URLs du Jour — 2009-01-30

  • The coveted Pun Salad Read The Whole Thing for today goes to David Harsanyi for his Denver Post column on the stimulus bill:
    Imagine that. The most expensive social experiment in American history -- one that will cost taxpayers more than both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined -- was allotted less than a single day of debate in Congress.
    Remember, we elected Obama in part because his cool temperment was much more suited to the job than that of fly-off-the-handle McCain. Not much evidence of that here in the panicked rush to enact a WholeBunchaSpending NowNowNow!

  • Lots of buzzing about New Hampshire's current lone GOP member of Congress, Senator Judd Gregg, being eyed for Obama's Commerce Secretary. See, for example, Jules Crittenden.

    I cannot, for the life of me, understand why Judd Gregg would see this as a good idea, either for the GOP (since his replacement would be named by Governor Lynch, a Democrat) or himself (since Commerce is a perennial dumping ground for hacks with no future).

    (A list of previous Secretaries of Commerce is here. The last famous one, imho, was Elliot Richardson, who occupied the position for just under one year, 33 years ago.)

  • In case you were worrying that corporate welfare for the politically well-connected was over in the Obama age, well fret not:
    National Journal reported this week that the Senate's economic stimulus bill includes a provision that would make Hollywood studios eligible for a special 50% write-off of equipment purchases. According to the report, "the provision is backed by firms like the Walt Disney Co., and the industry trade group the Motion Picture Association of America."
    No foolin'. General tax relief is off the table; why do that, when you can "target" relief to your contributors?


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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-29

  • I know Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is considered a classic, but critics have generally conceded that it needed more zombies. Now that flaw has been corrected: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is available for order.
    Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton--and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers--and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead.

  • In other zombie news:
    An Austin [Texas] road sign meant to warn motorists about road conditions instead read: "The end is near! Caution! Zombies ahead!"

    Vandals broke off a lock on the sign in central Austin early Monday and then hacked into the computer to change the words, said Sara Hartley, a city spokeswoman.

    Not the most elegant hack; apparently road crews traditionally leave the default password unchanged on these signs.

    However, the "vandals" also knew how to change the default password, which they did. And so the sign remained zombified until officials figured out how to bypass the new password.

  • And in still more zombie news:
    Michael Jackson will help develop his ground-breaking "Thriller" video into a musical theater production, producers said on Monday.
    No doubt this will help out the skyrocketing unemployment rate in the Zombie-American community. But wait:
    Michael Jackson has no business taking Thriller to Broadway at this time as far as John Landis is concerned.

    The man who directed the seminal 14-minute music video for Jackson's classic song in 1982--and also happens to be suing Jackson for back royalties--has filed additional court documents to prevent the embattled King of Pop from negotiating a deal to adapt Thriller for the stage. (View the complaint.)

    If I were Landis, I'd stay out of Austin, Texas. Just to be safe.


Last Modified 2009-01-30 7:51 AM EST
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Varieties of Barackrobatics II: The Unreality-Based Assertion

Max Boot analyzes President Obama's assertion in yesterday's interview given on an Arabic news channel:

America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that. And that I think is going to be an important task.
Boot recalls the actual state of affairs 20 and 30 years ago, and deems this, convincingly, to be ahistorical nonsense.

It's doubtful you can build a workable foreign policy based on misty-eyed claptrap. In his Inaugural Address, Obama promised to "restore science to its rightful place", but it would be nice if he showed some respect for history as well.


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Southern Illinois U: Not Getting the Whole "Plagiarism" Thing

We blogged yesterday about the dreadfulness of Southern Illinois University, whose faculty and administration have exhibited a pattern of slovenliness, hackery, and disregard for both academic and American values. One major offense was the persistent plagiarism in the writings of high officials.

Now, in the you-can't-make-this-shit-up department, the Chronicle of Higher Education (quoted at the University Diarist) reports:

In 2007, after several high-profile plagiarism scandals, Southern Illinois University released a 17-page report on how to deal with the issue. The report includes a lengthy definition of plagiarism, explaining exactly what does and does not merit the dreaded "p" word.

One problem: That definition appears to have been plagiarized.

Is that irony? I can never tell.

The Diarist comments that SIU and Governor Blagojevich are peas in an Illinois pod: both "deep-rooted, unalterable national embarrassments."


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URLs du Updike

  • Numerous bloggers are pointing out John Updike's marvelous 1960 essay on Ted Williams, Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu".
    Fenway Park, in Boston, is a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg. It was built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1934, and offers, as do most Boston artifacts, a compromise between Man's Euclidean determinations and Nature's beguiling irregularities.
    A must for Red Sox fans. Or baseball fans. Or writing fans.

  • Also worth reading for historical interest is Updike's 1989 Commentary essay "On Not Being a Dove", where he recounts his political out-of-stepitude with other inhabitants of his literary milieu.

  • Joel Achenbach has a nice essay on Updike. My only quibble is with this:
    How good was he? Well, no one as prolific wrote better, and no one better was as prolific.
    Seems clever, actually redundant. I know this because he used the same locution in talking about George Will back in 2005, which I analyzed here.


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Southern Illinois: Worst University Ever?

I've been noticing a bunch of news relating to Southern Illinois University lately.

  • Its president is one Glenn Poshard, a Democrat ex-Congressman who was given his initial SIU trustee position by everyone's favorite governor, Rod Blagojevich. (Poshard had earlier lost his bid for Illinois governor to Blagojevich's Republican predecessor, the currently jailed George Ryan.) Poshard was soon enmeshed in a plagiarism controversy. This was kind of the norm at SIU; two former chancellors had been investigated for plagiarism before that.

    Poshard was "cleared" in an investigation that some billed as a whitewash. But SIU has taken action; they've emitted a shiny new draft plagiarism policy that allows swift action:

    It shall be a violation of this policy to allege, file or raise frivolous or malicious claims against members of the Office of the President or the Chancellors of the SIUC or SIUE campuses. If a violation of this section is committed, the University may initiate any and all appropriate action, including but not limited to disciplinary action against an employee or civil action against a member of the public.
    Frivolous and malicious claims are bad, of course. But do Presidents and Chancellors really need to have special protection against them? Or is the whole point to stifle investigations before they start? I know which way I'd bet.

  • In the meantime, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has been busy pointing out SIU's unconsitutional sexual harassment and free speech policies. They even got involved in an amusing war of words with SIU-Carbondale Chancellor Samuel Goldman, who blustered about FIRE's "baseless" claims, while—by sheer coincidence, no doubt—SIU was quietly taking down one of its more ludicrous "free speech zone" policies.

  • And, to put some statist icing on the cake, Dr. William A. Babcock, claiming to be a "senior ethics professor" at SIU-Carbondale, penned an opinion column for the Christian Science Monitor advocating, well, involuntary servitude:
    Every young American citizen, once he or she graduated from high school, would have the responsibility to complete two years of public service. National need would define the nature of such service, but at any given time the variety of jobs likely would be in education, infrastructure repair and maintenance, construction, healthcare, the military, and the arts, for example. Participants, most age 18 to 20, would be provided with room and board and given minimum wage during this two-year period.
    Professor Babcock's arguments in favor of this are embarrassingly bad, primarily evidence-free assertions of vague benefits (For example, it would "spawn a new breed of citizens" who (among other things) would "Be more worldly [sic] wise" and "Better understand how various aspects of the nation work.")

    Nowhere, of course, is the petty little Thirteenth Amendment mentioned; it's not just SIU administrators who hold the Constitution in contempt.

    And you might expect a "senior ethics professor" to devote—Constitution aside—at least a few thoughts to the morality of demanding that individuals sacrifice their own plans and projects to the will of the state. Not Prof Babcock, though.

So, if we have any readers among faculty or administration at SIU, Pun Salad says: Keep up the good work! You're making the rest of us look good, if only in comparison.

