URLs du Jour

2012-11-27

  • Inflatable Unicorn Horn for
Cats It's that time of year for Dave Barry's Gift Guide. Someone you know, I'm sure, will want a Trailer-hitch-mounted Stripper Pole. And what cat owner will not be overjoyed by receiving one or more Inflatable Unicorn Horns for their cat? (The cat, probably not so much.)

  • Is there anyone out there who has the slightest doubt that the New York Times editorialists are partisan hacks? Or (on the other hand) is there anyone who needs more evidence of that?

    Compare this November 2004 editorial, written when Republicans had a majority in the US Senate, and were looking at changing filibuster rules, then known as the—oooh, scary—"nuclear option".

    The Republicans see the filibuster as an annoying obstacle. But it is actually one of the checks and balances that the founders, who worried greatly about concentration of power, built into our system of government. It is also, right now, the main means by which the 48 percent of Americans who voted for John Kerry can influence federal policy. People who call themselves conservatives should find a way of achieving their goals without declaring war on one of the oldest traditions in American democracy.

    … but it's eight years later, roles are reversed, and the Times editorial writers have lost their respect for "one of the oldest traditions in American democracy."

    Every new crop of senators brings the potential for moving away from hoary rules and traditions that have virtually crippled American lawmaking. Next year, 12 new senators will join the chamber, only three of whom are Republicans. Many of the others are younger, more liberal and more feisty than the ones they replaced, and several have already expressed support for ending legislative abuse.

    The 2004 "nuclear option" has now become a mild move to "change the rules". Nary a word of concern for the (as I type) main means by which the 47.43% of Americans who voted for Mitt Romney can influence federal policy.

  • Last week, I poked some fun at an unusually silly and pompous NYT op-ed from a guy named Evgeny Morozov, which advocated… something about getting content-providing corporations to give up on their "deeply conservative, outdated norms" via "auditing" their "algorithms".

    Adam Thierer at the Tech Liberation Front analyzed Evgeny's op-ed slightly more seriously. He tried engaging Evgeny via Twitter, but was treated to "nasty, sarcastic, dismissive responses that call into question the intellectual credentials of anyone who even dares to ask him a question about his proposals."

    It's fun reading, if only to dispel any illusions you might have about the maturity of NYT op-edders.


Last Modified 2014-12-05 11:59 AM EST

Flash of Genius

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

A movie from a few years back that a co-worker lent me. Not bad!

It's the based-on-true-story of Bob Kearns, a would-be inventor. It starts one day in the early 60s; while driving in the rain, Bob gets frustrated with his windshield wipers, which had two speeds: "Too Darn Fast" and "Off". Hence he was driven to invent the intermittent wiper. He took this good idea to Ford, who promptly ripped him off. This sent Bob into financial and psychological peril, culminating in the nervous breakdown that landed him in a Maryland funny farm for awhile.

Can he bounce back to get some satisfaction out of Ford and the other auto manufacturers that promptly came out with their own intermittent wipers? Well sure. It wouldn't be a little-guy-fights-the-soulless-corporation movie otherwise, would it?

Greg Kinnear does a good job playing Bob as a driven, principled, schlub. Lauren Graham plays his wife Phyllis, who is both perky and long-suffering. It's an interesting topic, given the current controversies involving intellectual property and patents. It would be easy just to dink things around a bit to turn Bob into a bad (or at least delusionally destructive) guy, attempting to milk millions out of corporations via the broken legal system.

The movie was interesting enough for me to scan through the New Yorker article it's based on. Almost needless to say, the actual history is less black-and-white than the movie portrays.

Friends With Benefits

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

Another R-rated romantic/sex-comedy. Will I ever get tired of watching these? Probably not. It's very formulaic in the macro plot, so all the fun has to come out of the actors' talent, chemistry, and script cleverness. For me, at least, it won on those.

Our couple are Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis); she is a New York-based corporate headhunter, and he is a hunted head: she recruits him away from his popular website, and plunks him down as art director for GQ Magazine. During the process, there's a lot of witty banter and gags. There's an obvious attraction between them, they both make enough money to live beautifully in Manhattan, but they're both coming off bad breakups (he with Emma Stone, she with Andy Samberg), and are relationship-shy. But that's the reason for the title: they decide to go for a sexual relationship without "getting involved" beyond companionship. No strings. Keep it casual. Just fun.

Yeah, that's not gonna work.

Both Justin and Mila do a good job; Justin, in fact, gets extremely funny when he gets to tap into his singing/dancing talents (far beyond what you might expect from a magazine's art director). There's also an extremely talented bunch of supporting actors: Patricia Clarkson as Jamie's mom; Richard Jenkins as Dylan's dad, Jenna Elfman as his sister, and Nolan Gould, one of those kids on Modern Family, as his nephew. And Woody Harrelson as a gay sports guy at GQ. And Shaun White, the ski guy, has a couple of cameo scenes, which are hilarious. And Jason Segal and Rashida Jones appear as a couple in a horribly clichéd romantic comedy movie-in-a-movie. (One possible criticism is that the movie is a bit too meta at times, discussing romantic comedy movie clichés only to commit them a short while later.)

A Cat in Paris

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

This 2010 movie was a 2011 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, but lost out to Rango. What, Pixar didn't win that year? Oh right,… that was the year of Cars 2. That still hurts.

That cat in question is Dino, who lives a double life. He's the devoted pet of cute, mute Zoe during the day. But as Zoe sleeps, Dino heads out to assist cat burglar Nico. No news to us cat owners: they have no morality whatsoever.

