The End of Power

[Amazon Link]

I put this book on my virtual TBR pile after reading an excerpt in Reason last year and a glowing review from Nick Gillespie. The good folks at the Unversity Near Here's library requested it from the MIT Dewey Library via the Boston Library Consortium, a service to which I've become addicted.

So: If you look up "conventional wisdom" in the dictionary, you'd think there might be a picture of Moisés Naím attached. His résumé is the epitome of mainstream respectability: he was editor in chief of Foreign Policy, an Executive Director at the World Bank, and Minister of Trade and Industry in Venezuela. You'd think he'd be a bland, non-boat-rocking kind of guy. But here he is, describing a current and ongoing decay in the traditional understanding of the way the world works. Go figure.

Naím methodically breaks down the concept of "power" into four "channels", somewhat glibly titled "The Muscle", "The Code", "The Pitch", and "The Reward". "Muscle", of course, is old-fashioned coercion; "Code" are those tenets of morals, tradition, mores, and expectations to which we subscribe, conciously or not. "Pitch" describes techniques of salesmanship and persuasion (very related to Virgina Postrel's book, The Power of Glamour, that I read awhile back). And "Reward" is refers to (sensibly enough) getting people to do what you want by paying them.

All four channels are declining in their influence; all sorts of "power" are becoming diffuse and decentralized, and the strong of yesterday are turning weak and constrained. Naím (once again, very methodically and somewhat glibly) identifies three forces involved: the "More Revolution", the "Mobility Revolution", and "Mentality Revolution". By "More", he refers to the increasing wealth of the middle/lower classes worldwide, which gives them the ability to avoid traditional barriers to power. "Mobility": more "small" people have acquired the nimbleness to do an end-around old-style power centers. And "Mentality": there's an increasing expectation that power can be defied and defeated. (I.e., people mad as Hell, and they're not gonna take it any more.)

Put it all together, and you have a pretty convincing argument. It's not that Naím is a wild-eyed libertarian (to the extent he reveals his politics, they're pretty much the same as your standard US liberal Democrat), but he's got facts and stats on his side.

The book's style is what I've come to think of as USA Today-ese, gee-whiz and somewhat dumbed down, which can be annoying in large doses. And Naím is convincing enough that he's identified a trend, but can the likely final result really be deemed the "End" of power? Doubtful.. My guess is that (sooner or later) we'll get to a new equilibrium: old-style power will be less, but it will be far from non-zero.

Disconnect

[1.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This was on Mrs. Salad's list of wanna-sees. But (as it turned out) she really wanted to see this movie instead. Don't blame me: she just gave me a list. For some reason Disconnect is a really popular movie title.

Here's the story: Haley is distraught by the recent death of her mother. Fortunately, she comes across an old toy phone that magically enables her to make calls to people in the past. So she can call Past Mom and shoot the breeze.

Good, right? But no. Mom makes some ominous comments that lead Haley to believe that foul play might have been involved in her demise. So she starts (a) using her (mediocre) detective skills in the present and (b) calling people in the past in order to change events. But it's a Back to the Future-style time story: changing the past ripples forward to change the present. Since Haley is kinda stupid, her efforts make things worse. Can she unwind things?

I liked this movie better when it was called Frequency.

The acting is lousy, but that could be due to the absurdly wooden dialogue the actors are uttering. It is a prime example of the Idiot Plot, defined at TV Tropes as "a Plot that hangs together only because the main characters behave like idiots." (To drive this home, the main character and her friend use the Time Phone to make crank calls to the past.)

So, no, I can't recommend it. But that other Disconnect movie looks like it might be OK…

Money is Evil, Unless You're Sending It To UNH

The University Near Here manages to make me sad again with this announcement of something called the "Future Leaders Institute". Subtitle: "A Summer Camp for Ambitious High-School Students." It will run July 14 through July 19.

What will our Ambitious Future Leader High-School Students be doing at camp? Whittling? Canoeing? Learning how to recognise different types of trees from quite a long way away?

Nah. The camp's theme is "Money, Greed, Corruption." It doesn't sound like the Future Leaders will be learning any useful wilderness skills, or having much fun at all. The curriculum will be set up by faculty members of the Paul College of Business and Economics… no, sorry, I'm kidding. It will be run by R. Scott Smith, Associate Professor of Classics, and Nick Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy, both of UNH's College of Liberal Arts (COLA).