And if we have any readers among current or prospective SIU students, Pun Salad says: Are you nuts? Run away!


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Rest In Peace, John Updike

John Updike has passed away. Philistine that I am, I am in near-total ignorance of his work, other than being able to recognize some titles. (Basically: anything with the word "Rabbit" in it.)

With one exception: in the physics circles I once frequented, his 1960 poem Cosmic Gall was famous. And thanks to the miracle of the interwebs, here 'tis. Enjoy:

Neutrinos, they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids through a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.
They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
And scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
And painless guillotines, they fall
Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed-you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.
Note his careful avoidance of "ass", even though it would have been easy to fit in there.

[Also: since 1960, it's been discovered that neutrinos probably do have a teeny-tiny mass. But everything else is pretty much on-target.]


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The Foot Fist Way

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

My second movie in a row with principal characters who are flawed in any number of ways. Oddly enough, I enjoyed The Foot Fist Way quite a bit more than The Darjeeling Limited. Go figure.

The main character here is Fred Simmons, portrayed by Danny R. McBride. Fred is a Tae Kwon Do instructor, running a small dojo. He has little respect for anyone save B-movie star Chuck "The Truck" Wallace, who he idolizes. He is a foul-mouthed martinet to his students. He has (to put it mildly) an exaggerated self-confidence, and he's clueless in interactions with, well, normal people. Unfortunately, things begin to unravel when his slutty wife is indiscreet enough to make Fred aware of her sluttiness. ("I was so drunk - like, Myrtle Beach drunk," she pleads.) This topples several pillars holding up Fred's self-image, and the results are pretty funny.

This worked for me. Danny McBride somehow manages to make Fred appealing with all his flaws; I think you have to be a pretty good actor to thread that needle well.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:29 PM EDT
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Varieties of Barackrobatics I: The Outright Lie

Thought I should start classifying the ways in which our president's dazzling rhetoric is used to bamboozle. The example today is: The Outright Lie.

OK, maybe I should say probable outright lies. Here's an example from the Inaugural Address:

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end.
Whoa! "Programs will end." Just like that. Sounds like a nod toward sane fiscal responsibility. Impressive!

But all "programs" benefit someone ("at a decent wage"), don't they? I predict that programs ended by the Obama administration under this criterion will be zero.

At Cato, Daniel Griswold notes that if there ever was a program ripe for ending, it's …

President Obama has wrapped himself in the mantle of change, yet as a candidate he endorsed the 2008 farm bill. The existing U.S. policy of production subsidies and import tariffs, a policy that has remained essentially unchanged for 75 years, arguably "works" for a small number of relatively well-off sugar, dairy, corn, rice, and cotton farmers. But for the vast majority of Americans, the farm bill delivers higher and more volatile prices at the store, billions of dollars a year in additional government spending, higher cost for U.S. businesses, a degraded environment, and a harder slog out of poverty for millions of farmers in less developed countries. [You can go here to find Cato research on how farm programs have failed to work in our national interest.]

If Senator and candidate Obama could not see the need to end our failed farm policies, it is hard to imagine many if any other programs that will come to an end under his administration.

Indeed. Another bit of evidence comes from Donald Lambro, writing about the "stimulus" funds. The article is full of outrageousness, but for our purposes, here's a key point:

Another $54 billion will go to 19 programs that the Office of Management and Budget has rated as "ineffective" or "results not demonstrated."
The outlook isn't good for fiscal sanity anytime soon despite Inaugural Barackrobatics. If I'm wrong, I'll apologize.

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No More Mr. Nice Guy

Sean Casey is retiring from baseball, going to work for the MLB Network (whatever that is). Key quote from writer Hal McCoy:

There's no debate, and there never will be a debate. Sean Casey is the nicest guy in professional baseball. Ever.

And the Red Sox—sigh—now have another hole to fill.

Let me rerun a YouTube from late last season, where Casey asks Ortiz about his favorite flicks:

If you don't have your Big Papi decoder ring handy, and you're wondering why you've never heard of his number two pick, Anna Likes This, click here.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:28 PM EDT
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The Darjeeling Limited

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

Other people like Wes Anderson movies about rich dysfunctional families better than I do, I guess. I didn't much care for The Royal Tenenbaums either. (But, to be fair, Anderson's American Express commercial from a while back is one of the funniest ever, so he probably deserves slack.)

The story here follows three estranged brothers (played by Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman). Messed up by the year-ago death of their father, they are on a "spiritual journey" by train to seek out their mom, who is working as a Christian missionary in India.

Primary problem: why should I care? These people invite unflattering adjectives: vain, boorish, immature, … I'm not one for the whole class-warfare thing, but rich people with these sort of problems don't grab my interest or sympathy.

Oh yeah, they literally are carrying their late father's suitcases. They need to get rid of their baggage, get it? Sheesh.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:28 PM EDT
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Network News Can Be Amusing

I nearly never watch the national network news, but I left it on ABC this evening. And, even listening with one ear, I laughed at the following report on Governor Blagojevich's strategy for handling his upcoming impeachment trial. Because of the following actual sentence uttered by reporter Eric Horng:

Instead of Springfield, Blagojevich will be in New York Monday, appearing on shows like ABC's "Good Morning America" and "The View", leading some to question his mental state.
That's brutal. "You don't have to be crazy to appear on those shows, but…"

Last Modified 2009-01-26 6:02 AM EST
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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-22

  • One final (we hope) inauguration story: Dave Barry marched in the parade with the World Famous Lawn Rangers of Amazing Arcola (Illinois), and survived to report:
    There are 56 of us, jammed into a school bus with a seating capacity of 46 (there are many flatulence jokes). We join a line of other band buses in a Pentagon parking lot, creeping forward until we reach a security checkpoint, where we are screened by military personnel. One of the Rangers has the following exchange with a security screener:

    SCREENER: What's this?

    RANGER: It's a toilet plunger.

    SCREENER (after a pause): OK.

    Dave's article gave me more hope for the Obama Administation than anything else I've read over the past few days, so if you're like me, check it out. Video, if you can stand the pure awesomeness of it, is available at Dave's blog.

  • At the Weekly Standard, Mary Katherine Ham has a nice summary of Barackrobatics on the lobbyist issue: the campaign's promises of "no lobbyists need apply" have turned into "Lobbyist? No problem, as long as you promise to be good." And her quote from a news story covering the announcement made me laugh:
    The event announcing the new openness was closed to all reporters except the handful who are in the White House pool.
    Reminds me of "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

  • If you want to know how Obama rolls, however, the LA Times and the Christian Science Monitor will tell you as much as they can about "The Beast", the brand new Presidential limo. Consensus seems to be that it's ugly but effective at keeping the Prez safe from bombs, bullets, small missiles, and gas. Also, I would guess, shoes. But most of the juiciest details are secret, as you'd expect. (Via Bruce Schneier.)

  • And the Rochester (NH) Police Log reports:
    Sunday, Jan. 11

    4:17 p.m. -- After a bike theft at Allen School and an associated fight on Knight Street, an officer reports that "some of the juveniles took off behind the house wearing T-shirts." That should be an easy building to spot.


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Comments on Oscar Nominees

I haven't done this in the past, but here are the nominees, and here are my comments:

  • I haven't seen any of the Best Picture nominees. I only want to see two of them: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire. Morons.

  • No Gran Torino nominations at all. I haven't seen it, but everything I've heard makes its absence surprising. Jerks.

  • The Dark Knight was also relatively snubbed, getting only a Supporting Actor nomination for Heath Ledger and some nominations in minor categories. Weenies.

  • So good old Clint's not nominated for Best Actor, but Richard Jenkins is, and in a movie I actually saw, The Visitor. I guess I'll have to find someone else to replace him in my personal "most underrated actor" category, but otherwise, a bright spot in a sea of mud.

