Monday, July 24, 2017

Three Square Market: Microchips in the Body

A Wisconsin company called Three Square Market is offering to embed microchips in its employees' bodies, between their thumb and forefinger (the Post's article is here). And it turns out they are not even the first to do so! A Swedish company called Epicenter began implanting chips earlier this year.

The chips will allow people to open automatic doors, pay for purchases, login to computers, and store medical information.

I had a feeling these kind of chips would be used eventually, but I would not have predicted it to happen so soon. How quickly will this technology spread?

Elsewhere on the "future front", I recently saw a headline that Lyft will offer rides with driverless cars before the end of 2017.

Since the rise of smart phones, I have realized that new technologies can spread (and, indeed, become ubiquitous) very quickly than. I'm not sure whether implanted microchips or driverless cars will be common within the next ten years, but I am starting to think it is possible.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Dunkirk


On Friday I went to see Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. This was the movie I most anticipated this summer.

The reviews have been almost unanimously positive, with two exceptions. Some of the critics complained about the three interwoven timelines (panned as "NolanTime"), and many of them pointed out that it's difficult to understand the dialogue.

The film is quite good, but it's not on the level of Saving Private Ryan. My biggest complaint tracks the second critique noted above: I didn't have a clue, most of the time, what the soldiers and airmen were saying to one another. In addition, I could not tell the soldiers apart, so I was uncertain how their stories fit together and developed.

Notwithstanding those complaints, Dunkirk is outstanding at the impressionistic level. The camera angles and motion are dramatic, particularly those involving the aerial dogfights. The soundtrack adds to the visual imagery (I particularly liked the ticking clock effect), and the emotions on the various actors' faces are compelling (Mark Rylance stands out).

I've just done a bit of reading about Dunkirk, because my major question after seeing the film is how the British allowed themselves to get "trapped" on the beach there. This battle occurred quite early in the war (late May to early June of 1940), so I was uncertain of why the British army retreated to the coast, rather than digging in elsewhere along the lines of World War I. I do not yet understand the underlying strategy that led them to Dunkirk, and I'll need to do some additional reading.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Big Little Lies

We recently watched Big Little Lies, an HBO series starring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley.

Set in Monterey, California (with lots of beautiful Pacific Ocean scenery), the story follows five wealthy families brought together by their children's attendance in the same 1st grade classroom.

There's a Greek chorus of secondary characters (including the school principal) who gossip about the main characters, and there's an emphasis on (1) gender roles and (2) the depressing generational aspect of domestic violence and bullying.

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Reece Witherspoon's character was the most fascinating to me, perhaps because she reminded me of aspects of people I've known, or perhaps because she is a contemporary and I've watched her change and evolve (from Election through Legally Blonde and Walk the Line) while I've done the same.

I was engaged by this show, but not fully drawn in the way I've been with other recent series (Sneaky Pete; The Night Manager). Most of the plot and thematic elements have been explored elsewhere -- and to greater effect.

Nevertheless, it was interesting to watch the particular social dynamics within and among the families, particularly with the overlay of child dynamics that are relevant to our own lives just now.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Charlottesville's Parks and Statues: A Season of Discontent


Far and away the biggest news story in Charlottesville, these past twelve months, has been City Council's vote to rename Lee and Jackson Parks and to remove the two equestrian statues. Indeed, this has become a national news story, alongside a similar decision by the city of New Orleans to remove several Confederate memorials.

The debate about the statues has raised temperatures on both sides. Early this summer, I was stunned to learn that the KKK would gather in Charlottesville (I did not realize the KKK was even still an active organization). Fortunately, their protest last Saturday was quite small (it engendered a considerably larger counter-protest).

As an educator and student of history, I am sorting out my feelings and opinions about this debate. While practicing law, Dad and I had picnic lunches frequently in Lee Park; as I've written before, the cherry tree there is my favorite tree in the city. I do not have nearly as much certainty about the path forward as the outspoken advocates on either side. I do think that Mike Signer has done a very good job of representing the city -- and I do not envy him the pressure he is facing.


