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Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscars for 2014 Films

oscars academy awards The Academy Award ceremonies are tonight and my wife and I have been using some of our leisure time these past few weeks to view nominated films and acting performances. Regular readers may recall that I saw only two of the films nominated for best picture during the 2014 calendar year. Until 2015, I didn't see many of the nominated acting performances either.

In any case, based on my post-nomination efforts to see most of the contenders, I'm going to rank-order the films and acting performances. Obviously, this is my completely subjective perspective -- and not an ideal way to think about art. Plus, I can only rank the performances I watched. That is a big limit since I failed to see one of the Oscar-nominated Best Picture nominees and I've yet to see many of the acting performances.

Keep in mind that these are not my predictions about winners in each category. Go to the Hollywood Stock Exchange if you want predictions based upon betting markets. Spoiler Alert: Birdman is the favorite for Best Picture, though supporting actor J.K. Simmons seems to be the biggest favorite in any of the major categories.

Note: Last year, if I recall correctly, Netflix had 4 of the 5 top documentaries available to stream prior to the Oscars. However, this year, their own film Virunga is nominated and that is the only one available on the service.

Note 2: Films and performances shaded in yellow below will indicate additions/edits after the Oscars (and the original blog posting).

Best picture

Boyhood
Selma **
Birdman **
The Imitation Game **
Whiplash
The Theory of Everything
The Grand Budapest Hotel **
American Sniper


Comment: Selma is a very powerful film, but so is Boyhood in a completely different way. Some of the writing could have been a bit sharper in Selma, but the acting was first-rate. I liked Birdman, but did not find it to be as compelling as those two other films. Ida, nominated as a foreign film, is a better movie than most of the films on this list.

Frankly, I do not see the appeal of American Sniper. Bradley Cooper did a fine job as Chris Kyle, but the film failed to reveal the FUBAR nature of the Iraq war from 2003 to 2009. Kyle's four tours during this period are noted, but without the dates or other context. There are only vague hints of the changing US tactics and public justifications for the war. Anyone learning about the war from this film might think the entire conflict was about confronting the evil of AQI, even though AQI did not exist before the US invasion. As in The Hurt Locker, the main character is quite competent at his specific job. However, that film did a fine job revealing the problematic nature of the Iraq war through the character study. American Sniper really didn't. The best Clint Eastwood war film remains Letters from Iwo Jima.

Best director

Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Alejandro G Inarritu (Birdman)
Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Morten Tyldum  (The Imitation Game)

Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)

Best actor in a Leading Role

Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)

Comment: Where is David Oyelowo? He would be my winner.

Best actress in a Leading Role

Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl) **
Reese Witherspoon (Wild) **
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)

Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Edward Norton (Birdman)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)

Robert Duvall (The Judge)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Laura Dern (Wild)
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Emma Stone (Birdman)

Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Best Documentary Feature

Virunga (Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara)

CitizenFour (Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky)
Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel)
Last Days in Vietnam (Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester)
The Salt of the Earth (Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier)

Comment: Finding Vivian Maier is on my DVR and CitizenFour premieres Monday February 23 on HBO. I'll know more about this category very soon.

Best Foreign Language Film

Ida

Leviathan
Tangerines
Timbuktu
Wild Tales

Comment: Ida is the overwhelming favorite and a very potent film, but I also look forward to seeing Wild Tales based on the buzz.


** I saw these films in the theater.

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Friday, February 20, 2015

The French Minister (Quai d’Orsay)



The University of Louisville is currently in the midst of its annual French Film Festival. Unfortunately, two screenings of the film I've been most wanting to see, The French Minister (Quai d’Orsay), were canceled last night because of bad weather. The entire University was closed for extreme cold. Yesterday's 5 pm screening was supposed to be followed by a discussion with French professor Matthieu Dalle, and I'm hoping that will occur today at the 2 pm screening.

Here's the film's synopsis from IMDB:
Alexandre Taillard de Vorms is tall and impressive, a man with style, attractive to women. He also happens to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs for the land of enlightenment: France. With his silver mane and tanned, athletic body, he stalks the world stage, from the floor of the United Nations in New York to the powder keg of Oubanga. There, he calls on the powerful and invokes the mighty to bring peace, to calm the trigger-happy, and to cement his aura of Nobel Peace Prize winner-in-waiting. Alexandre Taillard de Vorms is a force to be reckoned with, waging his own war backed up by the holy trinity of diplomatic concepts: legitimacy, lucidity and efficacy. He takes on American neo-cons, corrupt Russians and money-grabbing Chinese. Perhaps the world doesn't deserve France's magnanimousness, but his art would be wasted if just restricted to home turf. Enter the young Arthur Vlaminck, graduate of the elite National School of Administration, who is hired as head of "language" at the foreign ministry. In other words, he is to write the minister's speeches. But he also has to learn to deal with the sensibilities of the boss and his entourage, and find his way between the private secretary and the special advisers who stalk the corridors of the Quai d'Orsay - the ministry's home - where stress, ambition and dirty dealing are the daily currency. But just as he thinks he can influence the fate of the world, everything seems threatened by the inertia of the technocrats.
Update February 22: The film reminded me in structure of Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Basically, the film devoted about half of the narrative to the farcical politics of the French Foreign Ministry and half to the speechwriter’s domestic situation (where important political issues were also revealed in a personal manner). Both films generally ended happily for the ordinary people featured in the stories. No actor in the film played two roles, but the speechwriter literally provided the words for the Foreign Minister's closing address (and in previous speeches).