  • WALL·E is nominated for Best Animated Feature. It should have been nominated for Best Picture. And won. Nitwits.

  • Robert Downey, Jr. is nominated for Best Supporting actor in Tropic Thunder. I believe the message here is: "We can't nominate him for his performance in Iron Man, because we don't recognize those kind of movies in the major categories. But he deserves something, so here you go." Cretins.

All in all, the nominations are a good argument for not bothering to watch the Oscar show this year. Although I might reconsider if Hugh Jackman hosts the whole thing as Wolverine. And uses his adamantium claws on Sean Penn.

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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-21

  • OK, I laughed at this:
    Shares of In[t]uit … fell to their low on the day on strong volume after Treasury Secretary nominee Timothy Geithner reluctantly admitted during testimony before the Senate Finance Committee that he used the company's TurboTax software to prepare his returns.
    The share price since recovered, however, I think on the general realization that there's no way in Hell that Turbo Tax would have botched this.

    It is, however, a computer program, so the operative cliché is: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

  • Clayton Cramer thinks he's spotted Day-One Barackrobatics. After promising "I'm not going to try and take away your guns.", the new White House website supports bringing back the federal Assault Weapons Ban, which … would take away (some) people's guns.

    Doesn't count, unfortunately. Bringing back the Assault Weapons ban was also a campaign pledge. Are his stated positions contradictory? Yeah, pretty much. He is large, he contains multitudes.

    (Yes, this is an effort to restart the Pun Salad-invented word "Barackrobatics", referring to an Obama flipflop, backtrack, gyration, or climbdown on the issues. Unfortunately, judged by Google hits, our word is getting beaten like a rented mule by "Obamafuscation": 269,000 to 6. Clayton prefers "liar" over both of these neologisms.)

  • On the same theme, Greg Pollowitz of Planet Gore notes that November's campaign promise:
    • Enact a Windfall Profits Tax to Provide a $1,000 Emergency Energy Rebate to American Families.

      Obama and Biden will enact a windfall profits tax on excessive oil company profits to give American families an immediate $1,000 emergency energy rebate to help families pay rising bills. This relief would be a down payment on the Obama-Biden long-term plan to provide middle-class families with at least $1,000 per year in permanent tax relief.

    … did not survive the transition to whitehouse.gov. Oh well, stupid idea anyway. Hope you haven't already spent that $1000.

  • Lost starts back up tonight. At A List of Things Thrown Five Minutes Ago, Isaac Spaceman has a handy recap of what's happened up 'til now, in the form of an imaginary dialog with the rescued castaways.


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Ghost Town

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

Our hero here is the misanthropic Bertram Pincus D.D.S., played by Ricky Gervais. He picked dentistry as a profession so that he could avoid people talking to him by stuffing their mouths with cotton, appliances, and sharp objects. He's of that Certain Age where, traditionally, Investigatory Medical Procedures are performed. During such a procedure, unfortunately, he (technically) dies for seven minutes on the examination table; when he returns to life, he's gained the ability to see ghosts, and talk to them. This makes him a popular guy in the spirit world; in this imagining, ghosts have unfinished business among the living, and they view Pincus as a possible ally.

Once the initial shock wears off, Pincus learns that, if anything, he dislikes ghosts even more than the living.

The most insistent ghost is Frank (Greg Kinnear), ex-husband of the lovely widow Gwen (Téa Leoni, whoohoo!); he wants Gwen's budding romance with lawyer Richard derailed. Pincus initially resists, but becomes smitten with Gwen.

I enjoyed the movie quite a bit. It seemed significantly more adult than the average Apatow comedy raunchfest, and the script was clever and earnest in the right places. It kind of reminded me of Groundhog Day: the protagonist needs a supernatural kick in the pants to put him on the road to redemption. Gervais, Kinnear, and Leoni are all pros at light comedy, and they're in top form here.

Kristen Wiig has a small but hilarious role as the colonoscopist, most amusing when she's trying to avoid telling Pincus the truth about the lawsuit-begging bungle during his procedure.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:27 PM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-20

  • I should point to something about the Inauguration. Hmmm… well, here's David Horowitz: "How Conservatives Should Celebrate the Inauguration". He's very uncynical, and if you're like me, you can use all the de-cynicizing you can stand.

    Only problem is, if you're like me (and Jonah Goldberg), you keep getting creeped out.

    [Update: Iowahawk has a transcript.]

  • The "Intellectual Affairs" blog at Inside Higher Ed reacts to rumors that the Washington Post may be shutting down "Book World", a Sunday book-review section. I got a chuckle out of this petulant foot-stomping:
    Members of the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) ought to contact [WaPo executive editor] Brauchli to let him know that this is not acceptable.
    Sure, just what a journalist needs: a bunch of university types telling him what's "acceptable" in his efforts to make his paper profitable.

    The author, Scott McLemee, identifies himself elsewhere as "a member of the National Book Critics Circle". So add a little naked self-interest to the mix.

  • Jacob Sullum's article from the current issue of Reason is online, detailing the law-enforcement crusade against pot-smoking paraphernalia. There's a local angle: the legal hassles of Dover NH's "Smoke Signals Pipe & Tobacco Shop" store (which I've never actually entered, but often drive by on my way home from work) are described.

  • From the Red Hat Errata site:
    The words dictionary contained two misspelled words: "architecure" and "flourescent". This updated package removes both mis-spellings. (Please note: the correct spellings of each word -- "architecture" and "fluorescent" -- were extant in the dictionary. This update simply removes the misspellings.)
    If your freshly-baked bread glows in the dark, it's flourescent.

  • As Jamie Zawinski points out: Soviet Nuclear Lighthouse Dead Zones would be a pretty good name for a rock band.


Last Modified 2009-01-20 7:00 PM EST
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Obedience

[Amazon Link]

I thought I was going to like this more: a critically-acclaimed mystery novel set at a fictional university. Unfortunately…

The new semester at Winchester U has started, and Professor Williams is teaching "Logic and Reasoning 204". But it's unusual, since the whole course revolves around the (allegedly fictional) abduction of 18-year-old "Polly"; Williams states that if the students don't "find" where Polly's being held during the six-week run of the course, she'll be murdered.

Prof Williams devotes his lectures to presenting facts and timelines about the case and discussions of suspects, motives, and opportunity. The book focuses on three students, Mary, Brian, and Dennis, as they work through the evidence and puzzles. But they've all got their own problems; for example, Dennis is Mary's ex-boyfriend, and he's getting hit on by Elizabeth, the young hot-to-trot wife of an old dean.

The course just keeps getting weirder and weirder, though, intruding on students' personal lives. Worse, it becomes obvious to them that there's some link between the case Williams is presenting and an unsolved abduction 20 years ago.

Without giving too much away: the whole plot is extremely implausible. Worse (remainder of paragraph contains information which may spoil the book, so I've put it in white; select to view if you dare and/or care): the plot's resolution depends on you not knowing that the human-subject research portrayed in the book is very, very, illegal and would never be allowed in an actual university.

But you might like it anyway. The author, Will Lavender, does a good job of evoking an increasing sense of paranoia, dread, and academic seaminess.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:36 PM EDT
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Ace in the Hole

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

Every so often we pick out a critically-acclaimed older movie. Written, produced, and directed by Billy Wilder, this movie counts: it's got high scores at both IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, and it was released by the hyper-snooty Criterion Collection folks. Unaccountably, it was a flop when released back in the early 50s.

Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck reporter whose poor judgment has gotten him fired (as he puts it) from newspapers with circulations totalling over 7 million. He and his broken down car wind up in Albequerque NM, and he lands a job with the local paper, hoping for a blockbuster story that will someday put him back on the road to big-city reporting.