The Lee Park cherry tree, circa 2013

Friday, June 30, 2017

Questions About Mitch McConnell and the Senate Health Care Bill

608. Is McConnell really as great a procedural tactician as the conventional wisdom holds? Or is this just an easy descriptor, used by the media, to try to enliven a politician who does not seem all that engaging?

609. What are the chances of the Senate passing a bill? I'd say there is a 75% chance of eventual passage, primarily because of the (really) negative optics of the Republicans going an entire year -- while controlling both houses of Congress and the Presidency -- without any major legislative success.

610. One point of contention is the 3.8% surtax (imposed under Obamacare) on income above $200,000.00. How was the 3.8% rate chosen? Why wasn't a round number (3.5% or 4.0% used)? Was this a compromise among the politicians, or was it the percentage that was chosen by the economist-advisors as maximally efficient?

611. Will there ever be a time, during my life, when a person can ask his/her doctor the cost of a procedure, ahead of time, and find out the answer? Or does an insurance-driven system (even if it's a single payer system) mandate that the price is unknown until after the procedure is "coded" for the insurer?

612. Which US Representative or Senator is the most interested in the details of health care? Is it one of the people with a medical background, or it is someone who is fascinated with economics and institutional change?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Colson Whitehead's "Sag Harbor" (2009)


I am reading Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Set in the mid 1980s, the story is narrated by Benji, an middle school-aged African American whose family spends the summer on Long Island. I gather that the Sag Harbor community, at the eastern end of the island near the Hamptons, was frequented by African American professionals from New York City.

The tone and structure of the book is reminding me of The Way Back, a coming of age movie from several summers ago about a young teenager’s experiences at a mid 1980s water park. Like that movie, Sag Harbor is infused with an overlay of nostalgia for a simpler time. Reading the book makes me think about my own youth and the way that life in the 1980s did seem quieter (on a societal level) and less complex (on a personal level).

Whitehead uses a comparison of Run D.M.C. lyrics (Here We Go from 1983) and Ice Cube lyrics (Now I Gotta Wet’cha from 1992) to question how society became so much more violent in the course of a decade. Here’s an excerpt:
“All of us, the singers and the audience, were of the same generation. Something happened. Something happened that changed the terms and we went from fighting (I’ll knock that grin off your face) to annihilation (I will wipe you from this Earth). How we got from here to there are the key passages in the history of young black men that no one cares to write. We live it instead.”
This is an excellent book on the level of (1) vivid story-telling (example: the hilarious description of working at Jonni Waffle and the centrality of waffle cones to the 1980s ice cream experience) and (2) individual sentences. Whitehead uses a mix of long and short sentences, and he’s got some awesome nuggets of social commentary.

What’s missing, so far, is a larger thematic depth. Sag Harbor is a coming of age story, and Benji thinks a lot about his relative shyness (as compared to his friends) and awkwardness, but beyond the exploration of adolescence I am not yet sure if Whitehead is making a larger point. I think that the squib on the back cover, which describes the book’s chapters as a series of short stories, accurately captures the essence of Sag Harbor: “it riffs on the essential quests of teenage boys: BB guns, nude beaches, beer and, above all, the elusive secret to fitting in.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Markelle Fultz Is Number One; Malik Monk A Steal at Eleven

Markelle Fultz

Thursday night was first round of the NBA draft, and the story receiving the most coverage was the Lakers' selection of Lonzo Ball. I knew a bit more about this year's prospects having watched a fair amount of the NCAA Tournament, but as usual I have not seen most of these players -- even on television.

While running this morning, I listened to Bill Simmons and Joe House dissect and grade the draft.

Simmons
Simmons's most emphatic analysis was that Malik Monk was a major steal at #11, and that the Kings should have taken Monk just after his Kentucky teammate DeAaron Fox (instead, they traded down).