The parallel to Chaplin's classic film are not perfect. The Foreign Minister character was played for laughs throughout the film, but he was not a power-mad dictator. He was imagined as a slightly foolish political bureaucrat with intellectual interests. Indeed, the Minister's basic three talking points from the first meeting with the speechwriter were reflected in the final speech. I think the filmmaker could be suggesting that these key principles were so obvious and basic that even a fool could identify them right away -- the need for responsibility, unity, and efficacy. Somehow, the neocons and Bush managed to miss these elemental truths as they planned the Iraq war.


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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Fear and Technology

In my graduate course, we've been talking a good deal about the role fear plays in international politics. Though war is on the decline and the risks of dying of terrorism are tiny for most North Americans, public policymakers continually invoke fears about other states or terrorist groups to promote preferred policies and to justify unnecessarily high levels of defense spending.

In the February 2 edition of The Nation, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow discusses the role of information technology in fomenting fear. Basically, there's always bad news somewhere and our connectivity makes it possible to know about it:
We don’t have less time than ever; on the contrary, life expectancy has steadily increased. What we have, at this latest point so far in human history, is more of so much else—more people, more books, more cultural products of every kind, in addition to the staggering volume of online content. We feel ever more acutely the mismatch between available time and all the possible ways we could spend it. Population growth has overlooked effects: even if Steven Pinker is right that per capita violence has declined, something horrible is always happening to someone, and thanks to our ICTs [information and communications technologies], we’re going to hear about it in “real time.” This fosters a sense of relentless drama, of the world spiraling out of control, and chronic low-grade anxiety. 
...Too much of life is spent in the same essential way: clicking and typing and scrolling, liking and tweeting, assimilating the latest horrors from the news.



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Sunday, February 08, 2015

Dylan v. Haggard


Bob DylanMerle Haggard 6478


Friday night, Bob Dylan delivered a half hour speech at the MusiCares Person of the Year event. He used much of his time to thank some other artists and performers, though he made news with some criticism of others:
"Merle Haggard didn't even think much of my songs. I know he didn't. He didn't say that to me, but I know way back when he didn't. Buck Owens did, and he recorded some of my early songs. 
"Together Again, that's Buck Owens. And that trumps anything else out of Bakersfield. Buck Owens or Merle Haggard? If you had to have somebody's blessing, you can figure it out."
Merle Haggard responded to this apparent slight with grace (see this tweet):
"I've admired your songs since 1964," the 77-year-old singer of country classics like Branded Man and I'm a Lonesome Fugitive said on his Facebook page Saturday. Haggard added that he and Willie Nelson have cut Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's All Right for an upcoming album.
Moreover, in October 2013, Haggard told an interviewer that he was doing a tribute album to Dylan. He was asked "Q: What draws you to Bob Dylan's music?"
Haggard: I've always been drawn to his music, since when he first came out in 1964. I was just beginning my career as well at that time. But I've come to find out that he's a been a Merle Haggard fan and he was watching what I was doing while I was watching what he was doing. I've always thought he was one of the better writers that I've been fortunate enough to be alive at the same time with.
My friend and neighbor Michael Young, the host of WFPK's "Roots n' Boots" radio show, is one of the world's biggest Haggard fans and his reaction was stronger than Haggard's. After all, as his bio says, Mike "firmly believes Merle Haggard is the greatest songwriter of our generation, and he’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table and shout it." Tonight, Mike played a number of Haggard songs on his program for "no special reason," though he laughed after saying that. His Facebook feed offers an explanation: "Tempted to play nothing but Merle Haggard today in light of Dylan's dis of the Hag, but I don't think I could get away with that. How about 5 Haggard songs that are better than anything Dylan ever wrote?"

I'm thinking this entire dust-up is just Dylan's sense of humor on display.

In 1986, in Interview magazine, Dylan was asked to list "Clubs I belong to." One of his 6 answers was "Merle Haggard Fan Club."

And this is from Haggard's bio on the Rolling Stone website: "Merle Haggard has always been as deep as it gets," said Bob Dylan. "Totally himself. Herculean. He definitely transcends the country genre."


