Hunter's Moon

[Amazon Link]

Amazon helpfully points out that I bought this back in July, 2008. So I'm running about 3.5 years behind on my Doc Ford catchup quest... At least I squeezed it in before 2013 ran out.

It's a darn strange book, not at all similar to previous entries in Randy Wayne White's series. But (as I've said before): it's not as if we have a lot of control over what happens in Doc Ford's life. We're just watching it happen.

What happens in this book: Ford is recruited to a secretive mission. The book's narrative gradually reveals details about the recruiter. His wife has perished while on a humanitarian mission to Nicaragua. He's well-known. He's under heavy Secret Service protection. Ford's first task is to spirit him out from under that protection, so that they might travel to Central America and check out the shady circumstance of his spouse's death.

I might as well tell you the spoiler (it's revealed on the back cover of the paperback, so it's not a huge one): Ford's recruiter is an ex-President of the United States, Kal Wilson.

Surprisingly, some reviewers found this scenario far-fetched.

Equally as unconventional: not much happens for more than 200 pages in the middle of the book. Ford, ex-President Wilson, and the ever-present Tomlinson hang around for a darn long time before anything reasonably approaching action occurs.

But, as I said, if White says that's what happened, who are we to doubt him? The climax is filled with major and minor twists, and I would be lying if I didn't keep turning pages to find out what happened.

The Heat

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

According to its IMDB trivia page, the script for The Heat was sent out to the director with the title 'untitled female buddy-cop comedy'. And, at base, it feels pretty much that prefabricated, as if those parameters were fed into script-writing software, sliders were adjusted, buttons pushed, boxes checked, and out comes this.

Sandra Bullock plays a by-the-book ambitious FBI agent. She is brilliant but arrogant, and her co-agents despise her. Her boss (played by the great Demian Bichir) sends her off to Boston to track down a drug kingpin. There, she butts heads with a loose-cannon police detective played by Melissa McCarthy. Their relationship is initially fractious, but…

Oh heck, you could probably predict how the whole thing goes from there. (In fact, I spotted the mystery villain right from his first appearance, simply by applying this guideline.)

Much of the humor derives from the salty language employed by Melissa McCarthy's character. To call her foul-mouthed is a major understatement, like calling Natalie Zea "pretty". It's a running gag, and (honestly) her tirades are probably the most imaginative components of the movie, and can be pretty funny.

Jane Curtin is wasted playing Melissa McCarthy's mom, only a few scenes, fewer lines. Sigh. Will have to wait until she's back in Unforgettable.

The System of Liberty

[Amazon Link]

A short, excellent book requested successfully via the Boston Library Consortium. (Thanks for the loaner, Tisch Library at Tufts University!) It comes out under the stamp of the Cato Institute, who sponsored the author, George H. Smith.

It is—wait a minute, don't go to sleep yet—a history/exploration of the roots and themes of classical liberalism, spanning multitudinous political theorists and thinkers over centuries. Pictured on the cover are five biggies: Jefferson, Locke, Herbert Spencer, Paine, and J. S. Mill. But dozens more appear in the text.

There is no mistaking where Smith's sympathies lie, but he presents all sides: liberals vs. the illiberals, of course, but also a careful explication of the differing views between various flavors of liberals. He's particularly illuminating (and convincing) that the anti-natural rights approach favored by Bentham and his followers was ultimately a blank check to statists.

I didn't expect to find the book as interesting as I did. But Mr. Smith does a fine job of making old controversies seem alive. (Understandably: because those same issues are, while almost never specifically acknowledged, behind many of today's political debates.) One good example is Smith's chapter on "The Anarchy Game"; since "anarchy" was a widely acknowledged Scary Bad Thing, both liberals and their opponents sought to show the other side's arguments would irrevocably lead there. This is not without humor.

Although a lot of the folks Smith discusses are well-known to political-theory dilettantes (by which I mean: me), not all are. I was, anyway, previously unaware of Thomas Hodgskin. Amazingly, Wikipedia deems Hodgskin a "socialist", but in the excerpts quoted by Smith, he sounds more like a 19th-century Nick Gillespie.

