URLs du Jour — 2014-08-25

  • Kevin D. Williamson notes that Senator Rand Paul is spending part of the Congressional recess in Martha's Vineyard the Hamptons the Grand Tetons Guatemala, "performing eye surgeries on poor children who need care."

    Good news: Senator Paul is not the kind of doctor who will perform surgery on poor children who don't need care.

    It's easy to compare Senator Paul's vacation with those who preen endlessly about their superior caring and compassion. But Williamson goes on to make a subtler point: the "caring" politicians have no skills other than political ones.

    Politicians do not provide health care. Doctors, nurses, technicians, orderlies, pharmaceutical researchers, medical-device manufacturers, and junior senators from Kentucky volunteering in Guatemala provide health care. Politicians do not feed the hungry — farmers, grocers, long-haul truckers, and Monsanto feed the hungry. They neither sow nor reap. Barack Obama gives the impression of being a man who probably couldn’t change a tire, but we have persuaded ourselves — allowed ourselves to be persuaded — that such men must be central to our lives. The wheat farmer in Kansas or the contractor in Pittsburgh? All they do is keep the world fed and housed.

    At least Al Franken used to be able to write a good joke.

  • Speaking of Senator Paul, Ann Althouse is righteously peeved: "'Meet the Press" covered Rand Paul's pro bono eye surgery in Guatemala and larded it with impugnment of his motives." She quotes extensively from the MTP correspondent, Chris Jansing, noting her snarky unfairness and blatant bias throughout.

    Senator Paul has been doing this since 1996, so if it's all part of a sneaky plan, it's a real long-term one.

  • Behind the NYT paywall, but you can at least read the relevant subheadline: "Workforce Investment Act Leaves Many Jobless and in Debt." (You can also use the Google Trick: search for that string, then click through.) The WIA is a $3.1 billion Federal program, and there's no indication whatsoever that money is going anywhere but into the pockets of the government employees administering the program and those at the receiving end of the billions (typically private and public vocational schools).

    Instead, an extensive analysis of the program by The New York Times shows, many graduates wind up significantly worse off than when they started — mired in unemployment and debt from training for positions that do not exist, and they end up working elsewhere for minimum wage.

    So: a government program that not only spends a lot of money to hurt the people it was advertised as helping, but also wastes their time and misguides and lies to them about their job prospects. Wonderful.

    Oh yeah: The WIA was renewed earlier this summer with "broad bipartisan support": only three votes against in the Senate, six in the House.

    To repeat myself: If your local Congresscritter or Senator tries to tell you that the Federal Government needs more revenue to accomplish its lofty goals, you have my permission to call him or her a blithering idiot or a despicable liar. Or both.

  • Prof Bainbridge notes: "I genuinely don't understand the moral outrage over tax inversions". He quotes a host of petulant pundits and testy tweeters, basically saying: how dare Burger King buy Tim Horton's as a tax-mitigation scheme?

    Here's my question for anybody who's upset about tax inversions: Do you have an IRA? or a 401(k)? Did you take any deductions on your tax return last year? or any tax credits? If so, you used a perfectly legal "tax avoidance" strategy. Which is exactly what Burger King is considering.

    I hope that (unlike Walgreens) Burger King will stand up to the bullies.

  • Alan Dershowitz unloads on "J Street", a lobbying group that claims in theory to be pro-Israel, in practice anything but. The latest data point: J Street refused to join other organizations in a "Stand With Israel" rally in Boston last month.

    Initially J Street agreed to be a co-sponsor of this unity event, but then—presumably after receiving pressure from its hard left constituency, which is always looking to bash Israel and never to support it—J Street was forced to withdraw its sponsorship. The phony excuse it offered was that the rally offered “no voice for [J Street] concerns about the loss of human life on both sides” and no recognition of the “complexity” of the issues or the need for a “political solution.”

    J Street's PAC endorses political candidates, nearly all Democrats, including New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen, Carol Shea-Porter, and Annie Kuster. They really like Kuster and Shea-Porter: JStreetPac is (as I type) Annie's #1 contributor; "JStreet" and "JStreetPac" are Carol's #2 and #3 contributors respectively.

    Free advice: Were I running against them, I'd make a big deal about this.

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URLs du Jour — 2014-08-19

  • I'm late to the Robin Williams sobfest. He and I were born just a few months apart. Not that it matters: it's just a coincidence that hit me.

    I was tempted to thank the Lord for not making me rich, famous, talented, and hilarious; but that's way too flip. (Albeit not inaccurate.)

