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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A Troublesome Inheritance

[Amazon Link]

Yet another book obtained for me through the Interlibrary Loan feature of the University Near Here; so thanks to them, and thanks to the Tufts University Hirsh Health Sciences Library for shipping it up here.

The subtitle is: "Genes, Race and Human History". The author, Nicholas Wade, puts forth a provocative and (he admits) somewhat speculative hypothesis at odds with most "enlightened" present-day thinking: human genetics influence social behavior, and (hence) different genetics, including those genes specifying racial differences, might help explain different modes of social behavior, and (hence) help explain different historical paths taken by different cultures.

There you have it. Sensitive souls should avert their eyes.

Wade's arguments are plausible enough to me, especially since tentative words and phrases, such as "probably", "most likely", and "perhaps" appear throughout. He's most definite when refuting the "race is merely a social construct" assertion lacking biological basis (apparently an Official Position of the American Sociological Association). That just isn't reality-based.

Wade's book recalled my feelings when reading Thomas Sowell's works on worldwide culture, race, and history: a lot of this stuff is just the workings of dumb luck. And when explicating the "dumb luck" success and/or dysfunction of historical and current societies, you shouldn't ignore or dismiss anything. There are the various components of culture: religion, philosophy, public morality, custom, family and social structures. Set these against geography, climate, and (peaceable or violent) interactions with other cultures. Obviously, nearly all of this is beyond anyone's conscious control.

But Wade argues, again plausibly, that genetics and evolution is just another factor in this mix. (And, speaking of "dumb luck", the workings of evolution are as dumb as you can get.) And (furthermore) there are no simple explanations: everything interacts with everything else. (For example, obviously, family structure can have profound effects on which genes get preferentially transmitted to future generations.)

Put that way, and especially in the explicitly-speculative way Wade puts it, you might say: yes, so what's the big deal? Ah, but for some folks, Wade is treading on dangerously heretical ground. One shot across his bow was fired on the WSJ op-ed page back in June: "Race in the Age of Genomics" by David Altshuler and Henry Louis Gates Jr. which specifically referred to Wade's book as an "unfortunate development", and implied it was engaging in "rampant speculation and biased arguments". Altshuler and Gates are both Harvardites, and Altshuler is a well-known researcher in human genetics.

Apparently unsatisfied with that, Altshuler went on to co-sign an anti-Wade letter with "more than 100 faculty members in population genetics". They accused Wade of "misappropriation of research" and "guesswork". (Wade responded, again plausibly, that their letter was "driven by politics, not science.")

Of course, in an area so driven by "peer review" for publication, promotion, and funding, the mass-denunciation letter is a clear signal to would-be researchers: your "peers" will not look kindly upon any work that might support Wade's speculations. Venture into certain areas at your professional peril.

(Scientific American also fired a blogger who was complimentary toward Wade's book, although that might not have been the proximate cause.)

Ironically, I was irked by a different part of Wade's book. Right at the get-go, he takes pains to distance himself from the bad old racism of the bygone days, when the menace of "Social Darwinism", as invented by Herbert Spencer, stalked the land. Wade's intellectual history here is straight from the Gospel of the tendentious Richard Hofstadter. If you've read Jonah Goldberg or E.M. Johnson on "Social Darwinism", you'll know a more accurate story.


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Philomena

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A decent movie; it could have been an utter tearjerker, but (no doubt thanks to writer/actor Steve Coogan) it's also pretty funny in spots. Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture.

Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, a Brit whose career is on the downswing. An uppercrust ex-journalist who went to work in Tony Blair's Labour government, he's just been canned on hazy charges of inappropriate language in a memo. He's moping around, looking for something to do. And he hears about Philomena Lee, a retired Irish nurse (played by Judi Dench) who gave birth to an illegitimate son a half-century ago, and (due to circumstances of extreme Catholicism) was forced to give him up while toiling for nuns in a home for wayward girls.

Philomena and Martin form an alliance of convenience: she wants to satisfy her curiosity about what happened to her son, and Martin senses a saleable story which could either warm hearts or break them. His investigatory talents take them both to America, where Philomena's son was adopted back in the 1950's. The story is full of twists and surprising revelations. And (of course) Philomena's and Martin's odd-couple relationship is the source of both humor and "growth". (Neither one has "all the answers", you see.)

Dame Judi is wonderful as always (she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar), and Steve Coogan does pretty well up against her. It's based on a true story, but indications are it was punched up to give it more of an anti-Catholic and (hey, why not?) an anti-Republican spin. Still a decent flick, though.


