URLs du Jour — 2013-11-30

Government Health Care

  • A useful reminder from Patterico; file it under This is who they are; this is what they do.

    Cancer Patient Loses Coverage, Blames ObamaCare . . . Gets Audited

    Also being audited: the health insurance broker who managed to get the patient's coverage restored.

    The IRS would no doubt deny any cause-and-effect here. But they have an established lack of credibility on such matters.

  • I find myself in total agreement with the blogger "Lexington Green" at America 3.0: the IRS can only be trusted to invade people's privacy and abuse their liberties:

    The IRS is structurally and inevitably a pathological organization that is destructive of our liberty. The people who work there, without regard to their personal morals, face pernicious incentives. That is one of the most poisonous things about bureaucracy. Ordinary, decent people end up participating in destructive policies and processes with no personal malice and even with little or no personal fault.

    The power the IRS possesses, like every power granted to government, will be abused. And the IRS possesses enormous power, and the temptation to abuse that power will prevail, inevitably and frequently and destructively.

    I have little patience with soi-disant "civil libertarians" who are outraged by NSA snooping disclosures but have never had anything to say about the other three-letter agency whose everyday workings are (as LG says) "an affront to the letter and spirit of the Fourth Amendment."

  • Which reminds me. In case you're not a reader of Pun Salad's book items, more serious recent reads include America 3.0 by James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus (also the proprietors of the blog referenced in the item above); Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism by Richard Epstein; The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker; and (less political) The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend by Glenn Frankel.

URLs du Jour — 2013-11-29

"I Got Mine" Happy Black Friday, everyone! Hope you stayed sane!

  • The great national treasure that is Kevin D. Williamson discusses the relationship between President Obama's megalomania and Pope Francis’s recent anti-free market apostolic exhortation. The common thread is selfishness: both the Pope and the Prez claim to be agin' it, but (a) Obama's entire career has been the selfish pursuit of political power, and (b) the Pope (and not just the Pope) has a huge blind spot to this form of selfishness.

    KDW is set off by a recent Barackrobatic oration where he bemoaned "our politics" which he claimed "all too often encourages people to think selfishly or short-term."

    What could it possibly mean to be lectured on selfishness by a man whose entire career has been dedicated to no cause other than the cause of himself? “Selfishness” has been conflated with materialism and greed, but the literal meaning of the word is excessive devotion to one’s self and one’s interests. To be unselfish is to be ready to give up that which one holds most dear; for some men, that is money, but what is money to a president of the United States, who knows that in retirement he can support himself in ducal style with one day’s work a month at Bill Clinton rates, in princely style with two days’ work, and in imperial style with three? Money is an abstraction to a retired president. But the thing that he really cares about — power — Barack Obama guards in a fashion more miserly than that of any mythical dragon watching his horde. That the president is so haughty about the prospect of negotiating with his rivals in the House and the Senate comes as no surprise to his advisers, whose opinions he holds in equal contempt: “I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters, I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. . . . I’m a better political director than my political director.” And he has some thoughts about generosity of spirit he would like to share.

    He touches on a theme that can't be touched enough. Read the whole thing! Especially if you're the Pope!

  • The Presidential address mentioned in the item above is described here, and it's… well, darned odd. The venue for this lecture about "selfishness" was Magic Johnson's mansion in Beverly Hills. If that's not cognitively dissonant enough:

    “We know what works, and what’s stopping us is a failure of our politics and a lack of ambition and we shy away from what might be hard," he said.

    Given the disastrous bungling of Obamacare, how out of touch does the President have to be to still claim he knows "what works"?

  • Very cool news in the WSJ today: Amazon is producing a pilot for a possible TV series, Bosch, based on Michael Connelly's driven LAPD detective Harry Bosch. I'm a big fan of the Bosch books, and I hope it works out as well as Justified.

    The (paywalled) article has details on how painful it is for an author to deal with Hollywood bigwigs. Not a problem I'm likely to have, but still. It would be neat if Amazon could provide an alternative path to bring more literary characters to the screen.

    Connelly had previously been quoted as saying a good actor to play Bosch would have been Billy Burke. Agreed! But he's busy doing his own series, Revolution. The role is instead being played by Titus Welliver. Who? Well, I remember him best as the "Man in Black" on Lost. And, yeah, I think he could be pretty good as Bosch too.

