URLs du Jour

2012-03-29

  • Mountain Weasel (Mustela altaica) You may be disgusted or amused by the exercise in futility known as the so-called LaTourette-Cooper proposal in the House of Representatives. A good summary was posted yesterday at the NR Corner by Yuval Levin.
    It’s very hard to imagine that any House Republican would want to be caught voting for a budget that keeps Obamacare in place, cuts defense even more than the Obama budget, and—relative to the Ryan budget—raises taxes by $1.5 trillion and increases domestic discretionary spending by over $400 billion.
    Well, as it turned out, LaTourette-Cooper failed last night in a squeaker: 38-382. (A dismal drubbing, but at least that was 38 more votes than President Obama's budget got.) As for Yuval's "hard to imagine" bit: 16 of the 38 Ayes were Republicans.

    One of those 16 being New Hampshire's Other Congressman, Charlie Bass. Back when Bass was running to get his old Congressional seat back, he was happy to sign Grover Norquist's pledge to vote against tax increases. Bass even co-wrote an article with Norquist about out-of-control spending.

    That was then, this is now.

    Previous Pun Salad articles mentioning Bass's unsatisfactory return to Congress: here, here, here, here, and here.

  • Trivia: Jennfer Horn's old website URL has been taken over by someone babbling (I think) about online casinos in Italian.

  • If you haven't Adblocked the Amazon links over there on the right, you may have noticed that I'm currently reading Empire of Lies by Andrew Klavan. It's my first crack at one of his novels. Without knowing too much, and having read some of his columns on the web, I was expecting a decent potboiler. But it's even better than I expected, full of sharp observations rendered in pellucid prose.

    Which brings me to his recent article: "ObamaCare — How Nice People Crush Freedom". A reaction to the recent Supreme Court arguments, he summarizes a great Hayek quote:

    In other words, there’s always a good reason to take your freedom away — your health, the poor, your evil opinions, the lousy way you raise your kids — and never a reason to preserve freedom except the love of freedom itself. Thus, so often, the people destroying the American way of life are actually nice people who just want to help.
    I've added Mr. Klavan's blog to the blogroll. What took me so long?

  • Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute refutes the never-enough-spending rhetoric of Laura Hainey, president of the American Federation of Teachers–New Hampshire.
    Let’s look at the reality of government school spending in New Hampshire: Per-student spending has increased more than 50 percent, after adjusting for inflation, since 2001. And though it’s declined slightly from the all-time high in 2010, per-child inflation-adjusted spending is still 5 percent above the previous all-time high in 2009, despite the struggling economy.

    If more than $15,000 per student isn’t enough, how much is enough to educate a child?

    There's a nice bar chart at the link, so check it out.

Children of the Mind

[Amazon Link]

True confession: I had a very tough time reading this book. Usually when reading a novel I can stick to a reasonable schedule of somewhere around 20-30 pages a day; more than that for page-turners. This was not a page-turner. This was a nap-inducer. A play-solitaire-insteader. A go-for-a-nice-walker. It took me about a month to get through its 370 pages.

A brief description: Starways Congress has sent a fleet armed with the "Little Doctor", a molecular-disruption device, to destroy the assumed threat from an alien virus on the lovely planet of Lusitania. Ender and his extended family need to thwart this plan, but things are complicated. Their powerful ally, Jane, a hyper-intelligence based on the instantaneous galaxy-spanning "ansible" network, is under threat: Starways plans to shut down the network and purge Jane from the nodes.

What's wrong? Well, first: it's installment number four in Orson Scott Card's Ender series. It's been awhile since I read the first three (Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Xenocide); in fact, it may have been in the previous century. (I don't keep records going that far back.)

And Children of the Mind takes up where Xenocide left off, and assumes you remember a lot about the series, more than I actually did. Card says in the backmatter that he originally envisioned Xenocide and Children of the Mind as a single novel. That would have worked better for me.

Worse: the talkaction ratio is very very high, especially in the first half of the book. Oh, goodness gracious, do people yammer on. They discuss, insult, muse, observe, joke (but not often enough), confess, … Much involves the philosophical implications of their situation, most notably the plasticity of their identities brought about by their assumed technology; that's not as inherently interesting to the reader as it is to the characters. Eventually things start happening: somewhere around page 200 or so. Things get easier from there.

Since this book was written in 2002, Card has written seven more books in the Ender universe. More power to him. But I think I'll not get around to reading them.


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:38 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2012-03-25 Update

[phony baloney]

President Obama maintains his huge phony lead this week:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-03-18
"Barack Obama" phony 137,000,000 -8,000,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 1,160,000 -7,080,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 1,060,000 -40,000

Some weeks I have to search for the phony news. Looking at this past week, there's been nothing but:

  • Monday night, Vice President Joe Biden spoke at a New Jersey fundraiser about the nailing of Osama bin Laden:
    You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan. Never knowing for certain. We never had more than a 48 percent probability that he was there.
    Many people hopped on that "audacious" thing. (As Inigo Montoya said to Vizzini: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.")

    As a one-time physics major, I'm more intrigued by the 48% probability thing. Apparently Osama was the modern-day equivalent of Schrödinger's Cat. And Obama was enough of a quantum mechanic to collapse his wave function. <sarcasm>That's impressive. Biden should have made that more clear.</sarcasm>

  • On Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office refused to play the President's class warfare tune with respect to the so-called "Buffett Rule", a proposal to (roughly speaking) ensure that people earning $1 million or more annually pay at least 30 percent of that in taxes.
    A bill designed to enact President Barack Obama's plan for a "Buffett rule" tax on the wealthy would rake in just $31 billion over the next 11 years, according to an estimate by Congress' official tax analysts obtained by The Associated Press.

    That figure would be a drop in the bucket of the over $7 trillion in federal budget deficits projected during that period. It is also minuscule compared to the many hundreds of billions it would cost to repeal the alternative minimum tax, which Obama's budget last month said he would replace with the Buffett rule tax.

