We Twa Hae Run About the Braes

… and pu'd the gowans fine:

  • If you feel like working up some outrage at the end of the year, Shikha Dalmia will do the trick; she outlines how our country will be pummelled by the nightmare that is ObamaCare: "It is one huge entrapment scheme that will turn patients and providers into criminals."
    ObamaCare is pushing America down the road to serfdom, but neither its opponents nor advocates seem to have noticed. It is time for civil libertarians in both parties to wake up and strangle it before it strangles what’s left of American freedoms.
    Other than that, though, it's fi—oh, wait a minute, there's plenty of other things wrong with it too.

  • But that's the result of a new government program. How are the old ones doing? Well, according to Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar of the Associated Press, if you're approaching retirement:
    [An average-wage, two-earner couple] retiring in 2011 will have paid $614,000 in Social Security taxes, and can expect to collect $555,000 in benefits. They will have paid about 10 percent more into the system than they're likely to get back.
    It's a good thing the Federal Government grabbed all that money from those folks. Otherwise they might have done something foolish with it, like invest.

    But it's the opposite with Medicare:

    Upon retiring in 2011, they would have paid $114,000 in Medicare payroll taxes during their careers.

    But they can expect to receive medical services — from prescriptions to hospital care — worth $355,000, or about three times what they put in.

    Ah. So while they're getting screwed on Social Security, they're screwing current taxpayers on Medicare. Good plan! (Via the unamused Power Line.)

  • If you're looking for New Year's Resolutions, James Lileks has shared his. Example:
    I resolve to stop picking up things the demonstrators sell in grocery stores just to make them feel like they did a good job, then putting them back when I'm in another aisle. I will put them back where they really belong.
    Yeah. Sometimes I get the uncomfortable feeling that Lileks is spying on me. Also, Scott Adams.

  • Another annual tradition: predictions for the upcoming year. Relatively few pundits will review their predictions for this year, but Lore Sjöberg bravely tackles the task. Example:
    I predicted: “There will be no oil spills this year. If there is one, it will be minor. If there’s a major spill after all, it’ll be off India or Japan or something, not near the United States. If, for some reason, there’s a major spill in U.S. waters, Kevin Costner will have no ideas about how to contain it. And if Costner does come up with some sort of oil-cleanup plan or device, he will not do so two weeks after getting a sex change.”

    What happened: Kevin Costner is still a man. I nailed this one.

See all you good folks next year.

Last Modified 2011-01-06 6:20 AM EDT

The Age of the Infovore: Succeeding in the Information Economy

[Amazon Link]

I'm a reader of Marginal Revolution, where the author, Tyler Cowen, blogs with Alex Tabarrok. (They are both economics professors at George Mason.) So I knew Tyler was likely to write an interesting book. And when I noticed that the library at the University Near Here had a copy, I snapped it up.

UNH had the hardcover version, which, although with the same content, has a totally different title: Create Your Own Economy: The Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World. Tyler says he likes the title and cover of the paperback better. I think neither title really catches the book's theme though.

Nor does the product description at Amazon:

The Age of the Infovore will show you how to manage the massive daily flow of data better, no matter how adept you may already be at Facebooking, watching television, or studying for that test.
I'm trying to come up with a more diplomatic way of saying this, but … OK, that's just not true. They could equally well have said that you'll lose ten pounds, become a better dancer, and seduce beautiful women. You will not do any of that, nor learn how to manage data better, by reading this book.

Somewhat surprisingly, the main theme of the book is autism. We might think of autism as a disorder, or a handicap; Tyler wants instead to get beyond that, and simply observe that autistics have a different "cognitive profile" than non-autistics, made up of not only cognitive weaknesses but also relative cognitive strengths. For example, autistics have strong skills in "ordering knowledge" and "perceiving small bits of information" in their preferred areas.

Tyler further notes that we're moving to an era where autistic cognitive strengths are likely to become more important. Good for them, also good for us. In a very wide-ranging discussion, he explains how this might play out in politics, economics, art, and other fields. (And, in a final chapter, its effect on the "future of the universe." I shit you not.)

Tyler's style is breezy and casual. Lots of gee-whiz short sentences, in kind of a cross between your typical self-help tome and USA Today. I would have actually preferred a bit more academic tone and content. Bottom line: a very interesting read, just not at all what I expected.

Consumer note: the hardcover is available new (as I type) from Amazon for $3.72, a veritable bargain, even though you have to endure Tyler's less-preferred title.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:52 AM EDT

Easy A

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Another young-people movie I mostly liked. The "A" in the title stands for the same thing it did in The Scarlet Letter, and very similar ground is covered here, although with many more laughs.

Emma Stone plays Olive, an impressively intelligent young lady attending an Ojai, California high school. It's the usual hotbed of teen hormones, hypocrisy, ostracism, and peer pressure. Constantly hectored by her friend, Olive makes up a story about an intimate weekend with a community college guy from the next town over. Through an unlikely, but very amusing, series of events, she quickly becomes known as the school tramp—all while never actually, y'know, doing anything.

Emma Stone is very good here, and the adult supporting cast is great: Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci as her super-supportive parents, Thomas Haden Church as the best English teacher ever, Lisa Kudrow as the worst guidance counselor ever, and even Malcolm McDowell in a small role as the school principal.

