The Tyranny of Clichés

[Amazon Link] I've been a Jonah Goldberg fanboy for a number of years now, and this book was an automatic buy for me. And, unsurprisingly, I found it to be a great read, full of insights and humor.

The subtitle is "How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas". True, but perhaps more accurate would be "How Liberal Arguments Got Lazy, Dishonest, Illogical, Ahistorical, Silly, and Incoherent." (That probably wouldn't have fit quite so well on the dust jacket.)

Jonah—I call him Jonah—leads off his introduction with a quote from Orwell: "[W]e have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men." He could have equally well used the take-home point from Orwell's "Politics and the English Language":

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.
Jonah's had quite enough of that, thanks very much. The book is a quick evisceration of a couple dozen examples of "bad usage": thought-free clichés deployed by lefties to short-circuit and deflect intelligent argument.

And it's amazingly topical. A mere few weeks before the book was published, President Obama speechified about how the proposed GOP budget was "nothing but thinly veiled Social Darwinism." That utter bullshit got quickly refuted; but it would have been far simpler just to cut-n-paste the main points from Chapter 8 here.

Really: if you've found yourself annoyed by some smug liberal who's rattled off some facile self-serving wordstring: it's probably here. The "living Constitution"? Chapter 14. "Social justice"? Chapter 11. (I, for one, am not giving one dime to any institution that claims to be fostering "social justice.")

One problem: the progressive folks that make the arguments Jonah skewers here are the least likely to read the book. Too bad. If only a handful of liberal pundits decided to avoid using the listed clichés, they would be (at least) more interesting, if not any less wrong-headed.

I got the Kindle version, which suffered from annoying formatting with the initial drop-cap on every chapter: it wound up floating by itself above the rest of the text. Oh well.

Here's what's neat, though: on page 64, Jonah describes Mayor Bloomberg as a "nannying, statist bully who, much like Napoleon, hurls around charges of ideological ensorcellment as a way to delegitimize political opponents he cannot defeat in open debate."

Ensorcellment? Wha…? But Kindle comes to the rescue: even sitting (as I was) in the food court of the Northshore Mall in Peabody MA, all I had to do highlight the puzzling word, punch a key, and I was immediately whisked to the relevant entry in the included dictionary. (Not that it matters, but my guess is that Jonah went for the highfalutin word here as a small homage to the late William F. Buckley, Jr.)

So that was nice. In addition, when Jonah mentions (page 102) that the Oxford English Dictionary (invidiously and unjustifiably) claims that "Social Darwinism" is "often used to justify political conservatism, imperialism, and racism", I was able to quickly verify that sad fact as well.


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:17 AM EDT

Knight and Day

[4.0 stars] Knight and Day (2010) on IMDb [Amazon]

It took awhile for Knight and Day (a movie originally released in the summer of 2010) to work itself to the top of the Netflix queue, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. Yes, it's a crass, shameless, commercial bit of dumb fun aimed strictly at moneymaking. But I decided to concentrate on the fun. Nothing wrong with that.

(And, for a crass, shameless, commercial movie, it didn't do that well in theatres: in its opening weekend, it came in behind Toy Story 3 and an Adam Sandler comedy.)

So anyway: Cameron Diaz plays June, on her way back to Boston from picking up some vintage car parts in Wichita. (She's an ace mechanic restoring her dad's old GTO for her sister's wedding present.) She runs into—literally—handsome stranger Roy at the airport. Fate (together with some behind-the-scenes help from a bunch of all-seeing CIA agents) put June and Roy on a near-empty flight together; it turns out that it's near-empty for the sole purpose of trapping Roy: he's suspected of murdering a bunch of CIA agents and stealing a Macguffin.

Well, it's only a matter of minutes before Roy prevails against another half-dozen or so agents. (Self defense! Stand your ground!) He and June find themselves on the run.

There are a lot of spectacular stunts, PG-13 violence, and explosions for the adolescent guys (both actual and perpetual, like me). There's girl-whisked-way-by-mysterious-and-dangerous-stranger romance for the ladies. June is a clueless ditz when the plot demands it; she is resourceful and courageous when the plot demands that. And Tom Cruise plays Roy as consistently and amusingly upbeat and good-humored, even with bullets whizzing by, high-speed chases, crashes, etc. The movie doesn't take itself seriously, probably a good idea.


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:18 AM EDT

Memorial Day 2012

  • Let's all remember.

  • Judge Andrew Napolitano has a thought-provoking essay at Reason.
    What if Memorial Day reminds us of times when we had more freedom? What if freedom is dying right under our eyes? What if the memory of the past is more fulfilling than the reality of the present?