    Why, it's almost as if the President's taxation proposals are more designed for their demagogic appeal than a serious effort to restore fiscal sanity.

    Sorry, forgot the <sarcasm> tags there.

  • On Wednesday, we had a New York Times op-edder professing to tire of the phony-outrage industry. Instead:
    I have a better idea. Let's have an amnesty -- from the left and the right -- on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let's make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone did or said and pretend you can barely continue functioning until they apologize.
    Excellent idea. If only it had come from practically anyone at all other than the actual author: Bill Maher, million-dollar Obama contributor, under fire himself for various offensive slurs.

    So it comes off as just a tad self-serving. And, for someone who claims to be a comic, remarkably unfunny.

  • On Wednesday, President Obama did a radio interview, and demonstrated the amusing results when he is asked even a slightly-tough question.
    "Are you doing your 'all-of-the-above' strategy right if that's what we have to show for it - Solyndra?" asked Kai Ryssdal, host of "Marketplace" on American Public Media, in an interview with Obama.

    The solar energy start-up Solyndra, which had been the poster child of Obama's initiative, went bankrupt in 2011, putting 1,000 employees out of work. It had received more than $500 million in federal loan guarantees through a Recovery Act program. The loan process is now the subject of a congressional investigation.

    "Obviously, we wish Solyndra hadn't gone bankrupt," Obama said. "But understand: This was not our program per se."

    The linked article notes that Solyndra's loan was awarded by (yes) the Obama Administration, under legislation passed in 2009 without a single Republican vote.

    Some bright people in the GOP whipped up an effective video in response:

  • Later that night, Romney campaign advisor Eric Fehrnstrom went on CNN to spout off to Soledad O'Brien and friends, one of whom asked whether Mitt's need to appeal to conservatives during the primary season would weaken him with moderates for the November election. Fehrnstrom replied:
    Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.
    To put it mildly, this reinforced the primary argument people make about Mitt: that he's an unprincipled political chameleon, perfectly willing to take whatever positions on the issues he thinks will get him the most votes.

    Fehrnstrom provided a shining example of what is sometimes called a "Kinsley gaffe": someone blurts out a truth that they weren't supposed to say.

  • On Thursday, President Obama, continuing his "energy" tour, and apparently concerned of losing ground to Mitt in the phoniness area, travelled to Cushing, Oklahoma to try to (as the linked article's headline puts it) "take both sides in the Keystone Pipeline debate."
    The President's political advisors are no doubt counting on the fact that Obama's non-announcement about "fast tracking" the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline would play well in the sound bite media.

    And they are right. One headline announced: "Obama changes course, fast-tracks Keystone pipeline."

    Look beyond the headlines and you will see nothing of the sort. The President promised to "make this new pipeline a priority". But Obama is attempting to take credit for the southern portion of the pipeline even though the project is likely little more than 60 days away from breaking ground with or without him. There is little he could do to stop it and even less he could do to speed it up.

    Impressively phony!


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:57 PM EST

A Lonely Place to Die

[3.5 stars] A Lonely Place to Die (2011) on IMDb [Amazon Link]

This 2011 movie was apparently only seen briefly in UK theatres and film festivals before its DVD release. But it's pretty good, a straightforward good-vs-evil thriller set in the Scottish highlands.

It starts out with 5 young adventurers (Alison, Ed, Jenny, Alex, and Rob) out for a vacation of mountain climbing and hiking. (Yes, they have mountains in the UK. They aren't very tall, but you can still get seriously killed if you fall off them.) Through sheer happenstance they discover a terrified young girl who's been buried in a plywood box in a remote forest. The kid doesn't speak English, but the group (correctly) surmises that she's a kidnap victim, they're all in peril, and they need to all get back to civilization as quickly as possible. Their trip is harrowing and suspenseful. Particularly nerve-wracking are the initial parts, where their pursuers are deadly and unseen.

It's not the greatest movie ever made, and there aren't any huge stars involved, but it held my interest all the way through. Sometimes movies like this have "why didn't they just" moments; this one either didn't have them, or things moved so quickly that I didn't have time to notice. There's a particularly good twist around the middle where one of the characters seems to be coming out as a cowardly weasel, but a few minutes later is revealed to be utterly heroic, above and beyond the call of duty.


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:37 AM EDT

My Week With Marilyn

[4.0 stars] My Week with Marilyn (2011) on IMDb [Amazon Link]

I had an unexpected amount of fun watching this movie about how, over a half-century ago, a glamorous, frivolous, American movie star interacted with a bunch of stuffy Brit filmmakers. It's not billed as a comedy, but I laughed out loud more than I did watching some self-proclaimed comedies.

The story is allegedly truth-based, told from the viewpoint of Colin Clark, son of Sir Kenneth. He was a gofer for the production of a 1957 movie called The Prince and the Showgirl, starring Marilyn Monroe and Sir Laurence Olivier, directed by Olivier. The production was fractious, with Olivier reportedly continually frustrated with Marilyn's tardiness and lack of discipline. Marilyn takes a shine to young Colin, and they ditch the movie-making for an idyllic week in the English countryside.

This movie does just about everything right, thanks mainly to the acting by the insanely wonderful cast. (Not much really happens in the movie, so it's really about watching the characters bounce off each other.) Both Michelle Williams (playing Marilyn) and Kenneth Branagh (playing Olivier) got Oscar nominations for their performances. There's also Judi Dench, playing actress Dame Sybil Thorndike; Hermione Granger herself, Emma Watson, playing wardrobe-worker Lucy; Dougray Scott playing Marilyn's then-husband, Arthur Miller; Julia Ormond as Olivier's then-wife, Vivien Leigh.

All these good folks make the characters in a clever script come alive. Michelle Williams, in particular, channels perfectly the combination of Marilyn's sexy charisma with her (eventually fatal) fragile insecurities and dependencies.

It's rated R, but only for a few more F-bombs than you can get away with in a PG-13. (As Marilyn puts it herself: "Oh, you have that word in England too.")


