According to Steven Seagal, Mass Shootings Are Engineered… LOLWUT?

There are few things as vile to me as writing off genuine tragedies as either hoaxes or false flag operations.  The Neo-Nazis did it with the Holocaust, and now third-rate actor, martial artist and general loudmouth Steven Seagal is doing it with the mass shooting epidemic in the U.S.  Not only is this incredibly insensitive to the victims and their families, it is clearly an insidious attempt to justify the American gun problem to themselves.  This is nothing new.  I was quite horrified when some of my right-wing family members were circulating the idea that the Sandy Hook shooting was in fact staged by the government.  When the evidence against this position mounted, they finally accepted that it was a real shooting.  But now the conspiracy theory is that someone in the U.S. government is engineering these shootings, which is just as fucked up.

First off, what diabolical individual or group could consistently engineer such things so perfectly and for so long without anyone ever coming forward?  Can you imagine the insane level of logistical expertise it would require not only to pull this off again and again, but also to silence everyone involved?  It displays a mind-boggling degree of ignorance to imagine that such a massive ongoing conspiracy could become anything but a huge boondoggle in a very short period of time.  Seriously, what planet do you live on, conspiracy nuts?  No, you know what’s really happening?  The evidence disagrees with your contention that the American gun culture isn’t massively fucked up, that’s what.  And you need these conspiracies to make yourselves feel better, because the truth is, if it wasn’t for the shit-ton of guns, including assault weapons, that have flooded the country thanks to Wayne LaPierre and the NRA scaring the hell out of gun owners, many of these shootings would never have happened.  They are actively making the situation worse.

But let’s say for a minute that Seagal is right and the government is somehow convincing all these people to go on rampages.  First, let’s remember that most mass shootings are actually familial murder-suicides, meaning a parent—usually a father—kills their entire family and then themselves.  So, if Americans really are that vulnerable to psychological manipulation that they can be regularly manipulated into killing their own little children, isn’t that evidence that maybe we really aren’t responsible enough as a people to own guns?  I mean, currently I am only in favor of some reasonable gun restrictions, but perhaps in light of this new knowledge that Americans are particularly susceptible to engineered murder sprees, maybe it would be better to ban guns entirely.

Listen, the gun crowd has been saying for awhile that it isn’t a gun problem but rather a mental illness problem.  Maybe they’re right.  In light of the fact that the rest of Western civilization (which has mostly either banned guns or heavily restricted them—imagine that?) doesn’t seem to have an epidemic of violent crazy people, which should be consistent throughout all nations whether guns are easily obtainable or not, it seems that America has more than its fair share of psychos, some of whom can be apparently turned into killing machines at the drop of a hat.  Well, that’s what Seagal seems to be saying, and God knows he’s an expert on this stuff, right?  Right?

So, um . . . yeah.  If you really want to earn back whatever credibility you once had, gun lovers, you should maybe start by not being insensitive pricks about the tragedy of gun violence that is sweeping our nation.  No one programmed Chris Harper-Mercer to walk into a university classroom and gun down a bunch of students.  The guy was angry and unbalanced because he couldn’t get a date and wanted to punish society for it.  That’s it.  That is what happens when machismo culture meets America’s gun obsession and the film industry’s glorification of violence, which Seagal himself has contributed to with his crappy movies.  There is no government conspiracy, just a bunch of people who have been duped by a political group into believing that Obama is coming to take all their guns away, a group that has contributed to the problem by making it easier and easier for any halfwit or psycho with a grudge to stockpile weapons that were originally intended for military use.  If you really believe this is the government’s doing, then you are clearly part of the problem.

Dan Simmons’ ‘The Rise of Endymion’ – A Review

IX-dan-simmons-rise-of-endymionAt last we arrive at the final book in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos.  To be honest, I finished reading The Rise of Endymion in preparation for this review a while ago.  I’ve just been hesitant to review it because . . . well, let’s just say it’s easily the most depressing book in the series.  And yet, it is the most hopeful as well.  That seems like a contradiction, I know, and it is, but there are few writers quite like Simmons when it comes to weaving these contradictions into a story that is somehow satisfying when everything in your gut tells you it shouldn’t be.

The novel begins four years after the events that transpired at the end of Endymion, when Father Captain de Soya turned against his orders to capture the then 12-year-old Aenea and instead saved her and her companions Raul Endymion and the android A. Bettik from certain death at the hands of the Technocore-engineered soldier Radhamanth Nemes, who is a kind of female Terminator, only (like the Shrike) she can stop time.  Basically, she is an unbeatable killing machine, but de Soya managed to stop her, giving Aenea and her friends time to farcast to Old Earth, which had somehow been transported to an entirely different galaxy, assuring their protection from the Core and the Pax both for as long as they wish to remain there.

Now 16 years old, Aenea has begin to fulfill her destiny as the prophet of a new belief system, one that can potentially undo both the Church and the Core.  As prophets go, Aenea is somewhere between Jesus (which Simmons goes out of his way to compare her to in several obvious ways, including a communion process where her disciples literally drink droplets of her blood), Buddha (self-denial, and Aenea eventually winds up on an Asian-dominant world called Tien’ Shan, where even the boy Dalai Lama looks at the young woman as his teacher) and Charles Darwin.  Meanwhile, our hero Raul, who again serves as narrator of the book, is sent off alone on another series of world-hopping adventures in order to retrieve the Consul’s ship, which they abandoned early on in Endymion.  But inevitably they will come together again, and here they will hatch a plan to confront the devil in his own lair.

For the most part Aenea’s reluctant messiah shtick works, though there are a couple of times where it feels like Simmons is beating a dead horse.  There are a few other sour notes in the book, such as the ludicrous degree of evil displayed by the high-ranking members of the Church, including the weak-minded Pope Urban XVI.  There’s even a none too subtle comparison of the Pax to the Nazis early in the story.  But this is space opera, and I tend to give a pass to things like this, because these characters exist on a scale almost unimaginable to us, so they almost have to be larger-than-life and twice as evil, or twice as good as the case may be.  Of course, in demonizing the Catholic Church, Simmons is certainly playing with fire, though he makes it clear that the Church, like every entity that has endured through the ages, will go through phases.  This just happens to be one of Catholicism’s darker periods.

