingBoing predicts that the new policy will pretty much kill it off for good – or at least doom it to be the next MySpace. I agree with that. I think at the very least Tumblr is going to experience a simultaneous purge/exodus, and whatever happens next will depend on how many users it has left. Which, again, is ultimately up to its new owner, Verizon. My prediction is they’ll just let it die – Tumblr wasn’t a moneymaker when Yahoo bought it, and Yahoo didn’t change that. I suspect Verizon/Oath would be happy to just shut it down than waste money trying to revive something that wasn’t profitable in the first place.

This doesn't affect me personally – I closed my Tumblr account a couple of months ago for various reasons. But I do know a lot of people who are affected. And it’s a shame because Tumblr is actually well designed for microblogging, and much better (and safer) than Twitter. You may have received the Dreamwidth email trying to encourage Tumblrs to give them a try, but I can tell you that with all due respect to DW, it’s a poor substitute – Tumblr is far easier to use, especially in terms of sharing images, GIFs, music and videos.

And the walls came Tumbling down,

This is dF
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Stan Lee is gone, and even if I wasn’t late to the game, I don’t know what I could say that hasn't already been said.

My own experience is similar to others of my generation – by the time I started reading superhero comics, Stan Lee wasn’t writing so much anymore, and pretty much all of his creations had been taken over by other writers. But I knew who Stan Lee was via the Marvel editorial pages – “Stan’s Soapbox”, et cetera – and I was aware that he was the guy who had thought up these characters. I wasn’t a fan of all of them, but I did like Spiderman, the Hulk and X-Men, among others.

I’m pretty sure it’s no coincidence that these were the characters that seemed to struggle with an inability to fit into society for various reasons. A lot has been written about how Stan’s greatest contribution to comics was adding a layer of human complexity to the Marvel universe – just because you have superpowers doesn’t mean people will like you or your life will be better. I don’t know if I consciously thought of that while reading Spiderman or Hulk, but it was definitely core to the X-Men comics.

Obviously, not everything he did was great (Nightcat comes to mind – and that Backstreet Boys cartoon). On the other hand, I admired his ability to come up with character ideas almost on the fly – many wouldn't work, but his ethos seemed to be that no idea is too outrageous or outlandish, because who knows, it might actually work.

So yeah, I think he’s earned his rep as one of the greatest visionaries of comics.

To be sure, he had his critics. Which brings me to Bill Maher and his silly op-ed about how it’s somehow Stan Lee’s fault that Trump is president because comic books make you stupid. Or something.

I can’t add much to what Neil Gaiman has already said in one tweet – Maher is clearly trolling with a very old argument that anti-comics people have used for decades, so his argument is not only invalid, it's not even original.

Also, it’s hard to take Maher (who presumably only reads intellectual books) seriously when he goes around claiming that vaccines cause autism.

And so much for Bill Maher.

Nuff said,

This is dF
defrog: (onoes)

Banäna Deäthmüffins – the best death-pastry rock band in Hong Kong and the 23rd worst band on Facebook – have returned! And with music!

Two years and a month after our debut EP – and only one year later than originally planned – our first full-length LP is out now.

It’s called “Kawaii Five-0”, and it is available for streaming and download on Bandcamp and wherever good records are sold (as long as it's on Bandcamp).

Want a copy? $5.00 (or above) and it’s yours.

Or you can just stream it for nothing. We’re pretty relaxed here.

Have fun, kids!

Let’s rock,

This is dF
defrog: (onoes)
And there you have it.

Mostly. According to FiveThirtyEight, there are still over a dozen races that are too close to call, but none will change the basic result of the Demos taking the House. They might widen that majority, and narrow the gap in the Senate back to where it was before the election. Which would be gravy. But in any case, the House is theirs.

So, a few thoughts:

1. Good for them. It’s a good sign that the (slim) majority of the country hasn’t lost its collective mind, and that white nationalism isn’t the only game in town.

2. On the other hand, the fact that the GOP won anything at all is fair warning that a major chunk of the electorate is still firmly onboard the Trump Train and its message of autocratic white xenophobic batshit. And that would be true even if the GOP lost every seat. Whichever Repubs lost, their constituents are still out there, and they’re still angry and scared. And I’m sure every little thing the Demos and the FakeNews™ media do from now to 2020 will make them even more angry and afraid. Fox News and NRATV will see to that.