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:35 AM EDT

Young Adult

[3.5 stars] Young Adult (2011) on IMDb [Amazon Link]

IMDB bills this as a "comedy" but it's one of those comedies where nothing that happens is remotely amusing to its participants. Probably not for everyone, definitely not for the kiddos, but I thought it was a bit better than OK. Kept my interest anyhow.

Charlize Theron plays the protagonist, Mavis. She's a mess. Recently divorced, she lives with her cute dog in the urban jungle of Minneapolis, Minnesota. She's overfond of Maker's Mark and one night stands. Her day job is writing a schlocky book series for teenage girls ("Waverly Prep").

When Mavis gets a birth announcement from the wife of Buddy Slade, her old high school flame, she takes it as a prompt to travel back to her hometown. Her reprehensible mission: win Buddy back. She tackles this task with booze-fueled self-delusion. She confides in Matt, another high-school classmate who she only dimly remembers as the "hate-crime guy". Back in the day, Matt was badly beaten by jocks who thought he was gay. (Matt recounts that he was quite a celebrity until it was revealed that he wasn't gay; then everybody quickly lost interest.)

Mavis only inspires occasional sympathy, because she really is an awful person. What kept me interested: will her trek through the real world break through her sociopathic shell of self-absorption and offer her a chance at redemption? No spoilers here!

You will never feel sorrier for a dog.


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:43 AM EDT

Real Steel

[4.5 stars] Real Steel (2011) on IMDb [Amazon Link]

I will be honest with you: this movie isn't the most original one you'll ever see. Think Rocky, add robots, and a sprinkling of The Champ; you've pretty much got it. But, hey, it worked for me. There's a reason those movies are classics, after all.

Set in 2020, the Gentleman's Sport is now performed by machines. But people are still crazy for it, and big money is to be made at the top. But Charlie, played by Hugh Jackman, is as far from the top as he can get. He is skating on the edge of financial ruin, mainly due to his poor impulse control driving him to bad decisions. The opening scenes demonstrate this easily: he is reduced to pitting his beat-up robot against a bull at dinky county fair. Charlie loses focus while showboating, and the robot is reduced to scrap. He returns home in defeat, dismaying his sorta-girlfriend, Bailey (played by Evangeline Lilly)

Out of the blue, Charlie learns that his ex-wife has passed away, leaving their 11-year-old son, Max. Conniving Charlie manufactures a scheme to wangle some money out of Max's aunt and uncle; the downside is that he has to take the kid in tow for a few weeks.

Unexpectedly, Max is a robot boxing fanatic, and a mechanical whiz. He takes a shine to an old sparring robot they salvage from a junkyard. And (see above) you can kind of guess what happens then.

Hugh Jackman is very good (pretty much as he always is). Evangeline Lilly is fine, too; she's very easy to look at. The movie's world of 2020 is deftly imagined, with boxing venues ranging from the superglamorous to the post-apocalyptic. The robots are utterly believable.


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:42 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2012-03-18 Update

[phony baloney]

Rick Santorum's primary victories this past Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi catapulted him all the way up to a 7% (!) probability of getting the GOP nomination at Intrade. But cooler heads prevailed, and Rick's back down to 2.4% (as I type), well below our arbitrary threshold for inclusion in the phony polling.

So:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-03-11
"Barack Obama" phony 145,000,000 -27,000,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 8,240,000 +220,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 1,100,000 -30,000

  • Alabamans were no doubt unimpressed with Mitt's latest flip-flop on an important issue, breathlessly reported by the Huffington Post: whether he's a catfish fan or not:
    Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney reversed his position on catfish Monday at a campaign stop in Alabama, according to the LA Times.

    Romney, who is campaigning in the state ahead of its Tuesday primary, said he loved the freshwater fish.

    "I had catfish for the second time," Romney said. "It was delicious, just like the first time."

    But as LA Times reporter Matea Gold pointed out in a tweet, the former Massachusetts governor expressed a different opinion just two short months ago.

    During a campaign stop in Lexington, S.C. in Jan. 2012, the LA Times reported on an exchange between Romney and the owner of Hudson's Smokehouse.

    Romney peered into the smoker, and said he was not "a catfish man, or not a fish man so much."

    In Romney's defense: It is possible for someone to become a catfish fan in less than two months, especially if you're down South, where they do catfish right.

  • Meanwhile, Vice President Biden appeared at Senator John Kerry's Georgetown (DC) home for a fundraiser where the minimum charge to get in the door was a cool $10K. And the Veep actually said:
    "These guys don't have a sense of the average folks out there," Biden said according to the pool report, "They don't know what it means to be middle class."
    On the menu was Steamed Irony with a Black Truffle Balsamic Glaze; dessert was Baked Cognitive Dissonance with Whipped Heavy Cream and Imported Black Cherries.

  • James Pethokoukis has discovered what he thinks is "the entire Obama presidency, in one anecdote". He makes a compelling case for this tale from a recent book about the Administration:
    Energy was a particular obsession of the president-elect's, and therefore a particular source of frustration. Week after week, [White House economic adviser Christina] Romer would march in with an estimate of the jobs all the investments in clean energy would produce; week after week, Obama would send her back to check the numbers. "I don't get it," he'd say. "We make these large-scale investments in infrastructure. What do you mean, there are no jobs?" But the numbers rarely budged.
    "I don't get it."

    Exactly.

    When your entire childlike ideological faith is invested in the notion that the State, with the properly enlightened people in charge, can engineer economic prosperity through the wise application of mandates, regulation, taxation, and subsidies, you are fairly rapidly going to be surprised by your lack of results.

    It can't be your fault. And so the search for scapegoats begins…

    Why, it's almost as if he read The Road to Serfdom and thought it sounded like a darn good idea.

  • But the big phony news this week was Obama's speech on Thursday, where he derided his political opponents:
    "Of course, we've heard this kind of thinking before. If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society. ... There always have been folks who are the naysayers and don't believe in the future, and don't believe in trying to do things differently. One of my predecessors, Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone, 'It's a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?' That's why he's not on Mount Rushmore because he's looking backwards. He's not looking forwards. He's explaining why we can't do something, instead of why we can do something."
    This managed to imply that (a) people thought the world was flat back in Columbus's day; (b) President Hayes was a technophobic Luddite. Both assertions are nonsense; Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post awarded Obama's remarks a rare Four Pinnochios.

