Book Review: Wild Fire

Wild Fire, by Nelson DeMille

I read a page of this book on someone else’s Kindle on a flight a few weeks ago and was intrigued enough by the premise that I bought and read it fairly quickly. Ultimately, that intriguing premise is all the book has to offer, unless you read a book for unfunny dialogue, a grating protagonist, and a cartoonish villain. (Notice I didn’t say a plot, of which there is little.)

The novel, published in 2006, is set in 2002, just after 9/11. The premise – and I’m not giving away much here – involves a secret government protocol called Wild Fire established in the 1980s to deal with the nascent threat of Islamic terrorism. If a weapon of mass destruction is used on American soil by Islamic terrorists, an automated response rains down nuclear weapons on the major cities and other key sites of the Muslim world, killing hundreds of millions. The governments of those states are aware of the protocol and have kept their terror groups in check as a result. Enter Bain Madox, American oil billionaire and Bond villain, played in my mind by Sam Elliott. Madox, angered by 9/11, wants to activate Wild Fire by detonating nuclear weapons on American soil. Certain elements in the federal government have assured him that the government tacitly approves and wouldn’t stop the automated response if it came to that.

I’m not giving much away here – Madox tells this entire story to Harry Muller, a federal agent he captures on his property in the first 30 pages. (Exposition makes for awesome reading.) Harry’s disappearance triggers an investigation by the protagonist John Corey (apparently this is his fourth appearance in DeMille’s books) and his wife Kate Mansfield. Mansfield is just perfect enough to be boring – a FBI agent and a lawyer, she’s sexy, smart, and level-headed. Corey, a former NYPD cop now working for the Anti-Terrorism Task Force, is none of those things except boring. A classic “I don’t play by the rules” tough guy, Corey is a caricature who tells awful jokes every time he opens his mouth and resists authority for no good reason. I don’t need characters to be likable for a book to be good, but Corey is actively grating.

Corey and Mansfield investigate Muller’s disappearance and face off with Madox more than you’d think would happen in a criminal investigation. I really get the feeling that DeMille loved these characters* and thought it was thrilling to have them talk face-to-face a la the aforementioned Bond and his evil counterparts. Unfortunately, he ends up forcing one-dimensional stereotypes into mostly boring conversations. The characters also make some silly choices, and there is ultimately almost no tension in the book’s 519 pages (200 without Corey’s awful jokes). The plot is virtually non-existent – a hard feat given that nuclear war is imminent.

*In the preface, DeMille says he believes Madox is the “best villain” DeMille ever created, and “certainly … the smartest and most interesting bad guy to come out of some scary place” in DeMille’s psyche. If true, don’t read anything by DeMille.

A lazy and ultimately boring effort. Not recommended.

Recommended For Cuba

Cuba is going to be free.

If you’re a fan of human flourishing, this is a good thing. The loosening of the US embargo is on net a very good thing, but the final nail in the coffin of tyranny is going to be a relatively little-noticed development: the availability of NetFlix in Cuba. The company announced today that it will sell subscriptions to Cuban residents, although given the pricing (same as in the US), spotty internet access in Cuba, and the need for a non-Cuban electronic method of payment will probably limit the audience at first. In the long run, though, it may be one of the biggest contributors to Cuban freedom.

I’m not exaggerating for effect here. There is a reason why countries like Cuba or (worst of all) North Korea exclude outside information: it makes it impossible to avoid change. A dictatorship, of course, doesn’t want change – they have everything to lose and little to gain. (On the other end, a well-functioning democracy is the institutionalization of constant change.) That’s why repressive regimes have to keep out new ideas, and that’s why NetFlix is so important. TV and movies are, at their core, reflection of ideas.