URLs du Jour — 2013-12-29

Bureau of Bureaucracy

  • You won't want to get into 2014 without reading Dave Barry's "Review of 2013, the Year of the Zombies". A sample from January…

    … which begins with a crisis in Washington, a city that — despite having no industries and a workforce consisting almost entirely of former student council presidents — manages to produce 93 percent of the nation’s crises. This particular crisis is a “fiscal cliff” caused by the fact that for years the government has been spending spectacular quantities of money that it does not have, which has resulted in a mess that nobody could possibly have foreseen unless that person had a higher level of financial awareness than a cucumber. At the last minute, congressional leaders and the White House reach an agreement under which the government will be able to continue spending spectacular quantities of money that it does not have, thus temporarily averting the very real looming danger that somebody might have to make a decision.

    Yeah, that's pretty much what I remember.

  • Commentators continue to react to President Obama's isn't-inequality-awful speech. A good broadside from Matthew Continetti in the Washington Free Beacon is titled "The Inequality Business". He is inspired not only by the speech, but also by a couple of Katie-Couric-tweeted pictures from Gracie Mansion showing the luxurious, glamorous digs where the new New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, will soon reside.

    What the income inequality debate is about is not social justice but social rule. It is about power, about who wields it and to what purposes, and the slogans and statistics that appear in the papers are the weapons by which a caste of liberals organizes its political coalition and vanquishes its opposites.

    We'll see how that works. Personally, I wish them bad cess.

  • And, on the same topic, I will quote nearly the entire letter to the WSJ recently penned by Don Boudreaux, economics professor at George Mason:

    If large differences in incomes truly are unjust as Pres. Obama and other ”Progressives” proclaim, then redistributing incomes from rich Americans to poor Americans does almost nothing to address this injustice. The reason is that even the poorest Americans are among the richest people on earth today, not to mention in human history. So given that the President and other “Progressives” really believe that transferring money from rich to poor is a justified and effective means of helping poor people – and believe also that large income differences are an outrageous injustice – then Mr. Obama and other “Progressive” politicians should have the courage of their moral convictions and call for higher taxes on all Americans, with the proceeds to be distributed directly to people in Chad, Ethiopia, Haiti, and other countries whose citizens languish in poverty unimaginable to “poor” Americans.

    That the President and his fellow “Progressives” in Washington issue no such call suggests that the true aim of their public moralizing is to paint a pretty face on their selfish quest for votes and power.

    I have nothing much to add there except: Exactly!

  • Finally, something co-workers brought to my attention. Here is the staff directory for the UNH Foundation, the fundraising arm of the University Near Here. And a little counting reveals…

    • Number of people named on that page: 36.

    • Number of those people with "director" in their titles:24

    Which brings to mind that old saying about "chiefs" and "indians". It just brings it to mind, however, since the saying probably way too racist to utter or type in this day and age.

    Still, something to point out when the U emits one of its periodic whines about not having enough money.


Last Modified 2013-12-30 3:57 AM EST

The World's End

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

Gosh, I thought I would like this more. I really wanted to like this more. Netflix thought I would love it. But I kept waiting for it to be funnier, and it never was. Maybe I was just in a post-Christmas foul mood. But I watched a Big Bang Theory rerun just before this, and laughed all the way through that, so…

It stars Simon Pegg, who also co-wrote the script. Directed and co-written by Edgar Wright. Pegg and Wright also collaborated on Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, both of which I liked a lot better.

Pegg plays Gary, a not-particularly-likeable alcoholic loser. He recalls fondly the glory days of 20 years previous, when he and his school buddies set off to crawl a dozen pubs in the sleepy English town of Newton Haven. They failed.

So Gary gets the idea of reuniting the group, and successfully completing the crawl. He manages to get everyone together by deception and browbeating. Things get a little more interesting when Sam (Rosamund Pike) shows up; she's the sister of one of the group members, another has always been infatuated with her, and in a moment of very poor judgment, she once had a sordid lavatory encounter with Gary.

But something's wrong: the town's inhabitants are much more placid than before; many don't seem to have aged; and (whoa) they turn out to be androids surreptitiously placed by an alien civilization looking to bring peace and harmony to Terra.

Sounds promising. But it just never gets very funny.

Trivia: as Hot Fuzz had an ex-Bond actor, Timothy Dalton, so does this: Pierce Brosnan. (And of course Rosamund Pike was a villianess in a Bond movie.)

Ringworld

[Amazon Link]

A blast from the past, rereading a Larry Niven book I bought back in 1970. (No kidding: the price was a hefty 95 cents.) And it's not just nostalgia: Ringworld won the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and Locus Award for best SF novel back then.

