Blogiversary 8

behind the eight ball My archives say the first official post to this blog was February 27, 2005 (at 9:19am). So here we are, eight years later (plus a few hours).

It's still fun. I plan to keep going. Sometimes I envy the more popular blogs. How, exactly, does James Lileks manage to put up hundreds of words every darn weekday about his activities and opinions, and manage to make it all fascinating? Or Glenn Reynolds: he sees all, and tells us all about it.

But (to be honest) I'm not sure how well I would handle it if Pun Salad were more popular. The blog has had a couple brushes with "fame", where it was mentioned on a high-volume site. And each time, I developed an odd kind of writer's block for a few days afterward: Eek! People might actually read this! Now what?

So I've become less compulsive about blogging. If I don't think I have anything interesting to say, I probably won't say it. I think I've had some pretty good insights over the years, but there are only a finite number of them, and it's difficult to recycle them freshly.

Here's a little gnuplot graph I hacked up showing the trend in the monthly article count for the past eight years:

[monthly pun salad posts]

A little dispiriting: the overall trend is clearly downsloping. I'll try to do better. But I hope you've set yourself up to use my RSS feeds so you don't have to keep checking for new content by hand.

And, yes, I really did post 67 articles in March 2006. I look at it now in wonder.

Anyway, to those still reading: thanks, and I hope you'll stick around.

URLs du Jour

2013-02-26

  • Spam wall True fact: Twitter's outgoing mail servers have the collective hostname of "ham-cannon.twitter.com".

  • Sequester hysteria continues to ramp up. I try to avoid the MSM, but we do have a clock radio tuned to Dover NH's mighty WTSN, and this morning I was treated to this story bewailing the cuts to …

    Professor Laura Niedernhofer at the Scripps Research Institute in Florida believes her team of 40 scientists can find a drug to diminish the impact of old age. The drug won't keep you young, she says, it would make the old less frail.

    "My hypotheses would be that there would actually be drugs that would simultaneously dampen osteoporosis, dementia, maybe some fatigue and muscle wasting all at the same time," she said.

    OH MY GOD. Professor Laura was RIGHT ON THE VERGE of discovering a MIRACLE DRUG that would SAVE US GEEZERS from ALL SORTS OF INFIRMITIES. And all she needed was A BIT MORE GOVERNMENT MONEY, and it would have pushed her RIGHT OVER THE GOAL LINE and SAVED US ALL.

    But now that MIRACLE DRUG will be LOST FOREVER. It's HOPELESS, thanks to the SEQUESTER.

    My modest proposal: any recipient of Federal cash who gripes about the sequester: double sequester for you!.

    And anyone who keeps complaining: triple sequester!

    I should credit this strategy to Richard Vernon of The Breakfast Club.

  • If you haven't seen it already, here's this year's very nice Oscar-winning animated short film (from Disney!):

    And after you watch that, read this for a chuckle.

The First Assassin

[Amazon Link]

Readers of National Review will recognize the author's name: John J. Miller is one of their correspondents, and writes for other, lesser, publications too, like the Wall Street Journal. So I became aware of this book via that link, and decided to take a chance. Hey, not bad.

It's set in the dark days of 1861: Abraham Lincoln is assuming the Presidency, and the Union is being rent asunder. Anti-Union plots and conspiracies abound. But one seems more serious than others: embittered South Carolina slaveowners hire a mysterious professional killer named Mazorca to stalk and kill Lincoln only a few weeks into his first term.

The book's hero is Colonel Rook, who's part of General Winfield Scott's efforts to defend Washington D.C. Rook is a good detective, but Mazorca is ruthless and deadly. Fortunately, a few slaves become aware of the plot, and send a plucky slave girl north to inform the good guys of Mazorca's identity. But that's a perilous journey for a slave—will she make it?

Miller obviously did his historical homework, especially in describing the 1861 environs. (The US Capitol dome under construction; the Washington Monument unfinished; Mount Vernon falling into disrepair.) I thought I caught one anachronism when a character uses the word "okay" — surely that wasn't used in 1861? No, I was wrong, it was in normal use long before then.

It's a pageturner, no doubt. If I had to quibble, it's a little in-your-face about history. (Yes, someone does exclaim to Rook: "Colonel! Fort Sumter has given up!")

I read this in paperback, so that's where the Amazon link will take you, but the Kindle price of $4.99 is kind of a steal.

Robot & Frank

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

I was very pleasantly surprised by this little movie: it's humane, witty, and moving. I'm not very perceptive when it comes to "arty" movies, but I think I was able to pick up on some subtleties.

We're told up front that the movie is set in the near future. Elderly Frank (played by Frank Langella) lives alone in a remote house just outside of a small town. He's gradually succumbing to dementia, existing in a perpetual state of confusion and forgetfulness. His only joy is his periodic trips to the library, where he (always unsuccessfully) hits on Jennifer (Susan Sarandon).