606. I love listening to Bill Simmons talk about the NBA (I've been doing it for several years now), even though I hardly watch any games. Why do I enjoy listening to him so much? His discussions tend to be quite substantive and sophisticated, but is there something additional that is drawing me in? Is it that Simmons represents an alternate "dream" course for my life, in which I became a famous sports analyst? Is it that I respect and admire his loyalty to his father and long-time friends? It must have something to do with us being near-contemporaries, which enables me to consider his thoughts and life experiences from the perspective of my own.

607. I watched portions of a couple of this years Finals' games (Golden State defeated Cleveland, 4-1), and I was absolutely stunned by how good the players are. Was this series the highest level of basketball ever played?

Here were the first 11 picks from Thursday night...
  1. 76ers: Markelle Fultz (G) - Washington
  2. Lakers: Lonzo Ball (G) - UCLA
  3. Celtics: Jayson Tatum (F) - Duke
  4. Suns: Josh Jackson (F) - Kansas
  5. Kings: DeAaron Fox (G) - Kentucky
  6. Magic: Jonathan Isaac (F) - Florida State
  7. Bulls: Lauri Markkanen (F) - Arizona
  8. Knicks: Frank Ntilikina (G) - France
  9. Mavericks: Dennis Smith Jr. (G) - NC State
  10. Trail Blazers: Zach Collins (F/C) - Gonzaga
  11. Hornets: Malik Monk (G) - Kentucky

Friday, June 23, 2017

Amazon Buys Whole Foods

The summer's biggest business news is that Amazon agreed to purchase Whole Foods for $13.7 billion. This story has particular relevance given the extent to which we buy our home goods through Amazon and many of our groceries at Whole Foods (I think we shop more frequently at Harris Teeter, but we definitely like the produce and dairy products at WF). 

Here's an excerpt from the Washington Post that explains one of the business reasons for the purchase:
The deal has the potential to boost the outsized ambitions of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Whole Foods chief John Mackey, each of whom has already radically altered the way Americans shop. Like other grocers, Whole Foods is increasingly pushing its store brand products, most notably those under the “365 Everyday Value” name. Amazon already has shown an interest in boosting its own brands. After introducing its “AmazonBasics” batteries, for instance, the site made them the top result for “batteries” searches over Duracell and Energizer. If the Whole Foods deal goes through, those items could get prime real estate on a massive platform outside the chain’s 440 U.S. stores. Working in Amazon and Whole Foods’ favor is the growing acceptance of store brands, also known as generic or private-label brands.
This sounds like a variant of vertical/horizontal integration, in which Amazon will control additional aspects of the distribution chain. I gather that Amazon is also interested in delivering fresh food by drone (is this truly a possibility?) and in providing Whole Foods customers with the option of pre-purchasing their groceries and then picking them up in the store.

603. How does the price compare with other recent mega-mergers? In truth, $13.7 billion for Whole Foods strikes me as cheap.

604. Are there any antitrust concerns involved? I wouldn't think so, since the two companies specialize in different industries; on the other hand, it sounds like stock price of the other major grocers (Kroger etc.) have taken a hit since the deal was announced.

605. Does the proportion of our family's budget spent at Amazon increase, consistently, each year? If so, by how much?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

American Crime: Props to John Ridley and Richard Cabral


Recently I watched the first and second seasons of American Crime. This is a very well done show, and I've recommended it to several people (including Chap, with whom I had a great visit in Richmond yesterday).

A crime (or an alleged crime) is viewed from the perspective of multiple characters, but the police and prosecutors play a much less central role than in most crime procedurals. Instead, the story focuses on relationship dynamics and the way that major social issues (including race, class and immigration) affect the lives of "real people".