There’s also a lovely sense of the two sets of books, the Hyperion set and the Endymion set, being mirror images of each other.  Not just in the titles but in the way the larger plot unfolds in them.  Both Hyperion and Endymion deal with a lot of traveling in pursuit of vaguely defined goals.  Likewise, if you know what happened at the end of The Fall of Hyperion, you may have some inkling as to what will occur at the end of The Rise of Endymion.  To be sure, it was spelled out pretty clearly throughout the book.  It somehow felt both necessary and gratuitous at the same time, which is far more frustrating than if it had been merely one or the other.  But Dan Simmons is far too clever a writer to give you exactly what you want.  This is a book—and a series—that was meant to be debated.  That we aren’t much debating it is unfortunate, because it has much to offer those interested in the future of religion and philosophy.  Even though it is the weakest book in the series, it is also the most important.  To be fair, very few series end perfectly.  The Lord of the Rings is the only one I can even think of at the moment that did, and even that is debatable.

Moreover, this is yet another love letter (if a bittersweet one) Dan Simmons has penned to literature itself.  Who else but Simmons could concoct a lesson in English and American lit masquerading as an exciting outer space adventure?  Perhaps there have been other examples, but none are quite as memorable as The Hyperion Cantos.  The last book in the series has its own interesting lessons.  I probably learned more about Catholicism and the Vatican from The Rise of Endymion than I have from any other single source.  And, as per usual, Simmons’ fantastic world-building skill is on full display.  But it is the lessons of the One Who Teaches that resonate most profoundly here.  The mystical focus of the book may turn off a lot of hard SF fans, but for me it feels like the flip side of the same coin.  In the end the entire Hyperion Cantos, with its overall plot spanning hundreds of years, its large cast of characters, the different structure of each book and Aenea’s messiah parallel, begins to feel something like that most widely read piece of literature of all: the Bible.  If so, then The Rise of Endymion is obviously its Gospels.

Grade: A 

The 20 Most Awesome National Flag Designs

The United States of America has a lot of great qualities, but unfortunately our flag design isn’t one of them.  Stars and stripes weren’t exactly original even when the American flag was first conceived, but now they’re a dime a dozen on national banners.  And let’s face it, squares and rectangles are hardly thrilling as design elements go.  Add to that fairly dark colors and a bunch of bland white stars lined up in perfect rows, and it all adds up to one of the most staid and boring flag designs going.  So what are the best flag designs then?  Well, here are my choices for the twenty most awesome national flag designs on the planet.  They’re more colorful, more dynamic, and overall just more interesting than most of the flags out there.  Click on the images to see larger versions and examine the details.  Meanwhile, I think it’s time we had a national conversation about a possible re-design for Old Glory.

#20 – Guyana

Flag - GuyanaGuyana is probably best known in America as the place where the Jim Jones cult mass murder-suicide happened, which is unfortunate.  It’s generally considered part of the Atlantic conglomerate known as the Caribbean, and as such it is the largest Caribbean nation by area and the only one which isn’t an island.  But what most interests me is its flag design, which is colorful and looks more like something out of Star Trek than a national flag, making for a futuristic-looking design that will withstand the test of time.  As with most flags, the colors are significant: the green is for agriculture and the rain forests that cover a significant part of the country; the red is for vigor and zeal; the gold is for the nation’s rich mineral deposits; the white is for rivers and other bodies of water; and the black is for the endurance of Guyana’s people.  The flag’s central design is often called the Golden Arrowhead, an arrow being a dynamic symbol in itself.  The flag was designed by Whitney Smith, a professional vexillologist, which accounts for the strength of its design.

#19 – Moldova

Flag - MoldovaMoldova is a tiny Eastern European country wedged between Romania and Ukraine.  It may be the poorest country in Europe, but it has one of the continent’s richest flag designs.  It starts with the three primary colors as vertical stripes, which aren’t terribly interesting in themselves, but then, smack dab in the middle of the flag is the country’s coat-of-arms which has an auroch‘s head in the center of it.  In case you aren’t aware, the auroch is extinct.  Now, most countries would shy away from putting an extinct animal on their flag, but not the Moldovans.  Why?  Because they are just that damn cool.  Another awesome thing about this flag is that on the obverse side of it, the crest is actually reversed, so when you see the flag in bright light, its central emblem won’t leave a weird silhouette bleeding through from the other side—it all perfectly matches up.  If all that weren’t enough, Moldova actually has a variant war-time flag which is even more bad-ass, with the eagle carrying both a sword and a mace.  A mace!

#18 – Papua New Guinea

Flag - Papau New GuineaPapua New Guinea is an island nation just north of Australia, part of the Melanesian island chain.  It’s flag includes the colors red, gold, white and black, which always seem to look good together, and bears representations of both the Southern Cross constellation (which is also present on Australia’s flag) and an alien-looking critter called a raggiana bird-of-paradise.  The coolest thing about the flag, though, is that it was designed by a 15-year-old girl as part of a nationwide contest.  Of course, she really just incorporated elements that were already around and rearranged them, but hey, she did it artfully.  It’s a fairly simple design as far as they go, but its elements are well-balanced, and that bird is weird and exotic enough to really draw the eye to it.

#17 – Sri Lanka

Flag - Sri LankaOur first Asian nation on the list is Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, a large island to the south of India and the place where bad-ass female singer/rapper M.I.A. (who is of Sri Lankan heritage) was raised.  The most prominent thing on the flag is, of course, that particularly Asian lion, which is just fantastic.  It represents the Sinhalese, the main ethnic group of the country, and it’s holding a traditional Sri Lankan sword called a kastane.  But the most striking thing to me about the flag is the unusual color palette.  The maroon element with the lion on it also stands for the Sinhalese.  In addition to the Sinhalese, Sri Lanka also has two other major ethnic groups, the Ceylonian Moors and the Tamils, symbolized by the green and orange elements respectively.  In the corners of the maroon section of the flag are four golden bo (fig) leaves .  Everything is surrounded by a golden border, which represents the nation’s major religion, Buddhism.  Even more awesome is the Sri Lankan military flag; it has all of these elements and the national coat-of-arms, which is, in my estimation, one of the coolest crest designs ever.