His son, Hunter (James Marsden), makes weekend trips up to see Frank, but it's arduous, and there's only so much he can do. So Hunter buys Frank a robot (played by an Asimo, voiced by Peter Sarsgaard). Frank initially resists, but Robot is really helpful around the house, and is a decent cook.

Oh, did I mention that Frank is a retired cat burglar? Old habits die hard. And (as it turns out) Robot can also help out there too.

The movie's full of small and large surprises, fine acting talent and intelligent dialog. And allusions: Is it any accident that Frank shares his name with 2001's doomed astronaut, Frank Poole? Maybe. But here's a little more obvious one: during one of their meetings, Jennifer confesses her love for an ancient illustrated copy of Don Quixote owned by the library. Oh yeah, I get it: Frank ⇔ Don Quixote; Robot ⇔ Sancho Panza; Jennifer ⇔ Dulcinea. The agreement isn't perfect, but pretty good. What do you think?

Also Liv Tyler is in it, playing Madison, Frank's do-gooding, well-meaning daughter. Gosh, she's pretty.


Last Modified 2013-02-26 4:01 PM EST

URLs du Jour

2013-02-24

  • Hello Kitty Darth Vader Surprising approximately zero baseball fans, the New York Yankees have successfully prevented a company, "Evil Enterprises, Inc." from trademarking the term "Baseballs Evil Empire" [sic]. Ilya Somin has the appropriate links at The Volokh Conspiracy. From the opinion:

    Opposer's evidence demonstrates that a number of its fans have adopted the EVIL EMPIRE moniker as a "badge of honor" so that it now has a "positive connotation" among Yankees' fans. The Smith declaration admits that opposer has "implicitly embraced" the EVIL EMPIRE designation. For example, opposer has played the ominous theme from the STAR WARS movies at baseball games. Opposer's embracing the EVIL EMPIRE characterization, whether explicitly or implicitly, undermines its argument that use of BASEBALLS EVIL EMPIRE disparages the Yankees. In other words, having succumbed to the lure of the dark side, opposer will not now be heard to complain about the judgment of those who prefer the comfort of the light. We find that use of the term BASEBALLS EVIL EMPIRE is not disparaging to opposer.

    Yeah, so there. Boston Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino originally applied the term "Evil Empire" to the Yankees in 2002.

  • Speaking of that: as I type, it's a mere 36 days until the Red Sox play their first game: April 1, 1:05pm, against the (now self-admittedly dark side-embracing) Yankees in the Bronx. A little difficult to believe, looking out my window at the snow falling, but the calendar doesn't lie.

  • Jacob Sullum reminds us (as if we needed to be reminded) about the dishonest rhetoric employed by nearly all advocates about taxes:

    In her most recent report to Congress, National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson notes that "tax expenditures" -- the exclusions, exemptions, deductions and credits that make the Internal Revenue Code such a bloated, bewildering behemoth -- total more than $1 trillion a year. She explains that she tries to avoid calling these provisions "loopholes" because that word has a pejorative connotation: "Policymakers use the term 'loophole' to describe a tax expenditure that they do not agree with ... and use terms like 'incentives' or 'sound government policy' to describe tax expenditures that they like."

    President Obama, Sullum notes, exemplifies this two-faced language every time he opens his mouth about taxes. Sullum goes on from there, and if your blood pressure can afford it, I recommend Reading The Whole Thing™

  • But about that "National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson" Sullum mentions: I did not know, or had forgotten, that was even a thing. Ms. Olson is an Official Federal Government Employee in that Actual Federal Government Position. And her job is to point out how stupid, evil, counterproductive, and ruinous are the tax laws her department is tasked with enforcing.

    As far as I'm concerned, this may make Ms. Olson the best Official Federal Government Employee ever. Her website is here where you can read the report Jacob mentions and other worthwhile stuff.

  • A lot of good stuff out there on the Sequester. Here's George F'n Will:

    Even during this desultory economic recovery, one industry thrives -- the manufacture of synthetic hysteria. It is, however, inaccurate to accuse the Hysteric in Chief of crying "Wolf!" about spending cuts under the sequester. He is actually crying "Hamster!"

    As in: Batten down the hatches -- the sequester will cut $85 billion from this year's $3.6 trillion budget! Or: Head for the storm cellar -- spending will be cut 2.3 percent! Or: […]

    He goes on, wonderfully. Check it out, all the way to the end where the hamsters make another appearance.

  • Glenn Reynolds posts so much worthwhile stuff, it's hard to follow it all, but if you skipped over his link to this WaPo news story about the sequester, here's another chance. An anti-sequester lobbyist is quoted, pretty much exposing the phony rhetoric.