Zoe is mute due to psychological problems stemming from the murder of her policeman father; the perpetrator is known to be the foul criminal Victor Costa. Zoe's mom, by coincidence, is Police Commissioner, and she's sworn to hunt Costa down. Costa, meanwhile, is plotting another caper.

Quelle Surprise, Zoe's efforts to discover where Dino goes at night leads her into trouble with Costa. Fortunately, he and his gang are, while menacing, also amusingly inept.

It's very short, 70 minutes according to IMDB. The animation, while interesting, is obviously lo-fi; they weren't working with a Pixar-size bankroll. This site claims the characters "resemble people from the paintings of Leger, Modigliani, Matisse, and Picasso" so I guess that's why the word "artsy" came into mind while I was watching.

Caveat Emptor

[Amazon Link] I happened upon the Amazon page for a 2002 book titled The Best American Novels of the Twentieth Century: Still Readable Today by Eleanor Gehres. (Ms. Gehres passed away in 2000.) The "new" pricing is a bit high ($26.90 hardback, $14.95 paperback) but the third-party sellers are quite a bit more reasonable.

I'm intrigued by the "Still Readable Today" subtitle. That strongly implies that there's a subclass of Best American Novels of the Twentieth Century that are No Longer Readable. Why not? Is it a matter of language: too many unfamiliar words, like "flivver" or "keen" or "horse"? Or did the books drop out of print and existing copies were eaten by moths?

That quibble aside: If you're looking for Ms. Gehres's take on good reads, I'd say it might be just the thing.

That is, if you believe the title. If you're the kind of shallow person who judges a book by its cover. From Amazon's "Editorial Reviews" section:

Describes nearly 300 dog-friendly trails and parks. -- Portland Oregonian

Wha...?

Maybe you should only buy this if you have a dog and you like to read. Either way, you'll find something useful in the book. Although it might turn out to be about some third subject, who knows? Keen flivvers, perhaps.

But in any case, it brings to mind this famous quote from Groucho Marx:

Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

But was that Groucho, or was it Boy Scout Jim Brewer of Cleveland, Ohio? Experts differ.

S is for Silence

[Amazon Link] I continue my race with Sue Grafton: I've now finished "S", "V" came out last year, and she's probably working on "W" as I type. Will I catch up? Will we both make it to "Z"? Will Ms. Grafton's protagonist, the feisty and independent private investigator Kinsey Millhone ever find a nice guy and settle down? (Is it sexist to wonder that? Probably.)

Here, Kinsey is hired by Daisy, who's haunted by the disappearance of her mother, Violet, on July 4, 1953. In Kinsey's timeframe, that's 34 years in the past. Kinsey's given a seemingly hopeless task: find out Violet's fate, and if foul play was involved, bring the perpetrators to justice. Her method is the usual: interview everyone involved still alive from that era, rattling cages, prying into dark corners that some would like left alone. Does this work? Of course it does. Although not without peril to Kinsey and also her venerable VW bug.

The writing is a bit different here: Kinsey usually tells her story as the first-person narrator of events happening in her mid-80s timeframe. Here, every so often we get flashbacks to 1953, covering the days and hours before Violet's disappearance. Each is a third-person narration, following different characters and their interactions with Violet. For such a radical departure from formula this works pretty well.

Ms. Grafton is a well-known admirer of Ross Macdonald, basing Kinsey in Santa Teresa, the same fictional city as Macdonald placed his PI, Lew Archer. This is the most Macdonaldesque book of hers I've read: like Lew, Kinsey needs to unravel decades-old secrets and scandals. Also like Lew, Kinsey must keep track of a lot of characters. And as readers, so must we. I was a little surprised when the plot was finally unspun; it seemed a bit arbitrary. But that's OK. Life is arbitrary at times.

Moonrise Kingdom

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

Wes Anderson is a critical darling for movies like The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited, but—sorry, Wes, it's not you, it's me—he's always left me a little bit cold, as I've never found his characters to be very interesting, sympathetic, or amusing.

But all that changes with Moonrise Kingdom. I am a believer.

It is set on the small New England island of "New Penzance" It's the story of two young kids, Sam and Suzy, both considered oddballs. Sam is a bullied outcast in his "Khaki Scout" camp; Suzy is labeled a "troubled child" in her family and continually scans the island landscape with her binoculars.

Unbeknownst to everyone, Sam and Suzy are longtime pen pals, and have made plans to run off together. (A brief flashback shows their love-at-first-sight meeting.) Sam's disappearance flusters the scout camp's well-meaning but incompetent leader (Edward Norton). Suzy's mom and dad (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) are no less concerned. Drawn into the intrigue is the island's head cop (Bruce Willis). Who just happens to be carrying on an affair with Suzy's mom. Suzy and Sam must elude their pursuers while—finally—getting to know one another. All the while, a massive storm is bearing down upon the island.

A lot of the same Wes Anderson style is here: imaginative cinematography, acting that's stilted and deadpan, unexpected character quirks. (E.g., Suzy's mom uses a bullhorn to communicate with the rest of the family in their largish house.) It's charming and funny throughout.

URLs du Jour

2012-11-19

  • Mickey Mouse waffle Alex Tabarrok reports that the House Republican Study Committe issued a "radical but sensible position paper" on copyright reform. It recognized that copyright has long since been expanded from its original purpose of advancing creative activity to just another corporate giveaway.