#16 – Macau

Flag - MacauThe flag for Macau—an autonomous region under Chinese dominion—is the essence of simplicity, but its strength is anchored by its one major element: a white lotus flower above a bridge and rippling water with an arc of five golden stars over the whole thing.  The five stars are taken right from the national flag of the People’s Republic of China, but the other elements are original to this design.  The bridge here, although highly stylized, is meant to be the Governor Nobre de Carvalho Bridge, one of two major bridges that connects the Macau Peninsula to the Taipa/Cotai/Coloane island complex.    And the lotus is a rich Asian symbol with many layers of meaning.  What I love about this flag is that it looks more like a logo for some hip modern company than a flag design.  It’s a spectacularly beautiful image that really embodies the essence of contemporary China.

#15 – Portugal

Flag - PortugalPortugal is the westernmost nation of Europe, a narrow slab of land carved out at the end of the Iberian Peninsula, which is mostly occupied by France and Spain (though the tiny micro-state of Andorra is in there too, caught like a pea between the big fluffy mattresses of Spain and France).  I digress.  The Portuguese flag is our focus here, and what a doozy.  Sure, most bi-color flags divide their two colors right in half, but not Portugal’s flag.  It artfully keeps the division off-center, with the heavier dark green giving over more space to the lighter, more vivid crimson.  What really makes the design pop, though, is its use of an armillary sphere or astrolabe, that lovely representation of celestial spheres popularized during the Renaissance era.  Does any other national flag have one of those?  I don’t think so!  This is just plain classy of Portugal and indicates a devotion to the sciences.  Then, over the top of that, they throw in a sweet coat-of-arms with yellow castles and shields that look like dominoes.  So cool.

#14 – Uganda

Flag - UgandaAnd now we move on to another continent.  Here is Africa’s first entry on our list, and it’s for the little nation of Uganda.  Originally a British colony, it became an independent state in 1962, and with it came this new flag design, which is just gorgeous.  The colors refer to the people of Uganda (black), the sun, source of life in the nation (yellow), and the blood of all Ugandans which unites them as a people (red).  These same colorful stripes are on the German flag, and they look lovely there too, but the Ugandan flag doubles them up, making it twice as nice.  Then, in colors that coordinate with the stripes, is a grey crowned crane, an attractive bird that you’ve probably seen at the zoo.  And look at that thing: it has a mohawk!  How boss is that?!

#13 – Holy See (Vatican City)

Flag - Holy See (Vatican City)First off, let me preface this by stating that I am not, nor have I ever been, Catholic.  This flag was chosen purely on aesthetic grounds.  As flags go, it’s a weird one right off the bat because it’s perfectly square.  The flag is divided into two equal halves, one gold (or) and one white or silver (argent).  The silver half then bears the Vatican City coat-of-arms, which is positively loaded down with meaning.  First off, there’s the papal tiara, basically the pope’s crown (actually three crowns in one), because he is meant to be higher even than kings, who stand only for worldly power.  Then, there are the crossed keys of Saint Peter, who, as you may be aware, is supposed to be in charge of the gates of Heaven.  One key is gold and one silver, complimenting the colors of the two bands of the flag.  Even the arrangement of the keys has meaning.  If your interested in the metric ton of symbolism found here, you can read more about it in the Wikipedia page on the coat-of-arms of the Holy See.  Suffice it to say, there’s a lot to it.  I just happen to enjoy the artistry and elegance of the design.

#12 – Mexico

Flag - MexicoSo, the US flag is kind of lame, and Canada’s flag isn’t very exciting either, but all is not lost for the North American continent.  Mexico to the rescue!  The base of the flag is your standard vertical tri-color: green, white and red.  But this is salvaged by an absolutely stylin’ central motif—Mexico’s coat-of-arms.  It bears an eagle tearing into a rattlesnake (“Don’t tread on me!” screamed the snake . . . right before the eagle swooped in and snapped its scrawny little neck.  I keed, I keed!)  Anyway, this has a double meaning: to the original Aztec inhabitants, the image is based on the legend of the founding of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) as drawn from the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer and other sources, in which the bad-ass god Huitzilopochtli (symbolized by the eagle) brought favor to the island of Tenochtitlan (the prickly pear cactus he sits on).  Initially the snake was associated with another god—Quetzalcoatl—who represented the Aztec priesthood and wisdom in general, among other things.  Later, in accordance with European traditions, the serpent came to be reinterpreted as a symbol of absolute evil; likewise, the eagle was re-framed as an icon of good.  Hence, the eagle devouring the rattlesnake represents good triumphing over evil.  It’s all very complicated, but one thing is certain: it’s a stunningly attractive design.

#11 – Kiribati

Flag - KiribatiKiribati is a nation composed of a sparse group of tiny atolls and islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  The collective land area of the whole thing is a little over 310 square miles (or about 800 square kilometers), but they are spread out over a space of three-and-a-half million square kilometers.  That’s a lot of space between those islands!  The total population of Kiribati is somewhere around 104,000 people.  For a place that virtually no one but the people who live there ever thinks about, it has one of the loveliest flag designs around.  The wavy ocean, the rising sun, the golden frigatebird . . . it all adds up to a really nice design.  It is based on the Kiribati coat-of-arms designed by Sir Arthur Grimble in 1932.  The three wavy white lines represent the three main island groups (the Gilbert Islands, the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands) that comprise the nation, and the seventeen sun rays represent the sixteen Gilbert Islands and the coral island Banaba.  Finally, the frigatebird, to quote Wikipedia, “symbolises command of the sea, power, freedom and Kiribati cultural dance patterns.”

