President Obama: Not a Fan of the First Amendment

President Obama took to the airwaves in a recent Saturday address to try to breathe some life into the DISCLOSE Act, an effort by Democrats to squelch political speech they don't like, especially campaign ads.

I've previously discussed DISCLOSE here and here, adding my own translation of the acronym: "Democrat Incumbents S*** on Constitutional Liberties, Offer Sanctimonious Excuses". President Obama continued in the grand Sanctimonious Excuses tradition.

If that sounds familiar, it's because he'd done the same darn thing just four weeks previous. For President Obama, the fear that American citizens might be exposed to Unapproved Speech is never far from the surface.

Fortunately, it was to no avail. The DISCLOSE Act failed to clear the Senate last week; while all 59 Senate Democrats voted Yea, it needed at least one Republican vote, and didn't get it.

I think Obama's arguments deserve a close look, though. Hold your nose, here we go:

Back in January, in my State of the Union Address, I warned of the danger posed by a Supreme Court ruling called Citizens United. This decision overturned decades of law and precedent. It gave the special interests the power to spend without limit - and without public disclosure - to run ads in order to influence elections.

Obama's State of the Union comments about the Citizens United case were derided at the time as false and (also) false; even the New York Times noted that they didn't "seem quite right." In addition, the spectacle of the President harshly criticizing a Supreme Court decision with Justices sitting in attendance was cringe-inducing.

Now, as an election approaches, it's not just a theory. We can see for ourselves how destructive to our democracy this can become. We see it in the flood of deceptive attack ads sponsored by special interests using front groups with misleading names. We don't know who's behind these ads or who's paying for them. Even foreign-controlled corporations seeking to influence our democracy are able to spend freely in order to swing an election toward a candidate they prefer.

<voice imitation="count_floyd">Oooh, that's scary, scary stuff, kids!</voice> Destructive to our democracy! Special interests! Furriners!

Just as a point of comparison, Bob Woodward reported a few days back that Obama was confident in America's ability to "absorb a terrorist attack." But unregulated political ads—aieeee, they're the real panty-bunching threat to "democracy." (I suspect, however, that Obama equates "destructive to our democracy" with "severely critical to Democrat election chances.")

And as far as I know, despite Obama's ominous (and evidence-free) assertions, I have yet to see a single ad financed by one of those mysterious "special interests" or "foreign-controlled corporations"—let alone the "flood" that Obama claims is out there, somewhere.

Although I'm not sure. You know why? Because almost certainly, one of those ads "destructive to our democracy" would look exactly like any of the other ads. They wouldn't contain any special mind-rotting, democracy-destroying foreign-sounding additives. When Obama complains that we "don't know who's behind these ads or who's paying for them"— um, so what? Why is that a huge problem? Why is it even a small problem?

It's not.

The most deceptive ad I've seen so far this year has been this one, where Democrat Paul Hodes stands up and claims he's a "real fiscal conservative". No contemplated legislation will stop this sort of counterfactual claptrap, nor should it; the proper remedy is to point out its absurdity, over and over.

We've tried to fix this with a new law - one that would simply require that you say who you are and who's paying for your ad. This way, voters are able to make an informed judgment about a group's motivations. Anyone running these ads would have to stand by their claims. And foreign-controlled corporations would be restricted from spending money to influence elections, just as they were before the Supreme Court opened up this loophole.

Let's continue to consider the (DISCLOSE-compliant) Hodes ad. It was "paid for by "Hodes for Senate". Knowing this adds nothing. Doesn't make it any truer, or falser. Should I want to know who provided money to "Hodes for Senate"? A list of the top 10 contributors, where they live, a detailed analysis of their possible underlying motives for shoving money to the Hodes campaign? Or the top 100 maybe? And does it matter that "Hodes for Senate" is one of the most special of interests?

No. Who cares? "Disclosure" is a red herring issue meant to obfuscate the many provisions in DISCLOSE that would chill a lot of speech and prohibit some more.

So let me suggest Plan B: if you think it's important to know the "who paid for this and why" stuff in order to make an "informed judgment": I suggest you ignore any ad where that information is not provided to your satisfaction. Simply assume it's fanciful nonsense. Or not. Your call.

This is common sense. In fact, this is the kind of proposal that Democrats and Republicans have agreed on for decades. Yet, the Republican leaders in Congress have so far said "no." They've blocked this bill from even coming up for a vote in the Senate. It's politics at its worst. But it's not hard to understand why.

