URLs du Jour — 2014-07-29

Various things of recent interest:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    McArdle and Suderman: that's one impressive family.


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Dallas Buyers Club

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

What distinguishes this from a run-of-the-mill disease-of-the-month tearjerker from Lifetime Movie Network? Easy, pilgrim: the answer is Mr. Matthew McConaughey. He's a force of movie nature when he wants to be.

Here, Mr. McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff. It's the early 80's and Woodruff is a hard-charging redneck Texas non-homosexual, but unfortunately he's into a lot of other risky behavior, like drug use and unprotected sex. So he finds himself with AIDS, and the doctor gives him 30 days to live.

Woodruff also mixes cocaine with AZT, recipe for dying sooner than 30 days. He finds himself in a Mexican clinic, where an unlicensed doc makes him feel better with unapproved drugs. Which gets Ron's humanitarian/entrepreneurial juices flowing: why, if he takes this stuff up to Texas, he could make some serious money. Only problem being, it's probably only slightly less legally risky to sell FDA-unapproved medications than it is to deal in cocaine and heroin.

Of course, Ron "grows" out of his previous homophobia once he develops face-to-face relationships with his gay clientele. He also wins over Jennifer Garner, a doctor initially by-the-book, gradually becoming more humanitarian.

The movie is intensely libertarian, making a strident case against the lengthy and bureaucratic FDA process for declaring a drug "safe and effective". In the meantime people are dying. But another (unfortunate) theme strongly implies corruption between the FDA, Big Pharma, and the local doctors who stand to make a bundle off AZT.

It's a nice story, but there's a contrary take at the Washington Post that makes it difficult to buy the movie's medical basis.


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Decoded

[Amazon Link]

A small effort at Pun Salad multiculturalism, inspired by a plug earlier this year from certified Smart Fellow Tyler Cowen. Decoded is a 2002 novel by the celebrated Chinese novelist Mai Jia, and it was translated into English earlier this year. (When I say "celebrated", I mean: he's famous in China; this is the only book that's made it into English.)

Executive summary: it's interesting and charming at the beginning, but bogs down near the end. And at the end, I found myself saying: "OK, so what was that all about?" But I am not experienced in the reading of Serious Literature, so it could well be that much went over my head.

I was looking for either a tale of cryptography or international intrigue. Both, preferably. A Chinese Neal Stephenson! Wouldn't that be cool? But no.

It is the story of Rong Jinzhen, mathematical prodigy, who gets drafted into a Chinese intelligence unit dedicated to the making and breaking of military-level ciphers. The early (good) part of the book details his ancestry: colorful, mostly sad, tales of his relatives and acquaintances and how they came to guide his unlikely birth and upbringing.

Rong Jinzhen turns out to be a master codebreaker, solving the riddle of PURPLE, a cipher that (it turns out) was invented by his teacher and mentor, Liseiwicz, who got out of China and started working for Israel and "Country X". (Amusingly, most of his co-workers think that Rong Jinzhen is just goofing off until he delivers the broken code.) But after PURPLE, there is BLACK. And his anti-BLACK efforts threaten to send Rong Jinzhen over the edge of sanity.

As a devout despiser of Communism, I was unimpressed with the book's politics. Mai Jia is no Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He stays away from anything that might offend the regime. (There is a brief fictional example of the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution, which I guess is OK to do these days.)

Consumer note: this NYT review claims that Rong Jinzhen's mother was killed in childbirth by his "freakishly large head". That's incorrect; although Rong Jinzhen's mother does die in childbirth (page 24), the freakishly-large-head death is on page 14, and it's when Rong Jinzhen's grandmother gives birth to his father. So there, mainstream media.


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The Lego Movie

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

Another movie ostensibly for the kids, but with enough content and originality to make it more than acceptable for Mrs. Salad and I.

It's (mostly) set in a universe of Legos, where things are (mostly) orderly and peaceful, thanks to the grand designs of a godlike creature called (variously) "President Business" or "Lord Business". But Business is increasingly upset with the small amount of chaos introduced into the land by underlying forces of individuality and creativity. So he plans to "unleash the Kragle" which (small spoiler) is a scratched-up tube of Krazy Glue: he'll lock down the rebellious characters into poses they'll hold forevermore.

Opposing Business is a diverse array of characters: "Wyldstyle", a Lara Croft-style action figurine, "Vitruvius", a wise bearded wizard. They draft Emmet into their scheme, because they perceive him to be the "Special", bequeathed with special powers to allow him to defeat Business's evil plot.

Oh, and Batman. Who (of course) introduces himself with: "I'm Batman".

There are fantastic cameos, non-stop action, lots of sight gags (many of which I missed), and PG-safe humor. (Mostly jokes involving the word "butt", and associated concepts. My inner 10-year-old found this amusing.)

And (again, slight spoiler) one Jadon Sand plays the (human) Finn, who's revealed to be the driving force behind much of the action. He's a very talented young man, and no relation.


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The Grand Budapest Hotel

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

True fact: I fell asleep trying to watch this at my first attempt. But I was wide awake for my second time, and it was perfectly fine, and very funny. As I type, IMDB has it at #151 of the top 250 movies of all time, and I guess I'm OK with that.

It's definitely the only movie I can recall with a triple flashback: starting in (presumably) the present day, a girl visits a memorial to "Author"; we then flash back (1) to 1985, where "Author" narrates his thoughts on the creative process to an unseen camera; which recalls (2) his 1968 visit to the deteriorating Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets the eccentric owner, Mr. Moustafa; who (3) describes his "lobby boy" employment with the hotel and his relationship with the eccentric concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), back in the 1930s.