3. I only had skin in the game as far as the TN race went, and I can’t say I’m surprised at the results. Apart from Memphis and Nashville, TN is firmly in Xenophobe TrumpWorld and so is Marsha Blackburn – indeed it was her main campaign message, and Trump held several of his rallies in TN to help drive that message home. Phil Bredesen was a reasonably successful governor, but that was eight years ago – a lifetime in politics – and the landscape has changed so much since then. In fact, his whole campaign strategy was to run on the issues in order to contrast Blackburn’s pro-Trump batshit – clearly the majority of Tennesseans prefer histrionic batshit. So it goes.

4. TX is not my state, but I confess I was disappointed to see Beto O’Rourke lose, though to his credit he made Ted Cruz fight for it. Granted, I’d love to see almost anyone give Cruz a walloping. But I have to admit I liked O’Rourke’s campaign style, and there’s no doubt he brought a lot of badly needed youthful energy to the base. I also admit it pains me to think that Cruz’s “Beto O’Rourke will take away yr BBQ and force you to dye yr hair and eat tofu” schtick might have actually worked. Still, it only just barely worked, so I guess that’s something.

5. Speaking of O’Rourke, he’s not the only progressive candidate who lost, but some did win, and those that lost generally didn’t lose by much. There are two schools of thought as to what this means: (1) Demos should take this as a warning that progressives lose elections and Demos should avoid them in 2020 if they want to win the White House, or (2) Establishment Demos owe their 2018 victories to progressives energizing the base in ways the Establishment couldn’t do, and they need to do more to accommodate them in 2020.

I lean towards the latter option. I don’t believe the Demos need to go fully hardcore Left to defeat the GOP – the center still matters. But it arguably doesn’t matter like it used to, and the Demos stand a better chance if they can integrate progressives into the party better – and in a meaningful way, not just an exploitative one. 

6. I know some liberals shudder at the idea of Nancy Pelosi being speaker because they associate her with the Establishment who backed Hillary over Bernie (as though we wouldn’t be in this mess if they’d nominated Bernie), or because she’s talking about bipartisanship and common ground and the Left is all: “WITH NAZIS ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME THEY SHOULD BE IN FUCKING JAIL WHAT ARE YOU NEVILLE FUCKING CHAMBERLAIN” etc and so on.

Personally I would rather see some fresh leadership from someone more attuned to the 21st century, or at least someone whose political worldview wasn’t shaped by the Cold War and Vietnam. But I’m not sure who else is available who fits that bill and has the political clout to challenge her.

7. As for the impact of the mid-terms on Trump’s agenda, to be honest I’m not sure how much of a difference it will make. Most of Trump’s ‘accomplishments’ in the last two years didn’t involve Congress at all – the tax bill is the only one I can think of offhand. He will continue to rule from the weird twisted fantasy world where his brain lives regardless of which party runs the House. And you can pretty much forget about impeachment.

Also, it's hard to call the House flip a blow to his admin when all it really does is give him a scapegoat for everything else he screws up between now and 2020. (Granted, he did that even when his own party controlled Congress. Still …)

I think any meaningful impact on Trump will depend on how willing the House Demos are to use their power to start holding Trump accountable on things like, say, his tax returns. Trump has decidedly been aided and abetted by an all too willing GOP-controlled Congress who have been happy to go along with just about every fool thing he does or says, occasionally denouncing some tweet but otherwise being unwilling to actually do anything about it. Sure, they’ll play the victim card and scream about witch hunts, but they scream that all the time, so let ‘em scream.

So it’s up to the Demos to make their victory matter. But I do think – at least theoretically – a Demo-controlled House could restore some balance to the Force if they choose to do so. If nothing else, the House Science Committee won't be run by someone who thinks rising sea levels are caused by rocks falling into the ocean.

So, you know, progress!

Disorder in the house,

This is dF
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Predicting elections is a hobby of mine, and an admittedly precarious one after what happened in 2016 – after all, Donald Trump said and did just about everything possible that traditionally would tank a politician’s campaign. And he still won (albeit by another electoral fluke).

But why not? Besides, I feel pretty confident about how this one is going to play out:

1. The Blue Wave won’t be much of a wave. I think the Democrats will probably take the House (but not the Senate), and a good chunk of the governorships up for grabs.