In fact, I have the very first edition, one with a glaring first-chapter error: the book's protagonist, Louis Wu, is celebrating his 200th birthday, and in order to extend it, he is teleporting from timezone to timezone. But my edition has him teleporting west-to-east, and that wouldn't work at all. According to the book's Wikipedia page, Niven says this edition is "worth money". I bet not enough to retire on, though.

It is a hoot, though. At the time of the story, the cowardly Puppeteer alien race has exited known space, fleeing the explosion of the galactic core (discovered in a previously-written short story). But one, Nessus, appears back on Earth to recruit Wu in an expedition to a recently-discovered artifact: a solid ring of matter encircling a small star. It uses unbelievably advanced technology, and the Puppeteers see the makers as a possible threat.

Joining Wu and Nessus are a Kzin, Speaker-To-Animals, and a young human woman, Teela Brown. After a brief stop on the Puppeteer homeworld, the explorers set off in an advanced starship for Ringworld. Naturally, things don't go as planned. They run afoul of Ringworld's defense mechanisms, and only survive the crash landing on the inner surface due to extreme technological mumbo-jumbo.

But that's just the beginning, because things haven't procceeded as planned by the Ringworld's designers. The team encounter a world full of perils and mystery, and also have to deal with internal conflict between the members. The Ringworld's inner surface area is about 3 million times Earth's surface area, so there's a lot of room to play. Niven has written three additional Ringworld books, and I've put them on my TBR pile.

The Way Way Back

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

A not-bad movie that held my attention and kept me chuckling. Even as it was completely formulaic; that's OK if things move along competently, supported by interesting detail.

14-year-old Duncan is a mopy kid. His mom and dad have split up, with dad departed for California. Pam, his mom (Toni Collette) has taken up with Trent, played by Steve Carell. Think: a slightly-smarter Michael Scott, with few, if any, of Michael's redeeming qualities. Trent treats Duncan as a rival for Pam's attentions, and since Pam is desperately lonely, Duncan is left to mope.

But they are off to spend summer at Trent's beach house (the movie was filmed in Marshfield, MA: where you go when you can't afford Cape Cod). There they encounter colorful neighbors, most notably Betty. (Allison Janney, practicing for her bawdy-alcoholic role in the current TV sitcom Mom)

But Duncan wallows in his lonely misery until he happens upon more colorful characters at the Water Wizz water park (an actual place on the Cape). Prime character is the daffy Owen (Sam Rockwell), who gives him a job. Which Duncan keeps secret from Mom. The water park proves to be a nurturing environment for Duncan, who gains a measure of self-respect and independence. Until the crisis, which is inevitable by the rules of Movie Comedy Writing 101.

I'm watching Toni Collette in the TV series Hostages; this movie reminded me that she's a much better actress than she displays in that show.

But this movie would be nowhere without Sam Rockwell, who pretty much just takes over with his charismatic offbeat humor when he's onscreen.

The East

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

Unlikely as it sounds, this is the second movie we've watched directed by Zal Batmanglij, written by and starring the lovely Brit Marling. (The other was Sound of My Voice.)

And I didn't care for this one much either.

Here Brit plays Sarah, who's an ambitious ladder-climber at a private security firm, which is ruled by no-nonsense Sharon (Patricia Clarkson). She is picked to go undercover, infiltrating an anarchist eco-vigilante group, "The East". This is tricky, because the group is understandably paranoid about this sort of thing. But of course, she gets in.

What happens is, well, utterly predictable: the group's leader is charismatic, they (kind of) have a legitimate beef with corporate malfeasance. Their views on environmental justice have an Old-Testament flavor: do unto the businesses as they are doing unto a largely unwitting populace. A dose of their own medicine; in one case, very literally.

Of course, it's all fun and games until someone gets shot.

It's too long, nearly two hours, and feels clichéd. One saving grace (and the one bit that is not clichéd) is that Sarah is unambiguously Christian, and this turns out to be a key driver of subsequent events. Extra half-star for that.

M e r r y  C h r i s t m a s !

Free Clip Art Picture of a Scrawny Christmas Tree. Click Here to
Get Free Images at Clipart Guide.com

Well, darnit. After all these years, most browsers have dropped support for both the old-style <blink> tag as well as the text-decoration: blink CSS property. The recommended thing is to use "CSS3 Animation", and I have perverted my style sheet to do that, as near as I can tell. At least it seems to work in my browser. An awful lot of effort for a really stupid effect.

