Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

28 September, 2013

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Drink This Beer - Berliner Weisse from Hinterland

A few years ago virtually no one outside of food microbiology circles knew what brettanomyces was and now, curiously enough, office drones around the country are raising glasses filled with the beer equivalent of limburger cheese extolling the virtues of the yeast. Sour beers are the latest trend in American microbrewing. It seems like sour English and Belgian styles are the most common but it's hardly surprising that the Berliner Weisse would get dragged along on the coattails.

The history of the Berliner Weisse goes back centuries and it was an exceedingly popular beer a couple hundred years ago. Today, not so much. It is a very light sour wheat beer that's low on hops. The sourness comes from an addition of lactic acid or some fine Lactobacillus bacteria although I've read that, back in the day, secondary conditioning allowed for brettanomyces to enter into the picture so drinkers could enjoy the lemony tartness of lacto as well as some of that barnyard flavor. At some point it became traditional to serve the beer “mit Schluss” or “with syrup” meaning a shot of flavored syrup was added to counteract the tartness. Waldmeister (woodruff) or Himbeere (raspberry) became standard flavors.

New Glarus brewed their Berliner Weisse for the second time this year and so Hinterland is only the second Wisconsin brewery I know of to brew this style and bottle it. I wouldn't doubt that various brewpubs around the state have made it and Lakefront teamed with Leinenkugel earlier this year for a batch served at the Wisconsin Restaurant Expo as well as at various bars during Milwaukee's Craft Beer Week, but as far as stuff you could grab at the store, pickings are slim.

As one would expect, Hinterland's Berliner Weisse poured a brilliant straw color with a lovely frothy head that went away all too soon. It was also pretty clear whereas the style is generally cloudy. All of those big champagne-like bubbles were highly visible. It smelled really nice with the sourness being rather mild here alongside a sweetness that reminded me of apricot.

Things were going well until I actually tasted it. The beer had the requisite lemony tartness to it and it came in a good quantity too. It was there and flavorful but not going to give you the Homer Simpson Super Sour Ball face. Beyond this, the beer had a lot of off flavors. Underneath the sour was creamed corn, for starters. And before the finish I tasted a soapy flavor. There was also a rather harsh, almost astringent, taste present as well. I wonder if there was a hopping accident. Mouthfeel was thin even for this style, in my opinion, and you could also taste those bubbles.

It finished with a not-unpleasant tartness that lingered.

I sincerely hope I got a bad bottle because this beer was just dreadful. It had a good tart flavor that was in the perfect proportion but all those odd stray flavors were just too prominent. Even lactobacillus couldn't change my impression that I was drinking mostly de-scented Ivory soap.

Junk food pairing: My best advice is to avoid this beer. But, if you're a masochist, try some habenero cheese puffs, if they exist, and rub them in your eyes. Hopefully you will be in such pain that you won't notice you're actually drinking this stuff. Otherwise, eat anything else you can get your hands on in large quantities.

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Love Hurts - Doctor Who: Love and War

Paul Cornell's Love and War has a very good reputation amongst Doctor Who fans. Indeed, it is just short of legendary and is generally considered one of the high points of the entire Virgin New Adventures series. Ergo I was very keen on digging into the novel. Once I was done I wished that I had never read about the NSAs. I knew too much about the story from having read DW forums and blogs. I can only imagine what it would have been like to have devoured this book upon its publication in 1992 oblivious to its dramatic revelations and unaware of the reputation it would gain in the years to come.

There will be spoilers in this post so anyone wishing to preserve a little bit of the bliss of ignorance would do well to leave now. I would also admonish folks who are contemplating making their way through the NSAs to, not only avoid my reviews, but to also steer clear of any chatter of them on the Internet. I don't mean to sound melodramatic here but, having read this book knowing a fair amount of what gives it its reputation, I feel that its impact was dulled a bit; like watching a film after seeing a trailer that gave away too much. You have been warned.

Love and War is a rather dark tale. It begins with Ace attending the funeral of her friend Julian and recalling a particular drive out in the country they took together. This tender, if bittersweet, moment gives way to the fate of a couple patrol ships in the far future on the look out for Daleks when they are attacked by one of the more eerie creations seen in DW, a giant sphere made of dead flesh and skin.

The Doctor and Ace land on the planet Heaven, which is rather bucolic until you find out that it's a necropolis. Humans and Draconians had been fighting for ages and the planet was declared a neutral zone where the war dead could be buried and their remains rest peace. The Timelord is keen on heading to the library as he wants to get his hands on a copy of The Papers of Felsecar. For her part, Ace is intrigued by a band of space hippies who wouldn't have been out of place at a Grateful Dead concert. They are gathered in a marketplace of Joycetown selling wares and making music. Our young companion finds herself smitten with one of them, a man named Jan.

Also on Heaven is Professor Bernice Summerfield who is digging up the ruins left behind by the original inhabitants. Curiously enough, neither she nor anyone else have ever found any remains of the Heavenites themselves. Bernice is a woman of 30 and, in addition to being in possession of a sharp tongue, she can also ride horse, acquit herself well in swordplay, and loves a stiff drink.

