As I warned in the preamble to my season-opening haiku, I haven’t watched much football this year. In fact, I wasn’t even going to do this post. But then I remembered how I met (well, virtually met) my friend Barb Knowles three years ago thanks to my title game predictions post. And through Barb, I met Carrie Rubin and a host of other wonderful people. So you never know what’s going to come from these things. And besides, I’m a big believer in maintaining traditions.

But if I haven’t watched football, you ask, how can I predict the games? Well, I have a colleague who keeps me informed about the season—every week we discuss our hatred of what the NFL has become, and he briefs me in detail on all the horrible, stupid things the players, coaches and organizations have done. It’s actually really helpful—saves me the time of watching. That, combined with checking a few stats, leaves me fully qualified to talk about this. Or at least, no less qualified than when I did watch football religiously.

NFC 

The NFC game is easy. I picked the Rams to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in my preseason picks. I’m not changing it now; even though New Orleans has homefield advantage and beat the Rams earlier in the season.

…And have the better quarterback. And are generally a more balanced team.

Ugh, it’s a big hill for the lads from Los Angeles to climb isn’t it? Nevertheless, I am steadfast! The Rams wore their beautiful throwback blue and yellow uniforms against Dallas. They should bring out the road version of that for the title game—it’s a gorgeous uniform, and the one they wore in their lone Super Bowl victory as well. It’s time once again to “Ram It, LA!”:

I know. Words fail.

Anyway, I’m actually not feeling great about LA’s chances. But they are healthier on defense than when the Saints trounced them earlier this year. I predict they manage to get it done.

RAMS: 34

SAINTS: 30

AFC

Like death and taxes, the Patriots are. They were supposed to finally fall apart this season, and indeed they haven’t been as good as usual. But here they are, yet again. Honestly, I think the fact that they annihilated the Chargers tells you more about how hard it is to come from California to Massachusetts in January than about the quality of the Patriots. It was a chilly day in Foxboro, so much so that Tom Brady broke out the Napoleonic greatcoat he first wore as a rookie during the 1812 invasion of Russia:

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It’s even better with the hat:

image

But enough fun! The Patriots hate fun. And no one embodies fun like the loose, energetic, youthful up-and-coming Patrick Mahomes and his high-flying, quick-scoring, no-look-passing, what-is-defense-anyway Kansas City Chiefs.

The Chiefs are the sort of team the NFL loves—a pro version of a Big 12 team. A team that scores a ton of points, and gives up almost as many. I’m sure the league office is lighting candles and praying they get a rematch of that absurd Rams/Chiefs Monday night game for the Super Bowl. The old defensive coaches of yore are spinning in their graves.

The problem is, these kinds of all-offense, no-defense teams have historically fallen apart in the playoffs. Look at the Bills in 1990. The Rams in 2001. The Patriots in 2011. The Broncos in 2013. The Chiefs are the sort of team that sets records in the regular season, and collapses in the playoffs. And Belichick built his reputation beating these kinds of teams—he was responsible for the defenses that shut down the ’90 Bills and the ’01 Rams. (And the ’11 Patriots, come to think on it…)

 Then you have Chiefs coach Andy Reid. There are two threads running through his career—one of them is going to be the storyline come Sunday night. 

The first thread is a story of failure. As coach of the Eagles, Reid lost the NFC title game to the Rams in 2001, to the Buccaneers in 2002, to the Panthers in 2003, and then finally got over that hump only to lose to Belichick’s Patriots in 2004. For good measure, he lost a final NFC championship to the Cardinals in 2008. A few more early-round losses and he was run out of Philadelphia, taking his knack for regular season success and post-season disaster to Kansas City, where he has added a real dramatic flair to the heartbreak, blowing huge leads to the Colts in 2013 and the Titans—the Titans, for God’s sake!—in 2017. And in 2015, he even did a sort of reenactment of his Super Bowl defeat, by mismanaging the clock in a loss to the Patriots.