Let's take a look at the program description, commenting as we go:

We tend to have mixed feelings about money.

What they actually mean to say: different people hold wildly different opinions about it.

Ayn Rand once described money as the "root of all good."

She did! Or rather, one of her Atlas Shrugged good guys did. His speech is reproduced here.

Karl Marx (following 1 Timothy 6:10 and a host of ancient thinkers) thought money was closer to the "root of all evil."

You see where we're going with this: it's gonna be Rand vs. Jesus, Marx, and a "host of ancient thinkers." Good luck, Ayn.

[1 Timothy, by the way, is also well-known for being the epistle where Apostle Paul advocated that women shut up and know their place and advised slaves to be respectful to their masters. Bible-thumpers pick and choose which parts of the book to thump.]

Money provides a near universal common denominator that allows people on opposite sides of the world to exchange things of value with great efficiency.

Stipulated. Not even Francisco d’Anconia would disagree. But:

Money drives so much in our lives and it motivates us, for better or for worse, to do things we wouldn't otherwise do.

Confused drivel. All incentives, including economic ones, can lead us to make different choices than we would otherwise. That is the definition of "motivate". But the paycheck is not the goal, it's not in the driver's seat; it's what the paycheck allows us to do. (Francisco: "[Money] will give you the means for the satisfaction of your desires, but it will not provide you with desires.")

Money can eclipse other values.

Confused thinking ⇒ sloppy writing. Money is not a value. I think they mean to say: money can motivate people to perform acts at odds with their values and preferences ("You couldn't pay me a million dollars to do that. Well, you probably could.")

Politicians are corrupted by love of money; business leaders make selfish decisions to raise profits—and boost their own bank accounts; even religious leaders fall victim to greed.

Gee, for guys who like to quote scripture, I really think they should have paid more attention to Matthew 7:1-5.

A brave stand against (unnamed) corrupt politicians! Hey, I won't defend them. Although I'd wager far more politicians are corrupted by their love of coercive state power than by love of money. Good luck getting a couple of Liberal Arts profs to even recognize that, let alone preach against it.

And the (also unnamed) greedy religious leaders? No doubt. Hey, we're all sinners. But judging by recent headlines, seven-deadly-sinwise, "greed" is pretty far down the list, with "lust" a clear favorite among modern pastors and priests.

But the guys in the middle, there between the pols and priests: those (again, unnamed) businessmen are guilty of nothing except attempting to run their businesses more profitably than a couple of COLA profs think they should. It's difficult to work up any outrage, or even concern, about that at all.

For some, money is the most valuable possession of all.

Scrooge
Swimming in his Money Bin Really? Who? I suppose it's possible, but so what? Presumably we're talking about something more portentious than Sophie Tucker's (alleged) observation: "I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better." But the image the "most valuable of all" assertion brings to mind is Scrooge McDuck's daily swim in his Money Bin. Perhaps the profs think that Warren Buffett or Bill Gates actually do that.

Money can fuel greed and corruption as moral beliefs give way to the view that all is fair in moneymaking. How often do we hear that it is "just business" when people treat each other as means to the end of profit?

The honest answer to that question is: "Not often at all. Maybe never."

Note (by the way) that the weak "fuel" analogy actually cuts against the attempt to blame things on eeevil money. When bank robbers vamoose in their getaway car, sane people do not blame the gasoline in the car's tank.

So, how can one live a good life and be a good citizen in such a money-hungry world?

Good question, although you could usefully generalize by leaving off the prepositional phrase. People that blame a "money-hungry world" for their own poor life choices are irresponsible losers.

Skipping past some boilerplate, we have the movies that may be shown around the campfire:

Inside Job, Too Big to Fail, The Corporation, The Wolf of Wall Street, Atlas Shrugged, Wall Street, Roger and Me

It's nice of them to include a mediocre adaptation of Ayn Rand's book in the otherwise uniform anti-capitalist businessmen-are-scum propaganda. (Although I understand The Wolf of Wall Street is pretty good anyway.) How about The Pursuit of Happyness?

Looking at "Potential Authors":

Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Aristotle, Plato, Seneca, Karl Marx, Georg Simmel, Christine Lagarde (IMF leader)

Could be worse. Milton Friedman is a strong choice. I wonder if Christine Lagarde is there as an author who's got something interesting to say, or an example of corruption herself?

Here's one bit I left out. From up at the top of the page:

Cost: $800.

