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Comparing Finales

[ 15 ] March 10, 2008 |

I wish Adam Sternbergh wouldn’t project his philistinism on me: “For everyone who felt cheated by the stubbornly ambivalent series finale of The Sopranos — which is to say, everyone.” Watching the finale of The Sopranos again before yesterday’s finale for kicks, I remain more convinced than ever that the brilliant final sequence will 1)be remembered as a great moment in television history, with cavils from people who prefer neat bows (perhaps Meadow racing to meet Finn at the airport cross-cut with Tony’s and Philly’s crews involved in a 20 minute shootout?) only adding to its aura, and 2)it’s the major thing that doesn’t make a comparison to The Wire finale look embarrassing. It had other moments — Meadow’s justification for not becoming a doctor being especially satisfying. But while the conclusion looks better on multiple viewings, the slack parts stick out even more: the stuff with Paulie and the cat, especially, would be pretty lame time-filler in an early setup episode, let alone the finale. (The inability to use Paulie effectively was a crucial element of the post-Season 5 dropoff; the silly soap opera plot with his mother wasn’t as bad as the dream sequence, but that’s only true in the sense that National Treasure is probably better than The Hottie and the Nottie.) And Chase, while a great writer and conceptmeister, isn’t always a great director: Philly’s vlugar death scene might have been OK without the sitcommy, poorly edited reaction shots.

If The Wire‘s conclusion didn’t have a formal tour de force like the diner sequence, it was a great deal more consistent. I’d like to be contrarian enough to defend the newspaper stuff, but I can’t; not only is the “chasing Pulitzer” theme not terribly interesting or conducive to good characters, the arc was too predictable. But everything else was gripping and intelligent, as always, and it looks like Clark Johnson (whose presence was often the only reason the newspaper scenes were even watchable) has the ability to be a very fine director. The various intersections of corruption were perfect, and the return of Presbo with Duquan heartbreaking in a way that Simon properly didn’t spoil with an implausible happy ending. I also liked the way-are-they-now montage focused on the persistence institutional destruction in particular. Not everybody is ruined by the system — some have options — but nobody can act with any integrity within it. If Season 5 was the weakest, and I think most of us agree that it was, that was one hell of a great show, and it wrapped up about as well as could be hoped for.

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Old News Worth Revisiting

[ 20 ] March 10, 2008 |

This is nothing new, but it’s worth revisiting now and again. For the monthly cost of the war in Iraq, conservatively estimated for our purposes at $8 billion, the Pentagon could buy:

10 F-22A Raptors ($150 million each)
23 F-35 Lightning IIs ($100 million each)
4 Littoral Combat Ships ($650 million each)
1 Zumwalt Destroyer ($1.5 billion each)

… and still have $100 million left to help us feel good about the Air Force.

Every. Single. Month.

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Tuckered Out

[ 8 ] March 10, 2008 |

Like most of you I’m sure, my first reaction to this was “Tucker Carlson still has a show in MSNBC? Is Dennis Miller still there?” It is oddly reassuring, however, that sometimes low ratings and abysmal quality can kill even a conservative talk show.

There’s still time for Alan Keyes is Making Sense to come back, though!

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My Wire Finale Thoughts… Spoilers!!!!!

[ 24 ] March 10, 2008 |

Damn. Just…. damn.

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McCain for Change? Methinks Not.

[ 1 ] March 10, 2008 |

Think that a McCain administration would be better or different than W.’s? Think again. Turd blossom is back and we could be headed for another 4 (or 8, god forbid) years of W-like governance.

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Who Would Win in a Fight?

[ 60 ] March 10, 2008 |


Marlo Stanfield vs. Michael Corleone?

Consider this a Wire finale open thread. Those who fear spoilers, beware.

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Is John McCain a Liberal Fascist?

[ 0 ] March 9, 2008 |

Here’s the thing…. when deciding to compare oneself to a 1940s European leader, it’s probably best not to directly invoke Triumph of the Will.

McCain:

Riefenstahl:

It’s not as if Triumph is an obscure film, and the cloud scene is extremely well known. Triumph is, of course, a magnificent technical accomplishment, and a lot of filmmakers have stolen scenes from it (the final scene of Star Wars is lifted from TOTW, and John Milius uses the same cloud imagery to open Red Dawn), but as a general rule I’d have to say that American politicians should be careful about borrowing Nazi imagery.

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CBA Time

[ 23 ] March 9, 2008 |

Tomorrow, I’ll be mailing my vote to approve our faculty’s new collective bargaining agreement, which was negotiated over the course of about 14 months in 2007 and early 2008.