    "The good news is, the world doesn't end March 2. The bad news is, the world doesn't end March 2," said Emily Holubowich, a Washington health-care lobbyist who leads a coalition of 3,000 nonprofit groups fighting the cuts. "The worst-case scenario for us is the sequester hits and nothing bad really happens. And Republicans say: See, that wasn't so bad."

    Glenn comments: "So I guess we can expect the Administration to make it as bad as it can." A cynical attitude, but I would wager his expectation is also 100% accurate.

Madagascar 3

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I don't think I ever saw the original Madagascar, but that did not stop me from watching and enjoying Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa back in 2009. This one… eh, not so much. I believe the dialog is significantly less clever; there's no line comparable to King Julien's from the previous movie: "Bring me my nuts on a silver platter!" (It's OK: he was asking for a snack during a plane trip.)

The heroic zoo animals from the previous movie are itching to return to America. They'll need the help of the clever penguins, who are off gambling in Monte Carlo. Their adventures there draw the attention of Animal Control Officer Chantel DuBois (Frances McDormand, who can do a French accent just as well as a Minnesotan one). She aims to—literally—add the head of Alex the lion to her trophy wall. So the group finds themselves pursued, but they find shelter with a travelling circus (more funny animals with their own problems).

There is a lot of hyperkinetic slapstick and silliness, but maybe I just wasn't in the mood.


Last Modified 2013-02-20 1:16 PM EST

URLs du Jour

2013-02-19

  • Inaugural address One of the more predictable outcomes of electing Democrats: payoffs to public school teacher unions. New Hampshire's new Governor, Maggie Hassan, is no exception; her efforts to undo NH's "Opportunity Scholarship Act" (OSA) made Cato's blog with the headline "New Hampshire’s Governor vs. Kids and Taxpayers".

    The Cato blogger comments:

    The Opportunity Scholarship Act empowers low-income families to choose the education that best meets the individual needs of their children. In the process, the state of New Hampshire saves money. If passed, the governor’s hasty and ill-considered repeal would harm low-income children and taxpayers. It’s hard to say whose interests the governor thinks she’s serving, but it’s certainly not going to help those kids and taxpayers to take away this promising and entirely voluntary option.

    I disagree that it's "hard to say" whose interests the Gov is serving.

  • President Obama proposed raising the minimum wage to $9/hr in his State of the Union speech. Steve Landsburg goes through the usual argument why this is a bad idea, but he adds on an unusual, additional, argument, which I found interesting. You should read the whole thing, but the bottom line:

    Fairness tells me that the cost of a widely-supported program should not be dumped on a small segment of society, and moreover that it especially should not be dumped on that small segment of society that has already helped to alleviate the perceived problem (i.e. those who have already been providing jobs for unskilled workers) — just as the burden of increased park cleanup should not fall on a small segment of society and especially not on those who have been contributing to cleanup all along. Political wisdom tells me the same thing. It’s very easy to support programs that other people will have to pay for. But voters, like everyone else, should bear the costs of their own decisions. Letting people vote for expensive programs that “somebody else” will finance is a good recipe for getting people to vote irresponsibly.

    Of course, irresponsible voting is a primary reason why Obama made it where he is today. So…

  • At the venerable wizbang blog, Warner Todd Huston notes an interesting contradiction. Conventional progressive wisdom is that "universal background checks" are a must when it comes to buying firearms. After all, how do we know you can be trusted with a gun unless we know everything?

    And yet…

    As it happens, Democrats and the Obama administration are attempting to eliminate background checks for prospective employees claiming it is a “civil rights” issue.

    Warner links to James Bovard's further explanation. It's difficult to argue that background checks are an effective means of keeping guns out of the hands of evildoers, but an unacceptable means of ensuring you're not hiring evildoers.

  • Nick Gillespie argues that people should not sweat the sequester. For example:

    The first thing to note is that the $85 billion figure that gets bandied about overstates this year's cuts due to sequestration by about $40 billion. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in its February 2013 report on the budget outlook, "Discretionary outlays will drop by $35 billion and mandatory spending will be reduced by $9 billion this year as a direct result of those procedures [sequestration]; additional reductions in outlays attributable to the cuts in 2013 funding will occur in later years."

    Don't believe the scaremongers. The only thing wrong with the sequester is that it's way too small to bring us back to fiscal sanity quickly enough.

  • Grokster Steve MacDonald busts NH Listens, a group run by the University Near Here's Bruce Mallory. Read the whole thing™.

    Pun Salad was equally unimpressed with Bruce a couple years ago.

Carol Shea-Porter is Chicken Little

Carol Shea-Porter My own CongressCritter and perpetual toothache, Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH01), pens an occasional column to the Little People Back Home, i.e. me, and perhaps you. Her latest effort is titled "Stop sequestration, create viable plan" and it appears at her government-provided website.

I think the idea is for New Hampshire's local newspapers to republish these columns as op-eds. I haven't seen any evidence that's happened with this one. Maybe too embarrassing?

