I love trivia games. Well, I love trivia games except for the sports questions and the celebrity questions, because I don’t follow sports and I don’t read People magazine. I don’t know any of the Bachelors and I can’t name you any of William’s children or anybody that Harry has ever dated, nor do I get weepy about Princess Di.

But there are many categories of trivia that I prided myself on, and chief among these was geography.

In fourth grade, I memorized the globe as we had it then. Large swathes of British-Empire pink across the fringes of Africa; French green across the Sahara; this was an old globe.

As I grew older, I learned the new names of the former colonies – I could tell you what Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana and Namibia used to be (Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Bechuanaland and Southwest Africa) and what Gold Coast, Dahomey and Upper Volta are called today (Ghana, Benin and Burkina Faso).

Then I got the Android and iOS World Geography Quiz Game from Atom Games Entertainment. The graphics were terrific, and in the early stages of the game I did very, very well. That’s because the early stages consisted of naming countries highlighted on a regional map, and their capitals.

But I was humbled when I realized that I really never had sorted out which Pacific island groups became which countries. What did Tuvalu or Vanuatu used to be? I knew where Pitcairn Island was and I knew that Pape’ete was the capital of Tahiti, but I couldn’t have pointed to the Fiji Islands or Tonga or Samoa even though I knew the general region where they ought to be.

I knew all the big islands in the Caribbean, but once you got into the string of little islands extending from Puerto Rico down to South America, the only nations I knew for sure were Trinidad and Tobago – and Barbados, because it’s a little isolated and farther out into the Atlantic than the others, and because it’s the place where the greatest pirate novel of all time, Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini, begins.

World Geography Quiz Game showed me the gaping holes in my knowledge (did you know there was a Caribbean island named Saba, which is a municipality of the Netherlands? Neither did I). But Atom Games is not content to quiz you ╨ it also teaches you.

In the early stages, you proceed through 25 questions. Each question gives you four to eight possible answers; you pick one of them. Often there’s only one genuine possibility because you already know that the others are the capital of someplace else.

However, sometimes you guess wrong. Then, when you’ve answered all 25 questions in the round, you are given a “training phase” in which you are shown each question you missed. You can’t go on in the game until you have answered them all correctly.

Correct answers in training don’t get you any points – but they make it far more likely that you’ll learn and remember that information the next time you run into that question.

So now I do know where Vanuatu and the Fiji Islands and Samoa and Tonga are, at least on the game’s maps.

But wait. If that’s all there was, it would soon become boring. The designers are determined to teach you far more geography than you imagined – indeed, at times, it was far more information than I wanted to know.

To me, flags have nothing to do with geography – but one of the earliest new levels you progress to brings you the flags of every nation and of every state in the US.

Then, as the game expands, and you get 50 questions at a time, and then 100, you also start getting quizzed (and taught) about islands that are not independent nations – and their flags. You get silhouette maps of the countries without any of their neighbors, and without any attention to scale.

Then you get regions within countries, including some of the regions of France and Spain and, most difficult of all, the various republics within the Russian Federation.

Sure, we know the name Chechnya, but could you find it on an outline map of all the Russian republics nestled in the Caucasus? Few of these places are even pronounceable to most Americans (though, mercifully, the game presents them in Roman transliterations rather than using the Cyrillic alphabet).

Are we done yet? Oh, no. The better you do, the harder it gets.

At this point, I regularly get about 88 to 92 right out of every 100. It’s so hard to remember which flags go with which countries, especially because flags in various regions seem to influence each other.

But when the game starts quizzing you on the populations of countries and then on the major religions and major languages of each country, it can get pretty complicated.

Still, if you’re a geography nut like me (and why would you play this game if you were not?), it’s cool to realize which countries have huge populations – way larger than most of the “important” European countries. Sure, we know that both India and China have over a billion people. But Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia are also way over a hundred million.

Mexico, with 127.5 million, has about four times the population of Canada. Brazil has 75 million more than Mexico. Others over 100 million might surprise you. Sure, we all know about Japan and Russia, but Nigeria and the Philippines are in that league, too.

