If You See Me Getting Smaller

… I'm leaving:

  • Like most people who care about liberty, I'm pretty amazed that a potential Supreme Court Justice can't forthrightly deal with with a hypothetical madcap Congress using the Commerce Clause as a big old loophole to implement totalitarian legislation. John McCormack's summary:
    On Tuesday evening, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) posed a hypothetical question to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan: If Congress passed a law that said Americans "have to eat three vegetables and three fruits, every day ... does that violate the Commerce Clause?" [...]

    Kagan wouldn't say whether or not she believes the Commerce Clause allows the federal government to pass a law requiring Americans to eat fruits and vegetables.

    My only regret is that Senator Coburn didn't just shut up and let Ms. Kagan hem and haw more than she did. (Daniel Foster makes a similar point.)

    McCormack posts the C-SPAN video of the whole 30-minute Coburn-Kagan interaction, useful if you're worried about context.

  • [Amazon Link] I've occasionally mentioned that I'm a minor Jimmy Webb fanboy, approximately since I realized that "Wichita Lineman", "Galveston", and "Macarthur Park" were all written by the same guy.

    Jimmy has a new album out, and I'm pround to plug it over there on the right. (No, your right.) It is full of great music, mostly his golden oldies. Collaborators are some folks of which you might have heard: Vince Gill, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne, Glen Campbell, Michael McDonald, J. D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt. Whoa.

    Jimmy's Webbsite is here, and there's a very entertaining interview with him here. (In which, among other things, he bemoans false-rhyming "time" with "line" in "Wichita Lineman" over forty years ago. It's okay, Jim, we forgive you.)

  • I hope everyone knows that organic gardening is a mainstream activity now. It's not just for long-haired blissed-out hippies with scruffy beards, tie-dyed t-shirts, faded print bandanas knotted around their necks, and suspenders holding up their unbelted jeans. That's just a stereotype we need to grow out of.

  • For fans of good bad writing, the 2010 Bulwer-Lytton contest results.
    When Hru-Kar, the alpha-ranking male of the silver-backed gorilla tribe finished unleashing simian hell on Lt. Cavendish, the once handsome young soldier from Her Majesty's 47th Regiment resembled nothing so much as a crumpled up piece of khaki-colored construction paper that had been dipped in La Victoria chunky salsa.
    Good (bad) stuff.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:44 AM EDT

Carol Shea-Porter Likes Israel… Not That Much, Actually

While looking at something else, I noticed that my own CongressCritter, Carol Shea-Porter, was one of only (by my count) 58 candidates explicitly endorsed by the "J Street PAC".

J Street sounds innocuous enough. It bills itself on its front page as the "political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans". And who's not for peace?

But in practice, behind the soothing slogans, J Street is mostly in favor of US pressure on Israel to concede, concede, concede. While billing itself as "pro-Israel", it in practice opposes most of what Israel actually does in order to defend itself from its enemies. Last year, Noah Pollak wrote in Commentary:

In order to transform relations between the U.S. and Israel, J Street intends to provide political cover for an American campaign to pressure the Israeli government into making more concessions for the sake of what it believes will be peace. In his op-eds and speeches, [J Street founder Jeremy] Ben-Ami frequently cites his family's history in Israel as evidence of the depth of his commitment to the Jewish state, but he nonetheless considers the sovereign nation incapable of making healthy decisions for itself.
Pollak's article is a pretty good outline of where J Street is on the ideological map: waaay off to the left.

I also noticed this pro-Israel letter, addressed to President Obama, recently gathering signatures in the House of Representatives. Written in response to the "Gaza flotilla incident," it expresses "strong support for Israel's right to defend itself." It urges that the President use "U. S. influence and, if necessary, veto power to prevent any biased or one-sided resolutions from passing" the United Nations Security Council. It asked that efforts be made to "focus the international community on the crimes of the Iran-backed Hamas leadership against Israel and the Palestinian people."

The letter was advocated by the primary American Jewish lobby group AIPAC. J Street, on the other hand, urged that Congressmen and Senators not sign it.

As it happens (as I type) the House version of the letter garnered 338 signatures, nearly four-fifths of the current membership. Conspicuously absent from the signatory list: Carol Shea-Porter.


I am (relatively) sure that Congresswoman Carol is not fueled by anti-semitism. She's unlikely to start sounding like Pat Buchanan, entertaining as that might be. I would bet if someone posed her the question that sent Helen Thomas into her too-belated retirement, she'd give a more acceptable answer.

But, from the above facts, she's apparently pretty far out of the mainstream on the Israel issue. It would be nice if, sometime in the next (say) 126 days or so, someone would nail that down.

[I should also note that our state's retiring Senator, Judd Gregg, has not signed the Senate version of the letter. 87 Senators have done so, which means only 12 (living) Senators haven't. This guy did the math to determine that only two GOP Senators didn't sign: Gregg and Bunning of Kentucky, also retiring. So what's up with that, Judd?]


stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This 1991 David Mamet movie was recently given the "Criterion Collection" DVD treatment, and I realized that I'd never gotten around to seeing it. And Netflix sent the Criterion DVD, all the better. (They don't always do that—they're expensive.)

Joe Mantegna plays Bobby Gold, a detective on the homicide squad of a decaying city. (Unnamed, but it was filmed in Baltimore.) He and his co-workers are asked to pick up the pieces of a botched FBI drug raid during which a bunch of people were killed and the targeted drug dealer escaped.