Actually, that quote is taken from a long 2009 piece by Jason Fine quoted in full in this tweet:
"Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets," says Bob Dylan. "Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre. If Merle had been around Sun Studio in Memphis in the Fifties, Sam Phillips would have turned him into a rock & roll star, one of the best. I'm sorta glad he didn't do it, though, because then he'd be on the oldies circuit singing his rock  roll hits instead of becoming the Merle Haggard we all know and love."
In 2005, Dylan asked Haggard to tour with him. Incidentally, this is what Haggard told  Billboard in an interview about that tour:
Q: How did this tour with Bob Dylan come about? 
A: I had my itinerary set to do some light touring in the spring and ease my way through the year, and Bob Dylan calls and wants me to tour America with him. And he's not just talking about once and awhile, it's 40 out of the next 60 days. But it's Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan's the Einstein of music. He calls and wants you to be on his show and your name is Merle Haggard, you're honored. 
Q: I've heard that most people who tour with Dylan don't get a chance to talk to him, but I imagine he'll talk to you at some point. 
A: I don't know. I've rubbed shoulders with him before and he just sorta grunts.
Maybe Dylan was just making some news and selling some records for both geezers?

Flickr photo credits: Nesster (Haggard) and F. Antolín Hernández (Dylan)

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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday dog blogging

My youngest daughter took this picture earlier this month.

The word she uttered to get them to pose? Treat.



That's Robey on the left and Paddy on the right.

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

SABR Day

Chris Burke
Photo credit: TJ Perreira on Flickr. 
Today was SABR Day 2015, an annual Saturday in January event featuring local SABR chapter meetings across the United States. I attended the one in Louisville at 10 this morning.

The guest speaker was former major league player Chris Burke, who delivered a worthwhile presentation.  I especially appreciated the fact that he answered our questions fairly directly, even when they involved controversial subjects such as steroid use in baseball.  Burke grew up in Louisville, played his college baseball at Tennessee (All-American SS on the runner-up College World Series finalist team) and then had a fairly significant role on a Houston Astros team that made the World Series in 2005. In the NLDS that season, he hit the series winning home run in the 18th inning of game 4.

After Burke finished and departed, I gave a presentation: "Can Small Market Teams Compete? Revisited." That link takes you to my PowerPoint. As the title suggests, this was a much updated version of a talk I gave to the same local SABR chapter in April 2000.

My 2000 presentation focused on the Oakland A's, much as Michael Lewis did in his 2003 book Moneyball. However, today's talk focused on the 2014 Kansas City Royals, the first small market team to make the World Series since Cleveland did it in 1997. For my talk, I defined the smallest handful of cities as small market: Milwaukee, Kansas City, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Oakland shares the Bay area with San Francisco, but is often viewed as small market.

While the A's of 15 years ago emphasized on-base percentage, college pitchers, and "Ken Phelps All Stars" (such as Geronimo Berroa and Matt Stairs), the 2014 Royals apparently identified new market inefficiencies: multiple hard-throwing short relievers, terrific outfield defense, fly-ball pitch-to-contact starters, and an all-star quality catcher.

Dr. Rodger Payne


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Friday, January 16, 2015

New Look

Readers probably noticed the new banner and other minor blog updates -- the former made fairly easily thanks to Picmonkey. Once again, the photos are courtesy of government websites, so should not involve any copyright issues:



The last update occurred in 2010. 


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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Samantha Power in Louisville

I attended this talk by Samantha Power on Monday at the University of Louisville:


I'm not sure UN Ambassador Power said anything really new about American foreign policy, but news reports tended to emphasize two points -- her call for bipartisan foreign policy and her argument against new Congressionally-imposed sanctions on Iran.

If you were not paying close attention, her arguments about the value of economic sanctions seemed to be inconsistent. She criticized the economic embargo against Cuba, claiming that after more than 50 years of failure, the Obama administrations simply wants the U.S. to try a new approach. Yet, at the same time, she praised the success of economic sanctions against Burma (a pet issue of host Senator Mitch McConnell) and other recent sanctions against Iran.

Power argued that unilateral sanctions on Cuba had failed, while collective sanctions on Iran had succeeded. She didn't really talk about this distinction vis-a-vis Burma, but I know the EU also sanctioned Myanmar (Burma). On Cuba:
Even though the Castro regime has been repressing the Cuban people for decades, it is America that has been seen as Goliath picking a fight with David. I’ve seen this first-hand at the United Nations. Last October, for the 23rd year in a row, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Out of the UN’s 193 member-states, we were only one of two that voted to defend the embargo.
As for Iran, Power argued that the international sanctions regime is largely responsible for bringing Iran to the bargaining table, where it seems willing to limit its ability to produce nuclear weapons. However, new sanctions would backfire, undermining the collective sanctions that she claimed are "exponentially more effective than bilateral sanctions alone."
If we pull the trigger on new nuclear-related sanctions now, we will go from isolating Iran to potentially isolating ourselves. We go from a position of collective strength to a position of individual weakness.
All of these points were framed around a theme of bipartisanship. Power repeatedly emphasized that Republicans and Democrats in Washington fundamentally agreed about the goals of American foreign policy, even as they disagreed about the means to achieve them:
But what is often lost in the coverage of these debates is the fact that they’re disputes about means, not ends; about tactics, not objectives; about how America can tackle complex global challenges, and not whether we ought to try. As Thomas Jefferson once put it, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”
In the introductory remarks, University of Louisville President James Ramsey introduced a visiting Army War College Fellow who is auditing my graduate IR seminar this spring.


