Under Tower Peak

[Amazon Link]

I was encouraged to pick up this book by a glowing review in the WSJ back in 2013. (Yes, it can take a while to get to items in my TBR pile.) Comparisons to Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Harrison were made. And I found it a pretty good read too. It is an auspicious debut novel for author Bart Paul.

The narrator and protagonist is Tommy Smith. He and his longtime buddy Lester work in the California mountain wilderness, wrangling horses and acting as guides for tourists who want to rough it in the outdoors. But on an expedition near a remote pass through the Sierras, Tommy and Lester happen upon a plane crash and the pilot's corpse. They remember news stories from months back about a missing billionaire, and reach the obviously correct conclusion: they found him.

Tommy wants to do the obviously correct thing: report the crash site and the body when they return to civilization. But Lester gets way too clever, grabbing the dead guy's Rolex and some loose cash. Tommy reluctantly refrains from doing the right thing. But things get worse: Lester and his girlfriend launch a crackpot scheme to grab some of the billionaire's family fortune in return for their knowledge.

Unfortunate choice, because (as it turns out) there are people who would just as soon keep the billionaire's death unrevealed. And if the only way to do that is to kill everyone who can say different? Okay, fine!

Tommy, just like Liam Neeson, has "certain skills" that might ensure survival. What ensues is a cat-and-mouse can't-trust-anyone thriller.


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The Phony Campaign — 2015-07-05 Update

[phony baloney]

Chris Christie breaks the (arbitrary) 2% Predictwise threshold today, so he returns to our poll. (His most recent appearance was back in February.)

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-06-28
"Jeb Bush" phony 1,060,000 -180,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 402,000 -29,000
"Donald Trump" phony 268,000 +89,000
"Rand Paul" phony 182,000 +1,000
"Chris Christie" phony 162,000 ---
"Bernie Sanders" phony 147,000 +61,200
"Joe Biden" phony 139,000 +1,000
"Marco Rubio" phony 114,000 -2,000
"Scott Walker" phony 105,000 +8,800

What's new in the world of presidential political phoniness?

  • Chris Christie officially announced his candidacy on Tuesday; the NYT welcomed him with an editorial: "Gov. Chris Christie’s Phony Truth-Telling". As you might expect, they are not fans, and much of it is predictable partisan sniping. Still:

    Sometimes, Mr. Christie wants to make himself a strong, reliable right-winger. He told an anti-gun-control crowd in South Carolina in June, for example, that all of New Jersey’s gun laws preceded his tenure and “no new ones have been made since I’ve been governor.” Actually, he signed three major pieces of gun-control legislation.

    So keep your hand on your wallet when Christie comes to town.

  • Jaime Fuller of New York Magazine writes a brief hit-piece on Jeb: "Jeb Bush and His Friends Have Spent a Lot of Time Explaining His Bad Business Deals". (Although the URL implies the original headline was something like "Jeb Bush Has Apologized a Lot For Helping Crooks".) It is mostly a summary of reporting done by others, including the Washington Post, but still …

    One of Bush's real-estate friends gave the Post the most amusing spin for Bush's nonexistent business bullshit detector, saying that the presidential candidate has a “record for having only a few clients who ultimately turned out to be less than truthful is remarkable, and that record would compare favorably with any firm in this business, either in Miami or another city.” We should be impressed that a presidential candidate didn't get involved in more shady dealings — especially in Florida!

    Jeb appears to be a poor judge of character. Not a quality you really look for in a president.

    By the way, the double standard we can expect from "journalists" is on full display in Fuller's article. An arguably more sleazy association of Hillary Clinton with convicted drug smuggler Jorge Cabrera is briefly described. There's even a picture of Hillary and Jorge in front of a Christmas tree at a White House reception. This is dismissed airily with "that’s what politicians do" and "how would Hillary have known?"

  • Allahpundit considers recent stories about candidate Scott Walker reassuring pro-immigration Stephen Moore that "I’m not going nativist; I’m pro-immigration," allegedly contradicting his current public stance.

    Allahpundit speculates: "Maybe he was BSing Moore."

    Or maybe he’s BSing us. Between his previous agonizing immigration flip-flop-flipping, his well-timed reversal on ethanol in Iowa, and his sudden rediscovery of social conservatism, I don’t really believe anything Walker says anymore. He’s the most conspicuous panderer among the field’s top candidates. If there’s anyone running who might be telling voters one thing in the name of getting elected while telling donors and establishment allies another, it’s him.

