URLs du Jour

2007-04-30

  • Dafydd notes:
    We live in the Age of Miracles: For the second time in history -- fire has melted steel.
    Rosie O'Donnell was unavailable for comment, as was Professor William Woodward. Mr. Hoy has some questions, though:
    Has anyone even tested for explosive residue? Were there any Halliburton employees in the area at the time? Where was Dick Cheney at 3:45 a.m. this morning?
    He's just kidding though. I think.

  • No doubt you're troubled by asterisked dirty words while casting about the internets—you know, the ones like "bulls**t", "bi**h", and "Hi***ry Cli***n". If you're a Firefox user, fret no more:
    I've created the "Uncensor the Internet" script for Greasemonkey (a Firefox plug-in that lets you add all sorts of useful functionality to your web browser, available here). If you're running Firefox with the Greasemonkey plug-in, just install this script, and see all the foul language that people are pretending they don't use.
    Seriously. Via Liberman at Language Log who has amusing deep thoughts on the matter.

  • I was struck by this bit from an USA Today interview with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, conducted before an audience at the University of Washington Business School:
    Bill Gates, before we shipped Office, sent the team some mail, "Hey, you know, I really love the user interface in the new Excel, but I didn't know you were going to add so many new features." And he listed a couple things he really liked. And they said, "Bill, those aren't new features." (Laughter.) Bill said, "No, I'm an Excel expert. Those are new features." And they said, "No, they've actually been there for three releases." (Laughter.) So, it had features that even an expert couldn't find, and yet they were very discoverable in the new user interface.
    (Laughter), indeed. In a Biz-school environment, surely there must have been (tears) as well?

  • Shameless self-promotion department: I got a "Thanks to" from James Taranto's Best of the Web Today today for pointing out the "URI Senate Doesn't Vote to Make Club Apologize" headline (discussed here) as a possible "Bottom Story of the Day".

Credentialism & Fraud

You may have already heard about this, but just in case, here's the lead paragraph from the story at Inside Higher Ed:

Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a national leader in the admissions reform movement, resigned after the university confirmed that she had claimed academic degrees she never earned, MIT announced Thursday.

In full disclosure mode, I'll admit that my initial feeling was one of schadenfreude: another academic administrator revealed as a phony, ha! Another prestigious institution of higher learning too-easily deceived by same, hee! Cheap laughs—I take 'em where I can get 'em.

But—wait a minute. As the article reveals, ex-Dean Jones had been in her lofty position since 1997. She'd been hired at MIT (on the strength of her bogus resume) back in 1979. She wrote a book. She's been showered with awards, served on boards; in the universe of college admissions professionals, she was a star. She championed overhauling the admissions process to decrease—this is ironic, isn't it?—students madly padding their applications with AP courses, extracurricular activities, and the like.

As George Leef points out at Phi Beta Cons that's a pretty powerful argument that, Dean Jones apparently didn't need the advanced degrees that she was falsely claiming in order to do the jobs she was hired for; MIT's requirements were absurdly overinflated.

A provocative book I read a few years back made the case for (among other things) outlawing credentialism; making it illegal to engage in employment discrimination on the basis of formal academic degree. If I were to rewrite John Lennon's "Imagine", that would be in my version: imagine no credentials, a world where people were employed based on actual capabilities, skills, and talents, not for the scraps of academic paper they'd accumulated over the years.

Unfortunately, one of the major pillars of our educational system is credentialism. If you take that out, the whole shebang crashes down. It would probably be replaced with something leaner and meaner, and better serve people actually trying to better themselves. But when you talk about special interests: the education industry is one of the most special, and they have no interest in making things that interesting. So credentialism is not about to go away soon, unfortunately.

I don't (however) want to paint ex-Dean Jones as a martyr to the anti-credentialism movement. Obviously, qualification zero for just about any job—even an academic one—is honesty. Even if MIT had no particular gripe about the results, the people she fraudulently competed with to grab her positions certainly do. Kip Esquire makes that point in his usual direct manner.


Last Modified 2012-10-19 2:00 PM EDT

URLs du Jour

2007-04-26

  • Jerry Taylor administers a well-deserved fisking to John McCain's recent speech on energy policy. It's long but thorough, and it's not pretty for anyone who might have hoped for some free-market positions to be taken by a self-described conservative candidate. Even more depressing is Jerry's punchline:
    Now, to be fair, this same intellectual horse-whipping could be administered to every single energy speech being given by every single candidate running for the presidency. So in that spirit, consider these comments as the standard-issue rebuttal to everything you.re about to hear on the campaign trail re our "addiction to oil."
    "Indeed."

  • Greg Mankiw, however, gives a half-cheer to Christopher Dodd's recent advocacy of a carbon tax. (Did you know that Senator Dodd is an actual candidate for President? Of the United States? Well, he is.) Professor Mankiw comes across as a very optimistic guy; not merely a glass-half-full type, but a happy-there's-anything-in-the-glass-at-all type. The rest of Senator Dodd's economic positions look pretty dreary, although he's not in Kucinichville.

  • An NYT article describes yesterday's oral arguments before the Supreme Court challenging the McCain-Feingold-inspired ban on some "electioneering communications" for a period before elections. It's worth reading for both content and slant. For an example of slant:
    The Supreme Court put defenders of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law on the defensive on Wednesday in a spirited argument that suggested the court could soon open a significant loophole in the measure.
    "Loopholes" are, by connotation, bad. Safe speculation: if it were the NYT whose First Amendment rights were endangered, the article would say something like "… the court could soon restore Constitutional protections eroded by the measure."

    But also worth reading on the same topic is Dahlia Lithwick in Slate, who's more obviously slanted, but more lively. Scalia "bellows"; Kennedy "intones"; and, most stunningly of all, New Hampshire's own David Souter "explodes" and then "sneers". Sigh—he seemed like such a nice guy when he lived up here. It appears being on the Supreme Court for awhile can turn you into a short-fused jerk.