Bobby and his partner (William H. Macy) are off on their dragnet when, by sheerest coincidence, Bobby gets roped into investigating the murder of an elderly Jewish woman, shot while defending her variety store in the middle of a nasty ghetto, full of anti-semitism. Was it a simple robbery gone wrong, or was the victim the target of a neo-Nazi conspiracy, due to her militant Zionist past? Bobby initially resists the temptations of Jewish solidarity, but eventually succumbs. This works out poorly for everyone.

It's a Mamet movie, so nearly everyone is colorfully foulmouthed and non-PC, spouting intricately-constructed dialog you'd never hear in real life. Mantegna gives (probably) the acting performance of his life (so far).

The DVD looks great. Extras: modern-day interviews with a few cast members, including Mantegna, and a gag reel. There was also a commentary from Mamet and Macy, which I didn't listen to.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:44 AM EDT

Youth In Revolt

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Here's my brilliant movie idea that I thought up in the car on the way to work: Breakfast Club: The Next Generation. It would reunite surviving members of the cast of The Breakfast Club: Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Molly Ringwald. They'd be parents now, and subject to the parents' curse: they've got kids that behave just like they did. Aieee! Suddenly, they kind of understand why Principal Vernon was such a martinet!

Or how about Ferris Bueller, Junior?

All that was brought to mind by watching Youth in Revolt, a movie that is aimed at the kiddos. The hero youngsters are mostly hip and clever. The older generation are all, in various degrees, losers and idiots; they don't have much effective restraint over the antics of the kids. I.e., the film is pretty much following the blueprint laid down by the late John Hughes in the 80's.

The protagonist is young Nick Twisp (played by Michael Cera), a sensitive soul who likes listening to Sinatra on vinyl. Unfortunately, he's living the downside of that cliché too: sensitive souls strike out with the ladies. So he invents an edgy alter ego: Francois Dillinger. Francois urges him to be a dangerous bad boy in order to round the bases with the lovely Sheeni, the prettiest and smartest girl in any Ukiah, California trailer park. Before you know it, Nick is enmeshed in various forms of irresponsible and criminal activity. (It is one of only ten movies at IMDB with the keywords "exploding trailer", so if that's your thing, you won't want to miss it.)

It's funny and clever, although it follows the youth-movie formula pretty closely. (And I can at least get into the kid mindset for as long as it takes to enjoy a movie; once it's over I snap back to my boring stodgy parent role, as my kids will be more than happy to tell you.) There's even a half-hearted "be yourself" moral behind it all.

There are some amusing claymation sequences. And it has a very good supporting cast: Jean Smart, Zach Galifianakis, Adhir Kalyan (the great "Timmy" from Rules of Engagement), Steve Buscemi, Fred Willard, Ray Liotta, Mary Kay Place, and M. Emmet Walsh.

My quibble: quite a few interesting supporting characters get introduced, do their bits, then vanish.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:44 AM EDT

It Was The Best Of Times

… it was the worst of times:

  • The United States House of Representatives passed the so-called "DISCLOSE Act" yesterday, 219-206. Both New Hampshire reps, Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter, voted Aye.

    Although the DISCLOSE acronym officially stands for

    Democracy is Strengthened by Casting Light on Spending in Elections
    … a more accurate translation is:
    Democrat Incumbents Shit on Constitutional Liberties, Offer Sanctimonious Excuses
    (Sensitive souls may want to filter that through sed s/h/p/. Oops, too late.)

    Further reading: The ACLU offers its comments here. The Chicago Tribune calls DISCLOSE, accurately, a fraud. The US Chamber of Commerce blog has been all over the issue, here, here, here, here, here, and especially here, where Bruce Josten discusses the sleazy backroom deal that allows unions to "shift unlimited amounts of [campaign/advocacy] money around through various affiliated entities, completely absolved of any disclosure requirements." Jacob Sullum piles on at Reason, noting that the bill "imposes highly discriminatory burdens on freedom of speech in the name of transparency." Jacob also links to this analysis (PDF) from the Center for Competitive Politics. Which has this charming quote from one of the principals:

    At the mark-up, Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) revealed the bill's true intent, saying "I hope it chills out all--not one side, all sides! I have no problem whatsoever keeping everybody out. If I could keep all outside entities out, I would."
    In a country that respected liberty, these people would be kept far away from any kind of political power.

  • In other news, it appears that the big financial reform bill is on a secure road to passage. Key quote from this Washington Post story:
    "It's a great moment. I'm proud to have been here," said a teary-eyed Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), who as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee led the effort in the Senate. "No one will know until this is actually in place how it works. But we believe we've done something that has been needed for a long time. It took a crisis to bring us to the point where we could actually get this job done."
    Emphasis added. I suppose there are people out there who can look at those words and not shudder in disgust and amazement at the brain-dead hubris of our politicians, but I am not one of them. (Via Drudge.)

  • Lore Sjöberg describes upcoming special-purpose e-book readers. For example, the "Bk":
    Studies show that members of the current youth generation send text messages 4 million times more often than they read a newspaper, and that includes glancing at the headlines through the vending machine window while they wait for the bus. Such youths are having increasing trouble reading words like "to" and "for."

    The Bk automatically translates any downloaded book into text-speak. For instance, the opening of A Tale of Two Cities translates to ":-) :-("

  • Steve Martin is still very funny.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:43 AM EDT

You Never Give Me Your Money

… you only give me your funny paper:

  • Jim Geraghty speculates on whether my Congressperson, Carol Shea-Porter, might be guilty of a Class B Felony.