Ah, the Patriots. That’s where the second thread of Reid’s career comes in. With Philadelphia, he generally struggled against them. (Join the club!) But with Kansas City, he has had the distinction of administering two of the most lopsided beatings the Patriots have suffered during Belichick and Brady’s time. First in 2014, a 41-14 drubbing that made some people wonder if The Terror was over, and then in 2017, a shocking 42-27 bloodbath that saw the Patriots give up 537 yards of offense. And imagine how bad it would have been if Belichick weren’t a defensive genius!

And let’s not forget that Doug Pederson, whose Eagles defeated the Patriots in last year’s Super Bowl while racking up 538 yards of offense, is a disciple of Reid who uses many of the same offensive concepts. In summary, it’s fair to say New England struggles against this offense.

It’s an interesting matchup: the Chiefs flying circus offense is exactly the kind that fails in the playoffs. On the other hand, the Patriots bend-and-then-break-and-then-hope-like-hell-Tom-Brady-bails-us-out defense also tends not to perform well in these games. It’s the very stoppable force vs. the eminently movable object.

As for that relying-on-Brady strategy? It’s not working like it used to in the past. And I think Belichick knows it—he’s calling more on the running game, because he knows old number 12 can’t make all the throws he used to. People keep waiting for Brady to decline, but I think he’s already started to—it’s just that the Patriots are great at hiding it. (And Brady, to his credit, is still a crafty veteran who knows lots of mind games to play with a defense to compensate for his declining arm strength.)

Yes, I know the Patriots managed to beat the Chiefs earlier this year—but it was in Foxboro, and the score was 43-40. Doesn’t sound to me like they really shut down the Chiefs offense like they did another team from Missouri, back in the old days. 

The Patriots struggle on the road, and this game is being played in notoriously loud Arrowhead stadium. I predict Reid and Mahomes will field enough offense to win in frigid conditions, and that Napoletom Bradyparte will, if not meet his Waterloo, at least get exiled to a remote island until next season.

CHIEFS: 23

PATRIOTS: 19 

 

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I got the idea for this story not too long ago, and once I had the outline down, I raced to get it all finished as fast as I could. This tale, which I’m calling a “long short story” (hat tip to Mark Paxson for that idea) is the result.

As I think most readers know, I love conspiracy stories with weird and mysterious elements–Deus Ex, The X-Files, The Mothman Prophecies etc. fascinate me. I’ve tried writing something in this vein before, but that novella left some readers (understandably) unsatisfied. I think I was much more successful with this story–it’s way shorter than Majestic World, but I think it packs just as much conspiracy weirdness into a much tighter package. But that’s ultimately your call to make.

Some other notes:

  • It’s approximately 15,734 words. I say “approximately” because I made a few edits after converting it from a Word document, and I don’t know how to see word count in the Kindle file format.
  • There is some bad language and violence, but nothing too horrible. I think it would probably be rated PG-13 if it were a movie, but these days, who knows?
  • This is easily the fastest turnaround time I’ve ever had between thinking up an idea for a story and actually completing it. Whether that is good or bad is, again, up to you to determine.

That’s all the relevant info I can think of. It’s available on Kindle for 99 cents, and free on Kindle Unlimited.

 

Number Seven and the Life Left Behind by [Hirtzel, Mayumi]I love spy thrillers, especially the old Cold War ones, like the show Secret Agent with Patrick McGoohan. Those stories were a little different than modern high-tech thrillers, with lots of gadgets and gizmos–they relied on good old-fashioned intrigue, cleverness, and rising tension.

Number Seven is a book in that vein. The titular character is an ex-soldier now working as a government-assigned bodyguard for a star athlete. Number Seven and his charge find themselves caught up in political machinations that involve not only themselves, but also an old friend of Seven’s who brings a good deal of sex and romance to the story, in the fine spy thriller tradition.