    But Kip Esquire frames the real issue:

    It is preposterous — un-American — to suggest that the Bill of Rights applies in November but not December. With each new campaign finance case the Court humiliates itself even further.
    Exactly.

  • In an apparent candidate for "Bottom Story of the Day", the headline reads:
    URI Senate doesn't vote to make club apologize
    … but it's actually a bit of good news; the University of Rhode Island Student Senate has backed down from its previous threat to strip recognition from the URI College Republicans for its satirical offer of a $100 scholarship, with eligibility to only white, heterosexual American males.

    It's sad, of course, that we have one fewer higher-ed target to ridicule here at Pun Salad. But we are optimistic that, as in the past, there will always be more to come along. FIRE has, as you'd expect, more.

  • So, kinda heavy on the politics today, huh? If you're not tired yet, check the Manolo on John Edwards' hair. The Bobby Sherman connection is made, explaining (for me) why all those 40-something ladies find Edwards so fab and dreamy. (Via the Dynamist.)


Last Modified 2007-04-28 8:14 AM EDT

WKRP in Cincinnati: The Not Actually Complete First Season

[Amazon Link]

Yesterday brought the release of a long-awaited DVD set of the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati. The show was an unusual combination of sharp writing and cast chemistry that just doesn't happen very often. The episode where Bert Parks played Herb Tarlek's dad may be the best thirty minutes of sitcom ever; it's definitely in my top five.

So I hopped over to Amazon, cursor poised over the "Two-Day 1-Click®" button, but then read the customer reviews.

Aieee! They are incensed over there. (Click the box to check for yourself.)

Sin one: much of the original music used in the series would have cost additional money to reproduce on a DVD set. The solution: use cheaper songs instead. Wince! No "Hot Blooded"? No "Great Pretender"? (And Jennifer's doorbell no longer plays "Fly Me to the Moon.") A mishmash of cuts and redubs attempts to restore coherency in some episodes.

Sin two—the killer for me: at least a couple episodes are syndicated versions, with scenes completely cut from the original so that TV stations could pack in a couple extra minutes of commercials. This is [please imagine a couple dozen filthy words here] idiotic and unacceptable.

Hence, I backed away from the mouse button. I don't think I'll even bother to put this in my online Blockbuster queue. (More details on the DVD surgery here.)

So: yay for Amazon, for making honest customer reviews available even when (as in this case) it will almost certainly hurt sales. And brickbats and boos for 20th Century Fox, who shouldn't even have thought about pushing this product out the door.

I mean, I can't believe, as God is my witness, how they thought this turkey would fly.


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:50 PM EDT

Yale Gets Its Sane On

In followup to a previous article: The Yale Daily News reports that Yale's ban on realistic-looking stage weapons in theatrical productions has been rescinded.

The article quotes Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg, originator of the ban (speaking before the reversal was announced):

"I think people should start thinking about other people rather than trying to feel sorry for themselves and thinking that the administration is trying to thwart their creativity," Trachtenberg said. "They're not using their own intelligence. … We have to think of the people who might be affected by seeing real-life weapons."
Dean Betty really is a gift that keeps on giving, at least to those of us who appreciate arrogant cluelessness. Had she not Done Something, out of motives of the purest kind? How dare she be questioned? Don't they see she cares ("a whole awful lot")? Those people can't be very smart, can they? At least they're not "using their own intelligence."

Via the Volokh Consipiracy, where both Eugene and Ilya have comments. Betsy Newmark also weighs in with insights on Yale's recent struggles with free expression and common sense.

Self-Refuting Quote of the Day

I'm not going to get into a name-calling match with the administration's chief attack dog.
Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), referring to Vice President Dick Cheney.

Smokin' Aces

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

I probably shouldn't have liked this movie as much as I did; it got a critical drubbing. The plot is complex, involving a large number of bizarre characters; it's hard to keep straight exactly who's on which side and what their goals are. Doesn't matter much, though, since the main purpose of all that is to get nearly all those characters inflicting deadly violence upon one another.

The movie does have a unique premise: a Vegas magician, "Aces" Israel, who once had aspirations to becoming an organized crime boss, is now thinking about turning into an FBI informant. Unfortunately—he didn't think this through much—this causes most of the illegal and semi-legal folk in Nevada to want him (or pieces thereof) dead or alive.

Ryan Reynolds is a nice surprise, playing an FBI agent, away from his usual light-comedy character.


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:54 PM EDT

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

[Amazon Link] [2.0
stars] [IMDb Link]

I like Jack Black. Kyle Gass seems like an OK guy. But it's OK if they don't make any movies ever again. In this one, they play two people much stupider than they are in real life, I'm pretty sure. There are a lot of marijuana jokes, which (again, pretty sure) are only funny if you're watching while baked, and maybe not even then. Their music seems like mock Meat Loaf, which makes it a mockery of a mockery. (Ironically, or perhaps not, Meat Loaf has a small role in the movie.)

There are some funny bits here—it's probably impossible not to laugh at Jack Black if he really wants you to—but the movie is essentially forgettable. How forgettable, you ask? Well, I watched it Saturday night. Sunday morning, I looked at its IMDB trivia page, which said:

The car chase in the video-game Kyle plays at the beginning ends the same way as the actual car chase at the end of the movie.
… and I'm thinking: "Wait a minute. There was a car chase in that movie?"

Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:55 PM EDT

Then She Banned the Whiffenpoofs From Making Provocative Harmonies

You may have seen reference to the Do-Something Syndrome. You almost certainly have noticed it in action.

In the wake of tragedy or catastrophe, you feel compelled to Do Something.

This could be (a) because Something, indeed, needs to be Done. But a far more common reason is (b) because you want to be seen as Doing Something. Either in your own eyes, or in the eyes of others.

Because, if you're not seen as Doing Something, you might be seen as Doing Nothing. And that would be bad.

Your actions don't have to be efficacious; in fact, given the psychology involved, they almost certainly won't be. (Remember: the point is to be seen as Doing Something. Unless you're picky—and why should you be?—Something can be nearly Anything. Choose something easy.) So the way to bet is that a lot of ineffective, empty symbolism and sloganeering will be involved. Since you're on the side of virtue, the prospect of shrill moralizing is high; this will be an especially valuable tool to wield against any nay-saying skeptics to Doing Something, should there be any.

