Dirty Money

[Amazon Link]

Amazon reminds me how long it can take for books to percolate up to the top of the to-be-read pile: "You purchased this item on November 1, 2010."

And it gets worse: Dirty Money (© 2008) is the continuation of a tale beginning two books previous: Nobody Runs Forever (© 2004, I read it in 2005) and Ask the Parrot (© 2006, I read it in 2010). It's hard to appreciate plot continuity over a span that long.

Nevertheless…

Stark's perennial antihero, FNU Parker has (finally) made a semi-clean getaway from the armored car heist in the first book. And he's got some clean cash from the racetrack heist in the second book. But the $2.2 million from the armored car, stashed in an abandoned Massachusetts church, poses a problem, as does one of his former partners, a cop-killer on the lam. Also: a female bounty hunter with a deceased partner. Also: lotsa cops, a pleasantly ditzy innkeeper, a third-rate true-crime writer, a colorful money launderer, …

Through it all, Parker is slightly more honorable than his fellow criminals, unflappable in the face of betrayal, close calls with the law, and botched plans. And very, very violent.

This looks like the last Parker novel, as "Richard Stark" (aka Donald Westlake) passed away shortly after finishing it, and there are apparently no plans to pick up the series under a different writer.


UNH: On the Edge of Poseurable

Gosh, I see the University Near Here has adopted a new motto for its website:

Welcome to UNH, a flagship public research university on the edge of possible.

I think more standard usage would suggest a "the" before "possible": on the edge of the possible.

But even then, it's eye-rolling. What could that conceivably mean?

UNH goes right up to the edge… why would it do that? Stop! Come back!

Any chance it could trip over the edge of the possible into … the impossible? Probably not. By definition.

My suggestion:

Welcome to UNH, a flagship public research university where people are paid good money to come up with meaningless, intelligence-insulting slogans for our web page.

OK, so it's not the best marketing, but it has the advantage of truth.


Last Modified 2016-07-23 11:33 AM EDT

The Affair

[Amazon Link]

It has been too long since I read my last Lee Child/Jack Reacher novel. As with a number of authors, I'm playing catchup with Mr. Child. As usual, I'm in awe of his skill in rendering a page-turner. (Well, I read it with the iOS Kindle app, so: screen-swiper.)

This is an origin tale of sorts, the sort of thing they do with superheroes. It's set in 1997, just before the events of Reacher #1, Killing Floor. Reacher is still in the Army, still (sort of) an MP, and he's sent undercover by his superiors to the small Mississippi town of Carter's Crossing, where the grisly murder of a beautiful young woman may be connected to the nearby Army base, inhabited by a secret team of Rangers flying in and out of Kosovo. (Why the secrecy? One of the Rangers is the son of a powerful US Senator.)

As always: Reacher has detective skills to rival Sherlock Holmes. He not only has to figure out the crime, he also has to deduce the motives of the various members of the military bureaucracy that sent him there. There's also a beautiful but mysterious lady cop who seems way out of place in Carter's Crossing. Eventually, rough justice is delivered. But as we know, it's life-changing for Reacher.


The Jungle Book

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

By the time the animated version of The Jungle Book came out in 1967, I considered myself "too old" (16) to see Disney movies. Nearly 50 years later, they're must-see. It's a funny old world.

Even better, this was a free showing, put on at the Memorial Union Building at the University Near Here. The 3-D version was playing in the theatre next door, but we opted for the 2-D version. I think that may have been a slight mistake.

Anyway: it's the story of "man-cub" Mowgli, orphaned at a young age by the evil tiger Shere Khan, rescued by the good panther Bagheera, adopted by a pack of wolves. (Mowgli's one of those rare kids who, when asked if they were "raised by wolves", can answer "Yeah, you got a problem with that, bigot?")

Years later, Shere Khan puts Mowgli in his sights, a very dangerous place to be. It's decided to return Mowgli to civilization, but that plan goes awry when the good-hearted but lazy bear Baloo enters the picture, and decides to use Mowgli's man-resourcefulness for his own purposes.

The movie is fun, the kid playing Mowgli is fantastic, and the actors providing voices to the various animal heroes (Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Lupita Nyong'o, Giancarlo Esposito) and villains (Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken) are outstanding.

There are also a lot of sly and subtle gags. Favorite: Mowgli finds an old cowbell, rings it, and… who does it summon but King Louie, voiced by Mr. Walken.


Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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

I noticed this was streamable from Netflix, and with Mrs. Salad out of the house for the evening, why not? I was shocked to discover that I'd watched the original Sin City back in 2005; was it really that long ago?

My comment at the time: "Not recommended for anyone under 45, or over 55." Now I'm well over that suggested age limit.