I hope you can see it.

As always, Pun Salad encourages its readers to avoid behavior that might make baby Jesus cry, and (otherwise) have a great Christmas.

URLs du Jour — 2013-12-19

[Apocalypse NPR]

  • Kevin D. Williamson writes on the President's recent "inequality" speech: "Inequality Does Not Matter". Read the whole thing, but here's the main point:

    The problem is not inequality: The problem is declining or stagnant wages for those Americans who are not thriving in the 21st-century economy. Cannier politicians will note that while they may respond to cheap rhetoric about the new robber barons, Americans are by and large much more concerned about their own paychecks and bank balances than they are those of other people. Republicans would be foolish to adopt the rhetoric of inequality and its implicit class-war thinking, but they would be much more foolish to ignore the underlying economic reality that gives teeth to that critique: Things are not good for the American middle class, and things are bad for the poor. There are signs that economic mobility is in decline, especially at the extremes, and the general environment of economic pessimism, so alien to Americans, is not entirely unjustified.

    If the only arrow in your quiver is eat-the-rich rhetoric, you've gotta pretend that "inequality" is per se a big deal.

  • Barackrobatics: we used to have a running gag about President Obama's rhetorical tics that nearly always indicated that he was uttering something that was, or was soon going to be, reality-challenged; we called such tics "Barackrobatics", a term that failed to go viral.

    At PJ Media, Rick Richman finds another example: the President's gratuitous use of "relentless".

  • Why I Hate The Republican Party Only Slightly Less Than The Democratic Party, Part XXIII: GOP Congressman Justin Amash is dedicated to limiting government, and so he's getting some in his own party irate. They are financing a primary opponent, Brian Ellis. At Cato, Walter Olson noticed a telling quote from Ellis, talking about some of Amash's votes:

    “He’s got his explanations for why he’s voted, but I don’t really care. I’m a businessman, I look at the bottom line.” He has no use for Amash’s constitutional scruples, remarking, “If something is unconstitutional, we have a court system that looks at that.”

    Olson observes that Article VI requires legislators (and other officials) to swear/affirm their support of the Constitution. And Ellis is essentially promising that, if elected, he will blow off that obligation.

    In a better world, this would disqualify Ellis, and make him politically radioactive. We don't live in that better world.

  • Somehow I missed the announcement of this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest winners. If you did too, and you admire well-done wretched writing, go here. The overall winner:

    She strutted into my office wearing a dress that clung to her like Saran Wrap to a sloppily butchered pork knuckle, bone and sinew jutting and lurching asymmetrically beneath its folds, the tightness exaggerating the granularity of the suet and causing what little palatable meat there was to sweat, its transparency the thief of imagination.

    Lots more at the link.

  • The illustration for today's entry is from a Buzzfeed article: How The Media Will Report The Apocalypse. Very funny. (The NYT: "Recent Events Are A Judgement, Some Say")

  • At the mostly-educational Cow Hampshire blog, Janice Brown asks the questions that need to be asked. For example: Is hotcha music bad for for your cows?. According to the 1930s USDA… well, go see for yourself.

Barackrobatic Inequality

Demagoguery

President Obama gave a big old speech awhile back. The title of the transcript at the White House website is "Remarks by the President on Economic Mobility" but most observers called it a speech about "inequality". And (indeed) the word "inequality" appears twice as often as the word "mobility" in the text: 26 vs. 13 occurrences, yes I counted.

My default assumption about politicians bemoaning "inequality" (first noted back in 2006): it's a cynically-designed issue to inflame the populace, which they desperately hope will help them win political power. When and if that happens, the issue will be safely consigned to the memory hole.

Or, in Obama's case, in the present day, there's a likely possibility that it's an equally cynical attempt to deflect attention from the massive dishonesty and incompetence associated with ObamaCare.

Or maybe both motives apply. Doesn't matter much. It was a friendly crowd: 33 instances of "Applause" appear in the transcript, 5 instances of "Laughter", and if anyone shouted "You lie!", it didn't get transcribed.

I've collected a few reactions in my web travels:

  • At the AEI blog, James Pethokoukis found the speech to be "short on facts and vision". In response to Obama's claim that "increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream":

    But much of Obama’s argument is either dubious, deceptive, or demonstrably false. Let’s start with his “fundamental threat” claim. Is Team Obama aware of a 2009 study by researchers Dan Andrews, Christopher Jencks and Andrew Leigh that finds “no systematic relationship between top income shares and economic growth” in advanced economies. Actually, more inequality is associated with higher GDP growth, according to the analysis.

