Thursday, September 27, 2012

Five Reasons I Won’t Be Watching Season 2 of Homeland

by Conroy

On Sunday, the critically acclaimed CIA/terrorist drama Homeland will begin its second season on Showtime. It’s a well-timed return as just this past week Homeland was the toast of television, triumphing impressively at the Primetime Emmy Awards1, winning outstanding series, lead actor (Damian Lewis), lead actress (Claire Danes), and writing, all in the drama categories. An impressive feat considering the competition included shows as lauded and accomplished as Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Downton Abbey.

For those of you who haven’t seen the first season…spoiler alert…it centers on the efforts of a rebellious CIA officer, Carrie Matheson (Danes), investigating a rescued American POW, Sgt. Nicholas Brody (Lewis), just returned from Afghanistan after eight years in captivity. She believes that Brody has been “turned” by his captors and is now a Manchurian Candidate-like Al Qaeda sleeper agent. She battles to convince her increasingly skeptical superiors of her heterodox theory while also struggling with her personal instabilities, including crippling bipolar-ism. She’s right though, Brody has been turned. We see him ping-pong between a devastated POW trying to reintegrate into his old life and a hidden terrorist planning an attack on American soil.

Danes is a superb actress and her work in Homeland is worthy of awards. For his part, Lewis does a fine job as a man torn between radically different desires. And both are supported by a strong cast, most notably Mandy Patinkin as Saul Berenson, Carrie’s CIA mentor and moral guide. The shows are well directed, the production values are high, and there’s a lot of interesting and fairly convincing through-the-looking-glass detail about terrorism and modern intelligence work. To put it simply, the show has a lot going for it. It’s already the most watched program in Showtime’s history, and with the Emmy attention and strong word-of-mouth, the second season is expected to capture the eyes of a much wider audience. But not mine.

I hereby submit that Homeland is in fact a bad show, and offer five reasons why I won’t be watching season 2.

Where’s the FBI?
The show depicts the efforts of Dane’s CIA officer and many of her colleagues to investigate, interrogate, surveil, bug the property of, and spy by various other methods on: Sgt. Brody, foreign diplomats, other American citizens, suspected terrorists, to name but a few, each one living/residing in America. The CIA may be metonymic for the entire spook community and all its covert activities, but this is not what the agency does. Investigation of suspected criminals in America is the responsibility of law enforcement agencies, not intelligence agencies. While the CIA would have an interest in suspected terrorists and terrorist organizations in the U.S., the investigations, arrests, and prosecutions would be led first and foremost by the FBI (and supported by local law enforcement and other Homeland Security agencies).

The FBI is largely absent from Homeland, and when present is shown as a hostile obstacle to Matheson and her colleagues. It’s no secret that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have struggled to get along and share information, both before and after 9/11, but what’s shown in Homeland goes way beyond reality. And so we see CIA officers carrying guns, participating in raids on D.C. buildings, and clearly violating the civil rights of citizens and foreigners. This may be fun for the plotting and action, but it’s another glaring break between Homeland and the realism it claims to portray.2

Citizen Brody
Sgt. Nicholas Brody
One of the major plot developments through season 1 was the rise of Sgt. Brody from war hero to politician. By the end of the season Brody was on the cusp of being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Supposedly, his being a war hero with a great story of perseverance and survival, and having a beautiful wife and picture perfect children is enough to convince the Vice President’s Chief of Staff that he should fill a soon-to-be vacant House seat. Are we really expected to believe that this is how politics in 21st century America works? Brody is a sergeant, which means he likely doesn’t even have a college education. He’s not a lawyer or business man. He has no fortune or insider connections to the types of money and influence needed to organize a political campaign, garner needed support, develop an agenda, etc. He has no public service background3 or political experience. In other words, he’s a pure amateur without any of the advantages that amateurs need to win at the highest level of American politics.