    Instead I thought back to another famous suicide brought on by depression: David Foster Wallace. Like Robin Williams, DFW was brilliant, even inspiring. (Example: text, YouTube audio.) Plenty of friends, legions of fans. Like Robin Williams, he had full knowledge of his inner demons: he had been battling them for years with an array of drugs and therapies. "Get professional help"? Friends, they got it all.

    And that last thing is really the scary part for me: a battle that takes place entirely between your ears between the forces of life and self-destruction. You know exactly what's going on.

    And yet, still, the wrong side wins.

    I blogged this New Yorker article by D.T. Max when it was published in 2009; it details DFW's long struggle, ultimately lost. Recommended.

  • Michael Gerson, the columnist that replaced George F. Will at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, continues to inspire. More specifically, he inspires folks like Donald J. Boudreaux to make wicked fun of him.

    Michael Gerson mocks Sen. Rand Paul’s “belief in a minimal state” in part because, in Mr. Gerson’s estimation, such a state would be “incapable of addressing poverty and stalled mobility.” (“Rand Paul is no Jack Kemp,” Aug. 19). What a curious argument given that the very poverty and stalled mobility that Mr. Gerson laments and claims to be incurable in a society with a minimal state actually exist with our current engorged state - a state that for 80 years now has operated New Deal programs, and for 50 years now has practiced Great Society social engineering.

    I wouldn't blame the current troubles in Ferguson, MO on George F. Will's absence from St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but it certainly didn't help.

  • A small but vital point is made by David Boaz at Cato: the MSM is (way too often) content to echo uncritically the calls for increased government spending coming from the interest groups that would benefit from increased government spending. Case in point: a recent article on Marketplace Radio calling for water infrastructure spending.

    That’s the whole story. And maybe them’s the facts, though Chris Edwards would beg to differ. But the information comes entirely from the National League of Cities, speaking for cities that want more money, and the American Society of Civil Engineers, the people who would be called on to design and build new or improved infrastructure. Journalists shouldn’t rely entirely on the oil industry for the facts on the Keystone pipeline, or the teachers union for the facts about education, and they shouldn’t rely entirely on civil engineers or asphalt manufacturers for the facts on infrastructure.

    The most frustrating mode of media bias is its selective skepticism.

  • As pointed out here earlier this month New Hampshire's junior US Senator, Kelly Ayotte, is a co-sponsor of the “Campus Safety and Accountability Act”, alleged to "address sexual assault at colleges." This legislation is "problematic", which is my cute diplomatic way of saying "dreadful".

    The Washington Examiner's Ashe Schowe asked the sponsors six questions:

    1. What protections will be in place to make sure the annually reported statistics won’t lead to more convictions based on political correctness?

    2. How will the student surveys solve the problem, instead of being used for political purposes?

    3. Who will have more authority, the colleges or local law enforcement?

    4. Will there be “support services” for the accused?

    5. Who will pay for campus personnel training?

    6. Will the government detail a “uniform campus-wide process” for dealing with claims of sexual assault?

    Kelly (I call her Kelly, that's how she signs her e-mail to me) had her spokesdroid, Liz Johnson, reply to Ms. Schow last week. It is "boilerplate", which is my cute diplomatic way of saying "unresponsive and evasive obfuscation." But read it yourself.

    The invaluable KC Johnson analyzes the response from Kelly's office and that of the other GOP senators. Good point here:

    Ayotte’s spokesperson used revealing language in another respect. “Campus sexual assault,” she remarked, “is a serious and disturbing crime.” This statement might be deemed a Kinsley gaffe (“when a politician inadvertently tells the truth”). Everyone knows that sexual assault is a “crime,” as the spokesperson admitted. But the fiction behind the efforts of OCR, the McCaskill bill co-sponsors, and the anti-due process activists is that colleges are investigating not crimes but violations of college procedures, and therefore the school has no obligation to provide meaningful due process. At least Ayotte has admitted this isn’t true. The New Hampshire senator should now say which other “crimes” she believes college administrators, rather than law enforcement officials, are competent to investigate and prosecute—and how many other pieces of legislation she plans to co-sponsor to bring about this development.

    I would write Kelly myself, but my guess is she has a similar "boilerplate" response all ready in place.

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URLs du Jour — 2014-08-08

  • So, completely out of the blue, I found myself wondering: Why do the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wear masks?

