Slither

[5.0 stars] Slither (1973) on IMDb [Amazon]

Not to be confused with the more recent horror movie of a few years ago. This is a 1973 screwball comedy that I fondly remembered from back then. A real-DVD version is apparently not to be had (so Netflix is out), but some good folks made it legally available on DVD-R. I asked for it for Christmas, and finally got some free time to watch.

Slightly odder than I remember. But maybe I just got a lot more normal since 1973.

James Caan plays the protagonist, affable small-time crook Dick Kanipsia. He's just been released from prison, along with fellow con Harry Moss (Richard B. Shull). Dick would prefer to just go his own way, but Harry pressures him into a brief visit to his ramshackle home.

Out of the blue, unseen assassins shoot Harry. Near death, Harry confides a secret to Dick, one that (he claims) will lead him to wealth beyond his wildest imaginings.

(Spoiler: that turns out to be around $312,000.)

Dick escapes with his life, and sets out to find the cash. This involves a rendezvous with Barry Fenaka (Peter Boyle) and his wife Mary (Louise Lasser). Along the way, he gets involved with nearly-psychotic Kitty Kopetzky (Sally Kellerman). Unbeknownst to Dick, he's being shadowed by Harry's killers, in a menacing black RV.

It's a lot of fun; Caan does a fine job of playing straight man to unrelenting bizarre insanity, all played out in rural and smalltown California of the early 70's. I'm not recommending you shell out for the DVD-R, but if you get a chance otherwise, I think you won't be sorry.


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:49 AM EDT

The Children of the Sky

[Amazon Link] I don't read a lot of new science fiction, but I try to keep up with Vernor Vinge. This 2011 book is a sequel to 1992's A Fire Upon the Deep. Some sequels are tolerable to read on their own, but that's not the case here: you really need to read that one first.

Unfortunately, I read A Fire Upon the Deep back in the 90's sometime. I liked it (of course, why would I read the sequel otherwise?) but the details of plot and character kind of faded with time. Should you have the flexibility, I'd recommend reading them closer together.

But I eventually got back up to speed and found myself enjoying The Children of the Sky quite a bit. The premise is that a group of humans (mainly "Children" brought out of suspended animation) are marooned on Tines World, which is embedded in a "slow" area of the galaxy where faster-than-light travel and other technological miracles are impossible. That's a good thing though, because the "Blight", which has wiped out the rest of humanity, can't get to them.

The prime natives of Tines World are wolflike creatures, whose intelligence only exists in small tightly-knit collectives of individuals, communicating near-psychically via high-pitched sound. Their initial encounters with humans (in FUtD) were lethal, but in this book there's widespread Human-Tine cooperation. Which is fortunate, because the Blight is still out there, and they only have a limited time to (essentially) reinvent technological civilization and develop an effective defense.

Unfortunately, there are bad eggs among both humans and Tines. Pretty soon, our heroes are the victims of deception and murderous treachery.

Vinge does a fantastic job of developing this world and its inhabitants, interesting and sympathetic characters, and a page-turning plot (once it gets going, anyway). I kept wishing for pictures and maps.

Oh yeah: not to spoil anything, but Vinge has pretty clearly set the stage for at least one more book in the series. I only hope it comes out in less than 19 years.


Last Modified 2012-11-15 5:48 AM EST

The Grey

[3.0 stars] The Grey (2011) on IMDb [Amazon]

Here's a depressing little bit of information: if you survive a horrific plane crash in Alaska, you can still get eaten by wolves.

That's the premise of the movie, not really a spoiler. Unfortunately, that's pretty much the whole plot too. Details: Liam Neeson is the star, playing Ottaway. His job is to shoot wolves that approach his employer's Alaskan oil rig. He's kind of a moody guy; a scene near the beginning shows him contemplating blowing his brains out, and he keeps having visions of a lovely woman who, for reasons initially unspecified, is no longer available to him.

But he decides to go on living for a while, and gets on that doomed plane with other oil workers. Soon enough he and his raggedy co-survivors are going about the grim business of how to stay alive long enough to return to a civilized place—or at least a place where a guy isn't likely to be turned into instant Purina Wolf Chow.

The survivors are a contentious bunch, and there's a lot of very off-color language. You may not like the ending; Mrs. Salad hated it. And I liked it a little better than this guy, but this bears quoting:

Naturally and by the way, the major message here is that there is no God, and also he really hates you.

On the other hand, see Andrew Klavan who liked it more than I did.


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:42 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2012-06-21

  • narrative, consumption doodle I've seen a few people pointing to this essay by Deirdre McCloskey, usually to say "Read the whole thing." Let me add my voice to that choir. It's a response to the "master narrative of High Liberalism".

    How do I know that my narrative is better than yours? The experiments of the 20th century told me so. It would have been hard to know the wisdom of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman or Matt Ridley or Deirdre McCloskey in August of 1914, before the experiments in large government were well begun. But anyone who after the 20th century still thinks that thoroughgoing socialism, nationalism, imperialism, mobilization, central planning, regulation, zoning, price controls, tax policy, labor unions, business cartels, government spending, intrusive policing, adventurism in foreign policy, faith in entangling religion and politics, or most of the other thoroughgoing 19th-century proposals for governmental action are still neat, harmless ideas for improving our lives is not paying attention.

    Advocates of limited government and individual liberty need to make such points more often.

  • I would love (for example) to make such points to President Obama. And—what a break—the First Lady has sent me mail offering me another opportunity to do so. The message begins:

    For the first 10 years of our marriage, Barack and I lived in an apartment in my hometown of Chicago.

    The winters there can be pretty harsh, but no matter how snowy or icy it got, Barack would head out into the cold -- shovel in hand -- to dig my car out before I went to work.

    In all our years of marriage, he's always looked out for me. Now, I see that same commitment every day to you and to this country.

    I think this means that Barack is committing to shovelling out my car this winter. Good news!

    The message goes on to offer a chance in a contest "to join Barack and me for a casual dinner." And there's a donation link. But the link to enter the contest without donating is here. If I don't win, I hope you do.

