URLs du Jour - 2014-11-24

  • Kevin D. Williamson detects in President Obama a case of "A Small Man in a Big Office". It's a very interesting take on how character, or the lack thereof, manifests itself, either on the playing field or in elective office:

    I have seen a high-school football coach refuse to shake the hand of his opposite number after a football game in response to perceived affronts to sportsmanship, and that’s a serious thing. (They take it seriously in that other kind of football, too.) It’s basically Sampson biting his thumb at Abraham in the opening of Romeo and Juliet. “When good manners shall lie all in one or two men’s hands, and they unwashed, too, ’tis a foul thing.” You don’t shake hands with somebody who has behaved dishonorably.

    I do not think I would shake hands with Barack Obama.

    That's a thought experiment I doubt either Kevin or I would get a chance to test in real life, but I think I'd probably go the same way.

  • There is P.J. O'Rourke content at the Daily Beast: "Why 2016’s Hopefuls Are Hopeless", a quick look at both parties' likely presidential candidates. Jeb Bush, for example:

    He’s got everything.

    He’s young (for a Republican), just 61.

    He was a Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Texas. Hook ‘Em, Horns!

    He was a successful businessman.

    And a successful two-term Governor of a state where the balloting incompetence and idiocy is absolutely vital to the GOP.

    He’s fluent in Spanish. His wife is Hispanic. His children are too! He’s sure to move, temporarily, from Coral Gables to Houston so he can choose fellow Floridian Marco Rubio as his running mate. Kiss the Latino vote goodbye, Democrats.

    John Ellis Bush has just one problem. Perhaps you can take a “Bush-league” guess what it is. But don’t worry. Jeb is all set to legally change his name to “Scott Walker.”

  • You probably saw or heard about this past weekend's Saturday Night Live opening sketch that was openly non-reverential to President Obama and his immigration moves a few days ago! Heresy! At Breitbart, John Nolte noticed that the Washington Post actually spent time fact-checking the sketch. (Something nobody can remember happening in response to the approximately 2,396 anti-Ford/Reagan/Bush/GOP SNL sketches over the past 40 years.)

    And at Hot Air, Ed Morrissey lists a few things the WaPo could also correct, for example:

    • There are actually very few people with cone-shaped heads, and they rarely talk like robots.
    • Don’t Fear The Reaper didn’t really need more cowbell.
    • Sarah Palin never said she could see Russia from her house.

    And more.

  • And finally, a couple of seasonal links. Reason reports that the latest attack in the War Against Christmas has been beaten back:

    It's a Christmas miracle! An elementary school in a Boston suburb that was going to cancel its annual trip to see The Nutcracker has decided allowing kids to see a Christmas tree on stage will not destroy the non-Christians in the audience.

    It's usually wise to check that these stories aren't coming from some wackily paranoid right-wing source, but not in this case: link above goes to WHDH, the Boston NBC affiliate.

  • But the season would not be complete without perusing Dave Barry’s 2014 Holiday Gift Guide.

    [Amazon Link]

    But what if you want to go “old school” this holiday season? What if instead of giving your loved ones high-tech devices that will, in time, become obsolete and useless, you’d prefer to give gifts that are already useless?

    In that case, you have come to the right place: our annual Holiday Gift Guide, which has been a beloved American holiday tradition dating back to the dawn of time. Each year, we scour the entire solar system, looking for unique and tasteful gift ideas. Each year, we fail utterly and wind up with a collection of random crap we found on the Internet. This is our holiday gift to you.

    My "favorite" would have to be "The Meat", which is one in a series of toy action figures from to the Rocky movies. Pictured (with handy Amazon link) at right. No, your right.

Last Modified 2014-11-25 2:15 PM EST
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The Norm Chronicles

[Amazon Link]

Thought experiment:

Scenario A: Suppose your neighbor is manufacturing anthrax spores in his basement. There's no indication of evil intent, it seems to be just a hobby. He claims he's taking reasonable precautions. But you're uncertain: an accident or a robbery involving those spores could kill you or your loved ones. Is it a proper function of government to confiscate his spores?

Scenario B: Suppose your neighbor has a gun. There's no indication of evil intent, it seems to be just a hobby. He claims he's taking reasonable precautions. But you're uncertain: an accident or a robbery involving that gun could kill you or your loved ones. Is it a proper function of government to confiscate his weapon?

My guess is: most people, even most libertarians, would find government intervention OK in Scenario A, not in Scenario B.

But what's the difference? Could it simply be the perceived/actual level of risk involved? Is there some principled way to quantify that, to justify government actions that mitigate extreme Scenario-A levels of risk, while somehow stopping short of a totalitarian nanny state that disallows any Scenario B-style activity that might conceivably put innocent parties at risk, but probably won't?

I don't know. And (as a dilettante in libertarian political philosophy) I've been thinking about this sort of thing for a number of years without coming to a satisfactory conclusion. It all seems to revolve around the concept of risk, though.

One of my efforts at self-education was to pick up this book: The Norm Chronicles by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter. Its subtitle: Stories and Numbers About Danger and Death. Seemingly very relevant to my lackadaisical intellectual quest!

