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Friday, April 30, 2010

10 Best Dan Aykroyd Movies?

Last weekend, a friend and former student declared that "The Blues Brothers" was one of the ten greatest movies of all time. As I'm not a huge fan of the film and am something of a smart ass, I flippantly countered by saying that "Blues Brothers" wasn't even one of the ten best Dan Aykroyd movies.

Thanks to IMDB and web access, I'm finally trying to compile a list to test my assertion. Here's what I found:

"Ghost Busters" (1984)
"Driving Miss Daisy" (1989)
"Trading Places" (1983)
"The Rutles: All You Need is Cash" (1978)
"Chaplin" (1992)
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (1984)
"Sneakers" (1992)
"Grosse Point Blank" (1997)

That's only eight films. Worse, IMBD users rate "Blues Brothers" 7.9, admittedly higher than the ratings for most of these films. However, I still don't think "Blues Brothers" is all that great. It certainly wouldn't make my top 100 movies.

It would have been much easier to compile a list of 10 alternatives if Bill Murray had been in "Blues Brothers." Aykroyd has been in a lot of dreck

Indeed, look at some of Aykroyd's dubious comedic choices:

"My Stepmother is an Alien"
"Spies Like Us"

And those are some of the better ones (I saw three of those films at the theater!).

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Derby weekend

This Saturday, Louisville's Churchill Downs will host the 136th Kentucky Derby, typically called the most exciting two minutes in sports.

I've never been to the track for the Derby, but I usually watch the race on TV and experience some of the other related events. "Thunder Over Louisville" ("the largest annual pyrotechnics display in North America") is visible from my house and today I saw a bit of the Pegasus Parade.

This year, some locals are already buzzing about the forthcoming film "Secretariat," which will tell the story of the greatest racing horse of them all -- the 1973 Triple Crown Winner. The film is slated to debut in October.

The 1973 Belmont Stakes was perhaps the greatest sporting achievement I've witnessed in my life:

View the film's trailer.

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Monday, April 26, 2010

More upside of the downturn

A few times since the recession began, I've noted some good news associated with the slowed economy. Reduced economic activity means fewer greenhouse gas emissions and reduced traffic deaths. It might also put pressure on authoritarian regimes that have staked their legitimacy on growth -- such as China.

Of course, difficult economic times also have horrific human consequences, bringing unemployment to millions of people, worsening poverty, etc. On balance, even most radical anti-growth greens would prefer steady (sustainable) economic activity to painful contraction.

In any case, I saw another news item (NYT link) last week that served as another data point for the upside of the downturn. Motorcycle deaths are plunging:
Motorcycle deaths in the United States fell steeply last year, according to a new study.

After 11 straight years of increase, motorcycle traffic fatalities are projected to decline by at least 10 percent nationally in 2009, the Governors Highway Safety Association announced in a report [PDF] released on Thursday.
I realize this reduction in motorcycle deaths is merely a subset of traffic mortality rates, but the new data does appear to indicate a second year of reduced driving and death.

Indeed, it appears 2009 will have the lowest motorcycle fatality rate on record, and much of this is attributed to the decline in leisure travel related to the economy. In all, the GHSA press release noted that about 500 fewer people died in 2009 compared to 2008.
According to GHSA Chairman Vernon Betkey, “Clearly the economy played a large role in motorcycle deaths declining in 2009. Less disposable income translates into fewer leisure riders
Some of the reduced deaths were attributed to poor weather, which makes for undesirable motorbiking.

Moreover, the report also noted that some areas of the country experienced increased riding, partly because some people use motorcycles for transportation rather than cars or SUVs to avoid high fuel costs.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Read this before you flush

April 22 was Earth Day, and I let the occasion pass without a blog post. Let's see if I can make up for it.

One huge problem environmentalists face is that everyday taken-for-granted consumption habits can have an enormous cumulative effect on the planet's ecology.