In any case: this movie connected to the original through some of the characters. There's Marv (Mickey Rourke); Nancy (Jessica Alba); Gail (Rosario Dawson); Dwight (Josh Brolin here, was Clive Owen previously); the evil Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). And Hartigan (Bruce Willis). There are multiple subplots revolving around new characters: cocky gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and manipulative Ava (Eva Green, also providing nudity).

It's all sordid and violent. Most people seem to think it's not as good as the original; it also seems to not be as original as the original.


A Dirty Job

[Amazon Link]

Christopher Moore: another author I'm playing catch-up with. This one is © 2006; which puts me ten years behind. It is another wonderful concoction of fantasy, horror, and hilarity; all held together by Moore's wonderful writing.

The odds are against the "hilarity" bit, right from the start. Charlie Asher, the protagonist, is happy about his newborn daughter, Sophie. Unfortunately, his beloved wife, Rachel passes away unexpectedly in the hospital while being visited by a seven-foot tall black man in a mint-green outfit. Who claims that Charlie shouldn't be able to see him.

Never mind, Charlie is bereft. He glumly returns to his job at his second-hand retail store in San Francisco. But (as it turns out) he's been drafted into a new job by supernatural forces: a position he refers to as "Death Merchant". See the title: somebody's gotta do it.

What that job entails is difficult to explain (and the aforementioned supernatural forces do a pretty lousy job of making it clear), but it's a vital function to prevent the Forces of Darkness from taking over the city, and eventually the world. Epic battles ensue, involving Charlie's employees, his daughter, a couple of soap-eating hellhounds, and a 1957 Cadillac El Dorado with "two chrome bumper bullets that looked like unexploded torpedoes or triple-G-cup Madonna death boobs."

A lot of fun. It would make a great R-rated miniseries. Allegedly something's in the works, but like all those decent Heinlein movies "in development", I'll believe it when I see it.


The Phony Campaign

2016-07-17 Update

Another week, another atrocity, another storm of platitudes. (One difference: the preaching of the usual suspects about "gun violence" is muted.) As discussed last week, we'll continue to do our thing here.

PredictWise (unsurprisingly) claims that Trump and Clinton are the only candidates with any chance at the Oval Office. Depressing!

So we'll shake things up a bit on this end. We included Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson last month; today we'll add in the Green Party nominee, Jill Stein. I was shocked at her initial strong showing:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2016-07-10
"Donald Trump" phony 955,000 +370,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 721,000 +203,000
"Jill Stein" phony 269,000 --
"Gary Johnson" phony 24,900 0

  • Jill (I call her Jill) is not a huge Israel fan:

    She's a few meters more to the left than Bernie. So why the high phony score?

    One example: Despite her background in medicine (it's Dr. Stein, thankyouverymuch) Mike Stone at Patheos noted her answer to the straightforward question: “What is your campaign’s official stance on vaccines and homeopathic medicine?”.

    Instead of Stone's (and my) preferred answer ("Vaccines work; homeopathy is bullshit."), Jill provided (in Stone's words) "a long winded and evasive answer", and "a confused and muddled hash invoking big pharma conspiracy theory buzz: a convoluted political double-speak that would make the most jaded and cynical politician proud."

    In this, Jill is merely following the Green Party platform. Generally speaking, the Greens combine the economic ignorance you would expect from socialists with the scientific ignorance you might not.

  • And there's also: Jill Stein Pledges To Pardon Snowden and Appoint Him To Her Cabinet. My suggestion would be: Secretary of State, where odds are he's be less negligent on matters of national security than Hillary was.

  • On CNN… "Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg calls Trump a 'faker,' he says she should resign."

    As it turns out, they were both right.

    Unfortunately, she chose to "apologize" instead. ("I regret that I revealed my complete lack of judicial temperament," or words to that effect.)

  • I call your attention to the posting Phony Bernie Sanders Endorses Hillary Clinton" because I am impressed by the translated-to-French-and-back prose. Sample:

    On Tuesday, Sanders formally took off his masks to expose the phony beneath while he formally counseled Hillary to grow to be president of america. All appreciate one will have had for Bernie’s philosophical consistency has evaporated. Instead of complete-blown, card-wearing communists, the left has now not had a unmarried philosophically constant candidate of their space of playing cards. All their communicate of loose school, loose healthcare, and top source of revenue taxes has been a lie to realize and wield energy over the ignorant plenty that believed them.

    I agree! I think.

    Well, just kidding. My guess is the original version is here.

    On Tuesday, Sanders officially took off his mask to reveal the phony underneath when he officially endorsed Hillary to become president of the United States. All respect one may have had for Bernie's philosophical consistency has evaporated. Other than full-blown, card-carrying communists, the left has not had a single philosophically consistent candidate in their house of cards. All their talk of free college, free healthcare, and high income taxes has been a lie to gain and wield power over the ignorant masses that believed them.