    Kessler's analysis is a tut-tutting, and obvious, one: if you're going to be claiming that your opponents are on the wrong side of history, it just might be a good idea to get your own historical pants on with the zipper side facing forward.

    But Jim "Indispensable" Geraghty puts his finger on the real problem:

    This president gets more indignant and intolerant as his term wears on, doesn't it? After Solyndra, Ener1, Beacon Power, and gas approaching $5 per gallon, you would think this president might be a little more modest in arguing that he's made the right calls. No, he still has the gall to insist that his critics are backwards and ignorant - at an "official", not campaign, event, no less.
    Why, it's almost as if all those Presidential calls for "civility" a mere few months ago were a cold and cynical ploy that were only meant to disarm one side in the rhetorical battle. You think?


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:58 PM EST

The Adventures of Tintin

[3.5 stars] The Adventures of Tintin (2011) on IMDb [Amazon link]

I never got into the Tintin comics much, although I enjoyed what I read. But Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were huge fans, and they did a decent job of turning them into PG-rated action (mortion-capture animation) flick. Although it was 3-D in the movies (and also available that way at home, if you have the equipment), I saw the 2-D version; unlike Hugo, I didn't feel I was missing much of importance.

This is an "origin" story, but as the movie opens Tintin, a young European journalist, is already semi-famous for rooting out corruption and crime, with his super-intelligent dog Snowy. Adventure begins by accident when Tintin buys a ship model from a street vendor just ahead of the evil Dr. Sakharine. Pretty quickly Tintin's flat is ransacked, a mysterious character is shot to death on his doorstep (but in a totally PG manner); and Tintin is hijacked aboard a dilapidated old freighter. In his escape attempt, he meets up with drunken, but good-hearted, Captain Haddock, who will become his comrade for the rest of the movie. (And, as readers know, for the rest of their lives.)

There's a lot of slapstick humor. Stop-motion animation is still kind of creepy, although I understand it's much better than it used to be.


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:44 AM EDT

Rio

[3.0 stars] Rio (2011) on IMDb [Amazon Link]

Not awful, not great, just OK.

Our hero is Blu, a very rare bird kidnapped from his native habitat as a baby. Through a fortunate accident, he winds up in the loving hands of young Linda. Blu and Linda grow up together, he into an adult (but sheltered) bird, she into a shy (but intelligent and resourceful) librarian.

As it turns out, Blu is the only hope for his species to propagate, and Linda gets convinced by ornithologist Tulio to bring him down to Rio for some quality time with Jewel, a female of Blu's species, at Tulio's refuge. (The movie is a solid G-rating, so this is not the source of jokes.) But evildoers (human and avian) execute a plot to snatch Jewel and Blu for their own nefarious purposes. There's big money in rare birds! Soon the birds are trying to escape, while Tulio and Linda are giving chase. There are wacky antics, colorful characters, songs, dancing, and of course a climax staged during Rio's Carnival.

There are some laughs, but these days animations ostensibly for the kids have some pretty high bars, and Rio doesn't achieve the wonderfulness of Rango or Kung Fu Panda 2.)


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:42 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2012-03-12

  • James Taylor (II) James Taylor turns 64 today, and we're all grateful (and somewhat surprised) about that. At Power Line, Scott Johnson (like me) has grown up with Mr. Taylor, and shares his memories. Worth reading.

    If you get a chance to see Mr. Taylor in concert, take it. I've been to a couple, and he puts on a great show.

    In celebration, I cued up some JT on the iPod on the ride home tonight. I needed to lower my blood pressure…

  • … thanks to this story from Katherine Mangu-Ward in Reason. Quick summary: the Feds recently awarded a $10 million prize for "cheap, green, domestic light bulb". Non-incandescent, of course.

    Who won the $10,000,000.00? Dutch electronics company Philips, the only participant.

    How much does their "cheap" lightbulb cost? My friend, it costs fifty smackaroos.

    According to this chart, your Average American Family pays about $264 for lighting energy per year. Buying six of these bulbs would be more than that.

    Ouch! But at least it will pay for itself, right? Well, maybe, eventually. I calculate a break-even point somewhere north of 6500 hours between a $1 60-watt incandescent and a $50 10-watt LED bulb, assuming an electric rate of $0.15 per KwH. How long that really takes depends on how long you leave your lights on. And the LEDs are supposed to last a lot longer than incandescents. If they don't break at some point before their "projected lifetime".

    Or you could wait until the price comes down and the quality improves, as it almost certainly will. That might be a better bet.

    Or—here's an idea—if a company came up with a lighting solution that made obvious economic sense, they wouldn't need government prizes: they would, almost immediately, start raking in money from actual consumers. Who would be buying something they want, rather than something the government has decided they should buy.

  • Also at Reason, the DJ Kennedy has a funny and insightful article putting forth the proposition that "Atheism is a religion". She dared put forth this opinion on Bill Maher's TV show; she was unprepared for the "biblical floodgate of ridicule, name-calling, and abuse" that followed.
    My Twitter feed and Facebook page became engorged with angry responses. "Your adherence into adulthood to what is usually an adolescent phase (Libertarianism), speaks volumes about your confirmation bias levels," wrote Kernan. Touchstone Supertramp added; "Damn girl you got a big forehead." A guy named Kevin and about 70 other people shared this bumper-sticker nugget: "?If atheism is a religion, then off is a TV channel." Liz wrote, "Kennedy, is that if atheism constitutes a religious belief than anorexia is whenever you don't eat." Michael wrote: "re·li·gion /ri'lijən/ Noun: 1. Whatever Kennedy says it is." That was awesome. Beth called me a minor celebrity and a major troll--and it was also awesome to have somebody think I'm a celebrity.
    Why it was almost as if… she was some kind of heretic.