    It's not as if they have secret identities to protect. If you see one without his mask, you're pretty much going to know it's one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It's actually easier to identify them with the masks on! (Blue ⇒ Leonardo, etc.)

    One of the downsides of the Googlable Web: it's depressingly easy to learn that your brilliant original thought has already been thought and in fact there's a Reddit thread devoted to the answer to your question.

    In other news, apparently the new movie sucks.

  • You can read the NYT Magazine article ("Has the ‘Libertarian Moment’ Finally Arrived?"). But Kevin D. Williamson read it for you, and I think you might find his take more interesting and amusing. His response to the question posed by the article title:

    What that means politically is unknowable. We could save ourselves some time and argument by noting that the American electorate gives relatively little indication that it is on the verge of a “libertarian moment,” or any other sort of philosophical moment. Psephological experience and current polling data both very strongly reiterate what any sentient person knows: The American people are incoherent and inconsistent when it comes to public policy, and they seem to have long been driven, in the main, by wishful thinking.

    A quick grep tells me this is the first time the word "psephological" has been used at Pun Salad. Perhaps the last.

  • A few items picked from the never-ending stream that demonstrates how Your Federal Government is wisely handling your tax dollar:

    • " A government website intended to make federal spending more transparent was missing at least $619 billion from 302 federal programs, a government audit has found."

    • "High-speed rail was supposed to be President Obama’s signature transportation project, but despite the administration spending nearly $11 billion since 2009 to develop faster passenger trains, the projects have gone mostly nowhere and the United States still lags far behind Europe and China."

    • "Fortunately, nobody held their breath waiting on this. In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration published a proposed rule to regulate the labels on breath mints, changing a 1993 standard. Now, in 2014, the FDA is withdrawing that proposal as outdated. And they’re issuing a new one, a 145-page regulation on how to label breath mints. "

    If your local Congresscritter or Senator tries to tell you that the Federal Government needs more revenue to accomplish its lofty goals, you have my permission to call him or her a blithering idiot or a despicable liar. Or both. "Both" is a real possibility, especially in my state.

  • James Taranto retweets from 2012:

    Helluva job, Barry.

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URLs du Jour — 2014-08-05

Clearing out the things-to-blog hopper:

  • At Vox, young Matthew Yglesias makes a point made previously here at Pun Salad: "The case against time zones: They're impractical & outdated". Sample:

    If the whole world used a single GMT-based time, schedules would still vary. In general most people would sleep when it's dark out and work when it's light out. So at 23:00, most of London would be at home or in bed and most of Los Angeles would be at the office. But of course London's bartenders would probably be at work while some shift workers in LA would be grabbing a nap. The difference from today is that if you were putting together a London-LA conference call at 21:00 there'd be only one possible interpretation of the proposal. A flight that leaves New York at 14:00 and lands in Paris at 20:00 is a six-hour flight, with no need to keep track of time zones. If your appointment is in El Paso at 11:30 you don't need to remember that it's in a different time zone than the rest of Texas.

    This is one of the rare times Yglesias is absolutely right. (Another time was here, where he advocated scrapping the corporate income tax. Could it be a trend? Nah.)

  • Professor Don Boudreaux (like Pun Salad) was unimpressed with New Hampshire's ex-Senator Judd Gregg's column in The Hill extolling the virtues of the Export-Import Bank (and questioning the sanity of its detractors). Addressing Judd:

    You claim that the Ex-Im Bank’s practice of paying foreigners to consume American exports, “does not, in fact, aid foreign countries, governments or businesses.” The Ex-Im Bank, you say in celebration, “plays precisely the opposite role…. [T]he Ex-Im Bank in fact represents an American commercial threat to foreign companies.”

    So your view is that, by artificially increasing the amount of valuable goods owned and enjoyed by foreigners (through a policy of paying foreigners to acquire goods made with scarce resources in America - resources that would, in many instances, otherwise be used to produce goods for Americans to own and enjoy), Uncle Sam weakens foreign countries and strengthens America. How bizarre.

    If only our state's Senator Ayotte would spend less time listening to Gregg, and more time to Boudreaux. (Alas, my recent letter to her on this issue was acknowledged with a boilerplate response.)

  • And if that wasn't irritating enough, NH's Senator Ayotte recently appeared in the news as a co-sponsor of a new “Campus Safety and Accountability Act”, alleged to "address sexual assault at colleges."

