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Sunday, August 28, 2011

I saw mascots

From mid-June to early August, I was on the road for 28 days, visiting Boston for a wedding, the Delaware Shore, Tulsa (twice), and Traverse City, Michigan. I'm posting a couple of interesting cell phone photos from the period. Both, coincidentally, depict local mascots of sports teams.

This first shot is the Delmarva Shorebird. After many years of visiting the Delaware shore, I finally made it to a minor league baseball game. The nice little park is in Salisbury, Maryland, and this creature sat right behind my spouse for an inning:

The second shot is a Bulldog in downtown Big Rapids, Michigan. This dog is the mascot for the local Ferris State University and downtown Big Rapids has a number of these little statues in different guises. My spouse and I had just dined at the terrific Blue Cow Cafe, which emphasizes local and organic food. The ale I drank was very good, though a bit floral tasting. The pork chop was simply outstanding, perhaps the best I've ever had and I frequently eat chops at good restaurants all over the US:

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Saturday Sheep Blogging

Friday night, the family made the annual trip to the Kentucky State Fair -- always held in Louisville in mid-August. I took this photo with my cell phone.

And no, the creature is not in the Klan or some other evil society. It was recently shorn.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

Jasmine Revolt: Cascade Effects?

Photo credit: Flickr page on HINDRAF Rally in Kuala Lumpur by Shamshahrin Shamsudin

Thanks to my sabbatical, I had time this week to attend an interesting panel of a relatively small workshop sponsored locally by the Center for Asian Democracy: "The Jasmine Revolution and the 'Bamboo' Firewall: The impact of the Internet and new social media on political change in East Asia." My colleague Jason Abbott (CAD Director) explains a bit more about it on his blog -- and promises a more complete recap next week.

The panel I attended featured three interesting papers on "The New Media in Southeast Asia: Spotlight on Malaysia."
Asha Rathina Pandi (University of Hawaii, Manoa)
“‘Makkal Sakthi’ (People’s Power): Blogs, civil society and the 2007 Hindraf protest rally in Malaysia”

Meredith Weiss (SUNY – Albany)
“Parsing the Power of ‘New Media’ in Malaysia”

Thomas Pepinsky (Cornell University)
“Tak Nak Mereform: Contemporary Malaysian Politics in Historical Perspective”

Chair/Discussant -- Jason Abbott (University of Louisville)
As a student of international relations, it was somewhat unusual for me to attend a panel clearly constituted by comparativists talking almost exclusively about domestic economic, political and social variables. Indeed, during the Q&A, a fellow workshop participant asked the question that was most on my mind -- how did the Malaysian events the speakers described during their talks tie into the Jasmine Revolt?

One respondent pointed out the different ethnic mix in Malaysia and agreed with an audience member that only Bahrain is somewhat similar in the Middle East context.

I would have liked a lot more followup, to explore potential international and/or transnational dimensions. Did local activists learn from protesters in North Africa and the Middle East? Were new communications media employed globally, or were they primarily used on a local level, as emphasized in the talks? Were there any contagion effects of the other rebellions? Are states of East Asia (this panel focused on Malaysia) feeling any international pressure from bigger powers, international institutions, or transnational NGOs to embrace democratic norms?

Unfortunately, this particular panel did not really address those sorts of questions and I did not have time to attend the Roundtable scheduled to follow this session.

In short, the presentations were good, but not sufficiently IR for my tastes.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

NPR's Top 100 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books

NPR recently published a list of the top 100 science fiction and fantasy books, compiled from a survey of 60,000 listener-readers. The full list is here.

I don't really read work in this genre very often, but I did read some sci-fi in my teens and have occasionally grabbed something unread if it is already on my shelf.

These are the ones I've read from the list. You'll note that I've read half of the top 20, but apparently none of the bottom 35.

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
3. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert
6. 1984, by George Orwell
9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson
17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
25. The Stand, by Stephen King
28. Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin
63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

And this is the much longer list of books I have not read -- including a few that are important in popular nerd culture. Some are marked (maybe) because I read some Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Heinlein and Wells when I was a teenager (decades ago, ugh), but cannot recall the specific titles. My friends then were also reading and discussing these books, so the titles are kind of one big blur. I probably read at least 3 or 4 of the works marked (maybe), meaning I've read about 20% of the NPR list.