Yes, they are charging money to tell the kiddos how awful money is. (Is this irony? I can never tell.)

I'll close with the final paragraph of Francisco's speech, linked above:

Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to be the tool by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of men. Blood, whips and guns–or dollars. Take your choice–there is no other–and your time is running out.

I'd put the whole thing on the Ambitious Future Leaders High-School Students' required reading list. In fact, I'd be happy to give a dramatic reading of it for the AFLHSS this summer. And to show what a money-loving greedy selfish bastard I am: I would do it for free.


Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:33 AM EDT

Tatiana

[Amazon Link]

I've long enjoyed Martin Cruz Smith's novels featuring Arkady Renko, the Russian detective. He's not exactly prolific; eight Renko novels, starting with Gorky Park in 1981. (Compare with Sue Grafton, who's knocked out 23 Kinsey Millhone books since 1982.) But the books are worth waiting for. Renko's life over the past thirty years has followed that of Mother Russia, from Communist totalitarianism to heady liberation, to today's corrupt kleptocracy. Renko endures it all with bemusement and mordant dark humor; his only desire is to bring a little bit of justice to the evildoers when and where he can.

Here, things kick off with three deaths: (1) a translator is biking on the lonely, off-season Curonian Spit in Kaliningrad when a killer in a butcher's van does him in; (2) a famous Russian mobster is gunned down by perpetrators unknown; (3) a hard-hitting female journalist, Tatiana Petrovna, apparently falls to her death from her apartment balcony.

These are all seemingly unrelated, but (of course) they aren't. Renko is especially drawn to the death of the journalist. The authorities want to write Tatiana off as a suicide, but witnesses report hearing a scream. Tatiana has been a thorn in the side of the powerful for years, daring to report stories at odds with the "official" versions, exposing incompetence, arrogance, and corruption. So there's no limit to possible suspects.

Renko is his usual dogged self, picking up unlikely clues, and following seemingly hopeless leads. Especially noteworthy is the translator's notebook, which apparently passed through Tatiana's hands before winding up in Renko's possession. Unfortunately, it's all in a private code, full of mysterious symbols in the translator's private language. Can it be puzzled out? Enter the lad Zenhya, the semi-feral chess prodigy to who Renko became a sorta-guardian in a previous book. He can see connections and make logical leaps unavailable to lesser mortals. But that (unfortunately) puts him in danger himself. Can he save himself and Renko too?

I really enjoyed the book. You can learn a lot, painlessly, about Russia simply by reading this series. Much is set in Kaliningrad, a Russian outclave on the Baltic sea, nestled between Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. A particularly amusing/depressing bit concerns the Kaliningrad "Monster", officially the "House of Soviets", widely thought to be the ugliest building in the world. Construction started in the 1960s, and was abandoned in the 1980s, and it remains unfinished. It was painted light blue in 2005 when Putin visited; according to Renko's guide, this was to make it as invisible as possible.

Deceptive Practice

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

Ricky Jay is an actor (you've almost certainly seen him if you've seen any David Mamet movies), a magician, a writer, and somewhat of a historian of magicians and other denizens of the less-respected performing arts. This documentary looks at his life, at least as much of it he's willing to reveal.

Ricky grew up in New York, and became obsessed with magic and the attendant show biz at a very young age. That can't have been an easy road to follow; the movie mentions in passing that Ricky left home and cut his parental ties as a teenager in order to follow his muse. (Given the sixties timeframe and Ricky's appearance and demeanor back then, I can't help but wonder if illicit pharmaceuticals were also involved, but the movie doesn't go into detail, or get his parents' side of the story.)

Ricky's talent and hilarious stage patter brought him modest fame. He was on a lot of TV talk shows. (I remember him being on Saturday Night Live; IMDB tells me that was in 1977.) Eventually, his semi-sleazy appearance and acting skills made him a natural choice for movies, often as a hustler or criminal. He played a bad guy's henchman in the James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies.

But Ricky also has a fascination with the history and lore of his craft. He has a number of books to his credit, exploring the history of magic and (other) con games. The movie gives plenty of time to his heroes and mentors, old-timey magicians I had never heard of.

All in all, an interesting documentary. Didn't show as much magic as I expected, but made up for it in illuminating the culture of magicians.

Captain Phillips

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

It was nominated for six Oscars, but didn't win any. That's probably why I kept falling asleep.