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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Films of 2014


(#20 of 365) Movie Night
Photo credit: Jennifer Finley (j-fin) on Flickr
As I note every December, I watch a lot of movies, though most are viewed on my television -- on DVD, from DVR recordings, or streamed from Netflix. Because I have not yet seen that many new films in the theater, I cannot yet write a credible post on the best movies of 2014. Most of the highly touted films are released in December, a very busy month. Eventually, of course, I will see them.

Again this year, I missed many of the summer blockbusters as well.

Indeed, many of the best films I saw this past year were movies that I originally missed in the theaters in prior years. I saw many late 2013 Oscar-bait films in theaters earlier this year.

To make this abbreviated 2014 list (split, as usual, into two sub-lists), I scanned the top grossing movies of the year, as well as IMDB's most popular titles for 2014. I also consulted Metacritic.

In rank order of my preference, these were the best 2014 films I saw this year, so best as I can recall:

The Grand Budapest Hotel **
Birdman **
Wild **
Locke
Gone Girl **
Snowpiercer
Frank
Venus in Fur
Filth
The Double

** I saw these films in the theater.

The top two films are doing well in end-of-year critic lists, so I anticipate they will be competitive for Oscars. The Grand Budapest Hotel was hilarious and Birdman was unique, though I'm not sure I liked the ending (or interpreted it correctly). Basically, that film can be viewed as a critique of superhero action films, even though it stars a number of actors who made lots of money from their work in those kinds of movies.

Wild and Locke are substantial films that provide real showcases for their lead actors, Reese Witherspoon and Tom Hardy. Both seem deserving of Academy Award nominations.

I read Gone Girl in 2013, so I was already familiar with the twists and surprises. Still, this was a fine film and worth viewing.

Frank twists the typical rock band bio-pic into unexpected directions, though other members of my family were split as to whether it was watchable. Venus in Fur is a provocative Roman Polanski film that is trying to say something artistic about the theatre, but also comments on gender relations. It is a two-person film featuring a male director casting a leading actress for his adapted play.

Filth is from the same mind as Trainspotting and includes a number of scenes that are provocative, but perhaps not entertaining. I did not much care for the adapted The Double.

The rest of the my 2014 list consists of genre films -- bawdy comedies, action flicks and science fiction. They are not ranked very carefully, though I think that the ones near the top are superior to the ones near the bottom:

Edge of Tomorrow (Live. Die. Repeat.)
Guardians of the Galaxy
22 Jump Street
Alan Partridge
Bad Words
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes **
Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I've switched the positions of Edge of Tomorrow and Guardians of the Galaxy twice already on that list. The latter film has a much stronger sense of humor, but I am a huge fan of Groundhog Day and Edge of Tomorrow is a science fiction-action movie take on the concept. That said, I'm far more likely to watch Guardians a second time when it finds its way to cable.

Both 22 Jump Street and Alan Partridge featured characters that Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Steve Coogan have played before. Sigh. Moreover, both are unusually violent for comedies. Nonetheless, they are quite funny and 22 Jump Street clearly recognizes the limits and dangers of repetition.

I viewed Captain America on a very small screen on a plane, but I did not care for it very much. I had similar reactions to the Iron Man and Hulk films, so perhaps Marvel isn't appealing to me all that often (Guardians is a notable exception). I wish the filmmakers of the bottom three movies had been a bit more creative and less reliant upon CGI and explosions. For me, of course, the gold standard is Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.

Here's the annual list of 2014 movies that I intend to see in the future (hopefully in 2015):

Adult World, American Sniper, The Babadook, Begin Again, Belle, Big Eyes, Birder's Guide to Everything, Blue Ruin, Boyhood, Cheap Thrills, Chef, Dear White People, The Drop, Equilizer, Fault in Our Stars, Force Majeure, Foxcatcher, Fury, Get on UP, Godzilla, Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, Ida, The Imitation Game, The Immigrant, Inherent Vice, Interstellar, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Joe, John Wick, Le Week-End, The LEGO Movie, Listen Up Philip, Lone Survivor, Lucy, Manuscripts Don't Burn, A Most Wanted Man, A Most Violent Year, Mr. Turner, Neighbors, Nightcrawler, Night Moves, Noah, Non-Stop, Obvious Child, The One I Love, Only Lovers Left Alive, Palo Alto, Railway Man, Rob the Mob, Rosewater, Selma, St. Vincent, Theory of Everything, Top Five, Two Days One Night, Under the Skin, What If, Whiplash, and the Zero Theorem.