  • The windup of the New Hampshire legislative season has been a mixed bag, but Cato's Michael F. Cannon points out a bright spot: NH won't be setting up an Obamacare "health insurance exchange". (The Cato post contains a link to New Hampshire Watchdog, an excellent site. Non-Granite Staters might want to check the parent Watchdog site to see if there's an equivalent.)

  • So I checked the comments for the Slashdot story headlined "Astronomers Catch Asteroid In Near-Miss Video" to see how long it took someone to say

    Near miss? Near hit, rather....

    Answer: 48 minutes. And only a few minutes longer for someone to link to…

  • A couple weeks back, we linked to a Ron Bailey story at Reason detailing a dishonest hit job by the Union of Concerned Scientists about General Electric's support for various think tanks, including Reason's. The UCS has now corrected that sloppy report; details have been appended to Bailey's article.

Chronicle

[4.0 stars] Chronicle (2012) on IMDb [Amazon]

A dandy little sci-fi thriller.

While wandering around outside a party, three high-school acquaintances, Andrew, Matt, and Steve, happen to make their way down a mysterious hole in the ground. They encounter a glowy object which scares the bejeezus out of them. But soon afterwards they find they've all obtained awesome telekinetic powers they can use to cause mischief and mayhem. Also, as you can see by the DVD box over there, they can fly. Cool!

And then nothing bad happens, they all use their newfound skill for good.

Juuust kidding!

Our heroes form an Odd Triple: Steve is a popular, affable, African-American kid running for class president. Matt is a more-or-less normal semi-loser. Andrew, Matt's cousin, is something else again: a moody loner abused by his father at home, relentlessly bullied by his peers elsewhere. And (worse) his mom is desperately ill and in need of medicine his father can't afford. (Almost certainly because, being a violence-prone drunk, he lacks job prospects.) Tragedy looms as inevitably as night follows day.

The movie is filmed as if pieced together after-the-fact from various video cameras used by Andrew, minor characters, and innocent bystanders. This stretches the viewer's credibility a bit, because it's an unlikely coincidence. But (on the other hand) the special effects are inventive and well-done. And the script is intelligent, taking pains to humanize its characters.


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:46 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2012-06-17 Update

[phony baloney]

You should not infer anything when the Google registers a nearly-tenfold increase in the number of hits for a given string in a single week. Using Google hit counts to conclude anything significant about the real world is a totally bogus methodology. Still:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-06-10
"Barack Obama" phony 219,000,000 +195,900,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 1,020,000 -20,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 406,000 +5,000

Just one item this week:

Jonathan Bernstein, writing at the Washington Post promises to detail the "Anatomy of a phony Romney talking point." Turns out: it's complicated. Although Bernstein does his best in a short blog post to point his shaky phony-blaming finger at Romney.

What phony thing did Romney say? Bernstein refers to an NYT blog post by Michael Barbaro: "Now Who's Out of Touch? Romney Tries to Turn the Tables on Obama". Barbaro noted the Romney campaign's newly discovered ability to respond quickly to the silly things President Obama says. (Just as the Obama campaign has long done with the silly things Mitt says.)

So what silly thing did the President say? In this case, it was in an interview with a Iowa TV newsperson, Ted Baxter Matt Breen.

Matt Breen asked, "One of those companies I mentioned said, specifically, that they had to close, and move 111 jobs to Wisconsin, because of health care reform you put forward, and Congress passed. What's your reaction?"

"That's gonna be hard to explain, that the only folks that have been impacted in terms of health care bill are insurance companies required to make sure that they're providing preventative care or not dropping their coverage when you get sick, so this particular company probably wouldn't have been impacted by that," said President Obama.

Romney, reported the NYT blogger, jumped all over the "hard to explain" bit:

A gaffe? Mr. Romney treated it that way, and in his speech at a factory that makes air filters, he called the statement "something else that shows just how much out of touch" the president is.

"He said he didn't understand that Obamacare was hurting small business," Mr. Romney said. "You have to scratch your head about that."

And Romney cited a 2011 survey of small business owners performed for the US Chamber of Commerce; 75% of those surveyed claimed "the healthcare law makes it harder to hire more employees."

So what makes Romney's talking point "phony"?

Ah, said Bernstein: it's phony because Obama was responding to Breen's question about a particular company, Nemschoff Chairs. (Nemschoff makes furniture for the health care market; that turns out to be important.)

Nemschoff, as it turns out, is not closing up shop entirely, just its facility in Sioux Center, Iowa. And, although it's not great news for the 111 Nemschoff employees losing their jobs in Iowa, some (smaller) number of jobs will open up in Wisconsin, the company's other location.

Bernstein scoffs:

Oh, it's possible that the company in question claimed that Obamacare was responsible. But I'll put heavy, heavy money on the proposition that this move was made for simple, boring business reasons that had nothing at all to do with anything coming out of Washington.

So, Bernstein claims, Obama was totally correct to find the facts behind Breen's question "hard to explain"; therefore Romney's deduction that Obama is "out of touch" is, like, totally phony. Q.E.D.

Bernstein apparently failed to spend a few seconds Googling for what the company actually said a couple weeks ago about the closure:

[…] representatives from Nemschoff's Parent Company Herman Miller, Inc. [blame] the new healthcare law and federal regulations for the slow down.

Herman Miller Inc.'s Mark Sherman said, "One of the big challenges we continue to face is a lot of healthcare customers have delayed spending on their facilities because of long term uncertainty surrounding the healthcare reform act. We also have more cost with new federal regulatory requirements."

Bernstein's post went up at 10:50am on Wednesday June 13. At 2:09pm later that day, perhaps after noticing that Bernstein's claims were unsubstantiated, and contradicted by the company itself, Greg Sargent proceeded to … double down:

It turns out that the company didn't close because of Obamacare at all, according to a company spokesperson. What's more, the company sees lack of demand as the key problem -- a lack of demand that is partly due to the drive to repeal or modify Obamacare, not to the implementation of the law itself.

Sargent hectored company spokesman Mark Schurman (who I would bet is the same guy as the "Mark Sherman" quoted above) to spin his previous remarks:

"The ongoing uncertainty surrounding what health care reform will take place has caused some health care provider customers and other related aspects of the industry to defer investments in their facilities," Schurman said.