#10 – Marshall Islands

Flag - Marshall IslandsThe Marshall Islands are another island nation in the Pacific Ocean, just northwest of the Gilbert Islands, in fact.  In the flag, the diagonal band stands in for the equator; the white star, then, symbolized the Marshall Islands in relation to the equator.  The significance of the orange and white portions of the band is in recognizing the layout of the islands, which run roughly in two parallel chains, the Ratak (“Sunrise”) Chain and the Ralik (“Sunset”) Chain, so named because the sun rises on the Ratak side of the islands and sets on the Ralik side.  The two colors also stand for peace and courage.  The star has 24 points in all, representing the number of electoral districts in the nation, while its four longest points symbolize its four major cultural centers.  As with the Macau flag, there is just something inherently modern about this design, providing its strongest appeal.

#9 – Montenegro

Flag - MontenegroConversely, the flag of the European nation of Montenegro looks rather antique, despite being one of the newer flag designs on this list.  Nevertheless, it works—it’s a regal and classy design that incorporates all of its canonical elements perfectly.  First, its too main colors, red and gold, have always worked well together, especially for heraldic designs, which, as with many of these flags, this one incorporates.  Montenegro as a distinct entity began as a Prince-Bishropic, meaning it was ruled by a Christian bishop, and as such its flag was much simpler: just a red field surrounded by a white border and bearing a white Greek-style cross in its center.  Later it became a principality, which is when the double-headed eagle carrying the scepter and orb and with a crown above it came into the picture.  It did have a shield on its chest, but at that point the lion emblem sat beneath the entire crest rather than inside the eagle’s shield.  The flag then went through several other incarnations minus the crest altogether before this final design was adopted in 2004.

#8 – Uruguay

Flag - UruguayIn case you can’t tell, I’m quite fond of flags with suns on them.  Such is the case with the South American country of Uruguay, whose sun is doubly cool because it has a face on it.  It’s called the Sun of May (similar to the heraldic sun in splendor), and its based on the original Argentinian real coin.  Uruguay is divided into nine departments or regions, each represented by one of the white and blue horizontal stripes.  The flag’s canton (the square portion in the upper left-hand corner) has the Sun of May, symbolizing the birth of the new nation of Uruguay in 1828, though the current flag wasn’t adopted until two years later.  I suppose one could argue that the flag’s basic design isn’t that far removed from the American flag.  Sure, but the American is just so impersonal compared to this one, with its glorious anthropomorphized sun.  Maybe the Uruguayans take it for granted, but to me its a far more enticing thing to look at than a bunch of regimented stars and stripes.

#7 – Serbia

Flag - SerbiaHere’s that double-capita eagle rearing its, er . . . heads again.  Like Montenegro, Serbia is another Eastern European country, and the two-headed eagle has a long and rich history in that region, dating back to the Byzantine empire.  Unsurprisingly, the crest part of the flag is based on the country’s coat-of-arms.  I love how elaborate the crown is here, with its jewels and pearls.  The crest also utilizes a couple of fleur-de-lis, one of the most iconic, elegant and heterogeneous symbols ever devised, as well as a tetragrammatic cross with four stylized ‘C’s, which likewise traces back to Byzantium.  The letters are not Latin ‘C’s but rather Cyrillic ‘C’s, in which case they are more akin to the Latin ‘S’, which explains their use in the Serbian cross, as they derive from the popular Serbian motto Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava (Only Unity Saves the Serbs).  That’s a lot of meaning packed into that flag.  Design-wise, I love that the crest is off-center, which generally makes for a stronger design.

#6 – Vanuatu

Flag - VanuatuYet another nation composed of islands in the Pacific (this is the last of them, I promise), Vanuatu has one of the most unusual and striking banners in the flag pantheon, mainly because of its strange Y-shaped field configuration.  First, let’s cover the color symbolism though.  The black element of course represents the country’s people, the Ni-Vanuatu, who are dark-skinned but, like many Melanesians, often have curly, naturally light blond hair, a beautiful combination.  Melanesian children are particularly adorable.  Anyway, back to the flag.  The green represents the fulsome, fertile nature of the islands, while the red stands for the blood of both the people and the wild boar, a major traditional food source of Ni-Vanuatu.  The emblem inside the black triangle consists of a curled wild boar tusk (a sign of prosperity amongst the islanders) and two crossed fern leaves, a symbol of peace.  The yellow sideways ‘Y’ is actually a Christian symbol here, representing the spread of the gospel across the islands.

#5 – Bhutan

Flag - BhutanThe little Asian nation of Bhutan is wedged between China (to the north) and India (to the south).  Its flag consists of three major elements, but the meanings behind them are complex.  The orange triangle represents the spiritual side of Bhutan, namely its Buddhist heritage.  The yellow triangle, meanwhile, represents the worldly side of things, mainly the civil life of its people, as well as the ephemeral nature of worldly authority and society.  But easily the most commanding part of the standard of Bhutan is the dragon.  I mean, it’s a dang dragon, the coolest of all mythical animals!  And this is not just any dragon.  It’s actually Druk, the Bhutanese thunder dragon.  In fact, this dragon is so important to the nation’s heritage that its people actually refer to their own country as Druk.  It originates from a particular Buddhistic line called Drukpa.  The dragon straddles the two halves of the flag, indicating the importance of attending to both civil/state and spiritual matters; it also symbolizes the bond between the nation’s leader(s) and its people.  Druk’s color is white, epitomizing the purity of the proper Buddhist  mind, and it clutches a gemstone in each of its claws, which stands for the wealth of the country.  But really the Bhutan flag’s awesomeness can be summed up in one word: dragon!

