Remember

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

Finally got around to watching a Netflix disk we've had sitting around the house since early October. (Savvy consumer: shake your heads and sorrowfully note that we're not getting our money's worth out of our Netflix DVD plan when we're this poky about watching stuff they've sent.)

But Remember is a intensely watchable movie, starring Christopher Plummer as Zev, living in an Assisted Care facility, in the middle stages of dementia. He wakes up calling for his wife, having forgot that she passed away a week ago.

Zev's friend Max (Martin Landau) gently reminds him of a promise he made: once Ruth died, Zev would go on a little mission out in the big wide world. Max provides Zev with a wad of Benjamins and a detailed letter describing, step by step, what Zev is to do. We're kept mostly in the dark, however: the nature of Zev's quest is revealed mostly in his actions. (Bruno Ganz, the actor who played Hitler in Downfall, appears. Hint, hint.)

They really have lax security at that Assisted Care place, though. Tsk!

The movie is full of suspense and Shocking Plot Twists, expertly acted by all involved. It's always nice to see Dean Norris, Hank Schrader himself; does he play a good guy here? At first, it seems that way!

Illiberal Reformers

Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era

[Amazon Link]

A rare occurrence: the University Near Here actually owned a recent non-fiction title that I wanted to read. I didn't have to bug the Interlibrary Loan people. Good for them.

Published earlier this year, Illiberal Reformers is a scholarly critical look at the roots of the US Progressive movement in the late 19th and early 20th century. The author, Thomas Leonard, is a lecturer at the Department of Economics at Princeton. He covers much the same ground as Jonah Goldberg did in Liberal Fascism, but (as far as I can tell from the reviews at Amazon) to much greater mainstream respectability. (See Jonah's comments on that.)

Leonard acknowledges the "good work" accomplished by those early Progressives: workplace reforms, safer food, women's suffrage, trust-busting, etc.) We might differ, of course, on how much of that progress would have occurred anyway, as a result of increased prosperity.

But—and this is a huge but—these early reformers were also endowed with massive amounts of hubris about their abilities to reshape American society, and the American economy, more to their liking. They weren't socialists, by and large. But they were united in their arrogant contempt for laissez-faire free-market economics specifically, and individualism (generally); they simply knew that their conscious "reality-based" designs and plans would produce superior results. Why wait for Adam Smith's magic Invisible Hand to produce results when you can grab control of the state, and directly use its Visible Fist to get the superior outcomes you desire? Why not push people around in the name of the collective good-as-you-see-it.

This required, naturally, a national government endowing itself with vast new powers, damned be the Constitutional niceties. Woodrow Wilson is one of those damners, quoted as arguing that the Constitution and its government be viewed as a living thing, evolving via Darwinist processes, rather than the old constraining fuddy-duddy Newtonian rules envisioned by the Founders.

This alludes to another feature of the early Progressives: they were devotees of the junk science of the day. The poor understanding of evolution combined with unsophisticated economics resulted in "scientific" racism and an obsession with all things eugenic. This manifested itself in all sorts of nasty policies: racial segregation, stupid immigration restrictions, minimum wage laws designed to keep the "unfit" out of the workplace, etc. While the Progressive movement was fine with women getting to vote, they were largely opposed to their presence in the workplace: a functioning family had the father earning a "living wage", while the little lady stayed home, baked, and tended the kiddos.

Now: Progressivism was far from a uniform movement. For example, not all Progressives championed Prohibition—but a lot did. And Progressives were not the only racists in the American tent—but they were clearly on the wrong side, and their shimmering belief in their own moral rectitude makes it somehow unforgivable.

Leonard is obviously interested in promoting his thesis, but he does this effectively by quoting the Progressives' own self-incriminating words, with only a gloss of his own interpretations. Irony: Leonard teaches at current-day Princeton, but one of his main victims is a previous President of Princeton, the aforementioned Woodrow Wilson.

If I had one complaint about Leonard's approach, it's that he doesn't go far enough. It's to easy for modern Progressives to scoff: well, except for all that early eugenic stuff, our movement was just fine. I have high hopes for his future work, though: see, for example, his review of Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, taking on the paternalistic conceit of two modern Progressives.


Last Modified 2016-12-04 5:31 PM EST

Nine Princes in Amber

[Amazon Link]

I've recently finished up two reading projects (John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels). So what better to do than embark on another one: Roger Zelazny's Amber novels. The first five "Corwin Cycle" books were written between 1970 and 1978; I remember gobbling those up as they appeared as paperbacks. Zelazny followed up in 1985-1991 with five books in the "Merlin Cycle"; I don't remember how many of those I read. He passed away in 1995.