  • Please view and share this video about Honor Flight


Last Modified 2014-12-05 11:40 AM EST

The Phony Campaign

2012-05-27 Update

[phony baloney]

President Obama continues to expand his phony lead over Mitt Romney this week:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-05-20
"Barack Obama" phony 23,100,000 +500,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 1,070,000 +30,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 337,000 +24,000

As always, there are stories behind all the phoniness:

  • Michael Crowley of Time derides what (according to the headline) he sees as "The Phony War: Obama and Romney Are Debating Character, Not Policy".
    More than five months from Election Day, the back-and-forth about Mitt Romney's record at Bain already feels played out. Unfortunately, there's good reason to expect the campaign continues in this vein indefinitely. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney are terribly interested in dwelling on policy platforms. Romney's plan to slash spending and keep taxes low on the wealthy isn't especially popular, at least not at any level of detail beyond a blithe promise to shrink the deficit. Meanwhile, Obama's signature first-term achievements, like health care, the stimulus and Wall Street reform, are all unpopular or tricky to sell. (The Dodd-Frank bill is the most popular of these, but hyping it means offending wealthy donors.) So what we're getting instead is a superficial duel about character-and, worse, one that's based on the largely false premise that the better man can better "manage" the economy back to health.
    While Crowley bemoans debates about "character, not policy", Time's cover this week hypes the story "Raising Romney", picturing young Mitt with his mother, Lenore, apparently in a hotel room working out strategy for Lenore's 1970 run for US Senate.

    It's not just the candidates that are phony this year.

  • President Obama has invented yet another way you, Good Citizen, can report on other Americans who dare "attack" his policies. You can join the Truth Team! There's a handy online form where you can fill in your e-mail address, zip code, the "content of the attack", its source (e.g., a "Website/Blog"), and a provide a link (e.g., http://punsalad.com) and even upload an image.

    There's even a spiffy logo:

    Truth Team!

    I wonder: if you turn in a certain number of Enemies of the State for making "attacks", can you get a little badge with a "T" on it? I really think the Obama campaign should look into doing that.

  • Hey, you know who we've been ignoring? Gary Johnson! Libertarian Brian Doherty was interviewed in support of his new book about Ron Paul, concentrating on the relationship between Paul and Johnson.

    I couldn't make this up if I tried:

    Asked whether one could look at the differences between the two politicians as Ron Paul having an ontological view of libertarianism while Gary Johnson has more of a consequentialist view, Doherty readily replied, "I think that's very correct. Yes."
    Now there's an issue that wasn't sufficiently covered during the primary season!


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:55 PM EST

Chocolate

[4.0 stars] Chocolate (2008) on IMDb [Amazon]

This 2008 martial arts movie is from Thailand, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. We watched the English-dubbed version, which was fine; I'm no purist. Although some of the minor female characters were (I thought) pretty clearly being dubbed by males talking funny.

It's (initially) the story of two starcrossed lovers, Zin and Masashi. Zin is the ex-girlfriend of a mob boss, Masashi is in a rival gang, and the resulting betrayal-fueled carnage separates and exiles them under threat of death. But a child, Zen, also results. Zen is severely autistic, but happens to have unique talents: she absorbs vast martial arts skills simply by observing them, and she has near-supernatural senses and reflexes.

All well and good, but as Zen approaches her teen years, mother Zin gets cancer, requiring expensive treatment and medicine. Zen and her fat comic-relief cousin, Moom, decide to hit up Zin's former clients for the money they owe her. They react poorly, and Zen gets to use her unexpected martial talents quite a bit. Eventually, Masashi gets drawn back in, bad feelings are rekindled, and (as near as I can tell) nearly every Bangkok lowlife scum is called up to defeat the forces of decency.

Part of the fun is watching this little slip of a girl beat the heck out of a lot of unpleasant adversaries. The action is imaginatively choreographed; I found myself saying "whoa!" a lot. The violence escalates throughout the movie, leading to an impressive finale.


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:16 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2012-05-20 Update

[phony baloney]

President Obama threatens to pull away from Mitt, phonywise:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-05-15
"Barack Obama" phony 22,600,000 +700,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 1,040,000 +20,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 313,000 +7,000

  • Right-wing troglodytes unearthed a biographical sketch of President Obama published by his literary agency which claims Obama was "born in Kenya". This claim appeared in print and on the web from 1991 until 2007.

    For geographically-challenged readers: Kenya is not a suburb of Honolulu.

    The literary agent now claims this to be a "fact checking error".

    Problem: a "fact checking error" requires a "fact" to check. Where that "fact" came from in this case is unclear; the agent claims that Obama wasn't the source, but is otherwise silent. Might have been the literary agent's cat walking on the keyboard.

    Two things are obvious: (1) Somebody lied at some point. (2) The MSM is just way too busy chasing down allegations of high-school bullying by Mitt Romney to check it out.

  • Does Obama have the phony campaign wrapped up? As Peter Suderman reminds us, Mitt Romney still has untapped potential. After quoting a Romney speech that excoriates the Obama Administration's stimulus as "the biggest, most careless one-time expenditure by the federal government in history", Suderman observes:
    How bad does Mitt Romney think Obama's stimulus was for America? So bad that Romney would have done...well, pretty much the same thing, but with a somewhat different mix of taxes and spending.
    Suderman makes his case via the dreadfully unfair tactic of quoting a book Romney wrote back in 2010. Ancient history!