Perhaps the writers thought of John McCain when developing this plotline. He was (McCain) a POW who returned to America after a long, brutal captivity to become a famous politician and run for President. But McCain was a pilot who graduated from the Naval Academy and was the wealthy son and grandson of four star admirals. After returning from Vietnam, McCain was a naval liaison to the U.S. Senate where he gained his first entre into politics. He was politically connected as witnessed by having two U.S. Senators serve as groomsmen at his second wedding in 1980 (and he married into an even wealthier family). Brody has none of these advantages. He’s depicted in the show as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and under the thrall of Abu Nazir, a terrorist mastermind. And the way he’s selected for political office is contrived and over simple. This plotline, which is going to be a central focus of season 2, is unbelievable.

Bad Geography
Homeland is set in and around Washington, D.C. Much action takes place at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, at the Brody home somewhere in suburban Virginia,4 in downtown Washington, near one of the region’s airports, at a lake house somewhere in the city’s western hinterlands, etc. Unfortunately for the show, it isn’t filmed in and around Washington. Instead, almost all of the series is filmed in and around Charlotte, NC. This was done because it’s cheaper to film in Charlotte than Washington. The problem is that Charlotte doesn’t look like Washington. Charlotte has skyscrapers, Washington doesn’t. Washington has famous landmarks and monuments, (and at the risk of offending North Carolina readers) Charlotte doesn’t. Washington has a fairly iconic and recognizable look, with its huge public buildings and their neoclassical architecture, low-rise density, abundance of aforementioned monuments, setting on the Potomac, and so forth.

Charlotte, on the other hand, is like many other burgeoning southern cities: its downtown is shimmering and spread out and tall, its density is fairly low, its streets are wide and in a grid pattern. There’s no major waterway, the topography is noticeably different, and so on.

Does this city look anything like Washington, D.C.?
I find these discrepancies very distracting. It’s obvious that the action of Homeland isn’t actually taking place in Washington and that detracts from the verisimilitude of the show. Consider how the spare desert setting of Albuquerque5 is incorporated in Breaking Bad, how bustling Manhattan is part of Mad Men, or how the mean streets of Baltimore became a major character in The Wire. Setting matters and faking one city for another doesn’t work when the charade is apparent. If the producers wanted to substitute one city for another – a very common practice in film and TV – then they must do a better job of it. Early in season 1 we saw Brody run by the Capitol. That was effective. Why not more of these small shoots in Washington to bolster the illusion of the events actually being there? By the end of season 1 we see the Vice President nearly assassinated on a downtown street that no one could confuse for Washington, a terrorist interrogated in a high rise that exists nowhere in the Capital region, an airport that in no way resembles Dulles, Reagan, or even BWI. We even see a park that’s supposed to be the Gettysburg battlefield (it’s not). The examples go on and on and I’m sure they’ll carry right into season 2.

Terrorist Brody
The central fact of Homeland is that Sgt. Nicholas Brody is a terrorist. The drama is that only his terrorist masters and a few people at the CIA know it (or think they know it). After being captured by terrorists in 2003 he is physically and psychologically tortured, even being forced to beat a friend and fellow prisoner to death. Finally, reaching his breaking point, he is offered hope. A man is kind to him, gives him food, shelter, a warm bath, and comfortable living conditions. This man is the terrorist leader Abu Nazir. He is generous and civilized towards Brody. Eventually he has Brody tutor his young son in English. Brody develops a close relationship with the boy. One day as the boy walks to school he is killed in a missile strike from an American drone. Brody is devastated by his death. An indeterminate time later, Brody is rescued from a terrorist compound by American special forces. He returns home to a hero’s welcome.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Hottest Place on Earth

by Conroy

Burning Death Valley
For those of you who, like me, are interested in the extremes of our natural world, there is a new hottest place on Earth: Death Valley, California.1 The record was set in the small town of Furnace Creek and now stands at a roasting 134 degrees Fahrenheit (56.7 degrees Celsius). What’s unusual about this record is that it wasn’t set this month or even this year, but way back in July 1913 (99 years ago). What’s even more unusual is that the new record is lower, less scorching2, than the previous record of 136 degrees measured (not quite as) way back in 1922 at El Aziziya, Libya. As I’ve written about before, this 90-year-old record has been dubious from the start, and now the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has invalidated it.