Blastland and Spiegelhalter illustrate their story using fictional typical characters: there's the risk-averse Prudence; the thrill-and-pleasure-seeking, risk-be-damned Kevlin brothers (Kelvin, Kevin, and Kieran); and then there is Norm, who is completely (guess what) normal, all the way down to his weight and height, and seeks moderation in all things risky. (At one self-reflective point, he marvels at how paradoxically unusual his normality makes him.)

The book is a romp through the major categories of Things That Could Possibly Do You In: getting born, of course, but also giving birth; sex; crime; transportation; drugs, licit and illicit; your lifestyle; medical woes; etc. Wherever possible, the authors quantify: risky activities are measured in "micromorts", a one-in-a-million chance of death. (For example: serving in Afghanistan exposes one to a risk of 22 micromorts per day; World War II RAF bomber pilots experienced 25,000 micromorts per mission.) Chronic risks are measured in "microlives", about a half-hour in length. (Examples: each cigarette smoked will set you back about 0.5 microlives; being male instead of female will cut off about 4 microlives per day.)

And there are the big risks: climate change, earthquakes, and stuff falling from above (meteors, killer asteroids, unfortunate stowaways in airplane wheelwells …)

All these morbid facts and numbers are presented with enough wit and charm to make them (paradoxically) lively and interesting. Norm, Prudence, and the Kevlins become actually sympathetic characters in the narrative.

And it's funny. Try reading this without amusement:

[…] We know for sure that countless things—unlikely or not—will happen somewhere to someone, as they must. More than that, we know that they will often happen in strange and predictable patterns. Fatal falls from ladders among the approximately 21 million men in England and Wales in the five years to 2010 were uncannily consistent, numbering 42, 54, 56, 53, and 47. For all the chance particulars that apply to any individual among 21 million individuals, the numbers are amazingly, fiendishly stable—unlike the ladders. Some calculating God, painting fate by numbers up in the clouds, orders another splash of red: "Hey, you in the dungarees, we're short this month."

So: a fine book, wonderfully entertaining, and I learned a lot.

But did I get any illumination on the topic that drove me here, seeking some sort of objective, principled guidance on the proper regulation of risk in a free society?

No. If anything, the opposite. The authors just about convinced me that there is no bright line that can be drawn between risks that must be prohibited and risks for which laissez-faire is the proper policy. Some cases seem clear, but those in between will probably forever be a matter of unresolvable conflict between people with different values and attitudes. We could handwave about distinguishing between "rational concerns" and "irrational fears", but there's no infallible test, as near as I can tell, that will allow one to tell one from the other in all possible cases.

But I'll keep looking.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

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

So, yeah, it's okay. And I'm glad I watched it. But, for some reason, I've always been considerably less enthusiastic about the X-Men than I am about (say) Cap or Shell-head. Even though this one has Jean-Luc and Gandalf in minor roles. It doesn't help that this one works off a time-travel premise that will be totally familiar to anyone who watched the Back to the Future movies or relevant installments of Star Trek.

The movie starts off in a grim future with eternal genocidal warfare between mutants and non-mutants. The mutants are about to be on the losing end, due to the "Sentinels", deadly robots that are able to absorb mutant powers and jiu-jitsu-like reflect them back on the mutants. All this tracks back to the good/bad shape-shifting mutant Mystique, who fatefully killed the Sentinels' inventor back in 1973. That turned out to be a bad call.

So the obvious solution (obvious at least to Professor X, since he was in some of those Star Treks) is to send someone back to 1973 to prevent Mystique from working her murderous mischief. Time-travel turns out to be another handy mutant power. Wolverine is the only practical choice for the trip. And (to avoid a certain class of paradoxes), it involves sending W's conciousness back to '73 to inhabit his then-body.

So: all he has to do is seek out the 1973 versions of Professor X and Magneto, and whatever other X-men they can gather, then to thwart Mystique. There are a number of complications due to the involvement of Magneto, who starts out helpful, but is soon enough up to his old tricks.

So: not a bad flick. Clever and occasionally funny, and seemingly not as tediously didactic as previous entries. (Or maybe I'm just getting used to that.)

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URLs du Jour - 2014-11-21

Once again, a catchup UDJ post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    … then I’m with stupid.

    Yes. Me too.

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

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

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

    I watched "The Big Bang Theory" instead.

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

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

    As Iowahawk says:

  • A straight news story from Reuters leads off:

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

    Or, shorter: they lied, they got caught.

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

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

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

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

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The Sense of Style

[Amazon Link]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Edge of Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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URLs du Jour - 2014-11-13

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

    Opening paragraph:

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

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

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

    This must change.

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

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

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

    And (indeed) the four authors assure us:

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

    Any opposition is illegitimate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    This is kind of priceless:

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Amazon Link]

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

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

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

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

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Veterans Day 2014

Veterans Day 2014

… thank a vet near you.

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URLs du Jour - 2014-11-10

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

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

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

    Nick Gillespie cuts through the fluff:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • … and your tweet du jour is:

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