  • The real phony news continued to be downticket, as the contributions of "Elizabeth Warren -- Cherokee" to the Pow Wow Chow cookbook (which her campaign had offered as evidence of her Native American heritage) turn out to have been plagiarized from various sources. For example, Prof Warren's "Cold Omelets with Crab Meat" was apparently lifted near-verbatim from a column by New York Times writer and French chef Pierre Franey. Franey wrote that the omelets were "a great favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Cole Porter."

    Commented Mark Steyn:

    Actually, that last line [about the "great favorite"] briefly made me wonder if writing about American liberalism isn't a threat to one's sanity. Some societies are racist, some societies work hard to be non-racist, but only in America does the nation's most prestigious law school hire a 100 per cent white female as its first "woman of color" on the basis that she once mailed in the Duke of Windsor's favorite crab dish to a tribal cookbook.

    Before he ascended to the throne, the Duke inspired a hit song of reflected celebrity: "I Danced With A Man Who Danced With A Girl Who Danced With The Prince Of Wales". That seems to be how Harvard Law's identity-group quota-filling works. I'm confident Elizabeth Warren will eventually be able to prove she danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with someone who once changed planes at a municipal airport accidentally built on a Cherokee burial ground.

    Theory: Elizabeth Warren is a conservative mole who long ago vowed to illuminate the corruption, hypocrisy, and dishonesty at the core of identity politics in higher education. She's doing a great job!


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:55 PM EST

Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story

[3.5 stars] Under the Boardwalk: The Monopoly Story (2010) on IMDb [Amazon]

A fun documentary about the game of Monopoly, exploring its origin, history, and current-day devotees. There is nothing extraordinary here, but movie held my interest throughout. It is narrated by Zachary Levi, late of the TV show Chuck.

The history is especially fascinating: the very earliest version, called The Landlord's Game, was meant to illustrate the single-tax theory of Henry George. Over decades, it mutated. Today's version was originally developed/stolen by Charles Darrow in the 1930s; even today, his descendants get a few cents thrown their way for each and every version of licensed Monopoly product purchased. Fascinating trivial details abound: "Marvin Gardens" is actually a misspelling of the actual property; "Short Line" was thought to be punchier than the actual "Shore Fast Line".

Much of the movie is spent reporting on competitive Monopoly tournaments, sponsored by the makers of the board game. If (like most people) you don't take Monopoly very seriously, you might be amazed at the number of people who do. There are a lot of talking heads, but they're colorful talking heads. There's some trash talking, as it develops that some of these guys don't really like some of these other guys. It all culminates in the 2009 World Tournament, held in Las Vegas; the winner is an unlikely Norwegian.

Novices can pick up some playing tips. (Example: in the early stages of the game, you should always bail out of jail ASAP, so you can accumulate tradeable properties. Once all the properties are owned, however, jail is a pretty attractive place, and you should stay there until you get thrown out.)


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:21 AM EDT

Haywire

[3.0 stars] Haywire (2011) on IMDb [Amazon]

An arty action thriller directed by Steven Soderbergh. Probably would have been a big yawnfest if not for the protagonist being a woman.

But, to be fair, it's a pretty amazing woman. The actress is Gina Carano, playing "Mallory Kane", a spy-for-hire. In real life, Ms. Carano was once a professional Mixed Martial Arts fighter, and her skills carry over pretty well to this role, which involves her beating the crap out of a whole bunch of guys.

As noted above, the plot is kind of generic: Mallory is called for a mission extracting a Chinese hostage held by a bunch of no-goodniks in Barcelona. Post-operation she's swooshed away to Dublin, but this turns out to be a mere pretext for a betrayal by her co-workers. She barely escapes and vows revenge.

Did you see Salt? It's kind of like that, although grittier, artier, and slightly more believable.

The movie's also notable by a bunch of big stars in relatively minor roles: Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton all appear briefly. (All but the latter being kind of sleazy.)


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:20 AM EDT

The Avengers

[5.0 stars] The Avengers (2012) on IMDb [Amazon]

As I type, IMDB has The Avengers as number 32 of the best movies of all time. I don't know about that, but … oh, wait, yes I do know about that: it's not. But it's very good. Consumer note: you might not want to bother shelling out extra money for the 3-D version.

Consumer note 2: if you're a true fan, you'll want to hang around through the entire credits for a sweet little post-credit scene.

It's the movie we've been waiting for since Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D, showed up at the end of Iron Man back in 2008. His brilliant idea: assemble a group of heroes, some with unusual powers (Thor, Hulk, Captain America), some just extremely talented (Hawkeye, Black Widow); and throw in one with access to amazing gadgetry (Iron Man). Any of these folks can handle normal existential crises on their own, of course. But when a supernatural Asgardian miscreant (Loki) teams up with a nasty alien race (the Chitauri), it pretty much takes everyone to eke out a victory.

Sorry, that was a spoiler. The good guys win.