The characters are fleshed out and substantive. Each character has flaws, and each character has things to admire (or at least to contemplate admiring). Nobody is one dimensional, and as with other shows that I have most enjoyed watching in the past several years (The Wire, Six Feet Under), I felt genuinely drawn into the characters' struggles and emotions. In other words, the writers and directors created people about whom I actually care.

For me, creating these kinds of characters -- and then illustrating how they respond to questions that can affect us all -- is one of the things that the best fiction (literature, movies, or television) does.

The creator of American Crime is John Ridley. It turns out that Ridley wrote the screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, which is one of the most powerful films I've seen in the past several years.

I'd put Ridley up there with David Simon as one of our great current auteurs, and I am already looking forward to what he does next.


In the first season, the character of Hector Tontz (played by Richard Cabral) had a particularly strong effect on me. Hector is involved in the underlying crime, and initially he comes across as lacking remorse and spiteful -- bordering on downright mean.

Over the course of the show, Hector's plight illustrates some of the prejudices and racism with which immigrants deal, and I discovered he has many redeeming qualities. By show's end, I was desperately rooting for him.

And wow, Cabral is a great actor. In a show where the acting is uniformly strong (it really is an ensemble effort, like The Wire), Cabral's expressions, eyes, and voice were uniquely captivating. I'm not sure whether I actually had tears for the final scene, but I was definitely close.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Questions About President Trump

Trump and Ivanka
President Trump has been in office for five months. He has not had any legislative accomplishments, but he has (1) dramatically changed the enforcement of immigration law and (2) symbolically reduced our commitment to global efforts against climate change.

My primary takeaway is not about policy, however. I fear that Trump has brought a mean spirit to our national life and permanently changed the (already declining) norms related to respectful conversation and cooperation. In this sense, Trump's negative impact mirrors the long-term effects of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky and his lying to the American people about the affair.

Clinton normalized the sexualization of our culture and the ability to lie and get away with it. The effects are still being felt, twenty years later. Sadly, I believe that Trump's meanness will percolate through many aspects of our society and change our culture for the worse.

601. Does President Trump even want to be President? Are certain of his behaviors (for example, firing James Comey) a subconscious way of flouting political norms so much that he brings about his own demise?

602. Did President Trump foresee himself winning the election (and did he actually want to win)? Was his victory as surprising to him as it was to the "political/media elite"? Dad maintained, throughout the campaign, that Trump did not want to win, and the more I watch and read, the more I am convinced that Dad was correct.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Pope Francis Travels to Latin America


Two people have dominated the news during the summer of 2015: Pope Francis (inspiring) and Donald Trump (sometimes amusing, but usually depressing).

Last week, the Pope traveled to Latin America -- in particular, to Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay. I gather that he chose these countries because they are three of the continent's poorest, and he is emphasizing the issue of global poverty.

In an article in yesterday's Times (here), Binyamin Applebaum compares Francis's focus on poverty (and its link to global warming) to Pope John Paul's challenge to communism in the 1980's. I like the way that Applebaum puts Francis in historical context, and I think the analogy to John Paul is accurate.

I think it's fantastic that Francis is so engaged on the issue of climate change. He is one of the few (only?) people in the world with the moral (as opposed to scientific) authority to speak on the topic, and I think his words could greatly influence (1) people's opinions and (2) government policy. I don't care if some of his prescriptions are not quite right; I'm just glad that he is focusing people's attention and efforts on the big picture of climate change and the urgent need to address it.

I love the photograph above, which accompanied yesterday's article and shows the pope with two children in Paraguay. It really emphasizes his humanity and ability to connect with people.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Obama's Trade Agenda

The House of Republicans voted against Obama's requested "Trade Promotion Authority" yesterday, with the majority of the opposition coming from Democrats.

It sounds like there will probably be a second attempt at passage next week, but my sense is that the Democratic opponents really want (and intend) to hold firm. I watched a Judy Woodruff interview with Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon) on the News Hour last night, and he was practically seething with resentment against President Obama - it might have been the angriest I've ever seen a Congressman get (especially against his own party's President)!