    Yay for the GOP, right? Finally getting away from corporate welfarism? Not so fast, binky. Alex reports:

    Alas, it was not to be. Within 24 hours the report was yanked.

    So it's back to being the Stupid Party for awhile.

    [Note: I typed the above before I read Instapundit saying, well, pretty much the same thing. Great minds, etc.]

  • Leave it to Reason to tell me something interesting about the election in my own state,

    When Ward 5 of Manchester, New Hampshire, elected a delegate to the state legislature this month, its voters rejected a Republican from the Free State Project who favors a minimal government. Instead they picked Tim O'Flaherty, a Democrat from the Free State Project who favors the abolition of government altogether.

    I'm not an anarchist myself, but it's a great day when the major party candidates split on the min- versus an- issue.

Evgeny Morozov is Silly…

Packet of nuts containing nuts but he's in today's New York Times anyway, with an op-ed headlined "You Can't Say That on the Internet", wherein he preaches the doom-and-gloom cyber-dystopianism that has become his shtick. His thesis: Silicon Valley corporatism "often masks deeply conservative, outdated norms that digital culture discreetly imposes on billions of technology users worldwide."

Eek! A bold claim! What's Evgeny's Exhibit One?

In early September, The New Yorker found its Facebook page blocked for violating the site's nudity and sex standards. Its offense: a cartoon of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve's bared nipples failed Facebook's decency test.

Gosh. That's sad. Because if you can't see naked cartoon nipples on Facebook, I'm unsure where on the Internet you could look instead. I'm stumped about how to even begin.

Evgeny's remaining examples are:

  • A company is developing real-time filtering software to detect "all kinds of harmful content";

  • Apple renders the word "vagina" as "v****a" on iTunes, which risked perhaps hundreds of milliseconds of confusion for dozens of its customers as they viewed the entry for Naomi Wolf's latest stupid book;

  • Autocomplete features in the search boxes on a lot of Internet sites fail to work on many of George Carlin's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television";

    (No I am not making this up. Evgeny considers this to be a real problem.)

    [Update: so here I am reading an article at the New York Times website that gripes how awful those other sites are for failing to autocomplete the Carlin Seven in their autocomplete-search function.

    A couple hours after the initial posting it occurred to me to ask: So how many of those words does the New York Times search function autocomplete?

    You almost certainly guessed correctly: zero point zero.]

  • The website that live-streamed the Hugo Awards thought it auto-detected a copyright violation in the streaming content and shut down the broadcast;

  • And one more thing about Google's variety of autocomplete: it can be gamed by crafty activist clickers, and some people don't like the results. (Evgeny mentions Bettina Wulff, but not Rick Santorum.)

The upshot, according to Evgeny:

Quaint prudishness, excessive enforcement of copyright, unneeded damage to our reputations: algorithmic gatekeeping is exacting a high toll on our public life.

Yeah, if those are your strongest examples, probably not.

But the point of the exercise is:

Instead of treating algorithms as a natural, objective reflection of reality, we must take them apart and closely examine each line of code.

Or: "Let's take a look at that code, geek."

Basically, Evgeny doesn't like the judgment calls that companies make to govern the content they provide. Would he simply do away with "prudishness", and eliminate (say) Facebook's Community Standards" completely? Nah, Evgeny would simply like the power to replace those judgments with his own.

Unsurprisingly:

… we must ensure that, in pursuing greater profits, our new algorithmic gatekeepers are forced to accept the idea that their culture-defining function comes with great responsibility.

Why bother making a strong argument? What Evgeny really wants is to force people into seeing and doing things his way.


Last Modified 2012-11-18 1:49 PM EST

Mary Wells' Hiccups

Mary Wells

The Saturday Wall Street Journal kind of lets its weekend hair down, with the back sections having all sorts of interesting, oddball articles. This was an above-average Saturday. One of the goodies was a review from David Kirby of of Peter Benjaminson's new biography of Mary Wells, 60's Motown superstar.

Ms. Wells unfortunately lived the superstar cliché: early fame and riches turned into an early burnout due to poor financial and personal choices. As Kirby notes, she "never ran into a man or a narcotic (or a highball or a cigarette) she didn't like." She passed away in 1992 at the age of 49.

Her biggest hit was "My Guy" in 1964, written and produced by Smokey Robinson. I smile whenever I hear its quirky cowboy-movie riff. But there's another cute story behind the song:

But despite the schoolgirl innocence of "My Guy," Wells knew how to slather a bouncy pop tune with sex appeal. In one of those juicy little moments that makes the book get up off the night stand and start dancing, Mr. Benjaminson relates how Wells was clowning around in the studio when she made a stuttering sound toward the end of a take of "My Guy." The producers told her to do it again, and Wells said she was just kidding, that she was imitating Mae West trying to entice a lover upstairs. But those come-hither hiccups made it into the final version. Listen to "My Guy" (which you can do easily on YouTube) and you'll think "Gee, that's kind of sexy." Now you know why.

And if by magic, just a few hours later, up comes "My Guy" on my iPod, out of a couple thousand songs. So, just out of obligation, I waited for the hiccups and thought "Gee, that's kind of sexy."

If you don't have a magical iPod yourself, I'll make it even easier for you to listen on YouTube:

Can't help but wonder: what will the Wall Street Journal command my iPod to do next week?