And the list of those approaching that size – Ethiopia, Vietnam and Egypt – only gives way to one of the “great powers” at position 16, because Germany is just over 80 million.

More enlightening to me was the major religion category. For instance, I’ve now memorized the line between majority Muslim and non-Muslim nations. On the African west coast, everything from Sierra Leone on north is Muslim; in central Africa, Chad and Sudan are majority Muslim, while Liveria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic mark the northern boundary of the majority Christian nations.

There are islands of Christianity amid the Muslim world – not just Israel, but also Armenia and Georgia are holdouts who have resisted more than a thousand years of pressure. In east Asia, the Hindu religion is followed in India, Nepal and the island nation of Mauritius – but Buddhism leads the pack in Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Cambodia, Laos and Singapore.

The constitution of the Maldive Islands forbids non-Muslims from becoming citizens; the president must be a Sunni Muslim, and he’s essentially the boss of Muslim doctrine in the country.

There are a lot of nations that do not aspire to freedom of religion.

Right, I know, I can see your eyes glazing over.

I was frustrated that as I started changing over to the Kindle Fire, I couldn’t find a Kindle Fire version of this game. I wrote to the company and learned that they used to have a Kindle Fire version, but they had so few Fire users that it wasn’t worth the hassle of keeping it up-to-date with revisions of the Fire operating system.

So I keep using my Android tablet primarily to play World Geography Quiz Game.

Not that I have any hope of getting onto their vanity board. Apparently there are tens of thousands of users who are far better than I am. After all, I’m 66 years old and that new tricks, old dog stuff is coming into play.

Still, even though I don’t play particularly well, and my pride in my geography expertise is shattered, I’m still delighted with how much I’ve learned over the months of playing it.


I remember when the Matthew Broderick movie WarGames came out in 1983. We had just moved to Greensboro, and I was working as book editor at Compute! Magazine. Everybody worked a lot of nine- and 10-hour days, immersed in program code for the Atari and Commodore computers, and we all knew exactly what home computers at that time could and could not do.

And we all agreed that WarGames had to be the stupidest movie ever made. Sure, it was exciting at times, and Matthew Broderick was already cute as a bug – even before he got to be Ferris Bueller. But it was clear that the writers of the screenplay had no idea of how computers worked.

They had heard about people hacking into sensitive locations, but the internet was not yet accessible to people outside the Defense Department and the relevant departments in academia, so absolutely nothing they did with computers was possible.

For the next 34 years, things didn’t get any better. When it came to understanding computers, screenwriters seem to be somewhere between 5-year-olds with iPads and Druids carving runes onto sticks.

Everybody understands the basics of car usage; no screenwriter would show a person filling up a car’s gas tank from a garden hose. But most people who use computers have far less understanding of what’s going on behind those screens, and screenwriters are generally so lazy and ignorant (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) that they don’t even try to learn about computers before they write about them.

But that’s OK. Some science fiction writers have built whole careers on stories whose handling of computers was just as ignorant. Because we get lazy, too, sometimes.

All this is a preamble to the problem with writing screenplays set in the real world. Because screenwriters don’t even aspire to the authorial goal of knowing everything about everything, they blow it whenever they write outside of the experiences they’ve personally had.

That’s why the audition sequences in La La Land are so wonderful – the writer and the actors all knew about how auditions work, and they knew when the movie took an audition outside the ordinary bounds of the real world.

And, while few screenwriters know anything about the criminal underworld, they do know all the movies about organized crime and local gangs and drug cartels, and since the general public knows only what movies and television have shown them, we all recognize the familiar tropes of the genre and think that there’s some truth behind them.

Eventually, these movies become accurate because the real life thugs and mobsters also see these movies and, because the actors are so cool playing criminals, the real criminals try to act like them. The result: verisimilitude, through the process of life imitating art.

Three separate Hallmark movies I’ve watched this year – two from 2017, and one from 2015 – have featured characters who were publishers, editors and authors. And in all three cases, it was plain that the screenwriter had no comprehension of how the publishing business works. They got, not just a few things, but absolutely everything wrong.