The book has more romance than I was expecting, but that was also true of a lot of older spy/espionage stories–they tended to tell stories about people caught up in events, rather than merely using people as catalysts for exciting events. I appreciated that.

This is a short book, which in my opinion is not at all a problem, especially in a thriller. Better a short, tight novella with a good pace than a padded-out novel that drags when it doesn’t need to. It’s a good length for the story it has to tell, and never wears out its welcome. I enjoyed it.

Lucy is about a woman named, in fact, Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) who gets tricked into carrying an experimental new drug for a gang in Taipei. When the drug is accidentally released into her body, it gives her superhuman powers as it unlocks more of her brain, gradually turning her into a seemingly omniscient being. And that’s pretty much it. Thanks for reading!

 

What? I need more words or it throws off the formatting of the poster? OK, gimme a minute…

The trouble with this movie is that it feels like there’s not much to it beyond the concept I outlined above. Which is a good concept, but also kind of thin. I like to imagine they filmed it and then realized they only had a forty-five minute movie.

As a result, there’s a lot of filler: clips from nature documentaries loosely analogous to what’s happening in the plot, a lecture by a professor (Morgan Freeman) who studies the human brain, lots of B-roll of Scarlett Johansson walking places in tight clothes, and an interminable car chase through the streets of Paris.

Car chases in general bore me. This one was especially bad:

Movie: Look, she’s driving the wrong way!

Me: Yeah, I see that.

Movie: No, see when you drive the wrong way, other cars come towards you! Look!

Me: Uh huh. Can they please get to the destination so the plot can advance?

Movie: …but see, also the police pursuing her are getting into these crazy wrecks because they too are forced to drive the wrong way!

I don’t mean to be too harsh. There are some good things in this movie–the opening twenty minutes are filled with tension when the gang kidnaps Lucy, as well as some delightful banter in the first scene between her and her boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbæk), who initially tricks her into delivering the drugs. Johansson and Asbæk are really good together.

The acting in general is fine; nobody is asked to do anything spectacular, but all the actors are competent. And the story, despite being based on a completely inaccurate idea that humans only use 10% of their brains, is well-told and clever.

It’s just way too padded out. At one point, about halfway through, Lucy has the main villain completely at her mercy and doesn’t kill him. This is after the guy has killed her boyfriend, kidnapped her, killed another prisoner in front of her, and sewn drugs into her stomach so she can act as an unwilling mule for him. And she’s already killed a bunch of his henchmen by this point, so she’s no pacifist. The only reason for her to spare him is because otherwise there would be no plot.

This story would’ve been much better as a one-off episode in a show like The Twilight Zone or something. It’s a nice concept, but not one that can sustain 90 minutes of screen time without any other elements thrown in.

I watched this movie because someone said it was like Ghost in the Shell. And there are some similarities: in both movies, Scarlett Johansson is turned against her will into a nearly-unstoppable super-human crimefighter. Also, the best scenes in both movies are the ones with Johansson and Asbæk together.

So yeah, it’s a fair comparison. But Ghost in the Shell has more interesting characters and a meatier plot with more twists and turns. Lucy is more like a first draft of a promising script that no one bothered to revise.

Utopia Pending: A Collection of Short Speculative Fiction by [Rose, Fallacious, Burnett, Misha, Foley, Chris, Andrews, Alanah, Fitzgerald, MP, Bausse, Curtis, Young, Carolyn, Paxson, Mark, Thomson, Peter]I found out about this book from following Mark Paxson, one of the authors featured in this collection. It’s a collection of 12 short stories, each of which deal with utopian visions of the future, as a counter to all the dystopian fiction that has become so fashionable.

I was delighted to see this—I’ve long wondered about the disparity between utopia and dystopia in fiction. Each of the stories is by a different author, so I’m doing mini-reviews of each.