Because—we've been told—you're either part of the solution, or you're part of the problem. And you should lead, follow, or get out of the way. And, while you're thinking globally, you—must!—act locally. And

UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole, awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It's not.

Or, perhaps most appropriately, the words of Mel Brooks: "We've gotta protect our phoney-baloney jobs! Gentlemen, we must do something about this immediately!"

Speaking of phoney-baloney jobs: that brings us to Academia, where the Do-Something Syndrome is rife. They go together like swamps and malaria. Once you're in a position of power (albeit perhaps only in your low-stakes domain), there aren't a lot of constraints. Moralizing and empty symbolic acts aren't criticized; they're almost always tolerated, and often applauded. If you've got the Do-Something Fever, a modern university is not the place to go for a cure.

So (finally!) that brings us to a recent display of Do-Somethingness that's unabashedly pure in nature:

In the wake of Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech in which a student killed 32 people, Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg has limited the use of stage weapons in theatrical productions.

Students involved in this weekend's production of "Red Noses" said they first learned of the new rules on Thursday morning, the same day the show was slated to open. They were subsequently forced to alter many of the scenes by swapping more realistic-looking stage swords for wooden ones, a change that many students said was neither a necessary nor a useful response to the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

Perfect, no? The only upside is that if you're in the throes of Do-Something Syndrome, you almost certainly lack the foresight necessary to perceive how absolutely ridiculous you'll appear to the outside world. Then I'd have far less to blog about.

[Pardon if you've already seen the Dean Betty story, but if you'd like to read more: Volokh, Instapundit, Power Line, Hot Air. It's also touched on by Mark Steyn. ("But it's not just the danger of overly realistic plastic swords in college plays that we face today.") As it turns out, Dean Betty is near the end of her Deanship, and that's probably for the best.]


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:57 PM EDT

… Something Completely Different

I had some fun writing a binary coded decimal clock emulator in Perl. Certainly not everyone will find this of interest, but if any of those words made sense to you, you might.

URLs du Jour

2007-04-19

  • Ann Coulter advocates: Let's Make America a 'Sad-Free Zone'!. Well, she's kidding. My very own Congresswoman, Carol Shea-Porter, is apparently not:
    As a nation, we must use this awful moment to commit ourselves to building a society where every person is safe from the threat of harm. We must do everything in our power to make such horrendous violence not only unthinkable but next to impossible.
    Quoted by Drew Cline, who comments appropriately. The phrase "nonsensical emotional response" appears.

  • Jay Tea says you should read it. The Weekend Pundit says you should read it. Instapundit linked to it. I said you should read it. At this point it's practically inconceivable that you haven't, but just in case: Seeing the Unseen, Part 2 by Bill Whittle. Enough hectoring?

  • Andrew Ferguson has a pretty good article on Katie Couric remembering "somebody else's first library card."
    According to the spokesman, Katie "was horrified" to discover that the words that had come out of her mouth and had been published under her name were in fact the work of someone else.

    No, wait--that can't be right. When she spoke and published the words, Katie had to know they weren't her own. When the words came out of her mouth, she thought they were the work of someone she had hired to put them there.

    "Heh."

  • Down at the University of Rhode Island, the College Republicans advertised, satirically, a $100 scholarship, with eligibility to only white, heterosexual American males. Predictably, many at the school went bananas. This might have been yet another story about how a college administration failed to appreciate how the First Amendment applies to public universities; but, in an interesting twist, it's the URI Student Senate that's "derecognizing" the College Republicans, while the URI's President Carothers is actually showing some vertebra:
    However, in the end, we cannot grant any group with power the ability to ignore the fundamental rights of individuals or groups to free speech. Were I to attempt to prevent any student or group of students from speaking what they believe, then I too would be in violation of our most basic principles as a nation.
    The above quote taken from FIRE's Torch blog, which has more information and links.

  • For which query do you think you'd get more hits on the Google: flip-flop "Mitt Romney" or Doonesbury bullshit? Mark Liberman at Language Log has the answer and interesting commentary.

  • Finally, apropros of nothing: I missed attending "Mass Communication for the Masses: The Power of Weblogs", a panel up at Dartmouth this afternoon. I missed seeing Ann Althouse, Roger Simon, John Hinderaker, Joe Malchow and more. Darn it! (As a longtime fanboy, I would totally have brought along a Moses Wine book for Roger to sign.) And all because of my stupid day job. If you went, don't gloat.


Last Modified 2007-04-19 6:20 PM EDT

One Good Observation, One Good Idea

The good observation is from Orin Kerr:

… the problem with responding to news of tragedy with policy ideas right away is that we tend not to realize in such situations how often our "proposals" are really expressions of psychological need. It's human nature to respond to tragedy by fitting it into our preexisting worldviews; we instinctively restore order by construing the tragic event as a confirmation of our sense of the world rather than a threat to it.
So you won't see any of that here.

The good idea is from Misha at the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler:

Were it in my power, I'd immediately award Professor Librescu the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian decoration for valor that we have.
If you don't know who Professor Librescu was, and what he did, check out the link and see if you don't agree.

Downfall

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

This movie scored an impressive 91% on the Tomatometer, and is ranked #48 on IMDB's Top 250 List. So you'd think I'd like it a little better.

It's the story of the last few days of Hitler and Nazi Germany; it follows the stories of a small number of people, most in Hitler's inner circle. And if you've read even a smattering of the era's history, you probably know it's going to be a nightmarish tale of unremitting darkness, full of decadence, delusion, madness, murder, suicide, and gore. The only bright spot is in our knowing that it's the end to one long, evil, story.

The filmmakers obviously took pains to get things right; most of the actors bear uncanny physical resemblances to the actual people they're playing. And much of the dialog is based on memoirs (although, apparently, some of Hitler's lines were actually said in earlier times.) Filmviewers are getting pretty much the real deal here. (Although Wikipedia differs on the details of the deaths of the Goebbels family.)