Twixt

[1.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This was one of Mrs. Salad's choices. Netflix predicted I wouldn't like it much. You can see the mediocre score from the IMDB raters. It was barely released in theaters back in 2011, and finally came out on DVD this summer. None of this screams "must-see".

But still: produced, written, and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. How bad could it be?

Well, let's put it this way: Mr. Coppola knows infinitely more about making movies than I. So he probably did pretty much what he wanted here. Give him that. Okay, what I'm seeing is incoherent and uninteresting, but almost certainly that's what he was going for.

Val Kilmer—boy did he get fat, or what?—plays writer "Hall Baltimore", on a book tour to a dinky town named Swan Valley. There's no actual bookstore, he's informed: just a hardware store that sells some books. He's accosted by the local sheriff, played by Bruce Dern in full-weirdo mode: there's been a local murder with hints of vampirism, wouldn't that make a great book for us to collaborate on, huh?

Baltimore is intrigued enough to stick around, but he's bedeviled by (a) wacky dreams in which Edgar Allen Poe and a creepy girl named "V" appear, uttering loopy dialogue; (b) Skype calls from his shrewish wife (played, amusingly enough, by Val Kilmer's ex-wife Joanne Whalley); (c) guilt-ridden memories of his dear, decased daughter; (d) his publisher, who demands more of the same schlock.

It's a big mess, but there are some funny bits. Bruce Dern is always good when he's weird. And Val Kilmer does some impressions: Marlon Brando and James Mason. Yay, he can still be funny, but it made me wish we'd rented Top Secret or Real Genius instead.

I avoid learning too much about movies before I see them, but now I learn that Father Guido Sarducci himself, Don Novello, was in this. I totally missed that. But I'm not watching it again to catch his performance.


Last Modified 2013-11-27 12:15 PM EST

Bad Luck and Trouble

[Amazon Link]

Another (number 11) in the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. And, although I've liked all the ones I've read, this one struck me as clearly above average.

A brief opening chapter describes the bad guys disposing of a troublemaker by helicoptering him—still alive—out to the Mojave and dropping him from 3,000 feet. Ouch! Those bastards...

Days later, Reacher is nonplussed by the anonymous deposit of $1030 into his bank account. He recognizes this as a code sent by an ex-Army colleague, Frances Neagley, asking him to get in touch and provide assistance. (MPs use 10-30 as a "Request assistance" code, but I see a few that might have been more appropriate.)

It turns out that, like Neagley, the victim, Calvin Franz, used to be part of Reacher's investigative unit. It hardly needs be said that Reacher and Neagley take Franz's death personally, and begin to make plans to find the perpetrators and extract extralegal vengeance.

Neagley and Reacher attempt to reach out to the remaining members of the team. But they are unresponsive. Could they also be the victims of foul play? And who is in the cars following them around?

Eventually it all gets sorted out, but, in these books, the journey is the reward. Albeit a journey filled with violence, betrayal, gunplay, etc. Reacher is a stellar investigator, and it's a joy to watch him peel away the layers of the onion to reveal the nefarious plot that the evildoers are attempting to bring to fruition.

America 3.0

[Amazon Link]

I got this book, by James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus, on Interlibrary Loan from Boston College, due to many, many plugs from the Blogfather. And he's right, it's quite good.

Their thesis: America's best days could be ahead of us, if we (a) embrace the best bits of our Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage and (b) jettison the increasingly creaky and unsustainable misfeatures of overly-centralized government and other sclerotic institutions.

The authors jam a lot of history into a small number of pages to make their argument. And I'm going to simplify even further. "America 1.0" was the original US operating system, with a small Federal government, westward expansion, rural life, and a strong farm economy. "America 2.0" was the transition, starting around the Civil War, into a more centralized, bureaucratic, collectivist, paternalistic government, urbanization, industrialization, etc.

Our transition to America 3.0 [the authors claim] is in progress, and will undo many of the 2.0 features: decentralization, a return to individualism and voluntarism, strengthening of state and local government at the expense of the Federal.

