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Monday, December 31, 2018

Films of 2018

1988 Academy Awards, view from my balcony seat
Credit: Images Alight 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 or Amazon Prime. Because I have not yet seen that many new films in the theater, I cannot at this time write a credible post on the best movies of 2018. 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 several 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 a number of late 2017 Oscar-bait films in theaters earlier this year. Again, I'll surely see most of the 2018 Oscar-bait films early in 2019. I tend to discuss those films in my posts about the Oscars.

To make this abbreviated 2018 list (also, to jog my memory), I scanned the top grossing movies of the year, as well as IMDB's most popular titles for 2018. I also consulted Metacritic, which my spouse and I use to point us towards good movies all year long.

In rough rank order of my preference, these were the top 2018 films I saw this year, as best as I can recall:

BlackkKlansman **
First Man **
What They Had **
Eighth Grade
The Sisters Brothers **
Isle of Dog
Death of Stalin
Private Life
Chez Nous (This Is Our Land) **

** I saw these films in the theater, mostly in Ottawa at the ByTowne Cinema.

I suspect there are some serious Oscar contenders on this list. Indeed, that's a very good set of movies; I'd recommend essentially all of them (though Chez Nous had some serious weaknesses). Roma is like a real-life look into Mexico City life in the 1970s. BlackkKlansman is perhaps Spike Lee's best film since the early days of his career. First Man was an impressive technical achievement with a riveting story and interesting main character. What They Had, Eighth Grade, and Searching all struck strong emotional chords and were gripping dramas. The satire of The Sisters Brothers, Isle of Dog, Tully, and Death of Stalin made for fine commentary on an array of human predicaments and life in the 21st century (and 20th).

Annihilation is a metaphor for self-destruction. I read it broadly, reflecting long-term human annihilation of the biosphere. The environmentalist in me liked it more than the film fan.

The remainder of my 2018 list consists of genre films -- 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.These were all good films too, but some are flawed:

Deadpool 2
A Quiet Place
Small Town Crime
Mission Impossible: Fallout
Black Panther
Game Night
Hearts Beat Loud
Polka King

I'm not typically a fan of comic book films and mostly avoid/ignore horror. The high rankings of Deadpool 2 and A Quiet Place demonstrate that it is possible to make quality movies in those genres. I was really entertained by Game Night and liked Hearts Beat Loud, so it would be hard to find a dud here. I liked Black Panther, but cannot see why critics place it among their top 10 films of the year.


Science Fair **

This was a fun and entertaining doc and it features some fellow Louisville residents in prominent roles.

Here's the annual list of 2018 movies that I intend to see in the future (hopefully in 2019):

22 July, American Animals, Anna and the Apocalypse, Ant Man and the Wasp, At Eternity's Gate, Avengers: Infinity War, Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Beautiful Boy, Beirut, Ben is Back, Black '47, Blaze, Blindspotting, Border, Boy Erased, Burning, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Chappaquiddick, Cold War, Colette, Crazy Rich Asians, Dark Money, Destroyer, Disobedience, Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot, Early Man, Far from the Tree, The Favourite, First Reformed, The Front Runner, Golden Exits, Goldstone, Green Book, The Guernsey, The Guilty, Happy as Lazzaro, The Happy Prince, The Hate U Give, Hereditary, Hold the Dark, If Beale Street Could Talk, Juliet Naked, Keep the Change, Kindergarten Teacher, Leave No Trace, Love After Love, Mid90s, Minding the Gap, Ocean's 8, Old Man & the Gun, Other Side of the Wind, Outside In, The Party, Private War, Prospect, Ready Player One, The Rider, Shoplifters, Sicario: Day of the Soldado, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, A Simple Favor, Solo: Star Wars Story, Sorry to Bother You, Stan & Ollie, A Star is Born, Support the Girls, Sweet Country, The Tale, Tea with the Dames,  Thoroughbreds, Thunder Road, Under the Silver Lake, Unsane, Upgrade, Utoya - July 22, Vox Lux, Widows, The Wife, Wildlife, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, You Were Never Really Here, Zama.