My memory is especially hazy when I know that I've seen a film based on the book (noted by ** below). My household includes copies of the books in bold, so it is plausible that I'll read them eventually:

[2023 NOTE: I've subsequently read these highlighted books.]

2. The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams **
5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (maybe) **
8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov (maybe)
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman **
12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore **
16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov **
18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
22. The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood
23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke **
26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson
27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury (maybe)
29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess **
31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein (maybe) **
32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams
33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein (maybe)
36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells (maybe) **
37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne **
38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells (maybe) **
40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings
42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven
46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
49. Childhood's End, by Arthur C. Clarke
50. Contact, by Carl Sagan **
51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman **
53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks
55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
61. The Mote In God's Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson **
66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist
67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
70. The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne **
73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore
74. Old Man's War, by John Scalzi
75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke (maybe)
77. The Kushiel's Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury (maybe)
80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury (maybe)
92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov (maybe)
95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
96. Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis

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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Popular will

The voting lines 10:30a NW DC

Photo credit, christopher j. dorobek

Andrew Hacker has an interesting piece in the August 18 New York Review of Books, explaining why Barack Obama's chances for reelection are much better than recent poll results would suggest:

The 2012 electorate will differ from 2010’s in a crucial respect: it will contain nearly 50 million additional voters. Some will be new, but most of them will be people who supported Obama in 2008. Compared with the 2010 House electorate, they will be younger, more ethnically diverse, with fewer identifying themselves as conservatives, and a higher proportion will be women. Most of them would not have voted for the Republicans who now make up John Boehner’s House.
Hacker, by the way, discusses a number of recent political books in the article, including one on the 2010 election edited by Larry Sabato. That volume includes a chapter on Kentucky's junior Senator, Rand Paul, written by my colleague Laurie Rhodebeck.

Hacker credits Sabato with pointing out that election outcomes are "determined by the people who show up" to vote. In midterm elections, about 40% of voters turn out to vote, while presidential elections draw substantially more voters -- about 55 to 60% of the electorate in the past quarter century.

This column in yesterday's Guardian succinctly summarizes the importance of this difference:
...the sweeping Republican gains in Congress in the midterm elections of 2010 were on the usual 40% turnout; Obama was elected in 2008 on a 61% turnout. Yet it is the Republicans who think they have a mandate from the American people.
Perhaps, in hindsight, Democrats should have tried harder to convince non-voters that the 2010 midterms were a referendum on Obama that required their attention. Republicans certainly made that case to the likely voters -- who are older, more affluent, less diverse, and more likely to vote in midterm elections. Instead, Democrats often ran away from their successes (health care reform, the stimulus) and distanced themselves from the President.

In any event, despite the poor economic numbers, it would appear that President Obama stands a pretty good chance of reelection -- so long as his 2008 voters actually show up to the polls.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011

From Hollywood: The antigenocide paparazzi

George Clooney in southern SudanPhoto credit: Australian Department of Defence.

Thanks to a busy summer travel schedule, I neglected to mention in mid-July new photographic data about ongoing violence in Sudan, acquired and released by partners affiliated with actor George Clooney's Satellite Sentinel Project.
The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative collects and analyzes images from commercial satellites, feeding them through a web platform designed by Google and the open-source software firm Trellon and comparing them with on-the-ground reports from The Enough Project, a human rights group. The group's work is especially vital in places like South Kordofan, where neither the U.N., outside aid groups nor journalists are allowed....

Yesterday, the group published a report on its latest images. As evidence of mass graves, the Satellite Sentinel Project points to the three freshly excavated areas pictured in the lead image above and to the white objects below, which it suspects are white plastic tarp body bags. A witness tells the organization that he saw 100 bodies or more put into one of the pits.

Based on these images and eyewitness reports, the organization concludes that the Sudanese military and pro-Khartoum militias "have apparently engaged in a campaign of systematic mass killing of civilians in Kadugli."
Obviously, this is potentially vital human rights work conducted by a celebrity-backed non-governmental organization.

SSP16 Fig3: Central Kadugli TownPhoto credit: ENOUGH Project.