But this massive takeover that liberals are predicting because the GOP are violent misogynist rape Nazis and there’s no way they can possibly stay in power after the last two years of Trumpville?

No. Sorry.

The reason is simple: people are complex, voters doubly so. You have to remember that people don’t always vote based on logic or a panoptical view of the issues. People vote the party line out of tradition, or they vote based on a single pet issue, or they vote because that’s how Taylor Swift or Kanye told them to vote, or because [x] candidate seems like a nice person, etc and so on. I’ve known people to vote Republican just to see the look on their liberal coworkers’ faces when their candidate loses.

It’s also worth remembering that voters are not operating in a single unified reality. Many liberals and conservatives alike tend to live in their own little hyper-reality bubbles and online communities, and tend to assume that their intake is fair and balanced and that everyone else is seeing the same reality they are. That hasn’t been true for a long time, and it’s arguably getting worse.

Beating the GOP might seem like a slam-dunk given the events of the past two years, but only if you pay attention and follow the news closely from reasonably unbiased news sources. Believe it or not, a lot of people don’t read past the headlines. Also, a lot of people don’t think the GOP is racist or fascist because they have ingrained (and outdated) ideas of what racists and fascists say and do: “How can Trump be a racist Nazi? He doesn’t say the n-word, he doesn't wear a white hood, he doesn't wear a swastika armband, and he let his daughter marry a Jewish guy! C’mon, yr exaggerating! Now Hillary Clinton, there's a Nazi for you ...”

Anyway. Point being, for all the GOP’s awful shenanigans and Trump’s own terrible record, the fact is that Trump’s approval rating is around 43%. That means 43% of the country has no problem with Trump’s opinions, style or policies – most of which the GOP has cheerfully backed.

2. Which brings me to my second predicted outcome.


No matter who wins, yr going to see a lot of this.

Only it probably won't be as funny.

Fasten yr seat belts,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
Another slow month for reading, and that’s how it goes sometimes. Good thing yr not paying money to read this blog, right?

The Parables of PeanutsThe Parables of Peanuts by Robert L. Short

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the sequel to Short’s The Gospel According To Peanuts, which explored how Peanuts cartoons reflect the teachings and message of Jesus. This one casts a wider and deeper net, starting with the idea of art as parable, the role of parables in the Bible and how Peanuts serves a similar function. It veers off from there into a theological exploration of what is required to lead a Christian life (which is itself a criticism of the watered-down theology American churches were apparently preaching in the 1960s when he wrote it).

For me, this one is less successful in its mission statement than the first one. What is billed as an exploration on how Peanuts strips double as Biblical parables is really more Short’s theological treatise on Christian living using Peanuts strips to back his point – which might be okay, except that frequently it’s not clear to me what a given strip has to do with what he just wrote. The other big problem is that he also backs his points by quoting his favorite theologians, philosophers and novelists (mostly Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, Martin Luther, Dostoyevsky and Albert Camus) at length – so much so that I felt as though if you edited out all the blockquotes, the book would be about half as long.

In any case, the result is a somewhat jumbled argument bogged down by excessive quotations that tries too hard at times to make a connection with Short’s favorite comic strip. (I’m sure some of Short’s more controversial theological beliefs will put some readers off too, though they're not idiosyncratic – I’ve come across them before.) Short does make a few good points here and there, and like the previous volume, at the very least you get a nice collection of classic Peanuts strips for your money, which is fine. But you can get those elsewhere, so I wouldn’t recommend getting a copy just for that.

Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-RichPlutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich by Chrystia Freeland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book from 2012 examines the issue of widening income inequality as the 1% (or, more accurately, the 0.1%) get richer and the rest of us, for the most part, don’t. As the title implies, the book focuses on the plutocrats, but it’s not Lifestyles Of The Uber-rich profiles so much as a study of the economic/political conditions that enabled their rise, how they see their role in the world – and what that means for the rest of us.

Chrystia Freeland – who has written previously about the rise of the Russian oligarchs – does a really good job of explaining how technology and globalization are combining to enable a new wave of plutocrats, how this wave is different from the rise of the super-rich during the first industrial revolution in the West, why the resulting concentration of wealth (not just in the US but globally) is not good news for everyone who isn't already in plutocrat class –and why most plutocrats fail to understand this.