  • The NYT unearthed some Deep Thoughts from Bernie Sanders' writings for The Vermont Freeman. Particularly lurid was a column entitled “The Revolution Is Life Versus Death"

    The piece began with an apocalyptically alarmist account of the unbearable horror of having an office job in New York City, of being among “the mass of hot dazed humanity heading uptown for the 9-5,” sentenced to endless days of “moron work, monotonous work.”

    “The years come and go,” Mr. Sanders wrote, in all apparent seriousness. “Suicide, nervous breakdown, cancer, sexual deadness, heart attack, alcoholism, senility at 50. Slow death, fast death. DEATH.”

    So was Bernie about 17 when he wrote that? No, he was thirty. (Or, as the NYT puts it, "barely 30", as if that's an excuse.)


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The Shadow University

[Amazon Link]

Subtitle: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses. This book is © 1998, seventeen years ago as I type. (Yes, it took a very long time to get to the top of the to-be-read pile. Sue me.)

One author, Alan Charles Kors, is a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania; the other, Harvey Silverglate, is a Massachusetts lawyer. After this book came out, they founded FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, still going strong.

The book starts out with a particularly egregious example: 1993's persecution of Eden Jacobowitz, a student who yelled "Shut up, you water buffalo" out of his UPenn dorm window to a group of boisterous students below. Unfortunately for Eden, the targets of this shouted demand were mostly black females, who complained. Penn administrators demanded a disproportionate and unjust punishment. But unlike most students, Eden fought back. (Prof Kors was his advocate, to his good fortune.) Eventually, it became a national cause célèbre and Penn backed down.

Eden's case had a happy conclusion, but the drawn-out battle, wasteful, draining, and contentious as it was, was its own punishment. And, as Kors and Silverlate show, it was hardly an outlier.

One might expect universities, of all places, to be champions of free and unfettered discussion, due process for accused misbehavior, and tolerance for oddball, unpopular views. But, as Kors and Silverglate show with sometimes mind-numbing recitations of case after case, exactly the opposite is true. Mostly drawing from the 1980s and 1990s, they detail arbitrary penalties and unfair procedures, mostly aimed at the unfortunate minorities deemed to be politically incorrect. They are predictably and justifiably outraged.

The roots of this behavior, the book argues, lie in the 1960s, where are generation of deep thinkers learned Herbert Marcuse's Marxist philosophy, with special attention to his theory of repressive tolerance: the notion that fair treatment of all ideas only benefits capitalistic domination of the masses. Hence, some ideas should be "more equal than others", and there's nothing wrong with people holding "correct" views suppressing rival opinions.

Now, to be fair, only a small (but very vocal) fraction of today's university personnel are true Marcusean social justice warriors. But the strident oft find allies with the spineless. In this case, go-along-to-get-along administrators whose primary interest is in keeping controversy and contention (with its attendant bad publicity) to a minimum.

The results, over and over, are episodes that seem like they could spring from a novel co-written by Franz Kafka, George Orwell, and Ayn Rand: secretive and power-drunk villains deploy their full arbitrary powers against (at best) minor infractions and offenses. As in Eden's case, the good guys usually prevail, but only after excruciating legal procedures and publicity.

There are a lot of New Hampshire roots in the book, going back to 1942's Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, based on an incident that happened just up the street in Rochester, which generated the regrettable "fighting words" limitation on First Amendment rights. There was also Wooley v. Maynard, the irony-inspired case of the free thinker who got in trouble for taping over the "Live Free or Die" motto on his license plates.

New Hampshire's university system is also (sadly) well-represented here, going back to the 1950s, the state's efforts to hassle then-professor Paul Sweezy about his (acknowledged) Marxist views and associates is discussed. In more modern times, there was UNH's efforts to discipline Professor J. Donald Silva for allegedly creating a “hostile and offensive environment” in his classroom with his (um) colorful analogies and examples. Up north at Plymouth State, Leroy Young, a graphic design professor was summarily canned after allegations of sexual harassment of his students. (I'm not sure how Young's suit against Plymouth and USNH turned out.)

[Well after the book came out, UNH showed that it hadn't learned much about free expression by evicting a student who posted a satirical flier in his dorm's elevator. UNH continues to have a red light rating from FIRE for its unconsitutionally overbroad policy on "sexual harassment".]

So: while you might expect a 17-year-old book on then-current events to be dated, it turns out (regrettably) not to be at all. The mentalities and procedures it describes are still in vogue in American higher ed, as any look at recent headlines shows. (See, for example: here; here; here, all easily-found stories from the past few weeks.) Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, or as President Eisenhower [never actually] said: things are more like they are today than they've ever been before.