Just to be clear, the record for highest temperature refers to air temperature measured in the shade. Temperatures in the sun can rise well above 134 degrees and ground temperatures heated by the sun can be higher still, almost to the boiling point. (In comparison, the hottest bodies of water tend to be merely warm, like bathwater.3) Getting back to El Aziziya, a quick glance at the map shows that it is located not deep in the Sahara where one might expect a record temperature to be recorded, but just 25 miles from the cool Mediterranean and its moderating breezes. This seems like an unusual place for the planet’s high temperature to occur. The WMO determined that the El Aziziya temperature was the result of the weather station being improperly placed on a black tarmac surface with the thermometer too close to the ground, and thus artificially increasing the measured high temperature. Further, the measurement was probably misread by an inexperienced record keeper. High temperatures measured before and after 1922 didn’t come close the record, lending support that the 1922 reading was an unlikely anomaly. The upshot is that El Aziziya no longer holds the record.

The Crucible of Death Valley
Death Valley is really hot. On July 11 this year the temperature peaked at 128 degrees, not exactly threatening the record, but close enough to tell you that in summer Death Valley is indeed a burning, fiery furnace, a sun’s anvil.4 But Death Valley is a place of extremes. Not only is it hot, but it’s also the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level, and the driest place in North America, receiving a little more than two inches of precipitation each year. It’s situated in eastern California and flanked on the east and west by high mountain ranges.5 Moisture from the Pacific Ocean is squeezed out of the air by the mountain ranges to the west of Death Valley, and the dry air heats as it sinks under cloudless skies, baking the desert floor. If your idea of hell is flaming heat, then summer in Death Valley is hell.6

There is a peculiar type of individual that chooses to test themselves in this crucible. Each year 80 or so runners participate in the Badwater Ultramarathon, which is described by the race organizers as the “world’s toughest foot race.” Ultramarathoners are a rare lot. These are endurance runners who take on races of 50, 75, 100 or more miles, running hour-upon-hour (and sometimes day-after-day) through exhaustion, pain, injury, and mental and psychological distress. For the runners, these races become tests of the body and soul. That’s why ultramarathoners will gulp thin air at high altitudes or suffer through frostbite in freezing winter cold or cross the cauldron of Death Valley in July. For most people, the effort required for an ultramarathon passes over the line from personal test and fitness goal to deranged masochism.7

A lonesome Badwater ultramarathoner
And it’s a rare ultramarathoner who can complete the Badwater race within the allotted 60 hours. To do so, you have to run over a 135-mile course across Death Valley and then halfway up the slope of nearby Mount Whitney. The race requires you to grapple with not only the deadly summer heat but lung-busting thin air at high altitude. So how does Death Valley treat these runners? In his winning debut, legendary ultramarathoner Scott Jurek stopped periodically to submerse himself in a man-sized cooler filled with ice water (each runner is attended by a team – the race itself offers no support – with food, water, medical help, emotional and psychological sustenance, and all other logistical support). The heat off the road can reach 150 degrees and actually melt shoe soles and burn feet and calves. The over-like air forces the body into a panic and blood to the extremities, trying in vain to keep the runner’s core from overheating. Dehydration and severe gastro-intestinal distress are par for the course. The conditions are so intense, and the body and mind so stretched, that runners often hallucinate, seeing mirages rise from the shimmering desert. Sounds pleasant doesn’t it?

Very few of us will ever run the Badwater race (or anything similar), but the summer conditions in Death Valley are so extreme that if you were left there with no water or relief from the sun, you’d be dead within a day or two.8

A Hotter Place?
No place on earth is hotter than Death Valley in summer, but it’s well north of the tropics and so is actually very mild in the winter. The average December temperature at Furnace Creek is a cool 52 degrees, and the record low is -9 degrees F (-22.8 C). There are other places on Earth that never get a respite from the high heat. Perhaps the hottest place on the planet by average temperature is found Dallol in remote far northern Ethiopia.