So it's all very clever and zany. One amusing bit is where Olive wishes she were in an 80's John Hughes movie, unaware of the fact that she pretty much is. The only stale part is the movie's handling of the small subset of evangelical Christian students, who are (of course) hypocritical and judgmental prigs. Gosh, never seen that before.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:48 AM EDT

In the Moon of Red Ponies

[Amazon Link] This is (as I type) the final entry in James Lee Burke's "Billy Bob Holland" series. In this episode, Billy Bob is a defense attorney, settled down near Missoula, Montana, and has married Temple Carrol, a private investigator. Life is good.

But not for long. An evildoer from the previous book, Wyatt Dixon, has been sprung from prison on a technicality. Since his previous exploits involved burying Temple alive, Billy Bob is concerned.

But in addition, there's Johnny American Horse, a Native American given to seeing things in his dreams that predict troubles ahead. Amber, daughter of a U. S. Senator, arrested on drunk and disorderly charges; she's sweet on Johnny. Darrell, a speed freak cop, who's dangerously infatuated with Amber. And above it all is a dark conspiracy involving a research facility robbed by persons unknown.

Burke's writing is colorful as always, and his characters undergo unusual amounts of physical and mental anguish.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:49 AM EDT

The Lady Vanishes

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

An Alfred Hitchcock movie from 1938, and it seems even older than that. It's an oddball mixture of romantic comedy, mystery, and spy thriller.

Young Iris is off in a central-European ski resort with a couple girlfriends, a last fling before she gets married. The night before she's due to leave, she meets up with a seemingly ditzy but pleasant elderly woman, Miss Froy (played wonderfully by Dame May Whitty). She also encounters (in fact, meets-cute) Gilbert (Michael Redgrave, father to Vanessa and Lynn), an irritating musician.

After they all pile on a train, Miss Froy—you might have guessed—vanishes mysteriously. Even more mysterious, a number of passengers in the compartment insist that that Miss Froy was a figment of Iris's imagination. Iris begins to doubt herself, but Gilbert believes in her. Their investigation reveals that nothing is as it seems.

The movie has a number of other colorful characters: a pair of Brits that are anxious to get word of an important cricket match, frustrated at every turn. And there are a couple of scandal-shy lovers married to other people; he turns out to be a total weasel.

Things move slowly. Today, they could fit this plot into a 60-minute episode of Bones.

Consumer note: the cover art/link at the right goes to the Criterion Collection edition of the movie. Which is not what Netflix sent; instead we got a cheapie from a no-name publisher containing an intro by Tony Curtis, stumbling over his trite cue card lines. Bleah.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:49 AM EDT

Introducing the NYTBEWU-3000

The Comics Curmudgeon occasionally refers to the Archie strip as being written by the "Archie Joke-Generating Laugh Unit 3000" (aka the AJGLU-3000). The point being that only a machine completely divorced from human experience could generate a comic strip so devoid of actual humorous content.

Somewhat less well known is the box invented by the same folks, the NYTBEWU-3000: the New York Times Boilerplate Editorial-Writing Unit 3000. And what better time to deploy it than on Christmas weekend, when all the hu-mans have better things to do than to try to come up with a Fresh Take on a Pressing Problem.

And so we have "The Looming Crisis in the States", which is pretty clear about rattling off the problem:

Starved for revenue and accustomed to decades of overspending, many states have been overwhelmed. They are facing shortfalls of $140 billion next year. Even before the downturn, states jeopardized their futures by accumulating trillions in debt that they swept into some far-off future.
Just as Isaac Asimov's fictional robots had their immutable Three Laws of Robotics, so does the NYTBEWU-3000 have its own overriding directives. And one is: "The NYTBEWU-3000 shall never simply advocate spending restraint by government." This rule applies even if the Unit has just described serious problems due to irresponsible overspending. This is one of the ways you can detect the artificiality of the intelligence involved. Any human would recognize the disconnect here, and at least attempt to cover it up, but the NYTBEWU-3000 just barrels along:
But if states act quickly to deal with their revenue losses and address their debt — and receive sufficient aid from Washington — there is still time to avoid a crisis.
Note how the NYTBEWU-3000 is programmed to (clumsily) turn an overspending problem into a "revenue loss" problem.

But more important is that "sufficient aid" bit. Simply calling it "money" is counterproductively honest, so the NYTBEWU-3000 is coded to euphemize it to "aid" instead. Similarly the real source of the money (that would be "federal taxpayers") is obfuscated to "Washington". Which (of course) is assumed to be sitting on magical infinite piles of it.

Again, an actual human might foresee the obvious objection ("Wait a minute. This effectively means that taxpayers residing in fiscally responsible states would bailing out taxpayers in profligate states, right?") and attempt to deal with it. But the NYTBEWU-3000 isn't that smart.

Another telltale:

The nation's richest taxpayers just got a windfall in the federal tax deal extorted from President Obama by Republican senators. States should not shy away from asking for more help from those most able to pay.
Which demonstrates another couple of directives the NYTBEWU-3000 must obey:
  • In editorials dealing with fiscal policy, the NYTBEWU-3000 shall always treat increasing taxes on 'the rich' as the solution to any fiscal problem.

  • The NYTBEWU-3000 shall always refer to forcing people to pay more taxes as "asking for more help" from them.

I look forward to the day when people go to New York Times editorials for insightful analysis about as often as they check out Archie for a hearty laugh.

Suggested supplementary reading, written by non-artificial intelligences: George Will:

Oliver Twist did not choose his fate. California, New York and Illinois - three states whose conditions are especially parlous - did. And in November, each of these deep-blue states elected Democratic governors beholden to public employee unions.
And Steven Marlenga, who details the fiscal tomfoolery by which desperate state governments have tried to avoid painful budgetary choices.