This won't be without pain: most notably, what the authors term the "Big Haircut"—essentially bankruptcy proceedings—as Federal expenditures are brought into line with revenue, bondholders and pensioners get less than their "entitlements", and many of the functions run from D.C. are spun off to the states, localities, and individuals. The megacorporation would also become a (more) endangered species, as technology and innovation would give the advantage to more nimble and flexible entrepreneurs.

The central government still runs foreign policy and national defense, but with a more realistic goal: "maintaining the freedom of the global commons of air, sea and space." (The authors have little patience with nation-building adventures like Iraq and Afghanistan.)

The book seems a little repetitive in places, and can occasionally get bogged down in less-than-fascinating detail. (Defense procurement reform. Yes, I'm for it, can we move on?) But overall very worth reading.

I don't know if they're right, however. I hope they are. It sounds plausible. But as Neils Bohr said: predictions are difficult, especially about the future.

Pacific Rim

[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

At my age, one of the more reliable indicators of movie quality is: did I fall asleep while watching it? If I did, it's a hint that it didn't hold my interest. This is a subjective measure, but I've never pretended to do anything else here.

Friends, I fell totally asleep about two minutes into my first attempt at watching Pacific Rim. I woke up for a bit around the 17 minute mark, then off to dreamland once more. Mrs. Salad woke me and suggested we give up for the evening.

The second attempt went better, but I think I missed around 15 minutes or so in the middle.

And I really wanted to like it too. It's got one of my favorite actors, Idris Elba. And he acts the heck out of his role, but that doesn't disguise the fact that it's a clichéd and shallow role.

Anyway, the story: an interdimensional fissure at the bottom of the Pacific has been spawning gigantic homicidal monsters ("Kaiju"), threatening coastal cities and (ultimately) all of humanity. Humanity, in turn, invents giant humanoid fighting machines ("Jaegers") to battle them. Due to sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, the machines are controlled via psychic link by a couple of pilots, who (a) must be sympatico and (b) have a knack for controlling giant Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots. Things go well at first, but the Kaiju evolve to a point where they regularly defeat the Jaegers sent up against them. So humanity faces an existential crisis: I hate it when that happens.

The answer, of course, is to rehabilitate a long-shot disgraced hero, Raleigh Becket, whose previous outing against a Kaiju resulted in the death of his brother pilot. He is teamed with a spunky little Japanese girl, Mako Mori, who's trying to avenge the death of her family.

There's a lot of other stuff going on too. Two scientists are trying to get a handle on the Kaiju, one by mathematical analysis, the other by trying to mind-meld with a recovered Kaiju brain. This also loops in Ron Perlman, a black market dealer in recovered Kaiju parts. Comic relief.

But, bottom line: although the special effects are pretty good, they are on top of dialog and plot that seems to come out of a 60's Japanese Godzilla movie. I don't get what the big deal was supposed to be.


Last Modified 2013-11-19 5:58 AM EST

This Is the End

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

Another entry in the filthy-comedy genre, co-written, co-directed, and starring Seth Rogen. It's funny, unless you are offended by unremitting comic references to substance abuse, discussion and depiction of unusual sexual practices, an avalanche of dirty words, blasphemy, cannibalism, etc. (MPAA: "crude and sexual content throughout, brief graphic nudity, pervasive language, drug use and some violence")

The gimmick is that most of the actors play themselves. Although—geez, I hope—heavily fictionized versions of themselves. Because they are portrayed as uniformly stupid, vain, gluttonous jerks. In addition to Rogen, we got: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson. Smaller roles are inhabited by Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, David Krumholtz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Rihanna, Martin Starr, Paul Rudd, and Channing Tatum.

OK, so I don't know who some of those people are either. But most of them show up for a big party at James Franco's house. Unfortunately, the party is scheduled for the same evening as the Apocalypse, which rapidly lays waste to most of the Greater Los Angeles area. Yawning pits of hellfire are opened. Ravenous supernatural beasts roam the streets. Inanimate objects turn deadly. <spoiler>Jonah Hill gets possessed<spoiler>. And the very flawed actors start re-enacting Lord of the Flies for real, as their thinner-than-normal veneer of civilized behavior vanishes.

Some neat special effects. I stayed awake and laughed a lot throughout.