But all is not well on Heaven as we learn early on when a priest of the Church of the Vacuum, Phaedrus, sacrifices his friend Piers. Eldritch fibers are nourished by his blood and make their way into the gaping wound. In almost no time Piers' body is transformed into a Hoothi, a large fungoid creature covered in more of those filaments and writhing tentacles to boot. The Hoothi have tremendous psychic powers and are like the Borg in that they are a gestalt race. And if you thought that Sawyer from LOST was well-versed in the long game, well, he's got nothing on the Hoothi who are looking at the end game of a plan that has been in motion for a thousand millennia.

One of the elements that gives Love and War its reputation is that The Doctor keeps his cards close to his chest and is highly manipulative. He lets on what he knows in spurts and fits and just when you think he has finally shared everything, you find out that he still had a plan simmering on the back burner. Here, things get very bad as the Hoothi long game nears fruition. Filaments are infecting people left and right and even the dead, of which there are many, are reanimated by them and the Hoothi's vast powers. The Doctor devises a plan which involves sacrificing Jan to the Hoothi to get him aboard their necro-dirigible and appealing to his conscience so that he activates his superpower (summoning flame) to take out the mothership a la the Hindenburg.

This doesn't go down well with Ace who had fallen in love with Jan. She is furious with The Doctor and cannot even face him. When he approaches her, she threatens him. Cornell portrays her anger very well. It was truly sad and disturbing to read the passages showing how their relationship – the one I've enjoyed for literally decades – had been split in two. Ace can longer bear to be in his presence and so leaves The Doctor. You can read about how the TV show's writers had planned to have Ace leave had the show not been canceled and it was a million miles away from the grand betrayal here.

Considering all I've read about the NSAs, including this book, and how The Doctor becomes darker, more manipulative, and so on, these events, while shocking, didn't feel new. The Doctor did much the same thing on TV in “The Curse of Fenric”. In that story he forces Ace to confront her past and engages an enemy who has its own long game. He hurts Ace with insults to get her to lose faith in him to defeat Fenric. Now, that's not the same as sending Jan off to die but it's manipulation in both cases. It's a difference of degree, not kind.

Bernice ends up becoming The Doctor's new companion. It's a nice change. Bernice is not a teenage girl and has a different perspective on life. She is a woman of action and can hold her own in verbal sparring matches with the Timelord. I look forward to reading how she develops and fits into the adventures.

Love and War certainly lived up to its reputation. Quite aside from The Doctor and Ace's friendship being torn asunder, it is notable for delving into Ace's character. There's a lot of scheming to be done so The Doctor is busy concealing that and so we get a peek into Ace's heart. She falls for Jan, even if it feels more like a teenage crush than true love. While the whole love at first sight thing felt forced, I thought that Cornell handled it well from then on. I thought he captured the confusion surrounding teenage attraction.

Relationships set this book apart from the TV show. In addition to Ace's crush, Jan is also in love with a fellow space hippie named Roisa who is in turn in love with the group's priestess, Maire. So you've got Ace's crush, polygamy, and a homosexual relationship and, while this is an action/adventure tale at heart, all of these relationships and their attendant emotional complications give depth to the story. The agonies seem genuine even if the relationships aren't fully realized on the page.

An aspect of the story found interesting was how Cornell foreshadowed the actions of our two heroes. In Ace's case, her relationship with Julian prefigured the one she had with Jan. For The Doctor this came in an odd passage in the guise of one of Ace's dream in which he meets Death again, the first time having been in Cornell's previous NSA Timewyrm: Revelation. Here Death accuses the Seventh Doctor of having “killed” the Sixth Doctor by maneuvering the TARDIS into the Rani's tractor beam (in the TV story “Time and the Rani” - the first to feature the Seventh Doctor. This will be contradicted in 2005's Spiral Scratch.) so that he may regenerate and become Time's Champion while Sixie becomes the Valeyard. (This the first story to refer to The Doctor as Time's Champion.) The Doctor offers his life for Ace's, saying that he'd be good company for the Eternals. I guess this Death is an Eternal, a race we first met on TV in “Enlightenment” with the Fifth Doctor. Unfortunately for Jan, Death rejects The Doctor's offer and asks if he has a suitable replacement. Presumably all of this myth-making will be relevant in future stories.

In addition to all of the tweaking of established Doctor Who conventions, Love and War also succeeds because of Cornell's writing. On one hand this is a fairly standard DW story. It has the feel of a Fourth Doctor horror story and has a base under siege segment. We are strung along as to the nature of the bad guys and their stratagem while we are also kept in the dark as The Doctor schemes away. This is the war part of the title and Cornell contrasts this with love. There are the romantic entanglements as described above but there is also Ace's love for Julian and the Platonic love that she and The Doctor feel for one another. Cornell deftly wove these competing yet complementary strands together for an utterly engaging adventure with great emotional resonance.

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26 September, 2013

Becoming an Einherjar: Night Wolf by Valkyrie Brewing

Back in 2010 Viking Brewing up in Dallas ran into hard time and closed. However, Fate has other plans. Owners Randy and Ann Lee found a buyer for the Viking name, an Icelandic company looking to enter the U.S. beer market. With an influx of cash, the Lees were able to resurrect the venture as Valkyrie Brewing.

It seems that many of the Viking brews were carried over and given new names. Such is the case with Night Wolf, a schwarzbier, which was formerly known as Mørketid.

I poured my Night Wolf into a fancy 3 Sheeps pint glass which I won in the bean bag toss at The Great Taste last month. True to its name, the elixir was dark - black when not held up to the light but a clear and very, very dark amber when given a brief exposure to the sun. I was a bit surprised that there was virtually no head. There was also very little Schaumhaftvermoegen. After taking a swig, the bubbles could get no traction on the side of the glass and gently fell into the beer.