    Too good to be true, probably. Although, should it come to that, I bet the state could make some money by offering special "Made by Carol Shea-Porter" license plates. I'd buy one.

  • I can't find this George F. Will column at the Washington Post website. It contains his proposed questions for Elena Kagan's confirmation hearings next week. Sample:
    It would be naughty to ask you about litigation heading for the Supreme Court concerning this: Does Congress have the right, under its enumerated power to regulate interstate commerce, to punish the inactivity of not purchasing health insurance? So, instead answer this harmless hypothetical: If Congress decides that interstate commerce is substantially affected by the costs of obesity, may Congress require obese people to purchase participation in programs such as Weight Watchers? If not, why not?
    That's just the first one; all Will's questions are worth asking of a prospective Supreme Court justice. I hope some brave Senator asks them.

  • Congresswoman Corrine Brown, representing Florida's 3rd Congressional District, speaks out:
    "Because this is not no game," Brown said. "Don't bring no trash to my yard!"
    This is in response to the offer of Dean Black, her GOP opponent in the upcoming election, to deliver one sandbag to Congresswoman Brown's house for every $24.95 contributed to his campaign. (Yes: it's apparently Black vs. Brown in the November election.) This amusing stunt is intended to remind voters of alleged special treatment Rep. Brown received in 2008 during Tropical Storm Fay; her Jacksonville home was sandbagged by the local officials while the "little people" in the same neighborhood went without.

    Congresswoman Brown, in turn, is offering to file charges if any such thing happens.

    A local station, which apparently employs at least one Star Trek fan named—I am not making this up—"Kirk", reported on the Black reaction:

    [Not Phased]

    Good to know. But he should also watch out for the Vulcan nerve pinch… (Via ma belle, Michelle.)

  • Dave Barry interview at the AARP Magazine website. Sample:
    Q: You have a lot to say about the American health care system. You don't sound all that convinced, for example, that the government should run it.

    A: No--and who on earth would? As I say in the book, there are intelligent, educated, and well-meaning people out there who seriously believe that we should let Washington redesign our health-care system. It goes without saying that these people live and work in Washington; where else could you find intelligent, educated, well-meaning people who are that stupid?

    Quite possibly the most intelligent article in the history of AARP Magazine.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:42 AM EDT

Rock Wisdom: How To Get Where You Want

[How to
Get Where You Want]


DestinationHow To Get There
Your HeartExpressway
Bangor, MaineThird Boxcar, Midnight Train

Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:01 PM EDT

Shake It Like a Bowl Of Soup

… and make your body loop de loop:

  • Things are shakin' up in Franklin Falls [click to embiggen]:


    I blame Canada. (Image grabbed from the handy New England Seismic Center site.)

  • The great debate over the past few days: whether the Obama Administration exemplifies garden-variety thuggish contempt for the rule of law, or is actually putting us on the road to something even worse. Michael Barone lines up on the thuggery side:
    For there already are laws in place that insure that BP will be held responsible for damages and the company has said it will comply. So what we have is government transferring property from one party, an admittedly unattractive one, to others, not based on pre-existing laws but on decisions by one man, pay czar Kenneth Feinberg.

    Feinberg gets good reviews from everyone. But the Constitution does not command "no person . . . shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law except by the decision of a person as wise and capable as Kenneth Feinberg." The Framers stopped at "due process of law."

    Obama doesn't. "If he sees any impropriety in politicians ordering executives about, upstaging the courts and threatening confiscation, he has not said so," write the editors of the Economist, who then suggest that markets see Obama as "an American version of Vladimir Putin." Except that Putin is an effective thug.

  • Taking the "it's worse than that" viewpoint is Thomas Sowell:
    The man appointed by President Obama to dispense BP's money as the administration sees fit, to whomever it sees fit, is only the latest in a long line of presidentially appointed "czars" controlling different parts of the economy, without even having to be confirmed by the Senate, as Cabinet members are.

    Those who cannot see beyond the immediate events to the issues of arbitrary power -- versus the rule of law and the preservation of freedom -- are the "useful idiots" of our time. But useful to whom?

    "The truth is probably somewhere in between."

  • At Q&O Mr. McQ notes that things aren't much better in the legislative branch:

    1. The House is punting on one of its few duties: producing a budget. Because they don't want to do that and then face the electorate.

    2. But they're working hard on the "campaign finance reform" (actually: "incumbency protection") bill, which is apparently back from the dead. Because it's vitally important that happen before they have to face the electorate.

    3. And Democrats on both ends of the Capitol are proudly announcing that they're not feeling bound by Obama's campaign promise about no tax increases for people making under a quarter mil.

    132 days until Election Day…

  • David Malki of Wondermark compiles then-and-now pictures of couples entwined forever in great (and some not-so-great) romantic movies. Go find out who's stood up to the ravages of time, and who hasn't. (<cough>Carrie Fisher</cough>) If you need help identifying the movies, the commenters have figured them out.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:46 AM EDT

Shutter Island

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

As I type, Shutter Island is #246 on IMDB's Top 250 movies of all time. I don't know about that. If you watch it, you may not know about that. It depends a lot, I think, about how you feel about the subject matter. But Leonardo DiCaprio stars, Martin Scorsese directs, and it's based on a Dennis Lehane novel. Those are all signs of quality.

DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U. S. Marshal assigned to an investigation at a facility for the criminally insane at remote Shutter Island, many miles out in Boston Harbor. He's investigating the disappearance of prisoner/inmate Rachel Solando, who has impressively busted herself out of the secure facility without anyone noticing. But, as it turns out, Teddy is also on a mission of his own: his wife died in a fire set by pyromaniac Andrew Laeddis, who is also supposed to be on Shutter Island, and is also inexplicably missing.

All this is accompanied by very suspicious behavior by the ostensible good guys: Chuck, Teddy's new partner (played by Mark Ruffalo); the doctors running the place (Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow); a very creepy head warden, dressed up in an SS-like uniform (Captain Leland Stottlemeyer himself, Ted Levine, mustache-free). And every nook and cranny of Shutter Island is filled with ominous ugliness.

I didn't know much about the plot going in, but it turns on extremely vile and shocking behavior, and that kept me from liking the movie as much as I might otherwise. Your mileage may vary, or it might not.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:40 AM EDT

It Should Happen To You

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A 1954 romantic comedy, written by Garson Kanin, directed by George Cukor, starring Judy Holliday. And the very first movie appearance of a guy named Jack Lemmon. Sheer filmic history alone is almost enough to watch this.

Judy—I call her Judy—plays Gladys Glover, just laid off from a Manhattan modeling gig. Depressed, she wanders into Central Park, where she meets Pete, a documentary filmmaker played by Mr. Lemmon. Gladys is endearing, and who wouldn't fall for her? Pete sure does, but Gladys has other goals. Specifically: big-city fame. Being a creative airhead, Gladys employs unconventional means. Spying an empty sign space overlooking Columbus Circle, she rents it to contain (simply) her name: Gladys Glover.

Since this is a movie, it works. Sooner than you can say "Daniel J. Boorstin", Gladys is famous. And, to Pete's consternation, she's rapidly moving out of his league, and (worse) being wooed by a rich sleazy womanizer (played by Peter Lawford).

It's rare for romantic comedies to veer from standard plotlines, and this one is not an exception. But it's entertaining enough. You can see why Judy Holliday had a stellar, but way too brief, movie career. She has a fine handle on her ditzy character, and she has a few modeling scenes where she has to put on a big phony smile. And, believe me, it's authentically phony; it takes some pretty decent acting skills to pull that off.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:40 AM EDT

137 Days Until …

It says right here: "Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech".

That's not hard to understand.

Unless, of course, you are a member of Congress. And you really, really want to do it anyway.

So I read this New York Times article with a mix of disgust and amusement:

Congressional Democrats are pushing hard for legislation to rein in the power of special interests by requiring more disclosure of their roles in paying for campaign advertising -- but as they struggle to find the votes they need to pass it they are carving out loopholes for, yes, special interests.
First, just as an aside, let me note the huge blind spot in the NYT-ese above, where "Congressional Democrats" are pictured as bravely jousting with "special interests": Isn't it blindingly obvious that, when writing legislation governing campaign expenditures, "Congressional Democrats" might—just might—be considered "special interests" themselves? As Ayn Rand used to say: blank-out.

Anyway: Pun Salad blogged about this legislation, the so-called DISCLOSE Act, last month. (DISCLOSE == "Democracy Is Strengthened by Casting Light On Spending in Elections.") My own Congresswoman, Carol Shea-Porter, is one of the co-sponsors of this assault on free speech in the House, which only serves to remind how lightly she takes her sworn oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States."

But, as the NYT article points out, the DISCLOSE Act has rapidly degenerated into an even less principled attack against free speech.

What happened? Well, most notably, the National Rifle Association (NRA) opposed it. Which (in turn) gave a significant number of Democratic congresscritters the shakes.

So, the bill-writers put in an exemption for "organizations that have more than 1 million members, have been in existence for more than 10 years, have members in all 50 states and raise 15 percent or less of their funds from corporations." Conveniently worded so that, as far as anyone knows, the NRA is the only organization that gets under the wire.

John Samples of Cato asks:

I wonder what principle of campaign finance regulation justifies this exemption? Earlier the authors of DISCLOSE said the American people deserve to know who is trying to influence elections. Now it would seem that voters only need information about relatively small, young, geographically-confined organizations that receive more than 15 percent of their money from corporations.
Put another way, if the NRA deserves an exemption, doesn't everyone?
[Yes. I think I also deserve a congressional representative who takes his or her duty to the Constitution seriously. I don't have that now.]

The NRA deal (predictably) outraged other groups that didn't make the cut. And, as the Washington Post reports, DISCLOSE might be dead, dead, dead as a result:

Top Democrats abandoned plans for a Friday vote in the House on the legislation, known as the Disclose Act, after liberal groups and members of the Congressional Black Caucus rose up against the deal with the NRA. A lobbying blitz by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups also undermined support for the legislation, aides said.
For more details on the Great Loophole Backfire, see this Politico article and ongoing coverage at the Center for Competitive Politics blog.

Oh, and 137 days until what? Election Day, baby.