The Girl Who Played With Fire

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This is (in case you've been cut off from civilization for a few years) the movie version of the sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Some sequels stand on their own, but you'll really want to have (at least) seen the previous movie in order to understand what's going on here.

The titular Girl, Lisbeth Salander, is basking in the sunny Caribbean when warning cyberbells go off: one of the villains from the previous movie is behaving badly. So it's back to dreary Sweden for her. Meanwhile, her co-hero from the previous book, crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, is managing an exposé of the Swedish sex-exploitation trade in which the kinks and perversions of numerous Swedish bigwigs in business and government are to be revealed.

Almost immediately, a number of people involved are murdered, and Lisbeth is framed. Both she and Mikael work independently to find the true culprits. Along the way, revelations are made about Lisbeth's past history.

It's not for the kids. (MPAA: "brutal violence including a rape, some strong sexual content, nudity and language.") And—hope you won't consider this a spoiler—the ending is pretty much a cliffhanger for the next installment.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:44 AM EDT

Without Fail

[Amazon Link]

This is number 6 in Lee Child's series of novels about Jack Reacher. (Number 15 was published a few months back. Will I catch up?) Here, Reacher gets pretty close to an actual job, different from the ad hoc episodes of thwarting evildoers seen in previous books.

It's set after Election Day in a year divisible by four. The Vice President-elect has been receiving credible assassination threats. The female Secret Service agent in charge of protecting him, M. E. Froelich, is at her wits end—has she missed anything? Froelich used to be the sweetie of Reacher's late brother Joe, and is vaguely aware of Reacher's talents. So she tracks him down, and asks him to attempt to penetrate the Secret Service's protections.

And, of course, Reacher does. More than once.

Naturally, the logical thing is for Reacher (and another ex-Army sidekick, Frances Neagley) to "consult" with the Secret Service in order to counter the actual would-be assassins. It's tough, because the bad guys are ruthless and clever. (They also want to strike fear into the heart of the VP-E, so there are multiple warnings delivered, variously gruesome and mysterious.) And there are complications due to Froelich's past relationship with Joe.

As in previous books, Reacher is both a man of action and a decent detective. And Child's prose goes down like water. Although he is (surprisingly) a Brit, he clearly loves describing American scenery, from Atlantic City, to D. C., to remote North Dakota.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:43 AM EDT

Merry Christmas!

As always, Pun Salad encourages its readers to avoid behavior that might make baby Jesus cry, and (otherwise) have a great Christmas.

(Pun Salad is aware that some say the <blink> tag makes baby Jesus cry. Pun Salad hopes that's not true.)

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:56 AM EDT

You Think You Can Hide

… but you're never alone:

  • David Harsanyi joins the Abolish the FCC club.

    It's not that we don't need the FCC's meddling, it's that we don't need the FCC at all. Rather than expanding the powers -- which always seem to grow -- of this outdated bureaucracy, Congress should be finding ways to eliminate it.

    Good idea. Write your elected representatives.

  • Say what you will about Patrick Hynes, Groksters, but he knows how to get linked by the Blogfather.

  • They played Klingon Boggle on the The Big Bang Theory awhile back, so can a Klingon version of "A Christmas Carol" be far behind? No, it can't. (Includes video! But no Michael Dorn.)

  • This is fun to watch even with the sound off:

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:52 AM EDT

Someday I'm Gonna Be Happy

… but I don't know when just now:

  • The University Near Here came in at number 58 on Senator Tom Coburn's list of this year's top 100 money-wasting activities of Your Federal Government. It refers to a $700K grant to study and model greenhouse gas emissions from organic dairies. Specifically, from the cows therein.

    The Granite Geek is pissed, refusing even to link to the Union Leader story. I'm more in agreement with Grant Bosse:

    Any diversion of taxpayer money can always be justified by arguing that it helps someone. But why should taxpayers foot the bill to subsidize organic farmers? Other than to help politicians curry favor with the beneficiaries? This subsidy, of limited and questionable value, comes at the expense of traditional dairy farmers. And firemen. And teachers. And software billionaires. Picking winners and losers in the marketplace is not a proper function of government; even when it is done for the noble purpose of studying cow farts.
    And, no, this was not a cheap trick to get "farts" into my blog.

    Well, not entirely. Also, as Coburn quotes one of our guys saying, "[c]ows emit most of their methane through belching, only a small fraction from flatulence." So there.

    If you're ever in the UNH area, please feel free to pass by the research farm and sniff their dairy air.

  • Sorry, that was a pun. The people responsible have been sacked.

  • I'm sad to hear of the passing of Steve Landesberg. Although for a moment I thought we'd lost Steve Landsburg. He's still around.

  • Megan McArdle notes that the "Gee-Whiz Graph" lives today, well after it was eviscerated in Chapter 5 of How to Lie with Statistics.

    HtLwS was first published in 1954, which makes it almost older than I am.

  • I (like many) think the FCC should just go away, but even if you disagree, you might want to read Jim Harper on why regulation of the Internet by the FCC is a bad idea.

    This is also a good time to remember that the FCC is our national censor. The U.S. government's censorious reaction to l'affaire WikiLeaks should serve as counsel to people who would subject Internet service providers to even greater federal regulation. Regulated ISPs will be more compliant with government speech controls.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:42 AM EDT

In a Lonely Place

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

One of those movies that both the IMDB and Tomatometer viewers agree that I'll love, and I failed miserably at loving it. Even though it has the immortal Humphrey Bogart and the great Gloria Grahame. Even though it's directed by the legendary Nicholas Ray.