A relatively new wrinkle is the Obama Administration's aggressive (and probably unconstitutional, but what's new) push to force schools and colleges to cut back on due process and free speech via an expansive interpretation of its authority granted by anti-discrimination statutes, like the famous Title IX. This book doesn't cover that, obviously, but it's easy to see how it could be the source for Volume II.


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Jersey Boys

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

As a kid, songs by the Four Seasons were in my soundtrack. Like most baby boomers, I suppose. I wasn't a major fan, but I can still rattle off (at least partial) lyrics from their hits.

So this was a natural choice for the Netflix queue. It is based on the hit Broadway musical, and directed by the immortal Clint Eastwood. It relates the story of how the group came together, their connections (mostly innocuous) to mobsters, inner frictions, family woes, and—well, I think it hits every cliché about celebrity rise and fall you could imagine. But I suppose sometimes things are clichés because they're based in fundamental truths. Millions of years of evolution did not prepare mere humans to deal with superstardom.

It's a pretty good yarn—I stayed awake for the whole thing, anyhow, which is increasingly rare these days. But it's way too long (134 minutes). I was surprised to learn that the songs were actually performed live on set by the actors, many of whom were from the Broadway cast. They're good!

Christopher Walken appears as a benevolent gangster, I kept wishing for him to drop a "more cowbell" line.

Rated R, entirely for bad language. (Except in New Jersey, where it's rated "G": a child is likely to hear far worse in the home.)


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Predestination

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

I kind of got a big fat spoiler for this movie by noticing that it's based on the short story "'—All You Zombies—'" by Robert A. Heinlein. I read that back in the early 60's; I still remember the Shocking Plot Device. So I expected the same thing here, and was not disappointed.

The protagonist, played by Ethan Hawke, is a time-travelling secret agent, trying to prevent a terrorist known as the "Fizzle Bomber" from blowing up a bunch of people in 1975. An initial attempt failed badly, leaving him seriously defaced (literally). He tries again, though. Along the way, he poses as a bartender, where he becomes acquainted with a younger person who entertains him with biographical stories, both lurid and heartbreaking.

Ethan Hawke always seems to look like he was just badly beaten up, and is about to get re-beaten soon. This role is no exception.

It's a very arty take on a story I remember as being as straightforward as a time-travel yarn can be. (I also remember it as being pretty filthy for an Omaha pre-teen, but what are you going to do?) But (ahem) unlike Starship Troopers, it's essentially faithful to its source material, and I think Heinlein would have approved. The movie's IMDB trivia page describes a number of fortune cookies in the movie for Heinlein fans. I'm ashamed to say I missed most of them.

Consumer note: as I type, the Blu-ray is cheaper than the DVD at Amazon. What's up with that?


Last Modified 2015-07-02 4:31 AM EDT
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Maleficent

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

A PG-retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend, where Maleficent isn't bad, she's just misunderstood. And a little hot-tempered, but who could blame her?

The premise is that a human kingdom and a magical fairy kingdom live right next door to each other, and they don't get along well. This is primarily the humans' fault, being all greedy and ambitious and … well, human. Maleficent is the fairy kingdom's most powerful defender against human aggression, which royally pisses off the royals. What follows is betrayal, anger, revenge, and how that all plays out against young Aurora, the human princess caught up in the battle between her father and Maleficent.

Angelina Jolie plays Maleficent, Elle Fanning is Aurora. It's full of special effects. (Angelina Jolie sometimes looks to be a real-life Special Effect, so it's appropriate she's here.)

I liked it a little better than I thought I would, because Disney can still tell a pretty good story when they want to. I was a little surprised by the PG rating; there's a lot of violence, so I thought it would be PG-13. But I guess it's "fantasy" violence. It's OK when fairies do it!


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Wild Horses

[Amazon Link]

From 1994, this is probably my second-favorite Dick Francis novel (after Proof).

The narrator, Thomas Lyon, is visiting a dying old friend, a blacksmith who he knew long ago during a brief jockey career. Delirious from drugs and pain, the blacksmith mistakes Thomas for a priest, and incoherently seems to confess to a past crime.

Thomas is an up-and-coming movie director, and he just happens to be in the area making a movie. It just happens to be based on a fictionalized version of past events: the young wife of a horse trainer was found hanged in a stable. Was it murder or suicide? To this day, nobody knows.

But someone's apparently worried that the movie might illuminate how that death occurred. People are threatened, nearly killed. Including, since he's the Dick Francis hero, Thomas. The production is also in peril because the screenwriter doesn't like the changes Thomas is making to his version of the story, and badmouths him to the press.

So Thomas faces daunting odds: how to bring in the movie on time and budget, true to his artistic vision, while at the same time unravelling the mystery of what happened decades ago. Also, while staying alive.