What happens is a shaggy-dog tale of discreet carnal relationships between Gustave and the hotel's wealthy old-lady guests, murder most foul, and a subsequent frame-up of M. Gustave. Gustave and Moustafa must expose the true perpetrators while trying to stay out of jail.

Director/Writer Wes Anderson brings some of his trademarks to the movie: dazzling sets, slow horizontal pans, loopy and hilarious dialog delivered deadpan, an imaginatively complex and original plot. There are also a bunch of fine actors in smaller cameo roles.

If some of his earlier movies left you with a "who cares" reaction, me too. But his last few have worked much better for me, and if you've been avoiding him, give him another try.

Also: watch to the end of the credits for a small treat.


Last Modified 2014-07-28 10:09 PM EDT
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Pathetic Hillary Flacktivism (In My Local Paper)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

US Visitors and
Spending 1998-2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tim's Vermeer

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

A very good documentary about an unlikely subject: a high-tech inventor and entrepreneur, Tim Jenison, decides to duplicate a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. And (spoiler!) does.

But the details are what makes this interesting. Jenison's background and fortune result from his innovative linking of computers and video, with his inventions in use across the world. But somehow his interest is piqued by an art-history oddity: how did Vermeer accomplish his near-photographic depictions of his subjects, unprecedented in history, and even unusual for its time?

Jenison became acquainted with the theory, explicated by David Hockney and Philip Steadman, that Vermeer was somehow using optical gimmicks to match details and color while he was painting. There's little or nothing in the historical record to back that up, but Jenison starts reverse-engineering a possible mechanism, using only materials and methods that would have been available to Vermeer back in the 17th century Netherlands. After some initial encouraging success, he decides to attempt reproducing The Music Lesson. He duplicates Vermeer's studio in a San Antonio warehouse; he buys props and pigments, and otherwise gets to work.

In the wrong hands, this could have been as interesting as watching paint dry. (Heh.) (And they make that joke in the movie too.)

The nature of Vermeer's genius (artistic or "merely" technical) is apparently still mired in controversy, but the film points out a lot of evidence in the painting pointing to optical wizardry: chromatic aberration, distortion that might have been introduced by a concave mirror in the setup, differences in illumination too subtle for the human eye to pick up itself. I was convinced, but I only heard Tim's side of the story.

The film was produced by the comedy/magic duo of Penn and Teller, with Penn Jillette (a longtime friend of Tim Jenison) providing a lot of narration and Teller directing. Hence, much of the reason Jenison's not just another obsessed geek working on an obscure project is due to piggybacking on Penn and Teller's fame. Which is fine, but makes me wonder: what about all those other guys. Do they have equally interesting stories to tell?


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The Glass Rainbow

[Amazon Link]

Another fine Dave Robicheaux mystery from James Lee Burke.

After his Montana "vacation" in the previous book, Dave investigates a possible serial killer preying on young women in his Louisiana parish. He is intrigued by the story told by an prisoner held up in Mississippi, the brother of one of the victims; he's no prize, but he tells Dave that (unlike the other victims) his sister was no prostitute. And he points his accusatory finger at a local pimp/dealer that Dave has long despised.

Nothing is ever simple though. (It's a long book.) The pimp turns up dead, unfortunately after Dave's friend Clete Purcell has beaten him up and threatened him.

In addition, Dave's daughter Alafair has grown into a young woman; she's moved into the orbit of Kermit, the scion of a local rich family. (And in these books, rich families always have a corrupt and sordid history that leaks malevolently into the present.) Kermit has an ex-con associate who's become a literary success with his tales of his previous life. Dave is appalled, and this drives a heart-breaking wedge between him and Alafair.

For Robicheaux fans, the plot trajectory will not be surprising: Dave is witness to various horrors, Clete's outrageous behavior skates on the edge of self-destruction. What's different in this episode is Dave's increased sense of his own mortality, symbolized by his hallucination of an old river paddlewheel out on the bayou.

A throwaway line reveals that Dave is 70 years old in this book. (Close to the author's own age.) None of us is getting any younger, but I hope to see Dave in a few more yarns.


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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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

Pun Son and I wanted to go see a movie last Friday afternoon. For anyone interested in why the movie business isn't doing that well these days, I can offer a possible explanation: our choices were extremely limited, and we almost called it off.

IMDB reported a lot of movies playing near us. But nearly without exception: sequels to movies which one or the other of us had not seen; critically-reviled R-rated comedies; mostly-mediocre movies aimed squarely at the kiddos.

I wished Edge of Tomorrow were still around, but it wasn't.

So we settled on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; I'd seen the previous movie, but my son hadn't. I summarized for him: well-meaning scientist develops a way to boost the mental capacities of simians, but things go poorly, and the clever apes split off from humanity to live in a remote Northern California forest.

So in this movie, it's a number of years later, and humanity has been decimated by what's called the "simian flu". A ragtag remnant lives in the ruins of what was once San Francisco. Meanwhile, the supermonkey community has thrived into a growing primitive enclave, living in harmony with nature, blah blah blah. The humans are unaware of Apedom, and Apedom suspects that the humans may have gone extinct.

Trouble brews when a small band of humans are dispatched to try to revive the hydropower generated by a small dam in the apes' territory. The humans and the apes discover each other, and quickly agree to work together to their mutual benefit.

Just kidding! Although the movie delivers generous indications as to how that happy-but-boring result could have happened, mutual distrust, suspicion, and intra-species betrayal eventually cause the situation to fly right into the crapper.

The movie does an excellent job of making all this believable and interesting. Everything works: the actors are all wonderful, especially Andy Serkis as Caesar, the noble ape leader. (I agree with this guy and anyone else who says Serkis deserves an Oscar.) The special monkey effects are jaw-dropping; or they would be if you noticed them as special effects, which you probably don't.


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URLs du Jour — 2014-07-17

Screeching toward the end of the week…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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