It's not hard to understand why: DISCLOSE was so spectacularly one-sided, they couldn't even persuade free-speech foe John McCain to hold his nose and vote for it. Not Susan Collins, nor Olympia Snowe.

The President has to at least pretend there are more complex reasons, though:

Over the past two years, we have fought back against the entrenched special interests - weakening their hold on the levers of power in Washington. We have taken a stand against the worst abuses of the financial industry and health insurance companies. We've rolled back tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. And we've restored enforcement of common sense rules to protect clean air and clean water. We have refused to go along with business as usual.

Ah, 'tis a simple tale of good vs. evil. As long as you don't consider trial lawyers or unions to be "special interests"… it's a sweet story.

Now, the special interests want to take Congress back, and return to the days when lobbyists wrote the laws. And a partisan minority in Congress is hoping their defense of these special interests and the status quo will be rewarded with a flood of negative ads against their opponents. It's a power grab, pure and simple. They're hoping they can ride this wave of unchecked influence all the way to victory.

Another little reality check: the DISCLOSE Act didn't restrict lobbying at all. As Timothy Carney notes: lobbyists could still talk to Congress all they wanted. What DISCLOSE tries to squelch is communication to the public. "Congress is upset that non-profits and companies might be going over Congress's head."

What is clear is that Congress has a responsibility to act. But the truth is, any law will come too late to prevent the damage that has already been done this election season. That is why, any time you see an attack ad by one of these shadowy groups, you should ask yourself, who is paying for this ad? Is it the health insurance lobby? The oil industry? The credit card companies?

Gosh, I don't know why people keep claiming that Obama's an anti-business demagogue, do you?

Here's a shocking alternative to Obama's borderline-paranoid suggestion: evaluate the merits of the claims the ad makes. Do it on your own. Engage in research. Use your critical-thinking skills, just like big boys and girls are supposed to do.

But more than that, you can make sure that the tens of millions of dollars spent on misleading ads do not drown out your voice. Because no matter how many ads they run - no matter how many elections they try to buy - the power to determine the fate of this country doesn't lie in their hands. It lies in yours. It's up to all of us to defend that most basic American principle of a government of, by, and for the people. What's at stake is not just an election. It's our democracy itself.

That's nice, but everything else in Obama's speech contradicts this picture of a citizenry able to deal with controversy, deception, fallacies, and outright lies that are endemic to the political season.

Either the voting public deserves the respect implied by the First Amendment, or it doesn't. Obama, it's clear, thinks it doesn't; it needs to be sheltered and protected from the "shadowy" and "foreign". Hence the need for onerous regulations and restrictions; political speech needs to be filtered through the elite before it's presented to the great unwashed masses. Our "democracy itself" is at stake. No matter if you have to throw one of our most important Constitutional liberties in the toilet.


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:25 PM EDT

The Secret in Their Eyes

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

This movie won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and (as I type) is #169 on IMDB's Top 250 Movies of all time. I agree: it's pretty darn good. Si usted no habla español, you'll have to read subtitles, but it's worth it.

Set in Argentina, it flips back and forth in time between the mid-1970s and (roughly) 2000. It centers on an investigator, Benjamin Esposito, who is obsessed with the brutal rape and murder of a beautiful newlywed. The 1970s segments show Young Esposito's initial investigation; his developing relationship with the widower; his hopeless love for his boss, Irene; his (very funny at times) interaction with his alcoholic partner Sandoval. The 2000 segments show Old Esposito's return to Buenos Aires after decades of exile, starting to write a novel about the events that still haunt him.

I especially enjoyed Ricardo Darín's performance as Esposito. I'd previously seen him in Nine Queens, and he's even better here. (Go figure: I've seen two Argentinian movies in my entire life and he's in both of them.)

I wish the movie had explained some things a bit better. Should you decide to watch, you might want to brush up a bit on your 1970s Argentine history first. I'm still not clear on a key plot point. Without spoilers: can anyone who's seen the movie tell me why it was necessary for him to leave, and not her?


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:22 PM EDT

Misfortune

From an actual fortune cookie I got the other day:

You can either be led by your fears or follow your passions.
Neither one sounds that great. Guys of a Certain Age will always prefer "Be sure you're right, then go ahead."

Tripwire

[Amazon Link]

This is book number three in Lee Child's series about Jack Reacher, an ex-MP who keeps falling into the middle of nefarious schemes masterminded by murderous psychopaths. You know, the sort of thing that happens to you and me all the time.

As the book opens, Reacher is down in Key West, digging swimming pools by day, and being a bouncer at a strip club by night. A private eye shows up looking for him; Reacher successfully deflects his attention. But then two thugs do the same. And then the PI winds up dead, apparently at the hand of the thugs.