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The Phony Campaign — 2015-06-28 Update

[phony baloney]

Joe Biden is back, baby, with PredictWise judging him with a 2% shot of being our next president. And so:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-06-21
"Jeb Bush" phony 1,240,000 -12,460,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 431,000 +20,000
"Rand Paul" phony 181,000 -8,000
"Donald Trump" phony 179,000 +6,000
"Joe Biden" phony 138,000 -
"Marco Rubio" phony 116,000 -4,000
"Scott Walker" phony 96,200 -1,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 85,800 -400

  • At the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson wends his way through old Hillary biographies written by her admirers. (Why? Because of "the general principle that you can learn more about someone from his friends than from his enemies.") Andrew marvels at the mental acrobatics as Hillary fans gingerly describe her sleazy behavior.

    The Hillary Paradox consists of two perceptions that are irreconcilable. The first is that Hillary Clinton is a person of uncommon decency, compassionate and deeply committed to justice. The second is that many of her actions over many years are the work of a person who couldn’t possibly be uncommonly decent. How could someone with a wonderful reputation so often behave disreputably?

    I, and probably you, have no problem with jettisoning the first perception. But for Hillary devotees, it's unshakeably tied up with their self-perception.

    Anyway, if you've forgotten the days of bimbo eruptions, White House Travel Office firings, Whitewater, cattle futures, Rose Law billing records, and the rest, Andrew provides a refresher course. If PredictWise is to be believed, there's a very good chance we're headed for more of the same.

  • At the WSJ, Ben Zimmer springboards from this observation:

    When Donald Trump gave a speech announcing his candidacy for president last week, he seemed to utter whatever thoughts popped into his uniquely coiffed head.

    As Mark Plotkin, a contributor to the Hill newspaper, put it, “To say he has ‘no filter’ would be a gigantic understatement.”

    … to a lively entomological history of how the "no filter" terminology was coined and popularized over the years.

    I'm all for "no filter" in theory. In practice, however, would we really want a president who was in the habit of saying the first thing that popped into his head? I see downsides.

  • "America's Liberty" PAC submits a fake ad, good for a chuckle:

    There is also a "Bailout Bush" website (where, beware, the video above autoplays).

    America's Liberty PAC "is a Super PAC created for and dedicated to, electing Senator Rand Paul President of the United States in 2016. It is the only Super PAC endorsed by Senator Paul." There's no mention, as near as I can tell of the Paul connection on the "Bailout Bush" page. But due to the wackiness of campaign finance laws, there is the phony declaration: "Not authorized by any candidate or candidate committee."


Last Modified 2015-07-05 8:02 AM EDT
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The Double

[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Giving this a whole two stars is kind of a stretch. It's arty and pretentious. I nodded off for long periods. When I do that during other movies, I sometimes feel obligated to re-watch the DVD to at least fill in the gaps; I didn't feel that obligation here.

Anyway: it's based on the Dostoyevsky story of the same title. (Considered by most critics to not be one of his better efforts.) Jesse Eisenberg plays nebbish Simon, working at a soul-draining job in some unspecified bureaucracy, disrespected and ignored by everyone.

Things change when James shows up. He's everything Simon is not: charismatic, interesting, popular. But here's the thing: James and Simon look exactly alike. (My keen eye discerned that this was primarily due to both roles being played by Jesse Eisenberg.) The two develop a relationship, but it's an unhealthy one.

The setting is dark and surrealistic, with absurdist and stilted dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Basically, a 93-minute nightmare for Simon, but I don't think he wakes up. Or, if he did, I missed it.


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John Wick

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

Comic-book movie? I wondered. It turns out not. I'm kind of ashamed to admit I liked it as much as I did.

The titular character is played by Keanu Reeves. (Looking at his IMDB page, I'm pretty sure this is the first movie I've seen with him in it since the ultra-forgettable Street Kings and A Scanner Darkly (both 2008). He's recently lost his wife (Bridget Moynahan), and then some bad-guy Russian mobsters do something really nasty. Revenge is called for.

Dickensian coincidence: it turns out that Wick used to be a hired killer for the father of one of the bad guys. (What are the chances? In the real world, zero.) So, in effect, it's Wick against the entire Russian mafia, at least the part that's based around New York.

There are a lot of good actors in supporting roles: Michael Nyqvist as the Russian Godfather; Dean Winters (I miss Battle Creek very much) as the mob consigliere; Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki as fellow hit-people; there's even a small role for the great John Leguizamo as a chop-shop proprietor who (nevertheless) has certain principles.

MPAA: "strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use". They ain't kiddin'.


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