Keep in mind that I didn't (yet) get around to seeing many 2017 movies from last year's wishlist:

1922, Alien Covenant, All the Money in the World,  Ballad of Lefty Brown, Beguiled, Berlin Syndrome, Buster's Mal Heart, Call Me By Your Name, Catfight,  Detroit, The Founder, Foxtrot, From Nowhere, Gerald's Game, Girl With All the Gifts, God's Own Country, Happy End, Headshot, The Hero, Hostiles, Hounds of Love, I Daniel Blake, It Comes at Night, Killing of a Sacred Deer, Kong: Skull Island, Land of Mine (Under Sandet), Lost City of Z, Marshall, Moka, Molly's Game, Mother!, Norman, Personal Shopper, Phantom Thread, Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, Quiet Passion, Salesman, Sense of Ending, The Square,  Stronger, Super Dark Times, Survivalist, Sweet Virginia, T2 Trainspotting, To the Bone, United Kingdom, Wakefield, Wonder, Wonder Woman, You Were Never Really Here.

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Sunday, December 30, 2018

Books of 2018

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 often read a number of books competing for a $100,000 prize exhibiting the best "ideas for improving world order."

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? (a few of the recommended books include a link to Powell's books; the blog receives a 7.5% commission on sales that begin via my Powell's links). I posted short reviews of most books at Goodreads (migrating from Shelfari years ago). 


War: A Memoir by Marguerite Duras 

Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

The Ideas Industry by Dan Drezner

Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols

Atomic Obsession by John Mueller

The North American Idea by Robert Pastor

Up, Up, and Away: The Kid, the Hawk, Rock, Vladi, Pedro, le Grand Orange, Youppi!, the Crazy Business of Baseball, and the Ill-fated but Unforgettable Montreal Expos by Jonah Keri

The Machine by Joe Posnanski

Cooperstown Casebook by Jay Jaffe

Armchair Book of Baseball by John Thorn

Man From the Train by Bill James

Killing of Osama bin Laden by Seymour Hersh

The Noble Hustle by Colson Whitehead

I really enjoyed most of these non-fiction books and it was difficult to rank them. Just about everything above the Hersh book is worth your time. I picked up the Duras volume at my mother-in-law's house when we were cleaning it out after she died a couple of years ago and was quite taken with the personal stories by a World War II survivor.

The books by Thaler and  Sunstein, Drezner, and Nichols are all aimed for a wider market, but are written by academics. In one way or another, these scholars discuss the way individuals and/or societies make decisions. I found Nudge fascinating, was occasionally distracted by Drezner's argument, and found too much of Nichols to be anecdotal.

The Mueller and Pastor books were tied to my various research projects this year, though neither was directly on point.

Posnanski's work on the Big Red Machine of the mid-1970s was fun to read, but I learned a lot more from Jaffe and Keri. I'd have put Jaffe higher on the list, but the numerous player evaluation pieces make this more like an encyclopedia to consult occasionally than a book to tackle cover-to-cover. I really enjoyed reading Keri's book about the Expos, which I read while living in Canada.

I've discussed the Bill James book on the blog in the recent past -- and believe he could have benefited from a tighter edit. With Hersh, I didn't know what to believe -- his anonymously referenced pieces or the conventional wisdom. That made the book frustrating to read. I likewise found the Whitehead book to be somewhat disappointing with insufficient discussion of poker.

Finally, I also read just about every word in Baseball Prospectus 2018, but not in cover-to-cover fashion. The 2018 book was again edited by Aaron Gleeman and Bret Sayre. Annually, I looking forward to the new edition, likely due in February.


As I traditionally do, 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.

1984 by George Orwell

Blindness by Jose Saramago

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Citizen Vince by Jess Walter

Morgan's Passing by Anne Tyler

Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene

Kalki by Gore Vidal

Butterfly by James M. Cain

As I have previously explained, I re-read Orwell's classic 1984 with some frequency. This year, I picked it up because I was asked to participate in an event at the Public Library to discuss the importance in the current era. It's still great and I always notice something I previously overlooked.