It’s not even important what the intended idea of a movie or TV show is. What’s important is the setting which in the West mostly reflects freedom of some kind – on any given TV show, women are relatively equal, free speech is exercised, etc. This has worked before:

In the last decade, cable television has arrived in remote Indian villages, bringing with it commercial television programming heavy on game shows and Indian soap operas. Before you laugh—a feminist Days of Our Lives?—consider that the most popular Indian series take place in urban settings. Their emancipated female characters are well-educated, work outside the home, control their own money, and have fewer children than rural women. So, Jensen and Oster asked, does the arrival of these shows change attitudes in ways that improve women’s lives?…

What’s the effect? In the places that didn’t get cable by 2003, and in the places that already had it at the beginning of the period studied, attitudes concerning women remained relatively stable. (They were more pro-women in places that already had cable.) But in the 21 villages that got cable between 2001 and 2003, women’s attitudes changed quickly and substantially.

After a village got cable, women’s preference for male children fell by 12 percentage points. The average number of situations in which women said that wife beating is acceptable fell by about 10 percent. And the authors’ composite autonomy index jumped substantially, by an amount equivalent to the attitude difference associated with 5.5 years of additional education.

TV got Indian women more cultural acceptance and more freedom. Just wait until NetFlix (and everything else) enters Cuba. It won’t be a panacea – nothing is – but the flow of ideas can’t be stopped.

This is a good thing.

Blog Note

My resolution for February is to fix the script that is supposed to autopost my backlogged articles while I am away for work. In the meantime, I’ll clear the backlog manually when I get a chance. Apologies for the long radio silence, but I’m alive and well.

NFL 2014 Postseason Predictions

AFC Wild Card

Colts over Bengals. Can’t count on Andy Dalton here.
Steelers over Ravens. Should be a physical battle that the home team wins.

NFC Wild Card

Panthers over Cardinals.  Would have loved to see Logan Thomas get a short for the Cardinals.
Cowboys over Lions. Could be a shootout.

AFC Divisional

Patriots over Colts. As shown earlier this year, the Patriots are still too strong for Luck.
Broncos over Steelers. Broncos didn’t struggle as much you think they have.

NFC Divisional

Seahawks over Panthers. Just don’t see the Panthers scoring enough.
Packers over Cowboys. There could easily be an upset here, but there probably won’t be.

Conference Championship

Patriots over Broncos. Happened earlier this year and will repeat.
Seahawks over Packers. Boring, I know but Seattle is at home.

Super Bowl

Patriots over Seahawks. Trusting the NE flexibility over SEA talent.

A Fluid Ounce Of Prevention

The Washington Post reports that Google searches for “hangover cure” spike on January 1 each year, providing statistical backing to something we’d already know. The magnitude is staggering:

Hangover Cure SearchesOf course, hangover cures are basically non-existent:

“There’s nothing you can do to remove the alcohol byproducts,” Stanley Goldfarb, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said. “They have to be metabolized by your liver, which takes time. There’s no evidence that anything is better than waiting.”

While likely true, the professor (and the Google searchers) need to focus more on hangover prevention. I found Goldfarb’s quote in an article seeking to debunk Pedialyte as an effective hangover cure. I won’t speak to that – there’s a strong placebo effect to be dealt with – but I will highly recommend to everyone to battle through a bottle of Pedialyte before New Year’s Eve revelries (or St. Patrick’s day, the NFL Draft, or whatever you celebrate) and reap the rewards the following morning. Coconut water is a decent substitute, too. I believe in this, and here’s my fridge as proof:

20141231_125840

Happy new year, indeed.

NFC Season & Predictions Review

The NFC South threw us all off, I think.

NFC East

Eagles
Prediction: 11-5. The defense will be slightly better, and the offense should hold steady. I don’t predict the big improvements – Sproles should offset Jackson, and Foles’ development will offset worse luck – but they will win this division.
Actual: 10-6. Once they sat at 9-3 and this looked like a good prediction.

Cowboys
Prediction: 7-9. No defense and Romo with a back injury. There’s a limit to how far they can go.
Actual: 12-4. Romo missed one game, the defense showed up, and I don’t know anything.

Giants
Predicted: 7-9. Probably will end up three wins better, but this team is unimpressive across the board.
Actual: 6-10. Indeed unimpressive.