Skepticism and Freedom: A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism

[Amazon Link]

Amazon kindly informs me that I bought this book on September 22, 2004, over nine years ago. That's how far behind I can get on my reading. (And I'm pretty sure there are older books further down the pile.)

Fortunately, the book's arguments are timeless. That's what I keep telling myself anyway

Richard Epstein has been my nerdy hero especially since then-Senator Joe Biden held up his book Takings during the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas as an example of what no decent human being, let alone a prospective Supreme Court Justice, could subscribe to. Epstein's thoughtcrime in that book was to object to government's unlimited eminent domain power.

Epstein didn't, mind you, object to eminent domain totally. In fact, he held that some sort of eminent domain power was necessary for the proper functioning of government. But he argued that many government activities should be regarded as "takings" of private property, and therefore meet the requirements of the Fifth Amendment: that they be for "public use", and that there must be "just compensation." And to Biden, the notion that the state could not do whatever struck its fancy in the economic sphere was complete heresy.

Since then, Epstein has written a series of books defending "classical liberalism", (he has a new one coming out next month, I see). As befits a University of Chicago Law Professor, his arguments tend to discuss things from a legal perspective, as opposed to a philosophical or economic one. He contends that the law (properly understood) contains features of an "emergent order", where centuries of messy practice and evolution have assembled into a coherent working system. Like the parallel economic system, what results isn't flawless. It's just far superior than what could have resulted from the top-down design fantasies of utopians.

In this book, Epstein first lays out his views of the classical liberal vision: strong respect for individual autonomy and responsibility, and private property rights. The state's role is to provide physical and legal infrastructure (backed up by, yes, eminent domain when called for) and protection of the citizenry against aggression and monopoly. This is a somewhat more expansive role for the state than envisioned by libertarians that lean toward anarchy, but Epstein's arguments are strong.

In the remainder of the book, Epstein lays out his rebuttals to a various modern challenges to classical liberalism: attacks on its moral foundations and its assumptions about human nature. And, as far as I can tell, he does a fine job there too.

Because I have to be honest: the book is very heavy intellectual lifting. Epstein is a vigorous participant in high-level intellectual debates that have been going on for decades, some of them centuries. This book presumes an everyday familiarity with the topics that many more casual readers (specifically: me) lack. Not saying I couldn't get up to speed by reading me some Amartya Sen, Joseph Raz, etc. And then pursuing a law degree. And then rereading relevant sections of this book. But that's not likely to happen.

Arguably, Epstein could have written more accessibly. Less legal-brief prose, more like Jonah Goldberg or Kevin G. Williamson. He's no Milton Friedman either.

Never mind that, though. Epstein's still one of my heroes, even if I can't understand him as well as I would like.


Last Modified 2013-11-12 9:26 AM EST

Epic

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

A PG-rated animated fantasy, based on a book by William Joyce (The Leaf Men). Considerably altered, from what I'm able to glean, but that's OK.

The premise: in the forest, the forces of life and creation continually battle death and decay. And—here's the kicker—the battle is carried out by actual tiny folks, apparently continuously. (As you can see from the DVD cover over there, the battle is carried out partially in the air, with the good guys flying beautiful hummingbirds, the bad guys on ugly old bats.)

This struggle is suspected only by the eccentric scientist Bomba, who lives a lonely existence in a remote cottage. His obsession with trying to prove the existence of the little people drove away his family. But his daughter, M.K., returns to attempt a reconciliation.

Unfortunately, she's magically shrunk into a tiny-person size herself—I hate it when that happens—and finds herself in a wee-world crisis: in order to prevent the entire world from rotting away, the good guys need to transport a pod from point A to point B. The bad guys have got the upper hand in preventing this. M.K. decides to help out, and finds herself in desperate peril for… well, the entire movie.

The animation is beautiful, the premise is inventive, and the dialog is very funny at times. Downside: it goes on and on (seems longer than the 102 minutes claimed at IMDB), and the plot elements are somewhat generic and clichéd.

And science would object to the idea that there's "good" nature struggling against "bad" nature: it's not the bat's fault that he's not as pretty as the hummingbird.

But it's not an awful way to spend an evening, especially with the kiddos.

The Right Number of Time Zones is Zero

US Time Zones

Happy DST-is-over day, everyone!