  • The Call by Alanah Andrews. I can’t discuss the plot of this much without spoiling it, but I loved how it was done, and quite plausible as well.
  • Raoul Wiener’s Common Sense by Curtis Bausse. This story was the one that worked the least for me, but I don’t wish to suggest that it was bad, because it wasn’t at all. In fact, one of my favorite lines in the book came in this story—it’s an ironic reference to the book 1984. It was more just a matter of too many framing devices stacked atop each other made it a little confusing for me. 
  • Endless Summer by Misha Burnett. This felt kind of Brave New World-ish to me. Although for me, just the phrase “Endless Summer” sounds more dystopian than utopian. (I hate heat.)
  • Sydney by Mia Dziendziel. This is a bit of a riff on the theme of “Ignorance is Bliss”. Which I guess is also the story of the Garden of Eden and Pandora’s Box, come to think of it… maybe those were the first Utopian stories. Also, this one’s pretty dark.
  • Chaos, by Fallacious Rose.  A very Swiftian take on the ironic side-effects of a miraculous technology.
  • The Museum by M.P. Fitzgerald. This one is the most humorous story in the collection, and also probably most closely aligned with my personal guess as to what the future will be like. And the ironic ending—I’d almost call it “the punchline”–is unforgettable. 
  • None So Blind, by Chris Foley. I loved this story. It reminded me of the old sci-fi adventure books I used to read as a kid. And all with a creatively constructed  and carefully thought-out setting, well-written characters, and some very relevant social commentary to boot. Again, everything in this collection is worth reading, but this story by itself would be worth the price of admission.
  • What Price Peace, by Carolyn Young. This was a good, Twilight Zone-like take on human nature when civilization is removed.
  • Maranatha by Michael Modini. I didn’t really “get” this story. But that’s on me, not the author, because it’s full of theological references that are, quite frankly, beyond me. It’s well-written, and obviously very well-researched, and I suspect that heads more knowledgeable than mine will appreciate it. 
  • Antarctica’s Pyramid by Morrill Talmage Moorehead. This story awed me. It’s the sort of weird conspiracy story I treasure, and the author weaves together  elements of various theories in a way I’ve only ever seen once before, in the game Deus Ex. And the outlandishness is balanced by a likable narrator with a grounded voice. Great stuff.
  • Two Turtles, by Mark Paxson. As I said, I’ve followed Mark for a while now, and he was the reason I heard this collection existed. This is a hard thing to judge, but I thought Mark’s story was the most unusual in the collection, and yet somehow also the most grounded in reality. It’s hard to describe, but I liked it a lot. The story feels mesmerizing and dream-like—a bit like Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes. Maybe it’s because both feature the sea and an environmentalist message. 
  • Mother Nature by Peter Thomson. This story also has an environmentalist theme to it; told with a light touch and some very amusing lines.

This collection is a real treat. The stories all vary in tone and style so much that each feels fresh and enjoyable. Every reader is bound to have their own opinions on what really constitutes “Utopia”, but this collection will at the very least set them thinking.

A final note: another author and blogger whom I follow, Lydia Schoch, put out a call for hopeful science fiction last year. I’m not sure that all the stories in this collection would fit her criteria, but I think at least some would, and at the very least, I wanted to reference this, because it’s interesting that so many people’s thoughts are turning towards utopianism right now.

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediYes, it finally happened. I watched it.

As some readers may recall, I was, shall we say, not impressed with the first film in the Disney Star Wars series, The Force Awakens. It was so bad that I had no interest in seeing any of their subsequent efforts.

But then I started to hear things about The Last Jedi. It’s controversial and polarizing. The alt-right is griping that it’s full of preachy progressive politics. There are hundreds of YouTube videos made by angry fans complaining about multiple aspects of the film. At the same time, I also heard elements of the film’s plot compared to the game Knights of the Old Republic II, which I consider the greatest Star Wars story ever, and one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever experienced.