What's going on? Reacher has to find out, so it's back to the mainland for him. He quickly meets up with Jodie, a woman from his past, and discovers that she's in pretty serious trouble herself. Behind it all is the previously-mentioned psychopath: Victor Hobie, ostensibly a lender-of-last-resort to businesses on the brink of financial failure. He's badly disfigured, has a hook where his hand used to be, and views murder and torture as a couple perks of his position. He and his henchmen are ruthless and resourceful, and (of course) put Reacher and Jodie in near-continuous peril.

Reacher is not simply skilled in fisticuffs and gunplay, he's a pretty good detective too. And Lee Child is not just a manly-man action writer, but has serious skills in drawing characters, location, and mood.


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:21 PM EDT

Temple Grandin

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

Originally a made-for-HBO movie, Temple Grandin scored 7 Emmy awards, and was nominated for 8 others. Nevertheless, it's good! (The 8.4 IMDB rating is good enough to put it into IMDB's Top 250 movies of all time, but they don't put made-for-TV movies in there.)

So it's not just another disease-of-the-month flick. It's the as-far-as-I-know true story of autistic Temple Grandin. It describes her triumph against formidable odds: not only her autism, but also prejudice against her disability and gender. (It doesn't help that her chosen field, animal husbandry, isn't exactly a hotbed of tolerance and sensitivity.) Fortunately, she has some formidable allies too, primarily her aunt (Catherine O'Hara), her mom (Julia Ormond), and an understanding science teacher (David Strathairn).

The movie steers clear of preachiness and sentimentality. It also has some very funny scenes. (Don't blink or you'll miss Temple's reaction when she first hears the term "animal husbandry.") Claire Danes is very good in her role as Temple; this will come as no surprise to those of us who saw her subtle performance in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.

If I had one complaint, it would be that they hammered on that opening-door metaphor a trifle overmuch. If you watch it, you'll see what I mean.


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:20 PM EDT

Letters To Juliet

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

I tried to come up with something clever to say here about Y chromosomes or testosterone, but (instead) opted for the simple truth: guys, there's nothing in this movie for us at all. You might want to just sit on the couch politely and quietly while someone of that Other Gender watches and, for all I know, enjoys it. Check to make sure your naughty bits are still in place afterwards.

(Or you can do what I did. The movie is rated PG for, among other things, "brief rude behavior". Try to spot it. Hint here)

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has a pretty good job as a magazine article fact checker, and a pretty fiancé ("Victor", Gael García Bernal). But she wants to be a Writer, and (obvious to us, not to her) Victor is more devoted to his trendy Manhattan restaurant than to her. They head off to Italy on a pre-honeymoon. In Verona, Sophie is captivated by the local tourist trap, the Casa Di Giulietta, Juliet's house. There's a balcony, and people (actually) leave letters for Juliet, which are picked up by …

Oh, never mind. The plot is contrived, but Sophie winds up traipsing all over the scenic Italian countryside with Vanessa Redgrave and her hunky grandson, looking for Redgrave's long-ago love. The grandson and Sophie initially despise each other. Gee, wonder what will happen there?

So that's another way for a guy to make this movie tolerable; try to figure out how many chick flick clichés you can spot coming. I only missed on one: I really thought they were going to have Redgrave's character kick the bucket, in order to Teach Sophie a Valuable Lesson about Following Your Heart Before It's Too Frickin' Late. But no.


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:25 PM EDT

I'm Kinda Shocked By This Poll

Rasmussen polled the upcoming New Hampshire Gubernatorial race:

The latest Rasmussen Reports statewide telephone survey of Likely Voters shows [incumbent Democrat Gov. John] Lynch picking up 48% support, while [GOP challenger John] Stephen, the former state Health and Human Services commissioner, is right behind with 46% of the vote. One percent (1%) prefer a different candidate, and four percent (4%) are undecided.
… which causes Rasmussen to move the race from "Solid Democratic" to "Toss-Up". Given that Governor Lynch won the two previous elections by 74-26 and 70-28, that's pretty big, I think.

Barackrobatics: Spot the Ellipsis

From the Remarks by the President at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's 33rd Annual Awards Gala:

But over the centuries, what eventually bound us together -- what made us all Americans -- was not a matter of blood, it wasn't a matter of birth. It was faith and fidelity to the shared values that we all hold so dear. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights: life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
A remarkable omission! (And I should know, because I just remarked on it.) Perhaps someone should check to see if the copy in the National Archives has been surreptitiously edited.