A year later, it finally happens: a local store owner is trapped in a cave-in while trying to scrounge some Indian artifacts. Tatum takes charge, and (with the help of a corrupt local sheriff and the store-owner's floozy wife) turns the rescue into a media circus.

The most common word in this movie's reviews is "cynicism": it's very thick and unsubtle. (Very little in the movie is subtle.) America's hunger for "human interest" tragedy and spectacle is targeted; so is the mass media's complicity in feeding up the stories America demands.

Also unsubtle: the acting; do you remember Frank Gorshin's over-the-top impersonation of Kirk Douglas? It seems much more true to life after seeing his hyperventilating and scenery-chewing here. The dialog is sharp and noirish, but artificially so. (If these people are so damn clever, why are they all stuck in New Mexico?)

Also has a host of character actors of whom People of a Certain Age will say, "Hey, isn't that…" Yup, probably is. For example, a brief uncredited appearance by this guy.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:27 PM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-16

  • Viking Pundit runs down a few of the big-ticket items in the proposed $825 billion "stimulus" proposed in Congress. And does the math:

    For $825 billion, you can send every American a check for $2750 to pay down credit card debt, save, or spend on stuff.

    That's spread over 300 million souls, man, woman, and child.

    But the whole point is that our masters know how to spend that money better than we do ourselves. So the check thing is not gonna happen, sorry.

  • Freakonomicist Steven D. Levitt notes the rudeness of Chesley Sullenberger.

  • And, baby, it's cold outside. Here's how the whole Fahrenheit thing has been working out at the University Near Here's weather station so far in January:

    Jan Temps So Far

    You'll note the continuing flirtation with the 32-degree line. Wouldn't want anything to, you know, melt.

    Concord's low temperature this morning was 24 below; this beat 1984's old record for today by 5 degrees.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:26 PM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-15

  • Treasury Secretary nominee Geithner is a target of opportunity today. I especially liked McQ's disgust at the countless commentators and politicians who label Geithner's tax evasion as an "honest mistake":

    Really? How honest of a mistake is it when you knowingly ignore something your employer went out of its way to ensure you knew?

    So he's kind of a sleaze. But there's a silver lining: the possible impetus this might give to overall tax simplification. For, as the McQ-quoted Taranto says:

    America needs a tax code simple enough for the Treasury secretary to figure out.

    Corollary, as provided by the Indispensible Garaghty:

    Now, if Geithner really is the best-qualified and "about as conservative a nominee as you could hope for," and the consensus of the U.S. Senate and the incoming administration is that the above list of violations of tax law are truly "hiccups," I will have no objection other than to say we need to make this the new rule, not a special exception. No more can tax "hiccups" be a reason to keep anyone out of any position in government. The IRS must treat every citizen with the deference and easygoing manner they treated Geithner.

    Good luck with that.

  • Arnold Kling notes a pattern. Some examples:

    ActorThe PromiseThe Reality
    Financial
    Executives
    Brilliant Risk
    Management
    Catastrophic Losses
    Fannie, FreddieStable Mortgage
    Credit
    Fed the Boom, Stuck
    Taxpayers with the Bust

    I think he's got something there. More at the link.

  • Ricardo Montalban has passed away. He was very classy, and had a long, illustrious career, but since I'm a geek, I'll simply point out that he was the best Star Trek villain ever, in the best Star Trek movie ever: The Wrath of Khan. It's easy to ham up such an inherently over-the-top role; instead, Mr. Montalban took it seriously, and (at least for me) totally sold it. Free trivia from the IMDB:

    It has been widely debated that Ricardo Montalban's chest was actually a prosthetic piece that he wore during the film. In the director's commentary in the special edition DVD, Nicholas Meyer is quoted as saying that it was, in fact, Montalban's actual chest and that he was a very muscular man who worked out. During publicity for the movie, during an appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (1962), Montalban explained that he was able to achieve the look seen in the film by doing push-ups. "A lot of push-ups."

    See? He was the real deal. At the Corner, Mark Steyn has a good story, as Mark Steyn usually does.

  • Image manipulation fun to be had at Obamicon.ME. My effort:

    GEEK


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:26 PM EDT
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Local Paper Effectively Pro-Hamas Tool

I missed this sappy article in our local paper, Foster's Daily Democrat, on Sunday, covering a recent "peace" demonstration in Dover, New Hampshire. It is a dreadful example of uncritical reporting (and apparently zero editing) allowing one-sided unfiltered anti-Israel propaganda to pose as a news article:

DOVER -- Nur Shoop displayed what was one of the simplest, yet most forceful signs during a protest Saturday against the violence on the Gaza Strip as Israel and Hamas engage in an armed conflict.

Her sign, as she stood on the traffic island at Lower Square in the downtown area, simply read "Gaza." Around the word were children's handprints, all in red, symbolizing the innocent lives that Shoop said are most deeply affected by the violence.

There's more, much more, of the same at the link; I won't bother quoting here. Loaded heartstring-tugging language about "ending the violence" but somehow always putting the entire blame and burden on Israel.

Oh, and Foster's has no problem with providing free advertising for the cause as well:

A Palestine peace vigil sponsored by the UNH Peace and Justice League and the Durham Students for a Democratic Society also will take place in downtown Durham on Jan. 18 from noon to 2 p.m. For more information about that event, contact Alex Freid at durhamsdsgmail.com [sic] or 608-9859.
Over at Granite Grok, Doug is as disgusted by this as I am. He notes a counter-demonstration is in the works for Durham on Sunday, just to show that not everyone around here is a Hamas dupe; click over for more information.

Foster's has been getting slimmer and slimmer as it gets stupider and stupider. I won't cry when it's gone.


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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-14

  • We were just talking about The Prisoner a couple days back, and now comes word that Patrick McGoohan has gone to that great Village in the sky.

  • Mr. Peter Ferrara, writing in the American Spectator, notes the problems with what's been revealed about Obama's economic program so far: (a) it doesn't use tools that work (actual tax cuts, spending discipline, deregulation, control of the monetary supply); (b) instead, concentrates on braindead strategies that have never worked in the past (one-time giveaways, onerous regulation, subsidies, spending out the waz, e-z money).

    "Other than that, though, it's fine."

    Ferrara also notes the utter weirdness of this:

    Finally, on ABC's This Week, Obama started talking about over the course of his Presidency "some kind of a grand bargain" dealing with entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, "where everybody in the country is going to have to sacrifice something, accept change for the greater good." In response to George S. emphasizing that means "eventually sacrifice from everyone," Obama said, "Everybody is going to have to give. Everybody is going to have to have some skin in the game."
    Ahem: If "everyone" is sacrificing, exactly to whom does the "greater good" redound? If we have a truly negative-sum game, why start playing at all?

  • The 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, comparing "countries' commitment to free-market capitalism" is out. The US of A is in sixth place. It could be worse. In view of the above item: it probably will be worse.

  • Little Green Footballs has opened voting for the 2008 Idiotarian of the Year Award. So far, it's a runaway, but make your mouse heard.


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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-13

  • At Tech Central Station, Max Borders discusses the power of a particularly powerful metaphor to derange thought: that the economy is a "machine"—a complex one to be sure, but still a machine—that can be "fixed" if only the right geniuses with correct values are put in charge.
    But the whole idea of fixing, running, regulating, designing, or modeling an economy rests on the notion that, if the right smart guys are at the rheostats, the economy can be ordered by intelligent design. But the economy is no mechanism. There is no mission control. Government cannot swoop down like a deus ex machina to explain the inexplicable and fix the unfixable. Why? Because the knowledge required to grasp each of the billions of actions, transactions and interconnections would fry the neural circuitry of a thousand Ben Bernankes. This is what F. A. Hayek called the knowledge problem. Knowledge, Hayek reminded us, is not concentrated among a few central authorities but is dispersed around society. That's why bad unintended consequences follow government interventions like black swans.
    As Leonard Read pointed out long ago, the people who would impose their grand economic visions on us can't even make a pencil.