Night Wolf smells fantastic. Most prominent was roasted grain but the yeast was not far off. There was also a faint bit of herbal hop aroma in there as well. Those wonderful scents came through in the taste. Being a lager, it's about letting the grains shine through. The coffee and chocolate flavors of the dark malt lead the way and they are the reason why the schwarzbier is at or near the top of my pyramid of beer tastiness, depending on the day. I am not an expert on German bier styles but it is my understanding that a Munich dunkles is fairly sweet in contrast to the schwarzbier which is more dry and that the dunkels north of Bavaria are noted for being much hoppier than their Bavarian brethren. Having said this, Night Wolf seems to fit the schwarzbier style pretty well although you do get a bit of toffee sweetness just before the finish that leans a few arc second towards a fruity, plum-like flavor.

The finish is where the hops come in with a mild herbal/grassy taste that provides a dry end to your sip. Mouthfeel is smooth and fairly light. People familiar with Sprecher's Black Bavarian, the only other Wisconsin schwarzbier I can think of, will note that Night Wolf has a cleaner taste and feels less syrupy on the tongue. Also, Black Bavarian is a bit shy of 6% ABV while Night Wolf is a much more sessionable 4%.

Viking had some issues with consistency so I was really hoping that this take on one of my favorite styles and my first taste of the brewery's new incarnation wouldn't let me down. And it didn't. To my palate, Randy Lee nailed the dark malt flavors and has made a great session beer for those of us who prefer to avoid the emerging "session IPA" trend. Too bad this stuff is only available in northwestern Wisconsin because I'd love to be taken to the Valhalla of this dark malt goodness more often.

Junk food pairing: Night Wolf goes well with Ritz crackers adorned with a generous serving of bacon-horseradish dip.

Since Valkyrie doesn't distribute anywhere near Madison, I ended up buying my six-pack in Eau Claire at the wonderful Just Local Food Co-op. The prices are eminently reasonable and I was also able to grab brews from Lucette and Lazy Monk, which like Valkyrie, are not available in Madison.

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21 September, 2013

Regrets, I've Had a Few - Doctor Who: Nightshade

Nightshade is the first Virgin New Adventure to not be a part of a mini-series. No Timewyrm and no silver cat. Instead Mark Gatiss gives us a straight-ahead stand-alone episode. Fans of the Nu Who will know Gatiss as having starred as Professor Lazarus in “The Lazarus Experiment” and Gantok in “The Wedding of River Song”. In addition, he has penned several Nu Who episodes as well as having written various Doctor Who audio dramas. Having become a fan at as kid, he must be living the DW fan dream.

The book's prologue features the First Doctor, described as having “piercing eyes” and a “haughty mouth”, stealthily detaching himself from a group of Time Lords and stealing a TARDIS. Although this was shown in last season's finale, I believe that this is the first time our beloved hero's departure from Gallifrey was ever described or portrayed.

The action then moves to the town of Crook Marsham in 1968 where Jack Prudhoe is drowning his uxorial sorrows down at the pub. While nursing his drink, he notices a figure in red outside in the rain. He looks closer and sees that it's his wife but as a young woman. Back in the days when they were happy. Jack rushes after her but meets an untimely demise out on the moors. Over at the Crook Marsham retirement home actor Edmund Trevithick, best known for his role as Nightshade (Americans - think Carl Kolchak, the Night Stalker), is living out his remaining years. One night as he lay dreaming, he is awoken as the windows of his room are blown out and a sinister voice whispers, “Nightshade...Nightshade...”

Amidst these strange happenings, the TARDIS materializes. Ace is in a good mood but The Doctor isn't. The torpor of the previous novel, Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark, has reemerged. He is irritable and listless. He scolds Ace in an unusual outburst when she tries on grey tunic with a Coal Hill School badge and demands she take it off. (That would be the school uniform of his granddaughter, Susan.) And so, when they head out into the town, Ace heads to the local pub and The Doctor seeks some quiet and solace at the local church and monastery.

Ace heads into the same pub frequented by Jack Prudhoe. Ace she whiles away the time, Vijay Degun, an assistant at the local radio telescope pops in and enquires about using the phone as the lines at the telescope are out. Oddly enough, the pub's phone is dead too. Intrigued, Ace hitches a ride in the trunk of Vijay's car. For his part, The Doctor engages the abbot who offers him a book with some history of Crook Marsham. During the English Civil War, the town's castle was destroyed after an eldritch light burst through its wall scaring the bejeezus out of Loyalist and Roundhead alike. The castle is long gone and the site was merely a vantage point for admiring the area's natural beauty until the radio telescope was erected upon it.

Ace finds that things at the telescope are a bit hectic. They are getting enormous energy readings that are pushing needles into the red but none of the scientists can figure out what this energy is nor exactly where it's coming from. Back in town, Betty Yeadon is drawing a bath when the corpse of her brother Alf, who was killed in the Great War, slowly emerges from the tub...

Nightshade is classic Doctor Who. More people die after confronting a memory from their past and eventually the main characters hole themselves up in the telescope facility giving us a tried and true base under siege story. That the baddie lurks in the earth and messes with those on the surface reminded me of the great Hammer film Five Million Years to Earth.

