URLs du Jour — 2014-09-30

It's been awhile …

  • You should read everything Kevin D. Williamson writes. Of course. But in case you don't, here he is today poking holes in the arguments of the "inequality police". (Who also stick in my craw.) Sample:

    The inequality-based critique of the American economy is a fundamentally dishonest one, for a half a dozen or so reasons at least. Claims that the (wicked, wicked) “1 percent” saw their incomes go up by such and such an amount over the past decade or two ignore the fact that different people compose the 1 percent every year, and that 75 percent of the super-rich households in 1995 were in a lower income group by 2005. “The 3 million highest-paying jobs in America paid a lot more in 2005 than did the 3 million highest-paying jobs in 1995” is a very different and considerably less dramatic claim than “The top 1 percent of earners in 1995 saw their household incomes go up radically by 2005.” But the former claim is true and the latter is not.

    The inequality-peddlers attempt to stir up resentment in order to foster the truly outrageous inequality: the transfer of more and more power to the political classes.

  • One of those inequality-peddlers: Paul Krugman. At Cafe Hayek, Professor Don Boudreaux briefly notes that a mere five days separated (a) Krugman's complaint about the wealthiest "flaunting" their riches in orgies of ostentatious consumption; and (b) Krugman's complaint about how the rich cloak themselves in privacy, so that we peons might not see their wealth and be moved to resentment.

    Krugman is an indisputably brilliant economist, but when he ventures outside that narrow expertise, he can't even manage consistent assertions from day to day.

  • Fed up with mushy GOP mainstreamers, you just feel like chucking the whole "voting" thing? Maybe you should read Jim Geraghty first: "God Save Us from the Loud ‘I’m Staying Home This Year’ Conservatives".

  • At Hit&Run, Patrick Hannaford asks "Why Is the Pentagon Sending Grenade Launchers to College Campuses?"

    The libertarian part of me found this to be outrageous, of course. But the ten-year-old kid part of me thought: Cool! I wonder if the University Near Here got any grenade launchers?

    So it is with mixed feelings (specifically: Rats!/Whew!), I report: According to this list, we didn't get anything from the Defense Department. Even the U. of Wisconsin at Milwaukee Police Department wangled a couple of socket wrenches!

  • Iowahawk has pretty much moved his act over to Twitter, and I thought his comment for the NFL Fandom Map was pretty good:

    Oh, and in case you missed the fine print: "The New York Jets do not have a plurality of fans in any US county."


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Nothing To Lose

[Amazon Link]

Number twelve in Lee Child's Jack Reacher series, from 2008. (Yay, I'm only six years behind!) My subjective impression: above average.

Reacher is meandering from New England down to San Diego, and this odyssey takes him through the southeast corner of Colorado, and two little towns named "Hope" and "Despair". Hope is nice enough, but before you can say "hey, is this a metaphor or something?" Reacher is tossed out of Despair on trumped-up charges of vagrancy.

So he resolves never to go to Despair again, and jogs a little bit out of his way to continue his trek.

Just kidding! Reacher (correctly) surmises that there's something shady going on in Despair. He resolves to figure it out. This involves him with a lady cop from Hope, who's got her own secrets about her life and family. There is much violence, and (unusual for this series) weird near-horror elements, as the citizens of Despair are revealed to be in total pod-people-like thrall to the town's mayor/owner.

Consumer notes: Reacher reveals strong opinions on religion (he's agin' it) and the Iraq War (also agin' it) and decent treatment of disabled vets (he's for that). I would prefer he remained above such common controversies, but it didn't affect my enjoyment of the book.

Kept waiting for the title phrase to show up. Finally did, right near the very end.


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The Black-Eyed Blonde

[Amazon Link]

Or: Someone in charge of the Raymond Chandler Estate apparently decided they could shake a few more bucks out of the fans of private eye Phillip Marlowe. And so British author Benjamin Black steps into Chandler's very large (gum)shoes.

And I'm one of the fans they successfully shook some bucks out of. I've read all the Chandler books, I've read Robert B. Parker's efforts at the sequel thing (not great), and I've seen most of the film/TV versions of Marlowe.

(Not that it matters but: IMDB has an impressive list of the actors who've tried to get Marlowe right: Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Robert Montgomery, Elliott Gould (a revisionist take), James Garner, Robert Mitchum, and more. To my mind, Bogie's in first place of course, but Powers Boothe came very close second in the 1980s HBO series he did.)