Maybe I'm just grumpy from wandering the house changing (1) the stove clock, (2) the microwave clock, (3) the clock in my daughter's room, (4) the clock by the living room TV, and (5) the clock in our bedroom. Still to go: (6) my coffee machine's clock and (7) my BCD Clock at work, but those will have to wait until Monday.

[Update: Oops. This was written before I went anywhere today. So add in: (8 & 9) car dashboard clocks.]

Each is digital and (of course) has different buttons to push in different sequences and combinations in order to "fall back" out of DST. As I age, I speculate I will no longer have the mental capacity to figure out some of these.

At least all the computers (including the TiVo) are smart enough to set their own display-times back an hour; so is my Casio Solar Atomic Watch and the Atomix Wall Clock in my home office.

Good for them. But this simply means that an invisible horde of programmers were working behind the scenes over a span of decades, managing to master the timezone rules and teach these devices how to push their own buttons. Simply to relieve me of the tedium.

As a sometimes-programmer, I can tell you that one of the trickiest bits of coding involves the concept of "days": they're always 24 hours long, except twice a year, when they are either 23 or 25 hours long. Not only is it hard to get that right, it's often difficult to figure out what "right" is.

Example: producing a daily time-series plot of network traffic. For the 23-hour day in the spring, the 2am-3am period doesn't exist—what should that look like? Worse, the 25-hour day in the fall essentially replays the 1am-2am period. How should that look? (After years, I haven't been able to come up with anything better than an ugly zigzag.)

Could we do better? Sure! You might have already noticed my recommendation in the title of this post. More below. But first some recommended reading:

There's a great article by Allison Schrager over at the Quartz website: "The US needs to retire daylight savings and just have two time zones—one hour apart". (The image at right—no, your right—is stolen from this article.) The Atlantic has Alexander Abad-Santos opining: "Daylight Saving Time Is America's Greatest Shame". (That might be overkill—what about Obamacare?—but it's still worth reading.)

Also see this amusing and fact-filled video explaining the history and foibles of DST:

And if you need more: Wikipedia on DST and time zones.

Now: Abad-Santos and Schrager advocate the marginal solution: at long last, get rid of the dreadful DST. It's arbitrary, woefully spotty and complex, and (hence) confusing and wasteful in modern times. It's probable that the claimed benefits (chiefly energy savings) are either negligible or actually outweighed by costs.

Shrager goes on to recommend that the US adopt an even simpler system: just two time zones (for the 48 contiguous states). She observes that people in the EST and CST timezones do a lot of stuff at the same time anyway, with people on CST just doing those things one clock-hour earlier than those on EST. So: merge EST and CST into an "Eastern" timezone, merge MST and PST into a "Western" timezone.

But they don't go far enough. As a libertarian, I think we should erect a wall of separation between time and state. The only reason for the patchwork hodgepodge of time-setting rules is due to the legislative meddling of politicians. We should all just use Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). We should do away with the antiquated and unnecessarily complex concept of timezones altogether.

Yes, this would mean instead of working 9-to-5 tomorrow, I would be working 2-to-10 (PM). And, next Thursday, Big Bang Theory would be on at 1AM instead of 8PM. (Bob Newhart is returning as Professor Proton! Not that it matters, but this gives me a reason to go on living.)

In fact, forget that AM and PM stuff too. We'd probably move to 24-hour notation at the same time, since it doesn't make a lot of sense to talk about ante- and post-meridian unless it's your meridian.

There's nothing particularly difficult about this, once the conversion is over. And everything would be a lot simpler thereafter. Employers could, if desired, flexibly adjust working hours seasonally so employees would have a decent amount of sunshine after work. But nothing politically mandated.

And if you wanted to go outside to feel the sun on your face at high (local) noon, you'd be able to figure out how to do that easily enough on your own.

This brilliant idea, as near as I can tell, has only been advocated by this guy. But after you've read the arguments for abolishing DST, ask yourself: why not go all the way and make things really simple?

I could get started today by setting all my computer's "timezones" to UTC. Maybe I'll do that. And I could even do it to a lot of servers at the University Near Here! (I wonder how long it would be before anyone noticed?)

[Update 2017-11-30: Now retired, I never did that, to my occasional regret.]


Last Modified 2017-11-30 2:29 PM EST