    Further, Pethokoukis observes, Obama's hyper-partisanship closes off any possible alliance with conservatives who might be willing to engage in discussion of the issue. (Which makes sense if you—see above—subscribe to the thesis that it's mostly cynical posturing.)

  • At Cafe Hayek, Russ Roberts faults Obama's retelling of recent economic history, a melodrama involving decreased union membership, a minimum wage falling in purchasing power, TaxCutsForTheRich, declining infrastructure investment, a "juiced-up" housing market, etc., etc. Roberts takes on each claim and finds it to be reality-challenged. For example, on TaxCutsForTheRich and infrastructure:

    This is a combination of a deception and a lie. Tax rates were reduced for all Americans in the 1980′s. But of course the rich (and lots of non-rich) pay more in taxes today than in 1980. Confusing rates and amounts is convenient. But the next line is just wrong. Investments in schools and infrastructure were allowed to wither? Please. That’s just not true.

    But, as Obama has demonstrated over and over, he's not overly concerned with veracity.

  • Jennifer Rubin couldn't limit herself: she enumerated "10 problems with Obama’s income inequality speech". Read them all, but here's one at random:

    6. Obama is deeply insincere when he declares that “if you’re a progressive and you want to help the middle class and the working poor, you’ve still got to be concerned about competitiveness and productivity and business confidence that spurs private sector investment.” If that were the case, he’d have reformed the corporate tax code already (he said we should do it), rethought regulatory policy and set out to develop domestic energy. He touts the benefits of trade but has not completed a single free-trade agreement in five years.

    But Obama's long on rhetoric, short on any action that might upset any part of the anti-business, anti-trade Democratic coalition.

  • Mickey Kaus is an old-style liberal, one who actually has thought deeply about inequality. (I read his excellent book on the topic, The End Of Equality back in the 80s.). Now blogging at the Daily Caller, Mickey identifies "4 Things the MSM Won’t Tell You About Obama’s Inequality Speech".

    Before he runs down those 4 things, though, he notes how odd it is that the President identify inequality as “the defining challenge of our time” given that:

    a. Five years into his presidency he so far hasn’t done anything to stop growing income inequality–the problem has gotten worse on his watch.

    b. He doesn’t have any proposals (“It’s time to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act”) that come close to solving the problem as he defines it.

    c. His one big previous initiative to reduce inequality–the Affordable Care Act–may now be hopelessly screwed up due to his own inattention and non-competence.

    d. His remaining big domestic initiative–”comprehensive” immigration reform–would almost certainly make inequality worse by vastly increasing the number of unskilled workers bidding down wages at the bottom of the income scale, with the profits from the cheap labor going to business owners at the top

    Mickey is always worth reading and the President served up a softball to his wheelhouse.

  • The scholarly Richard A. Epstein noted that the speech was another instance of "The Incorrigible President Obama".

    As is common in speeches that romanticize history to advocate change, Obama’s address contained an unforgivable level of jingoistic nationalism: He claimed, “It was here in America that the most productive workers, the most innovative companies turned out the best products on Earth…. Today, we’re still home to the world’s most productive workers. We’re still home to the world’s most innovative companies.”

    No one, not even the United States, can be that good. In fact, our present national status will only become worse if we do not understand that the American position has eroded from its glory days, in part because of the very policies that the President champions as the solution to our issues. But where to begin? The President manages to pack so many economic and historical falsehoods into his speech that it is nearly impossible to take them all on at the same time.

    Professor Epstein does his best in a limited space, though.

  • And last but not least: the Blogfather, writing in USA Today, noting the real "inequality" problem is the increasing split between those whose income is earned, and those on which it is bestowed.

    This problem of "work inequality" isn't addressed by President Obama, and, in fact, is exacerbated by his programs. Increased dependency on the government may have its political advantages -- as The Rainmakers sang in their 1980s hit, Government Cheese, "They'll turn us all into beggars 'cause they're easier to please" -- but it's incompatible with the notion of social equality that underlies American democracy. Beggars, even if they're doing pretty well, are dependents, and a dependent class can never really be equal members of the polity.

    As Glenn notes: if we want better ideas from the executive branch, it's ever more clear that we'll have to wait until 2017 at best.