Consider the use of toilet paper, for example. The May/June 2010 issue of World Watch Magazine* included an informative piece by Noelle Robbins on the destructive environmental impact of toilet paper.

Global demand is, um, overflowing, thanks to population growth and adoption of western habits throughout the developing world:
In 2005, according to the marketing analysis firm RISI, world per-capita consumption of toilet paper was 3.8 kilograms. But the range is wide-North American per-capita consumption was highest at 23 kilograms; the lowest reported was Africa, at 0.4 kilograms-and consumption growth could be closing the gap. In 2008, China and Western Europe saw toilet tissue growth rates of 5 percent, followed by Eastern Europe at 4 percent growth and Japan and Africa at 3 percent. North American consumption remained stable.
It takes a lot of trees to make toilet paper for the entire planet, which puts tremendous pressure on forests and habitats around the world -- and destroys a valuable carbon sink as well:
Worldwide, the equivalent of almost 270,000 trees is either flushed or dumped in landfills every day, according to Claude Martin of WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature). Roughly 10 percent of that total is attributable to toilet paper.
The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that toilet paper accounts for about 15% of deforestation worldwide.

The solution would appear to be more recycling -- of office paper and newspaper, of course. The US alone will throw away and bury nearly 15 million tons of reusable paper this decade, which is about 60 percent of what it uses. Only 40% is recycled, despite the obvious advantages:
according to the [University of Colorado's Environmental] Center, one ton of recycled paper (909 kilograms) saves 3,700 pounds (1,682 kilograms) of lumber and 24,000 gallons (90,849 liters) of water; uses 64 percent less energy and 50 percent less water to produce; creates 74 percent less air pollution; saves 17 trees; and creates five times more jobs than one ton of paper products from virgin wood pulp.
TP made of recycled paper is typically not as white or comfortable as the non-recycled kind, but that reflects manufacturing decisions and is not necessarily inherent to the enterprise. Obviously, however, consumer demand plays a large role in these consumption decisions. Advertising may well play a significant role in shaping consumer desires.

Offices, stadiums, and other public facilities already rely upon recycled paper, so this is really an individual consumer choice for their homes. Put simply, more of us need to demand higher quality recycled TP -- and buy it.

Happy Earth Day.

*World Watch magazine is another casualty of the current recession, which has been hitting journalism particularly hard. The May/June 2010 issue is the next-to-last to be published.

The Chemical & Engineering News piece I linked at the end of this post suggests that the recession is reducing the supply of recycled paper too...

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Blog upkeep.

I discovered yesterday that my archives do not seem to include my earliest posts from September 2003. A handful or so are missing.

In trying to figure out what went wrong, I've been applying titles to those posts -- inserting them on a title line that Blogger was not providing at that time. I figure as I save the new title, Blogger will now tell me if there's a technical problem with an individual post. Nothing so far, however.

In any case, I linked yesterday to a deficit piece I wrote in my first week of blogging that wasn't showing up. I had to find it through the "edit posts" section of Blogger. Hmmmm.

I wonder if other posts are missing from the archives for different months?

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Tea Party vs. The Facts

For weeks, I've meant to link to Bruce Bartlett's Forbes piece on the beliefs of the tea party participants. Bartlett was last seen on this blog more than 4 years ago as a conservative critic of Bush's policies. Bartlett was a domestic policy aide to Ronald Reagan and is something of a deficit hawk.

However, despite apparent shared ideals, Bartlett cannot abide the tea party movement. He reports the results of a survey of tea party members revealing their poor grasp of basic tax and spend issues:
Tea Partyers were asked how much the federal government gets in taxes as a percentage of the gross domestic product. According to Congressional Budget Office data, acceptable answers would be 6.4%, which is the percentage for federal income taxes; 12.7%, which would be for both income taxes and Social Security payroll taxes; or 14.8%, which would represent all federal taxes as a share of GDP in 2009...