    Yeah, well, what are you gonna do?

  • Finally, a sobering report from Kevin D. Williamson from FreedomFest in Vegas, baby: "I Told You So". Kevin was skeptical about the claim America was about to have a "libertarian moment", and one bit of confirming evidence was the flameout of Rand Paul's presidential campaign (before I even got a chance to vote for him in the New Hampshire Primary). And so…

    In the event, the two presidential candidates Americans got most excited about were Donald Trump, a nationalist, and Bernie Sanders, a socialist. Between the two of them, they make a pretty good national socialist. Trump won his party’s nomination and Sanders ceded his to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is (arguably) a little bit more of a nationalist and (arguably) a little bit less of a socialist but in many ways a much better distillation of the partnership between big government and big business that characterizes our current political moment.

    RTWT, friends. Depressing but insightful.


Into the Storm

[1.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Did you see Twister? I saw Twister. I liked Twister. And, Into the Storm, you're no Twister.

The plot is so formulaic that it might have been sketched out by algorithm. Monster tornadoes threaten Midwesterners. Documentary filmmakers are under pressure to get gripping video to please their corporate masters, and the leader is willing to risk everything to further his career. A widowed father struggles to raise his two teenage sons, one a whiner, one a troublemaker. Needless to say, the events bring them Closer Together.

It was never easier to pick out victims and survivors. The only question is: will that one guy perish in an act of (a) greed-driven stupidity or (b) redemptive courage. (Spoiler: the latter, as it turns out.)

Richard Armitage, Thorin Oakenshield himself, plays the dad. I think he may have gobbled up 80% of the acting budget. Everybody else is pretty generic. How much acting talent do you need to shout "Get down!", or mutter "Ohmigod"? Over and over. I didn't keep exact count, but I think these two lines were repeated dozens of times.


Room

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

Room is, as I type #124 on IMDB's list of the top 250 movies of all time. Brie Larson won an Oscar for Best Actress, and it got nominated in three other categories, including Best Picture. And I thought it was pretty good too.

I kind of wish I'd seen it knowing even less than I did about the plot. If I'd gone in knowing nothing, there would have been a certain amount of oh-that's-what's-going-on realization.

If you think you might feel the same, I urge you to stop reading now.

Still here? Fine. Five-year-old Jake and his mother are being held prisoner by "Old Nick", limited to a few dozen square feet. The only connection to the outside world is a small skylight and a door they can't open. It becomes apparent that Jake has never, ever, been out of the space. He hides in a small closet when Old Nick comes to drop off groceries and rape mom.

I was somewhat surprised that the movie didn't end when I thought it would.

Confession: I thought there would be a Shocking Plot Twist along the lines of the "elaborate but incorrect" theories described here. (It's not really that elaborate.)


A Dishonest and Stupid Change

Judd Gregg, one of our state's former Senators, recently took to the op-ed page of my local newspaper, Foster's Daily Democrat, to advocate a Big Idea, that will… well, let him tell you:

In the parlance of Congressional budgeting, if you have an idea that scores positively — in other words, if it raises money without raising taxes — you have struck gold.

In the words of Kenny Bania: "That's gold, Jerry! Gold!".

Such an item allows you, should your colleagues accept it, to either reduce the deficit or spend money on some program that has general support but no funds to pay for it.

Expressed another way, if something scores positively, it creates opportunities for action by the Congress. And this is particularly appealing because Congress is generally wedged into a straitjacket of inaction when it comes to new initiatives or reducing the deficit because it has no way to pay for either effort.

The subtext: Judd's ex-colleagues are demonstrably inept at making difficult fiscal choices, and would much prefer to discover a flock of gold-egg-laying geese, or maybe lay claim to whatever loose change they can find in the US Capitol seat cushions.

So what's Judd's Big Idea? Sell the Post Office? Terminate the Small Business Administration? Well, sorry. None of that for Judd. Instead, the loose-change thing turns out to be close.

Here is an idea that involves small change but translates into budgeting gold.

It is currency modernization.

Warning to the reader: "Modernization" will turn out to be a marketing euphemism.

Our present currency system is illogical. We produce coins that cost more than they are worth. Yet, at the same time, we rely far more excessively than other industrialized nations on paper currency. We simply have not modernized our approach to managing our currency to catch up with a 21st century market society.

Judd's argument contains a smidgen of fact: it's probably true that pennies and nickels cost more to make than they're worth. (He elides the "to make" part.)

[It's also worth pointing out that penny and nickel face values are still greater their melt-value. When that stops being true, they will immediately vanish from general circulation.]

But in absolute terms, the amounts involved are capital-T Trivial. The GAO estimated (for FY2014) a yearly loss of $91 million for making pennies and nickels. But making dimes and quarters more than made up for that; the US Mint realized a total profit ("seignorage") of $315 million from its overall coin production.