Atlas Shrugged: Part 1

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

It's been awhile since this movie came out on DVD, and it got dismal ratings from "everyone" (viewers, critics). Worse, my Netflix queue-management algorithm keeps high-rated movies at the top of the queue; even Netflix thought I'd hate it, awarding it 1.9 stars.

So I manually placed it at the top of my queue, and it eventually came, and I eventually got it. And you know what? It's not great by any stretch of the imagination, but it ain't as bad as everyone says.

I read Atlas Shrugged back in high school, somewhere in the late 60s. So I only remembered the broad outlines of the plot, but the movie stirred up some dormant memories. It's the story of a world mired in depression; for not particularly convincing reasons, the only reliable mode of freight transportation is via rail. Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company, is dealing with unreliable infrastructure. Dagny Taggart takes over from her ne'er-do-well brother James, and bets the company's future on rebuilding with a revolutionary new alloy invented by Hank Rearden, owner of Rearden Steel.

Difficulties: while Dagny, Hank, and a handful of other businessmen are competent, strong, decision-makers, they are beset by a government that's turning to increasingly coercive collectivist tactics to maintain its grip on a dying economy. And (worse) Atlas is (you might have guessed) Shrugging: many like-minded individuals are simply dropping out of productive activity.

The movie has some obvious problems: it's cheap, with the look of a TV miniseries. Most of the movie is simply the characters talking to each other in plot-advancing speeches. The actors are adequate, not great.

But let's give the moviemakers some credit: they could have wimped out and delivered Ayn Rand-lite. But they didn't; this is, as near as I can tell, a faithful adaptation of the novel, in tone and content. It's not reluctant to challenge the viewer: here are the good guys, here are the bad guys. Admittedly, both sides are props meant to illustrate Rand's philosophy. Still, the blunt challenge to the viewer is: whose side are you on?

This is part one of a trilogy. Part 2 came out last year, and it appears that Part 3 will show up on July 4, 2014. Cool. I'll be there, at least for the disc.

Headlines from a Mathematically Semi-Literate World

I Think Therefore I Am Dangerous

I was sent to the blog post "Headlines from a Mathematically Literate World" by (of all places) one of Debby Witt's link-collection posts at the NR Corner blog. I went seeking amusement; I came away merely irritated.

I like to think I'm relatively good at math, although I started getting out of my depth in "Introductory Methods of Applied Mathematics" in my junior year. I think it was the instructor's unexpected usage of the greek lowercase-xi (ξ), a scribble which I—to this day—cannot write legibly. (I was fine with everything else: alphas, mus, thetas…) Note-taking was impaired, things went downhill from there. That one little squiggle was my own personal learning impediment.

Anyway: the article, written by one Ben Orlin, purports to criticize math-impaired folks at the newspapers. Also a pet peeve of mine! So I had high hopes.

Unfortunately, the article is pretty bad. Its goal is to improve headlines (all imaginary, I think), using mathematical insight. Some hit the target, too many don't.

Let's take an easy one first, which I will screenshot:

[not actually doing the math]

In an article that attempts to speak from the holy cathedral of "mathematical literacy", this is just embarrassing. Orlin apparently wants to make the point that government expenditures may sound big in absolute terms ($50 million is a lot), but can be made to sound small if you figure out their cut of the overall budget.

Or to put it in terms that matter a bit more: if you want to eliminate a $680 billion deficit (FY2013), you would have to find and zero out about 13,600 of those $50 million "controversial programs".

Trivial. But here's an exercise for the reader: $50 million is 0.0001% of what?

OK, I'll do it for you: 0.0001% equals 10-6, aka one-millionth. So $50 million is 0.0001% of $50 x 1012, or $50 trillion dollars. That's almost 20 times bigger than actual Federal government revenue ("only" $2.8 trillion in FY2013); it's about 3 times bigger than the entire current US GDP (about $15.7 trillion in CY2012). So my headline would be:

Mathematically More Accurate World: Controversial Program Would Cost 0.0018% of Taxpayer Money

While accurate, that maintains the tendentious subtext that Orlin apparently wants to slide in: people are silly to worry about wasteful government spending if it's a sufficiently small fraction of the budget. But it's not math making that judgment: it's Orlin.

Now (to be fair) sometimes he's completely right:

[shark attack]

Good point: generally speaking, people misperceive risks, and a sensationalistic news media seldom helps. (See this story for some relative numbers on the danger from shark attack, vs. (say) wrestling with a recalcitrant vending machine. Note that the article is written by a sharkbite victim.)