Bogie plays Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter teetering on the edge of has-been. He's offered a job writing a screenplay based on a popular novel he views as dreadful. Fortunately, Mildred, the coat-check girl at his local watering hole, has read the book and loves it. So he manages to take her home, where she deliriously summarizes the plot for him. No hanky-panky involved: Steele (apparently) sends her off with cab fare.

Unfortunately, the next day Mildred turns up as a murder victim. Steele's only alibi is provided by Laurel, his neighbor (the previously mentioned Ms. Grahame). And then Dixon and Laurel fall in love. But the cops are unconvinced of Dixon's innocence.

Which relates to why I didn't like the movie much: Dixon is a major jerk. His personality is abrasive, he seems to get off by imagining how Mildred was killed, he's got a bad temper and a paranoid streak, and he's prone to violence. It's not hard to imagine that he might have killed Mildred—but did he? No spoilers here.

It's not impossible for me to like a movie with such a totally unsympathetic protagonist, but this one didn't make it.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:47 AM EDT

Now All the Criminals in Their Coats and Their Ties

… are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.

  • I liked this aside from Stacy McCain:
    Moral relativism is easier if your relatives are immoral.

  • Seemingly determined to shed all remaining traces of its credibility, Politifact awards "Lie of the Year" to the description of Obamacare as "a government takeover of health care." Debunking for the home team is Captain Karl at Hot Air, Dandy Don Surber and Straight-shootin' Peter Suderman at Reason. Karl is especially good at noting that the team of "independent health care experts" on which Politifact conveniently relies are pretty much in the Democrat tank. Peter comments:
    Sadly, making important distinctions doesn't seem to be [Politifact's] strong suit. Somehow when picking their lie of the year, Politifact settled on a minority party exaggeration with elements of truth—and managed to ignore the near-continuous stream of full-blooded whoppers coming from the folks actually running things.
    My guess is that Politifact will continue to drop its non-partisan pretenses in the coming month.

  • The Competitive Enterprisers bring you a little skit about US ethanol policy:

  • Beginning to get excited about Christmas? If you'd like to cool down a bit, Lore Sjöberg rattles off a list of "The Least Christmasy Christmas Things". Nourish your inner Scrooge with examples like the "Christmas Bullet":
    William Whitney Christmas was a man who believed that humans should be free to fly like birds. Exactly like birds, in fact. He invented a plane with wings that were free to flap as they pleased. The plane, once launched, soared through the air like a mighty emu and hit the ground similarly, killing the pilot. The second Christmas Bullet also crashed and killed its pilot, one Lt. Allington Joyce Jolly. "Lt. Jolly and the Christmas Bullet" sounds like the worst holiday special ever.
    Still, I think I'd watch it. I'm in the mood.

  • Back in May, I had some fun at the expense of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and their dreadful history of predicting the severity of hurricane season.

    It's therefore only fair to note that they managed to hit the target with their prediction this year. Good job, NOAA!

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:52 AM EDT

Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?

Use your arms and legs, it won't ruin you:

  • The "No Labels" group:

    1. Demands "transparency and full disclosure from individuals and organizations that pay for political ads."

    2. Refuses to say who's providing its own funding.

    Is that irony? I can never tell.

  • [Excellent!] The University Near Here announces that the "Office of Diversity Initiatives" will henceforth be named "The Office of Faculty Development and Inclusive Excellence Initiatives." As near as I can tell from the accompanying PDF explanation, the Office will continue to be a veritable goldmine of academic gasbaggery and carefree punctuation:
    Campus leaders have been promoting minorities, low-income families; first-generation college students; persons with disabilities, nontraditional students, as well as other diverse citizens of the state and beyond.

    No word (yet) on whether there will be awards for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence. There's a song they could probably get away with using.

  • Key point from this Harvard Crimson story:
    Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesman Jeff Neal wrote in an e-mail that it remains unclear why a bottle of urine was stowed in the library, …
    "Forget it, Jake. It's Harvard."

Last Modified 2010-12-15 8:01 AM EDT

Civility: It's a One-Edged Sword

The Financial Times has Simon Schama interview Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post. It's quite fawning. Schama might be angling for a coveted spot in the "Most Obsequious Interviews of 2010" Anthology. I was particularly amused by this bit, discussing Ms. Huffington's support for the Stewart/Colbert Washington Mall rally last month, for which she supplied a fleet of buses:

For Huffington the latest rally was "not just an exercise in point and counterpoint" but "something much bigger": a call to restore the civil society she wants to see replanted in an America polarised between destructively competing demonologies. […] The Huffington Post fleet was a vindication of everything its founder is trying to do to detoxify American politics.
I sometimes read the Huffington Post, so I know that their preferred method for bringing detoxified civility to politics consists of:
  • Deeming Sarah Palin a "patriotic traitor" (along with "Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, the teabaggers, the birthers, and the deathers.")

  • Revealing that "I get happy every time one of you faux-macho shitheads accidentally shoots another one of you in the face." (And, apparently non-ironically, calling Sarah Palin "deranged".)

  • Asking us readers to think of Ann Coulter "as Ophelia with her violetless garlands, crossed with a real fucking hack." (This was a response to Ms. Coulter's column on the death of her father.)

  • Fingering Republicans as "the real enemies". Not to mention the axis of evil.

  • Accusing the Dubya Administration of stealing the 2004 election. (And then calling these successful thieves, somewhat contradictorily, "cretins".)

  • And trashing, in an article by Ms. Huffington herself, Mary Matalin's sins in jewelry, clothes, and makeup. And then revealing that she considered Ms. Matalin to be "nasty". (Also apparently meant to be non-ironic.)