Nancy Pelosi had been holding her cards close to the vest about her position on trade, but yesterday she came out forcefully against the bill.


600. Is President Obama being honest in promoting this bill; does he genuinely believe it's in America's best interest? Or, does he instead view the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the economically ("big-picture") correct path, even if he actually sympathizes more with the liberal opposition?

Friday, June 12, 2015

Lots of New Buildings in Charlottesville

Although the Landmark Hotel remains frozen-in-unfinished-place (six years now? seven?!), construction is otherwise booming in Charlottesville.

In our neighborhood, the last two vacant lots have been built-on in the past year, and there are multiple new subdivisions at Pantops, Rio Road, Crozet and elsewhere.

The commercial real estate business seems particularly strong. It started with Stonefield a few years ago (I'm still not a fan of this shopping center -- it's too crowded and feels like generic northern Virginia), and a current focus of construction is West Main Street.

The Flats at West Village is all out-of-proportion and too close to the street, but the cancer wing of UVa Hospital (named after Emily Couric) is the opposite: beautiful architecture and built to scale. There's a massive new hotel being built on the corner of West Main and Ridge/McIntire, and I'm worried that it might have the same overbearing effect as The Flats.

One major success has been the Bypass / Meadowcreek Parkway interchange. The landscaping there has been really nice (lots of trees and vegetation), and I like the views you get when you drive up and over McIntire Road. I'm curious to see whether the Rio / 29 North interchange will be equally successful (the lawsuit attempting to stop the project was rejected this week by Judge Moon).

This is a picture I took yesterday of the new Marriott (corner of Ridge and West Main). 

I'm a little worried it's going to completely swallow Lewis & Clark.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Song of the Summer 2015: Early Contenders


The Tallest Man on Earth (Kristian Matsson) has an absolutely brilliant new album, Dark Bird is Home. It's a mix of slow and fast, up and down. Poetry throughout.

The primary focus is Matsson's voice and guitar. I love this music - it reminds me of some of Van Morrison's best albums. My favorite song (for now, anyway) is Slow Dance, which is completely original in tone and beat.

There's a funny moment in the middle of the song where Matsson clears his throat; I can't figure out if if was just such a good take that he decided to leave in the throat-clear, or if it's the musical equivalent of the rare spelling mistake that gets past the copy editors (I recently discovered one in David Brooks's new book).


Meanwhile, Nate Ruess has a new album coming out next week. The first single, Great Big Storm, is uplifting, anthemic, and fantastic. I discovered the song listening to All Songs Considered while gardening the other night, and I couldn't stop repeating it.

Because we're holding on in a great big storm, it's a great big storm but we're holding on
And though we're cutting it close, we won't let go

Broken hearts broken homes and broken bones
Secret love let me go
You know I got to find my own way
Through mistakes that I can't change

Because there's beauty in every win
Every single black eye has some blue like the moon just before the sun shines

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Education in the News: Nevada's Voucher Program and Corinthian Colleges

There have been two big education stories in the news this past week:

First, Nevada became the first state to offer vouchers to every public school student (regardless of income), which can be used for tuition at a private school or for supplies for home schooling. The vouchers will be worth approximately $5,400.00 per student. The Washington Post's story is here.

The law was passed by Nevada's Republican-controlled legislature and signed by Governor Brian Sandoval (he's in the picture to the left). Teachers' unions and public school superintendents are very upset about the law, fearing that it could permanently damage the public school system.

I studied Milton Friedman's philosophical underpinnings of vouchers (along with charter schools) when I wrote my law review article in 2003-04. I think it's interesting that, as charter schools have continued to gain popularity and support, there is now a state that's willing to try the voucher experiment. I think it's an appropriate experiment and will be curious to follow its effects.

The second story is that Arne Duncan announced a loan forgiveness program for students at Corinthian Colleges (the NYT's story is here).