Let's look! Carol's (appropriately) on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

This is chapter 12 of "The Sky is Falling," authored by Democrats in the House and Senate who opposed the 2011 Budget Control Act and the threat of the sequester it brought about. They warned that the economy would falter if the sequester came to pass. No, it's not you. Carol's opening doesn't make a lot of sense. The "sky is falling" reference is apparently meant to remind us of the tale of Chicken Little, who became convinced that the sky was falling when an acorn fell on her head.

Chicken Little went on to sow hysterical panic among her avian friends creatures. In some versions, their unreasoning fear leads them to their gory doom.

Did Carol really mean to cast herself and her fellow Democrats in the role of Chicken Little? No, probably not. Still…

The Republicans, who hold the majority in the House, warned that the economy would fall if America did not pass a dramatic austerity program. Their tea party members refused to raise the debt ceiling unless there were what they considered to be appropriate cuts to spending and what Democrats considered to be draconian cuts to spending. As America hung on the verge of default, and the tea party in the Republican Caucus refused to yield, the Democratic majority in the Senate and President Obama agreed to the Budget Control Act. Carol's a Democrat, and it's to be expected that her retelling of history casts Republicans (especially the Tea Party variety) as the uncompromising villainous side. You will not learn from Carol that (a) the sequester gimmick was originally proposed by the Obama Administration; (b) the Democrats were at least equally uncompromising on their desire to raise taxes.
The deal was that there would be a supercommittee that would find the spending cuts, but if they could not compromise, the deep cuts would be spread equally between defense and domestic programs. Everyone just knew, was positive that the unthinkable would never happen, that Republicans would blink on defense and Democrats would blink on drastic cuts to everything else, and that there would be compromise. Carol fudges when she implies that the supercommittee's task was merely to "find the spending cuts". They were also empowered to propose tax hikes. In fact, the Democratic members insisted on them, and the supercommittee foundered on that issue.

As far as "everyone just knew": It's worth pointing out that Keith Hennessey (among other realists) considered the failure of the supercommittee to be a likely outcome back when the Budget Control Act was passed.

But there wasn't, and now the sky might actually fall right on our nation's economic recovery. Carol doubles down on the Chicken Little allusion. She clearly doesn't remember the story very well.
Last quarter is the first time the nation's economy has shrunk in almost 40 months, and the reason is the impending sequester with its deep and irrational cuts that require layoffs, slow downs and freezes. Carol's assertion that upcoming hypothetical "cuts" in Federal spending caused GDP shrinkage in 2012q4 is fantasy. (And, given that she actually wields a considerable amount of power, it's a dangerous fantasy.)

Actually, the 0.1% GDP drop was mainly explainable by a significant decrease in defense spending. Which (in turn) was largely relative to the significant use-or-lose increase in 2012q3 spending.

Government spending on goods and services gets counted automatically into GDP, no matter how foolish or unsustainable it is. The private economy (as Larry Kudlow noted) actually did pretty well in 2012q4.

When you demand that the federal government spend at least 9 percent less across-the-board this year, and you don't even have specific targets, you will have a lot of unintended and unwelcome consequences, ranging from defense to medical research to education to transportation programs, etc. Those politicians who kept insisting that the government does not create jobs now have to watch their friends, family and constituents who work for the government or rely on federal contracts face lay offs, and they will see companies lose business and profits. The consequences of deep cuts are upon us. It would be nice if "deep cuts" were actually happening. But a more realistic description is that the sequester cuts spending from a "baseline" where spending had automatic baked-in increases.

Carol's correct that the sequester is a blunt, dumb tool. There is (however) no evidence that Democrats are willing to cooperate in finding "specific targets" for spending reductions—they keep insisting on sneaking in tax increases to add on to the ones passed merely a few months back. And they have zero proposals for entitlement reform.

Until that changes, a blunt tool is the best one we've got.

The Defense Department has been sounding the alarm more than other departments. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been going before Congress - the very ones who created this mess - […] As noted above, the sequester was originally proposed by the the Obama Administration. And it's only been a few months since Obama promised to veto any effort to defray defense cuts.