It's about—no surprise—Captain Rich Phillips, who helmed the Maersk Alabama, a container ship steaming off the Somali coast, which had the misfortune to be the first American ship in 200 years to be hijacked by pirates. In case you weren't paying attention to the news back then, this actually happened.

The Somalis are a sorry lot; they don't seem to have much of anything except for guns and khat. And a boat fast enough so they can catch up to the Maersk and climb aboard. (It seems to be way too easy for them.)

Tom Hanks plays Captain P, just as an ordinary joe from Vermont, albeit with a hot wife (Catherine Keener). Part of the movie's power turns on the fact that Phillips is no action hero: no feats of derring-do, no smart remarks, not even a lot of cleverness. But he muddles through, doing his best, and who are we to imagine we would do any better?

That's one lame title, though.

Just another note: at the very end of the flick, Captain Phillips is being examined by a female Navy Corpsman, and according to IMDB, it's an actual Corpsman who was told to "simply follow her usual procedure." I'm here to tell you: if I'm ever abducted by pirates, she's the one I want to do the post-captive exam. She's amazing.

Back of Beyond

[Amazon Link]

I can't say enough good things about this book. It's a well-crafted mystery/thriller with good characters, a spectacular setting, and a keep-you-guessing plot. I'd read one other C. J. Box novel before this (the Edgar-winning Blue Heaven); when I reached the end of this one, I put his remaining 16 novels on my to-be-read list.

The opening sentence is a grabber: "The night before Cody Hoyt shot the county coroner, he was driving without a purpose in his county Ford Expedition as he often did these days."

Cody is the main protagonist, and he's kind of a mess. He's a county cop, and divorced alcoholic; you get the impression that he's barely holding onto both his job and his sobriety. It doesn't help that when he's called out to investigate a fire at a remote cabin, he already knows the burned-up victim: it's Hank, his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, whose corpse is found next to an open bottle of Wild Turkey.

Everyone is convinced that the victim perished in a drunken wood stove accident. Cody knows it's homicide, although he can't convince his superiors of that. A computer's browsing history shows that Hank—or someone—recently checked out a wilderness trip into a remote spot in Yellowstone National Park. And (in a Dickensian coincidence) it happens to be a wilderness trip that Cody's son is being taken on by his ex-wife's fiancee.

We're then introduced to a second protagonist, 14-year-old Gracie Sullivan, who's on the trip with her slutty older sister, wimpy dad, and her wimpy dad's surprise new girlfriend.

It soon becomes apparent that a lot of characters have hidden motives and plans of their own. (Including the sleazy outfitter leading the trip and his employee/girlfriend.) Soon, folks start vanishing mysteriously from the trip. Back in Montana, Cody sets out in a desperate attempt to catch up with the group and save his son, but shadowy forces keep delaying him.

It's insanely readable. (I'd say it's a page-turner, but I read it on my Kindle. So it's a button-pusher.) Highly recommended.

URLS du π Day 2014

It's the Annual Celebration. This post should show up on 3/14 at 1:59:27pm EST. (Or as close as the blog software can get it.) Once again, check out this mesmerizing animated GIF from the Pi article at Wikipedia:

[Pi Unrolled]

(Click for the big version and a whole bunch of WikiLegalese.)

  • Steve Landsburg has some neat formulas for calculating π; the historical trick to calculating it precisely is to find a series that converges quickly.

  • But this from the NYT is pretty cool too.

    To calculate pi, take two identical balls. Put one near a wall and roll the other ball toward it. The first ball will hit the second, which will bounce off the wall and come back to hit the first ball. Click click click. Three collisions. The first digit of pi is a three. The machine works!

    Come on. But:

    A first ball that’s 100 times as massive will create 31 clicks. 10,000 times as massive will create 314 clicks.

    Wha!?

    You have to make the standard physics assumptions of perfectly elastic ball/ball and ball/wall collisions, no friction, everything perfectly lined up. But it's a pretty neat trick anyhow.

    A non-π URL: Econ blogger Tyler Cowen often presents "very good sentences" in stuff he reads. Let me present this one from him:

    Technocrats who rail against the ideologies of others are often the most ideological people around, even if their biases do not line up with the political spectrum in the usual manner.

    Click over for the full context. But I think I've seen Jonah Goldberg make a related point: the people who claim to be "non-ideological" pragmatists/problem-solvers/conversation-starters are usually doing so to slip in their own values and ideologies under the radar.

