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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Curtis Sittenfeld's "Sisterland" (2013)

I am reading Curtis Sittenfeld's new novel, Sisterland
I like this book a lot.  Sittenfeld's writing is eminently readable but complex enough to be interesting. I'm listening to Phillip Phillips while I write this, and I wander if Sittenfeld (together with Tom Perotta) is the Phillips of current American fiction? 
Sisterland is the story of twin sisters convinced they have psychic powers.  One of the twins has predicted a large earthquake for the St. Louis area (their hometown) in the near future, while the other protagonist is trying to "escape" her psychicness. 
It's a fantastic premise and it makes for a compelling plot, but one of the themes I am taking away is loyalty -- in particular, loyalty to family.
"Good" twin Daisy is incredibly loyal to "bad" twin Vi, notwithstanding Vi's frequent bad behavior and lack of appreciation for Daisy's support.  Daisy is also loyal to their father, even though he does not treat her particularly well either.  It seems to be an unconditional loyalty: whereas Daisy thinks about and rationalizes her other behavior and decisions, she does not question her love for her sister and dad -- she just gives it.
I also like this book because Daisy is raising two young children (a toddler and a baby), and the child rearing passages feel very relevant. 
584. I assume that Daisy is a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Sittenfeld, at least in terms of living in St. Louis and having the young children, but I haven't wanted to confirm this until I finish reading the book.  What about the twins' psychic powers: is there any link there to Sittenfeld's life?  (Regardless, from exploring Laura Bush in American Wife to the psychic questions here, Sittenfeld has come up with some great ideas for her writing.)
585.  I have never read a book with as many references to street names as Sisterland. Do all of the geographic references have thematic importance?  What other books spend significant time on geographic place names?
586. Earlier this summer I read Meg Wolitzer's The Position, and I am planning to listen to Wolitzer's The Interestings in the near future.  Who sells more books: Wolitzer or Sittenfeld?  How do their sales numbers compare with Jonathan Franzen's?

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Bridge

This summer, H. and I have watched the first three episodes of The Bridge.  We watch it on Hulu, continuing the trend of not watching most television on "live" TV.


The Bridge is a detective/cop story about crime along the US/Mexico border.  The specific locales are El Paso and Juarez.  It's based on a show about the Denmark/Sweden border which I gather got rave critical reviews.

So far, I am a big fan of this show.  Like Homeland, it has a male and female in dichotomous lead roles. In fact, Episode 3 includes a dialogue about the meaning of the word "dialectics" in which Sonya Cross (the female lead) explains that it refers to poles: wealthy/poor; safe/dangerous; etc. -- she could also have referenced the polar perspectives of herself and her partner, Marco Ruiz.

The theme of poles creates considerable dramatic tension, and Sonya and Marco have some interesting quirks.  Sonya is extremely literal and socially awkward.  Marco seems to walk the fine line between working alongside a shady drug lord while pursuing justice. 


The identity of the perpetrator/criminal is completely unclear so far, but he is motivated at least in part by a desire to highlight the different levels of attention that are paid to crime victims in the US and immediately across the border. 

A couple of years ago I resolved to learn about / think about Mexico in more ways than just via the lens of the drug trade, and this show is probably not moving that resolution forward.  Nevertheless, it's well-done.  I particularly like thinking about life on the border between the two countries: it seems like a politically and culturally vibrant and uncertain place in ways both good and bad.

583. Enrique Pena Nieto became the President of Mexico on December 1 of last year. Has he had any success so far in combating the drug trade?  I think that a major cartel leader may have been either arrested or killed over the winter.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Cicadas Have Arrived

On Friday evening while mowing the lawn I saw a bunch of small holes in the backyard. 

They looked vaguely like the holes that an aerator makes, but I was confused. 

Large worms?  Small gophers?  I felt environmentally-challenged (those would have to be some seriously small gophers, but I didn't have a whole lot of other theories!).