Tuesday's Tea Party crowd, however, thought that federal taxes were almost three times as high as they actually are. The average response was 42% of GDP and the median 40%. The highest figure recorded in all of American history was half those figures: 20.9% at the peak of World War II in 1944.
There's a lot more like that. In fact, the group members being off by a factor of 3 was actually low compared to another data point:
To follow up, Tea Partyers were asked how much they think a typical family making $50,000 per year pays in federal income taxes. The average response was $12,710, the median $10,000. In percentage terms this means a tax burden of between 20% and 25% of income...

According to calculations by the Joint Committee on Taxation, a congressional committee, tax filers with adjusted gross incomes between $40,000 and $50,000 have an average federal income tax burden of just 1.7%. Those with adjusted gross incomes between $50,000 and $75,000 have an average burden of 4.2%.
Even if the respondent was assuming no exemptions, itemized deductions, or other reductions in tax burden, the Tea Party respondents were still significantly off the mark.
a single person with $50,000 in taxable income last year would owe $8,694 in federal income taxes, and a married couple filing jointly would owe $6,669.
Read the entire piece as Bartlett provides a lot of specific detail to debunk the mythical views held by the tea party members.

This is a pretty important fact they seem to have missed: "federal taxes are very considerably lower by every measure since Obama became president." About 40% of the stimulus package was just tax cuts, mostly for 2010.

And this: "No taxpayer anywhere in the country had his or her taxes increased as a consequence of Obama's policies."

Bartlett speculates that anger about the deficit gets mistranslated to anger about taxes. Frankly, I suspect the tea party concerns about the deficit reflect a complete failure to understand basic Keynesian economics. Government deficits are necessary during economic contraction to stimulate demand not provided in the private sector.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

End of Term Film Festival

Believe it or not, today is the last day of classes at University of Louisville. Tomorrow is reading day and exams begin Friday. I actually gave an exam yesterday and will receive take home exams from my graduate students early next week. So, I have plenty of grading to finish before the semester is really concluded.

As this term comes to its end, I've been screening some films on DVD for potential use in a special undergraduate section of my film course. This fall, I'll be teaching it as one of the Department's capstone course offerings (POLS 495).

Sunday night, I watched Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." In the final scene of the film, Brad Pitt's character does something remarkable and violent that he's done previously in the movie -- and then says, "I think this just might be my masterpiece." It's easy to think that the director was signaling how he positions this film in the context of his own career. This is Tarantino's best work in more than a decade and a fitting entry into the war film genre. Tarantino adds his typically audacious mix of violence, spark, and wit.

That said, I'm not sure precisely how I'd use it in my "Global Politics Through Film" course. This will take some thought.

Monday night, I finally saw Clint Eastwood's "Gran Torino" (2008). The film is not the actor/director's masterpiece, but it is a solid piece of work well worth watching. Though some of the lines and scenes are clich├ęd, the movie nonetheless works as an examination of how globalization has local and unexpected consequences. Eastwood's elderly character is disaffected from his own family and his deceased-wife's Catholic faith, but finds renewed life in the Hmong family now living next door to the house he's occupied for decades. The man recognizes that Hmong values are basically his values and his (arguably bigoted) character is sufficiently tolerant to integrate them into his life.

I could see using this film in my course, but I probably will not given the specific narratives I like to cover during the term.

Both films will be eligible for a student review project.

Last night, I viewed "Moon," which is a thoughtful work of science fiction starring Sam Rockwell as an astronaut working for a corporation on the moon. The talking computer, GERTY, provides a nice contrasting character to comparable machines you've seen in other sci-fi flicks. This is not a serious candidate for my film class, but it was entertaining and provocative. Check it out.

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Duck days

April 9 at Duck of Minerva, I blogged "Nuclear Arms Control," about Hillary Clinton's visit to Louisville to sell the latest nuclear START agreement to Senator Mitch McConnell -- and the rest of us.

April 7, I posted "New Nuclear Posture," about that Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review. The U.S. announced that it (mostly) would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states. Believe it or not, that is actually news.