I saw the film based on Blindness, but enjoyed the book's social commentary a good deal. It's worth your time. The film based on McCarthy's book seemed to stick very close to the original text, though I viewed and read them some years apart (intentionally). Citizen Vince is a quasi-political crime story set during the 1980 presidential election season. It is occasionally funny, and is fairly clever, but it is not as humorous as the Hornby and Tyler books. I hadn't read Anne Tyler in decades, literally, and cannot believe I didn't return to her works earlier. Actually, the Greene book is light and witty too.

All those books are recommended.

Kalki is satirical, but I found it kind of heavy-handed and perhaps overly reliant upon the mood of the 1970s. Cain wrote unsettling noir. It's tought to recommend it, though this story is very short.

And now the much longer list of genre fiction:

In the Woods by Tana French

Winter by Len Deighton

Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Pray for a Brave Heart by Helen MacInnes

Stained White Radiance by James Lee Burke

Far Side of the Dollar by Ross Macdonald

A Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes

A Little Yellow Dog by Walter Mosley

The Green Ripper by John D. MacDonald

Odds On by Michael Crichton (as John Lange)

Killing Orders by Sara Paretsky

The Handle by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

Why Me? by Donald Westlake

Ceremony by Robert Parker

Comfort to the Enemy by Elmore Leonard

H is for Homicide by Sue Grafton

Bordersnakes by James Crumley

This was not a strong set of genre fiction works. I enjoyed reading French while in Ireland, was captivated by Deighton's historical family saga set mostly in Germany, and found this Stephen King to be a real page-turner (even if it had some serious flaws).

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, Paretsky's VI Warshawski, Burke's Dave Robicheaux,  Mosley's Easy Rawlins, and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer. All of these were fairly mediocre and forgettable. Indeed, until refreshing my memory with Google, I'd already forgotten the plot of at least half of the books listed above.

A couple of these stories imagine crimes against casinos/resorts (Stark/Lange), but several others similarly involve the main characters trying to penetrate a protected fortress of one kind or another (Crumley, MacInnes). Other stories involve corrupt politics or politicians (Spencer's tale, as well as Robicheaux's), troubled education systems (Spencer again, Archer, and Rawlins) and dubious religious figures (Millhone, McGee, and the detectives in Himes). 

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Wednesday, December 19, 2018

November events

As I did for September and October, I'm blogging about my activities in Ottawa tied to my Fulbright research chair. Again, this serves as preparatory work for my final report to the funding agency.

Though I'm not going to detail every meeting, I talked to multiple local academics and regularly attended a security-related brownbag on the Carleton campus. A couple of those meetings with faculty will apparently lead to a future research project and I'll mention it eventually when I have more concrete details. It will tie together some of my past work on narratives and the Iraq war.

I will note a lunch with Dr. Gerry Schmitz, a former policy analyst with the Parliamentary Information and Research Service from 1981-2011. I previously blogged about a couple of important upcoming events on US-Canada relations that Gerry is helping to organize that will include my participation. Gerry is also a professional film critic and has a new book that compiles many of his reviews.  Film is a major common interest, of course.

On November 9, I attended a presentation by one of the deans of Canadian IR, Kim Richard Nossal, "I Mean, What's an Ally? The Trump Cession and Canadian Foreign Policy." Nossal outlined many of the horrible things Trump has said about Canada and Canadians--and discussed the potential implications for US-Canadian relations.

On November 14, I attended a panel at University of Ottawa on "What do the U.S. midterms mean for Trump (and Canada)?" NPSIA colleague Meredith Lilly focused on US-Canada trade issues, which was helpful for my research, and veteran international affairs analyst Michael Kergin offered some interesting relevant ideas as well.

Early in the month, I was interviewed by two Carleton Journalism students who wanted to talk about the upcoming US midterm elections. I correctly forecast that the Dems would win 35 or more new seats and that the Republicans would hold the Senate.

For leisure, early in the month, my spouse and I took our dog to visit the falls on the Rideau river, which is near the French Embassy east of downtown Ottawa.

On November 11 Remembrance Day, we visited the Canadian War Museum. It was too large to go through all the exhibits on one day, so we focused on the World War I exhibitions, including the special one to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the armistice, though I also went through the section on post World War II-Canadian policy.