Don't Know Much

… about history:

  • There is content from national treasure P. J. O'Rourke at the Weekly Standard. It examines the American public school system, and advocates…
    Close all the public schools. Send the kids home. Fire the teachers. Sell the buildings. Raze the U.S. Department of Education, leaving not one brick standing upon another and plow the land where it stood with salt.
    Gather the kids together in groups of 15.4 [the current nationwide student/classroom-teacher ratio]. Sit them down at your house, or the Moose Lodge, or the VFW Hall or--gasp--a church. Multiply 15.4 by $15,000 [the current per-pupil cost of government schools]. That's $231,000. Subtract a few grand for snacks and cleaning your carpet. What remains is a pay and benefit package of a quarter of a million dollars. Average 2008 public school classroom teacher salary: $51,391. For a quarter of a million dollars you could hire Aristotle. The kids wouldn't have band practice, but they'd have Aristotle. (Incidentally this worked for Philip of Macedon. His son did very well.)
    Peej deals with many objections to his proposal, including:
    "Wouldn't having just one teacher--without even a qualified teacher's aide--narrow the scope of curriculum being offered to students especially at the secondary education level?"
    Maybe. But our public schools seem to have addressed this issue already. In the article on Education in the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, I found this quaint description of the subjects studied at a typical American high school: "Latin, Greek, French, German, algebra, geometry, physics, chemistry, physical geography, physiology, rhetoric, English literature, civics and history." Or, as we call them nowadays, a smattering of Spanish, Fun With Numbers, Earth in the Balance, computer skills, Toni Morrison, safe sex, and multicultural studies.
    The article will have you chuckling and moaning, at the same time. Check it out.

  • Also interesting is the Moocher Index, produced by Daniel J. Mitchell of Cato: the fraction of each state's population signed up for income-redistribution programs, less the state's poverty rate. So (roughly): "how many non-poor people are signed up for income-redistribution programs"

    New Englanders might want to note: Vermont is the number one moochiest state in the USA!, Maine not much better at #3, Massachusetts #5, Rhode Island #7, and Connecticut #9. New Hampshire comes in way down at #30.

    Mitchell admits it's quick-n-dirty. Still…

  • Arnold Kling is not impressed by The Squam Lake Report, a book detailing the recommendations of "leading academic experts" who met at Squam back in 2008, in order to "come up with ideas to prevent future financial crises." Among other criticisms:
    The authors display considerable faith in technocratic control. Their systemic risk regulator will have God-like powers to assemble and process information.
    Not good. Next time, try Lake Wobegon for such antics.

  • I think The Good Guys is a very clever and fun TV show. Unfortunately, I seem to be the only person in the USA who's watching it.

  • Probably everyone else knows this, but I only recently discovered it: how to use Firefox's spell-checker on any web page. Very useful for spell-checking my blog posts. From now on my only excuse for misspellings will be laziness, … or forgetfulness, … or some combination thereof.

    About the same as before, in other words. It's still neat, though.

  • Another thing everyone probably noticed before I did: Amazon is selling DVDs to order: they burn movies onto DVD-R media and ship 'em out to you.

    I discovered this while browsing for movies on my "fondly remembered and wish I could see again" list. And promptly found three that hadn't been available before: Slither, Between the Lines, and So Fine.

    Pricey! But Netflix doesn't have them. Hm.

    Problem: videophiles seem to unanimously agree that DVD-R is—to use a technical term—"crappy". Still, if it's a choice between DVD-R and nothing…

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:39 AM EDT

The Big Short

[Amazon Link]

Yes, this is two books in a row I've read about non-fictional economic turmoil. Good catch. This one is about our current troubles.

And I'm kind of ashamed to say this is the first book by Michael Lewis I've read. He's a gifted writer with great reporting skills, has a deft touch with characters, and a good storyteller. In addition to books about business and finance, he's written a couple books about sports: Moneyball and The Blind Side. The latter was made into that quite decent heartstring-tugging Sandra Bullock movie.

But Lewis's task here is to investigate why things tanked back in 2007-2008. He does this by telling stories about people who, against all prevailing opinion, managed to foresee the upcoming disaster. For example: Michael Burry, a private fund manager. He had built up a small and select clientèle by doing a decent job of equity-buying. To the consternation of many his clients, he started making ever-increasing bets against the home-mortgage market. Before things went south, this drove his investors slightly crazy; he stuck to his guns and wound up looking like a genius.

The people Lewis follows not only bucked conventional financial wisdom, they're also colorful in other ways, most notably in their lack of social skills. (For example, Burry finds out he has Asperger syndrome during all this.) Their conflicts with the more staid groupthinking peers are entertaining. It might make a good movie, and, well, guess what?

If you're interested in the origins of our financial crisis, you'll want to read this. Especially if, like me, you've always wondered what a "tranche" is. You won't want to read only this though; Lewis's stories aren't the only story. And he's very wedded to the good-guy/bad-guy scenario of wheeler-dealers duping innocent civilians into taking out huge mortgage loans they had zero chance of ever paying back. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac only get mentioned once, at the very end.

Still, Lewis has a very powerful point: the numbskull investment bankers, managers, and bond-rating agencies were systematically stupid, and got rich anyway. How does that happen?

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:38 AM EDT


stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A Spanish movie, without even Penelope Cruz. What was I thinking? I suppose the plot is supposed to be twisty and surprising, but (semi-spoiler ahead) if you've seen the Back to the Future movies, you'll pretty quickly figure out what's going on. It's "dark" though.

The movie follows Hector, a happily married Spaniard, moving into a brand-new house out in the Spanish boonies. While taking a break, scanning the woods surrounding his house with binoculars, he notices a disrobing woman. When he investigates, he finds himself attacked by a masked assailant who never got the message about running with scissors. Eventually, Hector runs into a research lab that just happens to have a prototype time machine on hand…

Who knew the Spanish were at the cutting edge of time-travel technology?