  • In related news: taxation is complicated enough so that the incoming Secretary of the Treasury can't avoid making a "common mistake" (which, um, only came to light once he was nominated). He's had to pay somewhere around $10K in interest on "mistakes". Fortunately, for him, "the IRS waived all penalties."

    Not surprisingly, ma belle Michelle is all over this.

  • I didn't like the movie Wanted. But Andrew Klavan really didn't like it:
    Film-wise, it's more or less okay, the first half an entertaining Matrix ripoff, the second half a lot of so-so CGI bang-bang. But idea-wise, it's pure fascism--although Angelina Jolie shows us her butt so maybe fascism's not as bad as we thought.
    I forgot to mention the butt thing. But doesn't she do that in every movie?


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Rotating GNOME Wallpaper in Fedora 10

We don't usually talk programming here on Pun Salad, but …

I wrote a small Perl script a number of years ago that would rotate the "wallpaper" background on my Linux boxes, changing it to the least-recently-used JPEG file in a directory collection I've maintained. I stuck the script in my crontab file to execute every hour, and—voila!—I was mildly entertained by the automatically-changing background of scenic vistas, cute animals, etc.

This stopped working when I upgraded to Fedora 10. And, eventually, I noticed: my background was stuck on the same picture throughout my login session.

Telling symptom: the script worked fine when I ran it from the command line, but it was not working out of crontab.

Explanation: In GNOME (Fedora's default desktop software), the actual background-changing work is performed by a program called gconftool-2; the latest version requires an environment variable (specifically, DBUS_SESSION_BUS_ADDRESS) to be set in order to affect the current session's configuration. This environment variable is automatically provided to programs run from the command line, but aren't normally available to programs run out of crontab.

So I had to add some lines to my script to dig out the value of this variable and make it avaiable to gconftool-2; fortunately, this article from the Srijith Unplugged blog showed a technique for making that happen in a Bash script that wasn't tough to translate to Perl.

More information and a pointer to my script is on my "Hacks" site here.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:25 PM EDT
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Business as Usual

Yesterday the Senate, in its first vote of the new session, invoked cloture on S. 22, a bill the Club for Growth describes as "pork-stuffed". Senator Coburn's website details some of its features:

  • A provision that takes about 8.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 300 million barrels of oil out of production in Wyoming, according to the Bureau of Land Management. The energy resources walled off by this bill would nearly match the annual production levels of our two largest natural gas production states - Alaska and Texas.
  • $3 million for a "road to nowhere" through a wildlife refuge in Alaska.
  • $1 billion for a water project designed to save 500 salmon in California. At this price, each salmon would be worth far more than its weight in gold.
  • $3.5 million to help celebrate the 450th birthday of St. Augustine Florida, in 2015.
  • $4 million to protect livestock from wolves that Congress helped reintroduce into the wild.
  • $250,000 to help bureaucrats decide how to designate Alexander Hamilton's boyhood home.
  • $5 million on botanical gardens in Hawaii and Florida.
The details are depressing: only 12 Republicans bothered to vote against it. For Granite Staters: our new Democratic senator, Jeanne Shaheen, voted for it, as did all Democrats; our Republican senator, Judd Gregg, always making noise about fiscal responsibility, could not be bothered to show up for the vote.

Last Modified 2009-01-13 7:11 PM EST
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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-11

  • There's P. J. O'Rourke content at the Weekly Standard. If you haven't clicked over there already, here's a sample:

    Is it too soon to talk about the failed Obama presidency just because Obama isn't president yet? That depends upon how quickly Barack Obama is able to apply the lessons he's learned from Management Secrets of the Illinois Governors. So far he's not doing very well. He has allowed America's current number one jackleg, crackpot, smut-mouth, slime-licking politician to give the Obama Senate seat to a lovable old African-American doofus whom no one has the heart to execrate. Roland Burris will be the kind of ornament to this year's Senate that the broken plastic Rudolph with its antlers missing was to last year's Christmas tree.

    But read the whole thing.

  • In the NYT, genius Harvard econ prof Greg Mankiw offers plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the ability of government to pull the economy out of the doldrums via increased spending. He's also pessimistic that skepticism will prevail in the matter:

    But don't expect such qualms to stop the juggernaut. The prevailing orthodoxy among the nation's elite holds that increased government spending is the right medicine for what ails the economy.

    As I've said before, the stimulus has all the inevitability of a speeding locomotive, headed for a stalled car at a crossing, filled with taxpayers.

  • I got the WALL·E three-disc DVD set for Christmas; consider this an unabashed plug. After watching the movie again, my face hurt from smiling so much.

    There are a lot of extras on the DVDs as well. "Making of" interviews with the filmmakers aren't the same old self-congratulatory crap; they're actually interesting. And there's an 87-minute documentary, The Story of Pixar, on DVD 2; it was made by Leslie Iwerks (granddaughter of the legendary Ub), and it's really good.

  • "Mr. President, it may kill you, but you'll die happy."


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:25 PM EDT
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Wanted

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

I thought I'd like this better: a 7.0 rating at IMDB and a semi-decent 6.6 at Rotten Tomatoes. But—eh. Depending on your taste for this sort of thing, it might work better for you.

Our hero, Wesley Gibson, is a pathetic schlub, stuck in a boring cubicle-based accountant job in Chicago, abused by boss, co-workers, and wife. But (as it turns out) he's actually an Übermensch, the son of a member of a shadowy organization of assassins. (It's OK, though, because they allegedly only kill bad guys, in order to save the lives of innocents.) Dad's recently been done in by an evildoer, though, so Wesley is recruited by said organization for training and revenge. Pretty quickly the stage is set for massive amounts of special-effects assisted violence with little regard for innocent bystanders.

It sounds like a fantasy written by and for loser sociopaths. That's about right. Think: The Matrix, stir in some Star Wars mythologizing, and The Assassination Bureau. (OK, that last one's kind of obscure; I watched it because it had Diana Rigg in it.)

There's some wit in a few scenes: an ATM more insightful than most; an ergonomic keyboard whose flying keys spell a helpful phrase when it's smashed across a guy's chops. But you have to wade through a lot of dreck on the way.

Oh yeah: Angelina Jolie is in it.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:25 PM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-09

  • At the WSJ, Steven Moore makes the inevitable parallels between Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and our current situation. He wins the coveted Pun Salad Read the Whole Thing Award for today. Conclusion:
    David Kelley, the president of the Atlas Society, which is dedicated to promoting Rand's ideas, explains that "the older the book gets, the more timely its message." He tells me that there are plans to make "Atlas Shrugged" into a major motion picture -- it is the only classic novel of recent decades that was never made into a movie. "We don't need to make a movie out of the book," Mr. Kelley jokes. "We are living it right now."
    My reaction: That's a joke?

    Secondary reaction: the only classic novel of recent decades that was never made into a movie? The Catcher in the Rye? Stranger in a Strange Land? One Hundred Years of Solitude? (OK, I'd only really want to see Stranger in a Strange Land. But still.)

  • Thomas Sowell presents the case for a Dubya pardon of Scooter Libby for his obstruction of justice conviction.
    As someone who has any number of times had his memory corrected by consulting old records or old letters, I don't think a man's life should be ruined for that, when there was no crime to investigate in the first place.
    Indeed. Prosecutor Fitzgerald seems to have nailed Libby in a fit of pique when he failed to implicate Vice President Cheney or Karl Rove. The Minuteman is your go-to guy on this, and he has more on the issue here and here.