But you won't hear about that from Carol.

talking about the damage the sequester will do. In a letter to Sen. John McCain, the ranking member of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, Panetta wrote, "Such a large cut, applied in this indiscriminate manner, would render most of our ship and construction projects unexecutable - you cannot buy three quarters of a ship or a building - and seriously damage other modernization efforts. We would also be forced to separate many of our civilian personnel involuntarily, and, because the reduction would be imposed so quickly, we would almost certainly have to furlough civilians in order to meet the target." Panetta also says this would "seriously damage readiness." What he is talking about is national security and jobs. Is anyone listening yet? Everyone knows there are savings to be had in the Department of Defense, but we should target those cuts so we do not jeopardize security or jobs. While Panetta is warning the country about our national security, the sequester is threatening other programs and jobs. We need to stop this impending sequestration. As Michael Tanner notes, while (non-war) defense spending is disproportionately affected by the sequester, it is not projected to go below 2007 levels. Raising fears about "national security" is (indeed) a Chicken Little response.
We need to find a compromise that allows us to gradually reduce spending, while we find revenue from closing loopholes, reforming the tax code, […] Carol offers the usual Democratic euphemisms for "tax increases" here. Ignoring that we just had a huge tax increase.
and going after waste, fraud, and inefficiency. A truly empty, worthless proposal. Hey, Carol, guess what? You can go after waste, fraud, and inefficiency any time. In fact: you could have done it before now.
There are other suggestions as well. We could add a public plan to the health insurance exchanges. This stupid idea would, of course, make out-of-control entitlement spending even worse. Obama's effort to make it part of Obamacare failed even when Democrats were in complete control of Congress. This is a fundamentally unserious proposal.
We could require the government to negotiate the price of prescription drugs for Medicare Part D. Another one-time Obama proposal that a Democrat-controlled Congress failed to pass. It's a euphemism for price controls; we can guess how well that would work. Even if it had a chance of passage, which it does not.
We could raise the cap on Social Security. And one more tax increase.
But there is very little action on Capitol Hill to do just that. Even if we wanted to discuss it, we cannot because the House is not in Washington, D.C., very often these days. To put it mildly: lack of discussion is not the problem.
Sequester will hurt our economy in New Hampshire. It will hurt our national economy. It will lead to lay offs, and it will create more misery for the middle class and the poor. Congress has spoken. Now, they need to listen. It is time to stop the sequester and create a viable plan that reduces spending gradually and keeps the economy growing. More scarifying from the self-proclaimed Chicken Little. For detailed counterpoint, see Dan Mitchell at Cato, or Jeff Bergner at the WSJ.

Carol's "solution" is to kick the spending can down the road one more time. Just give us more time to figure out something, she pleads. Vague promises of future spending restraint are "balanced" by her demand for specific tax increases right now.

I'm not buying it. How about you?


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:47 PM EST

Flight

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

Consumer note: this movie suffers from a "why should I care" problem. As near as I can tell, the answer is: you should care because it's Denzel Washington.

Denzel plays airline pilot Whip Whitaker, and he's a mess. He's overly fond of nicotine, cocaine, and ethanol in its many commercial forms. His ex-wife and son despise him, pretty clearly due to his irresponsibility and dishonesty. But he's a darned fine pilot, as the movie demonstrates early on: when his routine flight from Orlando to Atlanta develops a catastrophic failure, Captain Whip ekes out a nasty, but survivable, crash landing, whereas most pilots would have left a smoking crater in the ground.

But the entire rest of the movie is about Whip trying to avoid going to jail, because the routine post-accident blood sample contained more booze and drugs than it had hemoglobin. As far as the world is concerned, he's a huge hero, but a growing number of people discover he's actually a devious lying asshole. Bruce Greenwood (Captain Pike!) and Don Cheadle, as a union rep and Whip's lawyer, respectively, turn in pretty good performances as Whip's semi-willing colleagues in his efforts to hide his problem.

It's nominated for two Oscars, Best Actor for Mr. Washington, one for the screenplay. The one for Mr. Washington—I think that's just a reflex action by nominators whenever they see his name on a ballot. Denzel? Check! Usually that's not a bad move, but here: eh.


Last Modified 2013-02-10 9:30 AM EST

Suspect

[Amazon Link]

The announcement of a new Robert Crais book gets my finger hovering over the one-click button at Amazon. And the Kindle version—instant gratification! It's a "standalone", no appearances by Elvis Cole or Joe Pike. (Although the obnoxious John Chen gets a couple mentions.) Nevertheless, it's a compelling story.

Can't really call it a page-turner, since it's on the Kindle. But you know what I mean.

The title, Suspect, refers to the two main characters, Scott James and Maggie. Both are viewed possibly unfit for duty with the LAPD, due to their physical and psychological problems stemming from violent episodes in their past.

Scott lost his partner/girlfriend Stephanie in a deadly ambush in a remote corner of Los Angeles. He was shot up himself, and is guilt-wracked over their last moments.

Maggie, by the way, is a German Shepard. That's her silhouette on the cover over there. And she lost her partner, Pete, her "alpha", in a Afghanistan village filled with suicidal bad guys. (You might never read a more heartbreaking scene.)

Months later, Scott and Maggie wind up as trainees in the LAPD K-9 unit; it's the last chance for both of them. The investigation into the shootout that killed Stephanie is at a near standstill; the cops can't figure out a motive, let alone perpetrators. Scott's not supposed to be involved, except as a witness. But you will not be surprised: he gets involved anyway. And he and Maggie gradually uncover the truth. You will (also) not be surprised to learn that in involves corruption, conspiracy, and additional action.