Marlowe is put on this case by the titular Blonde: the captivating Clare Cavendish. She wants him to find Nico Peterson, a guy who (it turns out) just about everyone thinks was killed in a grisly hit-and-run outside of the Cahuilla Club, a reputable Palisades nightspot. But Clare is pretty sure she saw him alive and well in San Francisco post-alleged-mortem.

Nothing about the case makes sense, but Marlowe is infatuated with Clare. And (since he's Marlowe), the trail leads him into interactions with all sorts of colorful characters. Also, he gets beat up, tied up, and nearly drowned. Just the usual thing.

Look on Amazon, and you'll see all kinds of love-it and hate-it reactions. I thought it was OK. It's been quite a few years since I read any Raymond Chandler, but it seemed to me that Black was able to write some very Chandleresque prose without sounding like a bad Chandler parody. That's hard to do. His Marlowe seems to be a little more introspective and vulnerable than Chandler's, but that's OK. Age will do that to a person.

Without spoilers: there are continuing references here to people and events in Chandler's classic The Long Goodbye. You might want to brush up on that before tackling this.


Last Modified 2014-09-30 12:53 PM EDT
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Anna

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

A decent, OK, thriller with some sci-fi elements, kind of the same genre as Minority Report, but with a much lower budget.

The hero, John, is a so-called "memory detective"; he has a sort of psychic power that allows him to send someone into a trance-like recreation of past events, and he will just tag along and observe. John has his problems, as scenes of his unpleasant memories of his wife's suicide keep intruding into the recreations. But he thinks he's recovered from that now, and the memory-detective company sends him off to work for a fantastically wealthy, but secretive, couple with a troubled daughter, Anna.

Anna is locked up in her bedroom, courtesy of a past deadly "incident" that she claims she had nothing to do with. John must determine whether Anna is a dangerous whacko (in which case, it's off to the loony bid, as her stepdad wishes) or the victim of malicious evildoers (as her mom thinks). Anna is clearly very intelligent and perceptive, and John is sympathetic. But…

The movie is loaded with red herrings, loose ends, and ominous foreshadowings. In the cold light of day, I have to admit it was pretty silly. But it kept me engrossed while I was watching it, and that's no mean feat for a movie that doesn't involve spaceships.

Mark Strong plays John; he's a fine actor that is well-known for playing cold-blooded villains. (There's a Jaguar commercial that goofs on this.) So it's nice to see him as a decent vulnerable protagonist.


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Too Late For Tears

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

Netflix calls this movie Killer Bait, but it's more commonly called Too Late For Tears; one of those weirdnesses that crops up when an old movie slips into the public domain. Neither title relates very much to the actual plot; for accuracy's sake, it might have been better calledToo Late To Realize That You Shouldn't Have Had Anything To Do With Lizabeth Scott.

Lizabeth plays Jane Palmer, married to Alan (Arthur Kennedy). He's deeply in love (even though Jane's previous husband "committed suicide"), and why not? Jane doesn't look like a murderous sociopath. But by sheer coincidence, a blackmail victim mistakenly tosses a payoff into into their convertible one night on (I think) Mulholland Drive. Alan's impulse is to Do The Right Thing and turn the money in to the cops. Jane, however, is immediately obsessed with keeping the cash at all costs. And, since this is film noir at its noirest, "all costs" means there will be at least a couple corpses involved.

Things aren't helped when Danny, the blackmailer (Dan Duryea) tracks them down and confronts Jane. Also in the picture are Alan's sister, Kathy (Kristine Miller) and a mysterious stranger, "Don" (Don DeFore) who claims to have known Alan back in WW2. Jane needs to outmaneuver them all, with a scheme that involves a lot of ad hoc deception, betrayal, and murder most foul. Will she get away with the loot?

Netflix underestimated how much I'd like this old film noir, but it's the real deal, a story of how one little accident can reveal a character's inner rot and send a lot of the cast into a downward spiral of corruption and ruin. Dan Duryea is especially good as the sleazeball blackmailer who finds that Jane's villainy is too much for even him.

Surprisingly good is Don DeFore, who I remember solely from glimpses on old TV sitcoms: Ozzie and Harriet and Hazel. Here, he's alternatively affable, goofy, and scheming; his big secret is only revealed at the movie's climax.


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Black Widow

[Amazon Link]

Amazon helpfully tells me that I bought this book back in July 2008. Yes, that's my backlog for some books in the to-be-read pile.

In this entry in the beloved Doc Ford series, Doc is trying to be the good godfather to Shay Money, about to marry into a politically elite family. The problem: Shay and her bridesmaids got a little—ok, a lot—naughty on a Caribbean last-fling vacation. And now she's being blackmailed.