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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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Enough Said

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Netflix thought I would like this a little better than I did, but that's OK. It's a romantic comedy, but definitely a chick-flick on top of that.

Our heroine is Eva, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus; she (somehow) makes a living as a masseuse. She is divorced, with her only daughter about to head off to college. (All the adults in this movie are either divorced, or seemingly about to be.) She is dragged to a party where she meets (1) Marianne (Catherine Keener), a poet; (2) Albert (the late James Gandolfini), curator of a television archive.

Quibble: Marianne lives a very-upperclass lifestyle on income from her poetry? Sorry, but I can't believe there are more than three poets in the entire country that could do that.

Anyway: Albert is a nice guy, displays a charming geekiness about beloved old TV shows, but he looks a lot like James Gandolfini, and is a self-described slob. You'd think someone who looks like Julia Louis-Dreyfus could aim a little higher. But she's not that superficial, and their romantic relationship blossoms.

And Eva also takes on Marianne as a massage client; their relationship also blossoms (albeit not romantically, it's not that kind of a movie, pal) They dish on their ex-husbands, and their college-bound daughters.

And (sorry for the spoiler, but it's one you'll see in most of the plot synopses): it turns out that Albert is Marianne's ex-husband. All Marianne's denigration of her ex calls into question Eva's relationship with Albert. At least in Eva's mind. Will they survive?

So: a perfectly nice, and often very funny, movie. As I said, a chick flick, but one where the females are often as quirky and flawed as the males. Guys, if you need a movie to give your significant other a break from your steady diet of mayhem, you could do a lot worse.


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Graveyard Special

[Amazon Link]

As I type, Graveyard Special by the one and only James Lileks is a mere $3.99 in its Kindle-only incarnation. That's a pretty good deal, so go ahead and click over.

Robert Thompson is the protagonist, a college student majoring in Art History at the University of Minnesota in the Fall of 1980. (The narrative is studded with real-world news: Ronald Reagan gets elected, John Lennon is murdered. Sorry for those spoilers.) It centers around "Dinkytown", a Minneapolis neighborhood attached to the University. Robert is a waiter at the "Trat", one of Dinkytown's 24-hour restaurants, most often working the "graveyard shift". Which turns out to be appropriate when an unknown assailant shoots Dick, the cook, who has just huffed a can of Reddi-Wip. (Robert initially assumes Dick is on the floor due to his huffing, but no, that's due to Pb, not N2O.)

From that beginning, you might take this to be a murder mystery, and it sort of is. There's a lot of political skulduggery and deception around; Robert makes a few tries at figuring it out, but realistically: aren't that what the cops are for? It's more Robert's complete narrative of a pivotal few months of his life. We meet his roommates, friends, the University of Minnesota hockey team, the zamboni driver for the hockey arena, an attractive reporter for the student newspaper, an attractive Russian teaching assistant, and many more. There is a lot of smoking (cigarettes and weed). There's a lot of talking, much at the college-student bullshit level. And as a sign of progress, the Trat gets an Asteroids arcade cabinet to compete with its pinball machine.

Eventually the murderer is revealed, but the plot is a thin clothesline, on which a lot of observational prose is hung. So if you're looking for a Lee Child-style thriller with a Jack Reacher-style hero set in 1980 Minneapolis: this ain't it. But it's what Lileks wanted to write, and that's good enough for me.


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Guardians of the Galaxy

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

As I type, Guardians of the Galaxy is #41 on IMDB's Top 250 movies of all time. Ahead of … well, ahead of thousands of movies, including The Lives of Others, Sunset Boulevard, and WALL·E. So I don't know about that, but I sure had a good time.

The primary hero is a young Earthman, Peter Quill. In a brief opening scene, we're shown his alien abduction outside the hospital where his mother has just passed away. Years later (roughly present day) he is a full-fledged interstellar Han Solo/Indiana Jones, on the hunt for various valuable trinkets.

But this time he has acquired an honest-to-goodness MacGuffin, a mysterious orb desired by the evil Ronan (who in turn is revealed to be a mere flunky of the even eviller Thanos). Peter is soon on the lam, pursued both by the forces of Ronan, and by the gang of thugs that sent him after the orb in the first place. Along the way, he picks up an odd assortment of allies-by-convenience, who eventually become the titular Guardians: the intelligent-but-deadly raccoon, Rocket; the treelike Groot; green-skinned babe Gamora; brutish convict-with-a-heart-of-gold Drax.

If it were just that, the movie could have been as not-very-interesting as Thor. But someone, I assume writer/director James Gunn, manages to infuse the movie with humor, makes the characters sympathetic and interesting, and fills the screen with inventive visual splendor. Mrs. Salad doesn't like comic book movies very much in general, but gave this her grudging approval.