Then, while walking with Tucker yesterday, he showed us a cicada sitting just off the edge of the sidewalk, and I had a major "A-HA" moment.  I have been reading articles about the impending return of Brood II, but I hadn't made the connection the prior evening, when I saw the holes in our yard. 

Brood II cicadas emerge every 17 years, and here's a short description from Wikipedia: "The 4-centimeter long black insects do not sting or bite. Once they emerge, they spend their short two-week lives climbing trees, shedding their crunchy skins and reproducing. They can number up to a million per hectare (2.5 acres)."

Wow - we could have a large number of cicadas in the backyard for the next couple of weeks!  I don't think I have heard them yet, but I'm going to be on the lookout (and on-the-listen).

NPR has a great "Cicada Tracker" site (here), and sure enough the first sightings from Charlottesville are from the past couple of days.

This is a Brood II cicada.  It's kind of a beautiful, elegant creature. The wings remind me of stained-glass.


Newswise, the Benghazi attack re-emerged this past week.  Christopher Stevens's second-in-command, Gregory Hicks, alleged during a Congressional hearing that a special operations team was ordered to stand-down and not attempt to rescue Stevens and the others who were under siege. 

It's difficult to follow this story -- in particular to parse-out the political versus national security motives of continuing to investigate the details. One new piece of information that I learned from this week's hearings was that the Benghazi office was not yet a full-fledged embassy.  The official description was "diplomatic post".

My biggest takeaway is that I continue to admire Stevens and other individuals who put themselves in harm's way for the sake of diplomacy and better understanding between people/cultures/nations.

Saturday, April 27, 2013


Slate has been running a series of articles about the daily rituals of creative people.  
A recent entry by Mason Currey (here) says that many composers and philosophers (including Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and Kierkegaard) loved taking long walks. They often found inspiration during their walking:
Beethoven went for a vigorous walk after lunch, and he always carried a pencil and a couple of sheets of paper in his pocket, to record chance musical thoughts. Gustav Mahler followed much the same routine—he would take a three- or four-hour walk after lunch, stopping to jot down ideas in his notebook. Benjamin Britten said that his afternoon walks were "where I plan out what I’m going to write in the next period at my desk."
I like the idea that walking stimulates creativity.  It certainly can free the mind: is it something about the rhythm of your legs and your lungs synching up with your brain to make everything feel good and work well? 
I assume that proponents of yoga and meditation would say something similar about the positive effects of their routines.
578.  Of the people I know, who walks the most and/or the longest? I think Ed Bain might walk the most (Liz might be a close second?), but does he walk the longest?
579. What percentage of students in Charlottesville walk to school?
580. Was Thomas Jefferson a big walker?  Or did he prefer to be on horseback?  What about Obama - does he take many walks around the White House grounds?
581.  The azaleas in our neighborhood are amazing right now. What has the longest life span: an azalea, a rhododendron, or a rose bush?
582. If I had to rank the twelve months in order of preference, would April be #1?  Based on the recent weather and natural beauty, April would be a serious contender.  October and May would probably be near the top, but April might win out.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Charlottesville's Meadowcreek Parkway: The Interchange Moonscape

I took this picture from Dad's car yesterday.

Construction of the McIntire Road/Meadowcreek Parkway interchange began about two weeks ago. 

I've been astounded at the speed of the work: huge swaths of old trees have been cleared in a matter of days.  The area looks completely different: like a massive interchange at Springfield or Manassas, but plopped down in the middle of Charlottesville.

I've been reading over my past entries about the Parkway; it has been the local issue that has occupied me more than any other in the past five years.  Here's my post from April 23, 2009:

One of the major issues in the Democratic primary for City Council is the Meadowcreek Parkway. I am unclear on two things:

     (1) Where do the three candidates stand on the parkway?

     (2) What can Council do at this point, regardless of councilors' positions?

