URLs du Jour - 2014-11-21

Once again, a catchup UDJ post:

  • I liked Keith Hennesey's take on MIT prof Jonathan Gruber's invocation of the "stupidity of the American voter".

    Now: goodness knows I have no illusions about the intelligence of the electorate that elected President Obama twice and (in my own state) just re-elected Jeanne Shaheen. But Keith notes that when lefties digress on "stupidity" it is really a composite complaint, lumping together at least six different gripes against its target. RTWT, but Keith's conclusion is well-taken:

    If American voters are stupid because they think academic credentials do not perfectly equate with intelligence…

    If they are stupid because they think policy decisions should be informed both by sound science and values…

    If they are stupid because they would rather let people make their own mistakes than allow government to make different mistakes for them…

    If they are stupid because they support less redistribution than certain progressive policymakers and their allies in academia…

    If they are stupid because they don’t spend all their time trying to sift through policies intentionally designed to deceive them…

    If they are stupid because they trust that elected and especially appointed American officials will not abuse the power temporarily granted to them…

    … then I’m with stupid.

    Yes. Me too.

  • In the earlier days of the Obama Administration, Pun Salad invented the word "Barackrobatics" to refer to President Obama's rhetorical tics that were reliable indicators that he was saying was detached from reality, lacking in honesty, or demagogic bullshit. (And often all of the above.) Pun Salad's efforts to popularize the word went nowhere, as you can tell by asking the Google.

    Nevertheless, Megan McArdle gets so close to "Barackrobatics" when she headlines her analysis of the President's immigration speech last night "Obama's Immigration Speech Acrobatics".

    There's a perfect word to describe President Barack Obama's speech tonight, and that word is "blatherskite." He was supposed to be explaining his actions to regularize the status of millions of undocumented immigrants; what he delivered was a festival of glorious nonsense.

    I watched "The Big Bang Theory" instead.

  • The word "blatherskite" does not appear in Kevin D. Williamson latest article. It is a generalized discussion of the dishonesty of our rulers, of which Obama's speech was but one example. RTWT (I probably don't need to say that), but the penultimate paragraph is:

    The problem of illegal immigrants is not insoluble; it is, rather, a problem that people in power do not wish to solve, partly out of anxiety related to Hispanic identity politics, partly because many of them find it convenient to maintain a permanent class of marginalized serf labor. That is the truth obscured by the gigantic heap of lies piled up around the immigration debate — that we are ruled by criminals who will ruthlessly violate the law while claiming that they not only enjoy the authority to do so but occupy the moral high ground as well.

    As Iowahawk says:

  • A straight news story from Reuters leads off:

    The U.S. Export-Import Bank has mischaracterized potentially hundreds of large companies and units of multinational conglomerates as small businesses, a flaw in its record keeping that could undermine the export lender's survival strategy.

    Or, shorter: they lied, they got caught.

  • Daniel J. Mitchell notes that Ex-Im is just one example of reprehensibility:

    [T]here are some forms of redistribution and intervention that are so self-evidently odious and corrupt that you can’t give supporters the benefit of the doubt. Simply stated, there’s no justifiable argument for using government coercion to hurt poor people in order to benefit rich people.

    Another recent example, Mitchell notes, is the Obama Administration's efforts to shut down Wisconsin's school choice system, clearly a goodie thrown to benefit teacher unions at the expense of poorer students.

  • There is now one less reason for Mrs. Salad to keep me around: Meet Boris, the robot that can load a dishwasher.

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The Sense of Style

[Amazon Link]

I like Steven Pinker's work quite a bit, so I picked this up despite the insufferably smug subtitle: "The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century".

On the other hand, for those of you who doubted I was a "thinking person": you will now have to admit it. Because I read this book. Ha!

Many of Pinker's trademarks are here: the sense that the chapters are slightly adapted from college lectures; a decent amount of humor, including amusing comic strips that illustrate the point he's making; a forthright honesty in presenting somewhat controversial notions. (He drives some folks crazy on this last bit; see below.)