#4 – Kazakhstan

Flag - KazakhstanWhen most people in the Anglosphere think of Kazakhstan—if they think of it all—they probably think of the satirical film Borat and its title character, played by Sacha Baron Cohen.  But when I think of it, I first picture this wonderfully handsome flag.  The elements are few but drenched in meaning.  The blue field is first and foremost a color associated with Turkic religious traditions, but it also signifies the sky and water.  The sun, as is often the case in iconography, is the source of all life, but also a representation of the nation’s abundance and fortune.  The bird is a steppe eagle, and it personifies strength, freedom and progress.  There were two things that particularly drew me to this design.  The first is the way the shadow beneath the eagle blends into the background—it’s a very nice use of shading and negative space, unusual for flag imagery. The second was the ornamental band on the hoist end of the flag, which is a traditional pattern called koshkar-muiz (“horns of the ram”).  It’s a sublime design; the Kazakhs can be very proud of their flag!

#3 – Swaziland

Flag - SwazilandOur second entry from Africa takes the #3 spot on our list.  Swaziland is a very small nation (there seems to be a lot of those on this list—well, never let it be said that I don’t stand up for the little guy!) situated near the bottom of the African continent, at the eastern end of South Africa.  The entire symbolism of the flag rests on its traditions of warfare.  Not that I’m fond of war, mind you, but I am setting aside my opinions about that and focusing on the aesthetics of the design.  Even so, some of the symbolism is worth examining, the almond-shaped shield especially, as the black and white aspects of it represent the fact that whites and blacks peacefully live side-by-side in Swaziland.  The shield and two spears demonstrate the strength of Swaziland to stand against its enemies, an important thing to project to outsiders in war-torn Africa, for, though she be but little, she is fierce!  The third staff is a Swazi fighting stick adorned with bird feathers.

#2 – Turkmenistan

Flag - TurkmenistanOh, my!  This captivating flag of the Islamic nation of Turkmenistan is the most elaborate flag in the world, with its intricate carpet guls inside the red band, and these guls are not random.  They are the tribal guls of the five major tribes of the region: the Teke, Yomut, Saryq, Choudur and Arsary.  The red band also includes a wreath at the bottom, a symbol of the nation’s official status as a permanently neutral entity in all international disputes.  Green and red are historically important colors for the Turkmen.  The crescent moon is a common symbol associated with Islam, but it is also a talisman of good omen and a hopeful future.  The stars are for the five provinces of Turkmenistan: Ahal, Balkan, Lebap, Mary and Dashhowuz.  And hey, do you consider those two-headed eagles to have too few heads?  Never fear.  The Turkmen have you covered—their presidential flag has an eagle with five of them!

#1 – Saint Pierre and Miquelon

Flag - Saint Pierre and MiquelonAnd now we arrive at #1, and it is flat out amazing.  It is a truism in modern design that less is more.  Well, forget that bunk.  I mean, just look at this thing.  It has it all: lions, ermine tails, crosses and, taking center stage, a classic old ship sailing on the ocean.  Before  we delve into the meaning of all this stuff, though, let’s talk a bit about where and what this place is.  Saint Pierre and Miquelon—which should more properly be called Saint Pierre and Miquelon-Langlade, but its name is already a mouthful so I totally get why Langlade isn’t included in the official title—is an archipelago just off the southern coast of the Canadian province of Newfoundland.  At one time parts of Canada and what is now the Mid-Eastern and Southern US was largely under French control.  That is long gone, of course, but there remains one French territory (or rather, territorial collectivity) in this part of the world, and that is Saint Pierre and Miquelon, which basically operates as an independent state.  It’s people, of which there were around 6,000 as of 2015, are predominantly French-speaking Catholics who come from three major ethnic strains: Basques, Bretons and Normans, hence the three very different squares on the hoist end of the flag.  Each of those sections, which are based on the flags and/or coat-of-arms of their respective peoples, has its own symbolism that I could easily devote another whole article to, but I won’t.  It you’re interested, you can read about each of them here, here and here.  But the most awesome part of this flag is the ship, which is a representation of the carrack the Grande Hermine, on which French explorer Jacques Cartier sailed.  Cartier discovered the area that became Saint Pierre and Miquelon on his second voyage to the New World.  This splendid banner is said to have been designed by André Paturel, a local business owner.  Give the man a prize!  Because I seriously doubt anyone is ever going to top this.

Understanding the Slender Man Murder Case

Lisa Miller has written an excellent, highly detailed article about the events that led to two 12-year-old girls stabbing a classmate as a supposed sacrifice to an internet-born fiend, called Slender Man Is Watching.  After reading the piece, it’s clear that Morgan Geyser, the one who did the actual stabbing, is a mentally disturbed girl.  The motivations of Anissa Weier are more nebulous, but I sort of get the impression that she had repressed sexual feelings for Morgan that she didn’t really know how to process.  As pointed out by Cheryl Eddy at True Crime, this case bears an uncanny resemblance to the Parker-Hulme murder case (exquisitely dramatized in the 1994 Peter Jackson film Heavenly Creatures).

The Final Word on Why the Civil War Was Fought

I grew up (and still live) in the South and there are some wonderful things about the place, but unfortunately, there is still a lot of nonsense here about the tainted history of the region, with many Southerners proclaiming that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, or that it was a minor issue at best.  These people are deluded.  Col. Ty Seidule, Professor of History at West Point, puts the final nail in the coffin of this argument in a succinct and powerful video in this article.  The debate is over.  The only people who still think that slavery was not the main issue that caused the Civil War are people who would not be convinced no matter how much evidence was presented to them—in other words, people who refuse to believe it because it hurts their pride.

Dan Simmons’ ‘Endymion’ – A Review

IX-dan-simmons-endymionFor some people Endymion is the weakest part of the entire Hyperion Cantos.  Those people are nuts.

Let me preface this review by pointing out that each of the four books in the series has a different feel to it.  The first novel, Hyperion, being partly inspired by The Canterbury Tales, is essentially episodic.  It’s sequel, The Fall of Hyperion, can be considered a political thriller with a bit of military sci-fi tossed in.  This third book in the series is undeniably a chase novel, and a hair-raising one at that . . .