But along the way, there's plenty of action, internal bickering, and humor. There should be, I think, an Oscar category for actors speaking totally ludicrous lines with a straight face. Robert Downey Jr. would win this year, but face fierce competition from everyone else in this movie.

I see at the IMDB that the DVD will have about 30 minutes of deleted scenes.


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:20 AM EDT

Buchanan Rides Alone

[3.5 stars] Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) on IMDb [Amazon]

Yet another Randolph Scott movie made under director Budd Boetticher. A little better than average, I thought. Also, at 78 minutes, very short.

Buchanan, as you might guess from the title, is riding alone. He's made some money as a hired gun in Mexico, and is on his way back to West Texas. But he rides into the dinky border town of Agry, owned and operated by the Agry family. All he wants is some food, drink, and a place to spend the night.

But one of the younger Agrys has strayed over the border and dishonored the sister of Juan de la Vega; Juan (successfully) seeks vengeance, but the ensuing melee entangles Buchanan, and pretty quickly they're both about to be lynched by the enraged townspeople. Only by happenstance are they spared, and soon the town is caught up in intra-family rivalries, betrayal, and violence.

I don't think Mr. Scott was ever cooler. Even with a noose around his neck, he's making wisecracks. Extra bonus: Peter Gunn himself, Craig Stevens, playing the Agry's local enforcer, obviously disgusted with working for the sleazy bunch.


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:21 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2012-05-17

  • killing words / make art not war /
creative destruction The Club For Growth performs its fine duty of checking up on how well freshman GOP congresscritters are holding on to what, arguably, got them elected: a commitment to limited government and economic freedom.

    It's a mixed bag. Scores range from a pristine 100% to a dismal 37%. Spoiler for Granite Staters: NH-01's Frank Guinta got a needs-improvement 77%. Charlie Bass grabbed a near-the-bottom 48%.

  • Back in November we heard about the plight of Joe the Puppeteer, an Occupy Wall Street denizen. After 3 years and $35K in student loans, he got his MFA from UConn. In puppetry. And was surprised that he was unable to find a job that would recompense him at the level that his newly-gathered education demanded.

    But what is it with Connecticut higher ed anyway? Via Taranto, we learn of Mike Alewitz, art professor at Central Connecticut State University. He teaches "a mural class and a street art class", but The Man keeps hassling him. One of the products of his class is a 7-by 40-foot mural that "depicts students struggling under the strain of college debt as the CCSU mascot, a blue devil, looks on."

    Yes, as Taranto points out: the students are irate about their eyeball-deepness in debt, due to tuition paid for a class that taught them the valuable job skill of painting a mural protesting how deep in debt they were.

    Is that irony? I can never tell.

  • Wired is part of the Condé Nast publishing empire, which is home to a lot of trendy leftism (e.g., New Yorker, Vanity Fair). But Wired almost always plays it straight, if somewhat befuddled, when it comes to politics.

    So I was pleasantly (but only slightly) surprised by the end of Wired editor Chris Anderson's wide-ranging interview with Marc Andreessen, inventor of the modern web browser. Andreessen notes how Amazon drove Borders out of business and thereby helped build a better world. And:

    Anderson: So it's creative destruction.

    Andreessen: When Milton Friedman was asked about this kind of thing, he said: Human wants and needs are infinite, and so there will always be new industries, there will always be new professions. This is the great sweep of economic history. When the vast majority of the workforce was in agriculture, it was impossible to imagine what all those people would do if they didn't have agricultural jobs. Then a hundred years later the vast majority of the workforce was in industrial jobs, and we were similarly blind: It was impossible to imagine what workers would do without those jobs. Now the majority are in information jobs. If the computers get smart enough, then what? I'll tell you: The then what is whatever we invent next.

    I think Wired just assured my subscription renewal for the foreseeable future.

  • Ladies and gentlemen: the funniest Saturday Night Live skit ever:

    Disagree? Sorry, you're wrong.


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:24 AM EDT

Gun, With Occasional Music

[Amazon Link] Well, yet another book crossed off this io9 list of the "Top 10 Greatest Science Fiction Detective Novels Of All Time". And another one I pretty much hated while reading. It was nominated for a Nebula Award, which means that a lot of people liked it a lot better than I did. (Why do I keep reading books I hate? It's a rule I set for myself years ago, and I think I had a good reason for doing so, but … it may need revision.)

Anyway: this one is a 1994 effort by Jonathan Lethem. This was his very first novel, and (to be fair) he's gone on to become a serious critically-acclaimed writer of best-selling literary fiction and some non-fiction. Lethem's Wikipedia page quotes him as getting significant literary influence from Philip K. Dick, marijuana, and punk rock. That explains a lot.

The book is set in a dystopian future where artificial evolution has granted intelligence to kangaroos, apes, sheep, etc. Drug use is universal, a snortable substance called "make" is made available for free; citizens can customize the blend of chemicals to give you the desired outcome of addictiveness, forgetfulness, etc.)