Last Modified 2012-03-28 3:36 PM EDT

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

[Amazon Link]

Woohoo! Finished the last Potter book!

Tradition dictates that I do a little plot summary here. That seems pointless, but I'll do it anyway:

It's a dark time for Harry, his allies, and his friends: at the close of the previous book, a very important figure in his life was lost. Now Voldemort and his henchpersons are on the Potter hunt, and don't care too much about who they need to torture and kill in order to get to him.

Worse: nearly right off the bat here, they manage to kill off another of Harry's allies, and—this is the really nasty bit—Harry's owl, Hedwig, who had been with him from the start.

The only hope for the good guys: find and destroy the remaining McGuffins (here called "horcruxes") into which the V-dude sequestered little bits of his soul years ago; they provide for his immortality. The minor problems: they have no idea what they are; they have no idea where they are; they don't know how to destroy them once they're found.

Nevertheless, the book winds its (dare I say it? I guess so:) magical way toward a satisfying conclusion. All the major loose threads of the plot are tied up, mysteries are solved, and secrets revealed. Really good stuff that had me hooked right to the end.


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:43 AM EDT

Libeled Lady

[3.0 stars] Libeled Lady (1936) on IMDb [Amazon Link]

No, this isn't yet another post about Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Fluke. This is about a 1936 movie, a screwball comedy with four, count 'em, four big stars: Spencer Tracy, Jean Harlow, Myrna Loy, and William Powell. It was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

The plot, or should I say pretext: Ms. Loy is the high-society daughter of a fabulously rich tycoon; a scandal-sheet newspaper, run by Spencer Tracy, has just printed some sort of slur against her, and will almost certainly lose the $5 million libel suit her dad is about to file against them.

And in 1936, $5 million was a lot of money.

This emergency causes Tracy to put off (yet again) his marriage to Jean Harlow, who's understandably frustrated. Tracy's plan is to enlist his old friend/adversary William Powell in an underhanded scheme to get Ms. Loy into a compromising situation. The resulting scandal will derail the problematic libel suit! Problem solved!

A moderate amount of funny stuff happens, but the humor leans a lot on fast-talking wisecracks and sharp retorts. There are a number of stretches with nothing much going on. The outcome is not surprising. Ordinarily this might not deserve 3 full stars, but—hey it's Loy and Powell, and they had more chemistry than Linus Pauling and Marie Curie.

Now, if Netflix could only track down the two Thin Man DVDs we haven't seen yet…


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:44 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2012-03-11 Update

[phony baloney]

Despite his win in Kansas, the Intraders have dropped Rick Santorum below our arbitrary 4% threshold for inclusion in our Phony Polling. And none of the other Not-Mitts have stepped up. So (once again) we're down to a two-man-plus-Libertarian race:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-03-04
"Barack Obama" phony 172,000,000 -8,000,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 8,020,000 +330,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 1,130,000 +20,000

  • President Obama is writing campaign ads. For the Republicans.
    "The next time you hear some politician trotting out some three-point plan for $2 gas -- you let them know we know better," Obama told a supportive crowd.

    "Tell them we're tired of hearing phony election-year promises that never come about."

    Gosh, you mean like these?

  • That whole "wall of separation between church and state" thing? If it gets in the way, fuggedaboutit.
    On Wednesday, White House officials summoned dozens of leaders of nonprofit organizations that strongly back the health law to help them coordinate plans for a prayer vigil, press conferences and other events outside the court when justices hear arguments for three days beginning March 26.
    Liberal outrage over theocrats in the White House? Not so much.

  • John Kerry—remember him? He also made phony news this week:
    Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., today blasted presidential contender Gov. Mitt Romney for what he says is a "phony set of phony propositions" for how to handle Iran.
    Whoa, Senator. That's a whole lotta phony. Kerry's stuttering screed was in response to this op-ed from Mitt.

  • "Natalie Schultz (libertarian)" got pretty up in arms over something she heard on the TV from Lawrence O'Donnell.
    On Thursday, February 23, 2012, the day after the last Republican debate, Lawrence O'Donnell, a self-declared "Socialist" attempted to make the case that Ron Paul is a "Fake Libertarian" because he believes that sex outside of marriage is immoral. Funny, during the debate over The Pill, I actually 100% EXPECTED Ron Paul to make that very claim; that it is not "contraception" that is the problem, but the moral driving-force that makes people want to use it. Ron Paul is a Christian, this is well known. Ron Paul is also a TRUE Libertarian, and as such he engaged in his First Amendment Right to express his OPINION, which is based on his Constitutionally-protected religious beliefs. Ron Paul DID NOT, EVER ONCE, say that he would LEGISLATE HIS MORAL VIEWS ON ANY AMERICAN.
    Natalie has learned where the Caps Lock button is on her keyboard; now she should learn not to use it, ever.

    But for our purposes, this is the point I'd like to discuss:

    So, regarding marriage, Ron Paul, who defends INDIVIDUALS, not "groups," and CONTRACTS, is a TRUE Libertarian, whereas Gary Johnson, who wants the GOVERNMENT to DEFINE "gay-marriage" as a "Constitutional Right" is DEAD WRONG!
    The problem being that I can't find any evidence of Gary Johnson actually advocating any such thing. Instead:
    Governor Johnson has a libertarian viewpoint on marriage. He does not believe that government should be involved in marriage, but that it should simply hand out civil unions. From this standpoint, Governor Johnson states that he support gay rights as his view places all couples on level ground with respect to the government.
    Also here.


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:57 PM EST

URLs du Jour

2012-03-08

  • Mayim Bialik from &quot;Big Bang
Theory&quot; with the Gigaset L410 A quick viewing note: The rerun episode of The Big Bang Theory, tonight at 8:30pm (Eastern) on CBS is worth watching just for the very last scene, where our hero Sheldon attempts to get back into the good graces of Amy Farrah Fowler, played by Ms. Mayim Bialik.