    The MSM have zero skepticism for this sort of legislation, and basically just echo the talking points of its proponents. But check out Ashe Schow at the Washington Examiner who asks yet-unanswered questions about fairness and due process (always among the first victims of a moral panic). And she has a summary:

    TL;DR: This bill institutionalizes bias against the accused in a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality, but doesn’t provide the accused any recourse to defend themselves.

    Also, at Minding the Campus, KC Johnson has a careful analysis of the proposed bill. Although there are some good things therein, here's a telling point:

    Subsection 4 of the law enforcement section of the bill, however, contains a deeply troubling provision, requiring colleges to develop “a method of sharing [with law enforcement] information about specific crimes, when directed by the victim [emphasis added].” First, at the point in the case covered by this subsection, there is no “victim”—there’s an accuser and an accused student. McCaskill’s word choice suggests that she and her colleagues believe that an accuser is automatically a “victim,” thereby abandoning the presumption of innocence for the accused. Second, the provision gives the “victim” authority over whether or not to share information with law enforcement. It’s hard to imagine any accuser would “direct” her college to share information with police about the “specific crime” of filing a false report, if the college uncovered evidence that the accuser lied.

    It's difficult to disagree with a quote KC repeats from Christina Hoff Sommers: in today's system of higher education, "Due process has no lobby."

Last Modified 2014-08-08 12:49 PM EDT
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Your Next Password Could Change Your Life, But Make It a Good One

I've been meaning to blog about an article I read a few weeks back: "How a password changed my life" by Mauricio Estrella. Mauricio was harboring some post-divorce ill will and depression. And (worse) he had to change his password, a password he had to type numerous times per working day. He hit on an insanely great idea:

My password became: “Forgive@h3r”

And, he reports, it worked! His mental attitude improved, snapping out of his funk.

Mauricio calls this a "mantra", but I've heard of this technique before, called "affirmation". It sounds like new age mumbo-jumbo hooey, but Scott Adams wrote about how it worked for him in his book The Dilbert Future (Here is a free PDF from (apparently) Adams that goes over some of that ground.)

Mauricio's has gone through a lot of passwords (he's required to change every 30 days!) and he lists some of his past ones:


Mauricio reports all but one of these "worked". (The sticker was number three: "it never worked, still fat.") An impressive record.

I haven't done affirmations myself, but putting one in a password seems like a painless way to experiment. But for goodness' sake, my inner computer security geek is screaming: Mauricio, pick better passwords!

  • Mauricio's employer requires punctuation, but using the same symbol all the time defeats the purpose. Mix it up!

  • I would not recommend using correctly-spelled words in your password.

  • The technique of substituting "3" for "e" or "4" for "for" might have been clever a couple decades ago. The bad guys know you do this.

  • Anyone who knows Mauricio might also know the bit of self-improvement he's currently working on. I'm sure most of his co-workers and acquaintances are nice people, but it only takes one jerk to compromise an account.

What to do instead? Let's say your affirmation/goal is to work on your Great American Novel, writing a measly 300 words per day. Be creative in expressing it in your password:

"Write 0.3 thousand good words per day or die"
"Add 3 hundred language units to Moby-Dick" (Which is your secret affectionate nickname for your book.)
"Type 300 in the morning, same number tomorrow" ("3e2" is 300 in many programming languages.)

Something to think about anyway. (Needless to say, none of these examples are even close to any past or present password of mine.)

Last Modified 2014-08-05 4:13 PM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2014-07-29

Various things of recent interest:

  • Is there anything more shallow than an Establishment Republican's devotion to the free market? Case in point is a recent column by New Hampshire's ex-Senator Judd Gregg in The Hill in defense of the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. His lead argument is a pathetic strawman: the "populist right" (in which he apparently lumps people like me) dislikes institutions like the Ex-Im because of our "suspicious nature". We are "conspiratorially-minded", and see such institutions as "conspiratorial" because (among other things) "they are identified with Harvard and other elite eastern institutions."

    We're just a bunch of paranoid loonies, basically. Thanks a lot, Judd.

  • If you read Judd's column and still think he makes a valid argument, might I suggest reading a rebuttal by Veronique de Rugy? She gives Judd credit for honestly recognizing the Ex-Im Bank's essential cronyism. But Judd excuses that by claiming the Bank is (arguably) profitable. Vero rebuts:

    Alas, Gregg thinks that Ex-Im cronyism is okay because it “returns a few billion dollars a year to U.S. taxpayers.” Hm . . . so the unfair treatment of some companies for the benefit of others, along with the market distortions the Bank creates, is just peachy as long as Uncle Sam gets richer on paper? And it’s only Ex-Im advocates like the Chamber of Commerce that claim Ex-Im really is a boon to taxpayers — the Congressional Budget Office projects the bank will yield billions in costs over the next decade.