While a good sci-fi horror story, Nightshade does some nice work thematically as well. Gatiss does a nice job of drawing characters who are in some way haunted by their past and thereby make good prey for the presence lurking underneath the soil. And it's not just the townspeople who are confronted by their pasts but also The Doctor who meets an apparition of Susan. The book may be written in a style that younger DW fans can handle, but the notion of reflection upon one's past and how the past can influence the present is a theme that only adults can truly appreciate. Nightshade may not be up there with Greek tragedy as commentary on the human condition but it does offer some grist for the mill.

In Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark The Doctor was fed up with always having to be the hero. Here that trend continues but is marked by a more pensive Time Lord. The classic TV series didn't find The Doctor engaging in much omphaloskepsis but here we find him contemplating his past on a personal level and being forced to confront it. Ace doesn't contrast with the TV very much. She is her usual spunky self rallying the troops and enthusiastically confronting evil. I suppose that she does come across as being a bit more independent than she did on TV. While she continues to look to The Doctor for answers to questions beyond her ken, she is very proactive and does a lot more on her own. “Remembrance of the Daleks” came to mind as Ace finds herself attracted to Robin Yeadon, Betty's son, just as she had a crush on Mike Smith in that TV story. Nightshade also harkened back to “Remembrance” with the racism of Professor Hawthorne who works at the telescope. In the TV show the issue was brought up by a sign in a boarding house whereas here Hawthorne becomes very outspoken in his dislike of non-whites and Vijay in particular.

For the most part, Nightshade revels in the conventions of Doctor Who and, insofar as these go, it's a fun stab at horror. But it also builds upon elements of the classic show incrementally, especially with regards to Ace. The big change is in the portrayal of The Doctor. He isn't just a crusader for good that can make snap judgments on the fates of millions, but he is also an individual that must deal with his past on a personal level. Here he seems to feel regret at how his relationship with Susan turned out.

What puts Nightshade a cut above the average DW story is that Gatiss not only gives us a dark, rainy, and isolated Crook Marsham as the setting for a creepy tale of horror, but also characters whose hearts are like that with shadows casting a pall over them. I suspect that this more troubled, introspective Doctor will continue to be explored in the New Adventures.

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20 September, 2013

That Old Time Religion

These are pretty neat:

The photos were taken by Charles Fréger, a French photographer for his "Wilder Mann" project. Fréger photographed men in traditional costume around Europe.

A primal heart still beats in Europe. Deep beneath the gloss of cell phone sophistication lie rituals that hark back to harvests and solstices and fear of the winter dark. Monsters loom in this shadowy heart, but so does the promise of spring’s rebirth and fertile crops and women cradling newborn babes. It turns out that Europe—at least pockets of it—has not lost its connection to nature’s rhythms.

That connection is rekindled during festivals that occur across the continent from the beginning of December until Easter. The celebrations correspond to Christian holidays, but the rituals themselves often predate Christianity. The roots are difficult to trace. Men—and until recently, it has almost always been men—don costumes that hide their faces and conceal their true forms. Then they take to the streets, where their disguises allow them to cross the line between human and animal, real and spiritual, civilization and wilderness, death and rebirth. A man “assumes a dual personality,” says António Carneiro, who dresses as a devilish careto for Carnival in Podence, Portugal. “He becomes something mysterious.”

Apparently the first photo is a bear. OK, but are we talking a Lovecraftian bear?

I cannot figure out whether the costumes were worn for ceremonies and festivals that are religious in nature or if they were worn for more secular ones that incorporate old pagan elements. Regardless, they are some hoopy costumes. In addition to lots of bears, stags seem to be very prominent as well.

I have to admit, though, that the guy dressed as a tree make me chuckle as it reminded me of The Gamers: Dorkness Rising.

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16 September, 2013

Philosophical Debate Gets Violent

Sounds like someone forgot the Categorical Imperative and used someone else as a means instead of an end in themselves.

Two men in Russia were apparently arguing about Immanuel Kant's philosophy when one of them pulled out a gun:

A philosophical argument over views on Immanuel Kant descended into violent mayhem in southern Russia, leading to a man being shot several times.

The dispute occurred when two men waiting for a beer became involved in an increasingly fractious argument over the work of Kant – the author of canonical philosophical text Critique of Pure Reason – according to a police spokeswoman in Rostov-on-Don, the town where the argument broke out.

The row ended with one of the men producing an air gun and firing several rubber bullets at his opponent.

Fortunately the attacker's interlocutor survived.

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Rise of the Runelords Comes to Audio

Last week the friendly folks at Big Finish announced that they are going to produce a series of audio dramas based on the Pathfinder role-playing game. And we're talking full cast productions, not simply someone read a novelization. Big Finish are best-known for producing Doctor Who radio plays featuring the Fourth through Eight Doctors.

I thought this was really neat as some friends and I are in the middle of a Pathfinder adventure, Rise of the Runelords, and we are really enjoying it. The first series of audios will be adaptations of RotR which has six chapters. My only concern is that each audio will only be one hour. The first chapter, Burnt Offerings, took us a while to complete. Either each episode will be the equivalent of going through the adventure perfectly or part of the story will be lost. I'll have to probe executive producer Nick Briggs' mind at Chicago TARDIS come November.

The first audio comes out in January.

While I'm at it, I'll also mention that BF will be producing radio plays based on The Avengers - the classic 1960s British TV show - as well as Survivors, a BBC show from the 1970s chronicling survivors of a worldwide plague. The latter was created by Terry Nation, inventor of the Daleks. (And Blake's 7 too.)

