Monday, August 6, 2018

Mary Doria Russell's "Dreamers of the Day" (2008)

I read Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow almost twenty years ago. Although I cannot remember many of the details, I do recall being affected by the quality and clarity of the writing.

This summer, I have enjoyed slowly working my way through Dreamers of the Day, which is a similarly lovely read.

Russell's choice of words, descriptions and dialogue are like a satisfying piece of music: they reach me on both the intellectual and aesthetic levels ("prose as graceful and effortless as a seductive float down the Nile").

The protagonist is Agnes Shanklin, a 40 year old teacher from Ohio whose family has been decimated by the 1919 influenza epidemic. Agnes is shy, introverted, thoughtful -- perhaps surprisingly cosmopolitan given her limited experience in the world and lack of prior interactions with those outside of her family.

Using the inheritance from her deceased mother and sister, Agnes travels to Cairo to retrace the footsteps of her sister and brother-in-law. While there, she stumbles into the paths of T. E. Lawrence, Winston Churchill, and other colonialist Europeans who have gathered to resolve post World War I questions about the fate of the Middle East.

The Europeans literally create the nation-state of Iraq during a dinner meeting, over the prescient objections of one colleague who explains that the ethnic and religious tensions amongst the Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis could cause problems in the future.

I have loved learning about Lawrence and Churchill through the lens of Russell's imagined conversations and anecdotes. This is historical fiction at its best: it provides a glimpse into events and people that feels alive and real.

The background romance between Agnes and Karl (a German diplomat whose motives are a bit mysterious) is not quite as interesting, though it does provide a plotline of Agnes's growing confidence and determination.

I am happy that I stumbled across this book. As with the many books that the kids have enjoyed this summer, it makes me appreciate our public library as a truly awesome institution.

Friday, July 20, 2018

American Affairs: A Proposal for Congressional Earmarks

I've enjoyed reading, this summer, a journal called American Affairs. I picked up a copy before our trip to Squam, and I mix it in between the three novels I've been reading (Surrender Dorothy; Dairy Queen Days; Dreamers of the Day).

American Affairs includes a wide range of articles about policy and ideas. It is scratching an itch for intellectual deep dives that my daily review of the Washington Post (satisfying though it is!) does not reach.

For example, an article called "A Case for Congressional Earmarks" (by Robert Koons) explains the philosophical, constitutional and practical reasons that earmarks can (and did, in the past) serve as a helpful mechanism in American governance.

The article provides historical facts that help frame the topic:
The sheer volume of earmarks can be burdensome and time-consuming. The number peaked at fifteen thousand in 2005, a volume that created significant backlog in congressional committees. As a result of the odd marriage of convenience between Tea Party Republicans and progressive Democrats, spurred on by the center-left Citizens against Government Waste (a vestige of good-government types left over from the failed Grace Commission of the 1980s) and the left-leaning Center for Public Integrity, Congress imposed a total ban on earmarks in 2011. To say the least, Congress’s track record in the seven years since the ban has been less than stellar.
Koons argues that we'd be better off permitting earmarks once again. He also suggests certain reforms that could address prior problems -- this is the part of the article that I find especially helpful and thought-provoking.
  1. Limit earmarks to appropriations bills that come in under budget.
  2. Limit earmarks to appropriations bills produced in the normal way, through appropriation committees. Keep the ban on earmarks added to omnibus spending bills or continuing resolutions.
  3. Limit earmarks to projects vetted by public hearings before the appropriate committee or subcommittee.
  4. Require prior approval for each earmark from the majority party leader (or his designated agent).
  5. Limit the total number of earmarks per representative per year—for example, four per member per year (around two thousand total).
Congress seems less functional now than at any point in my life. Other than health care, the House and Senate are not proposing possible solutions to the challenges that confront us -- immigration, climate change, technology, infrastructure, etc. Actual legislation can only result if there are a range of alternatives on the table, but I don't get a sense that the table's even being set.

That being the case, it's hard not to accept Koons's premise: allowing earmarks could be a way to grease the skids, and get things moving again.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The World Cup: Kylian Mbappe

The World Cup is being held in Russia this summer. We've watched portions of several games.

T, in particular, was quite excited to cheer for Lionel Messi and his Argentine teammates. I'm not sure why, but this year's Cup has not seemed as big a deal as previous ones -- perhaps because the United States was not one of the 32 participants.

The underdog stories of the tournament have been Russia (they made it to the quarterfinals) and Croatia (who ultimately defeated Russia).

France defeated Belgium yesterday, 1-0, to advance to the championship. Their star performer has been Kylian Mbappe, who is quite fun to watch: fast, agile, confident. Watching Mbappe, one gets the sense that he sees the field in a way that other's don't -- similar to the way that LeBron is one step ahead of the competition on any given play.

Today, Croatia plays England in the second semifinal. I'm rooting for the underdog Croats, though I'll be happy for all the Brits if they make a long-awaited return to the championship.