  • Alas, New Hampshire's sole semi-sane member of Congress, Senator Kelly Ayotte, has gone over to the establishment side on this issue, putting herself in the corporate sack with not only Judd, but also Jeanne Shaheen, Carol Shea-Porter, and Ann Kuster.

    In (probably) a futile gesture, I've written to Senator Ayotte to ask her to reconsider that.

  • It's not just your Federal-level politicos in bed with corporate behemoths. As this Wired article points out, your local officials are pretty OK with restricting broadband competition in your community, as long as they get their kickbacks and other goodies. Good advice:

    Politically, open access won’t really happen until local governments realize they’ve been thinking too small and too short-term; they’ve become used to thinking of rights-of-way and franchising concessions as revenue streams. But they’re missing the bigger opportunity: promoting broadband as a basic ingredient of economic growth — and growing their tax base.

  • This made me curious about how good old Rollinsford, NH, home to Pun Salad, was viewing its relationship with Comcast, its designated provider. So I found this recent set of recommendations by a local committee. Sample goal:

    Renegotiate the current franchise agreement with Comcast with terms that provide the town with additional advantages, e.g., the delivery of business class internet service to all town buildings.

    I.e. Comcast will pass the charges to its local customers and funnel a part of that cash over to City Hall for high-tech government goodies. Sigh. No sign of thinking outside the box there.

  • By the way, you may have heard that Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett are making a movie about "Rathergate". They are playing (respectively) Dan Rather and Mary Mapes. And the movie is said to be based on Mapes' self-serving reality-challenged memoir of the scandal. (Which most agree was cooked up as a dirty trick to defeat George W. Bush in the 2004 election.)

    If your jaw hasn't hit the floor yet—or even if it has—you might want to check out Megan McArdle's long post on why that's a very bad idea.

    It would be a pity if Hollywood made the same blind mistakes that destroyed several distinguished careers in New York. I know that the film production company for this project is called Mythology Entertainment. That said, the journalists who deserve to have their stories told are the ones who dug into the provenance of these memos and exposed them for what they actually were. If you are going to make a movie, it should honor their fine work, not the errors that made it necessary.

    Maybe there will be a subplot showing Alger Hiss typing the Rathergate memos on his Woodstock typewriter/word processor.

  • You can follow up Megan's masterful take on Rathergate with her hubby's (Peter Suderman) equally masterful analysis of why the D.C. Circuit court ruling in Halbig v. Burwell was correct and deserves to stand. Long but worthwhile, and the conclusion:
    The administration's defenders argue that the law is difficult to interpret, the statutory language is ambiguous, and the legal particulars are difficult to understand. None of this is true.

    The clearest and most obvious interpretation, and the one that best fits the history, evidence, and context, is that the language of the law means what it unambiguously says, that the legislative incentive for states to comply works broadly like many legislative incentives that preceded it, and that even if members of Congress who didn't read the bill did not understand every detail of the legislatory [sic] they voted for, the wonks who helped draft and conceptualize the law did and said so—and have since reversed themselves because their initial understanding is no longer convenient.

    McArdle and Suderman: that's one impressive family.

Last Modified 2014-08-05 4:10 PM EDT
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Pathetic Hillary Flacktivism (In My Local Paper)

A recent op-ed in my local paper, Foster's Daily Democrat, impressed me with its sheer vapidity and self-importance. The author, one "Douglas Smith of Durham [NH]" wants us to know how vital he and Hillary Clinton were to enticing foreign visitors to come to the United States to spend money. The author blurb at the bottom of the column describes Smith's recent history as a Federal employee:

He is the former Assistant Secretary for the Private Sector at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, where he served from October 2009 to November 2013. During his tenure, Assistant Secretary Smith was the DHS representative on the President’s Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, the President’s Export Council, the White House Business Council, and the World Economic Forum Risk Officers Community.

Or: "a political appointee who went to a lot of meetings." He is now "the Executive Vice President of MWW, a public relations firm." (His DHS bio is still online and it's a minor example of the revolving door between business and government.)

The op-ed, as previously indicated, is awful. Executive summary/paraphrase:

"Tourism is good. It helps the economy. Before Hillary and I came, tourism was down, because Bush. Hillary and I brought tourism back. Hillary and I talked to many people. Hillary and I saved America by promoting tourism and stopping terrorism. She's running for President, vote for her."