An article by Rachana Dixit, in yesterday's Progress (it's
here), summarizes the candidates' positions, as presented during a forum the prior evening, as follows:
  • Dave Norris: "Vehemently against the parkway" - he said that its only upside was limited traffic alleviation off of Park Street
  • Kristin Szakos: Does not support the parkway, but believes it's now "too late to turn back without a court’s intervention"
  • Julian Taliaferro: Supports the parkway because of the money that the City's already invested in it ("I’m not willing to gamble $5 million of our money")
208. Is Kristin Szakos right that there's nothing further the City can do to stop the parkway? Couldn't Council re-visit the 3-2 vote that was taken in 2008 (in which Norris and Holly Edwards voted against the parkway)? What would prevent them from re-visiting that vote (particularly if work on the city portion has not yet started)?

209. Has Julian Taliaferro decided it's too late to change his position on the parkway (perhaps thinking that a revised position would make it look like he's just shopping for votes)? I thought that Taliaferro signaled reconsideration of his position, but this article makes it sounds like he is reconsidering his reconsideration.

210. Will there be any stoplights on the parkway (a la the 250 bypass)? Or will it truly be a parkway?

211. Are bike and/or running trails incorporated into the design?

212. Which is the bigger concern for County and/or City officials: getting the 29 North people (Hollymead, etc.) to downtown, or vice versa?

213. Are the politicians in Lynchburg, Danville, and other southern Virginia communities complaining that we're focusing all of our political debate/energy on the parkway rather than on a 29 bypass?

214. At the recent McIntire Pool Council meeting, David Brown cited to prior councilors' actions to defend his votes on the parkway. Which councilors, historically, were most in favor of making the parkway happen? Which were most opposed?


I remain curious about which City councilors were the most influential in moving the Parkway forward.  When the entire road opens in a couple of years, will their decisions be praised or regretted? I remain ambivalent, but I am more convinced than previously that the Parkway will lead to more -- not fewer -- traffic problems in other areas (in particular on Pantops).

On a happier note, here's a picture of the Lee Park cherry tree that I took yesterday. 

The cherry has passed its peak (it's in the awesome part-pink / part-green phase now), but the dogwoods outside of Burley and along Preston Avenue are peaking.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Nek Muhammad and the Origins of US Drone Policy

Mark Mazzetti has an article in this morning's Times (here) about the switch in U.S. policy from capturing terrorists to killing them.


Mazzetti dates the change in policy to 2004.  He says that a major impetus was CIA Inspector General John Helgerson's report about the abuse of detainees in the CIA's secret prisons.  The report provoked such a political backlash (and concern among CIA operatives about potential legal liability) that policy makers turned to drones to provide a "cleaner" solution.

575. Does Mazzetti think the move towards assassinations-by-drone (rather than detention) was a conscious political decision, or does he think Bush, and then Obama, convinced themselves it was a tactical/military change?


The article breaks the story of a deal between Pakistan and the United States in which we agreed to kill Nek Muhammad in exchange for Pervez Musharraf's permission to conduct drone operations in Pakistani airspace.

Muhammad was a Pashtun tribesman from Waziristan.  He harbored some al Qaeda terrorists, but he was more concerned with attacking Pakistani interests than with opposing/attacking the US ("the CIA had been monitoring the rise of Mr. Muhammad, but officials considered him to be more Pakistan's problem than America's").

Muhammad was killed by a drone strike. Moving forward, the US was allowed to conduct drone strikes as pre-approved by Pakistan, and ISI and CIA agreed that Pakistan would either take credit for all killings or remain silent as to their source.

576. This article highlights the incredible entanglement and complexity of US and Pakistani interests.  After the death of Richard Holbrooke, who are the key US figures/diplomats in unwinding us from Afghanistan and Pakistan?  Will Chuck Hagel have any success in that part of the world?  Is he respected there?