(Via Frank Ross at Big Journalism, who has video.)

Happy Constitution Day!

  • "Congress shall make no law…" Maybe they should have just stopped right there.

  • Speaking of the Constitution, Randy Barnett and William J. Howell propose the "Repeal Amendment":
    Any provision of law or regulation of the United States may be repealed by the several states, and such repeal shall be effective when the legislatures of two-thirds of the several states approve resolutions for this purpose that particularly describe the same provision or provisions of law or regulation to be repealed.
    Randy has more at Volokh. I'm usually not a fan of Tinkering with the Constitution, but I kind of like this.

  • At the "Torch", the blog of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Azhar Majeed notes yet another school trampling the First Amendment:
    As the 2010 election season enters full swing, Grambling State University (GSU) is prohibiting its students and faculty members from engaging in a wide swath of constitutionally protected political expression. Today's press release details that the Louisiana public university has forbidden students and faculty from transmitting any "campaign solicitations" via the university's e-mail system, a ban that includes any message that "implies your support" for a political candidate.
    My day job is being a Computer Guy at a University which shall remain nameless, but is nonetheless Near Here; many of my duties involve various e-mail issues.

    So it would be interesting should a similar controversy show up at work. The U has a poor record in dealing with such matters; it sure would be entertaining if they tried to pull a Grambling.

  • The New Hampshire Primary is over, and we've seen a marked decrease in Bill Binnie ads. However, they've been replaced by the even more irritating Paul Hodes ad in which he claims to be "a real fiscal conservative".

    Were I with the Ayotte campaign, I would have already started writing the rebuttal, heavily relying on the Club For Growth:

    Politicians are notorious for massaging the truth in order to appear fiscally conservative to voters, but what Hodes is declaring is outright deception. Does a fiscal conservative vote for the $814 billion Stimulus, ObamaCare, Cap and Trade, the auto bailout, and Cash for Clunkers? Does a fiscal conservative co-sponsor Card Check? Does a fiscal conservative vote with the Democrat Party 94.7% of the time? Hodes said he "gets rid of the pork," but then why did he vote 62 separate times to "keep the pork?"
    And, if I had a few seconds to fill, I'd refer to Captain Ed. Sample:
    Hodes claims to refuse earmarks.  According to Citizens Against Government Waste, that's flat-out false.  Hodes took 28 earmarks in 2010 for a total of $51 million; he took 29 in 2009 for a total of $33.6 million; and in 2008, he took 35 earmarks for a total of $35.5 million.  Maybe Hodes thinks he can make that claim because he didn't take any in FY2011, but there's a reason for that -- the Democrats have failed to even start the budget process for FY2011, which starts in seventeen days.
    "And there are also many other lies which Paul Hodes told, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even Comcast itself could not contain the commercials that should be written. Amen."

Why I Love My Local Paper

On the front page yesterday:

ALFRED, Maine -- The prosecution and defense are telling two wildly different stories about the death of Kelly Gorham as they began a trial for the Rochester, N.H., man accused of murdering her Monday.
The Sixth Amendment guarantees a speedy trial, and they apparently take that pretty seriously up in Maine.

(The story goes on to clarify that Ms. Gorham wasn't actually murdered Monday, but back in 2007.)

No Matter Who You Vote For

… the government always gets in:

  • Linus Torvalds, American. That's one for us.

  • Typing song lyrics into Google's new instant search: could this be a new YouTube genre? When the song is Tom Lehrer's "The Elements", the result is pretty awesome:

    Via Granite Geek.

  • And if you liked that, Viking Pundit has the same thing with Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire". ("We didn't start the fire, but we did cause three Google servers to melt down…")

  • David Friedman suspects that Eliza may be working for Comcast.
    "As I understand your concern, you are having issues with your internet connection, is that right?"

    David>Yes.

    David> It would also help if analysts read what I wrote and responded to it, instead of following a canned routine.

    (analyst) Thank you for confirming.

    I've had the same experience when I tried to ask them about Fox Business News disappearing from my lineup. I'm missing Stossel!

  • Yes, I voted. Thanks for asking. But see the title of this post.


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:32 PM EDT

Harry Brown

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

Alternate title: Death Wish in Old Blighty. Starring Michael Caine as Charles Bronson and Emily Mortimer as Vincent Gardenia. Sorry to give away almost the entire plot, but it's still pretty good.

Mr. Caine plays the title character, Harry Brown. He lives, roughly, in the worst place in England, called "the Estate": a huge beehive public housing development that is continuously terrorized by Roving Bands of Youths Committing Random Acts of Violence (WBAGNFARB). The cops are ineffectual against them.