A few chapters are told from Maggie's point of view. This could have been disastrous, but (at least for me) it works great. Crais does a fine job of getting into Maggie's head; she's one of the bravest, most loyal characters you're likely to run across. Dogs: we don't really deserve them.

Foundation and Earth

[Amazon Link]

The good Doctor Asimov wrote this back in 1986. It's set immediately after the events related in Foundation's Edge. Golan Trevise, the Brash Young Man (aka "undiplomatic young jackass") from the Foundation, and his companion Janov Pelorat, due to their encounter with the hive-mind planet of Gaia, have made a monumental decision about the future of the entire galaxy. But was it the correct one? Trevise has doubts that can only be assuaged by finding the mythical origin of humanity that (just might) be called Earth. This is made difficult in that all historical records of Earth have been carefully expunged, by forces unknown.

Trevise and Pelorat, together with their Gaian companion Bliss (who has become Pelorat's Main Squeeze) set off for parts unknown based on flimsy clues and ancient myths. Their perilous journey takes them to a number of planets where they (pretty much uniformly) find themselves in perilous situations, followed by narrow escapes.

This book has the usual Asimovian characteristic, containing a high ratio of Stilted Dialog to Things Actually Happening. And it's shamelessly padded; Asimov mentions in the introduction that a contract his contract for for Foundation's Edge demanded that he produce 140,000 words. I would imagine something similar here, although it's at best a 100,000 word story.

But! If you've been a Faithful Reader of the previous Foundation and Robot novels, the rewards of Foundation and Earth are immense. We get to find out what happened to familiar worlds (Aurora, Solaria, and of course, Earth). And there's a satisfying big surprise at the end. Even though this is the second time I've read it, it still had me smiling.

Seven Psychopaths

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

This movie, Seven Psychopaths, was written and directed by Martin McDonagh; the main character is "Marty" and he's working on a screenplay for a movie titled Seven Psychopaths.

You see what they did there?

Anyway, Marty (played by Colin Farrell) is buddies with Billy (Sam Rockwell). Billy is fond of playing a scam with his buddy, Hans (Christopher Walken), where they snatch negligently-attended dogs, wait a few days, then swoop in to collect a reward for returning them. This goes pretty well until they swipe a shih tzu belonging to a murderous bad guy, Charlie (Woody Harrelson).

And there are a few more psychopaths involved. (The movie helpfully numbers them as they're discovered.)

In addition to being all meta and self-referential, the movie's very violent and profane. (MPAA: "strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use") But there's also a lot of funny stuff, mainly the semi-deranged things the characters say in incidental conversation. (A very convincing refutation of Gandhi's quote "An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind", for example.)

URLs du Jour

2013-02-05

  • Save Earwax While watching TV at odd hours (or on odd channels) are you ever tempted by one of those ubiquitous ads for some gadget you never knew you needed, or even thought anyone could make up?

    At Wired, Chris Sims does us all a service with "Late-Night Infomercial Reviews: The Horror of the WaxVac". It's a device for removing unwanted wax from your ears. Sample:

    If I were to ask you to describe the most pleasant sound you could possibly hear after you got out of the shower first thing in the morning, I’m pretty sure that we’d all agree that it would be the high-pitched whine of a vacuum cleaner motor, right? Well what if I told you that you could have this sound directly against your ear for up to five minutes? I know! It’s like a dream come true!

    It's very funny.

  • Not yet memory-holed at the White House website is one of the Big Lies used to sell ObamaCare:

    For the record, the President has consistently said that if you like your insurance plan, your doctor, or both, you will be able to keep them

    That was then, this is now. A new report from the Congressional Budget Office today, brings the updated news:

    Three million fewer Americans will receive health insurance from their employers. The CBO always expected that some Americans would lose their employer-health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, as some companies may direct their workers to the publicly-subsidized options available on the exchange. In this report though, they significantly increase that number, from 4 to 7 million.

    Gosh, that's a darn shame. But never mind; Obama's moved on to lying about other stuff now.

  • I'm more-or-less libertarian, but I've been pretty much immune to the charms of Ron Paul. (Unlike some fanboys at Reason.) Good thing too; otherwise, I'd have to admit that I was an idiot. Because…

    Former Texas representative Ron Paul responded on Twitter earlier today to the murder of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle at the hands of another Iraq War veteran, Eddie Routh. Paul shared this deep thought: “Chris Kyle’s death seems to confirm that ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword,’” Paul wrote. “Treating PTSD at a firing range doesn’t make sense.”

    Sheesh.

  • Megan McArdle interviews Northeastern University Criminologist James Alan Fox, who offers a sobering evidence-based look at mass murderers. It's a welcome respite from the "we must do something" rhetoric from the politicians.