URLs du Jour

2014-03-13

  • Well, Arthur Chu finally lost on Jeopardy! after a remarkable 11-game winning streak, netting just shy of $300K. He liked to bet big on Daily Doubles to build an unsurmountable lead; that worked well, until it didn't. He was soundly beaten by Diana Peloquin, a bubbly young women who seemed shocked and amazed by her triumph.

    If you'd like to look at what Arthur got wrong and right last night, the WaPo has the answers and questions.

  • For Granite Staters: the New Hampshire Liberty Alliance has issued their 2013 Liberty Rating document, reporting on how NH legislators voted on freedom-relevant issues.

    The record for my "representatives" was abysmal, as usual. In the House: Reps Berube, Rollo, Spainhower, and Ward earned (respective) grades of D, D, C-, and C-. My senator (and University Near Here prof), David Watters, scored a D+.

  • Kevin D. Williamson enjoys the … what is it, irony? of Senator Diane Feinstein being pretty much OK with executive branch snooping, until they started snooping on Congressional computers.

    Congress has not been very interested in the abuses of the imperial executive when its victims were ordinary American citizens, or even Congress’s own constitutional turf. But now that the CIA is making the matter personal, we ordinary citizens might have some hope that Congress will be spurred into action by its members’ vanity, if not by their sense of duty.

  • Via Nadia Drake at Wired, the Washington D.C. forecast for last evening contained:

    WE SOMETIMES SAY THE FORECAST HAS SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE. I THINK WE CAN TAKE THAT LITERALLY AT THE MOMENT . . . AS THIS FORECAST HAS ALMOST EVERY POSSIBLE WEATHER TYPE/HAZARD . . . IN THE FIRST 36 HOURS. STRONG TO SEVERE STORMS . . . SNOW . . . WIND CHILLS. . . STRONG WINDS . . . UNSEASONABLY WARM TEMPS . . . UNSEASONABLY COLD TEMPS . . . POTENTIAL FIRE WEATHER CONCERNS . . . MINOR COASTAL FLOOD POTENTIAL . . . THERE IS NOT MUCH LEFT.

    I'm generally OK with cutting the Federal Government down to the bone, but I'd make an exception for the person who wrote that.

  • Randall Munroe of xkcd fame has announced a new book coming out in September; it is a spinoff from his wonderful "What If" feature. (And the cover seems to illustrate the query: what if you fed a T. Rex to a Sarlacc? I can't say if I ever wondered that myself, but now I'm intrigued.

    If you buy it via Amazon ad/link over there on the right—no, your right—Pun Salad gets a cut. So don't be shy: click away.


Last Modified 2014-03-14 4:58 AM EDT

URLs du Jour

2014-03-12

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  • At Big Journalism, Joel B. Pollak notes that NPR echoed uncritically President Obama's assertion about women making 77% of what men do "for doing the same jobs."

    I wouldn't mention this except that I overheard a conversation where a very smart female co-worker did the same thing.

    I don't like to get polemical in people's faces at work, so I said nothing. But Pollak helpfully links to this Daily Beast article (which deems the statistic a "massively discredited factoid") this Slate article (which, probably more accurately, calls it a "lie").

  • Not to inundate you with Jeopardy!/Ken Jennings links, but Ken has a sweet interview with 84-year-old Julan Griffin, who thought up the game's answer-and-question format with ex-husband Merv back in 1963.

  • Wrap your mind around: Extinct Aquatic Sloths. They were quite the rage 4-8 million years ago.

    And I think "Hootie and the Extinct Aquatic Sloths" would have been an excellent band name, a vast improvement over the one they actually chose.

URLs du Jour

2014-03-11

[http://farm1.staticflickr.com/66/172462900_00627f37d7_m.jpg] Well, not really "du jour". More like, "over the past few days." But they're good, I promise.

  • At Cato, Jason Bedrick sums up a recent GAO report that checked up on the performance of Your Federal Government as it sought to bring the bright socialist future to school lunch programs.

    In other words, the so-called “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” actually resulted in some kids being served less healthy food while other kids went hungry.

    Fearless prediction: this experience will not teach the "reality based" community anything.