Pinker is, by training and employment, "offically" a research psychologist. In fact, he's a wide-ranging scholar, willing to investigate and explicate whatever strikes his fancy. This book might seem to be a leap away from his usual science-related topics. But it's really not: he has enough applied linguistic creds to chair the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, which he's done since 2008.

So this book is a scientist's take on what makes writing good and bad. What sets it apart from classic style manuals like Strunk & White, et. al. is Pinker's willingness to get down into the technical linguistic weeds, and introduce the reader to syntax "trees", which modern linguists use to parse (or fail to parse) sentences into their component parts. (Which you do unconciously when you understand "The boy stood on the burning deck", and are flummoxed by "Stood boy deck the on burning the."). Pinker shows how some poorly-constructed sentences may be grammatical, but generate ugly trees.

But most of it is pretty straightforward advice to writers on how to avoid stuffiness, vagueness, opacity, and other bad things. Pinker is no pedant, peddling ill-conceived rules: go ahead and split that infinitive, friend, if it makes your sentence work.

On the other hand, he warns you away from usage that might be technically correct, but … well, here he is on "literally":

The "figuratively" sense is a common hyperbole, and it is rarely confusing in context. But it drive careful readers crazy. [pas: but not "literally" crazy.] Like other intensifiers it is usually superfluous, whereas the "actual fact" sense is indispensable and has no equivalent. And since the figurative use can evoke ludicrous imagery (e.g., The press has literally emasculated the president.), it screams, "I don't think about what my words mean."

See Nathan Heller in The New Yorker for a contrarian take on Pinker. (Interesting source, since E.B. White, of "Strunk & White" fame, was a New Yorker guy for so long.) Rebuttal here.

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Edge of Tomorrow

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

I'm sure a bunch of people did this already, but I will compare this movie to the classic Groundhog Day:

  • Both movies involve the hero living the same time period over and over. (The hero's name here is "William Cage", and he's played by Tom Cruise.)

  • He remembers what he did in previous time iterations, but everyone else is living the day for the first time.

  • The other main character is a female named "Rita". (Vrataski, played by Emily Blunt).

  • Cage starts out unlikeable and cynical, but his character improves throughout the film.

  • And Cage's only hope of escaping the time loop is to somehow learn from his past mistakes, go back and try again.

There are differences, of course. Mainly because it's a cross between Groundhog Day and (the good parts of) Starship Troopers.

Instead of simply falling asleep at the end of the day, Cage gets killed, in invariably nasty (but PG-13) ways: his death snaps him back to the start of the loop. He's in a war against alien invaders, and he gradually discovers he's humanity's only hope against certain doom. So he's got that going for him.

It's a lot of fun. Special effects are super-impressive, but (like Godzilla) too many of them take place in the dark. (I think that's how they save money on special effects.) Tom Cruise, no matter how nuts he might be in real life, remains a very fine actor. Emily Blunt… well, wow. Just wow.

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URLs du Jour - 2014-11-13

  • We've occasionally run into Mark Bittman, who specialized in writing in the NYT about food (and did a fine job with that, as far as I know) and "food policy" (a very, very poor job of that). (Pun Salad articles mentioning Bittman here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.) He recently teamed up with Michael Pollan, Ricardo Salvador and Olivier De Schutter to write a WaPo op-ed: "How a national food policy could save millions of American lives"

    Opening paragraph:

    How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on Americans’ well-being than any other human activity. The food industry is the largest sector of our economy; food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality and the federal budget. Yet we have no food policy — no plan or agreed-upon principles — for managing American agriculture or the food system as a whole.

    It's (of course) nonsense to claim that "we" have "no food policy". We have, in fact, a vast collection of laws, regulations, subsidies, prohibitions, programs, mandates, nudges, and nags all designed to affect what gets produced and eaten. What the authors really mean is: they don't like this current policy.

    But it's not hard to see where these earnest statist nannies are going:

    This must change.

    (Picture four fists hitting the table to punctuate this totalitarian demand.)