But other times Orlin simply goes off the rails:

[minimum wage tendentia]

That's (again) not "mathematical literacy" speaking: it's Orlin. Apparently he likes minimum wage laws, and the only people who oppose them are "economists" with those new-fangled "models". It's easier to do that than, I suppose, than deal with an actual headline from an article by an actual economist.

Look, I'll make it easy. Here's one: "The Minimum Wage Is Cruelest to Those Who Can’t Find a Job". Key quote:

A “fair wage” is a “free wage”—that is, one that results from voluntary exchanges among workers and employers. Government should prevent fraud and violence and allow individuals to enter into mutually beneficial exchanges under a just rule of law that protects persons and property. The minimum wage violates freedom of contract and hence private property rights; it is neither moral nor effective. It is unfair to workers who can’t find a job, especially young workers in search of a better future.

Or, using Orlin's format and a reality-based headline:

Our World: President Obama Claims "No Solid Evidence" Increased Minimum Wage Costs Jobs
Economically Literate World: President Obama Wants To Make It Illegal To Hire Workers At A Wage He Dislikes, Can't Imagine Anything Bad Could Possibly Happen

Unlike Obama, I don't want to ignore the fact that there is a debate on the economic impact of minimum wage laws. See, for example, the WaPo fact checker Glenn Kessler, who (generously) awards the President merely two Pinocchios for his silly claim. (I'd especially recommend it to Orlin, who might learn that the debate doesn't just involve "models", but also a lot of empirical research.)

OK, just one more:

[please give me money]

Not much pretense to "mathematical literacy" here at all. I will rewrite:

Our World: Politician Promises to Fund Math Education
Politically Literate World: Politician Pledges to Throw More Taxpayer Money At A Failing System Of Math Education With Zero Evidence That It Will Improve Anything, And No Accountability If It Doesn't

See? It's easy.


Last Modified 2014-12-05 11:29 AM EST

URLs du Jour — 2013-12-02

  • It's that most wonderful time of year, by which I mean Dave Barry's Gift Guide for 2013 is available on the web.

    The holidays are a wonderful time of year, but too often, in all the excitement and craziness, we forget the real “reason for the season.” The holidays are not about parties, or decorations, or Frosty the Snowperson. Those things are fun, but they are not the true purpose of the holidays. The true purpose of the holidays is to purchase consumer electronics.

    So you should go check it out, knowing that any purchase you make is "backed by our Personal Gift Guide Guarantee, as follows: If you purchase one of these items and for any reason are not completely satisfied, you have our personal guarantee that there is nothing that we, personally, can do about it."

    Pictured at right—no, your right—is one of the items, available at Amazon: the Cat Lady Action Figure. What youngster wouldn't want one?

  • As a longtime employee of the University Near Here, I sometimes run across articles that do a particularly good job of capturing some of that special atmosphere that is American Higher Education today. And so let me share with you: "How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang".

    Specifically, both operations have come to rely on a mass of poorly-paid, disrespected minions (low-level drug runners/adjunct faculty), doing the unpleasant scutwork that the elite members (drug lords/tenured faculty) would prefer to avoid. In both cases, the minions put up with their lousy positions in the hope they'll break into the upper echelons someday. And in both cases, the probability of that happening is low.

  • Although I think Tom Zhang, currently a mere "lecturer" here in math, has a pretty good shot at tenure, if he wants it.

  • Although I (and Professor Greg Mankiw) didn't think much of Pope Francis's recent apostolic exhortation, in the interest of equal time, you might want to check out James Pethokoukis's attempted defense at the NR site. And you might also check out this article by Kate O'Hare at Breitbart, which at least raises the possibility that we may have been misled by lefty translators of the document into English.


Last Modified 2014-03-05 5:15 AM EST

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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

Mrs. Salad and I ventured out to an actual movie theater to catch this. The IMDB raters (as I type) have this plugged at number 223 on the Top 250 movies of all times. I liked it, but please: not that much. I find myself asking: what movie did it bump out of the list?

Set (duh) after the first movie, our heroine Katniss is trying to get back to some form of normal life in good old District 12. Her family's living quarters have been upgraded from "hovel" to "ramshackle house". But she's psychologically haunted by her Games experience. Worse, her heroics with partner Peta have turned her into a symbol of individual defiance against the state. That, of course, worries the Powers that Be, who turn to increasingly brutal means to stomp out any hint of rebellion.