Redskins
Predicted: 7-9. RGIII hasn’t looked well, adjusting to a new coach and system. Defense also needs more physical players.
Actual: 4-12. RGIII missed much of the year, and nothing else really worked.

NFC North

Packers
Predicted: 10-6. Some questions on defense and the offensive line and an important question surrounding Aaron Rodgers (specifically, “How many fingers am I holding up?”), but this is a powerful offense.
Actual: 12-4. Offense was as good as advertised and covered up other flaws.

Bears
Predicted: 9-7. Could very well get 2 or 3 more wins, but a fragile Cutler and a young defense put a cap on what this team can accomplish.
Actual: 5-11. Completely imploded on both sides.

Lions
Predicted: 6-10. A very powerful offense and an undisciplined defense. They’re basically the Cowboys.
Actual: 11-5. Yup, basically the Cowboys, both in my prediction and in real life.

Vikings
Predicted: 5-11. Should go to Teddy Bridgewater – in my opinion the best QB who will come out of this year’s draft – with the associated growing pains. Secondary very suspect.
Actual: 7-9. Both Bridgewater and the secondary grew up quickly.

NFC South

Saints
Predicted: 12-4. The offense is typically unstoppable, and the defense actually has lots of talent this time around. They can still be run on, but they are in good shape.
Actual: 7-9. Ugh. Offense had way more growing pains than I would have expected, and coaching took a hit, too.

Falcons
Predicted: 9-7. Losing their starting tackle hurts, because this is a team on the rebound. Jake Matthews will help, but there are still holes here.
Actual: 6-10. The holes were bigger than I would have thought.

Panthers
Predicted: 8-8. I feel like I’m missing something here. This team made little effort to add receivers at a time that their QB is hitting his prime and his RBs are on the decline. The defense is solid – this would have been a good time to go for it.
Actual: 7-8-1. I got their talent level right. Just didn’t think they’d get anywhere with it.

Buccaneers
Predicted: 7-9. Lovie Smith and a great draft. I think McCown does well but I also think Glennon can win this job for the next few years.
Actual: 2-14.  Got ugly really quick, especially at QB, RB, and DEF.

NFC West

Seahawks
Predicted: 11-5. They’ve taken more hits than people realize, but Wilson is a year better. Defense lacks last year’s depth but is still very good.
Actual: 12-4. Yup.

49ers
Predicted: 10-6.  I love how this team built its roster, but between injuries and suspensions, their impressive depth has taken a hit. A lot will hinge on Kaepernick’s development as a passer.
Actual: 8-8. Kaepernick did not move much as a passer and injuries crushed them.

Cardinals
Predicted: 7-9. The defense impressed last year but it’s lost quite a bit of talent. The passing offense should hold up but this team is taking a step back.
Actual: 11-5. Very wrong here. The team only got better but was undone by injuries on offense.

Rams
Predicted: 5-11. Bradford out, Zac Stacy unproven, receivers young. This offense has lots of questions that a stout defensive line cannot overcome.
Actual: 6-10. The defense was very good, but the rest was mostly accurate.

AFC Season & Predictions Review

Other than the AFC South, not ashamed of my predictions, and called the AFC West perfectly.

AFC East

Patriots
Prediction: 13-3. Improved defense and receivers that can’t be less healthy than last year. Even with an older Brady, this is a good team.
Actual: 12-4. The older Brady struggled early but the rest was accurate.

Bills
Prediction: 7-9. I’m a believer for no real reason. Manuel struggled, Watkins is hurt already, and the secondary is struggling. Yet here we are.
Actual: 9-7. I underrated them. The defense was stellar, and Kyle Orton taking over for Manuel made the difference.

Dolphins
Prediction: 6-10. On paper this team should be much better, but a tough schedule and lack of offensive playmakers makes me wonder where the wins will come from.
Actual: 8-8. Underrated them, too. Got some tough wins but still a year away.