    Link via J.D. Tucille at Reason, who asks the big-boy question: what if there's nothing we can do about mass murders?

    For too many people, the knee-jerk reaction is: "There must be something! There simply must be!"

    But what if there isn't?

  • News you almost certainly can't use: The 48th Mersenne prime has been discovered.


Last Modified 2013-02-09 2:21 PM EST

Liberal Arts

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This movie was written and directed by Josh Radnor, that guy on the TV show How I Met Your Mother. The one we wish would get it over with and just spill the beans about how he met his kids' mother already.

He's also the main character, Jesse, a 35-year-old admissions officer at some college. He's bookishly obsessed with literature and has just been dumped by his girlfriend. He gets an invitation from a beloved old prof (Richard Jenkins) at his alma mater; could Jesse pop out to join him in a retirement ceremony? And so he does. He meets a whole bunch of people: there's 19-year-old Zibby (Elizabeth Olson), who's intellectual and attractive; there's another favorite prof (Allison Janney), who's intellectual, older but still attractive; there's a (probably) substance-abusing goofball, Nat (Zac Efron); and another undergrad bookish kindred spirit, Dean (John Magaro).

All these self-obsessed characters talk. And talk. Too often pretentiously. And the ladies hit on Jesse, one successfully, the other not.

It's billed as a comedy/drama, but the comedy is not the kind that makes one laugh. (I managed a couple of ironic snorts, though.) You will notice some mighty fine actors up there, and they say some witty things. Unfortunately, the movie never answers the important question: why should I care about these people? This is especially important when you're making a flick set in Academe, where everything about the characters is divorced from the Real World, including their navel-gazing problems.

However: one of the subplots involves a kid who's obsessed with David Foster Wallace and his book Infinite Jest. (I don't think they ever say this explicitly, but it's pretty obvious.) Problems ensue, and I thought: this kid needs to lay off DFW for a bit, and read some Lee Child. A few seconds later, Jesse recommends that the kid read some Stephanie Meyer for a change. Heh, close enough. Extra half star for that.

Congresswoman Toothache Back In Action

Carol Shea-Porter After a two-year respite, I am once again represented by Carol Shea-Porter in the U.S. House of Representatives. During her previous tenure in that position (2007-2011) she developed a government-worshipping voting record, and was often accused of being an Obama/Pelosi sock puppet. (Which, at times, she was honest enough to admit.) Her public pronouncements invariably contained heavy doses of cluelessness, arrogance, self-righteousness, fuzzy-mindedness, and condescension. When she lost in 2010, she blamed the Chinese.

In short, she was both a constant irritant and an embarrassment.

And now, thanks to the wisdom of my fellow NH-01 voters, she's back at work. Last week she made her thoughts on gun control available to the media. Her column, titled "Time for action against violence", is also available at her government-provided website. Let's take a look! Her words are on the left, my annotation on the right.

As I write this column, the news is covering still another shooting, this time on a college campus. We will learn who was involved, who was standing where when it happened, who witnessed it, who was hurt, who are the hurt people’s friends and families. Students – reportedly 10,000 students attend the college – will say how terrified they were. And then, the story of this shooting will be dropped from the news cycle, only to be replaced by another shooting story. And Americans will wonder why we can’t seem to stop the violence. Or can we? Carol's talking about a January 22 incident at a campus of Lone Star College in Houston. And she's at least partially right: national media have since entirely lost interest in the story. It doesn't fit the crazed mass-shooter scenario that they prefer. Nobody was killed; it was (apparently) a shoving match that escalated; the shooter (allegedly) had a criminal background (as did the primary victim) and was already violating some laws by owning and carrying the gun on the college campus.

But all that's irrelevant to Carol's purpose here: to instill a general fear and dread in her readers.

When the children and teachers were executed in a mass murder at Sandy Hook elementary school right before Christmas, and while we were talking about love and faith and family and peace, everyone thought that this time, politicians would take action. Time to play the Sandy Hook card.

Love and faith and family and peace—all good things! And Carol's for them! Yay!

Carol is (apparently) surprised that politicians did not immediately steamroll through panicky, ill-considered legislation within days. She seems to be saying: hey, that's what I would have done,

It did seem for awhile that we had reached our breaking point, and we would finally be ready to pass responsible gun legislation that would give us the freedom to hunt and protect our families, and the freedom to go about our daily lives without fear of being gunned down in yet another act of violence. Carol manages to be both childishly optimistic and deeply offensive.

Offensive in that she thinks that a proper role of government is to "give us" freedoms that it deems us fit to have.

Childlishly optimistic in her faith in magical pixie-dust legislation will somehow eradicate people's "fear of being gunned down". (If you didn't actually have that fear, Carol reminds us: you were supposed to.)