URLs du Jour

2012-11-16

  • Hurricane Sandy _Staten Island I responded to a letter from one Wayne H. Merrit in my local paper yesterday, concentrating on his strawman decontextualization of a line from Ronald Reagan's 1981 Inaugural Address. But Wayne (more generally) meant to deliver a paean to Big Government. One of his datapoints:

    Government, with qualified and just leaders, is entrusted with the important role of laying down the foundation for the private. Good government, as evidenced frequently in recent times under the Obama Administration (see Hurricane Sandy), […]

    All the more ironic, then, that today Shikha Dalmia should detail Big Government's actual post-Sandy performance. Among other things:

    It didn't set up its first relief center until four days after Sandy hit -- only to run out of drinking water on the same day. It couldn't put sufficient boots on the ground to protect Queens residents from roving looters. The Red Cross -- on whom FEMA depends for delivering basic goods -- left Staten Island stranded for nearly a week, prompting borough President Jim Molinaro to fume that America was not a Third World country. But FEMA's most egregious gaffe was that it arranged for 24 million gallons of free gas for Sandy's victims, but most of them couldn't lay their hands on it.

    Ah, but at least it allowed President Obama to briefly appear as if he was Competently Doing Something. That was the only thing that mattered to our dear MSM, and people like Wayne H. Merrit at least pretended to be impressed.

    Ms Dalmia establishes that FEMA has become yet another example of Robert Higgs' thesis in Crisis and Leviathan: for statists, crises are invariably used as an excuse for permanent expanson of government. Actually helping the needy… not so much.

  • Ilya Shapiro's headline says it all: "Court Finds That Outlawing Racial Preferences Violates Constitutional Provision That Outlaws Racial Preferences".

    The Sixth Circuit's sharply split decision reads like something out of Orwell (or The Onion): Michiganders. decision to amend their state constitution to outlaw racial preferences in college admissions somehow violates the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. As Dave Barry would say, I'm not making this up: The court voted 8-7 that making people more equal under the law violates the constitutional provision that requires people to be treated equally under the law!

    Ilya is optimistic that the Supremes will reverse this decision.

  • I'm a pretty regular reader of Cracked; their recent article "6 Iconic Movie Scenes That Happened by Accident" is well above their excellent average. Every scene they mention really is iconic by my yardstick. (Which is: I remember them.) And there's an interesting yarn attached to every one.

A Letter to my Local Paper

Ronald Reagan (Home Is Where The Story
Begins) Tampico, IL [HTMLified and slightly edited.]]

To the Editor:

Wayne H. Merrit's recent letter to the editor declared Ronald Reagan to have made a "false argument" when he said "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Mr. Merrit engages in a clear strawman fallacy; the "false argument" is therefore his. The well-known quote is from President Reagan's 1981 Inaugural Address. And it's easy enough to discover that Mr. Merrit has snipped off the first four words of the actual sentence Reagan spoke: "In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

Let's remind ourselves of the "crisis" to which Reagan referred: a (then) historically-high unemployment rate of 7.5%; double-digit inflation in 1979 and 1980; interest rates close to 20%; negative GDP growth in the last half of 1980. It was an economically miserable time, and Reagan correctly fingered government mismanagement of its fiscal, monetary, and regulatory policies as the prime culprit.

By cutting out this context, Mr. Merrit makes Reagan sound like a rabid anarchist; this is monumentally silly.

But he proceeds from this initial fallacy to rant against "GOP politicians" and "right wing politicians" and anyone else who dares to think that it might be a good idea to limit the size and scope of government. Apparently, Mr. Merrit thinks that unless government continues to spend trillions of taxpayer dollars each year (along with about a trillion borrowed), we won't have roads, or something.

And (worse) Mr. Merrit concludes that such people should not be "popping off about 'big government'"; instead they should "just get out of politics and stay out of the way of good government." I hope that everyone will decline Mr. Merrit's advice, and continue to use their First Amendment right to "pop off" about whatever they want.

Paul Sand, Rollinsford

Never Enough

[Amazon Link] True fact: if you search for "Never Enough" on Amazon, you'll come up with a bunch of titles. Including one with a description that includes the key sentence "And Adrian is even more surprised when the buttoned-up, elegant woman who's raising Miles snags his erotic and romantic attention."

But the subtitle on this book reads "America's Limitless Welfare State" and if it contained a buttoned-up, elegant woman snagging erotic and romantic attention, she was very well hidden.

William Voegeli's book came out in hardcover back in 2010, but the paperback and Kindle versions only last month. (I snagged the paperback.) It earned rave reviews from a host of conservative pundits, and deservedly so. It manages to be both insightful and depressing, especially when read in tandem with the recent campaign and election results.

Voegeli does some impressive number-crunching, tracing the increasing size of welfare spending over the past decades, also making international comparisons. He makes a compelling case that welfare programs naturally expand, invariably well beyond the promised limits claimed by their initial designers. (It's difficult to think those promises are made in good faith.)

Liberals, Voegeli says, have never had a principled theory of welfare; their ultimate goals are vague even in their own minds. Hence the book's title: there are always more schemes to implement, more "unmet needs" to meet, more dollars to be taken from Peter to give to Paul. The only limit is the mathematical one of 100%.

Being unprincipled in theory leads to being unprincipled in practice. Much welfare spending is designed for political viability, which in practice means that the beneficiaries expand well beyond the truly needy. Voegeli recalls the late William F. Buckley's picture of "the skies black with criss-crossing dollars." So much money flying around serves to obfuscate what's going on. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is so passé; the modern welfare state largely robs Peter to pay Peter, while the robber takes a decent cut off the top for himself, and tells Peter that he's being done a great favor.