Let’s take Just in Time for Christmas, in which the main character, Lindsay (Eloise Mumford), is offered a tenure-track position at Yale and a contract for the University press to publish her doctoral dissertation. Naturally, this happens only a half hour before her boyfriend, who owns a successful coffeehouse, proposes to her in a very charming way.

Faced with the choice of fulfilling her career ambitions (in Connecticut) and marrying the love of her life (in a place far from Connecticut), she hesitates too long; he thrusts the diamond ring into her hands, says to keep it, throw it away, he never wants to see it again.

Then she is given a magical trip to the future to see how things worked out. (William Shatner, with a goatee even worse than mine, is the magical carriage driver.) And here’s where things get so amazingly stupid.

Now, the whole job offer was stupid, first because the same person offers her the publishing contract and the assistant professorship – at Yale.

I used to work at a university press, and there is no person at any university that I know of who has the authority to offer both those things. Nor is there any university where someone who submitted their dissertation for publication would be offered professorial rank without even applying for it.

For that matter, dissertations are almost always so hacked to bits by the doctoral candidates’ committee members that none of them emerge in a readable, still less publishable, form. The research from a dissertation can sometimes make a valuable book – but never the actual language of the dissertation, or even the format, because dissertations are never finished until they are unreadable.

Those who are taking umbrage, go back and read your dissertation now, years afterward. Then imagine some reader going into Barnes & Noble, reading the introduction or even the abstract, and then buying and reading the book.

So here’s what happened when Lindsay popped into the future. Her dissertation-based book had just been released and had immediately popped onto the New York Times bestseller list.

It’s an inspirational book of pop psychology – precisely the kind of book that would absolutely shame an assistant professor bucking for tenure in a psychology department.

Your department judges your performance based on your peer-reviewed journal publications, not the popularity of your pop-psych money-maker. Money-making books work strongly against you in academia, unless it’s a fiction book that gets rave reviews in literary publications. Even then, if your books make too much money, you are viewed by your peers with dark suspicion.

Furthermore, bestsellers published by university presses are as rare as hen’s teeth. Sure, there was Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, but nobody really considers the Naval Institute to be a university press. There are more books listed at http://www.nytimes.com/1987/10/11/books/25-years-of-university-press-best-sellers.html, but it’s worth pointing out that most of these books racked up their big sales number after they were acquired by mainstream publishers.

But of all the laughably impossible or improbable publishing events in the movie, the most hilarious thing was reserved for a place near the end. Lindsay is informed, a few days before Christmas, that her publisher has just wired more than a million dollars in royalties into her account.

On planet Earth, this does not happen. First, all the books that have been sold during these first weeks have not yet been paid for. It takes time for bookstores to pay for the books they have sold.

Second, by contract no╩royalties are due until months after the end of the first full royalty period, which means that her miraculous sales in November and December are folded into the first full period – January through June. Those royalties will be sent to her agent in November, usually – a full year after the book went on sale.

Third, almost all publishers withhold a substantial “reserve against returns,” which usually amounts to half or three-fourths of the royalties collected during the first royalty period. They do this because no book sale is ever final. Customers can take a book home, read the bejeebers out of it, then return it (with the receipt) for full credit.

Then the bookstore sends this once-sold, now-returned book back to the publisher, and the publisher refunds to the bookstore the full amount the bookstore paid for it.

So that’s a book that seemed to be sold, but turns out not to have been, after all.

Now, a 50 or 75 percent reserve against returns seems excessive to sane people, and I don’t know of any writer who does not resent the payment delay. However, as a forthright and honest publisher once said to me, “They may not like us withholding the money now, but they’ll hate it if we pay them the money and then, when the books come back, we sue them to get that money back from them.”

Oh, yeah. Good point.

Anyway, of course Just in Time for Christmas allows her to return in time to a few minutes after she rejected her boyfriend’s proposal, and she can set everything right. She’ll have her career and her marriage because he’ll sell his coffeehouse and then open up a new one in New Haven, where they’ve been waiting for someone to bring them overpriced coffee in a great, good place.

Was Just in Time for Christmas an aberration? Not when it comes to getting the publishing business hopelessly wrong. For instance, this year’s new Hallmark movie The Mistletoe Inn, based on a book by Richard Paul Evans, is set at a writers workshop in a Christmas-happy resort.