Keep in mind that I didn't get around to seeing many 2013 movies from last year's wishlist:

12 Years a Slave, 56 Up, Ain't them Bodies Saints?, Despicable Me 2, The East, Ender's Game, Fruitvale Station, Kill Your Darlings, Love is All You Need, Manhunt, Much Ado About Nothing, Oblivion, Pacific Rim, Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, Short Term 12, Spring Breakers, Stories We Tell, The To Do List, Trance, You're Next, and We Are What We Are.

Yes, somehow I've missed the acclaimed 2013 Oscar winner. Shame on me. Virtually all of those films are now readily available -- as DVDs at my University library or as recordings on my DVR. A few are on Netflix.


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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Books of 2014

d-221 books
Photo credit: azrasta on Flickr


As I have annually since 2005, I am posting a nearly complete list of books I read in the preceding year.

Please allow me to repeat the ground rules: First, I generally do not list academic books that I reviewed unless the review was published. In my academic job, for instance, I reviewed a number of books competing for a $100,000 award exhibiting the best "ideas for improving world order." However, only the winning entry is listed here. I read it as a member of the Final Selection Committee.

Of course, since I'm an academic, I read multiple chapters and large sections of many books pertinent to my research and teaching. However, I'm not going to list those here unless I read them cover-to-cover. Save for the books I use in class or read for review, I often skim over some portions even of outstanding books. It's a time/efficiency issue.

So, what did I read this year, mostly for pleasure? (Some of the recommended books may include a link to Powell's books; the blog receives a 7.5% commission on sales that begin via these links). I posted short reviews of most of these books at Shelfari


Non-fiction

The Rule of the Clan; What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals About the Future of Individual Freedom by Mark S. Weiner.

New American Militarism, How Americans Are Seduced by War by Andrew Bacevich

Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State by Garry Wills

Bigger Deal by Anthony Holden

Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, edited by Steven Goldman (Baseball Prospectus team)

I also read just about every word in Baseball Prospectus 2014, but not in cover-to-cover fashion. It was edited by Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski.

Of these non-fiction books, most were worth reading. The Weiner book won the 2015 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. I blogged about it at the Duck of Minerva.

Bacevich and Wills offer stark and important warnings about the dangers of United States militarism. Holden returns to the Texas Hold 'em poker circuit after the 2003 Chris Moneymaker boom. I preferred his earlier book on poker.

Fiction

As I have in most years, I place the best works of literature at the top of the list, then the genre fiction (though there are some books that could be placed in either category). The least interesting or entertaining books are listed last in each section.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

The Constant Gardener by John LeCarré

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon.

Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene

Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Right Ho, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

All of this fiction is worth reading, though McCarthy's book is kind of a slog given the way it is written and its subject matter. With the exception of the Wodehouse (which was my first book ever read using a Kindle app on a tablet), all of these books are fairly dark. The works by McMurtry and McCarthy are set in Texas and are meant to feature a desolate context. LeCarré's novel begins in impoverished Africa, but the main character travels also to Europe and North America to solve a mystery about his wife's death. Gaiman's book is a sweeping work of modern mythology, while Pynchon offers a strange post-modern noir detective story.

State of Siege by Eric Ambler

Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin

Find a Victim by Ross MacDonald

D is for Deadbeat by Sue Grafton

Children of Men by P.D. James

Judas Goat by Robert Parker

Tears of Autumn by Charles McCarry

Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke

The Scarlet Ruse by John MacDonald

Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky

Bank Shot by Donald Westlake

Djibouti by Elmore Leonard

The Mourner by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake)

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin

The Blonde by Duane Swierczynski

Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane

Lucky at Cards by Lawrence Block

Thanks mostly to Bookmooch and PaperBack Swap, I continue to read books by a diverse array  of (mostly) hard-boiled crime story authors. These writers typically develop a single main character across a long series of books: Parker's Spencer, Stark's Parker, John MacDonald's Travis McGee, Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer, Burke's Dave Robicheaux, Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski, Rankin's Inspector Rebus, and Lehane's Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro.

Grafton is from Louisville and this (D) Millhone case was very interesting, making me look forward to reading the next (E) book. I read Rankin while visiting Edinburgh, though I cannot say the book would be endorsed by that lovely city's Chamber of Commerce. I have stuck with Burke's Robicheaux series through several violent books that did not appeal to my tastes. However, I liked this one a good deal. Travis McGee, Lew Archer, and Spencer were all challenged by good cases that made for solid stories. Spencer's book is set abroad and involves terrorism.

The Lehane books I've read feature over-the-top violence. Strike one. This work involved serial killers working together, which count as strikes two and three.

By contrast, the Dibdin book involves a clever murder and just enough violence to propel the story to an interesting conclusion. I highly recommend it. Look for the touch of international politics in a character's correspondence.