Corinthian is a network of for-profit colleges that declared bankruptcy this spring amid widespread allegations of fraud. Many of its students use federal loans to pay the bulk of their tuition.

The amazing detail in this story is that, if all Corinthian students take advantage of the loan forgiveness, US taxpayers would be footing the $3.5 billion bill! This is a significant amount of money and I am actually surprised that the Department of Education has the authority to make this decision without Congressional input. That said, it sounds as though there are some Republicans (including John Kline, head of the House Education and Workforce Committee) who support Duncan's position.

Lamar Alexander, on the other hand, objects strongly:
“Students have been hurt, but the department is establishing a precedent that puts taxpayers on the hook for what a college may have done,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. 
“This is one more reason it was a bad idea to make the U.S. Department of Education the banker for students as well as the regulator of their colleges,” he continued. “If your car is a lemon you don’t sue the bank that made the auto loan; you sue the car company.”
Upon initial reflection, I'm inclined to agree with my old friend, the sweater-wearing Lamar (I always appreciated his moderation): it seems that the appropriate target for students' frustration would be Corinthian rather than the US government. That said, I do appreciate that Corinthian is not in a position to forgive the student loans and, therefore, it's up to the Department of Education to make the decision about whether to pursue the loan payments.


Here's some background about the company, from today's story in the Times:

Founded in 1995, Corinthian became one of the country’s largest for-profit education companies, buying up struggling vocational colleges across the country. It formerly had more than 110,000 students at 100 Heald, Everest and Wyotech campuses nationwide. The company was a longtime target for federal and state regulators, with a host of investigations and lawsuits charging falsified placement rates, deceptive marketing and predatory recruiting, targeting the most vulnerable low-income students.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

Last night I watched American Sniper. The film was directed by Clint Eastwood and stars Bradley Cooper (as Chris Kyle) and Siena Miller (as his wife).

Kyle was a Navy Seal who, during four tours of duty in Iraq, became the most lethal sniper in US military history; he killed at least 160 Iraqis. I remember learning about Kyle's death in 2013, when a fellow veteran (whom he was attempting to help) shot him at a shooting range. I remember thinking that his death seemed a tremendous irony, and I also recall that there was some controversy at the time about the details of his biography.

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American Sniper is a fine movie, but overall I was a bit disappointed. I don't think it broke any new ground in terms of its human-emotional or political narratives about the Iraq War and its effect on combatants (of both sides).

Over the course of the movie, Kyle begins to question his personal motivation for fighting, which was reminiscent of The Hurt Locker. The way that he prioritized his brothers-in-arms over his wife and family also reminded me of The Hurt Locker.

In terms of the larger geopolitical questions about America's involvement in Iraq, I think Generation Kill raised more questions and better conveyed a sense of moral ambiguity.

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598. I think American Sniper has been the most commercially successful of the post-September 11th films, and I wonder why it captured people's imaginations more than other (better-done) movies? I'm sure part of it has to do with Bradley Cooper being more of a "Type A Hollywood Hero" than the other leading actors, but why else was this movie so popular?

599. How many American soldiers have died in Iraq in 2015? I remember that a helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan earlier this year, but have there been any casualties in Iraq?

After watching American Sniper, I was curious about the historical authenticity of the Syrian sniper Mustafa, who Kyle pursues for several years. I gather that there was a sniper who had competed in the Olympics for Syria, but that the interweaving of Kyle and Mustafa's stories was more of a narrative artifice.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Loretta Lynch and the FIFA Prosecution


Loretta Lynch was confirmed as the new Attorney General this spring.

She is being praised this week for orchestrating the arrests of top officials at FIFA for conspiracy and bribery. Most of the arrested officials are Latin American, and President Sepp Blatter (who the guys on Hang Up and Listen have been criticizing and mocking for years) is noticeably not charged.

Prior to becoming the Attorney General, Lynch was the US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. My understanding is that she began the investigation into FIFA corruption while serving in that role.