Voegeli believes that the primary viable strategy for conservatives to limit the welfare state is to implement means-testing on most outlays; no more sending Social Security checks to Warren Buffett and Mike Bloomberg. In his view, conservatives need to make peace with the fact that the welfare state is here to stay, it's an inevitable feature of modern democracies, and the only hope is to figure out a feasible and equitable way to put some brakes on the juggernaut.

Interestingly, he makes some pointed criticism of libertarian critiques of the welfare state. Libertarians suffer from the flip side of "never enough": they have no principled limit to how small they would make the welfare state. Their contribution to the debate (Voegeli says) is inherently futile and unhelpful.

(Interestingly, Voegeli makes no mention of the proposal Charles Murray put forward in his 2006 book, In Our Hands: just replace all programs with a modest yearly stipend to all adult citizens for them to spend as they want. Unfortunately, this proposal went nowhere; guess it made too much sense.)

Safety Not Guaranteed

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

IMDB classifies this shoestring oddball in the "Comedy | Romance | Sci-Fi" genres; they don't make it easy to search on such things, but I'd guess that's an unusual combination. It did negligible box-office business this past summer, but it's the kind of quirky movie that can do well on DVD.

The main character is a young woman named "Darius", played by Aubrey Plaza. (Yes, that's a person, not a mall. I bet she gets that a lot.) She's on a career track to nowhere, working as a lowly disrespected intern at a local magazine in Seattle.

She gets invited to editorial meetings, however, where the hard-driving editor harangues her staff to come up with story ideas. A writer, Jeff, notes a recent classified ad:

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.

Jeff proposes to track down the person behind the ad for a human interest story; he, Darius, and an Indian intern named Arnau head on out to dinky Ocean View, Washington to stake out the ad's PO Box. Instead of a mad scientist, they discover Kenneth, an eccentric grocery store employee. He's secretive, flaky, and paranoid, but he and Darius kind of hit it off; she agrees to accompany him on his chronological mission. Part of her wants to get the magazine story, but Kenneth also appeals to her yearning for a time before her life went off the tracks.

Meanwhile, it appears Jeff has an ulterior motive for wanting to go to Ocean View: to reconnect with an old flame, fondly remembered from 20 years ago. I believe this is a metaphor of some sort. (If I suspect a metaphor, I'm almost always right. Because a metaphor has to be really obvious to get me to notice it at all. I'm relatively clueless about metaphors.)

It's a perfectly sweet little movie, full of off-the-wall dialog that had me chuckling all the way through. Aubrey Plaza is appealing as Darius. Mary Lynn Rajskub has a small role as Bridget, the magazine's boss. Unfortunately, nobody yells "Dammit, Bridget, there's no time!" at her.

I discovered via this movie that there is a "Des Moines" in Washington; it's on a highway sign they pass by on the way to Ocean View. I thought that was an Iowa thing only.

Lolita

[Amazon Link] Another attempt to tackle some serious fiction, a little vegetable-eating amidst the literary fast-food that makes up my usual diet. Lolita (as Wikipedia will tell you) is

… on Time's list of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. It is fourth on the Modern Library's 1998 list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th century. It was also included as one of The 100 Best Books of All Time.

So that's an impressive pedigree, but Pun Salad readers come here for the straight scoop. "Hey, Paul, how was it, really?"

You've probably heard: the novel deals with an off-putting subject. It is set mostly in America of the late 40s and early 50s. The narrator, a European immigrant named "Humbert Humbert", is a nasty sort, with lustful urges for "nymphets", young girls. Fate brings him to a small New England town where he lodges with, and eventually marries, a crass dame named Charlotte Haze. Unfortunately, he's actually smitten with Dolores, Charlotte's 11-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, who Humbert takes to calling Lolita.

Not to spoil things, but Lolita turns out to be more than Humbert bargained for. Young does not equate to innocent, even in the America of 70 years ago. Things turn out badly for everyone involved.

Nabokov's prose is full of wordplay, allusion, foreshadowing, symbolism, and a bunch of other words you probably heard about in literature class. Fortunately, I got, from the Library Near Here, the "annotated" version put together by the late Alfred Appel, a lifelong Nabokov scholar. I can't see how I would have made the slightest bit of sense out of the book otherwise, although it takes some of the surprise out of the ending. Nabokov is the kind of author who expects you to connect names and words mentioned briefly, amongst continual pyrotechnic verbiage, when they show up again hundreds of pages later. Unless you're a would-be literary detective, willing to ferret out every clue, tackling this book unassisted would be like setting out into the Himalayas without your Sherpa.

Appel also, bless him, translates the numerous French phrases that Humbert and other characters continually drop, resolves the literary allusions, points out each and every obscure reference to the mysterious Clare Quilty.

Skyfall

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

James Bond movies are on the short list of ones Pun Son and I will actually traipse off to the cinema to see on opening weekend. This one was pretty good, but (as I type) IMDB has it as #245 of the top 250 movies of all time. I don't think so.

Anyway, the plot begins with a slambang opening sequence: a bad guy has murdered a bunch of agents in Turkey and stolen a hard drive; 007 is right behind him. They leave a trail of destruction and—hey, I've always wondered about the innocent victims left in the wake of these epic chases. We never see them, but the body count must at least be in double digits here, with hundreds injured.