Jets
Predicted: 5-11. Predicting a bit of a collapse. The Jets were the luckiest team in the NFL last year and I doubt that repeats.
Actual: 4-12. Nailed it, basically, as the

AFC North

Bengals
Predicted: 10-6. This team probably isn’t as good as they were last year, but the run game should be effective and they’ve developed bona fide pass catchers beyond AJ Green. I believe.
Actual: 10-5-1. Shame their QB limits their playoff possibilities.

Steelers
Predicted: 9-7. Should have made the playoffs last year, and will contend this year. Expecting Wheaton and Shazier to make an immediate impact.
Actual: 11-5. Played down to competition at times but won when it counted.

Ravens
Predicted: 8-8. Could win three more games than this if everything breaks right, but luck averages out so I’ll have them be average, too.
Actual: 10-6. Justin Forsett to the rescue. Surprisingly good defense, too.

Browns
Predicted: 6-10. This team is better than this but their QB situation is unsettled and their receivers aren’t impressive. The defense is very good, but it won’t be enough. This team can surprise, but it can’t contend.
Actual: Maybe sticking with Hoyer would have made a difference, but probably not.

AFC South

Colts
Predicted: 9-7. The defense won’t be as lucky as last year, and the lack of a run game will be an issue. I also wonder if Luck will keep improving – he’s already playing well.
Actual: 11-5. Defense was indeed worse, but Luck got better and the division didn’t challenge them.

Titans
Predicted: 7-9. Counting on Locker to be healthy and accurate is risky, but this team has quietly built a great offensive line, a decent receiver corps, and good platoon pieces at TE and RB. The secondary is shallow which will be a problem all year.
Actual: 2-14. Counting on this team to do anything seems to have been risky.  Doesn’t help that their new coach is inflexible.

Jaguars
Predicted: 6-10. An improving team but I think they’re a year away from threatening. Very young roster that will be better and deeper next year.
Actual: 3-13. Didn’t make the leap I thought they would.

Houston
Predicted: 6-10. They’re not as bad as their 2-14 record last year, and the defense can be downright scary, but QB is unsettled and all skill positions are shallower than last year. I say the struggle big time.
Actual: 9-7. Despite a rotating set of QBs the defense and run game made this team a contender.

AFC West

Broncos
Predicted: 12-4. Counting on Montee Ball and lacking Wes Welker for a while, the Broncos can probably still run away with this division.
Actual: 12-4. I don’t mean to brag…

Chargers
Predicted: 9-7. A very good offense and very good defense and a tough schedule. They could go a couple of wins both ways.
Actual: 9-7. …but come on.

Chiefs
Predicted: 9-7. They need more playmakers in the passing game to threaten, but with Charles and that defense, they’ll contend.
Actual: 9-7. Do I know this division…

Raiders
Predicted: 3-13. Looks like another tough year for the Raiders. They’re still early in the talent cycle and it’ll show.
Actual: 3-13. …or do I know this division?

The Importance Of Words, Part 381

Moreover, the demand that “The Interview” be withdrawn because it treats North Korea disrespectfully — as it most certainly does — isn’t all that different from the arguments behind the various speech codes that have proliferated in Europe and Canada of late, exposing people to fines and prosecution for speaking too critically about the religions, cultures and sexual identities of others.

So writes blog-favorite Ross Douthat.  As you know, I’m a stickler for the usage and meaning of words, and I just can’t get on board with this description. Here’s the key part I disagree with: “the demand that “The Interview” be withdrawn because it treats North Korea disrespectfully — as it most certainly does.” The question I ask is this: what is North Korea?

The answer seems pretty simple, but it isn’t. Wikipedia says that “North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is a country in East Asia, in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.” If we say that North Korea is that particular territory, we’d be technically correct – but would Douthat be right? I don’t think he would, since I doubt the movie (which I’m yet to see, although I certainly will, and was always going to) hardly mocks the particular territory. It mocks – what? Certainly not the majority of people* of North Korea, who are slaves to a tyrannical regime. Certainly not the landscape, which basically a landscape.