The ever-cute Alicia Witt plays Kim Rossi, a writer who can’t bear to finish anything and never shows her work to anybody. She is goaded by her ex-boyfriend, in the very conversation where he transitions to ex- status, into daring to sign up for an attend the writers workshop – in large part because a fabulously successful and reclusive writer will be speaking there and there’s a contest that will lead to him reading and critiquing the winning writer’s work.

I’m willing to accept Richard Paul Evans’s authority on this. I never went to commercial workshops, least of all for romance writers, until long after I was published, and then I only attended the sessions where I was speaking. So I’m assuming he got the social relationships at these workshops right.

But there’s still a lot of fantasy about how much influence a big-name professional can have in helping a newcomer get published – especially in the Romance genre, which is notoriously editor-controlled. The editors guard their prerogatives jealously, and they take pride in discovering new talents and “bringing them along.”

If a big-name writer discovered this new talent, then that steals half of the editor’s credit, doesn’t it? How enthusiastic are they going to be then?

And let’s forget the movie’s main fantasy element – that the writer turns out to be a fabulously good-looking man who is socially smooth, kind and generous all the time. I’ve met or observed a lot of famous writers, and the ones with social skills are rare. Those skills rarely coincide with fabulous good looks.

(I’m disappointed that the actor who plays the ex-boyfriend, who does a brilliant job in the movie, isn’t credited at IMDbPro.)

However, there’s one thing that I know is absolutely wrong. After years in which nobody knew what this famous writer looks like, he comes out of hiding to deliver his speech at this conference, and his whole speech lasts a minute and a half, followed by one question from the audience, and then he leaves and is given a standing ovation.

If people spent a thousand bucks to come to this workshop at Christmastime, and the keynote speaker takes only one question and speaks less than two minutes, there is no standing ovation. There’s a lot of rage. Because at a writers workshop, there is as much ego, per capita, in the audience as there is on the stage. And even if you give them incredible gems of wisdom, if you offend or disappoint them in the slightest you will be yelled at on your way to the elevator.

Though maybe I simply never reached a level of fame where I would be immune to the yelling.

Oh, and … my apologies to Richard Paul Evans, who is a very nice guy, but almost all the writing advice at this workshop is pretty worthless. Most of it is therapy-group stuff: Oh, be brave, you can do it, dare to dream, dream to dare!

This is not unrealistic – in fact, this is exactly what happens in a shocking number of university-level creative writing programs, where practical criticism leads to the other students petitioning the professor to get you to shut up and let them go back to encouraging each other so that everybody can feel good about themselves without their writing ever getting one whit better.

Still, the romantic story in The Mistletoe Inn is delightful, the actors are charming, so don’t let me discourage you from watching it – especially if you’re a shy writer who needs more encouragement than criticism.

The third Hallmark movie that uses the publishing business badly is Magical Christmas Ornaments. The title feels so on-the-nose that you may give this a low priority in your viewing choices, but I urge you to reconsider. It’s actually one of the most romantic stories of the year.

The heroine, Marie (Jessica Lowndes) is anti-Christmas for some reason. Her mother starts mailing her daily boxes containing one or more of the family’s priceless Christmas ornaments, tied up with all kinds of family memories. (Of course at least a few of them are clearly identified as Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments, so you can aspire to buy your own.)

Each of these ornaments seems to coincide with something that happens to Marie during the movie, though she tries to resist regarding them as omens or instructions or blessings. Marie’s Christmas-crazy neighbor is Nate (Brendan Penny), who works as a nurse at a nearby hospital. Quite against her will, Marie gets swept away by his kindness and humor and extremely pleasant face.

The courtship is terrific – completely predictable and very satisfying, with lots of good writing. But Marie’s job as a leading editor at a publishing house is dumb.

It isn’t a big publishing house, because the editor in charge of nonfiction actually works on the books, of which there seem to be only one per season. She is bucking to get back to editing fiction (heaven knows why), but she only gets that coveted transfer on the condition that she work closely with an exciting new writer, Clark (Stephen Huszar), who also happens to be her ex-boyfriend, who broke up with her in a way that shattered her.