Yes, it's almost that bad. Smith's actual prose seems to come out of the Soundbyte-2000 political boilerplate generator, which I understand you can get off the discount PC software rack at Staples.

Speaking of Hillary: "This kind of smart, pragmatic leadership is just what Americans want and just what America needs from its leaders."

Speaking of Hillary's deep thinking: "Secretary Clinton understood that there was no need to make a false choice between economic and national security and that we can — and must — have both."

Anyone who writes like that thinks his readers are gullible idiots.

But what about Smith's implication that Hillary (and he) managed to lift foreign tourism out of the toilet where it had languished post-9/11?

Here is a one-page PDF from the "National Travel and Tourism Office", part of the Department of Commerce. There is a small graph, which I snipped:

US Visitors and
Spending 1998-2013

Eyeballing, this says: foreign tourism grew throughout 1998-2013, save for recessions (2000, 2008) and terrorism (2001).

Did Hillary and Smith do anything exceptional for foreign travel during their tenure? Not really.

  • Looking at the 2003-2008 (non-Hillary) period, visitor spending went from $80 billion to $140 billion, which works out to be a tad under 12% growth per annum.

  • The Hillary era saw (in 2009-2013) growth from $120 billion to $180 billion. This comes to a bit under 11% per annum.

I'm sure Hill and Smith went to a lot of meetings and talked to a lot of people and went on a lot of fun junkets, but I don't see any evidence that this had any effect on tourism growth, which is riding a long-term growth trend.

A slightly more interesting question is: what possessed Douglas Smith to write this utterly lame op-ed? I suspect there's an effort by Hillary groupies to embellish her record as Secretary of State. Somehow people may have gotten the impression (Libya, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Ukraine, China, Israel) that her foreign policy ranged from foolhardy to dangerous. Actual accomplishments are hard to find.

By the way: a little Googling finds that Douglas Smith is the son of Marjorie Smith, longtime Durham Democratic pol. (Formerly a state Senator, currently in the House.) Did Doug's mom tell him to write this?

Last Modified 2014-08-05 4:16 PM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2014-07-17

Screeching toward the end of the week…

  • NR's Phi Beta Cons blog provides a post headlined "Specializing in Unemployment", noting a higher education trendlet: students searching for, and universities offering, "esoteric and niche fields" of study. Second paragraph:

    Well, [students] won’t have to look far for such programs. From “Adventure Education” to a dual major in “EcoGastronomy”—yes it’s a program for environmentally-friendly eating—the list of highly-specific university programs has been growing in recent years. And while these disciplines may sound innovative and exciting, the reality checks that ivory tower over-specialization bump into may tell the story better.

    I normally wouldn't quote that, but the second link in that paragraph goes back to the University Near Here. (The first link goes to another member of the University System of Near Here, Plymouth State University.)

    It's so exciting to have one's employer served up as a Bad Example to a wide readership.

  • It's interesting what you can surmise from the results of Googling a word. For example, when I Google "ecogastronomy", what the results tell me is: "a made-up self-important word that's desperately trying to sell itself to the rest of the world." Most of the top results refer to UNH's program, indicating that the rest of the world may not be that interested.

  • Pun Salad recently examined the decision of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to remove the column of George F. Will, replacing it with that of Michael Gerson. Gerson seems to be trying his best to convince everyone that was a very bad idea, as in this column bemoaning the expansion of legal weed and gambling. And those pesky libertarians are part of the problem!

    The ideological alliance behind these changes is among the strangest in U.S. politics. Libertarians seek to lift governmental restraints on consensual acts. State governments seek sources of revenue without the political inconvenience of requesting broad tax increases. Both find common ground in encouraging and exploiting the weaknesses and addictions of citizens. (And business interests and their lobbyists, of course, find new ways to profit from reliable vices.)

    At best, Gerson has half an idea here: sin taxes bring in revenue that doesn't have to come from the average taxpayer. But the charge that libertarians want to encourage and exploit "the weaknesses and addictions of citizens" is thoughtless and baseless slander.

    I wouldn't have found that on my own, having given up on Gerson long ago. But I do read Jacob Sullum and he offered up a quick rebuttal: "Michael Gerson Explains Why Libertarians Should Want to Ban Everything".

    By Gerson's logic, a true libertarian would want to criminalize as much commercial activity as possible, the better to starve the beast. The less there is to tax, the smaller government will be, so when all peaceful transactions are banned, we will be living in a libertarian paradise.