    Bittman and his co-authors prattle (on and on) about the current "food system" but the "system" of letting people freely decide what to consume on their own and letting the marketplace provide it is never really considered. Quoting myself from a few years ago:

    The whole notion of food being a "system" that can be "fixed" is another instance of what Thomas Sowell called the "unconstrained vision": the unexamined, unshakeable belief that it's all one big well-understood machine, and to get the outcomes we prefer, all we have to do is "fix" it. And there's the obvious corollary: anyone who disagrees is either evil or foolish, and can be safely ignored, or made ineffective "by any means necessary".

    And (indeed) the four authors assure us:

    Only those with a vested interest in the status quo would argue against creating public policies with these goals.

    Any opposition is illegitimate.

  • Which naturally brings us to "Liberal Bullshit" from the perceptive writer William Voegeli (excerpted from his new book). See how this relates to the "policy prescription" set forth by the aforementioned nannies:

    A bullshit prescription, by the same token, might actually work to some degree, but any such efficacy is inadvertent and tangential to the central purpose: demonstrating the depths of the prescriber’s concern for the problem and those who suffer from it, concerns impelling the determination to “do something” about it. As the political project that exists to vindicate the axiom that all sorts of government program X’s can solve an endless list of social problem Y’s, liberalism is always at risk of descending into prescriptive bullshit. Liberal compassion lends itself to bullshit by subordinating the putative concern with efficacy to the dominant but unannounced imperative of moral validation and exhibitionism. I, the empathizer, am interested in the sufferer for love of myself, Rousseau contended. Accordingly, an ineffectual program may serve the compassionate purposes of its designers and defenders as well as or better than a successful one.

    Vogeli's book is going on my read-someday list.

  • The Fire tells the story of a recent panel at Smith College, where Wendy Kaminer used words that made the ladies shriek and stand on their chairs. Well, figuratively. There was the n-word, for example, but that's not all. The student newspaper published a bowdlerized transcript of the discussion, including the following from Ms Kaminer (WK):

    WK: And by, “the c-word,” you mean the word [c-word]?

    The paper also couldn't resist expurgating a word used by Smith President Kathleen McCartney:

    Kathleen McCartney: … We’re just wild and [ableist slur], aren’t we?

    The [ableist slur]? It was "crazy". As in "You don't have to be [ableist slur] to send your daughter to Smith, but it helps."

  • Read David Weigel on the "nobody" Rich Weinstein, who's made it a sideline to discover the "speak-o"s and "off the cuff" remarks of Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber that revealed how intentionally dishonest and opaque the process of crafting the legislation was.

    This is kind of priceless:

    “The next day, I woke up and turned on my iPad,” Weinstein recalls. “I did a quick search. You know, 'Gee, if I wonder if anything is out there about this Jonathan Gruber guy?' And the first result was about this video. 'Holy crap, what is going on?' Excuse my language. It just kept getting bigger and bigger. Later that day, a friend told me that Rush Limbaugh was talking about this video. I’m at WaWa, and I'm eating a sandwich in the car, and Limbaugh comes back from commercial and says 'There's more on this Gruber video. The White House is responding.' I’m like, 'What do you mean, the White House is responding?'”

    If our mainstream news organizations weren't such mindless shills for the left, uncovering this story would have been their job. But in this world, it's left up to folks like Weinstein.

  • Back this summer when I saw Dawn of the Planet of the Apes I mentioned that Andy Serkis, who played the noble Ape leader Caesar, deserved on Oscar for his performance. I'm happy to report that according to this Wired article, that could happen. (Video at the link.)

  • … and your tweet du jour is from the great Dean Norris:

    I can't be the only one wishing that he'll bring a little Hank Schrader to his role.

Last Modified 2014-11-14 3:55 AM EST
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The Stench of Honolulu

[Amazon Link]

If you were watching Saturday Night Live between 1991 and 1998, you probably noted the "Deep Thoughts" segments: brief absurdist jokes narrated by Phil Hartman, always identified as "by Jack Handey". Handey was, and is, a real person, and he wrote a book, and I bought it (heavily remaindered).