    Everyone's excellent in that show, but Ms. Bialik is just tremendous. Should I ever get around to compiling a top-N list of best sitcom episodes ever, tonight's will probably appear, just because of her. (If you just want to see the last scene, it's been YouTubed. But you'll miss the setup.)

  • Yesterday, I approvingly linked to the articles by Steven Landsburg about the Fluke/Limbaugh controversy. Landsburg is an econ prof at the University of Rochester (NY) and his blog posts caused the URoch President, Joel Seligman, to issue an anti-Landsburg screed in response. Landsburg has a response to Seligman here.

    Here's a telling indicator as to who has the stronger argument: Seligman does not provide a link to Landsburg's articles. However, Landsburg provides a link to Seligman's, allowing readers to judge for themselves.

    Instapundit has a good take on the matter:

    You know, it’s going to be harder and harder to sell the notions of universities as places where people pursue knowledge for its own sake.

    And Landsburg has tenure, but don’t you think that a university president going after a professor like this will serve to chill the speech of untenured professors, grad students, etc.? And do you think Joel Seligman was unaware of that?

    Good questions. Wonder how Universities Nearer Here would do if we had a similar professor who failed to follow the party line?

    The MinuteMan has a typically well-thought article too, with links to today's action.


Last Modified 2012-03-09 2:16 PM EST

URLs du Jour

2012-03-07

  • Brutal Assault 2009 Poster A relatively new addition to the blogroll is The College Fix, an aggregator of higher-ed-related stories from a conservative/libertarian perspective. Today, sharp-eyed Robby Soave juxtaposes (a) Mitt Romney's common-sense advice to a college kid griping about high tuition ("Don’t just go to one that has the highest price. Go to one that has a little lower price where you can get a good education.") and (b) a NYT writer deeming such advice "brutal."

    We're apparently in for a season of painful rhetoric, where every refusal to pander to spoiled-child demands for free stuff, delivered via government subsidy or mandate, is dubbed "brutal."

  • At The Right Coast, Tom Smith teases out the real problem with Rush Limbaugh deeming Georgetown U student/activist Sarah Fluke a "prostitute": it's really kind of insulting to prostitutes.
    I do not speak for the prostitutes of America, but I think in fairness Rush owes them an apology. I suspect the vast majority of them are working hard to support children and, yes, their drug habits, but when they got addicted to those drugs most of them probably did not realize the hell they were letting themselves in for. I think they deserve our sympathy more than our contempt. It's not fair to compare them to somebody who is enormously privileged compared to them, and instead of wanting to exchange sex for money, just wants the money so she and those similarly situated can have sex when and where they want without the normal consequences thereof, including even the financial consequences.
    Somehow I doubt that even Rush is brave enough to make that point on the air.

  • Jacob Sullum also considers Ms. Fluke's testimony and (like many) finds her cost accounting to be dubious, but (worse) her logic is faulty:
    Cost aside, the essence of Fluke's argument is that reproductive freedom requires free birth control. By the same logic, religious freedom requires kosher food subsidies, freedom of speech requires taxpayer-funded computers, and the right to keep and bear arms requires government-supplied guns.

  • The great Steve Landsburg has been inspired to write one, two, three posts on the Fluke controversy, all worth your careful consideration. The second one, in particular, analyzes the arguments put forth by people who…
    […] I now call “contraceptive sponges” — people who want others to pay for their contraception because — well, just because they don’t want to pay for it themselves.
    I believe that might be a pun. Long time since we've had a good one.


Last Modified 2012-03-09 2:18 PM EST

The Big Year

[3.0 stars] The Big Year (2011) on IMDb

[Amazon Image] A perhaps unlikely topic for a major motion picture: high-end obsessive/competitive bird-watching, sorry, "birding." (I have birders in my family, so I have a nodding acquaintance with the field, but nobody's at the level portrayed here.) It's billed as a comedy, but… it really feels more genre-free. It's just a story, illuminating a little world of which most of us are unaware. Yes, it's funny in spots. But so is life.

The story is about the struggle to observe a large number of bird species within a single calendar year within the USA/Canada. The previous champ in this area is Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson); looking to surpass him are retiring business genius Stu (Steve Martin), and amiable slacker Brad (Jack Black). And the movie pretty much just follows these guys around over the course of the year.

They go everywhere, pretty much at a moment's notice, at even the merest rumor that a rare species might show up at some remote location. Bostick is kind of a cocky jerk (but not a big enough jerk to make you hate him); Stu and Brad become buddies, united by their desire to see Bostick taken down a peg.

A big part of the movie is showing how the birding quest affects the less-obsessed: family, friends, associates. Stu's business ex-partners keep imploring him to come back to help; Bostick's wife wants to start a family, and (correctly) feels neglected; Brad's already lost one wife, and his no-nonsense dad (Mr. Brian Dennehy) wants him to settle down and start living in the real world. The one where you might occasionally see a pigeon scurrying out of your way on the sidewalk.

There's a lot of fantastic scenery. I was ready to believe that the filmmakers really did trot all over the continent for shooting, but IMDB claims that most of the locations were in British Columbia.

Here's one thing I found out: you can use the word "shit" once in a movie and still have a PG rating.

There are a lot of pretty well-known actors here in relatively minor roles. If you watch it, you may find yourself saying "Hey, that's…" a lot. (As in: "Hey, that's Anjelica Huston!")

There's nothing at all wrong here, but I keep remembering the insanely great movies Steve Martin used to make. Any chance we could get one more movie out of him comparable to Roxanne or L.A. Story?


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:52 AM EDT

Hugo

[4.5 stars] Hugo (2011) on IMDb

[Amazon Image]

Nominated for 10 Oscars, and won 5 of them (although not any of the biggies). And, yes, it's pretty good.

Set in post-WWI Paris, it's the story of Hugo Cabret, a plucky little orphan kid who (literally) lives in the walls of a train station. In a flashback, we learn how he got there: Hugo's dad worked in a museum, and was killed in a fire, but not before bequeathing Hugo a love of gadgetry and a non-working robot. Hugo's uncle brings him to where he works: the train station, where his job is to keep the clockworks running. But then the uncle disappears.