This sounds like fodder for an interesting review, I thought. Could be a lot to talk about here. I enjoy writing reviews, and I am no stranger to unorthodox opinions on Star Wars movies, whether it’s my hatred for Force Awakens or my defense of the prequel movies. I wondered how I would react to this most divisive Star Wars film.

Well, there certainly was no lack of things to talk about. This is going to be one of my signature long, sometimes meandering reviews, so settle in for the long haul and prepare to read my thoughts on The Last Jedi.

(more…)

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all thro’ the wood,

Not a creature was stirring, and that was not good;

For Berthold had hung up his cam’ra with care,

In hopes the “Low Dark Ones” soon would be there.

He’d checked all the settings, he’d put out the feed,

And eagerly waited, with good books to read.

But Berthold had just about given up on the game

Shaking his head, sad to see nothing came–

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,

That he ran in the field to see what’s the matter.

Tripping over his pumpkins and Halloween junk

Running past the old graveyard and dodging a skunk–

When, what to his screen-glazèd eyes should appear,

But that all of his internet friends were now here!

With a look of surprise, did the blogger exclaim,

And he chuckled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:

“It’s Noah, and Patrick, and Audrey and James! Paxson,

And Eileen,  and Phillip, and–”,  he said, gaspin’.

“We all know our names,” chorused his followers all.

”Then why,” said BG, “Have you come this evening to call?

 For there’s naught going on, as my camera shows,

 It only records ‘coz sometimes the wind blows.”

 ”Oh, you mean like your books?” Waberthold chimed in.

 And Berthold shot him a look, erasing his grin.

“As I was saying, there is nothing to see,

 The forest here’s quiet as quiet can be.

Not that it matters, since I can’t record sound,

 (If only a cam’ra like Katie Dawn’s could be found!)

 But anyway, not a creature is stirring, not even a—”

 At which point, his friends all together said “shhh!”

“You already said that,” they all pointed out.

“And we’ve come to tell you what the season’s about.”

“Eh?” said Berthold, looking dazed and confused.

 (Could it be they had realized he was less than enthused?)

“Oh, Berthold,” said Carrie. “You silly vampirical soul,

You’re lucky your stocking’s not filled up with coal.”

 “The point of the season is family and friends,

Not churning out ‘content’, as if it ne’er ends.”

Berthold began nodding. “Yes, yes; now I see what you mean!”

“Thanks all, for coming, and happy Hallo–”

“Argh!” said Mark, with a scream. 

 “Just kidding, of course, Happy Holidays one and all!” 

They said cheery farewells, till the next time they’d call.

And Berthold went home full of holiday cheer,

And only later did see on his camera appear

 Just barely in sight through the winter night’s fog

The shape of a—something. A coyote? A reindeer? A dog?

At any rate, whether man or a woman or a gigantic hound–

Even though, as I’ve said, the camera does not record sound–

I am sure it exclaimed, ere it vanished from sight—

“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

I tweeted this video yesterday. It’s been a holiday favorite of mine for years, and since my followers enjoyed it, I’m posting a few more songs that I listen to this time of year.

First up:

This is just surreal:

This one will only make sense if you’ve read The Shadow over Innsmouth. You can skip it otherwise.

And finally, the Christmas song I love so much I mentioned it in my novella:

Doing this reminded me: the great Andrew Sullivan, back when he ran the Daily Dish, would take breaks from writing about serious topics like politics and war to post “Mental Health Breaks”—usually funny videos or beautiful pictures. I can see now why he did it.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

I can’t help myself; I have to write about this. I know there’s probably no point, but I am going to do it anyway just in case. Immediately after this, I’m going to post some Christmas videos to make up for it.

On Wednesday, President Trump announced that the U.S. will withdraw troops from Syria. Immediately, hawks in both parties attacked the decision, arguing that it will allow ISIS to regain strength. Many of Trump’s usual allies argued for keeping the troops there longer, and urged him to reverse the decision so ISIS can be defeated.