When you're Arianna, civility is for the little people.

(Original link via the Weekly Standard.)

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

There were plenty of danger signs here:

  • It's a young person movie; I am not young.

  • It's very hip; I am instead worried about breaking a hip.

  • It has young-people music; young-people music has sucked ever since I turned 30.

  • Michael Cera plays the lead; I haven't really liked anything he's done since Juno.

But I really liked this movie. Go figure.

Cera plays Scott Pilgrim: a young man living in Toronto without much to do except half-heartedly play bass in his dreadful band, "Sex Bob-Omb". He feels somewhat defensive about his much-younger girlfriend, a Chinese-Canadian 17-year-old named (really) "Knives Chau".

But one day, Ramona shows up in town. And Scott is smitten. Unfortunately—and I couldn't really work out the reason behind this—having made such a commitment, Scott must defeat Ramona's seven "exes" (mostly, er, ex-boyfriends). And by "defeat", I mean "defeat in battle." Wait, what?

And that's where the movie is cleverly creative: Scott's reality is tilted more than just a tad into the video game/comic book universe. Sound effects are often spelled out on screen. (Remember the old Batman TV show? OK, but it's better here.) Many characters occasionally exhibit superhero powers: flying, super-strength, invulnerability, etc. So Scott's battles with the exes are special-effects extravaganzas.

It's a lot of fun. I laughed all the way through.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:51 AM EDT

Curse of the Spellmans

[Amazon Link]

Really kind of thought I would like this book more than I did. It was nominated last year for an Edgar for Best Novel. The front-cover blurbs proclaim: "whip-smart sass" (People), "delightful" (USA Today), "Fast-paced, irreverent, and very funny" (some guy I never heard of).

Instead, the book yielded (for me) one or two chuckles every hundred pages or so. (Disclaimer: humor's a funny thing: most people seemed to enjoy the book just fine, and, dear reader, you'll note the Amazon link over there will get you a copy for $0.01, plus shipping and handling. Check it out, see if your mileage varies.)

The Spellmans are a San Francisco family. Ma and Pa Spellman run a private-eye agency, employing eldest daughter Isabel (the book's narrator) as an investigator. Also in the mix are a 15-year-old precocious daughter, Rae, brother David (a lawyer), and a cop named Henry Stone, who was (apparently) accidentally run over by Rae in the previous book. Stir in new-neighbor John Brown, about whom Isabel is instantly suspicious. Also: someone is copycatting one of Isabel's past misdeeds: vandalism of a neighbor's holiday lawn displays. And (finally) all members of Isabel's family are acting mysteriously, as if they have something to hide.

When you check the reviews for the book, you'll see words like "wacky", "madcap", "screwball", "daffy", "quirky", etc., etc. Yes, fine, I get it. I didn't care too much about, or for, the primary characters, so all that wacky daffiness just sat there on the page. Neither does it help that Isabel's a pretty lousy detective. I figured things out about a hundred pages before she did. (Actually, she doesn't figure things out: someone literally calls her up with the solution—deus ex telephone.)

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:50 AM EDT

I Really Can't Stay

(but baby it's cold outside):

  • Sarah Palin supports the Ryan Roadmap. Good for her. I'd prefer a faster return to fiscal sanity than the Roadmap specifies, but any support for a concrete plan that starts us in that direction is very welcome.

    (Geraghty's Morning Jolt newsletter suggests an alternate headline: "Millions of angry liberals who never thought much about Paul Ryan now hate him with a fiery passion.")

  • blazing_criterion The Criterion Collection issues very deluxe versions of classic movies films. They do a fine job, although maybe they take themselves a little too seriously. Something Awful presents the results of their latest Photoshop contest to "help" Criterion design DVD cases for some unlikely candidates. One of my favorites is over at the right.

  • Timothy P. Carney's recent Washington Examiner column discussed the amusing liberal outrage over Obama's tax deal. One of the groups involved is the "Progressive Change Campaign Committee" (PCCC), and this caused my bullshit detector to start beeping:
    But it's exactly on the score of Obama's bargaining tactics that Adam Green, co-founder of the PCCC, chides the president. "He could have won the public option, he could have won this [tax] fight, if he was simply willing to step on Republican toes, hold them accountable to their constituents, and actually have the fight." Green thinks Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe and Scott Brown could have been picked off on taxes had Obama fought harder. "He didn't fly to Maine. He didn't fly to Massachusetts." He charges Obama with political "malpractice."
    But of course, Obama did fly to Maine to stump for Obamacare. As far as getting Senators Snowe and Collins to budge, it was a no-workie.

    And of course, Obama did fly to Massachusetts to plead with its voters to not elect Scott Brown in the first place, an equally ineffective trip.

    So what makes Adam Green think a few more trips on Air Force One will suddenly make Republicans go wobbly? Theory: Progressives haven't yet given up the "Lightworker" image of Obama yet:

    Many spiritually advanced people I know (not coweringly religious, mind you, but deeply spiritual) identify Obama as a Lightworker, that rare kind of attuned being who has the ability to lead us not merely to new foreign policies or health care plans or whatnot, but who can actually help usher in a new way of being on the planet, of relating and connecting and engaging with this bizarre earthly experiment. These kinds of people actually help us evolve. They are philosophers and peacemakers of a very high order, and they speak not just to reason or emotion, but to the soul.
    If Obama doesn't deign to work his magic to bring about the "new way of being" (which, just by coincidence, involves income tax rate hikes on high-earners) it makes Progressives extra pissed.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:56 AM EDT

Shadow of a Doubt

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A 1943 oldie from Alfred Hitchcock. It's pretty good.