    Michael Barone is brief, but also pretty convincing on the issue:

    A Libby pardon will of course be assailed by many in the press, just as many in the press treated the Plame disclosure as the most serious breach of intelligence in years. But these are the same people who gleefully hailed the New York Times's disclosure of NSA surveillance of suspected terrorists outside the United States and of the Swift bank system--two breaches of intelligence that, unlike the Plame disclosure, materially damaged the government's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks. It will be interesting to see if the press chooses to willfully damage U.S. intelligence operations in the Obama administration. In the meantime, please, Mr. President, pardon Scooter Libby.

  • AMC has onlined all 17 episodes of one of the strangest damn TV shows ever made: The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. Free For All. (Heh.)

    When it aired on CBS, I was 17, in Omaha, an about-to-be high school senior. I watched the final episode with my dad. When it was over, we just looked at each other. "That was weird." Multiple re-viewings over the years have not shaken this judgment.

    A remake of the series will be airing on AMC this year sometime. Hope it doesn't overlap with Battlestar Galactica or I may collapse from geek overload.

  • At McSweeney's, Joel Gunz proposes alternative security questions for those increasingly diligent websites.
    What is your mother's maiden name?

    What is your older sister's favorite Monopoly game piece?

    Who did your paternal grandfather vote for in the 1956 presidential election?

    Why did you choose a liberal-arts degree when your entire family urged you to go into finance?

  • Dan Shaughnessy queries Dustin Pedroia about his relative fame and fortune, compared to (say) Tom Brady:
    The Patriots' Page Six QB went metrosexual/international after his Super Bowl wins. Tom Brady was featured at the State of the Union address. He dated starlets and supermodels. He did ads for ridiculously expensive watches and private jets. He had a papal audience.

    "I don't need that," said Pedroia. "I'm all right with the pope."

    He's all right with me too. Opening day: just 87 days away as I type.


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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-08

  • Overall, President-elect Obama's appointees have earned him "better than expected, could have been worse" grades from conservatives/libertarians. But that overall average is dragged down by some doozies. At NRO, Jonathan H. Adler examines the record of John Holdren, to become the Assistant to the President for Science and Technology; Holdren has a long unhappy record of politicizing his science, even attempting to muzzle dissenters from global warming theology.

    … President-Elect Obama's choice of John Holdren for his primary science adviser suggests political misuse and abuse of science will continue in the Obama administration, pledges to respect science notwithstanding.

    Too bad.

  • [Everywhere Girl] Way back in 2005, when this blog was in its infancy, I noted the "Everywhere Girl" phenomenon. Nowadays, she's even more everywhere than ever before. (Via BBSpot.)

  • OK, so maybe I was too negative about video games yesterday. Because:

    A 6-year-old Virginia boy who missed his bus tried to drive to school in his family's sedan -- and crashed.

    […]

    He made at least two 90-degree turns, passed several cars and ran off the rural two-lane road several times before hitting an embankment and utility pole about a mile and a half from school.

    The boy told police he learned to drive playing Grand Theft Auto and Monster Truck Jam video games.

    As American Library Association President Jim Rettig says: video games can be powerful learning tools, specifically for problem-solving skills.

  • It was a rough Christmas week in Rochester (NH), as recounted in the most recent police log:

    Monday, Dec. 22

    11:33 p.m. -- On Harrison Street, a woman is alarmed by a footprint on her bed. Police check the home and suggest it is an old footprint.

    Tuesday, Dec. 23

    4:00 p.m. -- At Wyandotte, a man says that each time he takes a shower a woman flushes the toilet, causing the shower to nearly scald him.

    Wednesday, Dec. 24

    8:50 p.m. -- The Home Depot alarm goes off, and the keyholder thinks it is a hawk swooping inside the building. He will take care of it. How is not specified.

    Thursday, Dec. 25

    12:48 a.m. -- A lady calls from Autumn Street to say that someone needs to come and remove a named person. When asked by dispatch for more information she replies, "Shut the f--- up," and hangs up the phone. And a Merry Christmas to you, too, madam.

    Friday, Dec. 26

    1:17 p.m.-- At the station, a woman says that a driver verbally abused her and threw a squeegee at her vehicle on account of her not pumping gas fast enough. A pickup driver is contacted, and while denying heaving a squeegee, admits he was mad because the woman took 10 minutes to pump $15 worth of gas and was trying to get little drops of gas out of the hose after the pump stopped.

    Saturday, Dec. 27

    4:00 a.m. -- A man is warned not to hitchhike on Farmington Road. He must walk home to Farmington. Live, freeze and die.

    That's cold, man.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:24 PM EDT
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Gamy Librarians

Pun Salad previously pointed out Senator Tom Coburn's PDF document "2008: Worst Waste of the Year". One of the entries:

Bridging the Generational Gap with Nintendo Wii - Indiana ($3,905)

The Institute of Museums and Library Sciences, an arm of the federal government dedicated to "strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas," awarded a grant to Westfield Washington Public Library for the purchase of "a Nintendo Wii console, tv, camcorder and games." According to the Indianapolis Star, "The Wii will be used to encourage patrons to meet and exchange ideas with other community members during multi-generational gaming events held at the library."

In the context of Coburn's report, the $3905 sent off to the Westfield Washington Public Libarary is pretty small potatoes: it's approximately 0.0003% of the $1,315,476,562 of waste identified there. Nevertheless, Coburn ticked off some mighty important people, and one of them, Jim Rettig, president of the American Library Association, penned a furious letter appearing in USA Today today:

USA TODAY'S article "Senator flags $1.3B of what he calls government waste" allowed a U.S. senator from Oklahoma to cast his judgment upon various federally funded projects but failed to allow recipients to speak to the benefits the investments yielded (News, Dec. 12).

Outrageous! Librarian Jim is off to the defense!
Sen. Tom Coburn's report singled out projects as examples of wasteful government spending. While federal money was used to buy equipment for regular gaming events at the Westfield Washington Public Library in Westfield, Ind., and the surrounding community, the $3,905 grant was awarded to the local library by the Indiana State Library.
Apparently Jim considers it important that the Federal Government did not itself specify the purchase of the Wii and associated gear; it just gave the Indiana State Library a check, to be divvied up as it saw fit.

Perhaps Jim realized that's not a distinction that matters to most taxpayers. So he continues:

In the 21st century, …
Moan.
… libraries are about more than books. Gaming at the library encourages patrons to interact with diverse peers, share their expertise with others (including adults), and develop new strategies for learning that are vital in preparing our nation's future workforce.
Sure. A Wii is going to help Westfield, Indiana library patrons develop vital new strategies for learning in preparing our nation's future workforce.

Fearless prediction: this will not happen. Nobody believes it will happen, not even Librarian Jim. Nobody will come back in five or ten years to check if vital new strategies for learning in preparing our nation's workforce were ever developed via the Westfield Washington Public Library Wii.

Games require players to learn and follow complex sets of rules, make strategic and tactical decisions and, increasingly, collaborate with others when they play massive multiplayer online games all things they will have to do in college and in the workforce.
None of that good stuff ever happened (in college or in the workforce) before there were video games. Thank goodness they came along when they did.
The American Psychological Association has done studies showing how video games can be powerful learning tools, specifically for problem-solving skills. This finding was echoed by a recent Sony Online Entertainment LLC study, which found that 70% of parents say their children's problem-solving skills have been improved by playing video games.
I don't attach a lot of weight to a "finding" of an online survey (i.e., a self-selected sample of people who claimed to be parents) sponsored by a gaming company. But that's just me; apparently Librarian Jim thought that result was compelling enough to cite. That's one of the reasons why he's President of the American Library Association, and I am not.
Also, a study of people ages 60 to 70 and highlighted in the December issue of Psychology and Aging showed that playing video games can be especially beneficial to people for strengthening memory and reasoning.
Here's a description of the study. Just to show I'm not a total fogey: it's not quite as embarrassing as relying on facts established in an online survey. They got a bunch of geezers to play the old Microsoft PC game "Rise of Nations", where you assume the role of despot, with the goal, over millennia, of leading your nation to "global prominence." One of the researchers explains why this is good:
"You need merchants. You need an army to protect yourself and you have to make sure you're spending some of your resources on education and food," said postdoctoral researcher Chandramallika Basak, lead author on the study. "This game stresses resource management and planning, which I think for older adults is important because many of them independently plan and manage their resources."
I guess the Rise of Nations experience allowed the geezers to make much wiser choices between Skippy and Jif at the supermarket.