The protagonist, and first-person narrator is Conrad Metcalf, a private "inquisitor", which is what detectives are called. In a seedy world, he's unusually seedy himself. He is hired by Orton Angwine, who believes he's being framed for the murder of Dr. Maynard Stanhunt. By coincidence—or is it—Metcalf had previously been hired by Stanhunt to follow his wife around.

The book attempts a Chandleresque hard-boiled style, where Metcalfe's narrative is full of colorful observations and wisecracks. This is not easy to do right, and… well, I'd rather have re-read Chandler for the fourth or fifth time, instead. This doesn't even read like a good Chandler parody; it's more like a parody of a bad Chandler parody.

Most of all, the book never provided me with a satisfactory answer to the question: Why should I care?


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:14 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2012-05-15 Update

[phony baloney]

Apologies for the belated "weekly" update to the phony campaign. The past few days have been filled with stuff that crowds out blogging. But phoniness went right on without us:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-05-06
"Barack Obama" phony 21,900,000 -7,700,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 1,020,000 -240,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 306,000 +26,000

  • The big phony news was President Obama's shifting position (don't call it a flip-flop) on gay marriage. It impressed the mass media rubes. Everyone else … not so much. We don't quote people associated with The Nation very often, but Richard Kim, executive editor of that magazine's website, espied what was coming up before the actual announcement: "Obama's Phony Position On Gay Marriage".
    There's one thing that has always irked me about Obama's evolutionary narrative on same-sex marriage -- and that's not his position on it per se so much as the insincerity of his homophobia. To take Obama at his word, same-sex marriage is something he "wrestles" with, something he thinks a lot about and might support but for a deep conflict with his Christian faith. I'm not privy to what goes on in the president's head, but frankly, this smells like b- - - - - - t.
    The link is to NPR, which apparently has a problem with that final word. At the magazine's website they spell it out, if you're confused.

  • But wait, there's more: Over at www.whitehouse.gov, the current inhabitants are inserting references to President Obama into the official biographies of past presidents. In fact, reports Seth Mandel at Commentary, "it turns out Obama has added bullet points bragging about his own accomplishments to the biographical sketches of every single U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge (except, for some reason, Gerald Ford)."

    My guess is that the ensuing ridicule may force these self-promotional ego-trip modifications to disappear into the memory hole in the near future. But here's what's currently on the Hoover bio:

    President Herbert Hoover signed the bill founding the Department of Veterans Affairs July 21, 1930. President Obama is committed to making sure that the VA, the second-largest cabinet department, serves the needs of all veterans and provides a seamless transition from active duty to civilian life, and has directed his Administration to modernize the way health care is delivered and benefits are administered for our nation's veterans. First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden launched Joining Forces to mobilize all sectors of society to give our service members and their families the opportunities and support they have earned.
    All that's missing: noting that Mitt Romney has promised to steal every vet's wheelchair if elected.

  • And if you're looking for something else to be irked about: Joseph Curl notes that President Obama, who spoke compassionate and understanding words on the drug-related deaths of both Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, was completely silent on the passing of Adam Nathaniel Yauch, aka MCA of the Beastie Boys. Who also died way too young, but apparently on the natch.

  • In case you missed it: "How The Gutsiest President Ever Single-Handedly Killed OBL".

  • In non-presidential phony news, Elizabeth Warren continues to punch above her weight. As late as yesterday, she was still claiming to be "proud of my Native American heritage". Despite the fact that the proof of that career-boosting heritage has been, at best, ephemeral.

    Victor Davis Hanson notes the obvious:

    I guess some of us are on a different planet, because both Warren and Harvard University seem to have been unethical at best and unlawful at worst -- if she or anyone from the Law School (no less!) signed forms or affidavits attesting to Warren's Native American status in accordance with federal affirmative action/diversity guidelines. Fabricating an entire identity seems to me right up there with plagiarism, and yet neither Harvard nor Warren is the least bit troubled by the fact that at the heart of this scandal is an outright lie, both spoken and written. How many Harvard Law Schools or Elizabeth Warrens are there out there in academia, that have been untruthful in assessing their diversity profiles, and is that the reason for the complete silence on this matter from various professional academic and scholarly associations?
    For higher ed folks, especially those with political ambition, rules are for the little people.


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:55 PM EST

Bottle Shock

[3.0 stars] Bottle Shock (2008) on IMDb [Amazon Link]

This movie had been in my Netflix queue from day one; before that, it was in my Blockbuster queue. Now, being an anal geek, I have a queue-purging algorithm. It told me that I should either get this movie, or delete it from my queue. So I decided to bump it up to the top. And it wasn't bad! I wouldn't have missed anything by not seeing it, but it was a decent way to spend an evening when there's nothing but reality shows on TV.

It is the fictionalized story of how California wines first gained respect among the worldwide wine connoisseur community in the mid-1970s. It concentrates on Chateau Montelena, where prickly winemaker Jim Barrett (played by UMass graduate Bill Pullman) is in debt up to his tastebuds, trying to get his Chardonnay exactly right. He is semi-assisted by his son, Bo (Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine); unfortunately Bo is kind of a laid-back hippie who is mostly out for a weed-fueled good time, something that irritates his straight-arrow father. Bo has a Hispanic buddy, Gustavo. And into the mix comes cute UC intern, Sam, who wants to learn the vineyard biz.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the British Steven Spurrier (played by Alan Rickman) is trying to get some respect among his peers. He gets the bright idea of a blind taste test between California and French wine. And he jets off to California to see if he can rustle up some good ones.