"The issue is not the administration's proposed reforms," he continued. "The issue is that there is no certainty as to what reform is going to look like. Is it going to be repealed or modified? Is it going to be decided in June by the Supreme Court, or the election? Or decided through a series of lawsuits?"

"The uncertainty is caused by the ongoing debate," Schurman said. "Were there no ongoing debate, there would be no uncertainty."

Sargent apparently didn't ask Schurman to reconcile his current comments with the ones he made when the closing was announced.

So the adjusted Sargent/Bernstein argument seems to be: hey, Obama and the Democrats may have punched through wildly unpopular legislation of dubious constitutionality, but none of the resulting uncertainty is their fault. Therefore job losses based on that uncertainty are not their fault either. Therefore Romney's talking point about job losses caused by Obamacare are phony. Again, Q.E.D.

Here's why that's nonsense:

  • One of Obamacare's selling points was cost containment: to decrease the share of national income spent on health care. (You may not believe that can be accomplished via massive state subsidies, regulations, mandates, penalties, taxes, etc. You would be correct. But, still, that was the argument.)

  • So, even if Obamacare were implemented flawlessly, and delivered what its supporters promised, the American health sector would find itself under new spending constraints. That was the idea.

  • Obviously, one of the first things to be cut back: cosmetic high-end fripperies.

  • Specifically, it's child's play to foresee a declining market in fancy furniture from a Herman Miller subsidiary.

  • So, whether caused by "uncertainty" or not, the outlook for Nemschoff Chairs looks less than healthy, thanks to Obamacare.

Probably Obama, in his honest private moments, understands this: any massive government-run shakeup in the private sector is going to produce winners and losers. Nemschoff Chairs is almost certainly a loser. Expecting Obama to be honest about this is silly, but when he pretends to be puzzled instead, that's phoniness.

Now, I'm not sure if the political writers at the WaPo understand that. But if so, they get a fancy Nemschoff chair to pull up to the table at this week's phony feast.


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

URLs du Jour

2012-06-14

  • US Flag Hope everyone's having (or had, depending on when you read this) an outstanding Flag Day.

    It's just another day at Google, but Bing has a nice front page pic.

    And at the (ahem) flagship paper of our nation's capital,

    So, today is Flag Day, and the Washington Post has a big front page photo of the “Star-Spangled Sailabration” in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, marking the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the composition of our national anthem. The headline of the photo is “Oh, say, can they see” and it features sailors standing on the yards of a mast of a tall ship, with a flag on top. So far, so good.

    But it’s the Mexican flag.

    Way to go, WaPo!

  • It's unusual to see kind words for New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen at this website, but we'll give her an Official Pun Salad "Nice Try" Award for her efforts:

    Today we have yet another example of Republicans and Democrats teaming up to protect a special interest at the public’s expense. A few hours ago the Senate voted 50-46 to kill an amendment from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) that would have phased out subsidies and supports for the sugar industry.

    Senator Shaheen could only persuade 15 other Democrats to go along with her amendment. But that would have been enough if 16 alleged free-marketing Republicans hadn't also voted to kill it.

  • The Club for Growth has produced a new ongoing scorecard whereby you can check to see how hard your Congresscritter is trying to cut spending.

    (It's not great news for Granite Staters; my Congressman, Frank Guinta, only managed a 43% score. Charlie Bass is in bad-joke-even-for-a-RINO territory with 1%.)

  • Mitt Romney is adapting a page out of Obama's playbook. While Obama offers various dining options, you can fill out a form to spend a "Day on the Road with Mitt".

    As with Obama, most ad-links take you to a page where a cash contribution will get you automatically entered in the contest. I'm libertarian enough to not want to contribute to Mitt's campaign, but I wouldn't mind giving him a piece of my mind. If you're like me, you can sign up for the contest without donating here.

  • It's been over a quarter of a century, and it still hurts a little.


Last Modified 2012-06-16 8:46 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2012-06-12

  • Seagull With Fasces Thomas Sowell notes that it's inaccurate to call President Obama a socialist, since he really doesn't advocate government ownership of the means of production.

    In fact, it's worse:

    What President Obama has been pushing for, and moving toward, is more insidious: government control of the economy, while leaving ownership in private hands. That way, politicians get to call the shots, but, when their bright ideas lead to disaster, they can always blame those who own businesses in the private sector.

    Politically, it is heads-I-win when things go right, and tails-you-lose when things go wrong. This is far preferable, from Obama’s point of view, since it gives him a variety of scapegoats for all his failed policies, so that he no longer has to use President Bush as a scapegoat all the time.

    So, if not socialism, what do you call it? Hint: begins with "F" and Jonah Goldberg wrote a book about it.

  • It's the twenty-fifth anniversery of "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" A memorable moment of bravery and truth.

    It's nice knowing my children will live in a world significantly less dangerous, thanks in large part to Ronald Reagan.

  • Our local paper, Foster's Daily Democrat has a nice story about New Hampshire's entrant to the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee, Emma Ciereszynski.

    Emma didn't get all the marbles. The eventual winner: Snigdha Nandipati.

    I'm trying to come up with a convincing theory that links tough-to-spell names with spelling talent. Failing.


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:49 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2012-06-11

An accidental theme today at Pun Salad:

  • Pork Porridge - Cafe Thu Thu,
Springvale Embarrassing Republican Department, Congressional Division:

    Rep. Tom McClintock (R-CA) introduced three amendments to the recently passed Energy & Water appropriations bill that would have eliminated a slew of business subsidies at the Department of Energy. Unfortunately, House Republicans once again teamed up with their Democratic colleagues to keep the corporate welfare spigot flowing.

    The link goes to a post by Tad DeHaven at Cato, who details the amendments (later updated to four) and links to the official tally so you can find out how your CongressCritter voted. Summary:

    1. On the amendment to cut out the "Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy" account at the DOE: 107 Republicans voted with all Democrats to preserve this spending. (New Hampshire's RINO Congressman, Charlie Bass voted with the Dems; my Congressman, Frank Guinta, did not bother to vote).