A critical favorite, it was a tad too arty for my taste. Apparently an American version is in the works. Maybe they'll get Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd to star; that would be… well, a real bad idea, actually.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:38 AM EDT

What Is That Which the Breeze, O'er the Towering Steep

… as it fitfully blows, now conceals, now discloses?

  • At Time, one "Kayla Webley" asks:
    Today is National Flag Day. Never heard of it? Yeah, me neither.
    I would imagine that being ignorant of Flag Day is a job qualification at Time.

  • They know what it is at Bing, however:

    [Flag Day @ Bing]

    While at the Google

    [Flag Day @ Google]

    … which is the same story as last year.

  • Firefox users can add Bing to its search engine list right here.

  • I suggest this agreeably geeky article at Slate, which allows me to embed this:

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:38 AM EDT

Inside Moves

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Here's a pretty good trivia question: what actor won two Oscars for the same role in his first movie appearance, then didn't make another film for 34 years? The answer is this guy, and this is his second movie.

It's also one of the movies I watched in bits and pieces when we briefly subscribed to HBO back in the early 80's. It only recently was released on DVD, and thought I'd give it a try.

It's the story of Roary, played by John Savage, a morose loner who attempts suicide by jumping out of the tenth story of a building. He survives, but is permanently crippled. On his release from the hospital, he happens to enter "Max's Bar", a watering hole for various people with nowhere better to go. Roary's mental state is not much better than his physical state, but (as it turns out) the bar is a haven for other folks with various similar predicaments. Most notable is bartender Jerry, who has a messed-up knee, and a trainwreck of a girlfriend, but still manages to play a mean game of basketball.

The movie can get (in retrospect) kind of corny and sentimental in spots, but it's still a decent yarn, and much more fun than you might suspect from my description above. It was directed by Richard Donner, in between Superman and the Lethal Weapon movies.

I found myself asking: whatever happened to John Savage? He was in The Deer Hunter, for goodness' sake. His IMDB page reveals that he's been working steadily since, in well over a hundred movies since then. I think I've seen a grand total of one, Godfather III.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:37 AM EDT

All I Want Is a Room Somewhere

… far away from the cold night air:

  • For movie fans and Lord of the Rings geeks, Lore Sjöberg speculates on how five famous directors might put their stamp on the starcrossed production of The Hobbit.

    I would personally like to see the encounter between Gollum and Bilbo, as written and directed by David Mamet.

    "He wants us to tell him what's in his f---in' nasty little pocketses, my preciousss? We will tears off his f---in' head and put it in his f---in' nasty little pocketses. Then we answerses his stupid riddle."

  • Pun Salad's official, unaware (and, as always, uncompensated) mascot, Cathy Poulin, is in the news, delivering a Really Big Check to the (so far unindicted) Mayor of Secaucus, New Jersey from her employer, Bob's Discount Furniture. Click to embiggen:

    [Really Big Check]

    Observations: Cathy's a tiny thing, ideal for making sofas and chairs look big in Bob's TV ads. And I love the burst effect around the check's dollar amount; I'm going to start doing that on my checks.

  • But it's not all frivolity here at Pun Salad today. For serious commentary on a matter of vital import, I suggest reading Red at Surviving Grady concerning Amalie Benjamin and whether she should wear her glasses on air. My vote: oh gosh yeah.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:36 AM EDT

The Forgotten Man

[Amazon Link]

This book about the Great Depression came out in hardcover in 2007, before our current economic mess really got going. So it's interesting (if not actually amusing or fun) to look for parallels between today and then.

So: we had a Republican president, widely derided as a do-nothinger in the face of economic turbulence, when actually he was an activist who managed to make things worse. In comes a charismatic demagogue who had no coherent plan to put the economy back on track, but mostly did things by the seat of his pants, based on whims and prejudiced opinion. The public is charmed, however. But again, all the frenetic activity failed to actually pull us out of the economic slowdown. Scapegoats aplenty were pilloried in the media and prosecuted. Opinion-makers had a scary and gullible fascination with (allegedly) smooth-running dictatorships abroad.

Not to say there aren't differences. (For example, the public seems to have cooled to the Obama charm much quicker than they did to FDR's.) But the similarities took me aback.

Ms. Shlaes tells her Depressing history by (primarily) telling stories about people, following them (roughly) between the late 1920's up to 1940 or so. Hoover and FDR, of course, but also their underlings, industrialists, and others: Rexford Tugwell, David Lilienthal, Andrew Mellon, Wendell Willike, Harold Ickes, etc. The book (for example) doesn't fall into generalities about the oppressiveness and arbitrariness of top-down government regulation: instead, it tells the story of the Schecter brothers, Jewish chicken wholesalers in Brooklyn who ran afoul (heh!) of the National Recovery Administration (NRA). These "forgotten" men took their case all the way to the Supreme Court and got the NRA declared unconstitutional.

Ms. Shlaes' approach can be a little jarring at times; she might be talking about the development of the Tennessee Valley Authority in one paragraph, then jumping in the next to the contemporaneous adventures of Harlem's Father Divine, a charismatic African-American cultist, who enjoyed tweaking the noses of the powerful.

All in all, an entertaining read, recommended.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:35 AM EDT

Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A pretty good Japanese comedy from a few years back. It's not quite as wonderful as Shall We Dance, but kept both Mrs. Salad and I chuckling all the way through. It won four Japanese Oscars, and was nominated for nine more. (It was beaten for Best Movie by Princess Mononoke, so… yeah, OK, I agree with that.)