But it's pretty much just that; if you're looking for inspiration or insight through all the nightmare, you'll be disappointed.

By coincidence, I happened upon this quote at Phi Beta Cons (in response to a more modern nightmare):

Evil is nothingness, evil is a mystery, evil is incomprehensible. One can note the word "diabolical" also: it means "tear apart." Evil fragments meaning and community. God and the good are "symbolic," in the sense that they bind communities together with meaning.
The movie's heavy on the diabolism, and symbolism is absent.

Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:51 PM EDT

The Prestige

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

2006 was a pretty good year for movies about Victorian-era magicians. I liked The Illusionist quite a bit, but The Prestige is even slightly better. The two main characters, Borden and Angier, are played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman. I was thinking like (probably) many: Batman vs. Wolverine! But it's a mark of the power of the movie and their acting ability that I dropped that thought about 15 seconds in. Michael Caine has a supporting role as Angier's ingenieur, in charge of illusion construction. Scarlett Johansson appears as a double-dealing assistant, doing her usual supurb job of looking fantastic. (I'm sure she's a fine actress, but somehow I just can't pay attention to her acting when she's onscreen.)

Also, playing a famous scientist, a rare movie appearance by … nah, I won't spoil it, it's kind of a nice surprise.

The plot is "twistier than a bag of slinkies", and the film jumps around in time and place quite a bit; you have to pay attention. But your attention is amply rewarded.

The movie also looks fantastic; it got Oscar-nominated for cinematography and art direction.

Other than that, try to go into the movie knowing as little as possible; I think you'll enjoy it more.


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:55 PM EDT

Hatin' on Maine

Pun Son is, for tax purposes, a New Hampshire resident. However, all his employment last year was in Maine, at his college, and across the river in South Berwick. And even if you are a nonresident of Maine, you must (still) pay Maine tax on all income from work performed in Maine.

Poor kid; the WSJ has recently pointed out that Maine has the second-highest combined state and local tax burden. (14.0%, only a bare 0.1% behind number-one Vermont.)

And poor me, since I do his taxes, and now have to deal with the Maine Department of Revenue Services. Turns out it's a major battle to even figure out which freakin' forms to file.

Here is the relevant instruction from the instruction booklet from their Form 1040ME booklet:

IF YOU ARE A NONRESIDENT, YOU MUST FILE FORM 1040ME WITH SCHEDULE NR OR NRH.
Yes: this is all uppercase, bold, with words both italicized and underlined. (It's also in brown type, which I haven't bothered to reproduce.) It's a stylistic mess, in other words, but clear enough: Get Schedule NR and fill it out. (Schedule NRH is for married people, which Pun Son is not.)

But right on the top of Schedule NR:

DO NOT FILE SCHEDULE NR IF: All your income is taxable by Maine …
Son of a … It gets more complicated after that, but not in any way that affects the situation: one form says that Schedule NR must be filed, but Schedule NR itself tells him not to file it. It's all quite clear, and utterly contradictory.

If this were not a PG-13 blog, I'd insert some real colorful language here.

If you notice a dropoff in posting volume here in the near future, it may be because I've been taken in for Maine State Income Tax Evasion. Or my head may have exploded, like one of the Star Trek computers presented with a logical contradiction by Captain Kirk.

Either way, next year Pun Son does his own taxes.


Last Modified 2007-04-15 2:05 PM EDT

URL du Jour

2007-04-14

Just one today, but it really is a must-read: Seeing the Unseen, Part 2 by Bill Whittle. It's longish but rewarding. Bill says the needed things about conspiracists, a topic touched on a time or two here, but not half as well.


Last Modified 2007-04-15 11:48 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2007-04-13

  • I enjoy looking at rhetorical trickery, little phrase-turns designed to guide readers or listeners to desired attitudes. Today, Patterico detects a couple pretty good ones in the LATimes. Here's trick one:
    … whenever one [politician] criticizes another, there are two ways to characterize what's happening. If you think the criticism may be valid, you will refer to the criticism passively, and discuss the "mounting criticism" of the [politician] being criticized. But if you don't like the criticism, then you will refer to the criticism as an "attack."
    The LA Times article is about Karl Rove. Before you click the link, try to guess whether Rove is "under attack", or if he's instead embroiled in a "growing controversy."

    Trick two concerns the "(some|many|critics) say" locution:

    The use of phraseologies like "many say" lends the opinions a certain weight, suggesting that they are held by a number of potentially unbiased folks out there. The opinions expressed by "some" or by "critics" tend to be reported uncritically and sympathetically. Meanwhile, when interviewees say things that support a conservative position, they tend to be labeled as representatives of a particular cause, politician, or branch of government, so their bias is always clear.
    So: try to guess what "some" say about Karl Rove.

  • Some say the LA Times would do well to peruse Wikipedia's article on avoiding weasel words, which is a hoot. But, in the Wikipedia spirit, they'll also want to check the (illustrated!) article urging them to embrace weasel words. Why?
    It may be claimed without evidence that some neuroscientists claim that every time you learn a new fact, you must necessarily forget some other fact in order to make room for the new fact to fit inside your head. (Admittedly, neuroscientists who subscribe to this theory invariably cannot recall why they believe it, and if you try to explain to them why the theory is flawed, they will run from the room while shrieking loudly, lest your teachings cause them to forget their happiest childhood memory.)
    So the LA Times is really doing its readers a service, saving their brains from being cluttered up by unnecessary facts.

  • OK, so your brain is free of clutter; now go check out 17 Things You Should Stop Doing in order to spend your time more productively. They're remarkably easy on web-surfing. (Via BBSpot.)


Last Modified 2007-04-13 5:45 PM EDT

A Tale of Two Twitties

What are the chances I have anything unusually insightful or interesting to say about Don Imus that the interested reader hasn't already seen elsewhere?

I think the interested reader already knows the answer to that question: somewhere between slim and none.

I have resolved, however, to hereinafter pronounce 'Imus' as if it rhymed with 'Camus'. That'll teach him.