Though Djibouti was certainly not Leonard's best book, it is an entertaining contemporary story about piracy and terrorism. Mockingjay is the basis for a new film (the first of two, ugh) and in my view is the weakest book in the popular dystopian trilogy. I saw the film made from P.D. James's Children of Men several years ago, but the book is quite different from the film in many details. Generally, these details make the book bleaker, simpler, and less reliant upon contrived circumstances. The science fiction book, set in a future when all men are infertile, is laden with Christian symbolism.

Ambler and McCarry were writing during the cold war and their stories involve interesting geopolitical dimensions based on real-world events. McCarry offers an odd theory about the JFK assassination.


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Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

Ho Ho Ho.



That's Robey (L) and Paddy (R), when they were just pups. We celebrated their 9th year in the family this fall. They were likely born in July 2005.

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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Inherent Vice

When my spouse and I saw "Birdman" recently, the film was preceded by a trailer for Inherent Vice. Since I already owned a copy of the book, I decided to read it before I see the film.

My review of the novel:
I really cannot do justice to this book with a short review. The work can be read as a relatively mainstream detective story set in the drug-culture of southern California in 1970. Pynchon has clearly read Raymond Chandler as the plot includes many references to Philip Marlowe and his most famous cases. If you are looking for a postmodern Chandler, then you might enjoy this book. However, many parts of it may seem really strange. Indeed, this book's main character encounters situations and people that are more overtly comical (if not ridiculous) than any situations and people Marlowe ever encountered. The book packs in so many odd characters, coincidental meetings, and contrived circumstances, in fact, that it can also be read as satire -- and Chandler and Marlowe could be viewed as targets. Many of Marlowe's encounters could be viewed as far-fetched and ridiculous if not portrayed in the way they were written by Chandler. PI Larry "Doc" Sportello's drug of choice is pot rather than alcohol, but he is a viable stand-in for Marlowe. Doc's adventures parallel Marlowe's and led me to think about how Marlowe would survive in Doc's world and vice-versa. The book seems to lament the end of the counterculture 1960s (Doc's world), though the "gumsandal" PI obviously has significant ties to the "straight" world. His girlfriend works in the prosecutor's office, he trades information with a prominent cop, and he earns a living working as a "hopeless stooge of the creditor class" (which he realizes in an epiphany near the book's end). Other targets of Pynchon's satire are more overtly identified: heavy-handed police officers and other elements of law enforcement, heroin, and the background political figures, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Here's an interesting video promoting the novel, apparently narrated by Thomas Pynchon in the voice of PI Doc:




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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Will Rogers on Inequality

I just returned from a trip to Tulsa to visit family members. The Tulsa World newspaper runs a piece called "Will Rogers Says" and I quite liked the quote from last Saturday:
"[Economists] show that there is just as much of everything as there ever was, and all that. But they don’t tell that what’s the matter with us is the unequal division of it. Our rich is getting richer, and our poor is getting poorer all the time. That’s the thing these great minds ought to work on.” – December 14, 1930


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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Divine Intervention?

I'm still working my way through the array of article clippings surrounding my desk at home.

This quote is from General Lee Butler, former head of the US Strategic Command:
...we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.
The quote was included in an article I read back in June, but it was originally delivered in a speech by Butler in 1999.

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Monday, December 08, 2014

Environment and Security

I have not blogged very frequently in 2014 and thus have a big stack of magazine clippings surrounding my desk. One story that caught my eye this past year was authored by journalist Sharon Lerner in The Nation back in November. It concerned alleged links between local pollution from a defense contractor and a cluster of pediatric brain tumors in a small Florida community called The Acreage.

This paragraph caught my eye given that I often work on both environmental issues and national security topics:
“If Al Qaeda sent a team of sleeper cells to poison our groundwater and release toxic materials into the air, people would go nuts. It would be an act of war,” [Law Professor Stephen] Dycus [at Vermont, the author of National Defense and the Environment] notes. “But if we do it to ourselves in the name of national security, in preparation for war, that seems to be sort of OK.”
These are the key paragraphs about the pollutants and area in question:
...the plaintiffs’ attorneys have been constructing their case based on the defense contractor’s well-known history of involvement with projects that involve radioactive materials. Since so many of its operations are top secret, it is difficult to disprove the company’s claims that it has never worked on nuclear planes or spacecraft in Florida. But documents from the 1960s through the ’90s show that Pratt & Whitney had licenses to use at least a dozen radioactive substances [PDF], including radium D and E, thoriated nickel and cesium-137, in Florida. The plaintiffs’ lawyers also unearthed company correspondence indicating that some of these radioactive materials wound up outside of their proper storage places. In court filings, Pratt & Whitney denied having any “contaminations” beyond “properly stored chemical compounds.”
In fact, there is a clear documentary record, stretching across many decades, of Pratt & Whitney contaminating its Florida environs with a variety of toxic materials, both radioactive and nonradioactive. According to a 1985 Department of Environmental Regulation update, the company had soil on its property that contained PCBs—chemicals that have been linked to brain cancer—at more than 200 times the maximum level now allowed even in fenced-off, nonresidential areas. PCBs were also found in fish [PDF] that swam in ponds on the company’s grounds, at more than 7,000 times the safe level set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for human consumption.
Jet fuel, which was the suspected cause of another cancer cluster in Fallon, Nevada, may also have played a role at the Acreage. A mixture of chemicals that can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause cancer in mice, jet fuel was found at the Pratt & Whitney facility in Florida. According to a 1983 report, there were three plumes of jet fuel totaling some 53,000 gallons beneath the company’s property, and a layer on top of the groundwater in certain places as well.
 In 1979, just one year after the Acreage Homeowners Association formed and began constructing a system of canals to make the area habitable, 2,000 gallons of trichloroethylene (TCE), a carcinogenic solvent, leaked into the groundwater and surface water on Pratt & Whitney's campus, as the company later admitted. 
The entire article is worth your time.