God has also been unkind to Harry: his young daughter died years back, and, as the movie opens, his cancer-stricken wife is circling the drain in the local hospital. Worse, his best friend and fellow-geezer, Len, has been targeted for harrassment by a local gang; Len tries to retaliate on his own, but it doesn't work out well.

This is the last straw for Harry, and he has nothing to lose. (Well, except his life, but that's OK with him.) He's no Bruce Willis superman, but he is an ex-Royal Marine. He may have lost a step or two, but he hasn't forgotten much. He's seriously bad news for the bad guys.

The movie is very violent, but even more shocking is the utter Hobbesian degeneration of the "Estate". We note, but are not beaten over the head with, the antiseptic tidiness of the police offices contrasting with the filth and anarchy outside; the commander is a self-aggrandizing and effete fool. Emily Mortimer is (apparently) the only cop who really cares about fighting crime, or has any compassion for crime victims.

[Libertarian side note: According to the IMDB, the movie was filmed at Aylesbury Estate in South East London, and Wikipedia notes that it is "often used as a typical example of urban decay." Unsurprisingly, it's also a typical example of failed social engineering making the people it was designed to help much, much worse off.]


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:23 PM EDT

Heart of the Assassin

[Amazon Link]

This is the concluding entry of Robert Ferrigno's "Assassin" trilogy. To recap the scenario: the USA has disintegrated. A horrific dirty-nuke attack against major cities precipitated a civil war, resulting in the "Islamic Republic" in the North and West, the "Bible Belt" in the South, and a few other enclaves (Here's a map.)

Things are rapidly going downhill for the fractured nation. Fundamentalists condemn people to death for the slightest infraction of their hyper-sharianism. Much of the country is an anarchic mess, where life is even cheaper. The Aztlán Empire (née Mexico) is aggressing from the South. The evil mastermind behind the original attacks is still around, and has intentions of establishing a worldwide caliphate, not caring overmuch how much more mass murder he needs to engineer. He has vast riches, and an array of ruthless and resourceful henchpersons.

That leaves things looking pretty grim for our hero, Rakkim Epps. He's barely survived the first two installments in the series, but (fortunately) he's become an even more deadly killing machine. His task here is set for him by his lovely wife, Sarah: could he go to still-radioactive Washington D. C., in search of a valuable—one might even say sacred—artifact, hidden away in an abandoned secret bunker? Even for Rakkim, this is slightly more dangerous than running down to the 7-11 for a pint of Cherry Garcia.

Posts about the previous volumes in the series are here and here. Recommend you read them first.

This installment has the usual imaginative violence, suspense, and a sharply rendered array of colorful characters. Ferrigno plays things pretty straight, but (without spoiling things too much) when the Aztlan Empire decides to bomb a particular cultural shrine in the Bible Belt, even I said: OK, that's a little over the top.


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:26 PM EDT

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974

[2.5
stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Yorkshire is apparently not just the name of a kind of pudding, but an actual place in England. And back in the 1970s, it hosted a serial murderer known as the "Yorkshire Ripper". This inspired a series of four novels by English author David Peace, which (in turn) gave rise to a series of three BBC TV movies, of which this is the first. And Ridley Scott is (apparently) going to do a version set in the US of A. I got the first movie in the BBC trilogy via Netflix.

The protagonist, Eddie, is a journalist, slinking back to Yorkshire after a vague professional failure down south. He takes a job as a crime reporter for the local newspaper, and his first assignment is to cover the story of a missing young girl. He notices similarities to previous unsolved cases, gets curious, and starts poking around. Unfortunately, he meets up with a morass of unsavoriness: don't-rock-the-boat superiors, a corrupt and brutal police force, a shady developer, his loony wife, a homosexual prostitute, a reporter colleague who turns up dead in an "accident," the mother of one of the missing girls who knows more than she's telling. Eddie finds himself in well over his head.

It's all very bleak, dark, moody, and depressing. Eddie's not much of a hero. And (slight spoiler alert) there is no uplifiting, inspiring ending. Held my interest, but not really my cup of tea. Unfortunately, I have this compulsion: you see one movie in a trilogy, you really have to see them all, right? So, eventually…


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:26 PM EDT

They Talk About Me Like a Dog

… talkin' about the clothes I wear, but they don't realize they're the ones who's square.

  • I really wish he'd sung the whole song. (Language Log notes there are alternate sources. Is Bobby Brown a more likely source than Jimi Hendrix? More respectable?)