Anyway: what l'affaire Imus—say it as if you were making fun of French people—brought to mind was this line from Draft Blogger Code of Conduct:

[We reserve the right to change these standards at any time with no notice.]
I.e., "standards" that are flexible enough to justify the retroactive condemnation (or not) of just about any borderline expression, should it be found convenient and propitious to do so (or not). Imus is (or, I guess, was) a shock jock, and driving the discussion up to and beyond the line of decency and good taste is part of the job description for those folks. As others have noted, boorish in-your-face offensiveness is rife in our culture. When one of the practitioners is taken down so suddenly and completely from his multi-million-dollar gig, it's hard for us spectators to do anything but wonder at the arbitrariness of it all.

So the arbitrariness is interesting, but so is the unpredictability. It would be a mistake to portray the destruction of Imus as the result of a well-oiled plan executed with movie-plot precision. The folks who kicked off this particular firestorm, Media Matters, are preening and gloating, waving the severed head of Imus to the screaming mob. But their full time job is demanding the takedown of any media personality displaying less than devout fealty to the lefty gospel. They name their targets beyond Imus: Gibson, Limbaugh, Smerconish, O'Reilly, Savage, Boortz, Beck.

If this were really a fiendishly clever lefty plot, those other guys would be long-gone as well. But sometimes these manufactured outragefests work, other times they just fizzle. Nobody knows why. (Or, as William Goldman famously remarked in a slightly different context: "Nobody knows anything.")

It's also irresistible to compare the (considerably less discussed) recent disparate treatment of Her Royal Perkiness, another multi-million-dollar CBS employee, Katie Couric. She recently began one of her "Notebook" episodes ("a daily essay by the anchor that appears in video and audio form on CBS News's Web site, among other places") with:

I still remember when I first got my library card.
… but it turned out that a considerable amount of her essay was lifted from a previous-month's article in the Wall Street Journal by Jeffrey Zaslow.

Plagiarism is a pretty hefty sin even at CBS, at least when you're unlucky enough to be caught. But—you may have noticed—Katie wasn't fired. One of her producers was fired: one of the people who actually write Katie's first-person "Notebook" was deemed the responsible party.

Now, Couric-criticism isn't absent. Virginia Postrel is suitably contemptuous about the business-as-usual phoniness. And Timothy Noah at Slate found it interesting enough to write about (in stopped-clock mode). But in comparison to the Imus Nor'easter, the Couric thing is a brief shower; she'll be on the job for the foreseeable future. (Nothing at all, of course, from Media Matters.)

It's tempting to ask: where's the outrage? How many times does Katie need to be revealed as a glib, empty-headed phony, employed by a joke news organization, before she's sent packing, and CBS "News" is forced to hire some actually competent, honest journalists? But … then I realized that I was being silly to expect that such a thing might ever happen.

Because we reserve the right to change our standards at any time with no notice.


Last Modified 2007-04-13 5:40 PM EDT

Still Irked@UNH.edu

The front page of UNH's primary campus webserver currently (as I type) rotates among six randomly selected displays, but the one I happened to see today is here:

[Step it up logo]

… with accompanying text:

Join others in raising awareness about global warming on April 14 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thompson Hall lawn. Music, speakers, food and bike ride are scheduled.
If you'd like to check this out yourself, go to the page and hit the "refresh" icon until you get it. It will probably remain available for the next few days. You'll also see a "Learn More" link that points to the Step It Up 2007 website.

It's not exactly a sober balanced look at climate science there; they proudly proclaim their "call to action":

"Step It Up Congress! Cut carbon 80% by 2050."
… and detail their supporting organizations, like MoveOn.org and The Nation magazine. The politics span the spectrum from left to hard-left, and the primary purpose is to push the alarmist agenda of draconian environmental regulations, mandates, and compulsion.

Which is bad enough, but by pushing this to the front page of our primary website, UNH is officially engaging in one-sided political advocacy on this contentious issue. I've remarked on this behavior before; but I didn't really expect anything to change, and it hasn't. There's probably nothing here to endanger the University's non-profit 501(c)(3) status, since there's no explicit endorsement of specific political candidates. I still think it stinks, though.

By the way, Accuweather is currently predicting "High: 45 °F RealFeel®: 33°F" for Durham, NH on Saturday. ("Some sun, then turning cloudy and chilly.") Fortunately, the participants in the global warming awareness exercise will have had a couple days to recover from the 1"-3" of snow predicted for Thursday on the Thompson Hall lawn.


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:58 PM EDT

URLs du Jour

2007-04-11

  • At American.com (whatta great name for a website), Jim Harper offers a short primer on what's wrong with the REAL ID Act and advocates replacement with flexible, creative, free-market innovation, currently stifled by government.
    There is an alternative to the REAL ID Act and the national ID on our near horizon. It's identification systems and credentials that are high in quality, easy to use, and privacy protective. This idea isn't just a feel-good. These systems will be huge enablers of secure but private commerce. Identification and credentialing is a multi-billion dollar market if governments can be made to relinquish control of it.
    The bill to opt New Hampshire out of REAL ID has been passed by the House and will be going before the Senate. The good folks at New Hampshire Liberty Alliance will be happy to point any NHites to your Senator, if you'd like to pester him or her either way on the issue.

  • Paul Hsieh of GeekPress rarely ventures into the political realm, preferring to provide pointers to All Things Geeky. But, in real life, he's a doctor in Denver, and he's concerned about efforts to "reform" the health care "system" in Colorado. And today, he posts an open letter to his fellow physicians.
    I completely oppose any form of socialized medicine, regardless of whether it is called "single payer", "mandatory universal coverage", or anything else, because I believe it would be bad for both patients and doctors. Years of experience in the US and other countries have shown that these programs will hurt patients and cause unnecessary patient deaths. As costs inevitably spiral upward, bureaucrats will ration medical services. Eventually, physicians will be forced to practice against their best medical judgment. This is a violation of the fundamental rights of both doctors and patients.
    ("Other than that, though, it's fine!") Paul provides well-reasoned arguments and a host of links to further information. Well worth checking out for those interested in the topic.