Hugo doesn't want to go to the orphanage. So he takes over his uncle's duties surreptitiously, and stays alive by swiping food from vendors. He's pursued by the local gendarme (Sacha Baron Cohen), and tormented by a nasty and bitter toyshop keeper (Ben Kingsley), who filches one of Hugo's prize possessions. In attempting to get it back, Hugo gets involved with the man's family, and discovers the man's unexpected past life: he's Georges Méliès, a pioneer of cinematic special effects at the turn of the century.

It's an appealing mix of drama, comedy, and fantasy. Unfortunately, I am kicking myself for not seeing it as it was really meant to be seen: on a big 3D screen. This is one of the movies where that would have been worthwhile. (And it's sort of fitting that a movie concerned with the earliest movie magic would have some of the latest.)

It's directed by Martin Scorsese, so I kept waiting for foulmouthed gangsters to show up and whack someone. But that doesn't happen. Acting is first-rate, although nobody seems to have a French accent.


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:39 AM EDT

Take Shelter

[3.0 stars] Take Shelter (2011) on IMDb

[Amazon Link] A while back, I wondered about the appropriateness of sticking an exclamation point on movie titles. (E.g., Moulin Rouge!; Oklahoma!; Hatari!) Here's a candidate for you: Take Shelter! Aiee! But probably would have been a different movie if they'd gone that way.

Curtis, played by Michael Shannon, is a decent guy in small-town Ohio. He has a loving wife and a cute daughter (unfortunately deaf). A decent job doing some sort of drilling. A dog. A truck.

But he's haunted by dreams, visions, and hallucinations, all of impending doom (illustrated with some minor special effects): a killer storm that will devastate his home and family. Also, his dog turns mean. Curtis becomes obsessed with constructing an expanded storm shelter in his yard, stocking it for long-term survival. This strains everything: his finances, his job, his relationship with his wife and friends.

Worse, Curtis is the same age as his mom was when she came down with paranoid schizophrenia. Could his premonitions simply be a genetic echo kicking his brain around?

The acting is good, and the overall plot is gripping. However, it's way too long, with too many scenes drawn out intolerably. Building up suspense is one thing. But I kept wishing they'd fast-forward in some spots. This is something that could have comfortably fit in a one-hour TV drama anthology series that (drat!) they don't do any more.

My mind also kept going to practical considerations: There's no way Curtis's shelter is watertight, so he's in for real trouble if the Armageddon storm involves flooding. Also, a periscope would have been nice, so he could see when it's safe to emerge.


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:38 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2012-03-04 Update

[phony baloney]

Rick Santorum remains alive in the phony standings this week, but just barely. As I type, the Intraders put him with a 4.1% shot at winning the GOP nomination, just slightly above our arbitrary 4% threshold.

Mitt Romney is our only candidate with an increased phony hit count this week, but he's still underperforming. President Obama maintains his crushing lead over all comers:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-02-26
"Barack Obama" phony 180,000,000 -4,000,000
"Rick Santorum" phony 21,700,000 -40,700,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 7,690,000 +6,180,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 1,110,000 -20,000

  • Not directly relevant to the campaign, but anyway: Andrew Breitbart, perhaps the least phony man in America, passed away this week. As George Orwell probably didn't say: "In an age of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Breitbart was a revolutionary; it's unsurprising that he was unusually reviled.

  • A little more relevant to the campaign: A Ms. Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown U. law student/activist (but apparently mostly an activist) appeared before Congress to demand that they mandate that her (Jesuit) college provide her with "free" contraceptive services. She was widely derided by many on the libertarian/conservative side, but only one criticism managed to be reported by (for example) NPR: Rush Limbaugh's. Because Rush used the words "prostitute" and "slut". Outrage! President Obama calle Fluke to commiserate. ("He's mean to me too!") Rush apologized.

    How much of that is phony? 100%? Or only 99%? Close call.

  • President Obama visited the Granite State this week and used the p-word:
    With his re-election fate increasingly tied to the price Americans are paying at the gas pump, President Obama asked Congress on Thursday to end $4 billion in subsidies for oil and gas companies and vowed to tackle the country's long-term energy issues while shunning "phony election-year promises about lower gas prices."
    Obama, of course, isn't against subsidies; he's all for them if they're going to his chosen companies. And ending subsidies, however meritorious that might be, won't lower gas prices.

    Writing at CEI's "Global Warming" blog, Myron Ebell noted that the Nashua speech demonstrated that Obama's "frantic efforts to deflect blame for rising gasoline prices" were becoming "even more incoherent and contradictory."

    But, Ebell notes, at least he didn't mention algae as a possible savior, as he did a few days back in Miami.


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:58 PM EST

Midnight in Paris

[2.0 stars] Midnight in Paris (2011) on IMDb

[Amazon Link] I used to be a big Woody Allen fan. Loved Annie Hall. And then, over the years…, eh, not so much.

But Midnight in Paris was supposed to be pretty good. It won one Oscar (for Best Original Screenplay) and was nominated for three others (Best Picture, Best Director, and—zzzz—Art Direction). And Mrs. Salad expressed an interest, so…

Eh, not so much. What's the big deal?

The movie's protagonist is Gil (Owen Wilson), who's saddled with tedious fiancee, Inez (Rachel McAdams), and even more tedious would-be in-laws (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy). They're all in Paris for some tourism.

Gil is sort of unhappy, tired of modern Paris. He's a successful Hollywood hack, but really dreams of being a seriously important literary author. He's beset by the philistinism and pretension of his associates, who dare to disrespect his lofty ambition.

Fortunately, Gil discovers a way to get back to Paris of the 20's. He rapidly meets a host of the artistic and literary giants of the era: Hemingway, Fitzgerald (and Zelda), Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, Picasso, … You get the idea. He also meets Adriana (played by Marion Cotillard) who's far more interesting and sympathetic than present-day Inez. So…

OK, that doesn't sound so bad. And, obviously, a lot of people liked it just fine. Herewith, my gripes:

Owen Wilson's performance is a not-very-thinly-disguised imitation of Woody Allen, right down to his decades-old stuttering whiny mannerisms. To be fair, many reviews I read remarked on this. But it irritated me. (Also: Kurt Fuller, for some reason, seems to be imitating Alan Alda at his most insufferable. Why?)