Jim winds up:

I applaud the Westfield Public Library for providing this innovative technology to its community.
Unfortunately, Jim has no applause for taxpayers who actually shelled out the money.

Here's my modest proposal: if the Westfield Washington Public Library thinks it's important to have $3950 worth of Wii and associated gear (as opposed to, say, books), but can't find the cash in its normal budget, then it should either ask for a budget increase from its local funding source, or do without.

Better yet, leave that money in taxpayer pockets, allowing them to make their own decisions on whether to increase their cognitive functions via a Wii, or just a cheap book of crossword puzzles. To quote Mr. David Bunnell of Berkeley, California:

"Smart people find new ways to exercise their brains that don't involve buying software or taking expensive workshops."
But maybe people in Berkeley are smarter than in Westfield, Indiana.

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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-06

<voice imitation="professor_farnsworth">Good news, everyone!</voice>

  • Big Hollywood debuts today, a group blog hatched by Andrew Breitbart. Its editor-in-chief is John Nolte, late of the excellent blog Dirty Harry's Place (which is now defunct, a mere two days after I recommended it here).

    Initial articles by Nolte, Andrew Klavan, Orson Bean, James Kirchick, and more. It looks to be a must-read for conservatives and libertarians who like movies. Which is to say: me, maybe you too.

  • Apple has introduced an awesome new laptop.

  • And Google Mars. Unfortunately, it still needs work: they're unable to find the Great Toonolian Marshes.

  • OK, not really good news, but: Viking Pundit reminds me of one of the reasons I let my Boston Globe subscription lapse: their continued employment of the self-important and vapid James Carroll.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:23 PM EDT
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Real Education

[Amazon Link]

The subtitle is: "Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality". Here they are:

  1. Ability varies.

  2. Half of the children are below average.

  3. Too many people are going to college.

  4. America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

Murray lays out his arguments for each of these propositions, then, in a final chapter, presents his guidelines for a reform of America's educational system. His writing is extraordinarily clear, reasonable, and unpretentious. And (for me at least) he's quite convincing.

One of Murray's fat targets is "educational romanticism": an idealized vision of universal educatability married to careful ignorance of contradictory evidence. This vision is present on both the left and right—think "No Child Left Behind".

Although Murray is probably too kind to mention it, there's also often a nasty component of narcissism involved as well: policies advocated and positions taken because they make us feel good about ourselves. When you're congratulating yourself about how compassionate you are, who needs to check on whether you're actually helping anyone?

Predictably, Murray's opponents went apeshit when this book came out late last year. And it's difficult to imagine a college president, for example, agreeing with the "too many people are going to college" proposition. At least not in public. ("We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs here, gentlemen!") A decent discussion of the book was held at the Cato Unbound site last year, recommended either before or after you read the book.

I'd like to think that Murray's recommendations had a chance of enactment, but the interests vested in the status quo are huge, and America doesn't seem to currently be in the mood for non-wishful thinking. The best chances for reform seem to lie at the pre-college levels, where "choice" movements are opening up opportunities for escaping from government schools.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:23 PM EDT
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Horton Hears a Who!

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

First off, the animation and the lush imaginative visuals here are simply amazing. It would be heresy to claim that it's better than Pixar, but… to my untrained eye, it appears to be right up in the same league at least.

[UPDATE: just re-watched WALL·E, and the above sentence may be the single stupidest thing I've written on this blog. Although the Blue Sky folks are wonderfully inventive, they're not that close to Pixar yet.]

It's based, of course, on the Dr. Seuss book of the same name. In the jungle one day, Horton hears a voice calling out from a speck floating by; it turns out to be the home of microscopic Whoville, inhabited by (of course) the equally microscopic Whos. Horton resolves to protect the Who-infested speck from certain disaster. This, for some reason, incites the local lady Kangaroo, who insists the Whos are imaginary, setting up the movie's conflict.

Horton is voiced by Jim Carrey, and the filmmakers apparently thought that a good deal of the Carrey personality should go into Horton as well; it's as if he's been possessed by the Ace Ventura demon. (Similarly, the Mayor of Whoville is voiced by Steve Carell; he seems to have been infested with way too much Michael Scott from The Office.)

Also rubbing me the wrong way: the close-minded, intolerant Kangaroo (Carol Burnett) snippily informs Horton that her child has been "pouch schooled": A gratuitous swipe at home-schoolers, apparently.

So, despite the glorious eye candy on the screen, everything else seems just a little off. Maybe watching it with the audio muted would have worked better.

Aside: Horton's famous line from the book, also in the movie, is, "A person's a person. No matter how small." Wikipedia relates that, naturally enough, this is often seized upon by pro-life groups. Which (in turn) irked the famously lefty Dr. Seuss: he threatened to sue a pro-life group for putting the phrase on their stationery. So:

A person's a person. No matter how small.
Um, unless he's unborn; that's not a close call.

Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:23 PM EDT
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The General

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

A silent movie from 1927. IMDB has this (as I type) at number 131 on their list of the top 250 movies of all time. And, yes, it's pretty amazing.

The hero is "Johnnie Gray", played by Buster Keaton. He's a railroad engineer, justly proud of his trusty engine "The General", based out of Marietta, Georgia. He's also sweet on Marietta's prettiest local girl, Annabelle Lee. When the Civil War breaks out, Annabelle insists Johnnie enlist, as her father and brother do. But he's turned away at the recruitment office, being more valuable as an engineer. Through some miscommunication (which happens pretty easily in a silent movie) Annabelle interprets this as cowardice, and breaks off the romance.

Note: A heartbroken Buster Keaton looks about the same as a deliriously happy Buster Keaton.

A year later, the Union has a plan: infiltrate Georgia, steal the General out from under Johnnie's nose, and use it to disrupt the Confederate supply lines and communications. The plan starts off well, except that innocent passenger Annabelle Lee gets kidnapped as well. Johnnie is off to the rescue.

No fancy-schmancy things like stunt doubles or special effects here. When they want a bridge to collapse and send a locomotive into the river below, their "special effects" magic is: collapse a real bridge, send a real locomotive crashing into a real river, and hope you remembered to load film in the camera. (This page says the train remained there for years, finally salvaged for scrap iron during World War II.)

One thing: the "good guys" here are all on the side of the Confederacy. That's a little cognitively dissonant in these days where a Confederate flag is an automatic sign of unmitigated evil. You'll have to turn off that reflex to enjoy the movie, I think.

It might make a good double feature with The Great Locomotive Chase, based on the same true Civil War incident, told from the Union side with Fess Parker as the Union mastermind plotter.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:22 PM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-04

  • Today's NYT had an article about unconventional "service" animals: a seeing-eye pony, for example. But Ann Althouse's blog entry about the article is much shorter and more fun. (And there are, of course, legal aspects, which makes it very relevant for Lawprof Althouse. Although she also comments, "Gee, wasn't that little horsey cute?")

  • Amtrak runs a photo contest, inviting amateurs to submit pictures of their trains in action. Unfortunately, they also hire cops to arrest people taking pictures of their trains in action.

    Is that irony? I can never tell.

  • Mr. Clint Eastwood describes "What I've Learned" at Esquire. And when Mr. Eastwood chooses to impart wisdom, I'd suggest you listen up and listen hard, punk.