  • However, geekiness is never hard to find on the Web, even when Paul Hsieh takes a break. For mathematically-literate geeks only: Bob Palias argues that the traditional value of π was a poor choice; the quantity 2π is actually more fundamental, and makes classic equations more beautiful.

    He may be right, but there's a constituency who would vociferously object: the thousands of geeks who have memorized π to a large number of decimal places to impress … uh, themselves, mostly. (Via Poor&Stupid.)


Last Modified 2007-04-18 3:48 PM EDT

Blogger's Code of Conduct

Not that anyone asked me, but the Draft Blogger's Code of Conduct currently being discussed here and there seems vague and subjective. Worse, it's a "solution" that is attempting to deal with an unstated, and hence unclear, problem.

A lot of the Code applies to blog comments, which (you may have noticed) we don't have here. Back when I started, comments seemed to be more trouble than they were worth; if anything, my feelings against them have strengthened. I was a denizen of Usenet for many years, and blog-comments remind me of those good old days, where each new post starts off a thread potentially containing abuse, spam, off-topic drift, and (almost always) a very low signal-to-noise ratio. Been there, done that, moved on.

Apart from the comment-specific parts:

  • The proposed Code needlessly lumps together illegal behavior (copyright infringement, libel, threatening) with rude-but-legal behavior. There are legal remedies available for illegal behavior, and the courts will do a decent job of disambiguating and assigning liability. (Not perfect, sure, but better than a "Code of Conduct" is likely to.)

  • Among the criteria for "unacceptable" content is "ad-hominem". Please. Why not just deem all logical fallacies as "unacceptable"? Even if a Code could define "ad-hominem" unambigously, what's the point? Readers can judge such content on its (low) merit.

    And while ad-hominem may be weak at making a valid argument, it can be funny. Gosh, maybe the code should say it's OK if it's funny?

  • Another verboten area of content is "abuse". Again, please. I can't abuse self-important politicians? Get over yourself. Also, prepare for endless legalistic meta-discussions whether a set of words constitute "abuse" or not. Prepare for being abused during said discussions.

  • "[We reserve the right to change these standards at any time with no notice.]" Fine. But maybe—just maybe—in that case, you'll want to use some other word besides "standards"? I suggest "whims".

  • "We won't say anything online that we wouldn't say in person." Why not? It's normal and acceptable to have different rules for different audiences.

  • "We connect privately before we respond publicly." That might be a good idea sometimes. Maybe most times. In all possible cases? Doubtful.

But mainly, the Code falls into the same trap university speech codes did. Shorn of rhetoric and detail, it wants to say, simply: Be Nice. Adding more verbiage to this sentiment doesn't really make it any less vague and subjective. And, eventually, an unenforceable laughing stock.

But if they really want to go after despicable blogger conduct, I wish someone would ban "This posting will remain on top". Cripes, that grates my cheese.

URLs du Jour

2007-04-09

  • Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post pens "Lost in New Hampshire" which will amuse Granite Staters and serves as a timely warning to would-be visitors attempting to navigate our roads:

    New Hampshire was apparently created before the invention of the right angle.

    "Indeed." Joel's article was a nostalgic reminder of my Iowa-boy Cartesian confusion when I arrived in the state <mumble>about thirty-four years ago</mumble> trying to find the the University of New Hampshire. It's gotten slightly easier since then.

    I'm a little miffed that—given the route he described taking in the article—Joel was in the Pun Salad area and didn't stop by to say hello. If pressed, he'll probably come up with some lame excuse. For example, that he doesn't know me from Adam. Still, hmph!

  • At the Poor&Stupid blog, Don Luskin amusingly points out an NYT story about the recent release of monthly government data on employment. Worth noting is the paper's misleading choice of graphics in order to paint something in the data gloomily.

  • Radley Balko promises instant conversion to libertarianism for anyone reading this WaPo article describing United States Department of Agriculture subsidies provided to not-particularly-rural locales. Provincetown MA, for example:

    In a few weeks, artists, lawyers and bankers will begin arriving here for the busy summer season on high-speed ferries that take 90 minutes to make the trip from Boston. They will land at a recently refurbished municipal dock that was built with the help of a $1.95 million low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    If you're already a libertarian sort, the article will simply make steam come out of your ears.

  • So after the steam came out of my ears, this made my head explode:

    John Nichols of the Nation thinks Democratic candidates ought to be able to endorse a package of constitutional reforms being supported by the chairman of the American Conservative Union. The American Freedom Agenda, endorsed by several prominent conservatives, envisions such reforms as …

    "… dogs and cats, living together …" I don't have any special love for the "Freedom Agenda", but I kind of like the strange-bedfellow dissonance above.

  • Two words: Peeps Dioramas.


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:59 PM EDT

Half Nelson

[Amazon Link] [1.0
stars] [IMDb Link]

This movie got an outstanding 91% on the Tomatometer, and Ryan Gosling got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance. Not my cup of tea, however.

Gosling plays Danny Dunne, unfortunately bearing no relation whatsoever to the science fiction whiz kid I remember fondly from my youth. Instead, Danny is a substance-abusing high-school history teacher in Brooklyn, coaching girl's basketball on the side. You might expect that even a doped-up a history teacher might be requireed to teach, you know, history, but Danny gets away with blathering to his class about Marxist dialectics. He's also a lousy coach.

This does not stop his long, slow, slide to the bottom, however. Along the way, he develops an unusual relationship with Drey, one of his female students with her own family problems.

So it's all very grim and gritty. Apparently this impressed a lot of people, but I can't understand why.


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:54 PM EDT

How the Other Half Thinks

A weakness of mine is reading the "Letters to the Editor" section in our local newspaper, Foster's Daily Democrat.

(I assume, by the way, that a large slice of traffic to their website, www.fosters.com, is from people looking for the Aussie beer company. I wonder how much the newspaper guys could make by selling the domain name to the beer guys? Hmm…)

Anyway: a few days back, I was struck by the following letter (reproduced in its entirety):

Health care: who should decide?