This leads Doc down to the same island, where he works to uncover the sophisticated blackmailing ring. It turns out to be much deeper and more powerful than he imagined, and (of course) he finds himself in mortal danger. He meets a number of colorful characters on both sides of the conflict. There are also entries in Doc's continuing backstory: investigating the death of his parents, his relationship with his biological offspring, the ever-present comic relief of Tomlinson, who's always alternating between drug-induced brain damage and deep insightfulness.

A lot of people make comparisons between the Doc Ford yarns and the (sorely missed) Travis McGee series from John D. MacDonald. This one hits that target a little more squarely than the immediately previous entries, I think.

One mini-gripe: at one point the normally super-competent Doc makes a dumb mistake that even I saw coming. C'mon Doc!


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A Matter of Life and Death

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

More commonly known in America as Stairway to Heaven, but (not to be confused|nothing to do) with that Led Zep song. We'll go with the original British title here. This movie was made shortly after World War 2, and it's pretty bizarre for the era. Or, in fact, for any era.

David Niven plays Peter Carter, an RAF pilot trying to get his doomed bomber back to Old Blighty with one engine on fire and the surviving crew punched out over the channel. He gets on the radio with June (Kim Hunter), and there's something about his classically British stiff upper lip and her warm American voice that makes them fall in love. On the radio.

After saying ta-ta to June, Peter jumps from the plane before it crashes and—against all odds—survives, getting washed up on the beach. He finds June, they get married, live happily ever after.

Just kidding! It turns out that Peter was supposed to die and his survival was due to an extremely rare slipup by the heavenly powers-that-be. Up in the realm of the angels there's much consternation about what to do; the books are out of balance. Peter's summoned to make things right, but he declines; with June he has too much to live for. The resulting conflict brings him to trial. Raymond Massey plays the prosecuting lawyer! (Chosen because of his presumed anti-Brit sentiment: he fell victim to a Redcoat in 1775 Boston.)

There are a lot of movies that revolve around the interaction between the here-and-now world and Heaven. Only in this one is there an effeminate fop who was beheaded during the French Reign of Terror. (He's in a pretty good mood about it though.) Only this one has a ping-pong match between June and a doctor, who's trying to diagnose Peter's "hallucinations" about said fop who's trying to get him Upstairs. Only this one has a camera obscura that the doctor owns as a hobby (seen once, not mentioned again). Only in this one does the good doctor die so that the script can place him as Peter's defense attorney in the Great Beyond. As I said: bizarre.

All kidding aside: there is a lot of dull scenery-chewing speechifying during Peter's trial. Could have done without that.


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The Wolf of Wall Street

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

A bit of Pun Salad trivia: watching this movie means I watched all nine nominees for the Best Picture Oscar for the past year. (Haven't managed to do that since 2010.) The IMDB raters have it (as I type) at #124 on the best 250 movies of all time! I don't know about that, but it was pretty good. Mr. Martin Scorcese directed, and I doubt if he remembers how to make anything other than a good movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, and this is the story of his rise and fall in the corrupt world of Wall Street. He breaks in as a lowly phone salesman in a "respectable" (but, in fact, not very respectable) brokerage. And he does OK until the 1987 market crash wipes him and his firm out. Then it's over to an extremely disreputable penny-stock operation, strictly in business to transfer money from gullible customers into brokers' pockets.

Belfort is a master salesman, a charismatic leader, and his appetite for money is unbounded. He quickly strikes out on his own, playing the same sleazy game with a more upscale clientele.

Also unbounded: Belfort's appetite for sex and drugs. One wonders how all his money didn't wind up in the hands of pushers and pimps, but somehow he had plenty left over for a mansion, a Ferrari, a yacht, and a copter and … well, every crass symbol of multimillionairedom you can think of. And who knows how long he could have kept it up, because the SEC was blind to his misdeeds. But there's FBI Straight Arrow Agent Patrick Denham (played by the canonical Straight Arrow, Kyle Chandler) standing in his way.

(There are a bunch of great actors here in addition to DiCaprio and Chandler. Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin, etc. I didn't recognize Christine Ebersole until I saw her name in the credits, then zipped back to one of her scenes. "Oh, yeah.")

The movie is (whoa) three hours long, and probably could have used some judicious cutting. The rating is R, and the MPAA reasons are: "sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence." If anything, that's understated. You have never seen such over-the-top debauchery and graphic depravity (unless, of course, you get invited to Hollywood parties).