  • For everyone waiting for this campaign promise to come true:
    The Obama plan will lower health care costs by $2,500 for a typical family by investing in health information technology, prevention and care coordination.
    … don't hold your breath:
    Health insurers say they plan to raise premiums for some Americans as a direct result of the health overhaul in coming weeks, complicating Democrats' efforts to trumpet their signature achievement before the midterm elections.
    Gee, I don't see why they're faring so poorly in the polls.

  • The Indispensable Geraghty writes on the field of candidates offered by the New Hampshire GOP for Judd Gregg's US Senate seat. Primary's less than a week away, and Ovide's still my guy. (Since his campaign was the only one who answered my question about the Ryan Roadmap.)

  • Jay Tea notes the rhetorical whiplash exhibited by your modern-day progressive on matters of religious groups engaging in First Amendment-protected activities that many find offensive. Ground Zero Mosque? Green Light! Mass Koran burning? Red Light! Just don't get behind them in traffic.

    Roger Pilon at Cato has further insightful observations.

  • Arnold Kling has some good quotes, and I especially liked this one from Ed Pinto:
    Here's my proposal to bring Congress's penchant for imprudent lending to a quick end: All congressional pension assets should be invested in funds backed solely by the high- risk loans mandated by federal housing legislation. I have a feeling that things would change fast.
    Skin in the game, baby.

  • How good could a movie titled Mrs. Washington Goes to Smith be?

The Good the Bad the Weird

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

The title, of course, is a reference to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. While that was an Italian movie with American actors shot in Spain, this is a Korean movie with Korean actors shot in China. Is this a great country or what?

It's set in (I think) 1930's Manchuria, shortly after the Japanese invasion. As in the the original, Good is a bounty hunter, Bad is an amoral ruthless killer, and the Weird is a small-time thief who is seemingly thrown into a scheme way over his head. All three are at odds over a mysterious treasure map, which Bad has been hired to snatch from a Japanese big shot on a train. Good is on the scene to either kill Bad, or get the map himself. And Weird just is there to score some loot from the train passengers, but he winds up with the map. And the chase is on.

The movie is inventive, funny in spots, with some truly spectacular scenery, cinematography and production design. The plot, however, is muddled: there are huge holes, loose ends, inexplicable occurrences. (Who are those guys? Where did those other guys go? Why are those guys doing that? Who has the map right now? What happened to those kids? And so on.)

Also, the ending sucks. (I see rumors of an alternate ending, which they should have used.)


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:27 PM EDT

Little Brother

[Amazon Link]

I usually like the books I read. This one came with good credentials: it won the 2009 Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel. It got a rave from Ron Bailey at Reason. The author, Cory Doctorow, is a famous blogger. And yet, it's awful. Cardboard heros. Strawman villains. Leaden dialog.

The narrating protagonist, Marcus, is a teenage geek whiz kid with more than a little Ferris Bueller in him. He lives in a roughly-present-day San Francisco, loves gaming, computers, and circumventing surveillance systems. One day he cuts school, meeting with his friends for a little alternate-reality gaming downtown. Unfortunately, his fun is spoiled when terrorists decide to blow up the Bay Bridge and BART's Transbay Tube, killing thousands. Even worse, the Department of Homeland Security is on the scene, sweeping up Marcus and his friends, taking them to an undisclosed location. (Oh, heck, I'll disclose it: Treasure Island.)

Marcus is held for days under suspicion of being in league with the terrorists; it's never really explained why. Eventually he's released, but to a world that has Changed Forever. The DHS has essentially taken over the city, increased spying on the citizenry by a thousandfold, cracking down hard on anyone who raises a peep. Every seventy pages or so, those four thousand dead San Franciscans get mentioned. But their killers aren't the villians here: they are clearly just an excuse for the power-mad government's crackdown. Outraged, Marcus declares war against the new anti-terror tyranny, and over the next few months, sets himself up as a leader of a half-vast cybernetic resistance.

The book stacks the deck unmercifully; Doctorow makes Ayn Rand look like a relativist wimp. The villians (DHS and its enforcers) are lip-curling bullies and sadists. About all they're missing is mustaches they can twirl, cackling as they tie Marcus to the BART tracks. The DHS brutes aren't on their own, of course: they're taking orders from the top, in the form of Kurt Rooney, "known nationally has the President's chief strategist". (Gosh, do you think that could just possibly be a thin disguise for someone else with the same initials?)