  • Kevin D. Williamson notices something about left-wing Jon Stewart fanboys (but I repeat myself):

    Here is a selection of recent headlines: “Jon Stewart Destroys Megyn Kelly,” “Jon Stewart Destroys Fox News’ ‘Spite-Driven Anger Machine,’” “Jon Stewart Destroys What’s Left of Peggy Noonan’s Credibility,” “Jon Stewart Destroys Fox News Over Syria Coverage,” “Jon Stewart Destroys Glenn Beck’s Utopia,” “Jon Stewart Destroys Bill O’Reilly” — there are about 520,000 more — and, not to be missed, “Jon Stewart Destroys Chicago-Style Pizza.”

    The sound of terrors is in his ears at 11 p.m. on Comedy Central, and in prosperity the destroyer cometh upon him.

    The left is out of ideas; all that remains is cheap ridicule and phony laffs. And fantasizing that you've "destroyed" someone thereby.

  • Have you heard of the new effort to expunge the adjective "bossy" from our vocabulary? At least when we're applying it to females? Treacher says all that needs to be said:

    Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg clearly doesn’t understand how thoroughly she’s undermining her own premise. She was called “bossy” as a kid, and it motivated her to become rich and powerful enough to start a media campaign to tell other people what they should and shouldn’t say. Um… hello? So it worked!

  • I will quote a post from Viking Pundit nearly in its entirety. First, the NPR puzzle:

    Take the first name of a nominee for Best Actor or Best Actress at Sunday's Oscars. You can rearrange these letters into a two-word phrase that describes his or her character in the film for which he or she is nominated. Who is this star, and what is the phrase?

    VP's answer:

    Of course the actor is Christian Bale and in "American Hustle" he was not a chair. "Isn't chair." Boom.

    I laughed more at Ellen Degeneres, but not much more. (You can click over for the "official" answer, which is kind of lame.)

  • As I type, Arthur Chu is piling up the cash on Jeopardy!; he's incredibly knowledgeable and relentless about stomping his opponents into the ground. Some people find him off-putting, which is sad. (There's some racial animosity too.) All is covered in his interview with Ken Jennings.

    [Ken:] I remember being surprised at how wounded I got with random drive-by Internet abuse when I was on Jeopardy!. Like, it shouldn’t hurt to have StewieGriffinFan46 say “This guy on Jeopardy IS THE WORST”…but somehow it does.

    [Arthur:] It’s natural and human to care what other people think about you. If I’d not been playing for enormously high stakes on Jeopardy! my natural instincts to try to be nice and make a good impression probably would’ve taken over, I’d've been shy and reticent and afraid to speak up, and as a result I would’ve lost horribly in my first game. As it was a ton of my “training” was just getting myself into the head-space where winning the game and taking home lots of money mattered more to me than what people might think seeing me on TV.

    He's not supposed to reveal any details about shows that haven't aired yet. But from the interview, it sounds as if he finally lost. Hard to believe.

  • Durham, New Hampshire's own pro baseball player, Sam Fuld, is a fine athlete. But he's also a decent writer, and you could do worse than to catch his review of John Feinstein's new book about minor-league baseball, Where Nobody Knows Your Name

    Sam is in the Oakland A's organization this year, and I'm pulling for him. (Unless he's in the lineup against the Red Sox, sorry Sam.)

    The article is behind the WSJ paywall, but you can probably pierce it via the Google.

Vengeance Is Mine!

[Amazon Link]

So I got this book containing three Mickey Spillane novels, his first three in his famous Mike Hammer series. Because I'm a fan of private eye stories, and I like the hard boiled stuff, and who cares about the purists who look down their noses at lurid tales of two-fisted derring-do?

I read the first two novels in the volume years back; because I'm obsessive about this kind of thing, the third was finally chosen off the list by my book-picking algorithm.

What did I learn? That Spillane was not my cup of tea. Mike Hammer is kind of a dick, and I don't mean as in private. Frankly, I suspect he's got serious psychological problems, some strange mishmash of sadism, misogyny, paranoia, and anger issues.

On the other hand, Hammer is the kind of guy you'd want on your side in a scrape. (Unfortunately, the guys on Hammer's side, unless they are recurring characters, like Velda or Pat, usually wind up dead, in unusually unpleasant ways.) And the dames invariably find him dreamy, shedding their flimsy garments without a lot of provocation.

So: Vengeance is Mine! (With the exclamation point in the title). Mike wakes up in a hotel room from a whiskey-soaked bender and finds his co-bendee "dead as hell", his brains scattered by a bullet from Mike's .45. What happened? Mike would like to exact the titular Vengeance! but is hampered by a D.A. who pulls his PI license and his gun permit. Also by total lack of clues.