Dallol, like Death Valley, sits at the bottom of a deep depression, about 430 feet below sea level, in a dry desert. But unlike Death Valley, Dallol’s latitude is well within the tropics (just 14 degrees north) and so it cooks under an intense sun all year long. There was a salt mining operation at Dallol in the early 1960s. During that time the average yearly temperature was a suffocating 94 degrees, and the average daily high was 106 degrees. Today Dallol is uninhabited, the salt operation long since abandoned. It’s a place that, like Antarctica, is unfit for man.

Death Valley is home to only a few thousand people. But there are some major cities that experience extreme heat. Here are the record high temperatures for some of these cities: Kuwait, Kuwait (128), Khartoum, Sudan (127), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (126), Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (126), Basra, Iraq (126), Phoenix, Arizona (122), Baghdad, Iraq (122), Bahrain (122), Doha Qatar (122), Karachi, Pakistan (118), Dubai, UAE (117), Tucson, Arizona (117), Las Vegas, Nevada (117), and Murcia, Spain (117).



1. It’s more accurate to note that there is a new highest measured temperature on Earth because there’s no way to verify that the record measured air temperature at one weather station is a record for any time across the entire planet.

2. It would be inappropriate to write that the new record is “colder” than the previous record.

3. The warmest body of water (or the warmest part of the warmest bodies of water) is hard to determine, but candidates include the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and Caribbean Sea. This of course ignores small geo-thermally heated bodies of water like geysers and natural hot springs.

4. Film buffs may recognize these descriptions from dialogue spoken in that ultimate desert movie (and cinema masterpiece) Lawrence of Arabia.

5. Here’s a neat piece of geographic trivia: Death Valley, the lowest place in North America is located just 85 miles from Mount Whitney (summit elevation: 14,505 feet), the highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

6. My idea of Hell is closer to Dante’s, a dark frozen waste. So for me hell on earth is to be found in coldest part of Antarctica, like for instance, the Vostok Station. But my ideas aside, summer in Death Valley is hellish.

7. I can recommend Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run if you’re interested in learning more about what these races entail and what type of personality they attract.

8. The name of the place doesn't lie.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Happy Birthday, U.S. Constitution

by Conroy

In just a few days, September 17 to be exact, the U.S. Constitution turns 225-years-old1. It was on that date in 1787 that the Constitutional Convention adopted the document and passed it along to each of the then thirteen states for ratification. Within a year the Constitution became the law of the land. It was, at the time, a remarkable, original product, and it remains, two-and-a-quarter centuries later, one of man’s great documents.

Here’s the famous Preamble, whose language (misspellings and all) embodies what I term the pragmatic idealism of early America:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.” (sic)

That’s it, a brief 52 words, just one sentence, that announces the broad vision of American government.  At the time of its writing, these sentiments were the hopes for a new nation. And in an 18th century world of monarchies, rigid social hierarchies, and limited freedoms, it was revolutionary. Looking back from the present it reads like a promise largely fulfilled. And on this anniversary it’s worth thinking a little more about this cornerstone of American government and society.

A Short History of How the Constitution Came to Be
The Constitution was a desperately needed solution to a growing crisis. After the hard fight for independence was won, the United States was not really a country. Rather, it was a loosely bound confederation of thirteen separate states. The central government, as much as there was one, operated under the weak Articles of Confederation.

A quick refresher. The American colonies fought a long war of independence from Britain starting in 1775. A year later, after the Continental Congress formally declared American independence, the Revolution’s leaders realized that in order to prosecute the war effectively a national government of some sort was needed. The Articles of Confederation became the framework of this government. This initial “constitution” was meant as a wartime measure to bind the thirteen rebelling colonies together and create a government to act as an agent for advocating the American cause and soliciting international support. And considering that the U.S. won the war, and to a large extent that outcome was a result of maintaining an army in the field and recruiting the French (and Spanish) into the war on America’s side, the Articles worked. But it was ad hoc, and once the United States became a nation, utterly inadequate.