Nearly three hundred years after the fall of the Hegemony of Man at the end of second novel, the Catholic Church, once on the verge of extinction, has now filled the void left by the Hegemony’s collapse, becoming the dominant governmental power in the galaxy, largely through its military wing, the Pax.  Meanwhile, a certain irascible poet by the name of Martin Silenus is still kicking around Hyperion, though barely, but he still has quite a lot of pull on the planet.  He manages to save Raul Endymion, a young man convicted of murdering a Catholic citizen (which Raul himself is not), from execution, and all he asks of Raul in return is the impossible.  Raul’s primary task is to escort Silenus’s 12-year-old niece Aenea to her destination across the galaxy.  The problem is, the all-powerful Church wants the girl for their own murky and sinister reasons.  As it so happens, Aenea is the daughter of another former Shrike pilgrim, Brawne Lamia, and her cybrid lover John Keats, and she is poised to become a powerful and transformative force in her own right, one who may threaten the very existence of the Church.  Of course, this being a Hyperion Cantos novel, nothing is quite what it seems.  Nevertheless, the Church will pursue Raul, Aenea and their android friend A. Bettik to the ends of the galaxy to capture the little girl.

The primary representative of the Church herein is one Father Captain Francisco de Soya, a devoted priest and soldier of the Pax who believes his mission to capture the girl is a righteous one but eventually comes to doubt whether she is the monster her superiors believe her to be.  Perhaps more than any other antagonist in the series, de Soya is a dynamic and three-dimensional character.  With any story which sets up a dystopian future where the bad guys are members of some massive ruling entity, it is easy for a writer to sketch them as malevolent, unnuanced caricatures, but Simmons largely manages to avoid this pitfall in Endymion.  Instead, we get well-trained, high-tech soldiers who are true believers, which, for my money, makes them even more frightening than if they were just mad finger-steepling scoundrels.  De Soya is the ultimate knight of the Church, a man who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.  But he is also a truly moral man, a fact that sometimes puts him at odds with the Church he serves, which has become rife with corruption.

And what of our three main protagonists?  Raul Endymion himself is a classic adventuring daredevil, the weary loner who becomes the reluctant hero–something of a cross between Han Solo and every action character ever played by Kurt Russell.  Sure, he’s a bit of a stereotype if you get right down to it, but he feels more like an homage to heroes past than just another generic lovable rogue.  Aenea is another kind of trope: a wonder child.  She’s a super-genius for starters, but she also has some powers which are initially ill-defined but take on greater significance as the story progresses.  Then we have A. Bettik, a blue-skinned android, a being genetically engineered to be much stronger and tougher to kill than a normal human.  If there is a character who could stand some fleshing out, it is A. Bettik, who is far too subservient (he was bred that way) and often seems to be there merely for the sake of his enhanced abilities rather than as a legit member of the team.  Early in the story there is also a sentient spaceship, but it’s hardly there long enough to make much of an impression.  Finally, there is our old friend the Shrike, who serves as Aenea’s bodyguard at times (much to her consternation, since the creature’s overriding philosophy seems to be: terminate with extreme prejudice) but mostly just watches from the sidelines.

Though the story zips along at a breakneck pace, Simmons still manages to work in scenes of humor and warmth, particularly near the beginning.  One of my favorite points in the book is when Aenea decides to use their spaceship’s advanced force field tech to create a zero-g ball of water that she and Raul use as a floating swimming pool, an early bonding moment for the two and a demonstration of the girl’s ingenuity and fearlessness in the face of danger.

As our plucky heroes make their way through a series of worlds by way of farcasters (which only seem to work for Aenea and her protectors now . . . there’s a reason for that), de Soya and his soldiers triangulate in on them as they race towards their destiny.  Yes, it’s a bracing adventure tale, but it’s more than that too.  As with the other books in this series, Simmons exploits the literary concepts that undergird his work–mainly the deus ex machina in this case–in exceedingly clever ways, giving it a tasty dash of postmodernism without letting it slip into pretentious territory.  As always, the author’s love for the literary medium itself, be it in the form of poetry or fiction, is the very soul of the Hyperion Cantos, and Endymion is no exception.  Given that one of the themes of the series is man’s place in the universe and how he holds up against much greater intelligences, some of whom believe mankind to be obsolete, it makes sense that our capacity to create art and literature is the very thing that redeems humanity, and which Simmons celebrates throughout the series both implicitly and explicitly in numerous ways.  What else can I really say?

Grade: A+ 

The Southern Culture of Violence

Although I was born in Michigan and lived there intermittently over the course of my forty-two years, I grew up in rural Tennessee and still live there today.  I am half Southern by blood (my mom’s family is from Arkansas) and have spent the majority of my life here.  I love the South.  It’s a beautiful place to live: the mountains, the forests, the wildlife, the winding country roads.  But I have to admit that there is something terribly wrong here, and that something is an entrenched culture of poverty and violence.  Some of the talking heads here will claim that the problem only exists in the urban areas, but don’t be fooled.  I have never lived in a Southern city, only on the fringes of small towns, with the closest metropolitan areas of any real size an hour’s drive away from me, and I see the effects of poverty here everyday.

For privacy reasons I will not identify the town I live in at this point, but I would like to compare it to a town in Michigan I once lived in, also to remain unnamed.  That town–let’s call it Town M–was once identified as one of the five hundred best small towns in America (it was in a book!)  When I was growing up, it had–at one time or another–an independent book store, an arcade and a music store.  Today there are art galleries, bars and microbreweries in the town, and street art is prominently displayed.  It has brick sidewalks with permanent metal benches interspersed throughout.  It’s a beautiful place.  There’s an annual multi-day Summerfest in this town.  It even has suburbs for its middle class.

By contrast,  the Tennessee town–which I will dub Town T–has virtually nothing in the way of entertainment (unless you consider Wal-Mart and Piggly Wiggly to be entertainment).  There is a movie theater, but Town M has one of those too.  There are fast food joints, a handful of independently own restaurants, a newspaper, and a whole bunch of stores, banks and churches.  That’s about it.  It’s a grubby and unattractive town.  And it is not a town geared towards young people; nor is it interested in growth.  Its leaders are all about maintaining the status quo, nothing more.  There was a bookstore here at one time, but it was aimed mostly at serving Christians, and it was short-lived.  There is virtually no middle class here–there is a small number of wealthy citizens and a ton of poor people.  (Guess which group I belong to?)