    A commenter to Sullum ("John") is also good: "Gerson is a curious breed of moron. It is not that there isn't an element of truth to what he says. It is that he takes that element and manages to derive epically stupid claims."

  • MST3K has been gone since 1999, but Michael J Nelson can still make me laugh:

Last Modified 2014-08-05 4:18 PM EDT
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Geek Seeks iPod Song-Shuffling Nirvana

[Note: out of whack with normal Pun Salad content. Feel free to skip, unless you're interested in the kind of mental aberration that causes people to algorithmize everyday issues.]

Ever since I've had one kind of iPod or another, I've been trying to come up with a good algorithm to govern its music selection. Herewith a description of my latest scheme. It assumes some easily-acquired familiarity with iTunes/iPod operations.

Guiding principles and relevant facts:

  • I prefer a random shuffle of songs. Apple has a "genius" feature that, among other things, will create an "aesthetically coherent" playlist of songs (they say) "will sound great together". I don't care about that.

    In fact, I actively don't want that. I kind of like hearing a sweet Linda Ronstadt tear-jerker immediately followed by an ass-kicker from The Who.

    So shoot me. (Also: yes, I'm old.) But this preference makes things easier.

  • But! I do want to hear certain songs more often than others. For whatever reason. I may simply love the song (e.g., "Bernadette" by the Four Tops) and could listen to it every day for the rest of my life. Or it might be new and fresh, just downloaded/purchased.

    Conversely, I might prefer to hear certain songs less often than others, because they are older or less-loved.

    This preference makes things more difficult.

  • My iTunes song collection is much larger (about 40 GB) than the space available for songs on my primary iPod (an older Nano, about 7.22 GB). So I need to cycle a subset of iTunes library songs onto the iPod when it syncs. It would be nice if songs that have been recently played were replaced with songs not-so-recently played; that way, everything gets heard eventually. [See update below.]

The iPod/iTunes system has a simple way of representing song preference: the rating, which can be 1-5 stars. (Songs can also be unrated.) So let's say I rate all the songs in my library (and, going forward, remember to rate any new incoming songs).

This reduces the problem to: how do I insure higher-rated songs get played more frequently, while still keeping things simple?

Initial vague answer: keep more of my high-rated songs on the iPod than low-rated songs. A simple song shuffle will play the high-rated songs more often, simply because there are more of them.

Duh, right?

To firm this up, let's do some simple math. Let pn be the probability of playing a song with an n-star rating. So we have:

p5 + p4 + p3 + p2 + p1 = 1

And the "play higher-rated songs more frequently" implies that:

p5 > p4 > p3 > p2 > p1

The values I'm using are

( p5, p4, p3, p2, p1 ) = ( 13, 415, 15, 215, 115 )

Those numbers are arbitrary and could change (within the above constraints), but (modulo randomness) they say: out of a shuffle of 15 songs, it's expected 5 songs will be 5-star, 4 will be 4-star, 3 will be 3-star, 2 will be 2-star, and 1 will be 1-star. (This seems to work for me in practice.)

[Aside, added a couple of days later: it's an arithmetic progression, where each rating-star increases the play probability by a fixed amount. One could also imagine a geometric progression, where the play probability gets increased by a fixed factor. For example, if we wanted each rating star to double the play probability, we'd have:

( p5, p4, p3, p2, p1 ) = ( 1631, 831, 431, 231, 131 )

Nothing magic about that either. It's all about what produces a mix that "sounds right" to you. End of aside. On with the show:]

How do we make that happen? Surprisingly easy!

I created 5 smart playlists: "Nano1", "Nano2", …, "Nano5", one for each rating. The math described above enters when we define each list:

Suppose we want to store a total of N songs on the iPod. (For my Nano, a conservative choice for N is 900.) Simply populate each playlist with songs having the corresponding n-star Rating, but limit it to N * pn items.

Consider "Nano3": the p3 probability is 15, so the playlist should be limited to

900 * 15 = 180 items.

And that translates into the smart playlist definition:

smart playlist nano3

The "least recently played" criterion is not that important (at least not to me), but it insures that the songs in the library will get sync'ed out to the iPod sooner than they might if we were to rely on a random selection. [Oops. See update below.]

To keep things uncluttered, I put these five playlists into a Playlist Folder named "Nano".

And finally (finally!), I plugged in my Nano, and specified that it should sync from the aforementioned "Nano" folder. Looks like this: NanoSync spec

All done!