Sobering thought: given my age, and all the other stuff in my to-be-read lists, I may not finish this project. Call it hopeful optimism that I'm even starting.

This first book starts out normally enough: Corwin, our hero, awakens in a private hospital out of a drug-induced stupor. He has a nasty case of amnesia, all he can remember is being in a car accident. But his injuries seem to have healed remarkably well. After some violence and fast-talking, he escapes and heads to the home of the woman who apparently was responsible for keeping him sedated. Who turns out to be his double-dealing sister.

Corwin slowly gets up to speed on the true nature of his predicament: he's on "our" Earth, but that's only a shadow of the True Earth, which holds glorious Amber. And he's not some ordinary schmoe, but a prince. (There a number of other princes, for a total of … oh, I don't know, somewhere in the high single digits.) Also, princesses. All sons and daughters of Oberon, the long-missing King of Amber.

Corwin discovers that his exile on our Earth is a plot by brother Eric to grab Amber's throne. What follows is Corwin's efforts to return to Amber through the Shadows, thwart Eric, and sit on the throne himself.

This involves massive violence involving the inhabitants of various Shadow worlds. When you're a prince, these short-lived creatures—remember, you and I are examples—are pretty much cannon fodder whose lives are cheap when expended in a quest for power. (It's never clear exactly what's so damn cool about being in charge in Amber. It's just something princes think they're entitled to do.)

A fun read, and a neat ending though.

MLK@UNH 2017: Slam!

'Tis a Pun Salad nearly-annual tradition to look at how the University Near Here will be celebrating Martin Luther King Day. As I type, UNH's announcement of the 2017 festivities is here. It's pretty sketchy, no mention of the traditional church service, candlelight vigil, or other activities. As usual UNH's MLK Celebration is held nowhere near the actual MLK day (January 16 in 2017) or MLK's actual birthday (January 15); the campus is pretty dead in mid-January.

What we have is this year's theme: "Art as Resistance and Remembrance", and the guests: "Spoken Word artists Janae Johnson and Porsha O." Janae and Porsha seem to have been picked out of the artist lineup at Strength of Doves Productions ("a management company representing social justice minded spoken word artists, teaching artists, community organizers, and activists").

At this point, I'm already wondering if the MLK Celebration had a budget cut this year.

Here's UNH's description of Janae:

Janae Johnson is a spoken work [sic] poet, teaching artists [sic], educator, and organizer residing in Berkeley, California. She is a 2015 National Poetry Slam Champion as as [sic] the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion. Her work, which is mostly focused on black queerness and/or black masculinity, has appeared on PBS News Hour and in Kinfolks: a journal of Black expression. 

They'll probably get around to fixing those typos at some point.

This description appears to have been taken (and mangled) from the Strength of Doves site. There we get the additional info that Janae "is committed to creating safer artistic spaces and has little tolerance for people trying to kill her vibe."

I can sympathize. I hate it when people even try to touch my vibe.

In addition:

When she is not writing poems, Janae is probably making a pineapple based smoothie, eating a breakfast burrito and/or listening to a Stevie Wonder song. She also appreciates black musicals. A lot.

She also likes that "and/or" construction. A lot.

How about Porsha?

Porsha Olayiwola is the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion. Porsha separates herself from the field of issue-based performance poets by applying advanced political analysis to examine injustice while providing perspective on concrete solutions with exciting and accessible language. A native of Chicago, Porsha now resides in Boston where she writes and teaches.

Does Porsha really apply "advanced political analysis" in her poetry? I would like to see an example of that. But, you know: "advanced" is compared to what?

UNH leaves out a snippet from Porsha's Strength of Doves page description: "Black, poet, dyke-goddess, hip-hop feminist, womanist, friend".

I don't believe that "dyke-goddess" is a slightly misspelled reference to Dike, the Greek goddess of justice.

That aside, you might ask (at least I did): What's the difference between a feminist and a "womanist"? As it turns out, there's a well-known answer:

“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” – Alice Walker.

Ah, that explains it. Sort of. The material at the link goes on to describe it as feminism that "inclusive especially of Black American Culture", conscious of the traditional feminist "middle class white women" roots. (Not to mention “many early so-called feminists supported racist eugenics initiatives, including sterilization of minority women”.)