The chase ends poorly for Bond, the bad guy gets away. And Bond takes the opportunity to kick back for awhile, since everyone (except those in the movie audience) thinks he's dead. But he's drawn back into the thick of things by a cyberterrorist attack on MI6 headquarters. Apparently the chief bad guy has it in (specifically) for M, the hard-as-nails MI6 boss, played by Dame Judi. So Bond is tasked with tracking things down, but has he lost a step, due to nearly getting killed and all?

I had a lot of fun. However:

I know it's pointlessly stupid to gripe about the credibility of a Bond movie plot. But I found myself (afterward) thinking: why did they do that? Why didn't they do that? One thing in particular, and I'll put it here in spoiler-avoiding white text, mouse-select to reveal: to quote an IMDB poster: "I'll take M to a house 8 hours away, with no backup or weapons in a tiny car, and wait for the bad guys to show up. … Let's hope M doesn't get shot, oh she did, damn, what a stupid plan afterall."

I liked the occasional nod to long-ago Bond flicks, especially the very last one involving Eve; only saw that coming a few seconds before it actually did.


Last Modified 2014-11-09 11:50 AM EST

A Perfect Getaway

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

This 2009 movie is a decent thriller, but probably not approved by the Hawaii Department of Tourism.

The island paradise of Kauai contains the Kalalau Trail, a tough 11-mile hike on the north shore leading to a beautiful secluded beach. The movie places three couples there: newlyweds Cliff and Cydney (Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich); free spirits Nick and Gina (Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez); burnouts Kale and Cleo (Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton). Into this gorgeous setting, trouble intrudes, as word comes of a horrific double murder back in Honolulu. And (guess what) the murderers seem to have made their escape to (cue ominous music) this very same island.

So everyone's in for some stressful times. Can't really say much more without spoilers. I don't know about you, but I find I enjoy such movies more when I don't overthink them, don't anticipate the little (or large) plot twists the moviemakers may (or may not) have upcoming. Just sayin'.

Consumer's note for movie fans who might compulsively fly out to Kauai to hike the Kalalau Trail: apparently most of this movie was actually shot in Puerto Rico and Jamaica.

Veterans Day 2012

Veterans Day 2012

… thank a vet near you.

Google gets it this year: Google Veterans Day

Election Thoughts and Links

How to Overcome Depression In no particular order:

  • Well, now I wish I'd voted for Gary Johnson. Talk about a wasted vote.

  • You're gonna get real tired of me saying "I told you so" over the next few years. (See Ed Driscoll at Instapundit.)

  • From Jim Geraghty's Morning Jolt newsletter today:

    If you really think that the guy with the tired promises of spending more and taxing more is really going to save you, I can't help you.

    More long-windedly: heavy regulation, mandates, rules, programs, subsidies, politically-driven "investments", increased taxes, etc. has never been a recipe for prosperity. And never will. If a sufficiently large fraction of voting Americans believe otherwise, we're in for a long painful period.

  • My ex-Congresscritter and full-time toothache, Carol Shea-Porter, will be my future Congresscritter. Interestingly, it looks as if Libertarian candidate, Brendan Kelly, tallied well over twice as many votes (as I type: 12383) than the margin separating Shea-Porter and defeated Republican incumbent Frank Guinta (as I type: 143681 - 138219 = 5462).

    Hey, Frank: if you had managed to sway less than half of Kelly's voters to vote for you instead, you would have won.

  • Many folks who confidently predicted a Romney win don't just have egg on their faces: it's an entire Denny's Lumberjack Slam® breakfast with a side of oatmeal. Although I didn't make an Official Pun Salad Prediction—why take a chance on looking even more stupid than usual?—I had a nagging feeling that the numbers guys (Intrade, Nate Silver) had an edge over the gut-feeling guys. xkcd gloats a bit, and I can't blame him:

    [Math]

  • And if you'd like to read something substantive and ire-inducing today, how about Avik Roy's reposting of Ben Domenech’s top ten worst fact checks of the election cycle. You should Read The Whole Thing™, but here's number four:

    4. That thing you said isn’t true because it sounds really awful, unless something similar comes up about the guy we hate. http://vlt.tc/jw9 It’s odd how fact checkers shift to considering the motivations of a politician on some occasions, but not on others. Thus, President Obama’s stance against the Born Alive Infant Protection Act can’t mean he favors legal protection for infanticide because that sounds really nasty. The phrase “we find it hard to fathom” isn’t typically a sign that you’re fact-checking – you’re just expressing an opinion. http://vlt.tc/jwb However, Paul Ryan is totally in favor of outlawing in-vitro fertilization even though the bill he supported says nothing of the kind, because he’s that kind of person. http://vlt.tc/jwa

    The MSM's "fact-checking" has long been a joke. Someone should act as a clearinghouse for debunking Politifact and the rest. (I'd do it, but it would almost be a fulltime job.)

  • I tried watching the election coverage local ABC affiliate, WMUR. And gave up. There is nothing sadder than watching an anchorperson babble without a script. And when our local folks switched over to the national coverage helmed by Diane Sawyer… just as bad! Via Treacher, some diligent soul has assembled some of her droolings:

    Shitfaced or drunk? You decide!


Last Modified 2012-11-07 10:53 PM EST

The Phony Campaign

2012 Final Update

[phony baloney]

With two days before the election, it's time to assemble our final results. They are unsurprising:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2012-10-28
"Barack Obama" phony 7,130,000 +120,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 2,640,000 -40,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 703,000 +38,000

Phoniness has been rife this week:

  • Sarah Palin weighed in at Fox about President Obama's visit to post-Sandy New Jersey:

    According to Palin, Obama used the trip to the storm-torn state as a phony show of bipartisanship.