    2. Cutting nuclear energy research subsidies to private companies by $514 million: Republicans voted to maintain the spending 134-91, Democrats 147-15. Both Bass and Guinta favored the spending.

    3. Cutting "fossil energy research and development" funding by $554 million. Democrats thumbs-upped the spending 126-36; Republicans joined them 123-102. Both Bass and Guinta favored the spending.

    4. And, finally, little Dennis Kucinich offered an amendment that would have shut down the DOE's Title 17 loan guarantee program. Which gave us Solyndra. Democrats voted to keep it around, 155-27; Republicans joined them, 127-109. Finally, Frank Guinta voted against this particular waste of money; Charlie Bass, as expected, voted for it.

    I would think that Republicans would have learned by now that "Hey, we're slightly less likely than Democrats to spend money on corporate welfare." is not a particularly inspiring slogan.

  • Philip Greenspun attended MIT's "Technology Day", the topic was "American Transformations: the Next Industrial Revolution". It promised to examine how said Revolution would "thrust America again into a world leader in manufacturing." Unfortunately, Phil observes:

    In a panel discussion afterwards, the speakers were asked what it would take to make the U.S. more competitive for manufacturing. The answer was that it was pretty much hopeless at current tax rates. Big companies make a lot of money in foreign countries, but if they bring the profits back home they get hit with the world’s highest corporate tax rate. So they leave the money in China, for example, and then invest it there in research and development or a new factory. I.e., our own multinational companies are financing the new facilities around the world that are rendering the U.S. uncompetitive. A new enterprise, meanwhile, would be facing a choice between China, with a 15 percent corporate tax rate, proximity to all kinds of suppliers, and low costs, and the U.S., with a 35 percent tax rate (plus any state corporate income tax) and an ocean separating it from most component vendors.

    Unfortunately, we have a political climate where lowering the corporate tax rate (and hacking out great knotted swaths of loopholes, subsidies, etc.) could be, and would be, demagogued as a "corporate giveaway."

  • National Review has a number of fine writers, but a few are insanely great. One of them is Mr. Kevin D. Williamson; his recent article in the dead-trees magazine is now online, and it begins:

    There are two kinds of scandal on Wall Street: making money and losing money. Senator Carl Levin (D., Mich.) cited “record profits from 2004 to 2007” in explaining his investigation of Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s, and then in May cited losses at JPMorgan in calling for a swift regulatory response. President Barack Obama cites “record profits” for energy companies as constituting a case for federal action, and then cites losses at banks as justification for federal investigations. Perhaps there is a sweet spot in there somewhere, say a flat, reliable 10 percent return year after year — like Bernie Madoff’s.

    As Mr. Williamson points out, both unusual profits and unusual losses can be, and are, exploited for political gain.

  • OK, that's enough about the dysfunctional relation between business and government. You will want to read the explanation produced by Ms. Laryrn Hill (multi-millionaire American singer-songwriter, rapper, record producer, and actress) of her failure to file taxes between 2005 and 2007:

    For the past several years, I have remained what others would consider underground. I did this in order to build a community of people, like-minded in their desire for freedom and the right to pursue their goals and lives without being manipulated and controlled by a media protected military industrial complex with a completely different agenda. Having put the lives and needs of other people before my own for multiple years, and having made hundreds of millions of dollars for certain institutions, under complex and sometimes severe circumstances, I began to require growth and more equitable treatment, but was met with resistance. I entered into my craft full of optimism (which I still possess), but immediately saw the suppressive force with which the system attempts to maintain it’s [sic] control over a given paradigm.

    Ms. Hill continues in this vein for, if I'm counting correctly, 1272 words. See how far you can get.

    Personally, I prefer the Steve Martin Explanation:

    You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes!

    You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes!

    You say.. "Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?"

    First.. get a million dollars.

    Now.. you say, "Steve.. what do I say to the tax man when he comes to my door and says, 'You.. have never paid taxes'?"

    Two simple words.

    Two simple words in the English language: "I forgot!"

    How many times do we let ourselves get into terrible situations because we don't say "I forgot"? Let's say you're on trial for armed robbery. You say to the judge, "I forgot armed robbery was illegal." Let's suppose he says back to you, "You have committed a foul crime. you have stolen hundreds and thousands of dollars from people at random, and you say, 'I forgot'?"

    Two simple words: Excuuuuuse me!!"


Last Modified 2012-06-15 11:50 AM EDT

Paranormal Activity 2

[3.0 stars] Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) on IMDb [Amazon]

I'm kind of behind on this series. Paranormal Activity 4 is coming out in October!

Sorta-Spoiler: This movie extends the story from Paranormal Activity (mostly a prequel). Unfortunately, I'd forgotten the details from that movie, so that totally went over my head until I checked the IMDB afterward. Ah, well.

It is, like its predecessor, supposedly assembled from video footage taken by the characters themselves. It shows an initially happy family bringing their new baby, Hunter, into their lovely Carlsbad CA home. But soon there are bumps in the night! The only person who seems to grasp what's going on is the wise-Latina nanny, Martine; she insists on lighting incense throughout the house, which gets her the boot from her health-conscious employers. Ironic. Teenage daughter Ali thinks supernatural hauntings might be cool! She learns better.

It's not traditionally scary. And you have to sit through a lot of video footage, asking "Am I supposed to be noticing something? Did something move? Was there a reflection in that mirror?" So you wind up, pretty much, scaring yourself. Smart trick to making a low-budget movie!


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:49 AM EDT

Contagion

[3.5 stars] Contagion (2011) on IMDb [Amazon]

Porn for hypochondriacs!

Within the first few minutes of this movie, Gwyneth Paltrow: (a) returns to the US from a business trip to Hong Kong; (b) cheats on her husband; (c) develops a disgusting cough; (d) gets really unattractive for a glamorous movie star; (e) kicks the bucket.

This disconcerts her husband, Matt Damon. (At first, the news goes right over his head.) While moviewatchers might not mind Gwyneth's absence, the movie also kills off Matt Damon's cute stepson with the same disgusting cough. That shows us that things are really serious.