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It's Gołąbki Time

With the weather getting cooler, I thought it'd be nice to make Gołąbki. Gołąbki (pronounced guh-wumpkee, or something close to that) are Polish cabbage rolls. I stuff mine with rice and ground beef like my grandmother did.

I was going to use some beef broth but found that we were out of prison base so I ended up using crushed toms loosened up a bit by some V-8. Seasonings were basic - salt, sugar, and pepper - though I did use jasmine rice. I would have used some garlic powder, but I found that I didn't have any of that either. With no prison base, I didn't end up with much sauce.

Despite this, they were still rather tasty. Personally, I like to put some vinegar on my Gołąbki. The red wine variety works quite well.

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Frugal Muse East to Close

Sad news for those of us who still buys books printed on paper. The east side location of Frugal Muse will close in November.

Bowing to increased pressure from online book sellers and a steady drop in foot traffic, Frugal Muse will close its longtime East Side store in Madison when its lease at Northgate Shopping Center ends in November.

“I want to thank all the customers on the northeast side for our 16 years in business,” Andrew Gaylor, one of the small independent chain’s four owners, said Monday. “We really are grateful. That’s a good run.”

Founded in 1994 with a store on Mineral Point Road and D’Onofrio Drive, Frugal Muse still operates a Far West Side store — located since October 2009 at 231 Junction Road — and one in Darien, Ill.

Gaylor said he and the other owners plan to sell the Darien store to its current manager, Paul Garrison. The west Madison store has a lease through 2019 at the Prairie Towne Center, where it shares the former CompUSA building with Fontana Sports.

“We have every intention of honoring that lease,” Gaylor said, adding the business also has a “healthy Internet presence” that will continue, with several thousand book titles available through Amazon.com.

Well, we've still got 6 years of the west side location. Sadly, the east side is down to Half Price Books and Barnes & Noble at East Towne. I fear for Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative when the UW shifts to e-books. Unless books undergo a renaissance like vinyl records, I fear Madison will be without a bookstore in the not-so-distant future.

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12 September, 2013

Dirty Wars Starring Jeremy Scahill

I wish I had been at either of the screenings of Dirty Wars that Jeremy Scahill had attended here in Madison because I would have loved to have asked him who he felt the movie's audience was. On a substantive level, the film followed Scahill, an investigative reporter, from Afghanistan to Somalia and points in between as he looks at the covert wars carried out by the U.S. government. Stylistically, however, Dirty Wars made me feel like I was watching Tony Scott's Enemy of the State. Was this thing aimed at aging anti-war lefties or younger apolitical folks who might be drawn into examining American foreign policy a bit closer?

Scahill is no stranger to war zones. He eschews military escorts, green zones, etc. and instead heads out onto the battlefield where the news is. He reported from Iraq both before and after the U.S. invasion in 2003 as well as from Serbia as NATO bombs fell and the movie begins in Afghanistan with the aftermath of an assault by U.S. forces on the home of an Afghan family. Scahill takes a journey into a part of the country that is not under the control of NATO forces and is especially unsafe after dark.

There he meets the family who was the victim of US aggression. As they sang and danced at a family gathering, American troops raided the home. The family's patriarch, a local police chief who had worked with American forces, was dead as were others including three women, two of whom were pregnant. Scahill talks with survivors of that deadly night and watches cell phone footage of the party and the aftermath. A man claims that American soldiers dug their bullets out of the men and women they shot. Anti-American sentiment was running high along side the pain of lost loved ones. But who exactly raided their home?

Scahill found the beginning of his answer with the work done by an English war correspondent named Jerome Starkey. Starkey took photos of one General McRaven at a ceremony in apology for the raid which involved presenting the family with a sheep. McRaven, it turns out, worked for JSOC – Joint Special Operations Command. Scahill doesn't recognize the group and redirects his search to find out more about them.

There are many scenes showing Scahill at home scouring Internet results and shuffling through paperwork as he traces the origins of JSOC and their ever-expanding role in the projection of American power around the globe. He eventually continues his travels to see how our “war on terror” proceeds out of the limelight.

In an all-too brief sequence in Somalia, our intrepid reporter meets a warlord named Mohamed Afrah Qanyare who is happy to take our tax dollars to be an American proxy in fighting terrorists. He chillingly says of we Americans, “They are the war masters.” Scahill also travels to Yemen where he meets with Anwar al-Awlaki's father. Al-Awlaki, you may recall, was an American citizen killed by drone sans due process. The same fate befell his teenaged son. Immediately after 9/11 al-Awlaki preached peace and was a minor media figure. But, as Bush II's wars dragged on, he witnessed his fellow Muslims suffering and dying at the hands of America. The anti-American sentiment expressed by the Afghani man early in the movie returns as we learn that al-Awlaki became vehemently anti-American and promoted attacks on Americans.

Dirty Wars left me feeling ambivalent. On the plus side, Scahill and director Rick Rowley do a great service here by illuminating how the United States fights terrorism now that we've left Iraq, are winding down operations in Afghanistan, and have generally pushed the War on Terror out of our minds. It seems that Breaking Bad garners more public attention than does the fact that America is still at war with soldiers killing and dying. Dirty Wars is also important for showing us the victims of American aggression. In the wake of 9/11 President Bush asked no shared sacrifice from the American public. The rich got tax breaks and the middle class was asked to keep going to Disneyland. The mainstream media and government made sure that we never got to see dead American soldiers; all we saw were caskets with American flags draped over them. Ever further from view were the dead innocents who perished at American hands. Apparently we cannot have the American sense of moral superiority challenged.