    "Well, it is quite a shame that, you know, Obama got what he wanted out of that, and that was the photo ops with a Republican governor so that he and the mainstream media could kind of fake that bipartisanship that in no way, shape or form does President Obama represent. He is the most partisan president I think that we have ever had. So he got his photo ops out of that, unfortunately, because then he got to jet off and you know, here he goes again -- party in Vegas with Jay-Z."

  • But Democrats are no less likely to detect inauthenticity in their rival. Ex-governor Ted Strickland was unimpressed with Mitt Romney's charitable efforts.

    Democrat Ohio Governor and top Obama surrogate Ted Strickland just said Romney can't even "fake compassion" and made fun of Romney's food drive for Sandy victims.

  • I don't spend any time at World Net Daily, but their efforts to publicize the Obama campaign's unwillingness to check the possible illegality of their donors is funny:

    Using a Pakistani Internet Protocol and proxy server, a disposable credit card and a fake address, "Osama bin Laden" has successfully donated twice to Barack Obama's presidential re-election campaign.

    The "Bin Laden" donations, actually made by WND staff, included a listed occupation of "deceased terror chief" and a stated employer of "al-Qaida."

    My cynical take: since campaign finance laws are written by politicians, my guess would be that when "illegal foreign contributions" occur, the penalties are mostly or entirely aimed at the contributor, and the politicians simply have to say "oops" and give the money back, perhaps pay a token fine. Anyone know for sure? (Certainly the story of Norman Hsu tends to confirm this.)

  • An AP Story details some last-minute underhanded campaign tactics.

    People in Florida, Virginia and Indiana have gotten calls falsely telling them they can vote early by phone and don't need to go to a polling place. In suburban Broward County, Fla., a handful of elderly voters who requested absentee ballots say they were visited by unknown people claiming to be authorized to collect the ballots.

    So don't fall for any of that. The same story also describes the mass-mailing of a DVD documentary alleging that Barack Obama's real father is not the guy from Kenya we've all heard about, but Frank Marshall Davis, a Communist who lived in Hawaii at the right time.

    I take it the actual evidence for that being true is low. Although it would take the air out of birther sails.

  • But did that make you think "break out the DNA test kits"? Unfortunately, the Presidential DNA is considered to be top secret. Why? Because with access to that information, someone could design and target a deadly bioweapon. As reported in the Atlantic:

    […], consider that the DNA of world leaders is already a subject of intrigue. According to Ronald Kessler, the author of the 2009 book In the President's Secret Service, Navy stewards gather bedsheets, drinking glasses, and other objects the president has touched--they are later sanitized or destroyed--in an effort to keep would-be malefactors from obtaining his genetic material. (The Secret Service would neither confirm nor deny this practice, nor would it comment on any other aspect of this article.) And according to a 2010 release of secret cables by WikiLeaks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton directed our embassies to surreptitiously collect DNA samples from foreign heads of state and senior United Nations officials. Clearly, the U.S. sees strategic advantage in knowing the specific biology of world leaders; it would be surprising if other nations didn't feel the same.

    Suddenly, guns and bombs seem so brutish and old fashioned!

So that's it! Assuming we're still around, we'll pick things up again in 2015.


Last Modified 2014-11-10 5:08 AM EST

Damsels in Distress

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Writer/Director Whit Stillman is whatever the opposite of prolific is. This is his fourth movie in over two decades, and the first since 1998. We saw his 1990 movie, Metropolitan, earlier this year. This movie has (as I type) a mediocre IMDB score, but the critics liked it (75% on the Tomatometer, 67/100 at Metacritic.) And (unusual for me) I'm with the critics on this one. I loved it.

The plot centers around a group of young college women attending "Seven Oaks" (As we're told, it was the "last of the Select Seven to go co-ed".) The ringleader is Violet, a well-meaning, self-serious student. Violet's general goal is social work, making her fellow students a little happier, a little more well-adjusted, sweet-smelling, and civilized. Her methods and viewpoints are … slightly unorthodox.

As the movie opens, she recruits new student Lily to be part of her gang, introducing her to various missions. For example, they run the campus "Suicide Prevention Center". (Unfortunately, the word "Prevention" keeps falling off their sign.) Donuts and coffee are offered to those in a precarious mental state. And only to those people; Violet calmly explains that was part of the deal they made with the supplier, otherwise just anyone would come in for free donuts and coffee.

Violet's other goal: start an international dance craze.

The movie is filled with hilarious lines, mostly delivered deadpan. Greta Gerwig is wonderful as Violet, turning what might be a grating, unpleasant character into a complex and sympathetic one. And I laughed all the way through. Can't ask for more than that.

One Shot

[Amazon Link] Attempting to catch up with Lee Child's series of novels featuring ex-MP Jack Reacher; this is the ninth, published in 2005, so I'm merely 7 years behind.

There's a Jack Reacher movie coming out next month, starring Tom Cruise as Reacher. Color me skeptical about that casting choice, but Lee Child, the author, seems OK with it. Coincidentally, the movie is based on this book. (So, as you may have noticed, I got the "movie tie-in" edition with Cruise's mug on the cover.) I probably kind of spoiled the movie by reading it. That's OK too; I'd rather spoil the movie by reading the book than vice versa.