Evil President Snow hatches a scheme to discredit Katniss and cement his rule. This involves putting Katniss and Peta back in the arena, fighting once more against hopeless odds.

One problem with the movie, if I may quibble: this all takes an incredibly long time to set up, and nothing all that interesting happens during that period.

Also, a matter I discussed with Mrs. Salad afterward: there's a Shocking Plot Twist at the end, and (without spoiling things too much) its revelation seemed to make the entire rest of the movie kind of a cheat.

Anyway, I followed it better than Larry King:

[larry king on hunger games]

URLs du Jour — 2013-12-01

The First Amendment does not cover
burping.

  • Another data point exposing the hostility of the IRS to Constitutional freedoms: the recent proposed regulation of the political speech of 501(c)(4) groups. Bradley Smith has a good rundown at the NR website. Example:

    The proposed rule would not only limit speech, it would go backward to censor speech. The rule proposes to require groups, starting 60 days before the election, to scrub their websites of any material mentioning a candidate. Thus, an article written last month quoting Democratic members of Congress echoing the president’s assurances that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan” would have to be taken down next Labor Day, just as the campaign was heating up.

    The point, Smith argues, is to force via regulation what "progressives" have failed to do via legislation: the disclosure of contributors to conservative/libertarian groups, so they can be boycotted and bullied into silence.

    Preferably, the IRS should be disbanded. If that can't happen immediately, the whole notion that certain groups are less deserving of First Amendment protections than others should be repealed, legislatively or judicially.

  • Also coming in for some deserved criticism: the recent apostolic exhortation from Pope Francis, in which he asserted (among other things):

    … [S]ome people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

    As a result of such, he has been widely quoted by "progressives" that would otherwise not give two figs about the Pope's opinions on anything.

    My own reaction would be ill-tempered, profane, and likely to offend the majority-Catholic population of the Salad household. Instead, let me quote Havard Genius Econ Prof Greg Mankiw in near-entirety:

    First, throughout history, free-market capitalism has been a great driver of economic growth, and as my colleague Ben Friedman has written, economic growth has been a great driver of a more moral society.

    Second, "trickle-down" is not a theory but a pejorative used by those on the left to describe a viewpoint they oppose. It is equivalent to those on the right referring to the "soak-the-rich" theories of the left. It is sad to see the pope using a pejorative, rather than encouraging an open-minded discussion of opposing perspectives.

    Third, as far as I know, the pope did not address the tax-exempt status of the church. I would be eager to hear his views on that issue. Maybe he thinks the tax benefits the church receives do some good when they trickle down.

    I would dearly love to see a debate between the Pope and Prof Mankiw on whose views are better "confirmed by the facts". To be fair, "facts" have never been religion's strong suit; the Pope probably shouldn't have tried to pretend otherwise.

  • Mr. Steyn's column is appropriately merciliess this week. To share one bit, our President is uttered the following in November 14 news conference:

    On the website, I was not informed directly that the website would not be working as -- the way it was supposed to. Has I been informed, I wouldn't be going out saying, boy, this is going to be great. You know, I'm accused of a lot of things, but I don't think I'm stupid enough to go around saying, this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity, a week before the website opens, if I thought that it wasn't going to work.

    Steyn responds:

    Ooooo-kay. So, if I follow correctly, the smartest president ever is not smart enough to ensure that his website works; he’s not smart enough to inquire of others as to whether his website works; he’s not smart enough to check that his website works before he goes out and tells people what a great website experience they’re in for. But he is smart enough to know that he’s not stupid enough to go around bragging about how well it works if he’d already been informed that it doesn’t work. So he’s smart enough to know that if he’d known what he didn’t know he’d know enough not to let it be known that he knew nothing. The country’s in the very best of hands.

  • New Hampshire's other great essayist, P.J. O'Rourke, has a new book, The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn't My Fault) (And I'll Never Do It Again) and the WSJ has a bit of it outside its paywall as I type. As a baby-boomer myself—yes, I confess—I heartily concur:

    We are the generation that changed everything. Of all the eras and epochs of Americans, ours is the one that made the biggest impression—on ourselves. That's an important accomplishment, because we're the generation that created the self, made the firmament of the self, divided the light of the self from the darkness of the self, and said, "Let there be self." If you were born between 1946 and 1964, you may have noticed this yourself.