The book's first-person narrator is very much the "Deep Thoughts" guy. His real name is not revealed, because he decides to go by the nickname "Wrong Way Slurps". We learn a bit more about him: specifically, he's an extremely stupid, lazy sociopath. His friend Don invites him on a trip to Honolulu, a smelly tropical hellhole full of hostile natives, evil scientists, and scam artists. At least that's the way it appears to Slurps.

He and Don are sold a treasure map said to lead to the mythical "Golden Monkey". Since neither one is that sharp, they decide to head up Hawaii's "mighty Paloonga River" to rip off the fabled riches. Things don't work out exactly as planned.

Now: the book is essentially a bunch of absurdist one-liners linked together by an equally absurd plot. Even if you liked "Deep Thoughts", stringing them out into an entire book (albeit a short one) might not be your cup of tea. I chuckled all the way through, but I didn't try to read it all at once.

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Veterans Day 2014

Veterans Day 2014

… thank a vet near you.

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URLs du Jour - 2014-11-10

  • In case you haven't seen it: Obamacare architect Jonathan Gruber bragged about the "lack of transparency" during the debate to be a "huge political advantage". ("Lack of transparency" is a euphemism for "nonstop dishonesty, occasional outright lies") And he credited "the stupidity of the American voter or whatever" for making that strategy a winning one.

    People will be offended, but I'm writing to you from a state that just re-elected Jeanne Shaheen, one of the eager participants in the obfuscation and bullshit. So to me "stupidity of the American voter" seems to be simple, blunt honesty on Gruber's part.

  • President Obama came out and asked the FCC to regulate the Internet as a "public utility". The proposal is cloaked in feel-good language about "Net Neutrality" (which polls remarkably well, for an empty slogan), keeping the Internet "free and open", blah blah blah.

    Nick Gillespie cuts through the fluff:

    Obama is old enough to remember Ma Bell, which was even worse to customers than today's cable and Internet providers. And he is smart enough to recognize the Orwellian contradiction in introducing onerous new regulatory regimes in the name of keeping anything "free." The FCC has never been particularly adept at acting in the "public interest." The less control it has over the Internet (and TV and anything else), the better off we will all be.

    It's the default "progressive" position: remove power from private hands, place it in the clutches of the almighty State.

  • The FCC was originally established to divvy up the broadcast spectrum among its corporate welfare recipients. A bad idea, but par for the fascist course at the time. In any case: that's a done deal, and one of ever-shrinking importance. So the official Pun Salad position on the FCC is not to give it more to do, but to abolish it. Some pointers that might convince you this is the only sensible policy: Matt Welch at Reason; Peter Suderman at Reason; an Investors Business Daily editorial; David Harsanyi at Real Clear Politics; and (even) Jack Shafer at Slate and Larry Lessig at Newsweek (in 2008).

  • There is P.J. O'Rourke content over at the Daily Beast, and it's highly recommended for anyone who might be feeling giddy over last week's election results.

    Extraordinary things occurred the last time Republicans took legislative power away from a liberal quack. To sum those things up in just two words, which still stir the heart of every right-thinking member of the Grand Old Party: Monica Lewinsky. Was that fun or what?

    Need I tell you to Read The Whole Thing? Didn't think so. But it's also worth clicking over just for the (I'm pretty sure) Photoshopped picture.

    [Today's illustration: a liberal quack. Get it?]

  • Dave Barry is Principal for a Day at Coral Reef High School ("Miami's Mega-Magnet"). It's not hilarious, but worth reading.

  • … and your tweet du jour is:

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Still Mine

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

I think I saw this movie on a list of libertarian-themed flicks (Can't find that list now, though.) So into the Netflix queue it went. True enough, its libertarian (specifically: pro-individual, anti-regulation) sentiments are clear. That theme is wrapped around a solid tale of devotion, family, and love.

James Cromwell plays Craig Morrison, a farmer and handyman, working his land outside of St. Martins, New Brunswick, overlooking the Bay of Fundy. He's strongly independent, and more than slightly cantankerous. And he is totally committed to the happiness of his lovely wife Irene (Geneviève Bujold!) They've raised seven kids, all now middle-aged, a few of whom are hanging around.