The plot: a small Indiana city is shaken by a mass murder. Five innocent victims are gunned down by an expert marksman shooting from a parking garage. The cops spring into action, execute a brilliant crime scene investigation, and arrest an ex-Army sniper. The evidence is overwhelming, the case is a seeming slam-dunk. But the arrestee claims they have the wrong guy. And demands that they "get Jack Reacher."

(Yes, it's page 50 and we haven't even seen Reacher yet. To make up for it, he's on nearly every page afterward.)

I thought I knew the story. Cliché! Old Army buddy Reacher rescues his pal, returning an old favor or something. Whoa, that turned out to be wrong.

As usual, Reacher is a masterful, dogged, investigator. His adversaries are a ruthless and nasty bunch, but Reacher is also resourceful and deadly. Lee Child's prose is deceptively spare, conveying a lot of mood and character in short punchy sentences.

URLs du Jour

2012-11-02

Made it through Hurricane Sandy fine, thanks. But struggling to make up for some lost time at work. Anyway:

  • Riddle: why is a Fisker like a Gremlin? Answer: you shouldn't give either one of them water.

    Around sixteen extended-range luxury hybrid vehicles made by government-backed Fisker Automotive parked in Port Newark, N.J., caught fire and “exploded,” after surging water from Hurricane Sandy breached the port and submerged the vehicles, Jaloplink.com reported.

    Government-backed, you say? Why, yes:

    Fisker received a $529 million Department of Energy loan guarantee in 2010 and drew down on $193 million of the loan and the rest is contingent on the company reaching sales targets on its luxury Karmas.

    So: Your tax dollars near-literally up in smoke.

  • New content from New Hampshire's own Shawn Macomber has become scarce. But today, his musings on our political obsessions, fears, and over-the-top rhetoric are much worth reading.

  • patriotism Rich Lowry has a good column today, bemoaning the populist "economic patriotism" theme infecting political campaigns. You know: how dare American capitalism participate in the world economy? Lowry's last paragraph is worthy of Linda Richman:

    "Economic patriotism" is neither good economics nor good patriotism.

    "Discuss."

  • So we're down to the final few days of the presidential campaign. What do the closing arguments of Obama and Romney reveal? Find out the exciting answer in Peter Suderman's Hit&Run post: "Closing Arguments Reveal That Both Presidential Candidates Are Full of It". His summary:

    So as the election closes, here's where we're at: The incumbent president is positioning himself as a challenger to the status quo and an agent of change that his opponent is not, while the policy-details-averse alleged budget cutter is reminding people of the spending he wants to restore and inviting people to imagine the particulars of the way he would govern. It's a choice between bad policies versus no policies, between two candidates with little to offer but reasons why the other guy stinks. Neither has a real vision for the future, except to either protect or do over the past. So while both candidates are selling change to a dissatisfied public, their closing arguments serve as a reminder that whoever wins, the dismal reality of politics-as-usual is bound to stay the same.

  • Continuing in that "full of it" theme: Alex Tabarrok has an attention-grabbing headline: "A Bet is a Tax on Bullshit". The occasion for this insight is the New York Times' Nate Silver offering to bet his critics on the election outcome, with odds based on his model. (Which, as I type, has President Obama as an 80.9% favorite.)

    The NYT "Public Editor" is horrified. Because Silver might be seen "as a partisan who is trying to sway the outcome" of the election.

    But Alex notes that this is nonsense. Because Silver would (if he believes his model) be willing to take either side of the bet.

    In fact, the NYTimes should require that Silver, and other pundits, bet their beliefs. Furthermore, to remove any possibility of manipulation, the NYTimes should escrow a portion of Silver’s salary in a blind trust bet. In other words, the NYTimes should bet a portion of Silver’s salary, at the odds implied by Silver’s model, randomly choosing which side of the bet to take, only revealing to Silver the bet and its outcome after the election is over. A blind trust bet creates incentives for Silver to be disinterested in the outcome but very interested in the accuracy of the forecast.

    That's such an insanely great idea … that it almost certainly won't happen.


Last Modified 2017-12-02 5:39 AM EST

Extract

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

The great Mike Judge wrote and directed. It boasts Jason Bateman, Kristen Wiig, Mila Kunis, Ben Affleck, and J.K. Simmons in major roles. It's fine, but I wanted it to be better. Don't get me wrong, it's hilarious in spots. Office Space is such a high bar to clear.

Jason Bateman plays Joel Reynolds, the owner of a small plant that makes flavorings, hence the title. It's an unglamorous job, but he has hopes of selling out to a big company. His wife (Ms. Wiig) is shutting down on the passion front at home. He drowns his sorrows at the local sports bar, where he gets uniformly bad advice from his bartender buddy, Dean (Ben Affleck). Also, drugs, which makes him more likely to take the bad advice.

Meanwhile, Joel's hired Cindy, a beautiful grifter (Ms. Kunis) to work on the factory floor. Also a freak slapstick accident has put one of the workers in the hospital with damage to the, um, nut area.

So there's a lot going on, and it kept me chuckling the whole way through. Characters in Mike Judge movies tend to occupy the range from "not very smart" to "very, very dumb." The exception here is Ms. Kunis's character, who's pretty sharp, but extremely dishonest.

Here's what bothered me: Joel's company is called "Reynold's Extracts". What's that apostrophe doing there?


Last Modified 2014-11-09 12:59 PM EST