    (Via, of course, Dirty Harry's Place. Which, in case you didn't know, is a great blog for conservative opinion, smart takes on movies, and your daily hubba-hubba.)


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Priceless

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

Audrey Tatou plays Irene, a—no need to be delicate about this—golddigger looking for a sugar daddy to buy her nice things. One night at a fancy French hotel, through a merry mixup, she gets involved with Jean. Jean's actually on the hotel's staff, which allows him to maintain this slight deception for a brief time. Long enough, if you get my drift.

Hey, it's Audrey Tatou. Who could blame him?

But eventually Irene discovers the truth, and it's all over. Or is it? Because Jean follows Irene like a puppy looking for another bone, messing up her diligent search for another guy to support her in the manner to which she's become accustomed.

You might think: I know where this is headed. So did I, but (to its credit) the movie takes some very unexpected twists on the way to its conclusion.

It's in French, with English subtitles. Someone should tell subtitlers that when the French dialog is "Cherie", it's not necessary to translate this to "Honey" in the subtitle. "Cherie" is fine.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:22 PM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-03

  • Did you know that the word "gullible" isn't in the dictionary?

    OK, you probably know that joke. But if you're like me, you probably haven't been fooled by it more than two or three times, at least not lately.

    I was reminded of it when I saw the actual blurb on the front page of today's WSJ:

    ME, MADOFF AND THE MIND
    How a Gullibility Expert Was Scammed

    And, no, they're not trying to fool their readers. The actual article by Stephen Greenspan, who lost about 30% of his retirement nest-egg to Bernard Madoff, is online here. And he really is a gullibility expert; he's written an expensive book: Annals of Gullibility: Why We Get Duped and How to Avoid It

    Unless, of course, it's all an elaborate hoax.

  • Mark Liberman at Language Log notes the following quote from VP-elect Biden:

    The greater threat to the economy lies with doing too little rather than not doing enough.

    Speculation abounds why this didn't get Bush/Quayle/Palin-style media treatment:

    1. Nobody noticed.

    2. Everybody noticed, but:

      1. Knew what he "really" meant.

      2. Nobody expects Biden to make sense.

      3. Nobody reports Democrat gaffes.

    I guess time will tell. Specifically, the amount of time it takes for Biden to talk again.

  • Donald Westlake, famous mystery writer, has passed away. I read a lot of his stuff years ago, but more recently preferred the books he wrote under his "Richard Stark" pseudonym about his ruthless criminal anti-hero, Parker. (Frustratingly, the most recent of these have yet to come out in paperback.)

    The Weekly Standard brings back a 2002 article Westlake wrote for them about the post-9/11 Dubya, and a 2001 appreciation of Westlake by Steven Lenzner. Also see Terry Teachout.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:21 PM EDT
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An American Carol

[Amazon Link]

[2.0
stars] [IMDb Link]

I wanted to like An American Carol, but the truth is that it's not that funny.

The movie was written and directed by David Zucker, who knows how to do the funny (Airplane, Naked Gun) And the premise was promising: take a thinly-disguised America-hating Michael Moore, vowing to abolish the Fourth of July, and put him through the Scrooge treatment to demonstrate the error of his ways. He's visited by the ghosts of General Patton (Kelsey Grammer) and George Washington (Jon Voight). He's the unwitting dupe of terrorists who are using his connections to try to blow up Madison Square Garden on the Fourth of July.

But, while the movie got a few chuckles out of me, most of the humor just didn't work. The funniest scenes weren't particularly political: for example, Tiny Tim transmogrifies into three kids, one on a crutch, one with vision problems, one on dialysis, all disclaiming as profanely as the PG-13 rating will allow on their famous relative.

Maybe political satire just doesn't work in a feature film; I can't think of a successful one, can you? The most reliable source of political satire these days is probably Saturday Night Live, and they misfire more often than they hit. And there are have been dozens of SNL-based movies, but I can't think of any based on their political sketches. Hm.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:21 PM EDT
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Random Thoughts on the Passing Scene

  • Amazing but true fact: the guy who wrote "Wild Thing" is Jon Voight's brother.

  • A word I hate: vibrant. A worthless adjective never actually used to describe somthing that's vibrating.

    (A quick search though Pun Salad archives shows that—whew!—it's only appeared in quotes here.)

  • Things I wish were on DVD, but (as near as I can tell) aren't:

    • Hearts of the West: a neat little screwball comedy from 1975, directed by Howard Zieff, starring Jeff Bridges and Andy Griffith.

    • For that matter, another Zieff-directed movie, Slither. I remember as also being quite funny. Starring James Caan, Sally Kellerman, and Peter Boyle.

    • So Fine. Ryan O'Neal as a college prof roped into his dad's clothing business. Written and directed by Andrew Bergman, who went on to write and direct the awful, career-destroying, Striptease with Demi Moore. Which, ironically, you can easily get on DVD.)

    • OK, I like screwball comedies, but I also wouldn't mind seeing Fate is the Hunter one more time. Glenn Ford investigates an air crash that killed everyone except for Suzanne Pleshette. I saw this at the Military Theatre in Omaha when it came out back in 1964. (The theatre is now a church.)

    Someday I'm sure we'll be able to watch any movie ever made on a momentary whim. But today I'd settle for being able to get those via Blockbuster.

  • Until that day comes, though: The Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection is going for a mere $26.99 at Amazon. Their five best movies, plus a bonus disk.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:21 PM EDT
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URLs du Jour — 2009-01-01

Happy New Year!

Although I mean no disrespect and intend no offense to any reader who is not a user of the Gregorian Calendar.

  • It does a sysadmin's heart good to see this in the syslog of his charges on New Year's Day:
    Clock: inserting leap second 23:59:60 UTC
    If these computers were puppies, I'd scratch them behind the ears for performing this neat little trick so well. (Thank goodness they're not Zunes.) More on the leap second at Slate.

  • Orin Kerr notes that Alberto Gonzales is a horse's ass.

  • The Rochester (NH) Police Log shows city life returning to normal after the Great Ice Storm of 2008.
    Tuesday, Dec. 16

    10:11 a.m. -- At Walgreen's a "clean cut" young man has stolen several electronic items. Clean cut ain't what it used to be.

    Wednesday, Dec. 17

    8:16 a.m. -- On Schley Street, a woman wakes up to find Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus on her lawn. It is not a miracle. If anyone is looking for these decorations, she tells police, she has them.

    Thursday, Dec. 18

    3:40 p.m. -- A woman reports that an unknown man is in her house, and police never help her. He is upstairs "in between the fixtures" having crawled through the vinyl siding. Meanwhile "they" are sucking her electricity through the wires.

    Sunday, Dec. 21

    8:06 a.m. -- A Chestnut Hill sheep is stuck in a ditch. Police contact the local Bo Peep to come get it.


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Jolie Blon's Bounce

[Amazon Link]

James Lee Burke's Louisiana detective Dave Robicheaux tackles an impressive array of bad guys, while also battling his inner demons. (Not as successfully as he's done in other entries in the series.) This book was an Edgar Award nominee for best novel in 2003.

A horrendous crime, the rape and murder of a local teenager, has occurred. The prime suspect is Tee Bobby Hulin, a gifted local musician. Dave doesn't think that's the whole story, however, and he's right. Soon afterward a local prostitute is beaten to death while Tee Bobby is out on bail. Floating around is a man called Legion, one of the more creepy and unabashedly evil characters Dave has encountered; that's saying something.

As always, Burke's prose is masterful and intensely descriptive. And (as always) the current events have deep roots in the dark and corrupt past.

If you read this, you might want to familiarize yourself with Mark 5:1-20, although the ending is more than a bit different here. Dave's a good man, but he's no Jesus.


Last Modified 2012-10-08 8:20 PM EDT
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