As it turns out, Gwyneth and the kid are just very early casualties of a new virulent disease that spreads worldwide in a matter of days. The movie flits between disease researchers racing to discover the nature of the illness and develop a vaccine, and ordinary people trying to deal with the unravelling social fabric while increasing their odds for survival.

The IMDB points out the massive number of Oscar winners/nominees that appear here: in addition to Matt and Gwyneth, there's Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Elliott Gould, John Hawkes, Jude Law, and Kate Winslet. It's not that any of these people actually have to act much, though; mainly they just look scared, confused, devious, or concerned. And, as in Gwyneth's (and, later, Kate's) case, unattractive.

Maybe there should be an Oscar category for that: Most Unattractive Performance by an Ordinarily Good-Looking Actor or Actress.

(There is a very good performance from Jennifer Ehle, playing a dedicated scientist. She hasn't got an Oscar win or nomination yet, but I'm thinking she will someday.)


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:48 AM EDT

Monsters

[2.0 stars] Monsters (2010) on IMDb [Amazon]

A low-budget sci-fi movie with pretensions. Didn't work well for me.

It's six years since Earth has been accidentally invaded by aliens: a NASA probe designed to pick up samples from some unspecified planet or moon crashed in Northern Mexico, letting loose a surprisingly tenacious plague of giant tentacled glowing shrimplike beasties. There's now an "Infected Zone" where travel is risky to impossible. Worse, the aliens are starting to aggressively break out of their zone.

Fate brings together Andrew and Samantha: she's (for a reason I didn't quite catch) on the Mexican side of the Infected Zone, and her rich daddy wants her back safe in the US. Andrew is a photographer working for one of Daddy's companies, and so he's coerced into finding her passage.

This doesn't work well. The alien breakout has disrupted normal traffic between the countries, and—guess what?—their only option is travel by river and land through the Zone.

What's good: for a low-budget movie, the alien special effects are pretty decent. The expository bits are nicely understated; if you watch it, pay attention to the TV news bits running in the background, road signs, and wall murals. Overall, we're given a decent picture of a society trying to adapt (sometimes failing to adapt) to a hostile alien presence.

Not so good: the movie is pointlessly padded with local Mexican color. Andrew and Samantha spend a lot of time together, allegedly developing their relationship, but the picture that emerges is of two shallow, irresponsible young people, not too bright, and not too sympathetic or interesting.

It's also simply inexplicable why these creatures are such a big problem. They're huge, slow-moving, and eminently killable. Their reproductive cycle doesn't seem like it would be difficult to disrupt.


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:47 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2012-06-10 Update

[phony baloney]

Not much action this past week on the Google phony hits:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-06-03
"Barack Obama" phony 23,100,000 -100,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 1,040,000 -30,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 401,000 +34,000

But it is (as usual) easy to find recent Phony news:

  • Remember a few years back when an enraptured young lady gushed that she wouldn't have to worry about paying for gasoline and making mortgage payments under President Obama? Perhaps unsurprisingly, some enterprising crooks noticed that sort of mentality could be the basis of a profitable scam:

    A new scam using President Barack Obama's name claims to provide utility bill credits in exchange for personal information, including social security numbers, according to Public Service Electric and Gas.

    "The scam, which has been reported in a number of states, claims that President Barack Obama is providing credits or applying payment to utility bills," the company said in a statement.

    Shame on these rapscallions! Promising free goodies to private citizens while underhandedly taking their money—that sort of thing is only legal for the government to do!

  • Writing at the Atlantic, Major Garrett makes a general non-partisan point about phoniness:

    Something is wrong with American politics and it's not partisanship. It's phony unifiers who mawkishly promise bonhomie when their true aim is to align just enough of their partisans and partisan-leaning independents to win. The promise of unity is a cynical tool to win elections, not a governing approach.

    Garrett points out, accurately, that we'd be better served by an explicit (and more honest) partisanship in campaigns: "Division forces people to listen to an argument and take sides."

  • Parenthetically, Jonah Goldberg explains why that probably ain't gonna happen in his new book (which you should read):

    After an eighteen-month campaign, all of the informed, conscious, and ideologically consistent voters have already made up their minds. All that's left are the undecided centrists, who actually think they have the more sophisticated and serious position; their indecision comes, actually, by virtue of the fact they've either not paid much attention until way too late in the game, or more simply, they're a**holes who think they must be at the center of the universe.

    That's the simplest and probably the most accurate explanation of why political campaigns are the way they are: they're designed to appeal to people who don't pay much attention to political issues.

  • Michael Crowley of Time discusses a "Catch-22" for Mitt Romney, who everyone seems to agree is not a "naturally gifted politician":

    The eternal question for the non-gifted pol is what to do about it: stick relentlessly to a script and some across like a phony robot; or "be yourself," and risk tripping over your own klutzy feet.

    Unless there are two people named "Michael Crowley" working for Time, this is the same guy who, a few weeks previous derided the "phony" debates about the candidates' characters, and not their policies.

    This is what happens when you have a Contractual Obligation to churn out a certain number of words each week: consistency can take a back seat.

  • Crowley, by the way, claims that (in contrast to Romney) President Obama is a "naturally gifted" politician, who doesn't make klutzy stumbles when going off-script. Unfortunately, Crowley was writing on June 5; on June 8, Obama served up an off-script pratfall, while "being himself":

    President Obama said today that the "private sector is doing fine" as the U.S. economy recovers from recession, but urged Congress to send more federal aid to states and localities to boost government hiring.

    The comment triggered an onslaught of attacks from Republicans, who pointed to dismal job growth and an unemployment rate lingering above 8 percent as a sign Obama is out of touch.

    It's one of those gaffes where Obama said what he really thought, rather than sticking to his prefabricated campaign talking points. A while later, he was back to reading off the phony script:

    Obama later clarified his remark during an Oval Office photo op, saying "it's absolutely clear the economy is not doing fine" and that while there's "good momentum" in the private sector "there are still too many people out of work."