577. What is Obama's primary justification for so many drone strikes?  The policy continues to confound me (particularly the expansion of it into other parts of the world).  Is the reliance on drones coming more from Obama himself (and if so, why?), or are his advisors convincing him that drones are the "least bad" option?

This picture is by Kamran Wazir/Reuters and is from this morning's Times.  Nek Muhammad is the man in the center-front.  This is an incredibly dramatic photo, in particular Muhammad's stance and the way that his pink/orange cloth sets him off from the rest of the group.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Pink's "Just Give Me a Reason"

The big song this winter was Macklemore's catchy and clever Thrift Shop. If it had been released in May, Thrift Shop would clearly have been a Song of the Summer contender. But there's a freeze-warning in Charlottesville this evening, so there'll be no SoS nominations just yet.

Tonight, I discovered Pink and Nate Ruess's Just Give Me a Reason
It was released at the end of February but I'd missed it until this evening (I came across it while reading Buzz Bissinger's unique examination of addiction through the lens of his uncontrollable purchases of Gucci leather).
Just Give Me a Reason is the closest I've heard to a late 80's/early 90's anthem in a long time.
It's got the solo piano at the beginning (a la Home Sweet Home), then Pink singing the first verse solo, and then building to the infectious (and uplifting) chorus. 
This is probably a stretch, but it vaguely reminds me of Sister Christian.  Great stuff.

Just give me a reason

Just a little bit's enough

Just a second we're not broken just bent

And we can learn to love again

It's in the stars
It's been written in the scars on our hearts

That we're not broken just bent

And we can learn to love again

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

A Trip to Austin for the NCAA Tournament

This past weekend, Dad, Tucker, Daniel and I went to Austin to celebrate my 40th birthday and watch the NCAA Tournament. We had a fantastic weekend.


I was thoroughly impressed by Austin. I drove through northern Texas on my way home from California in August 1995 but otherwise have never visited The Lone Star.

We stayed at a hotel downtown within walking distance of the UT Arena (which hosted the games and reminded me -- in a good way -- of U-Hall), the state capital building, and Sixth Street.


None of the games was close (aside from a brief period during Illinois vs. Colorado when the Buffaloes staged an impressive comeback before ultimately falling short), but there is something so freaking fun about watching tournament games.

Dan had us all naming our all-time favorite Cavalier players (I went with John Crotty as my guard, while Tuck chose Richard Morgan), and we did a separate pool for each game (Tuck and Dan were the winners). Between the two sessions we found a great bar with a large outdoor courtyard (it reminded me of the place that Chap and I hung out before the Tottenham soccer game).

On Saturday morning we walked through the Texas state capital.  Dad and Mom have a project to visit all the state capitals, so he was psyched to report back to Mom that he was 1-up. This is an impressive building (soft red granite and a beautiful dome), and I especially liked the park and trees that surround it. We saw the State Senate Chamber, and the group photos of the Senators brought home to me the significant Latino presence in Texas (it was a concrete reminder that George W. Bush was right to try to shift the Republicans' approach to immigration during his Presidency).

Later we visited Lance Armstrong's bike shop (Mellow Johnny's) and found an awesome bar at the end of a pier on Lake Austin, before watching the games on Sixth Street in the evening.  A highlight was a roofside table overlooking the street where we talked about the Ricky Williams 30-for-30 and I told Tuck that I love his oft-surprising encyclopedic knowledge of sports history.


We were surprised to learn that the Sunday games were considerably later in the day than expected, so we actually didn't get to see them, but I didn't care at all.  It was an awesome weekend and I am really happy that we got to do it.

Scores of the games we saw:
Miami 78 - Pacific 49 (Miami looked really strong. Shane Larkin is their star, but Durand Scott's five 3-pointers were a highlight. Watching a graceful jump shot swish through the hoop is one of my favorite moments in sports.)
Illinois 57 - Colorado 49
Florida 79 - Northwestern State 47
Minnesota 83 - UCLA 63