Earlier this year, in news reports about the project, the Hollywood icon emphasized the potential deterrent effect of transparency:

"We are the antigenocide paparazzi," Clooney tells TIME. "We want them to enjoy the level of celebrity attention that I usually get. If you know your actions are going to be covered, you tend to behave much differently than when you operate in a vacuum."
If the group's July report is accurate, then Sudanese leaders have obviously not yet been deterred by the eyes in the skies.

However, anyone who has seen "Hotel Rwanda" understands the implicit threat Clooney is directing at human rights abusers. In a scene roughly two-thirds of the way into the film, the Paul Rusesabagina character played by Don Cheadle (involved with Clooney in the Satellite Sentinel Project) attempts to influence corrupt Rwandan General Bizimungu:

Your white friends have abandoned you,

The United Nations are still here.

(laughs) The United Nations. Madmen are
on the streets, Paul. But I will take
care of you. (chugs his drink) Your
cellar is well-stocked, right?

Yes, General. I am glad you came by. I
overheard something that I think you
should know about.

What did you overhear?

A discussion between an American Embassy
official and a UN Colonel.

What did they say?

The American assured the colonel that
they would watch everything.

Watch everything? How? They are gone.

Paul points surreptitiously to the sky. The General looks up.



Yes, they can photograph the epaulets on
your shoulder.

And what will they do with these

The American said intervention is too
costly, better to get photographic
evidence and snatch up the high command.

The high command? Our high command?

'Snatch them up and put on a war crimes
trial. Lock them all away forever. No
political risk, and big publicity.'
That's what he said. (a beat) I thought
I'd better tell you.

The General looks again to the sky then.
Given what Duck of Minerva co-blogger Alana Tiemessen has recently noted about the international reaction to events in Syria (likely tied to ongoing intervention in Libya), Clooney's data might not yield any tangible action.

Note: My film class typically views "Hotel Rwanda" near the end of the term.

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Friday, August 12, 2011

Film: "Made in U.S.A."

Made in U.S.A (Jean-Luc Godard)

“We were in a political movie ... Walt Disney with blood.”

I generally do not discuss films unless I enjoy them and intend to recommend them without hesitation. Jean-Luc Godard's "Made in U.S.A." is an exception, worth mentioning in part because it has so rarely been viewed in the US. Godard made the film in 1966, during an incredibly prolific period of his career. Ostensibly, the film pays homage to "The Big Sleep," a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall detective story based on a book by Raymond Chandler. That earlier film classic is well-known for the sizzling chemistry between Bogart and Bacall, as well as the convoluted plot and ambiguous resolution of the murder mystery.

For his source material, Godard used a book (The Jugger) by Donald Westlake. It is one of Westlake's Parker novels, penned pseudonymously as Richard Stark. Since Westlake did not authorize the use of his book and was not paid for his ideas, he sued successfully to prevent the film from being distributed commercially in the United States. The film premiered briefly at the New York Film Festival n 1967, but was not then shown again stateside until 2009 -- very soon after Westlake died. TCM recently broadcast the movie and I recorded it.

Artistically, the film is interesting, colorful, and quite odd. Westlake's Parker, a ruthless killer and efficient criminal in the book series, is renamed Paula Nelson and played by the beautiful Anna Karina (Godard's soon-to-be ex-wife). As the film's colors and ideas are clearly embedded in the 1960s, this bit of gender-bending is obviously just one element of the broader social and cultural commentary addressed in the film. At one point, Paula says advertizing is fascism. On another occasion, she explains her cartoon-like experiences as if she is in a "film by Walt Disney, but played by Humphrey Bogart--therefore a political film." A dirty cop twice talks in the voice of Tweety Bird and many of the colorful pop images in the film certainly add a cartoonish quality to the film.

As the New York Times explained in April 2009:

...while this film is far from a lost masterpiece, it is nonetheless a bright and jagged piece of the jigsaw puzzle of Mr. Godard’s career.

...There is, for one thing, a pouting and lovely Marianne Faithfull singing an a capella version of “As Tears Go By.” There are skinny young men smoking and arguing. There are the bright Pop colors of modernity juxtaposed with the weathered, handsome ordinariness of Old France, all of it beautifully photographed by Raoul Coutard. There are political speeches delivered via squawk box.