It's the tale of a mousy housewife, married to a used car salesman. She's won a radio station contest to write a play to be performed live on air. (But it's revealed near the beginning that hers was the only contest entry.) It's a tender drama of a woman not unlike herself, working at a pachinko parlor, swept off her feet by an illicit romance…

So it's her big night. And the rehearsal goes swimmingly.

That is, until the diva lead actress demands just one little change in the minutes before airtime. This causes the lead actor to demand his changes. Which, in turn, requires more script surgery. Things snowball, and the action gets progressively more zany.

There's a nice little comic performance from Ken Watanabe, known to us Americans from Letters from Iwo Jima, Batman Begins, and The Last Samurai. He plays a truck driver caught up in the increasingly unlikely drama, as it plays out over the airwaves.

Consumer note: dubbing unavailable; you have to read the subtitles.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:35 AM EDT

The Road

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

For this movie, I found myself going to the thesaurus, looking up synonyms for "bleak" (dismal, dreary, gloomy, cheerless, desolate) and "agony" (distress, suffering, misery, …) All apply here.

A mysterious apocolypse has rendered the world barren. All plant and animal life has been (apparently) wiped out, except for scattered people. And most of them have reverted to savagery and cannibalism. Set against this are a man and his son, travelling for some reason to a goal variously described as "south" and "to the coast".

They have a few perilous encounters with fellow humans, most of which work out badly for all concerned. Mostly, though, they wander through an impressively dreadful landscape, scavenging for existence. As in most of these flicks, life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Not my cup of tea, although it got decent reviews. Netflix (incorrectly) thought I'd like it. Although I stayed awake for the whole thing, and I'll tack on an extra half star for a brief, but riveting, appearance by a hard-to-recognize Robert Duvall.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:34 AM EDT

Any Man Left on the Rio Grande

… is the King of the World, as far as I know:

  • Jim Geraghty's Morning Jolt mail points to this NYT Political Memo, which notes that Democratic Congresscritters are avoiding meeting the rabble they claim to represent. My own Congresswoman, Carol Shea-Porter, made the news:
    In New Hampshire, where open political meetings are deeply ingrained in the state’s traditions, Representative Carol Shea-Porter’s campaign Web site had this message for visitors: “No upcoming events scheduled. Please visit us again soon!”

    Ms. Shea-Porter, a Democrat, attended a state convention of letter carriers on Saturday, but she did not hold a town-hall-style meeting during the Congressional recess. In 2006, when she was an underdog candidate for the House, she often showed up at the meetings of her Republican rival, Representative Jeb Bradley, to question him about Iraq.

    Geraghty was quick to pick up on the "letter carriers" thing:
    Don't tell me that this anti-constituent blockade is necessary for security reasons, because they're fearful some Obamacare opponent will go postal.
    Heh! The kind of questions I'd ask of a Congressoid, given the opportunity, whould run in the Les Nessman vein:

    "Who are you trying to kid?"

    "What are you trying to pull?"

    "What kind of idiots do you take us for?"

  • The University Diarist picks up the Union Leader editorial on the murky personnel policies of the University Near Here, as they regard "a professor who storms around town on his BMW motorcycle, stopping only to reveal his genitals to women."

    This is probably not the kind of national, um, exposure the University wants.

I've Got Your Picture, I've Got Your Picture

… I'd like a million of them all round my cell:

  • Fans of Japanese monster movies will want to see Iowahawk's unearthed screenplay for Crudezilla, King of All Spills (1954). A snippet:

    Have you mapped out Plan C, Professor? Crudezilla is stomping toward Mt. Fuji, and Nippon Petroleum is already down 4.74 in heavy trading!

    Just putting the final touches on it now. Gentlemen, as we all know, the root cause of Crudezilla is Japan's unhealthy dependence on fossil fuel. Therefore I have constructed this highly scientific draft legislation to  mandate accelerated depreciation tax credits for green energy technology and hybrid vehicles.

    Read the whole th… oh, you've already clicked over?

  • Jay Tea dumps the specs on his new computer. I was salivating—right up to the point he said "Windows"—but what I really liked was his little postscript:
    About The Author:

    Jay Tea's new computer rocks, it's got the clocks, but it was obsolete before he opened the box.

    … so true.

  • Speaking of geeks: last week Granite Geek David Brooks described the seemingly frivolous effort of his son to calculate and visualize the "squiggliness" of New Hampshire town borders.

    This rang a little bell in my head: hadn't someone actually done some serious research on the "squiggliness" of national borders?

    Yup. You can read an Amity Shlaes column about it here. Key quote:

    Most nations have borders that are a combination of lines and bumps, so the authors developed a mathematical measure to quantify the extent of border bumpiness, which they called squiggliness. Since borders on oceans are extremely squiggly, the authors controlled for that and studied only the squiggliness of national borders with other nations. Their thesis is that it is better to be natural than artificial, and that squiggliness is good for growth and stability.
    I think you can check out the actual paper here (PDF).)

    I dropped David a note, and his followup post (which graciously acknowledges me) is here. He promises further study. Of course, national borders and town borders are set by totally different processes, but it would still be interesting to check out if any significant correlations pop up.