Notably, it’s by no means an anti-capitalist screed about how the 1% are evil and need to be taxed out of existence, but rather a call for reason that the normal rules and tropes of capitalism that shaped economic prosperity in the 20th century – especially low taxation and deregulation as innovation/investment drivers – don’t apply in a globalized economy when the 0.1% have the money, power and influence to write their own rules. What others think about this will undoubtedly depend on the political ideologies they bring to the table, but personally I got a lot of out of it, and I certainly came away with a better understanding of why the wealth inequality issue is so important.

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Mind the gap,

This is dF
defrog: (life is offensive)
I recently came across a post on Macrolit – a tumblog specializes in classic literature and used books – in which someone complained that the site owner reblogged a photoset of books by Simone de Beauvoir:

In the wake of all the recent Hollywood sexual assault allegations I would appreciate if you would hold off on reposting a serial child molester.

Macrolit didn't delete the post, but it did acknowledge the complaint and the subsequent issue raised, and – given how many other classic authors were guilty of immoral or criminal behavior (William Golding, William Burroughs, JD Salinger, etc) – posed this question to its followers:
Do we ignore important works by these authors because of the lives they lived and the things they did? Does the fact that most of these authors are now dead make a difference? Does de Beauvoir’s actions negate her important feminist work The Second Sex? Or should we continue to read them but with mental asterisks in our minds?

For me, this is a variation on similar questions raised in the past regarding filmmakers like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, and also regarding authors and actors who have been known for saying things that were racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic – can we separate the art from the artist? Should we? And if not, how far do we want to take that?

Obviously, there’s no easy or universal answer to these questions. This Vox article posed them to literary critics, and the results – while inconclusive – make interesting reading in terms of the history of separating the art from the artist (which wasn’t a thing until the 20th century) in art criticism.

Having thought about this a lot, it occurs to me that there are two levels to this issue – personal and cultural.

The personal level is pretty easy for me. Some people can separate the art from the artist, and some can’t – especially people who are victims of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, sexual assault et al. So my baseline standard is if you’d rather not read, hear, look at or consume art produced by offensive people – even if the art itself does not expressly convey their offensive views – then by all means don’t. If you want to boycott authors and other artists for moral reasons, then by all means do.

The cultural level is trickier, because some people who cannot separate the art from the artist – and again, that’s a perfectly valid position to hold –also insist that all art created by offensive or immoral people (or includes them – any film with Johnny Depp in it, for example) be banished and stricken from the cultural record, on the grounds that anything short of that is a de facto endorsement or celebration of the artist’s offenses or viewpoints.

That’s the gist of the complaint by the Macrolit reader – it’s not enough for him/her to avoid Simone de Beauvoir’s works, he/she also prefers that Macrolit delete the post and never post anything about de Beauvoir again.

As you might imagine, I’m not cool with this. It’s an absolutist zero-tolerance policy, which is almost never a good idea. And when applied retroactively to art and culture, the result is a sort of moral cleansing of our cultural history to the point where we’d be pretending we were never racist sexist homophobic misogynist jerks in the first place. This is not only dishonest, but dangerous. Even the people at Looney Tunes understand this.

That said, I don’t think the artist’s personal life or terrible deeds are necessarily irrelevant to assessing their art today in a different cultural context, nor do they have to be. I like the “mental asterisks” idea suggested by Macrolit – it’s healthy to assess art both in the context in which it was produced and the context of modern mores and attitudes, if only to provide a benchmark of how far we’ve come (or fallen, as the case may be).

Moreover, this creates an opportunity for education and discussion about sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, etc. In literature classes, for example, we could teach those books in the context of the times and societies in which they were written, discuss how our values have changed (for better or worse), and where we go from here. We could also counter those books with other books with differing perspectives. If nothing else, it could be the springboard for raising awareness of the fact that racial, religious and sexual minorities see such works much differently than (say) straight white guys.

Which is idealistic, simplistic and naïve in these hyper-polarized times. But then so is deleting every piece of art associated with anyone who ever did or said anything bad ever – you simply can’t rid the world of evil by pretending it doesn't exist, especially on the pretext that acknowledging its existence is the same thing as condoning it, which is demonstrably not true. I don’t have the answer, obviously, but I’m pretty sure censorship and revisionist history ain’t it.

Suffering for my art,

This is dF


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