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Thursday, March 26, 2015

2015 NCAA Tournament

I filled out a number of brackets this year, most forecasting the University of Kentucky to win the men's college national basketball championship. Unfortunately, I think that was and is the safest prediction.

Here are my only two entries in (different) pools that return cash from my friends and/or colleagues. I entered some other national competitions with microscopic chances of winning money from large prize pools. My chances in those pools is now essentially zero and was never very high. I did pick against Kentucky in some of those. Typically, I picked Arizona over UK since they are viewed as the nation's second best team.

This entry features Arizona in the Final Four. Also, I had West Virginia beating Maryland and Michigan State beating Virginia. I inaccurately had Louisville losing to Northern Iowa, so I clearly was betting against the ACC here:



Entry 2 has Arizona in the Final Four, as well as Oklahoma. I accurately forecast Wichita State defeating Kansas in this bracket as well. Once again, I had too little faith in Louisville:



Simply click on those brackets for larger images.


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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Spring Break Dog Blogging

These photos were taken in nearby Tyler Park on Saturday, March 7:



Paddy was wearing a jacket, but the 9" snow Louisville received on March 4-5 was already melting.

This photo was taken basically in the same spot, one week later on Saturday, March 14, just before University of Louisville's spring break began Monday the 16th:


Incidentally, the temperature on the 15th was in the mid-70s.

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

Greenhouse Gas Regulations

A little over a week ago, Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell wrote an op-ed piece arguing that state governments should not write standards for implementing new EPA regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. McConnell notes almost in passing that these regulations are "probably illegal," even though the regulations seem pretty clearly to be authorized (if not required) by the Supreme Court in a 2007 ruling. Essentially, the Bush administration tried to ignore greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, but their position was inconsistent with the law. The case dealt with vehicle emissions, but power plants are obviously an even bigger source of the gases.

In December 2009, the EPA Administrator found:
...that the current and projected concentrations of the six key well-mixed greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) — in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations.
The parts in bold effectively require the EPA to act to regulate greenhouse gases, which makes McConnell's argument fairly silly. Here's what is likely to happen if states follow McConnell's advice:
Jody Freeman, director of Harvard University’s environmental law program and a former senior counselor to President Obama, said that option would be worse for states than simply preparing and submitting their own plans. 
“It would put states at a huge disadvantage if they choose not to file a plan,” she said. “It gives E.P.A. the option of implementing their own plan themselves, but the E.P.A. may not have the best plan for each state. States should be designing these plans themselves.” 
Historically, states that have refused to submit compliance plans for E.P.A. rules have been forced to follow standards crafted by the department’s officials in Washington. Former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, a longtime opponent of the department’s pollution regulations, for instance, refused to submit state-level plans for compliance to other rules. In the end, Texas businesses were eventually forced to comply with the federally imposed plan.
In any case, the McConnell story got me to thinking about the Obama administration's legacy on climate change. About 18 months ago, Time columnist Michael Grunwald wrote the following in a piece about the Keystone pipeline:
Imagine if President Obama had promised in his long-awaited climate speech in June to launch the first 45 renewable-electricity projects ever built on federal land, enough to power 4.4 million homes. Imagine that he also pledged to slash the government’s carbon emissions by 15%, jack up vehicle-efficiency standards enough to eliminate an entire year’s worth of U.S. emissions by 2025 and enact appliance-efficiency standards that would save enough electricity to power every single-family home for two years. 
Then imagine if he vowed to spark a clean-energy revolution with unprecedented investments in wind, solar and geothermal power; electric vehicles; a smarter grid; cleaner coal; green research; and much more.
Here's the punch line he offered:
It would have confirmed the suspicions of many Republicans who have trashed him as an eco-radical. It would have delighted many environmentalists who have trashed him as an AWOL commander in the war on global warming. 
It also would have been weird, because Obama already did all those things in his first term. He has probably done more to reduce emissions than anyone else in history, but his critics on the right and the left haven’t noticed.
Long after Grunwald's piece appeared, in November 2014, Obama pledged that the U.S. would reduce greenhouse gas emissions "26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025." I realize that those numbers represent aspiration rather than action, but much of the reduction is going to come from policies already set in place.


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Friday, March 06, 2015

Academics and Athletes

The Atlantic Coast Conference announced its All-Academic team this week in men's basketball. The standards for inclusion certainly sound impressive enough:
To be eligible for consideration, a student-athlete must have earned a 3.0 grade point average for the previous semester and maintained a 3.0 cumulative average during his academic career.
The ACC men's team includes 21 student-athletes and they are all identified in the press release. In a 15 team league, that means that each school should have placed 1.4 players on the unit if the academic talent is evenly distributed. Then again, talent is often concentrated on the best teams -- that certainly happens with the all-conference teams selected based on athletic performance on the court.

What caught my eye in this story was the unusual concentration of academic talent on one team. One-third of the team members, seven players, are on the University of Louisville roster: "Earning the honor for the Cardinals are Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell, Anton Gill, Mangok Mathiang, Chinanu Onuaku, Terry Rozier and Quentin Snider."

Is this a point of pride or concern? I've never had any of the named student athletes in class, so I know nothing about them and am not commenting about them in any way. In fact, in my years at Louisville, I've never had a basketball player in class. Moreover, coach Rick Pitino has occasionally praised the intelligence of some of these players. Maybe this is a genuine point of pride.

However, I've been a faculty member at Louisville since 1991. Over the years, I've heard the numbers and can confirm that the kind of grade inflation mentioned in this local report is endemic. Look at slide 19 of this PowerPoint for some real data. The graphic demonstrates that about 60% of students at the university had a GPA of 3.0 or higher in the 2011-2012 academic year. In contrast, only about 40% had a GPA of less than 3.0. A couple of thousand students had a 0 to 1.24 GPA, which realistically means they flunked out of school and would not bring the overall GPA down in the long haul. Generally, the best students stay in school and graduate.

If the average student at an institution has a GPA over 3.0, then is the ACC really recognizing academic achievement?

Interestingly, five of the seven named players are listed as Communications majors, one is Sports Administration, and the other is undeclared.

Does this mean anything? I don't know, but if I were a reporter, I can think of one topic I'd like to discuss with athletic administrators. Actually, it's not even a new concern.

I realize questions about distance education might lead to completely reasonable answers. After all, I was a double major in college and Communication Studies was one of them. More than 30 years ago, prior to the onset of distance education, several of my classes were populated by top-level debaters and athletes, including Lynette Woodard and Bucky Scribner. Debaters, who were sent out to speak weekend after weekend, were interested in communication for obvious reasons. I suspect the athletes had good reasons for their choice as well.


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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Netanyahu with a Comic Bulls-eye

On Tuesday night, The Daily Show directed its attention to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his speech to Congress. The program is simply terrific at revealing hypocrisy, inconsistency, and hyperbole. In this case, the focus was on Iran and its alleged threat to Israel and the rest of the region. As a side benefit, there is some reminiscing about the buildup to the Iraq war:


Jon Stewart is an American institution and I'm going to miss him when he departs the award-winning program.


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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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