Last Modified 2010-06-17 8:26 AM EDT

The First Rule of Tautology Club

… is the first rule of Tautology Club:

  • Steven Landsburg checks out President Obama's speech at Carnegie-Mellon. Bemoaning runaway spending, the President advocated allowing the 2001 tax cuts "for the wealthiest Americans to expire". Comments Landsburg:
    Now as it happens, I've got this maple tree in my yard that's been growing much too fast for my tastes. In fact, it's been growing far faster than I have. But inspired by the president, I've found a solution. I'm going to stock up on E.L. Fudge Double Stuf cookies so I can grow faster than the maple.
    As a commenter points out: the only way to decrease spending is to spend less. If your local politician tries to obfuscate or fudge on the issue, try saying that to him or her very slowly, loudly, and repeatedly.

  • Another snippet from the President's speech, in which he offered sophisticated analysis of the political philosophy of the Republican Party:
    But to be fair, a good deal of the other party's opposition to our agenda has also been rooted in their sincere and fundamental belief about the role of government. It's a belief that government has little or no role to play in helping this nation meet our collective challenges. It's an agenda that basically offers two answers to every problem we face: more tax breaks for the wealthy and fewer rules for corporations.
    Has ever a bigger strawman ever been constructed by a sitting president? That's not even a decent caricature of libertarian "sincere and fundamental" principles. And the GOP is pretty far from being a reliably libertarian outfit; it's just closer, right now, than the Democrats are.

    I can't imagine what would be worse: whether Obama doesn't believe what he's saying, or whether he does.

  • At Cato@Liberty, Gene Healy has a must-read pair of posts detailing a couple of disturbing themes: people—allegedly grown people—desiring to see President Obama as a father figure, and the related demand that Obama be more openly emotional and empathetic in response to crisis.

    Of course, Obama is responsible for this, to an extent. Remember "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal"? In a country where rhetoric like that is not roundly ridiculed, and the speaker not hounded out of political life, it's little wonder that a lot of people started thinking Obama was more than just the usual phony pol, and began to imagine qualities in him that would satisfy their deep emotional needs.

    Healy notes especially this Maureen Down column that demands that Obama embrace and fulfill the "paternal aspect of the presidency." After all, what's the alternative for America?

    I don't know, maybe we could... grow up?
    Hope so. And soon.

Last Modified 2017-12-04 8:44 AM EDT

Mystic Crystal Revelation

… and the mind's true liberation:

  • Jeffrey Miron links to an NPR story describing the definitional acrobatics of states that have decided to stop exempting candy from sales tax. But what's "candy"? Well, …
    So put into practice, that means Reese's Peanut Butter Cups are taxable. Mike and Ike candies are taxable. Kit Kat is exempt.

    That's because Kit Kats have flour in them, explains Patrick Gillespie of Washington state's Department of Revenue. And flour is the not-so-secret ingredient that determines whether something is candy or not — at least if you're the taxman. If it has flour, it's not candy.

    A group of states working together to simplify and sync up their tax codes came up with the flour test. It took them two years. They insist that the flour lobby had no influence in the matter.

    Which reminds me of this old Bill Cosby routine, where he's forced into making breakfast for his children, and winds up serving them leftover chocolate cake. Key quote:

    And someone in my brain looked under "chocolate cake". And saw the ingredients: Eggs! Eggs are in chocolate cake! And milk! Oh goody! And wheat! That's nutrition!
    The bit is on YouTube, and if you have a spare nine minutes and twenty-five seconds:

  • At the Volokh Conspiracy, John Elwood uncovers the old WW2 OSS "Simple Sabotage Field Manual" used by folks looking to disrupt the Nazi war machine. One of the eye-opening sections describes how to monkey-wrench your local organization:
    1. Insist on doing everything through "channels." Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.

    2. Make "speeches." Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your "points" by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate "patriotic" comments.

    3. When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large as possible—never less than five.

    4. Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

    5. Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.

    6. Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.

    7. Advocate "caution." Be "reasonable" and urge your fellow-conferees to be "reasonable" and avoid haste which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.

    8. Be worried about the propriety of any decision—raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.

    I thought this must be a modern-day hoax, but apparently not.

  • "I'll take 'Game Show Champs' Daughters' for $1000, Alex."

    "Answer: Ken Jennings' daughter misheard this famous song lyric as 'This is the doggie in the angel's aquarium'."

    [Hints for your correct response: (a) the title of this post; and (b) here. Please be sure it is in the form of a question.]

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:34 AM EDT

Kansas City Confidential

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Back to the 1950s for a sorta-film noir.

A mysterious criminal mastermind (Preston Foster) accumulates a gang to knock over a prosperous Kansas City bank. His gimmick: his identity is hidden behind a mask. And he demands that the three guys he recruits mask themselves during the caper. So only "Mr. Big" knows who the participants are, and the flunkies are kept totally in the dark.

The heist goes flawlessly, but an innocent ex-con driving a flower truck (John Payne) is roped in by the crack K. C. cops. He's almost immediately exonerated, but is irked enough to do some of his own detective work in hunting the true culprits. Pretty soon he and the gang are down in Mexico: they're planning on splitting the loot, and he plans to … well, you'll have to watch the movie.

A nice twisty plot, and Mr. Big's true plan isn't revealed until the end. There's a girl (Coleen Gray) who shows up to make sure the hero goes straight. You'll almost certainly recognize the bad guys: Lee Van Cleef, Neville Brand, and the great toad-faced Jack Elam.

Consumer note: For a movie titled Kansas City Confidential, surprisingly little of the movie is actually set in Kansas City.

Last Modified 2012-10-03 11:34 AM EDT