While Dirty Wars is important for not letting the War on Terror slip down the memory hole and for giving a faces and names to people that we kill, much of the impact is dulled by aesthetic choices that turn the movie into a half-baked spy thriller. For instance, people are introduced by freezing the frame as if it were a surveillance photo. Plus there's too much focus given to Scahill as the tireless seeker of truth and, furthermore, he comes across almost as a parody. In Blade Runner Harrison Ford's voiceover narration sounds incredibly disinterested. Here, the opposite holds. Scahill comes across as being overly earnest. When I've heard interviews with him, he sounds like a normal guy who is sincere and very passionate about his job. His narration comes across as being so fake that it's melodramatic. In real life he seems humble which is in stark contrast to the braggadocio that comes across in his description of his decent into that dangerous region in Afghanistan.

The focus on Scahill and his quest to uncover JSOC gets in the way of presenting a broad picture of the nefarious methods our government employs to carry out its foreign policy objectives. Dirty Wars comes across as being a series of portraits rather than an overview. Scahill's interviews are revealing but the focus remains on individuals at the expense of showing large-scale patterns of dirty wars. I think it would have been more effective to reveal more raids resulting in the deaths of civilians, for example, to establish a pattern of behavior. The movie makes it feel that the incident in Afghanistan at the beginning was unique instead of being part and parcel of our policy. It's not uncommon to hear reports of terrorists being killed and then to hear that many civilians also died. NATO and the US deny the civilian deaths until the likes of Scahill and Starkey reveal the truth. This is an established pattern. We are told as much but this is a visual medium we're dealing with. An anonymous man saying so just doesn't cut it. Similarly, the fact that American policy and actions generates anti-American sentiment is something that got lost in the shuffle.

Dirty Wars has an important message to tell but it gets muddled along the way by a weird desire to emulate Tony Scott.

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Help Kickstart World War III!

This one goes out to Gregory Humphrey because, well, because Obama!


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11 September, 2013

Monty Python and the Holy Grail - Modern Trailer

There were still a couple parts that I laughed at.

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03 September, 2013

There's Much More to Poland Than Pulaski, Pierogi, and Pączki

Having some Polish blood I thought it was time to learn about the history of the country from which some of my ancestors had emigrated. The modern story of Poland wasn't completely foreign to me as I grew up with the Solidarity movement often on the news and getting to know some folks here in Madison who hail from Poland led to hearing stories of life under the Soviet yoke. But the Poland of several hundred years ago was, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, a known unknown. General medieval European history books tend to ignore Eastern Europe as it wasn't a part of the Roman Empire and histories of Byzantium will incorporate the Balkans but not farther north.

And so I picked up A Concise History of Poland to help dispel my ignorance.

Presumably owing, at least in part, to a lack of written documentation from Poland's early years, the first chapter is a bit rough around the edges. The authors date the beginning of Poland to 966 A.D. as this is when the country became a Christian nation. Poland was ruled at this time by the Piast Dynasty, its namesake having come to power in the mid-9th century, although “Piast” was a title bestowed by later historians. These people were Slavs and the book discusses their linguistic unity as well as their identity in relation to the Germanic peoples to the west.

Piast Poland gave way to Jagiellonian Poland in 1386 when Jagaila of Lithuania married into Polish royalty and annexed his wife's country. This was the beginning of a centuries long relationship between the two peoples and in 1569 they became a commonwealth. But rather than going on about wars with Tuetonic Knights and who ascended the throne when, I will rather mention that I found it very interesting to learn about the proto-republican elements of Poland during the Middle Ages.

The book emphasizes the role of the szlachta, which was basically the landed nobility, as a check on royal power. There were also assemblies called sejmiki which started off as bitch sessions for the szlachta but eventually morphed into the Sejm, the Polish parliament. Unsurprisingly, taxation was often a bone of contention – something medieval Poland had in common with western European countries.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth ended in 1795 when it was divided up amongst Austria, Prussia, and Russia. It's a sad period in the country's history and over the course of two chapters the reader learns about the struggles of ethnic Poles to retain their language, culture, and identity. There were a handful of uprisings but they failed for various reasons. One can really see the Poland of the 20th century reflected here with the Poles' ethnic pride and allegiance to Roman Catholicism being constant themes that run from the late 18th century up through the Battle of Warsaw and the Solidarity movement.

Poland became a country again after World War I but the joy over the return of statehood didn't last very long as the next world war ended with Soviet control of Poland. Again Poles found themselves in a battle to save their culture and identity. With the collapse of the Soviet Union Poland found freedom but, as the book ends in 2001, it is still in the throes of growing pains as it struggles to found a solid economy.

A Concise History of Poland is just that weighing in at under 300 pages. It is 99% political history which means that the reader is bombarded with the names of rulers and leaders of political movements one after another. It was a bit intimidating as I'd never heard of the vast majority of these people and couldn't pronounce most of their names. With history books concerned with Western Europe I have some background but most of this book was truly terra incognita. But once you realize that there isn't going to be a quiz on this, you can worry less about remembering names and keeping your eye on the big picture.