Huszar plays Clark so charmingly that we’re almost won over – and perhaps would be, if we weren’t rooting for her to choose Nate. Guess what she ends up doing. Nuff about that. It’s a good story, good movie, you love everybody.

Here’s the thing. No publishing company anywhere functions like this. For instance, the publisher decides whether or not they’re going to restart a line of children’s books based solely on his own opinions, without any communication with the marketing department.

One of their most successful authors comes in with a children’s book which has an awful title, clumsy-looking art, and yet apparently has the ability to hold a roomful of children spellbound. The publisher blows off this book unseen, despite his top editor’s assurance that it’s brilliant, because they already have this writer’s next book of adult fiction under contract.

This is their bestselling author. Only insane publishers don’t at least consider publishing that children’s book; and they certainly make a personal call to that writer to explain why they can’t bring it out right now, and to promise they’ll publish it later.

Why? Because if they toss out this bestselling author’s heartfelt children’s book, he’s going to sell it somewhere else, and then that publisher will get all his books from then on.

It’s cheaper to publish the book, even if you think it won’t sell or that your marketing people can’t do a good job with it, because you want to keep this guy loyal to you. Publishing is a game of loyalty. There’s always some bottom line in it, but if there’s a writer they really want to keep, the bottom line won’t stop them from publishing a small book to keep him happy.

Unless he’s really late with his next book, or it’s really lousy. Then they’ll throw him off the bridge and never look back. Sure, they try to cultivate loyalty, but they’re not insane.

The thing that made me howl with laughter was when our main character refers to how their company has hired a new writer.

What? What?

Legitimate publishers don’t hire writers. They contract with writers for the right to publish their work, but it’s usually more of a lease than a purchase. The last thing a publisher wants to do is hire a writer because (a) the writer owns what he writes and (b) if you really hire a writer you have to withhold taxes, provide health insurance, give him vacation days and sick pay, and carry him on your books as an employee when determining which federal rules you have to comply with.

Here’s the worst and dumbest thing of all. There is a moment when her ex-boyfriend-nightmare turns in a few pages of his “brilliant” writing, and Marie learns that he’s telling the story of – never mind. Here’s the thing: She holds the first page (which disobeys all the rules of manuscript presentation) in front of the camera for long enough that we viewers can pause the movie and read the page.

This guy is absolutely awful. Not only is the manuscript ridiculously careless with grammar, it’s just plain bad writing. Now, the screenwriter may think, because he (uncredited) can write screenplays, he’s “a writer.” But novel writing is not the same as screenwriting, which consists almost entirely of dialogue and action.

There’s also a flow to fiction that is absolutely different from screenplays, and whoever wrote that passage is apparently incapable of creating that flow.

So reading that page only made me think: This page wouldn’t make a publisher excited about publishing your work, it would make him urge you to take a few years of writing workshops and writing classes (even though very few of either actually improve the students’ writing).

I don’t mean to be nasty – well, not very nasty – but couldn’t they have found a good fiction writer and gotten her to write an opening to a novel?

Then again, I have to give them credit that, no matter how little they cared about the quality of the manuscript, at least when they put the page on the screen it contained the actual story that the characters proceeded to talk about. It wasn’t just a bunch of letters and words scattered across a page.

So they cared a little.

Again, however, all three movies, despite blowing their depiction of the publishing business, are romantic, entertaining and full of laughter and a few tears.

The human relationships are well drawn. And if you can get that right, viewers will usually overlook a bit of unreality here and there.

And I must praise Magical Christmas Ornaments for having a bit of literal “magic” in the story without giving us a winking Santa Claus character to “explain” how the magic is happening.


OK, I’m not done with World Geography Quiz Game. When they started testing me on flags, I almost stopped playing, because I actively don’t care about flags and I don’t consider flags to be part of geography.

However, I kept playing … and I started learning about flags. For instance, both the state of Ohio and the nation of Nepal have flags with two triangular shapes in them, so they’re pointy. It makes them easy to identify (but they must be hard to fold).