    We turn to Victor Davis Hanson for the diagnosis:

    So we are in an interesting paradox: All empirical evidence points to the worldwide failure of the blue-state model (e.g., California, the southern Mediterranean, anti-Walker Wisconsin), and yet Barack Obama's entire career, from community organizing, to the state legislature, to the Senate, was predicated on just such a protocol of public borrowing to provide expansive government entitlements and jobs in exchange for a loyal political constituency, with the debt, in redistributive fashion, to be serviced by wringing more revenue from the suspect private sector that is always doing "fine."

    Obama knows no other way, and so his adolescent exasperation is always with a supposedly thriving small business or corporation that for some reason or another won't pay for his redistributive dreams. If only that "doing fine" private sector would not sit on "trillions" of dollars, resist spread-the-wealth higher taxes, fight Obamacare, and whine about needed new regulations, then, presto, we would have plenty of money to give a pre-Walker Wisconsin or insolvent California -- and everything would be just fine.

  • Proposed title for the history of the Obama Administration: "Driving the Choomwagon Down the Road to Serfdom".


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

URLs du Jour

2012-06-08

  • special offer Should you read only one high school commencement speech today, make it the one David McCullough Jr. gave to Wellesley (MA) High School seniors: "You're Not Special." It's funny and true.

  • Embarrassing Republican Department, Florida Division:

    Famed attorney and legal commentator Alan Dershowitz has been one of the harshest critics of State Attorney Angela Corey's approach to prosecuting George Zimmerman. According to Dershowitz, Corey is none too pleased.

    Writing on Newsmax.com, the Harvard Law School professor says Corey called the school and went on "a 40-minute rant, during which she threatened to sue Harvard Law School, to try to get me disciplined by the Bar Association and to file charges against me for libel and slander."

    (Dershowitz's referenced Newsmax article is here. Corey is identified as a Republican here. Professor Jacobsen notes that she has a thin-skinned history of trying to intimidate critics.)

  • Steven Hayward marks the thirtieth anniversary of President Reagan's speech at Westminster Hall, in which he predicted that Marxism-Leninism was inevitably destined for "the ash-heap of history." This (understandably) irked the Commies, and (predictably) horrified Western foreign policy "professionals". And yet, here we are. Video at the link.

  • Language Log has another example of overzealous e-book search-and-replace, this one from the Kindle version of Ed McBain's Blood Relatives:

    CARELLA: What made you cnoindente your mind?

    PATRICIA: I cnoindented my mind, that's right.

A Philosophical Investigation

[Amazon Link] I've been having poor luck lately with picking books from this io9 list of the "Top 10 Greatest Science Fiction Detective Novels Of All Time". But—guess what?—this one was pretty good. Written in 1992, it's set in London in the far, far future of… 2013! So part of the fun is checking on how the author, Philip Kerr, envisioned what our world might look like.

(Aside: It's easiest to pick out things he got wrong: for example, 2013 London has lots of poorly-assimilated refugees from the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong. The death penalty has been banned, but criminals are routinely sentenced to "punitive coma", which is much cheaper than inprisonment.)

The book's premise is that enhanced genetic testing has allowed the authorities to detect a "VMN-negative" population, men with a psychological predisposition to violent sociopathy. Nobody wants to lock these people up, but they are entered into a database and provided with shrinks and drugs if they want.

Except one of them, with the codename "Wittgenstein" uses his diagnosis as a springboard to break into the program's database, find the identities of his fellow VMN-negatives, and undertake to murder them, one by one. He also begins to identify with his codename, constructing an elaborate philosophical justification for his actions.

Other than the futuristic premise, the story is a police procedural, following the investigation headed by female detective "Jake" Jakowicz. The narrative is interspersed with excerpts from Wittgenstein's "diary", where he discusses his motives and procedures.

Note to the squeamish: it's all a very sordid business, and Kerr doesn't shrink from explicit description.


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:46 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2012-06-07

  • Just in case you haven't heard this from 37 other sources: If you have a LinkedIn account, you should probably change your password.

    Also, I would guess LinkedIn will be hiring new security folks, so you might want to polish your resume.

    Finally, don't believe every mail you get from LinkedIn is actually from them.

  • Lots of good stuff about Ray Bradbury out there today. I particularly liked the appreciations from Orson Scott Card and Roger L. Simon. Check 'em out. You wouldn't want to miss the line: "Would you mind driving me home?"

    And (via Instapundit), you might like Bradbury's short memoir from New Yorker.

    I didn't make a big deal about the picture I used yesterday, a Kindle displaying the Fahrenheit 451 coverpage. But Bradbury was not a Kindle fanboy.

    INTERVIEWER: What do you think of e-books and Amazon’s Kindle?

    BRADBURY: Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell. There are two perfumes to a book. If a book is new, it smells great. If a book is old, it smells even better. It smells like ancient Egypt. A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.

    A commenter at the link notes the semi-irony of Fahrenheit 451 being available for the Kindle Fire.

  • Based on yesterday's item about the dreadful Union of Concerned Scientists, Carl "Bear" Bussjaeger pointed out the amusing story of a member in good standing, Kenji Watts:

    [Kenji]

    I think you'll agree Kenji is demonstrating an adequate level of Concern. As Kenji's associate (Anthony Watts, proprietor of Watts Up With That) relates: that, plus $35, is all you need to be a UCS member.

URLs du Jour

2012-06-06

  • Fahrenheit 451 e-book on the Kindle Ray Bradbury, yet another fondly remembered author from my youth, has passed away. Let me recycle, one more time, my favorite Bradbury anecdote, from his recounting of how he spent the evening of July 20, 1969:

    "Now look. Everyone shut up. You don't know a damned thing about what's going on here tonight, and that's why people like myself are needed in the world. I want to tell you what in hell it means. This is the greatest night you will ever know!

    "There are two nights the Western world will look back upon a million years from tonight. A million years! I'm not talking about a hundred or a thousand years. I'm talking about a million years from tonight.

    "The birth of Christ probably is a very important date that changed the world in many ways for the better and, in some ways, for not very much good at all.