And of course there is a maddening, liberating indifference to conventions of narrative coherence, psychological verisimilitude or emotional accessibility.

As assaultive as “Made in U.S.A” can be, it also seems to have been made in a spirit of insouciance, improvisation and fun.
The Times does not devote much attention to the film's explicit and implicit political agenda. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the disappearance and presumed murder of a young communist writer -- the former lover of the film's protagonist. Various characters in the film compare murder to war and the cold war to hot war. One ticks off a list of past battles, culminating in Hanoi, and suggests that all these wars have been essentially the same. Overtly leftist themes and slogans are woven into the dialogue and some characters seem to see a "vast right-wing conspiracy" almost everywhere.

Some critics interpret a strange bar scene as an example of Hegelian dialectic and the communist slogans emanating from the squawk box might suggest a Marxist dialectic at work. Whatever the preferred method, the title "Made in U.S.A." almost certainly has a double meaning and arguably suggests the need for a double reading.

First, Godard's homage to "The Big Sleep" says that American artists deserve credit and praise for the genre of film noir. And hard-boiled detective fiction as well -- one character, a writer, is named David Goodis. These dark stories cover important themes often ignored in the mainstream. Of course, the mainstream is represented by Disney cartoons and advertizing and Godard speaks fairly explicitly and critically about these elements of pop culture. Even in "The Big Sleep," the murderer's identity is made ambiguous (and other important plot points are changed) because Chandler's original story would not have been compliant with Hollywood morality codes of the time.

The second meaning of the title suggests that then-contemporary cold war conspiracies, whether overt like Vietnam or covert like a real mystery referenced in the film, were literally "made in America." Again, the criticism is not especially subtle. Young thuggish characters named Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon briefly appear towards the conclusion of the main story. One proclaims that he enjoys killing and the other clearly assents.

Keep in mind that McNamara was Secretary of Defense at the time of this film serving under one of the most progressive Democratic administrations of the last century. LBJ's "Great Society" produced important civil rights legislation, Medicare, Medicaid, new environmental laws, anti-poverty efforts, etc. But, of course, Johnson and McNamara also prosecuted and escalated the war in Vietnam.

Nixon was technically just a former Vice President (under Dwight Eisenhower), private citizen and corporate lawyer at the time this film was made. However, Nixon was an active party leader in 1966, meeting with foreign leaders while traveling abroad and campaigning for Republicans in midterm elections. Nixon had been a notable cold war hawk for some time and was a key figure on the House Committee on Un-American Activities. In his first campaign, he defeated a female incumbent by implying she was a "pink lady" harboring "communist sympathies."

In the ending shot, Paula tellingly opines that "The Right and the Left are the same. We have years of struggle ahead, mostly within ourselves.”

This film remains important because the struggle against pervasive commercialism is far from over and the cold war's end failed to kill the national security state.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Syria, R2P, & the Obama Doctrine

Syrian protesters in front of the Syrian embassy in Cairo
Photo credit: Maggie Osama at the Syrian embassy in Cairo.

Given the brutal crackdown against anti-regime demonstrators in Syria, many analysts concerned about human rights are calling for external intervention. If the world had the responsibility to protect innocents in Libya, they argue, then the same logic applies for Syria. Thousands have already died as people stand up to their government.

However, as many other analysts have noted, nation-states view R2P (as it is known) as an ideal that must be considered on a case-by-case basis -- in the context of the just war doctrine and in conjunction with the views of relevant regional organizations.

Yes, such selectivity potentially weakens the norm's deterrent power, but it is more pragmatic and reflective of international politics as it is actually practiced. One major problem limiting new application of R2P is a lingering suspicion that this framing is used by western powers to justify broader intervention -- for regime change in Libya, for example.

As I have argued previously, US policy (doctrine?) during Barack Obama's presidency arguably reflects something like pragmatic cosmopolitanism. The US will apply its resources to avoid catastrophe when the benefits outweigh costs and the action has multilateral support.

Even if the UN Security Council, which can obviously act only with at least tacit support of the US, could cobble together the material resources to move more forcefully against the Syrian regime, it is not clear that such action would meet these standards for intervention. The US would want to see support from Russia, Turkey, India and perhaps China. And all these nations would need to be convinced that more coercive action would be narrowly targeted and likely to succeed.

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