Young Charlotte ("Charlie") Newton is in kind of a funk. She's bored with her early-1940's Northern California middle-class family. (Although everyone seems nice enough. Her father, for example, is played by Henry Travers, and we all know he's an angel.) But she snaps out of it soon enough when Uncle Charlie, after whom she was named, shows up in town after years of world-travelling. Surely he'll add some sparkle and vigor to her humdrum ho-hum life!

Not so fast, young lady. Nearly everything goes wrong from the very start. We viewers have already seen Uncle Charlie acting suspiciously. Pretty soon a couple of detectives show up with a thin cover story in order to investigate him. He tears a story out of the local paper so nobody else will read it. He gives young Charlie a ring—that's been inscribed to someone else. And he's revealed to have a nasty temper and occasional episodes of sociopathic babbling. Could Uncle Charlie be—gasp—a serial killer?

No spoilers here.

But I had questions: How did those detectives show up in Santa Rosa so quickly after Uncle Charlie's arrival? And what led young Charlie to penetrate their cover story? And how does one of them fall for young Charlie so quickly, after a few short encounters?

Those are just quibbles. I enjoyed the suspense, as well as the characters. The Newton family is especially well-drawn, and there are a few comic asides. Most notably, Mr Newton and his friend Herbie (played by Hume Cronyn), both mystery fans, discuss the best ways to murder each other; they turn out to be clueless about the reality in front of their noses.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:45 AM EDT

On the Low From the Jake in the Taurus

Tryin' to get my hands on some Grants like Horace:

  • I'm ashamed to say I was previously unaware of Richard Fabrizio, managing editor of news for the Portsmouth Herald and Seacoast Sunday. He's a pretty good writer, and shows disturbing libertarian tendencies. Check out his recent musings on his correspondence with Alan Schreiber, director of the Washington Asparagus Commission.
    Schreiber offered further disturbing insight into the mismanagement of our federal government, which is simply too big, too unfocused, tries to solve every problem with little regard for creating others and has no apparent view of the big picture. Schreiber informed me that cocaine and snorting Americans are to blame for twofold American subsidies of asparagus.
    I did not know that. (Via NH Watchdog.)

  • Can the government print money properly? Find out the exciting answer in an article entitled "Government can't print money properly."
    Because of a problem with the presses, the federal government has shut down production of its flashy new $100 bills, and has quarantined more than 1 billion of them -- more than 10 percent of all existing U.S. cash -- in a vault in Fort Worth, Texas, reports CNBC.
    This is supposed to be what we call a core competency. It's right there in Article I, Section 8.

    But I'm sure they'll handle taking over health care just fine.

  • Jim Geraghty observed the Barackrobatics at yesterday's hastily-called news conference. And it wasn't a pretty picture, Emily:
    In his opening statement, Obama talked about how much he wanted to fight on this issue, but then he says he's going to sign it because it's the best possible option under the circumstances. One moment he's insisting that the country can't afford to extend the high-end tax cuts, the next he's dismissing continued opposition on the part of Democrats as "fighting a political fight." He's trying to simultaneously assure Democrats that he didn't sell them out and opposes tax cuts for the wealthy as much as they do, while at the same time, persuade them to vote for a deal that he just said he opposes so much.
    Clive Crook has a similar point.
    Good Lord. One minute, he's reassuring progressives. We are good and they are evil. It's victims and hostage-takers, no less. Just be patient, our time will come, and accounts with the enemy will be settled. Next minute, he's rebuking the same progressives. Spare me your sanctimonious purism. It's un-American. We have good-faith differences of opinion. "This country was founded on compromise."
    It used to be that President Obama would wait a few days before contradicting his previous statements. Now it seems he can't even let a few minutes pass. Where do we go from here?

  • Radley Balko interviews Marshall Chapman. You want to read anything that contains the line "Hugging Dolly Parton is like getting hit by a soft Buick."

"Well, what am I supposed to do?"

"You won't answer my calls, you change your number. I mean, I'm not gonna be ignored, Barry!"

  • R. Stacy McCain on watching liberal heads explode in reaction to Obama's deal extending all the hated Bush tax cuts:

    Have you ever seen Fatal Attraction? He's Michael Douglas, the Democrats are Glenn Close, and now it's bunny-boiling time

  • Jonah Goldberg looks at "No Labels" which (as noted a few days back) seems to encourage delusion in its adherents.
    What no-labelers really mean is that they don't like inconvenient disagreements that hinder their agenda. And that's what is so troubling, indeed so undemocratic, about this claptrap. When they claim we need to put aside labels to do what's right, what they are really saying is you need to put aside what you believe in and do what they say. When activists say we need to move past the partisan divide, what they mean is: Shut up and get with my program. Have you ever heard anyone say, "We need to get past all of this partisan squabbling and name-calling. That's why I'm going to abandon all my objections and agree with you?" I haven't.
    Nor I.

  • There is nary a label in sight in Nick Gillespie & Veronique de Rugy's blog post at Reason: "How to Balance the Budget Without Raising Taxes". They are content with neither the Ryan Roadmap nor the plans from the Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. Their goal is to get to a level of federal spending in line with historical revenue figures—about 19% of GDP—within the next 10 years.
    A balanced budget in 2020 based on 19 percent of GDP would mean $1.3 trillion in cuts over the next decade, or about $129 billion annually out of ever-increasing budgets averaging around $4.1 trillion. Note that these are not even absolute cuts, but trims from expected increases in spending.