To the editor:

Think about this. Who do you want making decisions about your health care? A CEO of an insurance company who makes $800,000 a year and who, if you receive less in health care, makes more money? Or a government bureaucrat who makes $90,000 a year and who, if you receive more or less in health care, makes the same money.

Think about it.

You get to decide: insurance companies make your health-care decisions or your government — which, by the way, you vote for and put in office.

Mayme Trumble
Madbury

Ms. Trumble demands (twice!) that we "think about" this. So I did.

The first thing I thought was how utterly pathetic "you" are, as the consumer of health care in Ms. Trumble's vision. You are, in essence, a supplicant. Your only "choice" is in the (theoretical) selection of the detached, disinterested, individual who will thereafter literally make any life-or-death choices concerning you, you poor bastard.

The proper (and, I'd like to think, normal) response to this dilemma is, at least, a mild outrage. You (almost certainly, if you're reading this) don't need to beg for other of your life's necessities. Critical decisions on obtaining your food, clothing, employment, investments, and housing are generally not made for you by either insurance companies or government bureaucrats. You make them. How did you get stuck in such a dangerously different position for your health care? And how the hell do you get unstuck?

But Ms. Trumble doesn't want us to think such troubling thoughts; as far as she's concerned, the notion that you should want to become less dependent on others for your health care decisions is off her mental table. Just shut up and make the choice: insurance company exec or government bureaucrat? C'mon, what's your answer? She's waiting!

Let's take Ms. Trumble's choice seriously. She seems to think it's a no-brainer: obviously the government bureaucrat will be "on your side" and, ironically, she attempts to trot out an economic argument that demonstrates that.

We could quibble, by the way, with Ms. Trumble's theoretical implication that the $800K insurance company guy and the $90K bureaucrat guy would be involved in the same level of decision-making in regard to "your" health care. That seems ludicrous on its face, but she no doubt posed the issue that way to pump up the Demagogic Quotient (DQ) of her letter to the minimum standard guidelines; that's really the least of the problems with Ms. Trumble's thought experiment.

Because it's rare that any "decisions" involving your own personal health care would be made by either the bureaucrat or the CEO. In either case, you'll be "covered" by your "health plan" for any particular service, or you won't be. In the vast majority of cases, things are on routine autopilot, clearly delineated in the fine print of whatever policies or regulations apply.

[Of course, there are relatively rare exceptions at the margins, typically for exceptional and experimental treatments. Rarely, "arbitrary" decisions are made—everyone's probably seen anecdotes—but I've seen no evidence that government-bureaucrat decisions tend to cut more humanely than private ones. I would bet they probably don't, independent of the salary of the decision-maker.]

So Ms. Trumble's argument on "decisions" is not about fictional people making arbitrary health-care decisions about individuals; it's really about whether broad-scale power on health-care industry coverage and pricing should rest with government or the private sphere.

Put that way, I think the call really is a no-brainer. While our current health-care "system" is far from a free-marketer's dream, it still retains some flimsy connections to economic reality in terms of profit, prices, incentives, and costs. Ms. Trumble—despite relying on an economic-sounding incentive argument—is really advocating moving to a socialist model, where incentives and planning are moved under the coercive power of the state.

To quote one of my favorite political philosophers: "That trick never works." Or as one wag put it: socialized medicine combines the efficiency of the Post Office with the flexibility of the IRS and the warmth of the DMV. Good luck with that.

Now, lest you dismiss Ms. Trumble as just another random New Hampshire lefty crackpot: I was going to simply quote the body of the letter, omitting the name, but asking the Google for "Mayme Trumble" reveals she is actively and deeply involved in Democratic Party politics. She is, for example, the local Democratic chair in the town of Madbury (NH), and a member of the Strafford County (NH) Democratic Executive Committee. In short, it's likely Ms. Trumble's letter is representative of the quality of "thinking" that's driving the Democrat end of the health care debate. God help us. Are there any grownups over there at all?


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:54 PM EDT

The System of the World

[Amazon Link]

This is the concluding volume to Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle", which has occupied my reading time for longer than I'd like to admit. (In my defense, I took a couple of breaks to read lighter fare.)

The final volume follows (mainly) the adventures of Daniel Waterhouse as he finally arrives in 1714 England after a perilous voyage from Massachusetts. He's made this journey at the behest of Princess Caroline, who wants the dispute between Newton and Leibniz settled in order to put the beginnings of modernity on a firmer philosophical foundation.

That didn't work out, as is obvious when viewed from our vantage. But the fun is in the journey. In addition to Daniel, fictional friends from the previous books appear, most notably Eliza and Jack Shaftoe. Will they ever get back together? They rub shoulders with actual historical figures: Newton and Leibniz, of course, but we also get Peter the Great, Handel, Louis XIV, Christopher Wren, and many others.

It's obvious that Stephenson had access to a time machine, which he used to tour early-eighteenth-century London; it's described in vivid and meticulous detail.

Reading the whole thing works out to be about 2600 pages of unlarge type and unwide margins, so it's not a task to be undertaken lightly. But 'twas well worth it to see the Phant'sy well-concluded. For me, Stephenson is an automatic buy-in-hardback to the end of his life, or mine.


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:52 PM EDT

Apologies …

… to anyone inconvenienced by our recent downtime. I won't bore you with excuses, but the Pun Salad server is not in a best-practices server room environment.

Anyway: still alive after removing six inches of slushy global warming from the Pun Salad Manor driveway yesterday.

Don't have much to blog about right now, but as long as I'm here: you might find the twice-weekly Wondermark cartoon to be amusing. Today's entry is especially so for those of a certain political bent.


Last Modified 2007-04-06 4:33 PM EDT

Arrogance, Thy Name is Brad

Back in September 2006, imagery of the New Orleans area in Google Maps and Google Earth was replaced with higher resolution aerial photographs. If you're a Googler, you probably have at least a vague idea that they do this sort of thing from time to time.