So "we" (actually: the Mint) could at best save about $91 million a year by not producing pennies and nickels. With Your Federal Government spending $3.8 trillion per year, this represents about 13 minutes of spending.

We'll look at the paper currency argument later. Back to Judd:

It is a bit embarrassing to have the world’s largest and most important economy but yet be so far behind our competition in the simple act of managing our physical money.

What can Judd possibly mean here? There's close to zero "competition" for US currency in the domestic economy. (Although that could change.) In recent years, the US dollar has been the most commonly used currency worldwide, the Euro coming in a distant second. It's the most widely held currency, period. It's hard to find any symptoms whatsoever of a "competition" problem.

So there's no need for Judd to be embarrassed. But let him ramble for a while, he'll eventually get around to what he's actually talking about:

On the bright side, some moves are being made toward addressing this problem. If those moves translate into real action, we stand to realize benefits both from making day-to-day economic activity more efficient and rational, and from saving the taxpayers considerable sums.

The Treasury has announced sweeping changes to our paper currency. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the Congressional audit group, has supported major modernization 10 times in the last 25 years. Most importantly, a group of thoughtful and respected legislators led by Sens. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and John McCain, R-Ariz., and Reps. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., have made fixing our currency system a priority.

They are pushing for a dollar coin to be included in a package of GAO-recommended savings measures with their bill, the United Savings and Accountability Act (USA Act).

Enzi, the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, has also pushed to make sure that savings generated from this modernization will be able to be scored in the budget process.

Ah, there it is: the dollar coin.

A majority of the American people likes this reasonable approach. Sixty-one percent of Americans support going to a more coin-dominated system when they are told of the savings it would generate.

But in actual fact, US dollar coins have proven to be dreadfully unpopular. "The American people" have had the option to use them, on and off, for decades, and the lack of acceptance has been spectacular. Simply, when given a choice, "the American people" prefer the paper dollar. This strongly suggests that there are hidden costs to dollar coin usage (primarily convenience, I would suspect), and those unremunerated costs would be borne by the citizenry.

Gregg's Big Idea: remove the choice. "We tried to be nice, but you didn't behave as you were supposed to. So now we're going to do this for your own good."

How much would this currency reform save us?

Yeah, how much would it save "us"?

It is estimated that switching from the one-dollar note to a one-dollar coin could save the country up to $13.5 billion. Additional savings could be made from suspending the production of the penny and redesigning the nickel. This is a lot of money that could go to reducing the deficit or to funding programs that have broad bipartisan support.

Note the bullshit signifiers here: "could" and "up to". And (most important) no mention of the timeframe for those savings.

And, in any relevant context, despite Judd's dishonest claims otherwise, it turns out to be not a "lot of money". The recent GAO study is easy to find. They have a more conservative estimate of the savings to the federal government: not $13.5 billion, but ("potentially") $4.4 billion. (I don't know where the $13.5 billion number comes from. I suspect it's fantasy.)

And how long would it take for those "potential" savings to be realized? 30 years.

That averages to about $147 million per year. In the same ballpark as the savings from penny/nickel abolition. And in terms of a $3.8 trillion yearly budget, that works out to about 20 minutes worth of spending.

Also note: it's not as if the government loses money printing dollar bills. That would be hard to do; they take at best a few cents worth of paper, ink, and labor and turn it into something "worth" a dollar by fiat. It's just that they could make more money with coins instead, due to their longer lifespan. (Again: "seignorage", a word worth knowing.)

Canada, our neighbor to the north and a good place to try out ideas like this, has successfully made this switch. Canadians experienced cost savings 10 times higher then their initial estimates.

Judd demonstrates, again, his telling aversion to meaningful numbers. According to the GAO, the Canadian government saved $450 million over 5 years in its switchover. So an average of $90 million/year, about 0.028% of their current yearly spending. Given Canada's smaller budget, that's a slightly bigger deal than we'd see in the US: A whole 2.5 hours out of the year!

In an election year like this, big things are not going to happen in Congress. But positive, incremental initiatives that can help pave the way for broader reforms of budget and governance should be doable.

Actually, big things will never happen in Congress as long as they are distracted by time-wasting penny (heh!)-ante schemes like this.

Currency modernization is an opportunity to get real savings that can be used by this Congress as it wrestles with paying for government and reducing the debt.

As shown above, the savings are at best trivial and the debt will continue growing.

It is a small change, in small change. But it does score positively, so it is actually a fairly big deal for a Congress that urgently needs some change.

Change, change, change. Get it? This clever play on words will no doubt convince dozens.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, this is probably not a huge deal. I could learn to live without pennies, nickels, and dollar bills. I am simply tired of pols like Judd Gregg making stupid and dishonest arguments for decreasing Americans' currency choices.