    To get a more concrete sense of what getting to 19 percent means, here is a table of projected major budget expenditures in total dollars, followed by the amount that needs to be cut each year from the expected budget to get an annual 3.6 percent decrease across the board.

    That's not (quite) as easy as it sounds, because the 3.6% is compounded over the next 10 years. (I haven't done the math myself, but I'm pretty sure that's the only way it would work.) And it's not just "discretionary" spending, but also entitlements.

    So people would scream. On the other hand:

    If these sorts of small but systematic trims are impossible over the next decade, then really nothing is possible and debt, deficits, and despair are here to stay.

Down in the Locker Room

Just we boys:

  • Hope you don't mind a little proud parenting: Pun Son performed for the teeming masses last night in Johnson Theatre at the University Near Here and was pretty darn good. And I'm talking standing-O-from-the-capacity-crowd good.

    (Yes, if you want to get technical, there were other performers too. In fact it was a massive production. Still, my attitude is: it was nice that they showed up to accompany the real star of the show.)

  • You might expect a story in USA Today headlined "Does 'Fair Game' follow history's script for Plamegate?" would actually have something interesting to say about the accuracy of the new movie starring Sean Penn and Naomi Watts about the Valerie Plame imbroglio. But instead, we get paragraphs like this one:
    So in one sense, the movie is Plame's and Wilson's revenge on [I. Lewis "Scooter"] Libby, Cheney and other White House operatives they say sought to punish them by deliberately outing her to reporters, including columnist Robert Novak, who then published it, thus ending her career as a nuclear counter-proliferation agent for the CIA.
    Notice anything missing from that? Right, Richard Armitage, the non-White House operative who actually leaked Plame's identity to the late Robert Novak.

    Ah, well. What do you expect from McPaper? I think the Washington Post did a better job (albeit on their Editorial page), which deemed the movie to be "full of distortions - not to mention outright inventions." Among other tales:

    "Fair Game" also resells the couple's story that Ms. Plame's exposure was the result of a White House conspiracy. A lengthy and wasteful investigation by a special prosecutor found no such conspiracy - but it did confirm that the prime source of a newspaper column identifying Ms. Plame was a State Department official, not a White House political operative.
    Fair Game won't be in my Netflix queue anytime soon. And I'm wondering why I bother to read USA Today.

  • It's that time of year, and a long-standing Pun Salad tradition is to link to Dave Barry's Guide to Holiday Gifts. And, even if you are the world's lousiest gift-giver, you're almost certainly going to do better than these items. For example, the "Body Perks Brand Nipple Enhancers":
    This is the perfect gift for the gal on your holiday gift list who would like to appear perkier in the gazombular region. Body Perks are little silicone dealies that go on top of a woman's natural nipples so as to give her frontal zone that cold-weather, smuggling-raisins look that for thousands of years has caused men to walk into utility poles. Why are men so interested in women's nipples? Why aren't women equally interested in men's nipples? Why do men even have nipples? We at the Holiday Gift Guide do not have answers to these questions. We just enjoy saying "nipples." Nipples nipples nipples. Is it getting warm in here?
    Bodyperks is based in Wayzata, Minnesota—which we also enjoy saying—and their website is here.

  • I used to watch a lot more football than I do these days. Possibly because they don't make 'em like Don Meredith any more.
    Once, Meredith threw a fourth-down touchdown pass to Dan Reeves against the Redskins, the score occuring one play after Washington linebacker Chris Hanburger delivered a thunderous direct shot that rendered Meredith semi-conscious.

    When that was mentioned to [Coach Tom] Landry in the locker room afterward, the coach pretended to be unaware Meredith was unsteady.

    "He kind of acts like that all the time," Landry said.

    RIP, Dandy Don.

Last Modified 2011-01-18 1:31 PM EDT

Out of the Past

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) has a pretty good life. He lives in a small California town near Lake Tahoe, and runs a gas station. He even has a devoted girlfriend whose only flaw is an unfortunate littering habit. But one day, a menacing thug shows up from—guess where—out of the past! It turns out that, years previous, Jeff was a private eye who was sent by a charming gangster (Kirk Douglas) to track down a young woman. Her only flaw was that she tried to kill him and ran off with $40K of his dough.

Jeff is an excellent detective, and trails the young woman down to sunny Acapulco. But—bad news—it's Jane Greer, and she's enough to give even an honest dick some serious thoughts about double-crossing his sleazy employer and otherwise engaging in sinful behavior. It doesn't work out well.

This flick has one of the twistiest plots I think I've ever seen in a major motion picture. There's also a lot of truly loopy "hard-boiled" dialogue. (E. g.: "Oh, Jeff, I don't want to die!" "Neither do I, baby, but if I have to I'm gonna die last." That line wouldn't work for anyone but Mitchum, I think.) Many, many characters, most of them dishonest double-crossing sociopaths. Not everyone survives.

This made me look for the 1987 Saturday Night Live episode where Mitchum hosted. They did a funny video parody of Out of the Past titled "Out of Gas", and even got Jane Greer to cameo. Unfortunately, it was excised from the episode that Netflix offers for streaming. In fact, Mitchum is not in the streaming episode at all except for the opening monologue and the goodnight sequence. You suck, Netflix!

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:41 AM EDT

Echo Burning

[Amazon Link]

Number 5 in the testosterone-soaked series of Reacher novels. I'm really enjoying them.