    "But the second most important date is this night that we're going through right now. Because it's the night when we become immortal-when we begin the steps that will enable us to live forever. Now, if you don't know this, you don't know anything about space."

    If you'd like to read something a bit longer, David Boaz reproduces Bradbury's "Coda" to Fahrenheit 451, written after he'd been made aware of its censorship by "cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books".

  • Anyone who's ever been less than careful with a global-search-and-replace will sympathize:

    In one of the truly bizarre incidents we've seen out of the e-book publishing world, a translation of Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace for Barnes & Noble's Nook platform has replaced all mentions of the word "kindled" with "Nookd."

  • Maybe you've heard of the "Union of Concerned Scientists"?

    Have you ever wondered what they're concerned about?

    Ron Bailey documents something they're not concerned about: honesty. A recent report from the UCS purported to show (evil) Big Business sneaking funds to (even more evil) global warming deniers. One example: GE's donations to the Reason Foundation.

    So what vast sums of money did the duplicitous executives at General Electric lavish on the Reason Foundation in 2008 and 2009 to support an implied campaign to traduce climate science? Exactly $325. How much did GE spend on matching and direct grants on the six think tanks identified by the UCS as being pro-climate consensus? That would be $497,744. At least with regard to General Electric’s contributions, it appears that the Union of Concerned Scientists has salted a follow-the-money trail with pieces of fool’s gold, which certain unwary news outlets obligingly picked up and reported as real bullion.

    Gosh, a bunch of self-claimed scientists putting out a load of easily-debunked propaganda? I'm shocked.

  • A long-held pet peeve: the indiscriminate use of "incredible" as a general positive intensifier. It irks me when people apply it to things that may be notable, but do not lack credibility.

    • Back in my Usenet days, I made fun of a guy who talked about George Orwell's "incredible honesty."

    • I would not bank at the "Incredible Bank". I'd prefer one that (at least) didn't brag about it.

    • Professor Anne Leonard of the City University of New York wrote briefly on "The Incredible Wikipedia." She meant it, I think, as a compliment.

    • Similarly, when a speech by President Obama is rapturously described as "incredible", my immediate thought is: "Yeah, I didn't believe him either."

    So it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed "The Credible Hulk".


Last Modified 2012-06-07 8:46 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2012-06-04

  • Salt Shakers I love salt, so I'm probably predisposed to love this NYT article [paywall-evading link] by Gary Taubes, which claims that the food-nanny jihad against salt is scientifically unjustifiable and counter-productive. Key paragraph:

    While [in the past] the evidence merely failed to demonstrate that salt was harmful, the evidence from studies published over the past two years actually suggests that restricting how much salt we eat can increase our likelihood of dying prematurely. Put simply, the possibility has been raised that if we were to eat as little salt as the U.S.D.A. and the C.D.C. recommend, we’d be harming rather than helping ourselves.

    Compare and contrast "Salt: The Forgotten Killer" from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which, as the title implies, is hysterical, demanding Immediate Government Action to reduce the salt intake of the citizenry. If Taubes is right, there's a good chance this advice, if taken, could actually kill more people than it saves.

    And of course, CSPI claims to have Science on its side—it's right in their freakin' name, after all. As in so many of these controversies, it's difficult to conclude that their real goal isn't anything other than satisfying their underlying craving for power, to bend people to their will.

  • Of course, another manifestation of the push-people-around impulse is NYC Mayor Bloomberg's ban of big beverages he doesn't think the inhabitants of his city should be drinking. Frank J. discusses the ban and its historical context:

    America was built on the principle that a man could make choices about his own life. This has been a complete failure. You remember when pioneers set out by themselves into the untamed frontier? And you remember what happened to them? That’s right: They all died. Lacking a government to tell them how much soda to drink or salt to eat, they became too obese to run away from bears and mountain lions. It’s a sad chapter in our history, but luckily when people headed out west the next time, they brought lots and lots of government with them and founded California. And thanks to its huge amount of laws telling people what to do, that area has flourished (well, I haven’t read any news about California in a decade or so, but I assume it’s still doing pretty well).

  • A. Barton Hinkle notes that CSPI and Mayor Bloomberg are merely following the fascistic trail blazed for them by Harvard Professional Big Thinkers:

    At a “Harvard Thinks Big” confab earlier this year, evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman offered his own bright idea for tackling the nation’s obesity epidemic. Merely medicating it won’t do, he said, and education is well-meaning but ineffective. His answer? “Coercion. … We should start telling corporations what to do.” But not just corporations. He also advocated – “to hearty applause,” the Harvard Gazette noted – “requiring people to exercise.”

    Wave of the future folks. That's the best and the brightest applauding

  • Speaking of pushing people around: my ex-CongressCritter, Carol Shea-Porter, wants her old job back. And she's been writing the occasional op-ed for NH newspapers. Mostly, those op-eds serve to remind me of what a threat she was to constitutional liberties. For example:

    What if the United States held an election season and no super PAC money or other hard to trace or totally hidden special-interest money showed up on our television or radio, or in print ads? Would voters think they were better off without that money in local, state and federal elections? Do they think this money is unduly influencing our democratic process, and are they right? The answer to these questions is yes, and citizens want politicians to clean up this mess now.

    The dishonesty here is: when Citizen Carol says "money", she really means "speech". (Have you ever seen "money" show up on your television?)

    And she really wants to get back into Congress so she can make that speech illegal. Bad luck to her.

  • A tip from your humble blogger made it into Best of the Web Today:

    Metaphor Alert

    […]

    • "The scandal at Ohio State further fueled perceptions of a tail-wagging-the-dog culture at major universities, where administrators look the other way as long as the golden goose athletics program is reeling in wins and dollars."--Toledo Blade, June 3
    […]

    Original link from Margaret Soltan, who has an eye for this sort of thing.


Last Modified 2012-06-10 8:05 AM EDT

Cronos

[3.5 stars] Cronos (1993) on IMDb [Amazon]

A 1993 sorta-horror movie directed by Guillermo del Toro, before he made big-time movies like Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth. It got the "Criterion Collection" treatment.