On November 30, we visited the Diefenbunker Museum in Carp, which is located in the former bunker that was going to host top Canadian government officials during the Cold War in the event of a nuclear attack. There were rooms filled with old computers, communication equipment, and high-level meeting spaces. The Prime Minister's bedroom looked like a 1960s vintage college dorm room -- or summer camp room.

My daughters visited Ottawa for  American Thanksgiving. It was brutally cold, but we did visit the National Gallery (and IKEA).

I also played in a faculty poker game and won a few Canadian dollars.

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Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Climate Politics In Canada

When teaching, I often explain to my students that other western democracies generally don't have debates about the veracity of climate science. Instead, the debates often focus on the cost and appropriateness of particular policy measures.

In Canada, for example, I attended a Fulbright scholar panel recently that revealed this quite clearly. The business lobbyist on the panel, who used to work for conservative PM Steven Harper, favored a form of carbon pricing. That typically means either taxing carbon or creating a cap on carbon levels and auctioning permits.

Today, I was reading a recent magazine article (from an insert in the Toronto Globe and Mail) and found this interesting excerpt in a piece on Canadian oil sands:
Suncor CEO Steve Williams, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the most ardent critics of climate-policy footdragging you'll find anywhere. 
"It is a matter of profound disappointment to me," Williams told a Calgary crowd recently, "that science and economics have taken on some strange political ownership--why the science of the left wing is different than the science of the right wing." You could be forgiven for thinking he was directing his ire at opponents of his industry, but his actual target was the political right and its refusal to give a fair hearing to economists arguing that carbon pricing represents the most efficient way to take action. It was, in essence, an established oil sands CEO dressing down his most vocal boosters--telling them it's time to get with the program on climate change.
The article continues by discussing various efficiency innovations firms have introduced in the production of energy from oil sands:
Oil sands companies have embraced the need to act on climate change not because it might make them look better, but because the risk of not acting has proven to be so great--a fact made clear to the industry almost daily since the name "Keystone XL" first hit the international political radar. Oil sands companies know they have no viable future unless they can find a way to be welcome and profitable in a low-carbon economy. 
The other critical lesson oil sands companies have learned is that there is opportunity in taking action. For many, this has meant obsessive efficiency improvements. By consuming less fossil fuel in the digging and processing of bitumen, they have cut costs and boosted profits, even as they've shrunk the carbon footprint of each barrel of oil. It's mainly a question of competitiveness, but also an opportunity to develop pollution-reducing technologies that may one day be of enormous value in the marketplace. 
Canadians are also talking seriously about uses of those oil sand bitumen that don't involve burning it for energy. An interesting study on that theme was prepared by Alberta Innovates (provincially-funded) and was discussed in an October Corporate Knights article.
The study, known as Bitumen Beyond Combustion, gave a reasonably positive outlook for bitumen-based materials that are expected to see demand growth over the period until 2030, a time when demand for crude oil will grow at a slower rate than it has over the past decade. 
Chief among those materials are carbon fibres derived from bitumen. Carbon fibre is a fast-growing product that is both strong and light. Currently, the industry is growing at a compound annual growth rate of more than 10 per cent. 
Already in use in products like cars, the bitumen study found that future growth would be underpinned on carbon fibres replacing steel, cement and wood – and that bitumen-made carbon fibres could also find a market by being mixed with those materials. 
If carbon fibres took just one per cent of the global steel market by 2030, that would require 3 million barrels of bitumen a day, the study found.
That kind of usage would be significant. In 2017, Canadian oil sands production was about 2.6 million barrels per day. Recent projections suggest 3.8 mbd production by 2025.