So, a little family drama, some broad humor, and a lot of people making a big fuss over how good various wines are. Up front: Alan Rickman's understated and subtle performance is a big main reason to watch this. A small fraction of actors can communicate volumes with a lip twitch or the tiniest nod of the chin. Rickman is one of those.


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:19 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2012-05-07

  • Dinosaur You should subscribe to Reason, but if you don't: editor Matt Welch's column from the latest issue is online; he considers John Stossel's pessimistic view of the state of the ongoing batter for liberty. A sobering take:
    Take federal spending: In March, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) proposed, and House Republicans passed, a budget blueprint that increases federal spending over the next decade from $3.6 trillion to $4.9 trillion (in current dollars), and according to the Congressional Budget Office never once comes close to balancing any year’s budget during that time frame. At a time when debt levels and entitlement time bombs are putting the nation at severe financial risk, Ryan’s budget should be seen as inadequate to the task of averting catastrophe. Instead, he’s being accused of deliberately starving the poor.
    Welch argues that fans of liberty should play the "long game." Pun Salad agrees.

  • Your blog post title of the day: "Eat, Fart, Die".

Lullaby

[Amazon Link] The full title is (apparently) Robert B. Parker's Lullaby, reflecting the fact that this novel was not written by the late Mr. Parker; instead, Ace Atkins has been passed the torch of recounting the adventures of Parker's classic private-eye hero, Spenser. I'd been reading Parker's Spenser oeuvre since the mid-70's; this forced me to ask: am I a Parker fan or a Spenser fan?

Related question: Should I make some sort of purist objection here? Nah, I guess not. If the Widow Parker is OK with it, I can go along for the ride. I always saw Spenser as Parker's alter ego, so it's a little odd to have the fictional guy live on.

As near as I can tell, Atkins decided to adopt/mimic Parker's writing style. That's not an easy thing to do, and it might not have been an easy choice to make. But, if I was presented, double-blind, excerpts from each author, I'd have a tough time distinguishing Atkins' writing from Parker's.

Nearly everyone's here: Susan, Hawk, Quirk, Belson, Henry Cimoli, Vinnie, Rita, … And Spenser remains his wisecracking self. Eventually, I caught some subtle distinctions: Atkins does the Boston geography thing to a significantly greater extent than Parker. And his Hawk seemed to be slightly more chatty than Parker's. But otherwise… dead on.

What about the plot? Spenser's client this time is 14-year-old, Mattie. Mattie is a foul-mouthed Southie girl whose mother was murdered four years previous. A lowlife thug was arrested and convicted for the deed, but Mattie is unconvinced; she saw two other thugs toss her mom into a car the night of the crime. But she couldn't, and can't, get the authorities to take her seriously.

Spenser is a sucker for this sort of thing, and (of course) it develops that Mattie is totally correct about the shoddy justice in the case. His technique is, as usual, to make himself a total pain in the wazoo to all involved, until the bad guys get rattled enough to try to thwart the investigation. That happens a lot here. It all builds up to an extended climax full of peril and action. Win!


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:23 AM EDT

A Better Life

[3.5 stars] A Better Life (2011) on IMDb [Amazon Link]

Netflix insisted I would love this movie! I had my doubts, but it wasn't bad at all.

It's the story of Carlos, an illegal Mexican immigrant eking out a tough living assisting in a gardening business in L.A. Carlos's wife has long since split, leaving him with a now-teenage son, Luis. Family life is teetering on the edge of dysfunction: Carlos gets home late, exhausted, gets up the next morning to do it all again; he's only got time for a few words to Luis. Luis is increasingly surly; worse, his girlfriend is in a family full of gang members, and it's widely expected that Luis will go that way too.

One hope: Carlos's boss is retiring, and wants to sell his truck to Carlos. This would enable Carlos to—just perhaps—start climbing up the ladder from the lower class.

Things don't go well, of course.

Demián Bichir, playing Carlos, got a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance here. I'm not sure this wasn't a PC "diversity" nod by the Academy voters, but he does a fine job. PJ Media's Roger L. Simon is credited for the story, so that's a big plus. A number of commenters at IMDB found this to be propaganda on the side of immigration reform, amnesty, open borders, etc. Eh, I don't think so; the movie never slides into that kind of tendentiousness. Instead, it's a decently powerful story of a guy striving against the odds for himself and his kid. You don't have to draw any deeper political lessons from that unless you want to.


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:22 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2012-05-06 Update

[phony baloney]

President Obama continues to lead in the phony poll, but his margin continues to shrink. This week, it's 23.5-to-1.