It's also extremely funny. This is probably why it didn't win Best Picture.

True fact: after his prison stint, the real-world Belfort is still around, giving presentations ("Learn The Truth Behind Jordan Belfort's Business & Wealth Success") and you can shell out up to $1999 (at the door) for the "Platinum Experience". But if you're the type of person who would even think of doing that, I think you are not the type of person who would be reading this.


Last Modified 2014-09-14 11:32 PM EDT
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Ernest & Celestine

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

I wanted to like this better. I probably should have liked this better. And (if you like animation, and you aren't averse to "kids" movies) you will probably like this better too. Maybe it was an off night, but it was pretty boring.

Ernest & Celestine is set in a world where bears are the dominant species, and mice huddle in various underground niches. There's a certain amount of friction, no doubt because mice are a perfectly acceptable part of a complete ursine breakfast. Celestine is a very cute young mouse (aspiring dentist) on an undercover operation in the bear world, when she's forced to sleep in a trash can. Ernest is a starving musician when he lumbers into Celestine. After a brief flirtation with one eating the other, they quickly become good friends. But the rest of the world does not accept their forbidden love!

Or perhaps I should say: Ze raist of ze world does not accept zair forbeeden rapport! It's foreign (French/Belgian), but is expertly dubbed into English by a host of fine voice talents (including Lauren Bacall, in one of her last performances). The animation looks as if each frame was lovingly hand-painted. (But wasn't: You can watch a video about the animation process here.) It was nominated for an Oscar (best animated picture)


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URLs du Jour — 2014-09-08

  • So it's (non-presidential) Primary day in New Hampshire tomorrow. Let me share an appropriate quote from Robert Heinlein, expressed as one of the aphorisms of Lazarus Long:

    If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for...but there are certain to be ones you want to vote against. In case of doubt, vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong. If this is too blind for your taste, consult some well-meaning fool (there is always one around) and ask his advice. Then vote the other way. This enables you to be a good citizen (if such is your wish) without spending the enormous amount of time on it that truly intelligent exercise of franchise requires.

    More from Mr. Long here. (I also posted this as a comment up at Granite Grok.)

  • Speaking of which, former UNH students Nicholas Mignanelli and Jordan Prince Osgood point out an Inconvenient Truth about former UNH Dean Dan Innis (current hopeful for the GOP nomination to oppose my CongressCritter/Toothache Carol Shea-Porter). From this morning's edition of my local paper, Fosters Daily Democrat:

    It is common knowledge that Republican candidate for Congress Dan Innis voted in the 2012 Democratic state primary and donated money to gubernatorial candidate Jackie Cilley in the last election cycle. While such actions arouse suspicion of opportunism, it would be unfair to dismiss his candidacy on what one might categorize as a mere mistake or an act of friendship.

    What is more telling, however, is his action (or perhaps inaction) when he was in a position of power at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

    In December of 2011, when the university administration held a forum lauding the Occupy Wall Street Movement and criticizing capitalism, where was Business School Dean Dan Innis to insist that free markets have alleviated more poverty than any other economic system in human history?

    During the 2008 and 2012 election seasons, when the Obama campaign flagrantly disregarded university policy prohibiting solicitation on campus and the objections of the UNH College Republicans fell on deaf ears, where was Dan Innis to ensure that university rules and regulations were enforced without regard for political conviction?

    Indeed, is it not telling that Professor Innis never attended a College Republican meeting nor expressed his support for the group’s activities until he wanted the support of its membership?

    While no one can disparage Professor Innis’s professional accomplishments, one has to wonder how it is that he plans to stand up to President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and the special interest groups that bankrolled their rise to power when the academic left in Durham proved too intimidating for him.

    The letter, by the way, is headlined "Vote for Innis" on the web and in the dead-trees edition, so Fosters doesn't read these too carefully.

  • Liberty-loving registered GOP NH voters who haven't made up their minds yet might want to check Liberty Ballot which has a sample ballot for each different ballot in tomorrow's primary with their recommendations.

  • A very good article on the state of Higher Education from Harvard Prof Steven Pinker: "The Trouble With Harvard".

    It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

    On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

    Yeah, that would be nice. But Pinker notes that Harvard is doing a lousy job of that. And if Harvard has that problem, what about us?

  • NBC newsman Chuck Todd took over Meet The Press yesterday; Language Logger Mark Liberman presents a persuasive case that he should have already been fired. (Maybe Todd was boggled by President Obama's brazen lies.)

  • And your tweet du jour is from the immortal Harry Shearer. (But you'll need to click through for the joke):


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