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Trita Parsi campus talk Monday night

The 2010 winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, Trita Parsi, will give a talk on April 12 at 7 p.m. in the Chao Auditorium, Ekstrom Library.

Title: "Iran and Israel - the Conflict Defining the Middle East and America's Options."

Update: Parsi will also be speaking Tuesday, April 13, 2010, from Noon to 1:30 pm at the Jewish Community Center, 3600 Dutchmans Lane. It is sponsored by Interfaith Paths to Peace.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2010

2010 Louisville Sluggers

Do you live vicariously through my fantasy baseball teams and didn't get enough information from my recent post on the Bolts from the Blue of the Hardy House League? If you are among those readers, then let me tell you now about the Louisville Sluggers of the Original Bitnet Fantasy Baseball League.

The OBFLB crowns champions for both the "A" first half and "B" second half of the baseball season, divided by the All Star game. For obvious reason, I can only report results of the draft in preparation for the first half season. As I describe the team, keep in mind that the OBFLB is a 24 team head-to-head fantasy baseball league using 10 categories: HR, SB, batting average, runs produced average, plate appearances, innings pitched, wins, saves, ERA and "ratio."

Here are the 2010 Sluggers (players in red were retained from 2009). Since I retained 14 players, I started the draft in round 15:

C: Taylor Teagarden (TEX) (21st round)
1B: Joey Votto (CIN)
2B: Aaron Hill (TOR)
3B: Gordon Beckham (CHX)
SS: Troy Tulowitzki (COL)
OF: Carlos Beltran (NYM)
OF: Adam Jones (BAL)
OF: Lastings Milledge (PIT) (15th round)
DH: Billy Butler (KC)

SP: Tim Lincecum (SF)
SP: Josh Beckett (BOS)
SP: Rich Harden (TEX)
SP: Ricky Nolasco (FLA)
SP: Jonathan Sanchez (SF)
RP: Rafael Soriano (TB)
RP: Brandon League (SEA) (20th round)
RP: David Robertson (NYY) (23rd round)

C: Ronny Paulino (FLO) (26th round)
C: Derek Norris (WAS) (27th round) (class A)
3B: Alex Gordon (KC) (16th round)
IF: Ty Wiggington (BAL) (19th round)
IF: Willy Aybar (TB) (24th round)
OF: David Murphy (TEX) (17th round)
OF: Justin Maxwell (WAS) (18th round) (AAA)
OF: Felix Pie (BAL) (22nd round)
OF: Ben Francisco (CLE) (28th round)

SP: Wade Davis (TB)
RP: Todd Coffey (MIL) (25th round)

I took so many outfielders because Beltran is injured and I need to find some young five category OFers for the long-term of my team. Milledge, Maxwell, and Pie are all candidates for that role. Because I took so many OFers, I picked Wigginton and Aybar for their ability to cover so many infield positions.

The Norris pick indicates the premium my league puts on talented young prospects, especially at skill positions (C in this case). In other words, I was drafting for the even longer-term future -- or perhaps for a mid-year trade in case I have an injury. Last year, I picked Beckham in the spring and he's now my starting third baseman even though he barely had any time in the minors. Since he's being shifted to second base, however, I picked former hot prospect Gordon as a potential long-term solution for third base.

You may wonder why I have 6 starting pitchings retained in a league that uses only 5 per week. Last season, I made a disastrous pre-season trade, dealing talented SP Josh Johnson (FLA) for RP Chris Perez. When I made the deal, most analysts thought Perez was going to be the closer in St. Louis. Instead, he pitched in AAA Memphis before being traded to Cleveland. Despite that deal, I had a good second half draft in 2009 and thus still had lot of depth at starting pitcher; yet, I couldn't get any value in trade talks for Wade Davis or Rich Harden.

This season, of course, Perez has been named the closer in Cleveland in light of Kerry Wood's latest injury. Sigh.