Bottom line: "womanism" is a branch-off feminism into which middle-class tube-tying white women are not invited.

So UNH's 2017 MLK celebration sounds as if it will be mildly entertaining, but mostly tedious. As usual, I'm not invited; it's a safe space, and my mere presence might kill vibes.

[Past Pun Salad MLK@UNH coverage: 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015. We skipped reporting the 2008 and 2016 events, because they were boring.]

You Suck

[Amazon Link]

This book is a sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, which I read back in 2011. Some sequels stand OK on their own, but (consumer note) I would recommend reading this series in order. Unless your memory for plot details is better than mine, I wouldn't recommend waiting over five years between reading the two, either.

At the end of the previous book, vampire Jody had "turned" her Renfield, young aspiring writer C. Thomas Flood, and as this book begins, he's pretty peeved about that. But that only lasts about three paragraphs, because being a vampire in San Francisco does have its advantages. But the logistical details are daunting. You need to keep track of sunrise times, lest you be burnt to a crisp. And there's the need to feed, which is problematic if you have scruples about killing people. Plus, your old buddies on the night shift at Safeway were useful allies in combatting Jody's old mentor, Elijah. But now you're perceived as part of the problem. Elijah (as it turns out) wasn't totally defeated in the previous book. And two corrupt cops are hovering around as well.

There are a few new characters: "Abby Normal" is a profane young teenage Goth, who gets recruited to assist. And there's also "Blue", a hooker imported from Vegas by the non-vampire Safeway workers, who have quickly blown their ill-begotten windfall from the previous book on her.

Moore is, as usual, hilarious and filthy, with a core of sweetness. I keep wondering if they'll ever manage to make a movie or TV series out of his books. Much of the humor is in his prose, though, so I'm not sure how well it would work.

Cognitive Dissonance, NIH Version

I saw the following articles one after another:

  • "NIH Doesn’t Know Which Federal Facilities It’s Sending Taxpayer Dollars To" (Washington Free Beacon).

    The National Institutes of Health has no system in place to track which federal facilities are receiving taxpayer dollars.

    A Freedom of Information Act request obtained by the Washington Free Beacon revealed that the health agency, which has a budget of over $30 billion, does not keep track of government agencies that receive funding.

    And then…

  • "Social Science is Busted. But the NIH has a Plan That Could Fix It" (Wired).

    Today, a tiny office in the sprawling edifice of the National Institutes of Health released a strategic plan. The 58-page document, complete with bullet points and clip art, spells out a direction for behavioral and social science research—including psychology, economics, and sociology—for the next four years. And while it doesn’t directly shunt funding around, the plan is a bat signal for social scientists across the nation: It shows what the NIH is interested in and (likely) where grants will follow. And that could ultimately shape the direction of behavioral and social science itself.

So, yes: an agency that can't keep track of where taxpayer money is being directed also has a plan to not only (a) direct the money hose onto various fields of social science, but also (b) "fix" things in those fields, something the would-be recipients have been woefully inept at doing themselves.

I'm currently reading Illiberal Reformers by Thomas Leonard, which does a masterful job of relating the Progressive Movement's mindset around the dawn of the 20th century: full of unwarranted hubris, and an overweening desire to "fix" their own era's share of woes. Oddly—by which I mean "totally as expected"—many of the intellectual leaders of the initial wave of Progressivism deemed themselves Economists.

And now a new wave of today's state-based Progressives are on the march to fix their broken field. And others. The hubris hasn't changed, it's just moved.

Disclaimer: Decades ago, I did a stint at NIH, involved in research for my doctorate. I never got my doctorate, and the experience caused me to run at full speed away from anything involving research. I was lousy at it.

Also note: cognoscenti always refer to it as "the NIH", because it's "the National Institutes of Health". For some reason, this doesn't work for NASA: you never see "the NASA". Who could explain, or at least discuss this stylistic weirdness? Oh, right: Language Log.


Last Modified 2016-11-26 8:23 AM EST

Hacksaw Ridge

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

Pun Son and I saw this in the Newington Mall multiplex, our theatre of choice. Sensitive souls should note the MPAA reason for its R rating: "intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images". If anything, that's understated. War is Hell.

It's the mostly-true story of Desmond Doss, a small-town Virginia kid (played by Andrew Garfield, who overdoes the Virginia bumpkin thing), whose early traumatic experience with internal family violence has turned him into a Conscientious Objector, but one who decides his duty lies in signing up with the World War II Army. This distresses his family, and also his sweetie back home. And that distress is well justified, as his unit gets shipped to Okinawa. Resulting in… well, you can reread the MPAA description again.