The Articles created a Congress, but it had difficulty raising money as it couldn’t tax and relied on financial contributions from each state. It could print money, but that soon became worthless. America was on the verge of defaulting on the huge debts incurred during the war. There was no President or Executive Branch. The government couldn’t exercise a coherent foreign policy, with each state pursuing its own goals vis-à-vis Great Britain and other nations. The country had virtually no military and was unable to protect itself against raiding pirates or even the British soldiers still occupying frontier forts. Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts revealed the inherent impotence of American government, national and state alike. Commercial rule and legal rights were haphazard. Just a few years after becoming a nation, the United States was headed toward dissolution.

The nation’s leaders, the famed Founding Fathers, recognized the growing crisis and convened the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia during the warm summer of 1787. The Convention, one of the most important events in early American history, was led by George Washington2 and included such leading lights as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison. In total, 55 men from twelve states3 took the next four months to outline the shape of a new national government.4

Making a Constitution
A depiction of the Constitutional Convention
What the Convention ultimately approved is known to every American schoolchild, an Executive Branch headed by a President with broad powers, a bicameral legislature divided into a House of Representatives (seats based on population) and Senate (two per state), and a separate judiciary and Supreme Court. That’s the basic structure, but what I appreciate most about the Constitution is how it’s written to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

The men who wrote the Constitution were products of the Age of Reason, but they were also intelligent and savvy, and realistic about the nature of man. They understood that governmental powers, if unchecked, accrete and corrupt. The recent war had been fought against just that (as they believed5). And so the Constitution is based on the ideas of the consent of the governed (representative democracy), divided powers (separate Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches with checks and balances on the powers of each), and civil liberties (most obviously embodied in the Bill of Rights).

And the Convention recognized the need for amendments, for the Constitution to evolve as events warranted. One of the key agreements that greatly aided ratification was that the ten amendments of the Bill of Rights would be added to the Constitution almost immediately. The Constitution was sent to the states for ratification, two-thirds needed to approve for it to become law (meaning nine states needed to ratify it). Delaware6, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey ratified it by the end of the year. Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, and South Carolina followed in the first five months of 1788, and when New Hampshire approved in June the Constitution became official. Virginia and New York approved that summer and stubborn holdouts North Carolina and Rhode Island, recognizing the futility of continued obstruction, followed in 1789 and 1790, respectively.

As defined in the Constitution, a President (Washington) was elected7, an embryonic Executive Branch was formed, a formal Congress took office, and a federal judiciary established. Government hasn’t grown into Hobbes’ Leviathan, but it has flourished since the experimental beginnings (into a needed social bulwark or bloated inefficiency, or something in between, depending on your own particular political views).

The Constitution was amended with the Bill of Rights in 1789, which guaranteed the civil liberties that so many wanted clearly defined. Since then 17 additional amendments (27 total) have been ratified, though the twenty-first amendment repealed the eighteenth (Prohibition). There hasn’t been a new amendment since 1992 (and that one about Congressional salaries seems rather picayune when compared to the Bill of Rights or abolition of slavery). Before that the last amendment was in 1971 (voting age of 18). The total number of amendments isn’t likely to grow anytime soon, there aren’t any floating around that appear to have the broad support needed for ratification.8

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Farewell, Andy Roddick

by Conroy

Andy Roddick at the 2012 U.S. Open
Andy Roddick lost today – after a characteristically hard fight – in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, beaten decisively by 2009 champion Juan Martin Del Potro in the conclusion of their rain-interrupted match from last night. It is the last match, the final loss, of his career. Roddick surprised the sports world when he announced his retirement prior to his second round match. He cited the increasing frequency of injuries and his flagging commitment as the key factors driving his decision. Unlike other past champions1, Roddick said he wouldn’t be satisfied to, in his words, merely “exist on tour.” Roddick’s results have been slipping over the last year and a half and he’s been sidelined, seemingly, by one injury after another. This has led to whispers and speculation about how long Roddick would keep going, so it wasn’t a huge shock when he announced his decision to call it a career, but the timing – right in the middle of the biggest American tournament of the year – was unexpected. It added a buzz to his final matches as the New York crowd had only these last few opportunities to cheer him on. But it also provides an opportunity to reflect on Roddick’s long, successful, and in many ways frustrating career.