Mbappe is only 19 years old, and he's the second highest paid player in football. His father is from Cameroon and his mother is from Algeria.

Playing against Argentina in the Round of 16, Mbappe became only the second teenager in history (after Pele!) to score two goals in the same match.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Robert Inman's "Dairy Queen Days" (1997)

I selected this book at the downtown library, not knowing anything about the author.

In a summer of Trumpian nonsense and the government's general failure to address the problems that ail us, I have enjoyed reading this book and thinking about life from the perspective of its characters.

It's a coming of age novel about Scout Moseley, a 16-year old from rural Georgia whose mother was recently committed to a mental institution and whose father, a Methodist minister, is in the midst of a crisis of faith.

The writing is crisp and the characters authentic. A primary theme is family: the ways that family members can repel us but, ultimately, provide a foundation for the way that we perceive the world.

Scout is angry with his father (Joe Pike), but he cannot bring himself to cut loose. Interestingly, though, he does not reach out to his mother, which is surprising given the overall theme of family above all else.

Meanwhile, Scout's aunt Alma and uncle Cicero are struggling with their frustrations with each other. Ultimately, they too remain faithful to the bond of family.

Joe Pike's questions about the nature of God don't break any new philosophical ground, but I do like the idea of a minister visibly, publicly struggling with his own beliefs. I imagine that most ministers spend a lot of time thinking about faith (their own and other people's), but I wonder how often ministers undertake a full-on separation from their religious institution?

Here's a passage:
"Imagine this," Joe Pike said, the words rushing out. "Imagine that someday we discover something really big out there." He swept one hand toward the heavens. "Some concept so complex and yet so pure and simple that it explains everything. What's smaller than small, what's beyond beyond. What if we wretched little human beings with our muddled minds and corrupted spirits suddenly stumble onto the big answer. And at that very instant of discovery God says, 'Okay, that's what I was waiting for. Curtain down. Come on home.' And that's the Second Coming. Not God coming to us, but us coming to God."

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Douthat on Similarities Between Obama and Trump

Among pundits, Ross Douthat continues to provide some of the most original analysis and thinking. 

In today's Times, Douthat outlines the surprising similarities between Trump's and Obama's foreign policies:
... There is also a mirror-image quality to their gambits and ambitions. Trump is trying to make a deal with North Korea, a last Cold War holdout, much as Obama did with Cuba. Trump is angering a traditional set of allies (the Europeans and now Canada) while pining for a d├ętente with an authoritarian rival (Russia); Obama had a similar approach to realignment in the Middle East, angering the Israelis and Saudis while seeking an accommodation with Iran. 
Meanwhile, there is a clear overlap in the two presidents’ approach to the global war on terrorism they inherited from George W. Bush: Both are willing to be aggressive with drones and bombs and special forces, both claim expansive executive authority to determine battlefields and targets, but both are wary of wider wars and ready to feud with their own advisers about anything that involves ground troops.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The Pope's Opinion on Selfies

I appreciated Pope Francis's recent comments about technology:
“They were all there waiting for me,” the Pope said. “When I arrived, they made noise, as young people do. I went to greet them and only a few gave their hand. The majority were with their cellphones (saying), ‘photo, photo, photo. Selfie!’ “ 
“I saw that this is their reality, that is the real world, not human contact. 
And this is serious. They are ‘virtualized’ youths,” the pope said. “The world of virtual communication is a good thing, but when it becomes alienating, it makes you forget to shake hands.”

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Gods and Generals

I bought Gods and Generals at this year's Gordon Avenue book sale. I have been reading it for the past several weeks, learning a considerable amount about the military history of 1861-1863.

Jeff Shaara's writing is clear, and the book contains moments of real insight into the minds of Lee, Jackson, Hancock and Chamberlain.

Shaara manages to provide both the "big picture" (the strategic decisions, political context, and large scale battlefield troop movements) and the lived experience of those directly involved. He is a very good storyteller.

I've learned a great deal about the Battle of Fredericksburg, which serves as the focal point (and climax) of the second half of the book. I did not previously realize how momentous this battle was. It seems like the Union could have ended the war much sooner if Ambrose Burnside had acted decisively (although, in Burnside's defense, the delay of pontoons for crossing the Rappahannock River provided a logistical challenge).

Although Shaara's writing glorifies the soldier's experience, he also captures the futility and tragedy of war. Here's a sampling of his description of Fredericksburg, seen through the eyes General Winfield Scott Hancock:
He rode out along the edge of the formation, watched through his glasses as French's men reached the first of the fences, the lines slowing, men pulling down the wooden rails. The shelling was following them out, like a violent storm that moves with you, the gunners adjusting their range, hurling their solid shot through French's lines with vicious effect. Hancock saw a great black mass hit the ground, splattering dirt and men, and the black ball still coming, rolling and bouncing across the patches of snow and grass, then burrowing into the lines of his own men.
A detail that surprised me is that the battle occurred in mid-December, with lots of snow on the ground. When I picture the Civil War, I typically see green fields and summer skies. Something about the idea of men laying in the snow, dead and dying, is gripping.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Summit With North Korea: A Stumbling Block Appears

It appears that the North Korea-US summit has hit its first stumbling block. Today's lead article in the Post explains that the North's chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, has threatened to cancel the summit in light of:
Kim Gye Gwan

  1. Recent US/South Korea military drills
  2. John Bolton's stated insistence that North Korea denuclearize in the same fashion that Libya did in 2004
When Qaddafi negotiated with the Bush Administration in 2004, I gather that he agreed to completely terminate Libya's nuclear program. Seven years later, he was overthrown and assassinated. I imagine that the precedent is not appealing to Kim and his regime.