I'll probably be looking to move one of my starting pitchers, Aaron Hill, and perhaps Carlos Beltran before the second half season begins. My greatest needs are at catcher, outfielder, and potentially relief ace since Soriano's career has been riddled with injury.

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Monday, April 05, 2010

2010 Bolts from the Blue

For some years, I've been posting the roster of my entry in the Hardy House fantasy baseball league. On Saturday, April 3, on Singer Island in West Palm Beach, FL, I attended my 22nd consecutive auction draft. Three owners had to participate by phone, but the rest of us enjoyed the weather, scenery, seafood, and camaraderie.

My 2009 squad finished fifth in the league, though it spent the second half of the season in steady decline from a June peak when the team was in second for about a month. I was not especially hopeful going into the draft because my retained players seemed somewhat overpriced. Unfortunately, I had few good alternative choices, so I kept mostly star-level players who promise to produce a lot of value.

As a reminder: the league has 12 teams and uses American League players exclusively to accumulate statistics in the traditional 8 categories (HR, RBI, SBs, BA, Wins, Saves, ERA and WHIP). One roster quirk now in its third year: we added a 10th pitcher and subtracted an outfielder. We thought this better reflected a change that real baseball teams made over the past 20 years.

The 2010 Bolts from the Blue (6 retained players in blue)

C Mike Redmond (CLE) $1
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (TEX) $7
1B Billy Butler (KC) $27
2B Orlando Hudson (MIN) $12
3B Evan Longoria (TB) $37
SS Derek Jeter (NYY) $25
MI Alex Gonzalez (TB) $3
CR Alex Gordon (KC) $10
OF Vernon Wells (Tor) $16
OF J.D. Drew (BOS) $10
OF Jeremy Hermida (BOS) $3
OF Travis Snider (TOR) $12
DH Hideki Matsui (KC) $11
Hitting $174

P Felix Hernandez (SEA) $29
P Jered Weaver (LAA) $17
P Kerry Wood (CLE) $14 (DL)
P Brian Matusz (BAL) $9
P Joel Piniero (LAA) $3
P Brandon League (SEA) $3
P David Robertson (NYY) $3
P Shane Kelley (SEA) $3
P Joey Devine (OAK) $3 (DL)
P Grant Balfour (TB) $1
Pitching $85

I left $1 on the table, but I had some extra cash in the endgame and spent some of it trying to find a relief pitcher with an outside shot at saves. Oakland's bullpen has been riddled with injuries, Tampa's Rafael Soriano has been a poor health risk throughout his career, and David Aardsma of Seattle has long-time control problems. Thus, I targeted those bullpens.

Balfour was on my 2009 team and I bought him again for a lower salary.

To replace Gordon, Devine, and Wood on my active roster, I am seeking various free agents. Hopefully, all of those guys will get healthy soon and contribute to their teams.

Clearly, I believe in drafting players John Hunt used to call "post-hype." Those are guys who are still young, but their disappointing performance to-date has caused their value to decline. Gordon, Snider, and Saltalamacchia are my main post-hype picks, though Devine may belong in this category too.

As usual, I didn't pay full cost for a "proven closer" at the draft. I last paid big bucks for a closer in 2007. Hours later, $34 Blue Jay B.J. Ryan pitched his last game of the season. Closers at this year's draft again went for $30 and up.

Here are my reserve picks this year:

1. DH Randy Ruiz (TOR) $3
2. P Jeremy Accardo (Tor) $2
3. SS Jed Lowrie (Bos) $1

If Ruiz plays a few games at firstbase, he could take Gordon's spot in my lineup and hit a few homers. He's also insurance against a Matsui (or Wells or Snider) injury. Accardo paid big dividends as a reserve pick for me in 2007 when he saved 30 games. Toronto's bullpen is again somewhat uncertain. Lowrie is another post-hype player, currently sidelined with mono after losing virtually all of 2009 to other injuries.

You can find posts about the 2005, 2007 , 2008, and 2009 drafts elsewhere on this blog.

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