Consumer note: It's probably worth seeing on the big screen, as we did. We saw it in 2-D, which was fine, but the consensus seems to be that spending the extra money for 3-D, and maybe even IMAX, may be worth it.


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Her

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

So, don't mean to quibble, but if the movie is called Her, why does the DVD box have a picture of Him? Just wondering.

Also, just kidding. The titular character is an "OS" (Operating System) installed on the computer of the pictured Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix). He's on the bitter end of a recent divorce. He's good at his job (which seems to be ghost-writing sentimental letters for people too busy or too inarticulate to do so themselves), a gig which is lucrative enough to move him on up into a deluxe apartment in the (Los Angeles) sky. But he's desperately lonely and emotionally shut down.

But the Her OS, aka Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), changes all that. After a few seemingly perfunctory questions, Samantha springs to artificially-intelligent life. She would pass the Turing Test without breaking a CPU sweat, and she quickly goes from her initial role as Theodore's assistant, to confidante, then friend, then (yes) lover.

I kind of knew most of this going in, due to trailers and things heard on the street. I was skeptical: you can make a whole movie out of this idea? Yes, it turns out you can, if you're a filmmaking genius like writer/director Spike Jonze.

Her is, as I type #206 on IMDB's top 250 movies of all time. I don't know about that, but I liked it. It is (arguably) one artsy take on Vernor Vinge's "singularity", but I won't spoil that further.

Aside: I think the movie assumes near the end that the viewer would recognize the significance of the name "Alan Watts". Really? I did, but I'm a geezer who read a lot of goofy stuff when I was young. I can't imagine a lot of other potential viewers being in a similar position.


Last Modified 2014-08-15 9:28 AM EDT
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Winterkill

[Amazon Link]

Another very good (but see below) novel in C.J. Box's series with hero game warden Joe Pickett.

In his duties as game warden, Joe is used to the occasional hunter bagging an over-limit or out-of-season elk. But there's something very unusual about the mass wapiti carnage he encounters at the beginning of the book. For one thing, it's being done by Lamar Gardiner, an employee of the US Forest Service. And when Joe tracks Lamar down, he's run out of cartridges and is attempting to reload his rifle with cigarettes.

Unlike the near-superheroes encountered in other crime fiction, Joe makes mistakes in suspect handling. Here, Joe's assumptions about Lamar's docility are confounded when Lamar handcuffs him to the steering wheel of his truck and escapes. Joe tracks him down, but—oops!—someone has taken the opportunity to shoot Lamar with a couple of arrows and slit his throat.

In a seemingly unrelated event, the "Sovereigns", a radical anti-government group, have entered the area, bringing trashy Jeannie Keeley back to town with them. Jeannie is back for her daughter April, who she abandoned years ago, and is now foster daughter to Joe and his wife Marybeth.

Trying to avoid spoilers here: I've read a lot of crime fiction, and there are certain conventions. You get to expect that things will generally work out in a certain way. Those things don't happen here. No doubt Box did this intentionally, and he made me think about my fictional preconceptions.


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Blue Ruin

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A surprisingly good low-budget thriller. The "Making Of" feature attached to the DVD reveals the writer/director (Jeremy Saulnier) and the lead actor (Macon Blair) were childhood buddies, making cheesy videos back in the day. They made this flick on a shoestring, even collecting $37,828 via Kickstarter. And yet, I enjoyed it much more than the last Thor movie.

Blair plays Dwight Evans, who is not a revered ex-Red Sox player, but a reclused bum living in a rusty, bullet-riddled 1991 Pontiac Bonneville just outside a Delaware beach resort. It's easy to make the snap judgment: Probably mentally ill, possibly dangerous.

But those preconceptions are upset when a local cop knocks on Dwight's window one morning. She has news: Wade Cleland, obviously someone Dwight knows, has been released from prison. And Dwight suddenly moves purposefully, with a surprising amount of resolve. (Also surprising: the Bonneville runs. Might be the only Bonneville in America that does.) It turns out that Dwight's out to revenge a wrong done to his family years back, one not made right by the alleged perpetrator spending a few years in prison.

It's darkly humorous in spots, and takes a number of unpredictable twists. The storytelling is masterfully economical (which I guess is a plus if you're low on cash). And I did not realize until consulting IMDB that one of the minor-role actresses playing a member of the villainous Cleland family was previously Jan Brady of The Brady Bunch! Now that's casting against type. (She does not utter "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" either.)


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