Graphic violence aside, it's pretty much a standard war movie, focusing on Desmond's journey from Virginia, through boot camp (where his CO status is threatened, and he's the target of abuse as a result), and eventually to Hell.

Vince Vaughn plays Desmond's sergeant for both (inital) laughs and (later) drama. Nice, but…

Hugo Weaving, Elrond himself, plays Desmond's tortured-soul father. If he doesn't win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, there ain't no justice.

The Golden Bough

A Study in Magic and Religion

[Amazon Link]

Sometimes enough time elapses between me (a) putting a book on the should-read list and (b) actually reading it, that I forget what the reason for (a) was. That's not the case here! National Review's Summer 2016 reading recommendations had this from rock star Kevin D. Williamson:

Consider neutralizing this ugly and stupid political season with a few beautiful and intelligent books about politics that aren’t exactly books about politics. The best book about politics that isn’t a book about politics is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and it contains within it everything you really need to know about presidential campaigns. The book explores the most ancient foundations of religious thought, and argues that the earliest religions were fertility cults organized around the person of a sacred king. When the crops failed or the rains didn’t come, it was concluded that the sacred king had somehow failed in his duties — that the gods were not satisfied — and he was ritually sacrificed. All their careers ended the same way, and yet the position was a coveted one. You may notice that Colonel Kurtz is reading The Golden Bough before the unfortunate events at the end of Apocalypse Now.

Good enough for me! Google tells me that Kevin has, over the years, recommended The Golden Bough again and again.

There are a number of options for the potential reader. The original two-volume work was published in 1890, but Fraser kept dinking with it. By 1915, it was 12 volumes. In addition, its history includes removal and restoration of material on Christianity, which was judged by many Victorians to be scandalous. See Wikipedia for details. I wound up with the 1994 abridgment ("It restores the material on Christianity purged in the first abridgement.") because if you've watched The Simpsons, you can't be offended by Fraser's mild sacreligiousity.

I didn't get off easy, though. Even the single-volume "abridgment" is north of 800 pages of main text, small type, narrow margins, and paragraphs that span multiple pages. So I took it slow, roughly 25 pages/day over 32 days. Still, it was a slog. Yes, you can pull Williamson's insight out of it. A book this long, you can pull just about any thesis out of it.

Essentially: Fraser looks for grand themes uniting the religions, rites, customs, festivals, etc., worldwide and throughout history. He finds those grand themes, but this involves relating—literally—hundreds of tales from mythology, history, and anthropology. The activities involved are (variously) elaborate, foolish, disgusting, gory, wasteful, and (most importantly) nearly always pointless in accomplishing anything of benefit to the participants. This gets a little mind-numbing at times: I lost track of how many times he relates the ritual of Aztec human sacrifice. (They always manage to rip out your heart, though.)

You can get a slight amount of amusement from the Victorian-era prose. Fraser is workmanlike in relating most historical details, but occasionally bursts into Bulwer-Lytton-style flowery descriptions of some idyllic scene when it strikes his fancy. He's also refreshingly non-PC: savages are "savages", primitives are "primitives". But also: bumpkins are "bumpkins", clod-hoppers are … well, you get the idea.

More importantly, there are little signals throughout that Fraser is straining to make the anthropological facts fit into his overall thesis. The book is rife with speculative phrases like "it is not unreasonable to assume that", "it is quite possible that", "seems to be best explained by the hypothesis that". That ain't a confidence-builder, Jimmy.

While out walking the dog, I amused myself by wondering how some future Fraser would describe the present day.

Early 21st century inhabitants of New England were obviously devoted to pagan celebrations on the eve of All Hallows' Day. As shown in the so-called "comic strips" and "television specials" of that era, children with unusually large heads would worship the "Great Pumpkin". In sympathy with this cult, a tradition of leaving pumpkins on one's doorstep was established; the gourds would be left on stoops for weeks afterward, to be consumed, bit by bit, by squirrels and raccoons. There can be little doubt these creatures were considered to be disciples of the Great Pumpkin himself.

But I'm glad I read it.

On Inequality

[Amazon Link]

I read Harry G. Frankfurt's delightfully-titled On Bullshit a number of years ago, so this title was self-recommending. As always, I'm extremely grateful to the University Near Here for allowing me to maintain my library privileges in retirement, and thanks to the Interlibrary Loan people who wangled a dead-trees copy up here from Rivier University down in Nashua.