Aged antique dealer Jesús Gris has it pretty good: married to his loving wife, Mercedes, doting on his cute granddaughter Aurora, who obviously adores him back. His shop is ostensibly open for business, but his main occupation seems to be playing with Aurora.

So it comes as a shock when an actual customer shows up, apparently interested in a centuries-old statue of an archangel. We, the audience, know something that Jesús doesn't: the statue was once owned by an alchemist who found a key to immortality, a secret since lost. In short order, Jesús (unfortunately for him) discovers the secret of the statue, and becomes the target of a ruthless industrial tycoon and his sadistic brute of a son, Angel (Ron Perlman). Both Jesús and Aurora find themselves in peril.

If you've seen Guillermo del Toro's later movies, you won't be surprised by the imaginative, creepy style here. Probably the only movie in recent memory where I found myself saying to the screen: "Hey, don't lick that! You don't know where it's been!"


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:43 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2012-06-03 Update

[phony baloney]

Not much action in the Phony Campaign numbers this week:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-05-27
"Barack Obama" phony 23,200,000 +100,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 1,070,000 0
"Gary Johnson" phony 367,000 +30,000

This US News story is an example of a perfect bipartisan storm of phoniness, reporting on efforts to deal with student loan interest rates. It had House Speaker Boehner reportedly using the p-word:

Thursday, Boehner reportedly told his GOP colleagues that the student loan debate was phony and then hours later sent a letter to the White House outlining two new ways to maintain Stafford loan interest rates at 3.4 percent.
The White House, in the person of (I swear I am not making up this name) Deputy White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, took phony umbrage at the Speaker's words:
"The President certainly believes the prospect of increasing -- of doubling the interest rate on middle-class students and their families is not a phony issue," Earnest said. " We're talking about adding $1,000 to the debt load of the average college student if we see these interest rates double a month from today. That's not phony. I understand that the Speaker of the House may have actually used even more colorful words to describe this issue, which is unfortunate. Hopefully, the Speaker, in the form of that letter, was indicating a genuine willingness to work with the President to solve this problem."
Pretty obviously a case where (a) one side desperately wants a populist issue to campaign on, while (b) the other side just as desperately wants to deny them said issue.

George F'n Will does his usual fine job of detailing the immense corrupt dreadfulness of the student loan program. Read the whole thing, but here's an excerpt:

In 2006, Democrats, trying to capture control of Congress by pandering to students and their parents, proposed cutting in half the statutory 6.8 percent rate on some federal student loans. Holding Congress in 2007, and with no discernible resistance from the compassionately conservative Bush administration, Democrats disguised the full-decade cost of this -- $60 billion -- by pretending the subsidy, which now costs $6 billion a year, would expire in five years.

The five years are up July 1 and of course the 3.4 percent rate will be extended. Barack Obama supports this. So does Mitt Romney, while campaigning against a "government-centered society." What would we do without bipartisanship?

The low 6.8 percent rate -- private loans for students cost about 12 percent -- was itself the result of a federal subsidy. And students have no collateral that can be repossessed in case they default, which 23 percent of those receiving the loans in question do. The maximum loan for third- and fourth-year students is $5,500 a year. The payment difference between 3.4 percent and 6.8 percent is less than $10 a month, so the "problem" involves less than 30 cents a day.

Good luck finding a politician—Republican or Democrat—willing to talk equally honestly, especially between now and November.

Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:54 PM EST

World on a Wire

[1.0 stars] World on a Wire (1973) on IMDb [Amazon]

It happens sometimes: a movie that Netflix thought I would love, highly rated at IMDB, and I couldn't wait for it to be over.

It is a made-for-German-TV science fiction film from 1973, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. It's long, spanning two DVDs. It's based on the novel Simulacron-3 by American writer Daniel F. Galouye. The release is given the classic "Criterion Collection" treatment, given Fassbinder's reputation as a famous artsy director.

The story centers on Fred, who works for a company developing a computer system that simulates the real world; the simulation involves a thousands of simulated human intelligences, who (of course) are unaware that they're living in a constructed artificial world.

Fred has stepped into a supervisory role due to the mysterious death of his boss, Vollmer, who was acting strangely just before he met his doom. At a party, the company's security dude is about to tell Fred something shocking about Vollmer's death, but… he mysteriously vanishes before spilling the bohnen. Worse, after a short time passes, Fred is seemingly the only guy who remembers the security guy even existed. And there seems to be a shady big-business conspiracy behind it all.

This must have seemed deeply weird and inexplicable back in 1973. Without spoiling things too much: if you've seen many science fiction movies since then, it's pretty obvious what's going on.

But nobody in this movie has seen those movies, so they've got absolutely no clue. And Fred finds himself doubting his own sanity.

The movie is low-budget, slow-moving, and pretentious. (Although some find it artful.) So how much nudity could you have on German TV in 1973? Answer: Some, not a lot.


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:51 AM EDT

The Woman in Black

[3.0 stars] The Woman in Black (2012) on IMDb [Amazon]

It's Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe! And he's in an adult role! Good for him.

He plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer in early 20th century England. Arthur's a widower, his wife having died four years previous in childbirth. He's still pretty broken up about it, and his ongoing depression is beginning to bum out his son, Joseph.

Arthur is also not pulling his weight at his law firm; he's given one last chance to redeem himself: travel up to a remote village to straighten out the financial affairs of the late Mrs. Drablow, mistress of Eel Marsh House.

But here's what we know that Arthur doesn't: a strange supernatural force afflicts the village, one that causes the village's children to seek their own demise. The villagers have figured out there's a connection to Eel Marsh House, and that Arthur's likely to irk the evil spirit even more by his presence. So they're pretty hostile. Understandable, actually.

Things get darker and more threatening as Arthur gradually discovers what's going on. He (eventually) comes to realize that his plan to have his son come up for a pleasant visit was a dreadful mistake, and his only hope is to mollify the ghost in time. But will he?

Not bad, but there's a lot of Bad Things happening to kids in this movie, and that's kind of nasty. Also I didn't care for the ending, which (without spoilers) is of a type pretty common in the horror genre.


Last Modified 2012-09-21 10:44 AM EDT