There was encouraging talk about passing legislation as quickly as possible, and President Obama did sign some executive orders with the families of the murdered 6- and 7-year-olds and the slain staff in the room. Professional writing note: Slain staff were not actually in the room.
The fight was already ugly, but that's where it got uglier. The head of the National Rifle Association said Obama was "attacking firearms and ignoring children." There was a sea of outrage that Obama had children at the event. A number of people have pointed out how shamelessly manipulative and demagogic Obama's staged event was. It was a cold-blooded effort to use a nation's grief to short-circuit rational deliberation. Carol thinks it's somehow "ugly" to point that out?

If you only want to see a "sea of outrage" directed at Obama's disgusting theatrics, well, then, that's all you'll see. But there was plenty of rational opposition directed at the proposals themselves.

Children were at the site of the massacre - I think it is appropriate that children who knew it happened and wrote about it should be in the room when grown-ups say we are going to try to stop this from happening again to children, or anyone else. Carol reminds us that there's no Geneva Convention that prevents her from torturing logic in her justificatory efforts. But the bottom line is: Carol's OK with using kids as props, as long as it's Democrats doing it. But…
The NRA leadership also dragged the president's own children into the fray, as they falsely warned that Obama was going to take guns away from law-abiding citizens. Yeah, it's not OK for the other side to even mention kids. Taranto analyzed the situation and noted: "If the president wants his critics to refrain from even indirectly referring to his daughters, he ought to stop exploiting ordinary people's children in this manner."
Some in Congress were upset at even the mildest suggestions, such as doctors asking if there are guns in the house so they can talk about safety issues involved when there are children in the residence. Doctors ask if somebody smokes around children. They talk about being safe and careful with candles and stoves but, apparently, they should not ask about a huge killer of children - guns Actually, guns are pretty far down the list of accidental kid death causes. But, generally speaking, could Carol and I agree that Your Federal Government should be totally uninvolved in whatever a doctor and patient might want to discuss?

No, of course not. Carol voted for Obamacare, which gets the government intimately involved with the doctor-patient relationship.

It's time to stop the fighting and work on the solutions. It is time to stop bowing to special interests and, yes, the money they bring to campaigns, and talk about how we are going to protect the right to have guns for sport and for protection, and the right to be safe from gun violence. Translation: Carol wants the other side to just shut up and give up. And she'd prefer not to be confronted about it when she's up for re-election, thankyouverymuch.

And she repeats the same "rights" mantra as above, just in case we didn't get it before. "We" are going to "protect" your rights—at least the carefully-delineated ones "we" decide you should have.

The easiest step should be to require background checks for gun sales. This means gun sales involving most private sales, too. The majority of Americans support this plan. We also need to make sure that critical information is available when there is a background check. Records now are too often incomplete, and do not identify a buyer's criminal history or a dangerous mental illness. This proposal polls well, but most gun sales are background-checked today. As John Fund notes, its justification relies on dubious statistics. Jacob Sullum convincingly indicts it as ineffective (a background check wouldn't have stopped the Sandy Hook shooter), invasive of privacy, and impractical.
It is time to end high-capacity magazine sales. It used to be that citizens had a chance to get away from a shooter when he had to stop to reload. But with high-capacity magazines, the killer can just keep firing away a lot longer, murdering many more innocent folks. Hunters do not need to fire 30 rounds, and neither do citizens exercising their right to defend themselves. I support banning magazines holding more than 10 rounds. This will help law enforcement and the public to disarm a mass shooter, and it will give people a better chance to escape a madman. Folks, do you remember — it was only a few sentences ago — where Carol advocated legislation that would remove our "fear of being gunned down in yet another act of violence"?

But here's what that means in reality: her proposal actually just gives you the right to try to scamper away while the bad guy is switching out magazines.

Talk about bait-and-switch!

Somewhat more seriously: read Clayton Cramer on why this proposal is ill-advised.

I support President Obama's call to close loopholes in gun trafficking laws, and to beef up law enforcement in communities. Let's also step up mental health services, and work together to encourage a reduction of violence in video games and television and movies. All of these ideas should be the easiest to enact. There is another step, an assault weapon ban that will require more political debate, but the ideas listed here are common-sense ideas that should have no political test of courage attached to them. Let's get it done now. It has been a long and deadly wait. As near as I can tell, despite Carol's claims, legislation to "close loopholes in gun trafficking laws" is vaporware at this point; there's no actual proposal. But whatever it is, Carol's for it!

As also — so predictably — she's in favor of spending more taxpayer funds on "mental health services" and "law enforcement". Federal money — is there nothing it can't do?

And here's the beauty: in Carol's world, if the huge amounts we already spend aren't doing the job, it simply means we haven't spent enough yet!

But the "reduction of violence in video games and television and movies"? That's supposed to be a "common-sense" idea that's "easy to enact"?

That's delusional, Carol.


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:52 PM EST