The study also discussed asphalt as a major alternative use:
 Another avenue could be asphalt for roads. The market, currently US$50 billion in value globally, is expected to grow 4.1 per cent until 2030, the Bitumen Beyond Combustion report said. 
The oil sands already produce road asphalt for western Canada. The trouble with expanding into new markets is that it needs to be kept very hot for transport, as high as 150 degrees Celsius. But if the process of turning the material into pellets can be made cheaper, oil sands-sourced asphalt would fulfil large demand in China, said Nathan Ashcroft, an engineer with Stantec who worked on the study. 
“That’s something that can be achieved much, much quicker (than carbon fibre),” Ashcroft said. “The infrastructure, the rail cars, are out there, the global pull, the pricing mechanisms – people are building roads all over the world everyday.” 
Getting oil sands-derived asphalt onto international markets in five years is within reach, he said. Markets for carbon fibres mixed with other materials like concrete, which offer an opening for bitumen as a feedstock, will become widespread within the 10- to 20-year timeframe, said engineer Axel Meisen, who also worked on the study.

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Thursday, December 13, 2018

NPSIA Presentation

Today at noon, I gave a talk on "America First, Canada, and the Prospects for Multilateralism." The room seats 18-20 comfortably and my spouse counted 24 people in the NPSIA (Norman Paterson School of International Affairs) Boardroom. I talked for about 40 minutes and then we had roughly 45 minutes of Q&A.

The audience was mostly students and faculty at NPSIA, though a Fulbright Canada program officer, a former principal analyst on international affairs on Parliament Hill, and at least three people from Global Affairs Canada were also in attendance.

The audience members peppered me with good questions that will help with the writing as I move forward on my project. I have a paper due in March when I attend a conference on "Canadian-US Relations" at Iowa State.

Steve Saideman of NPSIA tweeted about the event and snapped a couple of pictures:

This was not actually my research question, but we did discuss this:

The faculty and staff at NPSIA were terrific hosts and I have really enjoyed my time in Ottawa. I'm grateful to Fulbright Canada and to the many patient and accommodating academics at both Carleton and University of Ottawa.

If you are an IR scholar with some level of interest in Canada's relations with the U S, then I recommend you think about applying for this Fulbright opportunity in the future.

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Friday, December 07, 2018

October events

A few weeks ago, I posted about what I did in September during my Fulbright stint in Ottawa, Ontario. This post will summarize my October.

On the 2nd, I attended a Workshop at Carleton on North America 2.0. A group of scholars have been meeting to write an update of Bob Pastor's 2012 book on The North American Idea: A Vision of a Continental Future. I attended a couple of panels and learned a good deal about current and potential ties linking the US, Canada, and Mexico. Coincidentally, Pastor's book was one of the few books I brought to Canada, so I read it in preparation for the meeting.

Based on my "America First" chapter in the forthcoming Canada-US Relations book (in the series on Canada Among Nations), I gave a presentation in David Carment's Canadian Foreign Policy class. Incidentally, I have submitted revised page proofs already and the book is slated to be published on February 14, 2019. On October 15, I attended a presentation about the new USMCA by Chris Sands, who with Carment edited that book.

On October 26, I attended a very interesting panel at Carleton on "Small Wars, Big Data."  It was part of the Conference of Defence Associations meeting, held on campus during Carleton's week of fall break. On the 31st, I attended a presentation on "The War on Terror Gone Wrong" at University of Ottawa by former Canadian diplomat Daniel Livermore.

For my research project on US-Canadian relations, I met fairly regularly with some local academics, read various public speeches by middle power Foreign Ministers, and tried to gain a better understanding of Canadian perspectives. I learned interesting lessons about the domestic appeal of modest anti-Americanism, the great dependence of Canada on trade with US, and the intense interest in the American midterm elections. I voted in Kentucky by dropping my absentee ballot at the American embassy.

During part of October, I also worked on a revision and resubmitted for journal publication my manuscript “Grappling with Dr. Strangelove’s Wargasm Fantasy,” based on a paper I delivered at the 2016 ISSS/ISAC conference at Notre Dame. Earlier this week, I learned that the paper will be appearing as a journal article in International Studies Review.

During the fall weather, my spouse and I walked all over downtown Ottawa (often with our dog Paddy) -- visiting Parliament Hill, the Byward Market, Lansdowne (for the Farmer's Market), the Rideau Canal, etc. We also drove over the Ottawa River to Quebec on Canadian Thanksgiving and hiked in the beautiful Gatineau Park.

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