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-04-29
"Barack Obama" phony 29,600,000 -1,000,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 1,260,000 +20,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 280,000 +6,000

A veritable flood of phoniness this week.

  • Our first note isn't even at the presidential level, but it is classic phony: Massachusetts US Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren claimed to be "Native American" as she was climbing up the academic career ladder, culminating with her faculty appointment at Harvard. She based this on dimly-remembered "family lore", but eventually tracked down a poorly-sourced document that gave her (at most) 132 Cherokee DNA.

    As I type, Google hits for "Elizabeth Warren" phony number 532,000. Which means she's moving into Mitt Romney levels of perceived phoniness. That can't be good for her.

    It also shines a little light on how the "Affirmative Action"/"diversity" movement plays out in higher ed hiring. As Hans Bader points out at OpenMarket.org, the Warren case is a prime example of "how elites milk racial preferences for their own gain." Fun fact:

    Ordinary people have been fired from their jobs in Massachusetts for falsely claiming to be minority. As law professor David Bernstein notes, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the firing of two brothers from their jobs as Boston firefighters for racial fraud, since they had red hair and looked white, although they cited the existence of a black great-grandmother. But they weren't law professors. Politically speaking, they were nobodies.
    Also worth reading is John S. Rosenberg at Minding the Campus, who points out "the bigger, more significant issue of this kerfuffle is what it reveals of the commonplace wink-and-a-nod corruption of the entire affirmative action enterprise as it is currently practiced."

    One of Warren's previous employers, the University of Texas has budgeted nearly a million bucks for defending its race-based admissions policy. Modern universities, which like to pride themselves on their devotion to truth, literally can't afford to be open and honest about their hiring and admissions processes.

  • David Maraniss is coming out with a biography of President Obama, and a published excerpt in Vanity Fair concentrates on his New York love life in the early 1980's. A lot of people have been having fun with the differences between Obama's story of the "composite" New York girlfriend depicted in his Dreams from My Father, and the actual New York girlfriend, Genevieve Cook.

    There is much for the phony connoisseur here, but let's just quote one letter from Barack to buddy Alex, where he discusses, as young people do, T.S. Eliot.

    I haven't read "The Waste Land" for a year, and I never did bother to check all the footnotes. But I will hazard these statements--Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time. Facing what he perceives as a choice between ecstatic chaos and lifeless mechanistic order, he accedes to maintaining a separation of asexual purity and brutal sexual reality. And he wears a stoical face before this. Read his essay on Tradition and the Individual Talent, as well as Four Quartets, when he's less concerned with depicting moribund Europe, to catch a sense of what I speak. Remember how I said there's a certain kind of conservatism which I respect more than bourgeois liberalism--Eliot is of this type. Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it's due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance. (Counter him with Yeats or Pound, who, arising from the same milieu, opted to support Hitler and Mussolini.) And this fatalism is born out of the relation between fertility and death, which I touched on in my last letter--life feeds on itself. A fatalism I share with the western tradition at times. You seem surprised at Eliot's irreconcilable ambivalence; don't you share this ambivalence yourself, Alex?
    Best comment is this headline from Diane Ellis at Ricochet: "Young Obama May Have Been Even More Pretentious Than Current Obama".

  • And last but not least, the Obama campaign released "The Life of Julia", a heartstring-tugging slide show that urges us to "Take a look at how President Obama's policies help one woman over her lifetime--and how Mitt Romney would change her story."

    For example, when Julia is 25:

    Under President Obama: After graduation, Julia's federal student loans are more manageable since President Obama capped income-based federal student loan payments and kept interest rates low. She makes her payments on time every month, keeping her on track to repay her student loans.

    Under Mitt Romney: Under the Romney/Ryan budget, interest rates on federal student loans would be allowed to double, affecting Julia and 7.4 million other students.

    This was, of course, ripe for parody. Iowahawk:
    Under President Obama: Julia is graduating college with a degree in feminist website design. Thanks to President Obama, she will receive the federal help she needs to pay back her $100,000 debt. No wonder her professors - and the bank who gave her the loan - fully support President Obama's re-election!

    Under Mitt Romney: Romney will make fun of Julia for taking 7 years to graduate. Also, science will be outlawed.

    And Frank J is also not to be missed:
    Under President Obama: Julia graduates college and looks for a job. No jobs are currently available, so she is given more contraceptives. She watches on TV as President Obama, now immortal in his robot unicorn body, is democratically elected god king. Thanks to the new two-way TV design, she is comforted by the fact that Obama could be looking back at her.

    Under Mitt Romney: Julia ventures out only at night to make it harder for Bain Capital's hunter/seeker robots to find her.

    Neither Frank nor the Hawk should be excerpted, but I did it anyway.

    For a slightly more serious take there's JPod: "O's campaign gets creepy". He notes that as Romney charges that Obama is trying to create a government-centered society, the whole message of Julia says: "You bet we are!" Conclusion:

    The November election results will go a long way toward telling us what kind of country Americans want the United States to be -- whether they want to continue down the road to a European social democracy.