Going forward: if I happen to notice that a certain song isn't getting played enough, or getting played too often, it's easy to raise/lower its rating to increase/decrease the probability it will get played. And if I decide I don't want my iPod to play a song ever again, I can de-rate it (or more drastically, delete it.)

I'm not sure whether I should be admired or pitied, but I'm happy with the setup, and maybe someone out there with the same geeky compulsion will find inspiration here.

PS: this was inspired by Jamie Zawinski's (apparently failing) efforts to come up with an iTunes playlist solution to match his desires. Fortunately, my desires were far less complex than his. And I recognized I could satisfy them even with iTunes doing (as Jamie puts it) "the stupidest possible thing."

Update 2014-08-14: I noticed a couple things:

  • I was implicitly assuming that the "least recently played" criterion would select randomly from any songs that had never been played. Instead, it seemed to pick songs from artists that were alphabetically last in the library.

    I had a lot of songs that had never been played, because I'd recently done a mass-rip of my CD collection. So I noticed my iPod playing a lot of Who, Van Morrison, T-Bone Walker, and Talking Heads, but no Beatles, Beach Boys, Band, Billy Joel, …. Kind of a fail.

  • So I switched from "least recently played" to "random" on my playlists. And ran into another minor gotcha. iTunes will generate a random smart playlist once when you specify its criteria. The playlist is not regenerated when you use it to sync your iPod. So you don't get any new songs swapped in.

    That's not a huge deal. You just need to re-randomize the playlist: display it, select-all, and press Delete. The songs are removed, and a fresh set are generated.

  • OR you can add a new date-based criteria to the playlist rule. For example:

    new smart playlist nano3

    This will select randomly, but the date criterion will force it to automatically update the playlist when a device syncs (which updates the last-played information).

    I think so anyway. We'll see.

Last Modified 2014-08-14 10:20 AM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2014-07-14

With the heat index sneaking toward 90°…

  • I mentioned previously that I was of mixed feelings about immigration policy, but leaning negative toward the current "comprehensive" proposals. That said, Kevin D. Williamson seems to have a very sensible take on things, as he usually does. A key point:

    Where the national government acts to establish rules and standards for immigration, it must first establish the controlling criterion, answering the question of what it intends to accomplish through its immigration policies. While some governments may be liberal in the sense that Robert Frost understood the term — too broadminded to take their own side in a fight — the government of the United States is generally expected to act in the interest of the people of the United States. Sometimes it engages in humanitarian efforts in service to a consistently ungrateful world, but its controlling principle is the national interest of the United States.

    This is number two of seven points, and they all seem unassailable. Check it out.

  • A. Barton Hinkle advises a cooling off:

    Reaction to Supreme Court decisions generally falls into two camps: (a) The court wisely followed the Constitution, legal precedent, first principles, logic, and sensible jurisprudence, or (b) WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!

    Reaction B was on full view after the Hobby Lobby decision, in which the Supreme Court held that some companies could cite religious objections to avoid complying with a federal contraception mandate. The New Yorker offered a typically measured and thoughtful response: “When the Taliban Meets Hobby Lobby,” which was based on the extremely realistic premise that the Taliban would move to the U.S., set up a closely held corporation, and then file suit to avoid having to pay insurance coverage for polio vaccinations.

    Don't freak out, he advises. But when does that ever stop people from freaking out?

  • Dave Barry reveals (in the WSJ) why "Gloria" is, well…

    I think one of the greatest works of music ever written—and I include Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in this category—is Van Morrison's "Gloria."

    The brilliance of this song is evident from the opening lyrics:

    "Like to tell you 'bout my baby, you know she comes around;

    Just about 5 feet 4, from her head to the ground."

    Right away, you know exactly what this song is about. It's about a woman who is approximately 5 feet, 4 inches, measured vertically, as opposed to horizontally. So you can assume she is reasonably fit.

    Musicologists, take note.

    Also, I should add that today's Getty illustration is one of the top results when you search for "Gloria" there. So it's not just gratuitous beauty, and she looks like she could be about 5 feet 4 from her head to the ground. [I may have to peruse the picture further to be really confident about that.]

  • Dave also accepted a suggestion I sent him with gracious credit.

    KANSAS CITY, Mo. —A man wearing a cowboy hat and a dress was arrested in Salina, Kansas, after leading police on a strange high-speed pursuit on Saturday.

    The perpetrator is from New Hampshire, and you know how we get a little wild when we're out of town.

Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:28 AM EDT
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