And there is the heart of the problem that infects the South.  This is a place devoted to the outmoded notion of trickle-down economics, which any decent economist will tell you is nonsense and doesn’t work.  But the South is a conservative culture with a lot of desperately poor folks who are still living on the fumes of hope for the American Dream, who are told by their religious leaders that if they bear the hardships of this life, they will be heartily rewarded in the next.  And so they continue to endure this hell instead of working on making it better.  Meanwhile, it is wholly infested with the shallow and the meaningless, as well as the outright self-destructive–the worst aspects of commercialism run rampant, a strange contrast to its purported spirituality.

This is the reality of the modern South, and it has come with a high price.  Let me explain.  When I lived in Town M, I knew only one person connected to a murder, and it was a distant one: the father of a girl I went to elementary school with killed two elderly women over money.  And I certainly didn’t know anyone who was murdered.  Not so here.  Since I’ve lived here, I have known of no less than four murders with less than three degrees of separation from me, and in three of the four cases I knew the victims.  If we break them down, two of the victims died by firearms, one by stabbing and choking, the last partly by vehicular homicide and partly by being burnt alive.  Three of the four were intrafamilial murders, and all four were crimes of passion.  Three of the victims were female, one male, and all were killed by males.  These murders had different motives: one was over a breakup and the killer being turned in for other crimes, one was over a payment dispute, the third was over drugs, and I do not know the motive for the last murder.  But the uniting factor for all of these is that both victim and perpetrator were poor.

Violence is also at the heart of the recent debate over the Confederate flag.  The rallying cry of those defending its continued public use is that it represents heritage rather than hate and bigotry, but this argument has been soundly drubbed by Lonn Taylor in his article The Confederate Flag’s Big Lie.  The flag in question was not, in fact, the standard of the Confederate “nation” (as it were); it was a flag created specifically for the war, since the official Confederate flag was too difficult to distinguish from Old Glory in the heat of battle.  Hence, it is a flag attached to violence by design: a battle flag.  Moreover, as Taylor explains, it was never associated with Southern “heritage” until the 1950s, when the Ku Klux Klan adopted it as a way to protest civil rights advances, and Southerners–including some state governments–simply carried that concept further.  Segregation itself was a violent affair, predicated on keeping blacks in their own mini-reservations, separating them from white-designated locations and arenas by force if need be.  To say nothing of slavery, the continued practice of which Southern Americans fought and killed their fellow countrymen to try to protect.

Today, however, Southern violence is largely directed at other Southerners.  For a region of people famous for their pride, it seems they are awful willing to hurt and kill their fellow Southerners.  Indeed, the South is consistently the most violent region in the US and has been for decades.  Going by state alone, my own–Tennessee–often makes the top of that list every year.  Anyway, guess what else the South is tops in?  If you said poverty, ding ding, you win the prize!  And we’re also number one in obesity, thanks largely to a diet high in fatty and fried foods.  I see this as another facet of Southern violence, only turned inward, against themselves.  Perhaps it stems from guilt and insecurity, or something similar.  Maybe deep down most Southerners really do feel awful about their shameful history, but they can’t express it outwardly because they fear being an outsider in their own society.  So they punish themselves by eating badly.  Ha!  Armchair psychology, I admit.

At any rate, the South is clearly afraid of progress.  Many here still resent those Yankees for trouncing them during the Civil War.  They may not always say it openly, but it’s just beneath the surface of their conversations about the “federal government” taking away their rights.  Here that term is just code-speak for “outsiders”, meaning anyone who comes into the South and mucks up their way of life.  And the debate over keeping the Confederate flag prominently displayed really comes down to the fact that Southerners resent being reminded that they lost the Civil War, and that it will never be ‘business as usual’ here ever again.  Nobody holds a grudge like a Southerner.  Trust me: I’ve seen it too many times.  This is, I think, where the violence stems from, at least in part.  Far from dying out, racism is still woven into the very fabric of Southern life and thought.  Segregation, though no longer enforced in any official capacity, is still imposed unofficially by white Southerners refusing to sell certain property to blacks or other races, and keeping their distances from them in other ways too.  Don’t get me wrong: there are some genuinely tolerant and open-minded white people in the South (I’m one of them), but they are a small minority.

Ironically, the newly stoked controversy over the so-called “rebel flag” and the mass shooting of blacks by an avowed white supremacist which caused it happened to fall in the same time frame as the historic Supreme Court vote that assures the legal protection of gay marriage throughout the nation, and the rainbow flag has since been waving vigorously across the land.  There was even a meme floating around Facebook which said something to the effect of, “My Facebook looks like a war broke out between the Confederacy and a Skittles factory.”  We may make light of it, but there is something intrinsic about the Culture War in there.  In the larger sense, the fight between conservatives and liberals is really about fear vs. love, with conservatives defending a culture of fear and liberals defending a culture of love.

Think of it this way: conservatives embrace largely two things, small government and strong religious values, the former because they do not trust others and the latter because they do not trust themselves.  Conservatism is an inherently cynical worldview, a highly negative and paranoid way of looking at reality.  It suggests that outsiders (be they other nations, other religions, other powers, etc.) are to be feared and violently opposed.  Hence, we get a huge military, strong anti-Muslim sentiment, massive opposition to any large, centrally organized government, and so on.  Given its attachment to religion–which is ultimately just a glorified death cult (it’s about spending your life in preparation for death and whatever comes after)–and its love of violence to solve problems, conservatism is also about death.  In contrast, liberalism is about trust: trusting individuals to guide their own morality and trusting the government to properly take care of its people.  Trust arises out of affection, which is to say, love.  Liberalism is therefore a culture of love.  It embraces diversity for the sake of diversity and human well-being.  It says that, no matter what happens, we are going to be okay.  We will survive by accepting transformation, not by avoiding it.  Indeed, the scientific principle of evolution teaches that those most likely to survive long-term are the ones most susceptible to change.  It’s really no wonder conservatives despise it: it goes against everything they believe.  So, yes, conservatism is a philosophy of stasis, and stasis is death.  Growth comes about through change, and anything that does not change either dies or readies itself for death.  There are no other options.  To stand still is to give in to entropy, that steady march of the universe towards chaos.