It's a very slim volume, 89 pages of main text. And those pages are small, the margins are wide, and the type is normal-sized. But don't be fooled: Frankfurt is a Professor (Emeritus) of Philosophy at Princeton, and (as you would expect) his argument is carefully made and tightly argued. And, good news, it's easily accessible to anyone who (like me) can appreciate philosophical discussions at a "dilettante" level.

Frankfurt's main point: equality is not a fundamental moral good. Hence, inequality is not inherently objectionable. Arguments about inequality's dreadfulness are just about always actually about something else.

Specifically, economic inequality (whether based on wealth or income) isn't inherently bad. What's bad is that people don't have "enough" economic resources to live a decent and fulfilling life. That's demonstrably bad, Frankfurt argues, and is bad without reference to what resources other people might have.

There is a utilitarian argument against economic inequality based on the diminishing marginal utility of money: If you have merely $5, an extra $1 is a huge deal; if you have a million, that extra buck is near-negligible. Hence, utility is maximized when everyone has the same.

Frankfurt shows the holes in this argument deftly. Even assuming utilitarianism is valid (I don't think it is, by the way), the further assumptions about what money-utility looks like are false or unsupportable. (And, in any case, the specter of the Redistribution Police wandering the countryside with their Utility Meters, making sure everyone doesn't vary from equality… that's a little dystopian, right?)

Once Frankfurt disposes of economic inequality, he proceeds to take a buzzsaw to inequality by other measures: inequality of "rights", of "respect", of "consideration", of "concern", of …. In no case can "equality" be shown to be the fundamental issue. There's simply no reason to assign the same (say) "rights" to two totally different people with differing life histories, values, desires, etc. Only when we are considering generic "Person A" and "Person B" can we, kind of, argue that there's no reason to favor A over B, or vice versa. But that's working from ignorance; the actual primary moral value at work is impartiality, not "equality".

So, recommended.

Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom

[Amazon Link]

I can't quite remember how this got into my to-be-read list, probably this post by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. Thanks as always to the University Near Here Interlibrary Loan staff.

Jacob Levy is a PoliSci prof at McGill and posts at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (which I haven't read in the past, but will now start). Prof Levy admits up front that he's written here for his fellow scholars, so I have nobody to blame but myself.

Why do I say that? Here's why: my understanding of political philosophy is at the dilettante level. It has been there for decades, and I don't see the needle budging off that value anytime, sooner or later. Yet, I keep reading stuff, hoping that at least some of the material will stick. That sometimes gets me into trouble, as with reading Richard Epstein on matters legal. And it did here. I probably wouldn't pass a test on the material, Professor. But I swear, I looked at every page. Given that I may be displaying my ignorance in what follows…

The book discusses the role of "intermediate groups" in liberal polities: religious/ethnic/charitable organizations, universities, and the like. We tend to take "freedom of association" for granted among our rights, which includes, of course, the freedom to be a member, or not to be a member of such groups.

And the reverse is at least roughly true: those groups have a right to define themselves, which includes the right to restrict their membership to those they choose, and to remove members that fail to follow their rules.

And therein lies some conflict: such groups, even in the midst of liberal states, can have highly illiberal structures and policies. Could that be a problem? Levy plausibly argues so.

Also: the mere existence of such groups is in inherent tension with the state(s) in which they are embedded. The state likes to be in charge, and any outside powers and authorities represent a possible challenge to that.

Levy takes us on a historical tour of these conflicts, showing how the a range of political philosophers tackled this issue. It dates back to the rise of the modern state only a few centuries ago, when the statists of the day had to prevail over the existing political institutions in order to succeed. So there is (and has been) no arguing from fundamental principles possible here: everything's tied into actual historical events and how things played out in different countries, mostly in Europe.

Here's where I was especially weak. Levy namedrops names and movements, assuming you're as familiar with them as kids today are with the movements of Kanye, Taylor, and Beyonce. Jansenists? Let me check Wikipedia…

Does Levy have a solution? No, he does not. He convincingly argues that neither "pluralists" (roughly, advocates for strong, relatively unfettered intermediate groups), nor "rationalists" (advocating strong state control or prohibition of such groups) have correct arguments. Essentially: the struggle is unresolvable, involving incommensurable (but valid) human values, and the best course of action is to admit there are no "ideal" solutions that pop out of the dialectical mist.

Fine. I just recommend that my fellow amateurs might want to wait for Prof Levy's "… for Dummies" book.