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Friday, November 21, 2014

Untappd: Austin Local Beer


As I mentioned yesterday, I traveled to Austin, TX, for an academic conference last weekend. This was my first trip to the booming city since conducting dissertation work at the LBJ Library in the late 1980s. I spent some time walking around downtown, but the conference is short and intense, so I had very little free time to do much during the 48 hours I was there. Nonetheless, I was able to take in some of what the city has to offer as the alleged "Live Music Capital of the World."

From my experience, it appears that Austin's 6th Street genuinely rivals or even surpasses Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans for nightlife and entertainment. On Saturday night, some friends and I walked around that area of Austin looking for good live music and local beer. It didn't take long to find what we sought.

I think the band that we all enjoyed the most was Light Horse Harry, which we caught at an Irish pub (B.D. Riley's) near the end of our evening. All the musicians are UT-Austin students and they played a nice mix of covers and original songs. Earlier, we also liked Larry g(EE), who played an eclectic set of music with a very large band at Gatsby's.

During that evening, I tried Austin Beerwork's tasty Fire Eagle IPA, Independence Brewing's very good Stash IPA, and Thirsty Planet's potent Buckethead IPA (8.9% ABV). I typically avoid the high alcohol IPA's, but I didn't realize the ABV until I had the beer in hand and looked it up on Untappd. Despite the fact that it was an excellent brew, I left one-third of it behind because it was served in a pint glass and I had to give a presentation as a discussant on Sunday morning.

During the conference, I also had a bottle of Shiner Bock at the reception and drank a delicious pint of Racer 5 IPA at Haymaker. The latter California beer is difficult if not impossible to find in Louisville, so that is my main justification for not trying another local beer. Incidentally, Haymaker came recommended to me and its beer list was certainly quite impressive. Unfortunately, the Fire Eagle IPA served to me there lacked carbonation and seemed flat. That's another reason why I followed up with the Racer 5.


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Thursday, November 20, 2014

ISSS-ISAC Austin 2014

Last weekend, I traveled to Austin, TX, for the annual joint meeting of the International Security Studies Section of the International Studies Association and the International Security and Arms Control Section of the American Political Science Association. Luckily, the groups had not previously shortened the name to ISIS. It is still known as the ISSS-ISAC meeting.

The event opens with a keynote speaker and a reception. These sessions occurred on Friday night, but during some past meetings they have occurred on Thursday with the conference ending Saturday at noon. The opening evening is followed by a full day of panels, concluding with another guest speaker and a dinner in the evening. Indeed, all the meals during this long day are provided as part of the registration fee. The final day ends at noon, but breakfast is also provided. This year, the panels were on Saturday-Sunday.

Because the conference is brief and relatively small, attendees seem to feel obliged to remain at the event and attend panels or network with other participants. Dining together probably also contributes to the social environment. The meetings definitely provide a nice opportunity to catch up with colleagues who share an interest in security politics and meet graduate students and junior faculty from around the country. Next year's conference is in Springfield, MA, and will be hosted by Jon Western of Mount Holyoke and Duck of Minerva.

On Saturday afternoon, I participated in a panel on “Images of Terrorism and Counter Terrorism” and delivered my paper, "The Dark Knight and the National Security State." This is a significantly revised version of a paper I delivered in August at a humanities conference in Scotland. Yes, I delivered yet another academic paper on Batman and the war on terrorism.

This latest version of the paper considers the conversation around a popular film like The Dark Knight as a potential public sphere, conceivably igniting important discussions about otherwise unchallenged national security issues and assumptions. I have long been interested in public deliberation and thus some of the paper might seem familiar based on my past blogging. I discuss the well-known problems about public debate on security issues, particularly during conditions of crisis (high threat and "state of emergency"): secrecy, executive branch dominance, lack of participation, etc. Even the mass media is stymied by these factors, which means that the coverage in the media is framed around war and security (the Copenhagen's "securitization" literature is relevant here). The media also "indexes" their reports to executive branch sources.