This new development reinforces my question from yesterday: How can the US agree to anything short of total denuclearization, and how can the North Koreans make that commitment? It seems like an unsolvable puzzle to me, but perhaps the diplomats will be able to finesse it.

Here's a painting from a North Korean artist named Jong Choi. I found it via a Huffington Post article about North Korean art.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Questions About Kim Jong Un

President Trump will meet with Kim Jong Un in June. Their summit has been planned on an extraordinarily fast timeline, and it's unclear what kind of agreement is contemplated. I assume that Kim will promise to halt North Korea's nuclear weapon program, in exchange for economic concessions from the United States.

615. At what age did Kim learn that he would become the leader of North Korea?

616. How many individuals within the North Korean government have a significant influence on Kim? Of these individuals, how many agree with his "rapid fire" Trumpian diplomacy?

617. Does Kim read much? Who are his leadership role models?

618. Which country poses a more immediate threat to the United States: Iran or North Korea? And which poses a more significant long term threat?

619. If Trump agrees to anything short of a permanent ban on nuclear development by North Korea, wouldn't he be contradicting one of his central critiques of Obama's deal with Iran?

This is a video that I found on You Tube, showing scenes from Pyongyang. I am uncertain whether it's a propaganda video made by the government. The street scenes -- in particular, the apartment blocks -- are reminiscent of St. Petersburg.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Henry Jamison's "Real Peach"

613. Is it too early to start thinking about Song of the Summer contenders?

614. Can a song released during the prior calendar year contend for the SotS title?

Two weeks ago I discovered Real Peach, by Henry Jamison. I cannot stop listening to it; I absolutely love this song. Even though the song is not sad (or I don't think so, at any rate), Jamison's voice is haunting. I am fascinated by the way he modulates it, particularly on the lines "If all is fair, in love and war." The instrumentation is beautiful, and the lyrics are mysterious enough to keep me coming back.

I've sampled the rest of the album ("The Wilds") and have not yet latched onto another song. Jamison's talent is so evident, though, that I anticipate I will find more, as I continue to listen. For now, I am just going to continue to bask in the musical glory of Peach.

On that erstwhile May morning 

I took the Six downtown to Spring 
And I was writing something elegiac 
That I never learned to sing 
But I think that it was this song 
Just four years premature 
And I remember crossing out the line 
All is fair in love and war

The peonies popped this year on May 12

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Taos Pueblo

We are traveling in northern New Mexico, and today we visited the Taos Pueblo. It is a beautiful and inspiring place. Its history is quite tragic, and I hope that its people continue to persevere.

Among other things that I've learned about the native Americans of New Mexico, I now understand that there are 21 federally recognized Pueblo groups. We have driven near lands of several of these groups in the past week, beginning with the Cochiti Pueblo and including the Tesuque and Pojoaque.

The Taos are the northernmost of the Pueblo people, and the area we visited today contains the largest surviving Pueblo structures. They are made of adobe (earth mixed with water and straw), and they include ladders leading to the roofs, which I believe are similar in style and purpose to the ancient Mesopotamian ladders about which I teach my students.

Our tour guide taught us about a particular injustice perpetrated by the US government against the Taos Pueblo.  The Rio Pueblo, which we stood next to and which I found incredibly calming, has its headwaters at Blue Lake, further up in the mountains. The Taos people consider both the river and the lake to be sacred (more information is here). 

After initial confrontation with Spanish settlers, it sounds as though the Taos and Spanish eventually reached an accommodation and indeed lived in relative harmony. Not so much, once the United States became involved.

In 1906, Blue Lake was placed under the control of the Forest Service (a decision made by President Roosevelt), and the Taos people were stripped of their title and rights related to the lake. They protested for 64 years, and Congress (along with President Nixon) finally restored their rights in 1970.

I've been studying the aerials on Google Maps, and it appears that Blue Lake is not within the Taos Pueblo boundaries. However, I gather that the people have the exclusive right to use the lake.

Learning about the history of the Taos and Blue Lake reminds me that there are multiple perspectives to every historical story. Several days ago we were lauding Teddy Roosevelt for his foresight in creating the National Park system. I think he's still deserving of considerable praise, and yet today I learned that Roosevelt -- even in the context of land conservation and preservation -- treated some people with considerable unfairness and disregard.

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


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.


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'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.