And so, South, I love ya, but it’s time for you to change.  It’s time to give up your outmoded and archaic worldview.  If you don’t, your culture will eventually perish, swallowed up by its own violence and stagnation.  You should’ve learned your lesson by now: you cannot have your Johnny Reb cake and eat it too.  Lose the racism, paranoia and delusions of a heritage worth defending and move into the 21st century.  Come on, you can make the leap; it’s not that far.  And we’ll be waiting . . .

Additional Resources:

Secession, the Confederate Flag and Slavery

The Truth About Confederate History, Part 1 (Snopes)

I Have a Message for Those Who Claim the Confederate Flag Represents Their Heritage

Flags of the Confederate States of America (Wikipedia)

Dan Simmons’ ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ – A Review

IX-dan-simmons-fall-hyperionI don’t know why, but I have a bad habit of picking up series during the second book.  It seems like book two in a series always falls into my lap before I get hold of book one, and such was the case with Simmons’ The Fall of Hyperion.  I first read this shortly after graduating from high school, and although I was missing a great deal of information by not having read Hyperion first, I still enjoyed it immensely and knew I had to read the earlier volume, but I set aside this goal for awhile and forgot about it for several years.  I’m glad I did, because by the time I returned to these books, the entire tetralogy was complete and I was able to purchase the whole series at once, something I never do.  I devoured them all the summer after I graduated from college–an awful summer, in fact, and this series was one of the few saving graces for me that year.  I now consider The Hyperion Cantos collectively to be among my top ten books of all time, and that is saying something because I have a lot of favorite books.

The Fall of Hyperion tells us what becomes of the seven Shrike pilgrims now that they have reached the Time Tombs, but it also fleshes out the story of Meina Gladstone, the leader of the Hegemony of Man, as she deals with a coming war with the Ousters that looms large throughout this novel.  Bridging these two plot elements is yet another Keats cybrid–this time going by the name of Joseph Severn–whose dreams are linked to the pilgrims.  Severn serves as an adviser to Gladstone and is, for all intents and purposes, the narrator of the novel.

What’s particularly beautiful about this book is how absolutely amazingly Simmons ties up the stories of the Shrike pilgrims, whose lives turn out to be more connected than the first book let on.  And all of the pilgrims, including the cantankerous poet Martin Silenus (one of my favorite characters in the series) get to be heroes in their own way this time around.  Characters with fairly small roles in Hyperion–Amelio Arundez, the Consul’s friend Theo Lane, and so on–appear again with expanded roles.  Simmons is extremely generous to his characters in ways that feel both natural and dignified–even those who perish horribly (there is one key character whose death near the end of the novel can only be described as George R.R. Martin-level shocking) are ultimately redeemed.

Then there’s our old friend the Shrike, that time-traveling death machine whose nature is utterly impenetrable.  We do learn quite a bit more about him here, and yet it only seems to add to his mysteriousness and his monstrosity.  Yet he feels like an essential part of this universe, a sci-fi devil whose cold silver cruelty stands in stark contrast to the  golden humanity of the other characters.  Even the Ousters–who are a sort of futuristic analogue to the fair folk of fantasy, those beings who are somewhere between human, angel and spirit–aren’t quite the dreadful enemies we learned they were in Hyperion.  Indeed, The Fall of Hyperion is a novel that, although it describes the collapse of perhaps the greatest human empire of all time, is ultimately about the unquenchable beating heart of that same humanity.  No matter what we are subjected to, mankind endures.

Now, the book does delve a bit into some ideas that will probably prove a little frustrating to those fans of hard SF who don’t like their chosen religion of Pure Science tainted by mysticism.  (People who hated Interstellar, I’m looking at you.)  But for the rest of us, this all feels beyond true in the same sense that G.K. Chesterton ascribed to fairy tales.  This, to me, is what good sci-fi has always been about–not the comfort and safety of the perfectly believable but the very edge of believability, that rich realm of the imagination where the reader isn’t quite sure if its possible or not, and thus it becomes wondrous and transcendent.  Modern science fiction has largely gravitated away from this realm, much to its deficit in my estimation.  It is a genre that used to be daring and dazzling and even a little dangerous.  Now it has become oppressed by the weight of those twin yokes of political correctness and scientific accuracy.  Blech.  I consider Simmons to be one of a dying breed of sci-fi writers–the inheritors of the New Wave, who took the softness of New Wave sci-fi and brought it down to earth.  But enough about that for now–I have a whole essay planned about this very topic coming soon!

Anyway, Dan Simmons . . . this dude can write.  This and the horror novel Carrion Comfort (I can’t recall which of these I actually read first) was my introduction to Simmons; I have been a devoted fan ever since.  And I think once you have read the Hyperion Cantos you probably will be too.  If you love imaginative fiction and good storytelling, you simply can’t afford to miss this series.  From the thoroughly original take on AIs to the bizarre nature of the planet Hyperion to the obvious affection Simmons has for classic literature, references to which are spread lavishly throughout the books, this is science fiction at its utmost.  It is a thing of beauty, and you know what Keats said about that . . .

Grade: A+

I, Steampunk

I don’t generally like to just post photos of myself on the internet without some reason, and up till now I have avoided posting photos of me on this blog altogether, but I figured I would share this image because it’s fun.  I took an existing photo of someone dressed in steampunk fashion and pasted my own head (from a family photo taken twenty years ago) on it, which amuses my greatly.  I chose this particular steampunk figure because of the mechanical right hand, which is the hand that I am actually missing, so it fit.  I use the head shot from this image (with a different background color) for my io9 avatar and elsewhere on the interwebz.  I hope you enjoy it because I’m not likely to post any more photos of myself for awhile. :)

Indigo Xix as a steampunk dude
Indigo Xix as a steampunk dude