Comments on this paper would be welcome.


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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Iraq's New Old Chemical Arsenal

Yesterday, a student asked me about the recent news reports indicating that Iraq did, in fact, have "weapons of mass destruction" back in 2002 and 2003 when the U.S. was attempting to justify a "preemptive" war. The New York Times reported that American soldiers were injured in the past decade by chemically-armed munitions found in Iraq.

Already, a slew of articles in the media have debunked the claim that this vindicates George W. Bush and his Iraq misadventure. This Washington Post piece is perhaps the best since it primarily quotes Bush administration claims from the pre-war period.

The Times piece certainly does not try to claim that Bush is vindicated:
The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale. 
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Bush insisted that Mr. Hussein was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program, in defiance of international will and at the world’s risk. United Nations inspectors said they could not find evidence for these claims. 
Then, during the long occupation, American troops began encountering old chemical munitions in hidden caches and roadside bombs. Typically 155-millimeter artillery shells or 122-millimeter rockets, they were remnants of an arms program Iraq had rushed into production in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war. 
All had been manufactured before 1991, participants said. Filthy, rusty or corroded, a large fraction of them could not be readily identified as chemical weapons at all. Some were empty, though many of them still contained potent mustard agent or residual sarin. Most could not have been used as designed, and when they ruptured dispersed the chemical agents over a limited area, according to those who collected the majority of them. 
In case after case, participants said, analysis of these warheads and shells reaffirmed intelligence failures. First, the American government did not find what it had been looking for at the war’s outset, then it failed to prepare its troops and medical corps for the aged weapons it did find.
Read the piece and it offers more reason to believe that these revelations do not help the save the Bush administration's reputation:
Participants in the chemical weapons discoveries said the United States suppressed knowledge of finds for multiple reasons, including that the government bristled at further acknowledgment it had been wrong. “They needed something to say that after Sept. 11 Saddam used chemical rounds,” Mr. Lampier [“a recently retired Army major who was present for the largest chemical weapons discovery of the war”] said. “And all of this was from the pre-1991 era.” 
Others pointed to another embarrassment. In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents, the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.
A decade ago, when I was blogging regularly about this, the media would occasionally report about old chemical munitions found it Iraq. I posted this passage on May 19, 2004:
What is very clear is that there was no vast infrastructure of WMD programs and no readily deployable arsenal. The nuclear program was dead. No one denies Iraq had chemical weapons in the 1980s and that scientists could again make them. What is the appropriate level of threat justifying preventive war
I ended up writing and publishing a number of pieces about that question and the so-called "Bush Doctrine" of "preemptive war." In one of them, I quoted from this exchange involving David Kay, who was the head of the Iraq Survey Group in 2003 (the original team looking for WMD) and then-U.S. Senator Mark Dayton:
DAYTON: Which weapons of mass destruction qualify in that upper echelon of truly mass destruction? 
KAY: Well, I think all of us have and would continue to put the nuclear weapons in a different category. It's a single weapon that can do tremendous damage, as opposed to multiple weapons that can do the same order of damage. As you know, the fire-bombing of Tokyo, in terms of number of people killed, was roughly equivalent to a single bomb in Nagasaki, but it took a lot more aircraft to do it. 
So I still treat, and I think we should politically treat, nuclear as a difference. But I must say, the revolution of biology, some developments in cyber -- I think we're going to have a blurring out there of capabilities. And that makes the control and makes the intelligence problem far more difficult to estimate. 
DAYTON: Just based on your general knowledge, how many countries would you say in the world today would qualify under the category of developing weapons of mass destruction-related program activities or having such activities?
KAY: Senator Dayton, I hesitate to give you an off-the-cuff number because I know it'll probably is going to be like the 85 percent; I'm going to have to live with it for longer than I want to.I would say that in the nuclear area, in addition to those that we know have possessed nuclear weapons, that includes India... 
DAYTON: I want to go to the vernacular that we're using in this broader category. 
KAY: The broader category. Oh, I suspect you're talking about probably 50 countries that have programs that would fall somewhere in that broader vernacular. 
DAYTON: So if we're going to take out those countries or their governments which are engaged in what we would call weapons of mass destruction-related program activities, we're going to be cutting quite a world swathe. 
KAY: Well, Senator Dayton, I think you're on to the issue. We no longer are going to be living in a world in which we can control capabilities. Intentions are what are going to be important.
Kay is correct. The war was primarily justified based on the threat allegedly posed by Iraq's nuclear program. If the bar for preemptive war is lowered to justify attacks against states with potentially menacing chemical or biological capabilities, then states with such preemptive doctrines could launch attacks against thousands of universities or industries in dozens of states.


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