Marcus, and everyone on his side, is as self-righteous as the villians are eeevil. In this epic struggle between the Little Guys vs. Vicious Oppressors, I was sorely tempted to cheer for the VOs, simply because the LGs are so tediously obnoxious. And it's not just the irritating simplistic lectures about civil liberties, and how the Left is right about everything, all the time: Marcus is compelled to core-dump facts, observations, opinions, and judgments on any topic whatsoever upon us poor readers. Sculpture. Kerouac. Burritos. Rosa Luxembourg. Crypto. Flooring. Abbie Hoffman. And on and on. And on. Imagine the most annoying know-it-all seventeen-year-old kid you've ever met, then imagine him rambling on for a few hundred pages. That's Marcus. He's like a nonstop Buffalo Springfield song lyric without the subtlety.

Example: nearing a big climactic scene in downtown SF, Marcus discloses his hatred for the Civic Center, and action stops for a page-and-a-half discussion of Jane Jacobs and her critiques of urban planning. I liked Ms. Jacobs too, but… sheesh, not here.

So, anyway, I didn't like it. But, hey, you might. (And, honestly, I might have liked it, if I were forty or fifty years younger. Because I was once an annoying know-it-all seventeen-year-old kid myself.)


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:28 PM EDT

The Dawn Patrol

[Amazon Link]

If you have a hankering to read a crime novel where the hero is a San Diego surfing private investigator, you almost certainly can't do better than this one.

Aforesaid hero is Boone Daniels (really), a very laid back surfer who does his PI gig only when it's necessary to shore up his finances. His true devotion is to the Dawn Patrol, a group of five that paddle out in the early AM off Pacific Beach in San Diego to surf, banter, then surf some more.

But the day job intrudes: Boone is employed by an insurance company that's on the hook for a burned-down warehouse owned by San Diego sleazebag Dan Silver. The insurance company believes (correctly) that Silver torched the warehouse himself, and is relying on one of Silver's employees, an ecdysiast named Tammy, to testify to that fact in an upcoming trial. But now Tammy's gone missing, and that's where Boone comes in, teamed with a beautiful claims investigator named Petra.

Problem is that we've just seen (on page 5) a young lady tossed to her death off a motel balcony. Oh oh. Also somehow involved are a group of five girls living in the strawberry fields just outside the city.

Winslow writes with punch: everything's in present tense, lots of one-sentence paragraphs. Not only does he do action and suspense well, he tosses in a lot of colorful characters; the other members of the Dawn Patrol are carefully drawn, and they have major roles to play in the plot. Scenic San Diego, its history and geography, is lovingly described.

It might make a pretty good movie.


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:19 PM EDT

Barackrobatics: In the Right Direction (September Update)

In response to this morning's news that July's unemployment rate was 9.6%, a slight increase from June's 9.5%, the President ventured out into the Rose Garden and spake:

Well, I will be addressing a broader package of ideas next week. We are confident that we are moving in the right direction, but we want to keep this recovery moving stronger and accelerate the job growth that's needed so desperately all across the country.
And:
But the key point I'm making right now is that the economy is moving in a positive direction. Jobs are being created. They're just not being created as fast as they need to, […]
And:
And the evidence that we've seen during the course of this summer and over the course of the last 18 months indicate that we're moving in the right direction. We just have to speed it up.
If you're keeping score, this makes September the seventh consecutive month in which President Obama has insisted at some point that the economy is headed in the right direction. (And 17 out of the last 18 months.)

Oh, one more quote:

[The President] stated today that the trend of employment had changed in the right direction. He announced after the Cabinet meeting that the Department of Labor had informed him ...
That's from the New York Times.

The date on the article is January 21, 1930.

And the quoted President is Herbert Hoover.

Plus ça change…

Bill Binnie Circles the Drain

The new Magellan Strategies poll on the New Hampshire GOP race for the US Senate nomination still has Kelly Ayotte in front by 13 points.

But the surprise is: the guy she's 13 points in front of is Ovide Lamontagne. Bill Binnie has faded into a sold third place. Magellan notes that Binnie's numbers have dropped 12 points since their last poll in May, when he was only 9 points behind Ayotte.

Given Binnie's all-summer onslaught of TV ads, this suggests that the more people see his ads, the less likely they are to support him. That certainly matches my own feelings.

Elements of Justice

[Amazon Link]

Elements of Justice appeared on this list of the "Top Ten Pro-Liberty Books of the Decade", issued late last year. The author, David Schmidtz, is a professor at the University of Arizona, with positions in both the Philosophy and Economics department there. The book was available at the library of the University Near Here, so I decided to check it out. And (in my totally unqualified opinion) it's quite good.