Here’s my problem with this: the reason ISIS is a household name is because of U.S. military intervention in Iraq. When we installed the new Iraqi government in ’03-‘04, we threw all of Saddam Hussein’s underlings out of power. This was called “de-Ba’athification”, because they were all in Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party, but it might as well have been called “de-Sunnification” because they were all Sunnis.

As a result, we had a bunch of Sunnis who were exiled, armed, and extremely mad at us and at the heavily Shia government we installed.

Hey, Foreign Policy wonks! Can you guess what happened?

The huge atrocities ISIS committed back in 2014-15 need to be seen as an angry, violent subset of Sunnis getting revenge for being thrown out of power in 2003-04. ISIS sort of existed before we invaded Iraq, but it was infused with a bunch of former soldiers, commanders and politicians after Saddam’s government fell. And most of all, they were given a “stab-in-the-back myth” to justify their revanchism, because they could claim the West was deliberately taking power away from the Sunnis.

So now the military-industrial complex  foreign policy experts say that we need to keep intervening militarily in a foreign nation to prevent atrocities being committed by a group that exists because we intervened militarily in a foreign nation to prevent atrocities.

Look: I’m all about preventing atrocities. I really am. If the most powerful military in the world can’t be used to protect innocent people from evil ones, then what’s it good for? It’s just that I want to hear one of the people currently urging a continued military action explain why this won’t end in a massive disaster like the last one did.

And no, Senator Rubio, I don’t want to hear that “the military advised President Trump not to withdraw.” Of course they did! They’re the military! When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when all you have is the most powerful fighting force in history, everything looks like it needs to be occupied by it.

I don’t blame the military commanders for opposing withdrawal. But unless they can give a definitive timeline—“e.g. we will achieve victory in Syria in one year or you can fire all us generals”—they can’t be given the final say on this.

A lot of people will say Trump only did this because his policies mysteriously seem to align with Vladimir Putin’s on every issue. But you know what? “Trump-is-a-puppet” is not in itself a valid criticism. If he does the right thing for the wrong reasons, it’s still the right thing. So if you want to keep the troops in Syria, don’t tell me that a withdrawal benefits Putin. This isn’t a zero-sum game where every action that helps Russia is an automatic loss for the USA.

The folks in the upper-echelons of government still don’t seem to get that the reason so many people voted for Trump was that they were furious at the mistakes the government had made over the years—the mismanagement of the Iraq invasion being one of the biggest examples. If they want to win back their credibility as experts—and with it, the awesome and terrible power of commanding the United States military—they need to prove that they have learned from their mistakes. 

One last note: I’ve seen a number of people complain that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria makes Israel less safe. In my opinion, this is a pretty glass half-empty way to look at it. Yes, it’s true that now Israel will have lost a big ally fighting Iran in the region. But I’m not sure that U.S. participation automatically makes things safer for them. Again, look at what happened with Iraq. Is Israel really safer now that there is a massive terrorist group inadvertently created by the U.S. intervention in Iraq running loose?

The U.S. government is a bloated bureaucracy, led by an ever-rotating cast of characters who change every two to four years, and constantly want to drastically shift policy direction, which is a bit like trying to race an 18-wheeler on a Formula One  track. Most of the people involved are well-intentioned, but the result tends to be that U.S. government intervention causes chaos rather than stability. 

If we’re going to stay and fix the mess in Syria, we have to do it the right way: figure out who the enemy is, have Congress formally declare war on them, institute a draft, and use the full power of the military to defeat them. That was how the United States won its greatest victories, achieved superpower status, and made itself synonymous with Liberty across the globe. Unless we’re willing to do as much again, we will cause more problems than we solve.

I’m working on some projects that have taken time away from blogging, but I want to make sure to draw attention to items of note. (Those who follow me on Twitter probably already saw these.)

  • I don’t normally go for memes, but I loved this one:

     

  •  Finally, Katie Dawn posted a picture that really put me in the holiday spirit–I can almost taste the cookies.