    The response to "Julia" over the next few weeks will offer some early hints. If it really does go viral, maybe grown Americans really do want to be treated like children.

    If it doesn't, that will suggest even Obama enthusiasts don't appreciate the condescension toward the value and virtue of independent human endeavor that is at the root of Obamaism.

    Indeed.


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:55 PM EST

URLs du Jour

2012-05-02

  • Stand Your Ground. We all know from the whole George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin saga that Florida is a gun-crazy zone, where all you have to do after shooting someone is to come up with a halfway-plausible self-defense yarn. And, via Florida's "stand your ground" legislation, that's a stay-out-of-jail-free card. Right?

    Jacob Sullum says: Wrong, hoplophobia-breath! He tells the story of Jacksonville resident Marissa Alexander who fired a warning shot, in a confrontation with her abusive husband. The conclusion:

    On March 16, after deliberating for 12 minutes, a jury convicted Alexander on three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Although she injured no one, she faces a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence unless she can win a new trial.
    Just outrageous.

  • What political news can you safely ignore? Cracked provides a handy guide: "5 Ways to Spot a B.S. Political Story in Under 10 Seconds".

    It's Cracked, so beware: the language is a little rougher than (say) National Review. But it's mostly non-partisan, true, and funny. The warning signs:

    1. The Headline Contains the Word "Gaffe"
    2. The Headline Ends in a Question Mark
    3. The Headline Contains the Word "Blasts"
    4. The Headline Is About a "Lawmaker" Saying Something Stupid
    5. The Headline Includes the Phrase "Blow To"
    Follow the link for the whole story. Nevertheless, if I see a headline that reads
    Senator Shaheen Blasts Opponent, but will Stupid Gaffe Deal a Blow To Her Re-Election?
    … I will probably read the article.

  • In an old (i.e., funny) episode of The Simpsons, "Homer at the Bat", Mr. Burns found himself in charge of Springfield's baseball team and brought in pro ringers, including Daryl Strawberry, to play a key game. Key quote:
    Burns: You, Strawberry, hit a home run.
    Strawbery: Okay, skip.
    (hits a home run)
    Burns: Ha-ha! I told him to do that.
    Smithers: Brilliant strategy sir.
    Frank J. remembers that episode too. And you'll never guess what reminded him of it.

  • This story from last week has been tickling funny bones at work. We do crazy here in New Hampshire too:
    A driver waved a flare gun at another vehicle on Interstate 93 on Monday before the gun ultimately went off in his own car, narrowly missing a juvenile passenger, according to the state police.
    Thought he was Mel Gibson, turned out to be Moe Howard.

  • In other traffic news, I want one of these for my commute. It says it takes up more than one traffic lane, but somehow… given the right accessories, I don't see that as a problem.

Puss In Boots

[3.5 stars] Puss in Boots (2011) on IMDb [Amazon Link]

This was nominated for Best Animated Feature Oscar, but lost to Rango. I don't disagree with that choice.

It's set in the Shrek universe, where fairy-tale characters walk around in vaguely medieval times. Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas) finds himself at odds with an old childhood friend, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) who's in pursuit of some magic beans, by which he aims to filch a gold-egg-laying goose… you remember how that goes. Puss is intrigued by his female cat-burglar counterpart, Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek!)

It's all pretty silly, and (for me) contained some amusement. If I were in a slightly worse mood, I'd take a hard, sour look at the folks trying to squeeze out a few more bucks from the Shrek franchise. But I'm not. And Puss does utter one of my favorite movie lines of all time: "Fear me… if you dare!" That never gets old.

The IMDB raters gave this a 6.7 score, under Shrek (7.9) and Shrek 2 (7.3), but better than Shrek 3 (6.0) or Shrek 4 (6.5). That sounds about right.


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:17 AM EDT

The Hound of the Baskervilles

[Amazon Link] Consumer note (and reflection of our Modern Times): even though I own a dead-tree version of this book, I shelled out $0.99 for the Kindle version, simply for the convenience. No complaints.

Also a personal note: I read this a couple of times in the 1960s. The second time was for a high school English class. I was overjoyed: after the tedium of Dickens and Flaubert, here at last was a fun read, and one I'd read already. Easy peasy!

As it turned out I got lousy Hound-related grades. Reading for fun is not the same as reading for school. Don't get them confused, kids!

Anyway: Holmes and Watson are drawn to the mysterious case of the Baskerville noble family, which seem to have a long-running problem with a monstrous supernatural dog. In the 1700s, it allegedly did in Hugo Baskerville. And now it seems to have returned: the body of Sir Charles Baskerville was recently discovered outside the manor. Next to him were footprints. And, guess what:

"Mr. Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!"

Next in line: Sir Henry Baskerville, recently arrived from North America. Holmes and Watson decide to take the case, and (hopefully) save Sir Henry from almost-certain doggy doom.

I see that Season 2, Episode 2 of the BBC's Sherlock is titled "The Hounds of Baskerville". Scheduled for May 13 American broadcast, and I am so there.


Last Modified 2012-09-23 11:17 AM EDT