Lots of sex and violence, which must have been titillating back in the 1950s when it was written. Big surprise at the end (very last sentence, in fact) which (again) people back then might have found shocking and perverse.

The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again)

[Amazon Link]

P.J. O'Rourke's latest. Enough said? Probably, but this post would look pretty lame if I ended things here. I received this book as a Christmas gift from my thoughtful family.

The book's topic is especially appropriate: I, like P.J., am a Baby Boomer. Although our current political positions are roughly similar, we got there by wildly different routes. We grew up in the Midwest (him: Ohio; me: Iowa and Nebraska). We both wound up in New Hampshire (although in very different parts of the state). And he's a wildly successful author, and I'm a computer geek at the University Near Here.

One thing for sure: he consumed a lot more substances along the way.

But, heck, he speaks for me. Why not? Better him than me.

The book is also a memoir, wrapping P.J.'s observations about his generation around tales of his early life. It may be the closest he comes to writing an autobiography, although (as he admits) he's changed nearly all names, times, places, and incidents. But: "Only the most outrageous and unbelievable things in this book are recounted exactly as they happened."

For example, P.J.'s stint working at a Baltimore underground newspaper called Puddles is recounted. Anyone with rudimentary skills at the Google can discover that it was actually named Harry. However: one day the newspaper office was invaded by a local radical group, armed with a List of Demands. The name of the group was the "Balto-Cong"—and the name really was "Balto-Cong". P.J. explains: "It's the one name of any consequence that I haven't changed in this book. How could it be improved?"

As he notes:

That's not to say we're a selfish generation. Selfish means "too concerned with the self," and we're not. Self isn't something we're just, you know, concerned with. We are self.

And appropriately enough, the yarns and observations in this book are self-deprecating. P.J. is not nostalgic or sentimental about our generation. Although some of the observations may only make sense after a couple slugs of good scotch, because that's how they were probably written.

It's tempting to type in a lot more quotes. Instead, I'll point to an excerpt at the WSJ.


Last Modified 2014-03-06 6:21 AM EST

URLs du Jour

2014-03-04

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  • Have you ever wondered what a Supreme Court amicus curiae brief from the Cato Institute might look like if P.J. O'Rourke helped write it? Wonder no more. Trust me, it's hilarious, and you don't need to know your amici from your curiae to have a good time.

    It's written for a current case, "Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus", a suit challenging Ohio's law that (to use USA Today's language) "bars candidates and issue groups from lying in their campaigns."

    Here's the sample everyone is quoting:

    After all, where would we be without the knowledge that Democrats are pinko-communist flag-burners who want to tax churches and use the money to fund abortions so they can use the fetal stem cells to create pot-smoking lesbian ATF agents who will steal all the guns and invite the UN to take over America? Voters have to decide whether we’d be better off electing Republicans, those hateful, assault-weapon-wielding maniacs who believe that George Washington and Jesus Christ incorporated the nation after a Gettysburg reenactment and that the only thing wrong with the death penalty is that it isn’t administered quickly enough to secular- humanist professors of Chicano studies.

    Indeed. Double your money back if it's not the funniest thing you read all day. (As a bonus, it makes serious points in defense of the First Amendment.)

  • Continuing the funny: excerpts from Dave Barry's new book here (Dave muses on his daughter Becoming A Woman) and here (Dave reviews 50 Shades of Gray). From the former:

    If it were up to me, our house would be surrounded by giant (but humane) traps baited with some kind of bait that would be attractive to 13-year-old boys, such as fireworks or shorts that are even baggier than the shorts they’re already wearing. Every now and then we’d hear the loud THWONK of a steel door slamming shut, indicating that a 13-year-old boy had come too close to the house. I would then go outside and, after a stern warning, drive the boy out to the Everglades and release him into the wild.

    I know how he feels.

  • And it keeps getting funnier, assuming your ribs are tickled by yet another example of President Obama's illegal, politically-motivated rewriting of Obamacare. Key point:

    The explanation for the rumored delay is purely political. There's not even a pretense of a policy justification.

    In other words: it's designed to keep as many Democrats as possible in elective office. Because if they implemented the law they actually passed, it would send (for example) Jeanne Shaheen back to Madbury.

    Here's hoping that happens anyway.