Switzerland’s flag – white cross on a red field – is square instead of rectangular.

But except for flags I’ve known all my life – the US and UK flags, for instance, and the French tricolor – most of them require work to learn. The flags of Scandinavian countries (and Finland) all feature crosses and look alike; Muslim flags often feature the star and crescent.

In the US, some flags are amazingly easy to read. Colorado’s is probably the clearest and best, with a big C in the middle. Arizona is also easy, once you learn that its flag has beams of red and yellow radiating upward from a central star.

North Carolina’s flag is easy because it’s the only one with a prominent N and C on it; South Carolina’s flag features a palmetto tree, which is easy if you know that its nickname is the Palmetto State.

But most US state flags are kind of awful. That’s because their main design feature is the state seal, placed in the middle of the flag.

State seals are awful in their own right because they generally look like a committee finally approved a design by including everything that anybody proposed. When you put all those tiny meaningless pictures inside a circle or oval in the middle of the flag, you can’t read or decipher anything.

Sure, it’s nice that Montana’s flag says “Oro y Plata” (“gold and silver”), the state motto – but if there’s no wind that day, chances are you won’t be able to read anything on the flag.

Writing on flags is mostly useless for exactly that reason – without a wind, most flags hang limp from the pole, and only the largest features are detectable.

Now, I did not know that the word for the study of flags was “vexillology.” Nor do I know this even now, because no matter how hard I try, I can never remember the word when I’m not actually reading it.

Still, there is such a thing as the North American Vexillological Association, consisting of flag experts in the US and Canada. (Every now and then, wouldn’t it be nice to remember that Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama are also in North America?)

A few years back they published a very short, heavily illustrated and clearly written pamphlet called “Good Flag, Bad Flag,” which I ordered only because I was having such a hard time telling many flags apart while playing World Geography.

Here’s the first principle of good flag design: “The flag should be so simple that a child could draw it from memory.”

Good flags include Bangladesh and Japan, both of which consist of a big red circle; Bangladesh’s flag is otherwise green, and Japan’s is white.

Alaska also gets good marks because its flag has the star Polaris represented in the upper right corner, and then the seven stars of the Big Dipper below and to the left. Instantly recognizable.

But West Virginia’s flag is astonishingly bad. Its state seal is ridiculously complex and hard to read, and it’s surrounded by flowers and illegible sayings on banners.

I was deeply saddened to see Utah’s flag, which is awful – even though everybody in Utah knows that there is a perfectly clear, simply symbol that absolutely says “Utah” to anyone who has any inkling of its history. If the Utah state flag consisted of a large beehive-shaped figure in the middle, and a single color surrounding it, it would join Colorado among the states with the clearest, simplest and most memorable flags.

Instead, it’s a mess.

Now, Turkmenistan has an instantly recognizable flag, but one that no child could draw from memory. The crescent moon and stars indicate that it is a Muslim nation – but then there’s what looks like a Persian rug down the left side, with a very intricate design. No other flag has that rug on it, so you know it’s Turkmenistan at a glance. But no, you aren’t going to be able to draw that rug.

You can identify California’s flag because it has an ambling bear on it, and Wyoming has a buffalo. But both flags are otherwise a mess. Why not have just the bear and just the buffalo? Because nothing that clear and simple could ever get past the committee.

The pamphlet approves of flags that consist of either horizontal or vertical bars of simple colors, and nothing else. I don’t, and here’s why.

Sure, the French flag is the blue, white, red vertical bars of the tricolor. But do you know how many other flags of nearby countries have those same three colors? Or two of the colors and one that’s different?

Then there are the flags that are essentially duplicates of each other. Indonesia and Monaco have the same design – a horizontal band of red above a band of white. They differ only because the Indonesian flag is wider. But Monaco doesn’t field many Olympic teams so it doesn’t matter.

But let’s add to the confusion: Poland’s flag is the same, except that the white is on top. And Singapore is red on top and only differs by having a relatively small crescent moon and stars in the upper left corner.