This one finds Jack Reacher fully returned to his wandering ways, after a brief flirtation with domesticity. He's in the middle of West Texas during a brutal heat wave, and also (as usual, by sheerest coincidence) in a peck of trouble. Dodging a pack of lawmen determined to get him incarcerated, he gets picked up by a beautiful woman who has a lurid tale to tell. She's looking to him to get her out of an abusive marriage. (By any means necessary, if you catch my drift. And I think you do.)

But her car has a working air conditioner, so what are you gonna do?

In parallel, a trio of bad guys have a ranch house under surveillance, paying inordinate attention to a child on her way to school. And there's a team of very professional killers in the area as well, dispatching a BMW-driving lawyer, and ready to do more.

It's a very readable combination of mystery and action. Child sets up an intricate whodunit, but plays fair enough with his readers: if you pay attention, it's pretty easy to finger the villainous mastermind about the same time Reacher does.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:41 AM EDT

Hey, I've Been To College

So, how much worse could death be?

Last Modified 2017-12-03 7:06 AM EDT


stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This Japanese movie won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

The hero is Daigo, a professional cellist. But his orchestra is not drawing much of an audience, and closes up shop. Daigo decides to move with his wife back to his childhood home. Jobs are scarce, but he answers an ad for "Departures", which he guesses is a travel agency; instead, it turns out to be a small enterprise that travels to funerals to prepare bodies for encoffinment.

There is quite a bit of ritual involved, but Daigo is quickly impressed by the respect and compassion shown by his employer to both the deceased and the attending grievers.

This is not billed as a comedy, and it isn't; but there are some classic comedic tropes, such as Daigo's initial misunderstanding of the job. He also initially misleads his wife about the nature of the work. And one body gives them kind of a shock as they (um) find a part they didn't expect. With just a couple tweaks it could have been a dark comedy.

But it's not. And it's not everyone's cup of tea: it's kind of slow-moving, sentimental, and revolves more around character than plot. I enjoyed it, though.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:46 AM EDT

The Extra Man

stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

What can I say? Mrs. Salad looooves Kevin Kline. It's OK, because it usually works out, as here. This movie wasn't too popular with the critics or even the IMDB raters, but I found it slightly better than OK.

The primary character is Louis, played by Paul Dano. He sees himself as a character in a Fitzgerald novel—complete with a Nick Carraway-like narrator. He's also slightly confused about his sexuality, as he has an occasional compulsion to wear ladies' underthings. This doesn't go over well at the prep school where's he's teaching, so he sets out for Manhattan where things are somewhat looser. By chance he answers a roommate ad from Henry Harrison, Kline's character. Henry is outspoken and (seemingly) full of tall tales about his past glories. His current primary profession seems to be the escorting of elderly rich women to social events. But he's at the edge of destitution: if an occasion calls for him to wear black socks, he resorts to coloring his ankles with black shoe polish. And (of course) Louis gets caught up in all this; one funny sequence involves them sneaking into the opera.

I'm pretty fond of screwball comedies, but this is more of an oddball comedy. The humor, as such, involves the interaction between eccentricities. It worked for me, although a lot of air goes out of the goings-on when Kevin Kline is absent.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:44 AM EDT

Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue With His Century

[Amazon Link] It seems to be the week for childhood reminisces: back in the 1950s, the first big-boy book I read from the Oakland, Iowa public library was Red Planet by a guy named Robert A. Heinlein. This got me hooked on science fiction generally, and Heinlein specifically. When the "Ten Influential Books" meme was going around earlier this year, I had two of his novels on my list. So I'm kind of a natural customer for a Heinlein bio.

This is Volume 1 of a two-volume authorized biography, covering the years 1907 to 1948. (I requested that the sainted library of the University Near Here purchase a copy. This doesn't always work, but they came through this time.) Even though it's merely Volume 1, it is nonetheless don't-drop-it-on-your-toe huge: the main text goes to page 473, and is followed by a hundred-plus pages of acknowledgements, appendixes, notes, and a detailed index. It's a scholarly and detailed work.

Heinlein was born in Missouri to a large family, and grew up in Kansas City. He graduated from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, but was discharged from his Navy career a few years later due to a nasty bout of TB. He moved to California, was heavily involved in politics for a time. Eventually, he hit on his writing career. After years of living on the edge of an economic precipice, this eventually generates a decent income.

The book goes into gory detail on the ups and downs of Heinlein's personal and professional relationships. A random selection of a few details I found interesting:

  • Heinlein was exploring a movie project with legendary director Fritz Lang. The collaboration eventually died, but pieces of the project were eventually leveraged into Destination Moon.

  • Heinlein considered himself a socialist from a young age, and was politically active for a number of years in California, where he ardently supported Upton Sinclair in his campaign for California Governor, and ran (unsuccessfully) himself for a seat in the California legislature. I'd read something about this previously, but it's kind of a shock, considering his Goldwater Republicanism by the 60s.

  • He knew famous fan-dancer Sally Rand quite well.

  • He named his car Skylark IV, in honor of E. E. (Doc) Smith's Skylark series.

The biography was authorized by Heinlein's widow (wife number three), Ginny. (She died in 2003, so it's had a long gestation period.) Fittingly enough, Volume 1 ends with Robert and Ginny's marriage in 1948 before a justice of the peace in Raton, New Mexico.

Even this Heinlein fanboy found the book pretty heavy going. (I got through it by following a strict reading schedule over the 4 week loan period.) I can't really recommend it, but (to paraphrase Lincoln), if you like this sort of thing, it's the kind of thing you're going to like.

Last Modified 2012-09-29 6:46 AM EDT