  • Both xkcd and Slashdot look at the amazing (and somewhat sad) story of the spacecraft ISEE-3/ICE, launched in 1978 (almost 36 years ago), explored the outer magnetosphere, encountered a couple of comets. The mission was declared over in 1997. And NASA turned it off.

    Or tried to. But now its solar orbit is bringing it near Earth again, and—to everyone's surprise—it's still alive!

    But—here's the sad part—NASA can't talk to it any more; the transmitting equipment it used is long gone, and it's too expensive to reconstruct it.

Austenland

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

This comedy was pummelled by critics (only 30% on the Tomatometer) and was a box office dud. Yet both Mrs. Salad and I found it funny and clever all the way through; especially refreshing after a bunch of alleged comedies where the laughs were sparse.

Keri Russell plays Jane, a 30something single American woman obsessed with all things Austen. She has a lifesize cardboard cutout of Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy, and that's just one example of the Austen flotsam that clogs her apartment. Her obsession is doing damage to her own romantic prospects, but that doesn't seem to concern her overmuch. She espies an ad for "Austenland", an immersive role-playing environment in England, and quickly decides to blow her savings on a weeklong excursion.

Quickly things turn out to be not quite as imagined. Jane can only afford the Copper package, while the other attendees have splurged on the Platinum experience. Although part of the package is a make-believe romance with one of Austenland's fine character actors, her apparent assignee is moody and off-putting. (Hint: just like Mr. Darcy in the book.) She gets on much better with the stable keeper, who is (she's told) supposed to have only limited interaction with guests.

Performances are fine. Especially funny is Jennifer Coolidge as another attendee who's only got a hazy idea of what the whole Austen deal is about, but has a good time nevertheless, participating with what she imagines to be cheerful English idioms in what she imagines to be an English accent. Also: Bret McKenzie (from Flight of the Conchords) as the stable lad, James Callis (Dr Baltar in Battlestar Galactica) and Jane Seymour as Mrs. Wattlesbrook, the conniving proprietress of Austenland.

But it's really weird to see Keri Russell in a frothy, funny comedy, just when I'd gotten used to her as a ruthlessly murderous KGB spy in The Americans. She's a very good actress.

Super Sad True Love Story

[Amazon Link]

I can't quite remember how this book got into my things-to-read list. It might have been this mention from Gene Healy at Reason, where it's billed as a "near-future comic dystopia". (And claimed to be a more likely future than, say, The Hunger Games books.) And, the library at the University Near Here owned a copy, so the only thing it would take is time. So…

It's the story of Lenny Abramov (middle-aged son of Russian immigrants) and Eunice Park (daughter of Korean immigrants). The tale is told in alternating chapters: excerpts from Lenny's diary and Eunice's "Globalteens account", the dominant social media site of this particular future.

Lenny and Eunice meet in Rome. She's on vacation, and Lenny has been sent by his employer, a life-extension company, to scout out HNWI ("High Net Worth Individual") customers. Lenny is immediately smitten with Eunice. This seems unlikely, because (even in his own telling) he is a desperate schlump, on the verge of professional failure, and way too old for the lovely young Eunice. But, unlikely as it sounds, they have a physical encounter; Lenny sees this as life-changing.

Eunice's side of the story reveal that, instead of the saint Lenny imagines, she's shallow, frivolous, foul-mouthed, and promiscuous. In contrast to Lenny, she views their brief sexual rendezvous as a one-off, something that she did because she could think of nothing better to do.

Unlikely as it seems, a relationship blooms between them when they return to America. Unfortunately, the US is in decline. It is broke, corrupt, dominated by international corporate interests, and reeling from disastrous foreign military ventures. "Anti-terrorism" measures have been cranked up, ubiquitous militarized checkpoints that are less about keeping the country safe, and more about keeping the rabble in line. But everyone's plugged in via their "äppäräts", supersmart devices that will (for example) instantly tell you (and everyone around you) your sexual and financial worth.

Eunice (it turns out) is very much a product of the crass and postliterate culture that surrounds her. She, like everyone, is bemused by the fact that Lenny actually owns and reads physical books. It's not illegal; it doesn't have to be.

So the country is going down the toilet. Eunice and Lenny are semi-aware of this, but they're also trying to make their relationship work, explain themselves to their respective families, etc. But (sorry for the spoiler, but see the title) there's no happy-ever-after ending.