In the words of one of my friends who served on the negotiating committee, we wrestled the best possible deal from our managerial adversaries. That is to say, the contract guarantees faculty annual wage increases that fail to keep up with the pace of inflation, and it makes our health care premiums look like the payment curve of a sub-prime mortgage. Marginal forms of compensation — summer course pay, overloads and merit bonuses — are bumped gently upwards while the core of the deal assures everyone of real income decline over the life of the contract. I’d like to believe we could have done better by threatening to walk off the job, but these are the sorts of things that most of my colleagues regard as “counterproductive” or “antique.”

Having said that, it’s difficult to imagine life without collective bargaining. Support staff in the humanities and social sciences, for example, organized a drive about five years ago and got their asses handed to them when their statewide colleagues in the sciences — who are paid more generously out of federal grants — voted against the union. Compared with their pay and benefits packages, ours appear to be quite sane and generous. Meantime, the casualization of academic labor continues unhindered, with term appointments and adjuncts comprising an enormous and poorly-compensated share of the institutional burden.

So here’s two inflation-adjusted cheers for industrial democracy. Without an organized bargaining unit to contend with, the University of Alaska would probably be freezing salaries across the board; refusing to appropriate funds for new hires who could not sustain themselves with federal grants; charging me rent for my office; metering my internet and electricity usage; insisting that I punch a time card each morning; and urging me to take a “proactive” approach to my own health by combing the earth for medicinal roots and berries while learning how to trepanate myself to relieve headaches and depression. And of course they’d have to hire at least three dozen new administrators to keep the trains running on time.

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Indeterminacy of Language

[ 8 ] March 9, 2008 |

Drezner wonders if Bill Clinton has broken the space-time continuum:

From Mark Leibovich, “No Longer in Race, Richardson Is a Man Pursued,” New York Times, February 23, 2008:

Early this month, Mr. Clinton called Mr. Richardson and insisted on seeing him face to face. Mr. Richardson said he could not make it unless Mr. Clinton came down to New Mexico to watch the Super Bowl on television with him, which Mr. Clinton rearranged his schedule to do….

The Bills watched the game in the Governor’s Mansion, Mr. Richardson rooting for New England, Mr. Clinton for New York. They smoked cigars, drank wine, devoured barbecued spareribs, chicken wings and shrimp. They talked politics only at halftime.

From Dan Balz, “Influential Democrats Waiting to Choose Sides,” Washington Post, March 9, 2008:

“I’m thinking of changing my phone number,” joked [Pennsylvannia representative Mike] Doyle, who had supported New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson but is now uncommitted. He said he got a surprise call from Bill Clinton on Super Bowl Sunday while cooking osso buco for his family.

Just what was Bill Clinton doing on Super Bowl Sunday? There’s clear photo evidence to support Richardson’s version of events — but I have no reason to believe Doyle is lying.

If I may try to resolve this paradox, is it possible that Representative Doyle, rather than President Clinton, was the one cooking osso buco?

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Sunday Deposed Monarch Blogging: House Konbaung

[ 4 ] March 9, 2008 |

Maung Aung Zeya was born in the village of Moksobo around 1714. His family enjoyed considerable local stature, and Maung Aung Zeya rose to the position of headman at a young age. The previous Burmese dynasty was in decline, and was overthrown in 1752 by a combination of outside invaders and internal rebels. Rather than surrender to the new forces, Maung Aung Zeya fortified his village and prepared a defense. Four attempts to capture the village failed, and the chieftain took advantage of the disarray of his enemies to build up support in the countryside. By 1753, Maung Aung Zeya could exercise control over much of what would become modern Burma, and changed his name Alaungpaya (meaning Future Buddha King). More campaigning in 1755 left Alaungpaya substantially without internal rivals. In 1759 Alaungpaya invaded Siam, but his good fortune did not hold; while besieging the city of Ayutthaya, a gun exploded near the king, mortally wounding him.

The Konbaung Dynasty was characterized by ill-defined succession rules and Kings with enormous numbers of wives and children. Bodawpaya, the third of Alaungpaya’s sons to succeed to the throne, had 207 wives and 120 children. Many of the wives were the widows of previous monarchs. The Konbaung fought, often successfully, against the Thai and Chinese empires, and substantially defined the borders of modern Burma. The real threat, however, came from the West; French and British influence in Indochina grew during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and began to threaten the foundations of the monarchy. Wars in 1824 and in 1852 resulted in territorial loss for Burma, but left the kingdom substantially independent. Efforts by King Mindon Min, who ascended to the throne in 1853, to modernize the country bought time for the dynasty.