However, in the New Orleans case, the higher-resolution imagery was actually taken before August 2005. In other words, the imagery was pre-Hurricane Katrina; it replaced post-Katrina imagery.

If you're a normal person, you'll probably say: so?

But you might be a certain other type of person. You might be deeply partisan. Or you might be suspicious, bordering on paranoid. Or you might be much more interested in symbolism than substance. Or you might be prone to making serious charges without evidence. Or you might be more than a tad arrogant, maybe without the smarts to back it up. Or maybe you're a publicity hound. Or maybe you get a little thrill from ordering people around. Or you might have been granted, not so much by merit, but by the workings of coincidence and seniority in your current job, a position of somewhat enlarged power.

Or you might have some combination of all those traits, in which case you would be Congressman Ralph Bradley "Brad" Miller (D-NC), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, of the House Committee on Science and Technology. And that would lead you inexorably to write this letter (PDF) to Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google.

In the letter, Congressman Brad summarizes the 3/29 AP news report. (Itself a superficial effort from a wannabe muckraker giving short shrift to a Google spokesperson's innocent explanation.) Brad then "requests" (by which he really means: demands) a "full briefing" on Google's detailed process on maintaining its imagery for the area, and that Google cough up records of any "requests" received from Karl Rove any federal government agency relevant to the imagery.

Then the condescending arrogance is dialed up to 11:

Digital technology has any number of benefits, as Google's healthy balance sheet demonstrates. However, experience has also shown that such technologies pose a particular threat to photography as a representation of reality. While we can understand that Google would prefer the most recent imagery of the New Orleans region for its Web site, to use older, pre-Katrina imagery when more recent images are available without some explanation as to why appears to be fundamentally dishonest. The entire country knows that New Orleans is a great American city struggling to recover from an unprecedented disaster. Google's use of old imagery appears to be doing the victims of Hurricane Katrina a great injustice by airbrushing history.

Google's not just dishonest. They're fundamentally dishonest.

Now, if I ran the Google, my reply to Congressman Brad would somehow manage to work in this quote:

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
    —Mark Twain

But that's just one of the many reasons I'm not running the Google; a public company needs to be a little more diplomatic in dealing with a powerful fathead. So instead, their public response here is well worth reading. Some relevant points:

  • Volunteers at Google worked quickly with NOAA and NASA to publish post-Katrina imagery within days of the storm.

  • They established a dedicated site for Katrina imagery.

  • In addition, Google Maps and Google Earth were upgraded to post-Katrina imagery on April 1, on an expedited schedule.

But really, just ask yourself: is Google likely to be part of some nefarious scheme to "airbrush" history by offering obviously pre-Katrina imagery? How would that deception work exactly, and what would be its purpose? What's in it for them? Who would be fooled? Just what is Congressman Brad on about?

To ask these questions is to answer them. (Specifically: no, I have no idea, don't know, nothing, nobody, see the Twain quote.)

In the meantime, I recalled this article from 2005: "Google's givers go Democratic": a description of how 98% of Google employees' political contributions went to Democrats.

You know that old saying: "A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged." I wonder what happens to a political donor whose company gets mugged by a Democratic congressman?


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:53 PM EDT

URLs du Jour

2007-04-02

  • Are you ugly? Stupid? A jerk? Well, frankly, I'm a little surprised, because just about all our other readers are good-looking, smart, and pleasant. Anyway, you may be interested in checking out a Lore Sjöberg article titled "Ugly? Stupid? A Jerk? Relax, Your Worries Are Over." Hint: it involves the magic of offsets!

  • Rosie O'Donnell's 9/11 conspiracist lunacy continues to grate. If you're interested in a standard refutation, Popular Mechanics has the goods. Slightly more interesting (to me, anyway) is thinking about the mentalities involved. What do Rosie's thoughts look like? I mean, the Red Queen thought it was an accomplishment to believe six impossible things before breakfast; Rosie easily beats that.

    I could go on. But Bill Gnade has posted a debunking which is close enough in substance, and much better in execution, than anything I would do myself.

  • Apparently the NYT did a stupid review of Brian Doherty's history of libertarianism, Radicals for Capitalism, where one of the shots was:
    The book fails to ask why people who claim to love freedom have so often had a soft spot for those who would deny it to others.
    David Boaz has a good review of the review, but I simply want to point out that there should be some sort of cosmic law that would make it physically impossible for the former employer of Walter Duranty and Herbert Matthews to print such a sentence. Have they no shame?

The Departed

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

This movie is based on a Hong Kong cop movie, Infernal Affairs that I blogged about back in November 2005.

It gets the full Hollywood Important Movie treatment here, directed by Martin Scorsese, with huge stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen, and Alec Baldwin, all pretty much dripping testosterone. And, oh yeah, it also won a pile of awards, including Oscar for Best Picture.

I suppose it might be possible for these guys to make a bad movie, but this isn't it.

A surprising amount of stuff is carried over directly from Infernal Affairs, so if you're in the mood to do a compare-and-contrast, it's kind of fun. Boston gangsters, cops, and the psychologically corrosive nature of undercover work have a great deal of similarity with their Hong Kong counterparts.


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:52 PM EDT

Babel

[Amazon Link] [2.0
stars] [IMDb Link]

Let's put the most self-deprecating spin possible on this: I have a undoubtably juvenile preference for movies with likeable characters prevailing under difficult circumnstances. I'm probably less patient than I should be in watching lengthy scenes that don't fill a clear purpose, plot advancement, character development, or just show-off cinematography. And, while I don't have major problems with following disjointed timelines and tenuous relationships between far-flung settings and characters, I'd prefer that the movie have some discernable reason for doing that sort of thing.

So, mea culpa, I didn't like Babel all that much. It's Oscar-nominated. The current top user comment on IMDB deems it "Thoughtful, edgy, engaging and ambiguous." So I'm a Philistine: I own Shrek on DVD, and I spent just about every one of the 142 minutes watching Babel wishing I were watching Shrek instead.


Last Modified 2012-10-19 1:53 PM EDT