The name-dropping script, written by Woody Allen, is mostly centered around convincing us that the Woody Allen-like character would have been recognized as a True Literary Talent and Deep Thinker by Hemingway, Stein, et.al. Please.

Nearly all the characters, past and present, are presented without subtlety or depth. (Although, to be fair, Adrien Brody's version of Salvador Dali is kind of a hoot.) This is a Classic Comics version of 1920's Paris.

But, hey, you might like it better than I did.


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:40 AM EDT

Decision at Sundown

[2.5 stars] Decision at Sundown (1957) on IMDb

[Amazon Link] We've been meandering through old Randolph Scott westerns over the past few years, with mostly positive results. This one didn't strike me as well as the others.

Mr. Scott plays Bart Allison. Allison, in some ways, is your typical R. Scott character: stoic and single-minded. But Allison isn't particularly interested in legalities: at the beginning of the picture, he pulls a gun on a stagecoach driver, simply to get a drop-off at a pre-arranged location, where he can rendezvous with sidekick Sam (Noah Beery Jr.).

Sam has located Allison's bête noire, Tate Kimbrough, after years of searching; Allison wants to kill Kimbrough for (initially) unknown reasons. But Kimbrough has set himself up as an oppressive strongman in the little town of Sundown (see title), and has the local law enforcement (hey, it's Andrew Duggan!) on his side. And (by coincidence) he's getting married to one of Mudd's Women, the shapely Karen Steele.

So Allison and Sam have their work cut out for them. Worse, their initial confrontation with Kimbrough doesn't work out well at all. Eventually we learn more about Allison's reasons for wanting to kill Kimbrough, and become aware that it's not a simple black-and-white Western morality tale.

Problems: I like simple black and white Western morality tales. No spoilers, but the ending is kind of out of tune with your typical Randolph Scott movie.

In addition, one of the neat things about Mr. Scott's other movies is all the glorious western scenery his characters' stories play against. In contrast, most of Decision at Sundown takes place in a dreary little Hollywood backlot version of a generic western town. Boring!


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:41 AM EDT

Sleeping Beauty

[Amazon Image] I'm working through Ross MacDonald's Lew Archer novels in slow-motion. How slow? I read the previous one in the series back in 2008. And the one before that in 2004. Sleeping Beauty, published in 1973, is the penultimate book in the series.

Not that it matters, I just like using the word "penultimate".

As things kick off, Lew is bemused by an offshore oil spill threatening the Southern California beaches. He visits the site of the disaster and is taken with a troubled young woman, Laurel, whose family (it turns out) owns the leaky well. She's also on the outs with her husband, Tom. Quickly, she gets into a spat with Lew and takes off. But not before she's filched a bottle of sleeping pills from his medicine cabinet. Lew sets off in search of Laurel, but she turns out to be surprisingly elusive.

As with most of the Archer books, Lew soon finds himself trying to sort out a sordid and devilishly complex history spanning decades. It's a challenge for the reader. In addition to Tom and Laurel, we're rapidly introduced to Jack, Blanche, Joyce, William, Sylvia, Marian, Benjamin, Elizabeth, Gloria, Harry, Allie, Connie, Tony, Martha, Ethel, Wilbur, Harold, … I may be missing a few. You don't know who's important, and you only gradually learn of unexpected past relationships and activities of these folks over the recent and distant past. Pay attention! Maybe take notes!

Lew goes down those mean streets, neither tarnished nor afraid. He does (however) get tired, sad, and lonely. I'm pretty sure that he only grosses $50 out of the deal, too. It's a tough way to make a living. But at least he finds time for some brief illicit canoodling with one of the ladies.


Last Modified 2016-07-15 8:25 AM EDT

Moneyball

[4.0 stars] Moneyball (2011) on IMDb

[Amazon Link]

Perhaps a baseball movie for people who don't like baseball movies? It was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. In an interesting case of life imitating art, it got skunked at the end of the season.

Anyway: it's the story of Oakland A's manager Billy Beane, as played by Brad Pitt. (When they film my life story, I want Brad Pitt to play me too, OK?) After the A's almost-but-not-quite 2001 season, their superstars are moving on to more lucrative positions with richer teams. (Johnny Damon to the Red Sox, for example.) Beane doesn't have the budget to hire equivalent replacements. What to do?

What he does is semi-revolutionary: during a visit to the Cleveland Indians, Beane notices a tubby nerd (played by Jonah Hill) to whom management listens when making player deals. Why? The nerd is a fan of Sabermetrics, the technique of mining baseball stats to discover undervalued players, who might be had on the cheap. This is in contrast to the subjective guidance Beane is getting from his team of old-school ex-jock scouts. Beane hires the nerd, and proceeds to build a team according to Sabermetrics principles, at the risk of his job and reputation. And also to the scorn of his coach (Art Howe, played convincingly by Philip Seymour Hoffman). The movie shows how this played out during the 2002 season.

Fine actors are working from a very intelligent (and occasionally very funny) script here, and the results are excellent. I especially liked this bit, where Beane and coach Ron Washington are trying to convince Scott Hatteberg to play first for Oakland:

Scott Hatteberg: I've only ever played catcher.

Billy Beane: It's not that hard, Scott. Tell him, Wash.

Ron Washington: It's incredibly hard.

I was thinking the movie would attempt to make the too-easy point that the real game is not on the field, but mostly in the behind-the-scenes financial machinations. There's some of that. But the movie makes clear that there's still room for old-fashioned teamwork, pep talks, and unexpected game performance.

Brad Pitt seems to be turning into Robert Redford, by the way. Not that there's anything wrong with that.


Last Modified 2012-09-24 4:39 AM EDT