*At least I hope it doesn’t. If it does in fact mock the innocent, then go ahead and do terrible things to Seth Rogen and James Franco.

The movie mocks the North Korean government, and it’s important to keep this distinction alive. Those who protested the current Iraq war were protesting the American government at the time, not the population, which was at best torn about the prospect. Those complaining about “Japanese,” “Chinese,” and “Greek” action in the last few years have the same complaint. Even in democracies, there is a big slack between popular opinion and government action, and saying that the latter always correctly reflects the former – and that the former is an accurate gauge of popular sentiment – is just incorrect.

So no, we do not mock North Korea – and we certainly wish nothing but the best to its people. We mock a tyrannical government that needs to disappear before I have to explain to my children why we let it exist at all.

Blog Note/Brain Dump

As you may have noticed, the blog has been very quiet until tonight, when I discovered a coding error and released a bunch of backed up reviews. The reason for the silence is my continued high workload, which is why I stick to reviews (easy) instead of commentary on current events (hard). Before I go back into hiding, scattered thoughts about recent events:

  • I once independently discovered Sam Harris’s question about morality of national governments, which is what they would do if they had the “perfect” weapon that could destroy their enemies. The United States, in my mind, had always done well in that measure, since it could have carpet bombed from Libya to India and never even came close to using its maximum firepower. With the torture report, however, the US can no longer get the benefit of that. The activities in the report are vile, and the fact that slight majorities approve of them are sickening reminders that us vs them is everywhere and always a bad influence.
  • The two grand juries who failed to indict the killers of Michael Brown and especially Eric Garner would not have done the same if the shooters were not cops. I think that’s clear. I also think it’s obvious that a prosecutor who works WITH the police every day shouldn’t also be in charge of investigating that same police. The fact that we let this happen (or that we let the chief of police be in charge of the unit that also investigates police corruption) is a sign that we’ve let a warrior caste arise in our midst that’s now violent and unaccountable, protected by both law and public opinion even at their worst.
  • It’s unfortunate that the fallout from the grand jury decisions has become so racialized, as exemplified here by Smith College president Kathleen McCartney who had to apologize for saying “all lives matter” instead of “black lives matter.” This is not to deny that black Americans suffer more of the consequences of the police state gone wild – they clearly do. The unfortunate aspect is that making race so salient is probably not the best way to effect change; paradoxically, by not emphasizing race one could reach the best outcomes for those discriminated against on racial grounds. By focusing on the universal aspects of police overreach, one could build more public support for reforms, the effects of which would be felt more strongly in those communities currently suffering the worst effects. By making it race-specific, you turn on the us vs them parts of the brain and just don’t reach certain people whose support is necessary for real change. It seems that the black community faces the unfortunate choice of solving the problem or being heard, but not both.
  • One in five American college students does not get raped. You know that if you’ve been near any college, which is not a constant scene of war-crime-level assault. Sexual assault is still too common (“too common” defined as “above zero”) but by emphasizing a wrong figure proponents are doing a disservice to the cause of minimizing the problem, once again by excluding reasonable people whose support is important.
  • Obviously the previous bullet was inspired by the Rolling Stone story that’s since been all but retracted. I think it’s obvious that most part of the story as reported were not true, and the Washington Post has done some excellent reporting on the issue. That said, it’s not like it proves that nothing ever happened to “Jackie.” I don’t have much sympathy for those who file false reports but I can’t help thinking that the best way to describe this young woman is “troubled.” Rolling Stone, of course, has no such excuse, and the Greek organizations suspended on the basis of this story have a legitimate beef with the magazine.
  • Of course we should have normalized relations with Cuba decades ago. Contact means exchange, of goods, services, and ideas. The Chinese are better off for participating in the world, the Vietnamese are, and the Cubans will be, too. As for us, try some Havana Club before you knock freedom.

Thoughts on law, economics, sports, food, and pop culture. Not necessarily in that order.