[Yes, Star Trek fans: Zephram Cochrane and the first Captain Janeway got married and moved to Canada.]

Problem: Irene is gradually succumbing to dementia, and needs a safer environment than their aging farmhouse. And she refuses to move into a home. So Craig resolves to build a smaller, one-level home that would be more appropriate as they grow old.

Unfortunately, Craig is thwarted at every turn by officious local bureaucrats who demand plans, permits, inspectors, and—above all—deference and subservience. Craig tries—he really does—but Irene's deteriorating condition, the oncoming winter, and continuing bureaucratic obstinence are limiting his options. It all heads to a courtroom scene where Craig faces the possibility of jail time and destruction of his new home.

So, yes, it's kind of like a small-scale Atlas Shrugged. There's another scene where Craig attempts to sell his farm's strawberries to a wholesaler; he's informed that new government regulations demand that farmers bring their crops in refrigerated trucks. This makes no sense in Craig's case, but rules are rules, and most of the crop goes to waste.

But the movie doesn't beat you over the head with ideology. The real story is Craig's love for Irene, and his desire to remain independent while caring for her. Mr. Cromwell and Ms. Bujold handle their roles extremely well.

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Gone Tomorrow

[Amazon Link]

Number 13 in Lee Child's "Jack Reacher" series, and a very good one. As with most entries, you have to buy into the premise: Jack isn't looking for trouble, just traveling around the great USA, but keeps falling into the middle of incidents that start out seemingly small, but eventually are revealed to be the phenomena of an underlying evil plot.

In this case, Reacher is on a Manhattan subway around 2AM when he notices that one of his fellow riders is exhibiting most of the telltale signs of a suicide bomber: a heavy coat in summer (no doubt concealing a large amount of explosive); a fixed stare; lips continually mouthing something, perhaps a Muslim prayer; one hand concealed in a bag, perhaps a detonation switch.

Reacher confronts the passenger—that's the kind of guy he is—and immediately discovers that things are not what they seem; it's a different kind of desperate situation, and he's plunged into his usual milieu: in big trouble with the authorities, but able to find some allies; investigators that show him bogus identification; other investigators that don't think they need to show any identification at all; a missing witness; ties to a Senate candidate with a mysterious military past; an equally mysterious beautiful woman with an unsavory companion. And so on.

Even though the reader knows it's just one entry in the Jack Reacher series, and hence Reacher will make it out OK at the end, it's a tribute to Child's prowess as a writer that he's able to put him in deadly peril and make me wonder: is this the end for Reacher?

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

Despite having Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansen, and Jon Favreau in the cast list, this is not an Iron Man or Avengers movie. Instead it's a sweet little comedy/drama that we enjoyed quite a bit.

Jon Favreau wrote, directed, and plays the protagonist, chef Carl Casper. Carl is off his game: divorced and poor, spending an inadequate amount of time with his 10-year-old son, Percy. He's the head of the kitchen at a trendy LA restaurant, but he's intimidated by the restaurant's owner (played by Dustin Hoffman). He admits that he and the restaurant are "stuck in a creative rut". Due to an ignorance of how Twitter works, he gets into a stupid flamewar with a restaurant critic.

There are lots of pressures on Carl's life, and it explodes when the critic comes to the restaurant. Carl's epic rant becomes a YouTube sensation. And he gets canned.

Low point. Fortunately, his wife (Sofía Vergara, because I guess they couldn't get Gwyneth Paltrow) is still fond of him, and asks him to come along on a business/pleasure trip to Miami with their son. Her ulterior motive is revealed: she's sweet-talked her previous husband (a hilarious cameo by Robert Downey, Jr.) into donating a beat-up food truck. It's an obvious set up for redemption. Will it work? No spoilers here, but if you can't figure it out, you probably don't see a lot of movies.

It's lots of fun. All the actors are top-notch. I really liked John Leguizamo, who plays Carl's assistant. Slight downside: you might want to pre-plan to go out for Cuban sandwiches after watching, because this movie might make you crave one.

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