Today in Slate, Mark Joseph Stern explains (here) that the media has been incorrectly portraying these arrests as a "takedown" of FIFA (the organization). In reality, says Stern, the Justice Department is trying to protect FIFA from the leaders who are guiding it improperly (and looting its funds):
Counterintuitive as it may seem, though, the Justice Department hasn’t alleged that FIFA is a criminal enterprise [under the RICO statutes].  
Rather, it has alleged that FIFA is the victim of a criminal enterprise—the group of corrupt officials who secured bribes and kickbacks through years of fraud and racketeering. Altogether these officials allegedly illegally solicited well over $150 million in exchange for exclusive media and marketing rights of international soccer tournaments ... 
America is not attempting to topple a bloated, unprincipled organization. Rather, it is attempting to protect that horrible organization from its even more unscrupulous officials. These men owed a duty to FIFA to carry out their jobs honorably and conduct their business legally. Instead, they allegedly conspired to bribe their way to millions in personal wealth. The money they’re accused of pocketing should have gone to FIFA. Instead, prosecutors say, it went into their bank accounts.
Stern's article is great: easy-to-comprehend and framing the entire story in its big picture legal context. This is the kind of writing that I want to aim for personally.

596. What is the likelihood that the 2022 World Cup will be moved from Qatar? I feel like there's at least a fifty percent chance, and I think that the dramatic stories of corruption have increased the chance significantly.

597. Will any of the FIFA officials plead guilty? Have they already been extradited to the United States, or are they still in Switzerland? I anticipate that the jurisdictional questions about charging foreigners in the United States will be quite complex. How solid is Lynch's claim of US jurisdiction?

Sepp Blatter

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Wolf Hall


This spring I watched Wolf Hall on PBS. An adaptation of a novel by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall tells the story of Thomas Cromwell from his time as Cardinal Woolsey's assistant until the beheading of Anne Boleyn.

This is a spectacular show. I was completely immersed in the historical details and the beautiful scenery. Mark Rylance plays the role of Cromwell and is in almost every scene. I understand that Rylance is a well-known British stage actor, but I'd never seen him before. His acting is mesmerizing: I wanted desperately to know what Cromwell was thinking about his various maniupulations, and Rylance dropped clues here and there, but for the most part he remains an enigma.

My favorite character, though, was Anne Boleyn (played by Claire Foy). She comes across as mean, power-hungry, self-centered -- and yet, at the heart of it, fragile. She seems real. She repeatedly pronounces Cromwell's name with a French accent; I think this is supposed to be a put-down, but somehow it reveals her own insecurity. Is this what's meant by "pathos"?

591. Queen Elizabeth's ultimate triumph (personal, political, historical) seems like one of the great ironies of history, in light of her mother's beheading and the back-story of Henry's disappointment in having another daughter. At what point in her life did Elizabeth first exert herself? Did Henry realize the greatness in his daughter, prior to his death?

592. How did Elizabeth feel about her mother?  How did she feel about Henry? Did she have more loyalty to her father, as monarch, despite his ruthlessness and cruelty?

593. Do William and Kate like to watch historical movies about the British royal family? Is William as pensive and "outside-the-box" as his father?

594. What's the most popular movie about the British royal family?

595. Damian Lewis does a terrific job as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall. At first, he reminded me too much of his role as Brody (from Homeland), but then his pompous craziness became believable and frightening, and I couldn't turn away. What was Henry really like? Was he a mad genius truly interested in the good of his country, or was he just a cruel tyrant blinded by his power?


Friday, May 29, 2015

Water Shortages in the West

Lake Mead

An ongoing story of 2015 is the drought in California. 

As I understand it, we are in the fourth year of a significant water shortage in the western United States -- California in particular. Based on the articles I've read, I'm not sure whether (most) scientists believe the drought is related to climate change, or whether it's a distinct weather-related phenomenon.