In 1878 Mindon Min died and was succeeded by Thibaw Min, one of his 110 children. Thibaw decided that the antidote to the British threat was greater French influence. The British, unsurprisingly, didn’t care for this attitude, and in 1885 a dispute between Thibaw and the British escalated into general war. The conflict was brief, and the British had overwhelming superiority. The British captured Thibaw and his immediate family, exiling him, one wife, and two daughters to India. Given a small pension, the former King and his family would live out the rest of their lives in poverty. King Thibaw died in 1916, at age 58.

The Konbaung Dynasty almost died out in India, but one of the King’s surviving daughters had children who lived. The children have lived at various times in India and Thailand, but now mostly seem to live in Burma. During the Japanese occupation of Burma in the 1940s, some thought was given to restoring the Konbaung to the throne, but difficulties with the collaborator government and the difficult of determining the appropriate heir forced the Japanese to abandon the idea. The current claimant to the throne is Edward Taw Phaya, born in 1924 and grandson to King Thibaw. Prospects for a return to the throne are very grim, as the military junta in Burma has displayed little interest in the royal family, and it is unlikely that any revolutionary government would want to restore the throne.

Trivia: The last monarch of what country shares an important political distinction with Abraham Lincoln…. other than assassination?

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It Was Like Berkeley in ’67…

[ 0 ] March 9, 2008 |

I can proudly say that I have visited the Flophouse, and even more proudly say that I got drunk there and broke a chair. My wife broke a lamp.

If anyone would like to touch my shirt in the hope that the coolness will rub off, this can be arranged for a small fee.

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On the Collapse of the Mighty (NCAA Edition)

[ 0 ] March 9, 2008 |

In 1990, the Oregon State Beavers Men’s Basketball team had the fourth most wins of any program in Division I. The Beavs success was only occasionally flashy, but it was steady; they had gone 359-186 under the legendary Ralph Miller, including a 77-11 stretch between 1979 and 1982. In 1990, the Beavs rode Gary Payton’s senior year to a the regular season Pac-10 conference championship.

The Beavs haven’t had a winning season since Payton left for the NBA. This year, they became the first team in Pac-10 conference history to go 0-18 in conference play. Absent sanctions, are there any other falls from grace in the NCAA as impressive as that of OSU?

While I’m on the subject, in brief answer to Yglesias, the narrative arc of Oregon State Beavers basketball is one of the reasons that I prefer the NCAA to the NBA. It’s true enough that there are similar arcs in the NBA, but they don’t play out in such operatic fashion. Moreover, the single-game playoff system enhances, rather than detracts from, the narrative; I remember with crystal clarity how Gary Payton picked up his fifth foul on a charge late in the 1990 NCAA tournament first round game against Ball State, and how the Beavs shortly thereafter lost on an inbound right under the hoop, and then how Ball State went on to beat Louisville and then lose at the buzzer to UNLV.

This is another way of saying that playoffs, in any sport, have never been about “finding the best team”. Rather, they’re about building tension in the most effective way for the sport in question. In this, the NCAA Tournament is indisputably superior to the Bataan Death March that constitutes the NBA playoffs. Major League Baseball uses a playoff system similar to that of the NBA, but the seven game series is much more suitable to the rhythm of baseball than of basketball, and moreover it’s built into the structure of baseball that many of the best and most important players simply cannot play every day. In short, the capacity of a George Mason to reach the Final Four now and again is a feature, not a bug. On the point of the greater athleticism of NBA players, I’ll say only that if I wanted pure athleticism I’d watch a decathalon; athleticism is only meaningful in the context of a certain set of rules, and I visually prefer the playing of the game under NCAA rather than NBA rules.

A final question that pops up in comments occasionally is “How can you enjoy NCAA sports when they’re based on exploitation and have a negative effect on academic life?” These are fair questions; the treatment of players by the NCAA is remarkably exploitative, and I think that big time college athletics has, on balance, a negative effect on academic life. My first answer is that there are the wretched of the earth and the Wretched of the Earth, and that NCAA players are more the former than the latter, and moreover that doing just about anything in the context of an advanced capitalist economy is going to involve the exploitation of someone. My second answer is that I would like college athletics severed from professional sports, and in particularly would like the NBA and the NFL to develop robust farm systems like MLB has, such that talented eighteen year olds who don’t want to go to college can receive fairer treatment. This preference doesn’t, however, mean that I don’t enjoy watching UO or UK play within the system that now exists.

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