Despite the brevity, Lukowski and Zawadzki do a fine job of making sure the reader understands the historical contexts of major events and provides motivation for all parties involved. For instance, when talking about various revolts in the days after 1795 when Poland did not exist, the actions of those involved in the uprisings are discussed as well as the concerns of Poles in other areas whose lives had taken up orbit around the economic structures and concerns of the empire that ruled them.

Because of the demands of concision, the book feels uneven. There are nods to cultural figures of the times but throwing in the names of a couple poets and painters here and there just felt like half-hearted attempts at balance. I finished the book almost feeling more ignorant than before I began it. I suppose this means that I have a lot more reading to do. On the plus side, the book does include a goodly amount of photographs and illustrations and lots of maps. The gods be praised for the maps! I found them extremely helpful as my geographic knowledge of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states is lacking. It was also gratifying to re-learn that it was a Pole, John Sobieski that saved Europe in 1683 at the Siege of Vienna with his defeat of the Ottoman forces.

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02 September, 2013

The New Adventures Continue: Cat's Cradle Trilogy

Doctor Who's New Adventures began with the Timewyrm quadrilogy and continued with the Cat's Cradle trilogy. The three stories here are linked much more loosely than the previous series with only a silver cat being the common thread.

Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible gets things going. It was written by Marc Platt who also wrote “Ghost Light”, one of my favorite stories from the television series. That episode began life as a much different story which involved The Doctor returning home to Gallifrey. The story was radically changed for television although Platt would later adapt his original idea into Lungbarrow, the fin*-al New Series adventure, still five years down the road.

But Platt didn't let go of his affinity for Gallifrey and threw some history of the Time Lords' planet into this novel. We get a glimpse of ancient Gallifrey as its Enlightenment is just beginning. The Pythia rules with an iron fist, abetted by her gift of second sight. But her days are numbered as Rassilon and his cohorts are looking to overturn the hegemony of faith and superstition and replace it with an ideal of reason and science. The Gallifreyans are not yet Time Lords but Rassilon has begun the process of mastering the fourth dimension. A proto-TARDIS has been constructed and is ready for its first mission.

Meanwhile The Doctor and Ace are enjoying lunch in England when reality suddenly begins to twist and contort around them. A mysterious silver cat appears and lures them back into the TARDIS where an alien creature of some kind has breached the ship's defenses and lies between the inner and outer doors. The Doctor runs off into the interior of the TARDIS in an attempt to expel the intruder but his plan goes awry when the TARDIS collides with the Gallifreyans first time ship, the Time Scaphe.

Ace finds herself in a city of eldritch buildings that are abandoned. She runs into what turns out to be the crew of the Time Scaphe. One of the them, Vael, is arguing with the rest. Vael has betrayed his fellow Chronauts and pledged his allegiance with The Process, a large slug-like creature with a mouth full of vicious-looking teeth at one end that curls up and rolls around, leaving a trail of slime wherever it may roam. The Process has enslaved the Chronauts and has them seeking out a stolen future.

For his part, The Doctor is nowhere to be found and Ace sets out to find him. She runs into a teenage boy named Shonnzi who communicates with The Doctor in his dreams. Ace also discovers that the realm she is in is bordered by other duplicate realms which are offset in time. And so, while the Chronauts she first met are older and have forgotten who they are and where they came from, there are younger versions who have just arrived. It turns out that the landscape around everyone is the TARDIS split asunder and that silver cat is a corporeal form of its warning system.

Platt has a myriad of good ideas here but the story just doesn't gel. I really enjoyed the parts of the story on ancient Gallifrey. It was nice to get a view of The Doctor's homeworld that wasn't a narrow view of a stodgy and aristocratic hierarchy. Plus we witness the ascent of Rasillon. Unfortunately the rest of the book is a mess. For one thing, the Process is a rather bland villain. It, well they, actually, as there are two of them – the same being from different times – don't do much beyond roam around leaving slime trails and mindlessly yelling about the necessity of finding the future. They are petty tyrants instead of either complicated, fully-realized actors or wonderfully diabolical bad guys who chew the scenery like there's no tomorrow. And while I loved the notion of multiple iterations of a city all existing in different time streams yet physically abutting one another is a very neat idea, as is multiple groups of the same people being displaced in time, the story just doesn't do anything interesting with these ideas. The interesting elements of the story are relegated to the background while Ace wanders and runs into people who complain and bicker and a bland villain issues threats and blathers on. Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible is just never able to fully-realize all the wonderful elements that Platt came up with.

Cat's Cradle: Warhead was written by Andrew Cartmel, the show's script editor during the Seventh Doctor era. I think the novel marks the first time Cartmel has produced a Doctor Who story of his own instead of editor those of other writers. The cover is highly reminiscent of that of Iron Maiden's Somewhere in Time which put me in a dystopian, Blade Runner-esque frame of mind. Indeed, the earth of the near future in Warhead is dystopian. Pollution ravages the environment and, instead of the Tyrell Corporation, we have the ominous and powerful Butler Institute.

The book begins with The Doctor laying a trap. He visits Shreela, a science journalist, who lies in hospital dying from the poisons now common in the environment. He asks her to do one last thing before she passes and that is to publish a story that links certain proteins in the blood to telekenesis. In publishing this story, The Doctor hopes to get the head of the Butler Institute, Matthew O'Hara, to make a move.