I’ve written a lot about tennis on this blog, but I’ve always focused on the play and changing dynamics of the very top players, especially Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. My interest in the top of the game is natural; these have been the men winning the big titles and etching their many impressive accomplishments in the tennis history books. Over the last seven plus years they’ve won just about every tournament of importance, leaving precious little for the rest of the field. Andy Roddick has been one of those players left in their wake. Compared to the best he has been, by any clear-eyed assessment, a minor champion. But it didn’t look this way when Roddick broke onto the scene.

Andy and Roger
It’s impossible to consider Roddick’s career without comparison with his direct contemporary, Roger Federer. Federer has of course dominated tennis for most of the last decade, and his stature and accomplishments have overshadowed all others (with the lone exception of Nadal). But no one’s career has suffered from Federer’s dominance as much as Roddick’s.

Ten years ago, 20-year-old Roddick shot into the top ten behind a monstrous serve and forehand. Back then Roddick could hit his serve at over 150 mph2, and his serve-forehand combination was hard to contend with. He looked to have the game to be the next big thing, picking up the torch of American tennis from the aging Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Of course there was another guy who had settled into the top ten who was also being called the next big thing3. And unfortunately for Roddick, this other guy had his number. Federer beat Roddick the first four times they played, including in the semi-finals of the 2003 Wimbledon en route to his first grand slam. Still, the Roddick-Federer matchup promised to be one of the great new rivalries in the sport.

Roddick finally beat Federer in the run-up to the 2003 U.S. Open, and carried that momentum4 to the championship, the first of what looked to be many grand slam titles. Roddick’s victory in New York and his overall season lifted him to the top of the rankings for the 2003 season, one spot ahead of Federer. At 215 he was the best player in the world.

Federer took the top ranking from Roddick in early 2004 after he won his second grand slam at the Australian Open, but in midsummer at Wimbledon Roddick had a great chance to get on top of their burgeoning rivalry. He faced Federer in the Wimbledon final. A victory would avenge his semi-final loss from the year before and give him two grand slams, equal to Federer, and the number 1 ranking. The match was played under sodden gray skies, but the gloomy weather didn’t seem to faze Roddick. He came out playing brilliant tennis, serving masterfully and striking rocket forehands on the way to taking the first set. He had Federer back on his heels and was getting the better of many of the baseline exchanges. Federer managed to squeeze out the second, but Roddick was leading 4-2 in the third when the skies, threatening rain all day, finally opened. Roddick left the court with the initiative, and it’s worth pausing at this moment; perhaps the high water mark of his career, beating Roger Federer at Wimbledon, on the cusp of a career-defining victory. But it wasn’t to be. Federer used the rain delay to his advantage, diagnosing Roddick’s game plan. When play resumed he changed tactics by attacking the net and seized the momentum. He broke Roddick immediately and took the third set in a one-sided tiebreaker. Federer’s maintained his level and served out the match in four sets. Right up until this Wimbledon final there was little to choose between the players, Roddick had potent weapons and Federer had a formidably all-around game. But from this match on their career trajectories bifurcated sharply; Roddick would never again be in Federer’s league.

Federer went on to dominate in a historic fashion, winning more grand slam titles and holding the top ranking for longer than any other man. Roddick began a slow fade. He ended 2004 ranked number 2, but was passed by Nadal in 2005, and then by others in the ensuing years. He reached the 2005 Wimbledon and 2006 U.S. Open finals6, and was beaten by Federer in each. Roddick continued to win, but never seemed to come through in the big matches. His (relatively) plodding movement and underpowered backhand were weaknesses that more and more players learned to exploit. Even his vaunted serve and forehand seemed to lose a little of their sting as the years passed. His year-end ranking shows this steady (if relatively slow) decline:
  • 2003 – 1, 
  • 2004 – 2, 
  • 2005 – 3, 
  • 2006 – 6, 
  • 2007 – 6, 
  • 2008 – 8, 
  • 2009 – 7, 
  • 2010 – 8, 
  • 2011 – 14, 
  • 2012 (as of 9/4) – 22.