It is weird that the flag of Singapore has Muslim symbols on it, because the population of Singapore is 42 percent Buddhist, while Muslims are less than 15 percent – pretty much even with the Christian population. But because Singapore is surrounded by Muslim countries (Indonesia and Malaysia), there may be historical reasons for the Muslim-signaling flag design.

Another principle of flag design is “Never use writing of any kind or an organization’s seal.” In other words, a flag is not a place to deliver a message or show off somebody’s art project. Most US state flags were designed by people who clearly never heard of this design rule.

I love Brazil, but do they really need to have the Portuguese words for “Order and Progress” written on their flag? The otherwise clean design is totally junked up by having those words.

The pamphlet is dead wrong when it praises the flag of Ghana – horizontal bands of red, yellow and green with a black star in the middle of the yellow band. “Using the same colors used by many countries in Africa,” the pamphlet says, “this flag shows a strong connection to its neighbors’ flags.”

Yeah, and I curse that “strong connection” because it’s almost impossible for me to keep straight the small variations among a bunch of countries in the same general region of Africa. I’m so grateful that Nigeria stands alone in that region with three vertical bands of green, white and green. You could easily identify that flag hanging limp on a pole.

And even though there are many, many ugly flags in the world, I must give the Eyesore Prize for Flag Ugliness to the state of Maryland. The flag is quartered with designs from the family crests of the two founders of the Maryland colony, but these designs clash so badly that if someone were wearing socks like that you’d assume they must have dressed in the dark.

Google it and see – you’ll gasp with astonishment. You can only conclude that the flag has made Marylanders so blind to taste and balance that they don’t even realize how appalling the design is.


A couple of quick mini-reviews of other Hallmark movies. The Christmas Train is based on a David Baldacci Christmas book, and it aspires to some Agatha Christie-like cleverness. But what makes it a pretty good movie is entirely the interplay of some wonderful actors, most notably Dermot Mulroney and Kimberly Williams-Paisley, while Danny Glover and Joan Cusack are given delightful parts to play.

The main plot is simple: Mulroney and Williams-Paisley fell in love as war correspondents, but Williams-Paisley left and Mulroney didn’t follow. They meet by chance on the train, but neither of them can get away from this awkward encounter.

Another pretty good movie is Debbie Macomber’s Dashing Through the Snow. I deplore including the name of the book’s author in the title of the movie – there really was talk of using Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which I vetoed on the grounds that nobody who loves Ender’s Game cares about “Orson Scott Card,” whoever he is. It just wrecks the title to insert the author’s name in the front.

The main story is of Ashley (Meghan Ory) and Dash (Andrew W. Walker), both of whom are trying to get from southern California to Seattle in time for Christmas. A snowstorm has delayed or cancelled flights, and they fight over the very last rental car at the airport. They end up sharing the ride – but not until Ashley makes Dash call his mother to vouch for him.

Their road trip together is well written – not only can we believe them falling for each other, but we also fall for both of them. Talented, likeable actors playing well-written characters – of course you’ll enjoy this movie.

However, there is an amazingly stupid subplot dealing with the FBI – yes, really – and the dumbest agents ever. Dumb as they are, they all know who an even dumber agent is, and they use him to tail Ashley and Dash, for reasons so willfully stupid that it makes you think these must be the same agents who investigated the Russia connection in the 2016 election.

It’s really two movies combined. There’s the romance movie, and there’s the Keystone Kops movie. If you don’t try to reconcile their widely variant levels of believability, you can enjoy Debbie Macomber’s Dashing Through the Snow.


There’s still time to get books of mine autographed at our local Barnes & Noble, for Christmas gift giving. Check out the instructions at hatrack.com, listing which books are offered for this purpose, and how to order them if you can’t get to the store yourself.

Just one request: Please don’t ask me to write a long, specific message in each book. Even if it’s a quotation from my own book, when I’m facing a stack of fifty books and somebody expects me to write fifty-word messages in each of them, it’s pretty daunting to a weary old man. Please just tell me the names of the people you want them signed to, along with any other pertinent information about each person, and trust me to write something appropriate – and brief – to go with them.

Then you’re free to add your own message, of any length, on the flyleaf! That will ultimately be more valuable to the book’s recipient than anything I might write.