The Doctor breaks into the offices of the Butler Institute in New (New New?) York to gather information. There he meets Maria, a cleaning woman, who helps him. In a nice, albeit mournful, digression, Cartmel gives us Maria's backstory. She grew up in California where partied as a youth but found her life thrown into chaos after the death of her love, Jerome. She moved to New York but she found her life plans hindered by economic migration laws. Tragically, she would die a prolonged death owing to both the toxic air outside and the poisonous cleaning chemicals she used everyday.

In another tangent, Cartmel has The Doctor meet up with a serial killer named Bobby Prescott who has a bit of information that our hero needs. Again, we get a nice, although very disturbing, digression. Prescott's tale, relating how things used to be better, emphasizes the corrupt nature of the society in which the story takes place. With this information, The Doctor sends Ace on a mission to Turkey where she recovers a drum. Drum as in barrel, not percussion instrument.

Inside the drum is a teenage boy named Vincent who has been embalmed in some kind of chemical cocktail. Vincent has the unique ability to channel the mental energy of others and focus them into a burst of telekinetic power. He too has a role in The Doctor's plan which is to foil the machinations of Matthew O'Hara.

Cat's Cradle: Warhead is an unqualified success. Cartmel constructs a believable dystopian future that sees the characters roaming multiple locations around the world in a way that the television series never could. Yet he also connects his story to the TV show. Shreela is a friend of Ace's that we met in “Survival” and the evil Butler Institute and Matthew O'Hara brought the Third Doctor story “The Green Death” to mind. There are some fun action sequences and a good old fashioned shoot out. But what stands out most is characterization. The Doctor is scheming and manipulating and makes for a nice parallel to O'Hara who is less an embodiment of evil than a man who has lost his moral compass and is using his power for the wrong side. Ace is an action hero here alternately dodging bullets and letting off a few rounds. The real treat is how subsidiary characters like Maria, Prescott, and Vincent are all given backstories. Warhead arguably doesn't twist or stretch the Doctor Who formula but it is a fun story that fleshes out characters who, on television, would have been little more than cardboard cut outs.

The trilogy comes to a close with Cat's Cradle: Witch Mark and see the series venture into fantasy territory.

The TARDIS lands in the Welsh village of Llanfer Ceirog which The Doctor has apparently visited previously as he knows Old Hugh and his wife Janice. All is well and bucolic but, being Doctor Who, the pleasantness can't last for long. And it doesn't. Ace wanders the countryside and finds a mysterious stone circle but is chased away by an ornery Emrys Hughes upon whose land Ace was trespassing. She returns and tells her story to everyone. At first The Doctor is keen on R&R and refuses to investigate but, upon hearing that a village was once located on Hughes' property, he becomes intrigued and has Ace take him to investigate. They arrive at night to find the stone circle populated with lights.

But unexplained lights in the middle of the night are the least mysterious things happening. A bus has crashed on the M40 (not quite sure where this is exactly other than a more populated area not too far away) and no one survives. There are a couple odd things about this tragedy. First is that the only person the police can identify is the driver, Selwyn, who is Emrys Hughes' brother. Secondly, all of the passengers are wearing new clothing, are carrying suitcases full of cash, and some of them have a peculiar birthmark on their necks. Back in Llanfer Ceirog the local veterinarian delivers a foal and notices that the mare has a wound on her forehead. Poking around the hay he discovers a horn. Back at home, he calls a number in an ad asking for people to report any sightings of strange animals. The ad was placed by Inspector Stevens, a paranormal investigator and the laughing stock of Scotland yard who is also investigating the bus crash. Lastly there's a couple of American boys who are hitchhiking around the UK. They wander through the forest surrounding Llanfer Ceirog and find an injured centaur. After reporting what they've found to the local constabulary, the pair are shocked that he merely pours gas on the creature and burns it alive.

The Doctor figures out that the stone circle is actually a teleportation device and he and Ace find themselves whisked off to a land called Tir na n-Óg. It isn't long before they are taken prisoner by a group of humans and taken to their leader. The leader, Dryfid, explains that there is discord in the land now that the sun has disappeared. A delegation had been sent to the home of the god Goibhnie to ask that he restore the sun but it didn't go particularly well. And so they have devised a plan to use the stone circle/transmat device to take them to Earth. Wanting to remain oblivious to the folks on Earth, they have decided to leave the other residents of Tir na n-Óg behind and they are none too pleased. These include unicorns knows as Ceffyl and the Firbolg which are centaurs.

Dryfid refuses to let The Doctor and Ace return to Earth but he does let them seek out Goibhnie who turns out not to be a god after all...

Witch Mark is another fun entry in the New Adventures. Inspector Stevens reminded me of Fox Mulder although the novel pre-dates The X-Files. The storyline that takes place on Earth had the vibe of The Wicker Man though it was inverted a bit as Stevens was not a skeptic. The scenes taking place in Llanfer Ceirog were really classic DW with strange events and weird creatures in a rural village. The adventures in Tir na n-Óg are less successful as the build-up of strange, unexplained events is replaced with expository scenes and action but author Andrew Hunt gets credit for letting the mysteries unfold in their own time. A lot of DW stories reveal everything too soon leaving a large chunk of time with The Doctor and his companions, if they're not imprisoned, running around from dead end to dead end until a window of opportunity presents itself for the final victory. Here the Earthly conundrums give way to one cental mystery, namely that of Goibhnie's identity. In the end, the central problem is wrapped up a bit hastily but there's no denying the fun had along the way.

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