Schmidtz has an easygoing, modest, and accessible style. He's charitable to his ideological adversaries, even as he (to my mind) destroys their arguments. There are flashes of humor, and some of the chapters have exercises for further discussion. (Valuable for classes, and those of us who have earnest debates with other personalities living inside our heads.) It might help if you've read Rawls' A Theory of Justice and Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia first, but they aren't really prerequisites. You can follow Schmidtz's discussion fine without them.

Schmidtz's first insight is implied by the title: justice is not a single thing, but more like a "constellation of somewhat related elements." The elements that Schmidtz explores are desert, reciprocity, equality, and need. Those elements are not just distinct; they can also contradict each other. So what "justice" demands in any particular case will depend very much on real-world context; not just the details of a particular happenstance, but the way the world operates, the way real people interact. Schmidtz devotes four long sections to each of the elements above; he then finishes up with a look at the theories of Rawls and Nozick (also considering the critiques of others over the past decades).

Political philosophy is not everyone's cup of tea, but I (kind of) like it. It reminded me of those long-past Usenet arguments on talk.politics.theory. If you would like to see of Schmidtz's expository style works for you, this article at Cato Unbound is adapted from a section of this book.


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:33 PM EDT

A Dish of Dollars

… laid out for all to see:

  • David Brooks, the one and only Granite Geek, gloats: "Global-warming skeptic turns into a convert". He's referring to Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist.

    Except as Jonathan H. Adler and Ronald Bailey point out, that's a little (or actually, a lot) too glib. Adler's summary:

    Yet Lomborg's new position is not much of "U-turn," striking or otherwise.  Lomborg has acknowledged the reality of human-induced warming in all of his books, while discounting some of the more apocalyptic scenarios.  In his 2007 book Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming (which I reviewed here), he declared that climate change was a "problem" and recommended a strikingly similar response.  Specifically, he called for the imposition of a carbon tax and urged a global commitment to financing climate-friendly R&D to the tune of $25 billion per year.  His new proposal is more ambitious - a larger tax to fund even more research - but otherwise is much the same.  So, too, is his overall message: Climate change is one of many problems the world faces, must compete with other priorities, and should be addressed in a cost-effective manner.  Perhaps what's really changed is not Lomborg's perspective, but the degree to which commentators actually pay attention to what he writes.
    David Brooks is kind of the science guy at the Nashua Telegraph, but it seems that Adler's implied criticism applies: he pays a lot more attention to what Lomborg's adversaries allege about him than what Lomborg is actually saying.

  • Here's a question that got my attention: "Did Bill Gates waste a billion dollars because he failed to understand the formula for the standard deviation of the mean?" (Answer: yeah, probably. Good stuff at the link.)

  • Gosh, Walter Russell Mead has some good advice for students in this Back To School season. It's practically unexcerptable, but do check it out.

    The trick is to get it to a student who (a) is not too young to benefit from Mead's advice; (b) is not too old to benefit from Mead's advice; and (c) is not a pigheaded know-it-all psychologically unable to take Mead's advice. Good luck on that.

    My advice to students: pay real close attention to that whole "standard deviation" thing.


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:22 PM EDT

Crossfire

[Amazon Link]

I confess to a certain (literal) morbid curiosity of what will happen to the "Dick Francis" brand, now that he's recently passed away. This book (like a few previous) are billed as co-written with his son, Felix. Are they going to keep that up? If so, for how long? How many books would Felix sell on his own? As I type, Crossfire has just debuted at position #11 on the NYT bestselling hardcover fiction list; it's hard to see a publisher just giving up a moneymaker like that, even with the inconvenience of the author being dead.

Anyway, this one is pretty good.

The hero is Tom Forsyth. As the book opens, he's just had one of his legs involuntarily shortened by an Afghan IED. So it's back to England for him, and probably the end of his Army career. After a stint in rehab, he has nothing better to do than return home, although this reminds him of why he left home to join the Army: his mother is aloof, he and his stepfather don't get along either. So he plans on his stay being temporary, but…

As you might expect, horses are involved. Tom's mother is a successful trainer, but her horses have been underperforming of late, losing races they were expected to win. Mom and Stepdad are acting secetive. What's going on?

As you also might expect, what's going on involves intrigue and danger. It turns out that England is almost as dangerous for Tom as Afghanistan was. Fortunately, Tom's as resourceful and brave as any Francis hero. (And while Tom is slightly bitter, he's bitter about losing his foot. He's unapologetic about his service to Queen and country. Gratifying.)


Last Modified 2012-10-02 2:22 PM EDT