The New Yorker has written several stories about the drought. Because I have always been interested in water and its centrality in our lives, I am fascinated.  In the recent article Where the River Runs Dry (here), David Owen focuses his attention on the Colorado River.

Water rights in the river are governed by a 1922 agreement (the Colorado River Compact) that was entered into by seven states. The Compact divides the river into an Upper Basin and a Lower Basin, and each basin is allocated 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year (an acre foot is the amount of water that would fill one acre of land to a depth of twelve inches). 

The Upper Basin states (Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah) do not use their entire allocation. However, the two main reservoirs on which the Lower Basin depends for reserve water -- Lake Mead and Lake Powell -- have, since 1998, been significantly depleted.

The most fascinating part of the article is Owen's explanation that decreasing water usage can actually exacerbate the water shortage. I would never have guessed this, but here is the explanation:
Reducing waste seems like an obvious solution to overuse, but it can actually make the problem worse. Bradley Udall, a scientist at Colorado State University’s Colorado Water Institute—his family has been prominent in conservation and in regional and national politics for decades—told me that water use can be divided broadly into two categories: consumptive and non-consumptive.  
When a farmer irrigates a field with river water, he said, some of the water is consumed by whatever the farmer is growing and by evaporation, but some is returned to the stream. The ditch system in the Grand Valley carries runoff and surplus irrigation water back to the river, and that water is used again, mainly by other farmers. (Kent Holsinger told me that, on average, river water is used more than half a dozen times before it leaves the state.)  
Excess irrigation water also soaks into the earth, replenishing groundwater and, eventually, feeding surface streams. 
Udall said, “Efforts to improve water efficiency in agriculture almost always lead to increases in the consumed fraction. On an individual field, they make it look like we are using water better, but they actually move us in exactly the wrong direction.” Modern, efficient irrigation techniques can cause crop yields per acre-foot to rise, but also increase water consumption, so downstream users who relied on excess from upstream—the non-consumed fraction—now have to find water somewhere else.
587. What is the current status of water usage in Charlottesville? Several years ago, the size and location of the reservoir were contentious issues. Has everything been resolved, or are their lingering questions and disputes?

588. Do I consume more or less water than the average American (drinking, bathing, gardening, etc.)?

589. Am I correct that people use Lake Powell and Lake Mead recreationally, with lots of motor boats, jet skis, and swimming? If so, how has the depletion of the reservoirs affected recreational use (and property values)?

590. Will water conservation play any significant role in the 2016 Presidential election? Which candidate is most likely to focus on this issue?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Fruitvale Station

Last Thursday I saw Fruitvale Station after listening to a Bill Simmons interview with Michael B. Jordan, who plays Oscar Grant (and who played Wallace in The Wire). Grant was killed on January 1, 2009 by a Bay Area Rapid Transit security officer at the Fruitvale subway station in Oakland.

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I did not know about Oscar Grant prior to this movie. He is portrayed as a very sympathetic (if flawed) character. Like Daisy in Sisterland, Oscar has a young child, on whom he dotes. I am discovering that at this point in my life, I particularly like movies and books about parenthood.

Jordan's acting is powerful: he shows Grant having a range of different demeanors and perspectives ("masks"?), depending on the context and the person to whom he is talking. Grant is incredibly devoted to his mother, yet he has a temper that can be dangerously uncontrollable.

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Although the shooting is very clearly portrayed as unjustified, there is some level of ambiguity about the climactic scene and how the incident unfolded. This scene shows the complexity of narrative (and echoes the different perspectives on what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman).

My major problem with the movie is the one identified by several critics: there are too many story-telling artifices (such as the white woman whom Grant befriends at the grocery story, who inadvertently starts the subway fight).  These artifices clutter or detract from the tragedy at the center of the story.

Given how powerful the movie is, however, I am reluctant to complain about its flaws: Oscar Grant is one of the more fully-illustrated people from any movie I've seen, and I will not forget his story.