The Writer Who Stayed

[Amazon Link]

I put this book in by virtual to-be-read pile based on this column from George F. Will. Back when I bought books on writing, I bought a couple by William F. Zinsser: the acknowledged classic On Writing Well and Writing to Learn. I decided to go the library route for this one, and the always helpful University Near Here snagged a copy for me from Boston College.

This book is a collection of Zinsser's web columns for the American Scholar magazine in 2010 and 2011. A longtime print journalist, he was in his late eighties when he started writing for the web, and only stopped because his vision deteriorated to the point where it became impossible. (During this time he did not have an e-mail address; one of the essays describes his reasoning, and it's quite convincing.)

The essays are short, and I recommend reading them the way I did: two or three a day. Small bites, so you can appreciate the taste of each. There are a dizzying array of topics, touching, informative, enlightening. Zinsser can make just about anything interesting, I think.

For example: there's an essay on hats. Another one on meeting Edd Roush, the (then) oldest living member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, six days before he died. Another one about how he crafted an essay on Ellis Island, limited to a mere 300 words. Another one on why he doesn't give "tips" to writers. And on.

You can read these essays on two levels: they are interesting on their own, of course, but they are also shining examples of getting words to say what you want, with power, without waste.

Only one exception I noticed, in an essay subtitled "Why Plumbers Are a Good Role Model For Writers":

It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect.

Of course that's good. But my inner Mr. Editor says:

It may seem perverse that I compare my writing to plumbing, an occupation not regarded as high-end. But to me all work is equally honorable, all crafts an astonishment when they are performed with skill and self-respect.

(There's a new definition of chutzpah: thinking you can improve Zinsser's writing.)

The Curmudgeon's Guide to Getting Ahead

[Amazon Link]

Charles Murray is on my short list of must-read non-fiction writers, and this was, more or less, an automatic buy. It's short, and cheap even in hardcover ($10.98 at Amazon as I type).

There is a slight problem: I am not at all the target audience for this book. It's aimed at the recent college grad who's casting around looking for what to do with the rest of his or her life. I remember being that person; I wish I had this book then. So I read a lot of this with the attitude: "Good advice, but it's too late now." Ah well, things worked out OK without it. (But much of the counsel here is good for people of any age.)

Because that's what this book is: a collection of tips based on Murray's insights and experience. You'll get a lot of practical wisdom, rooted in classical liberal tradition. He bills himself as a "curmudgeon", but he lacks the grumpiness and stinginess I usually associate with that word (at least on the written page). He is brief, didactic, and judgmental: here's my advice, take it or leave it.

Kids, you should take it. I'm speaking as one of Murray's fellow curmudgeons.

It's a hodgepodge, with four main sections: (1) workplace comportment (grooming, dress, communications, professionalism, politics); (2) writing and thinking recommendations; (3) personal development; (4) the pursuit of happiness. Yes, you will be (a) admonished not to confuse continual with continuous in the same book that (b) provides guidance on what to look for (and what to avoid) in a prospective spouse. That's idiosyncratic, sure. But I suppose it also means you can read the book frequently over the span of years and nearly always find something relevant to what you're doing right now.

I want to underscore one of Murray's peeves (out of many in tip #15): "Literally used to mean figuratively." Linguists will quibble: the use of "literally" to mean "not really literally" has been common for centuries, and most dictionaries (since they describe how words are used, not how they should be) sanction the usage.

But Murray (and his fellow curmudgeons, who are everywhere) will find it grating, sticking out of your prose like a sore thumb (but not a literal sore thumb). You will be suspected of slovenly habits of thought. You might get away with it, but why take the chance?

[Hm, now I have to search through 9+ years of Pun Salad postings and make sure I never, ever, screwed this up…]

I especially appreciated his tip number 34: "Watch Groundhog Day repeatedly." I do that; I try to watch it every February 2. Although we've never met, I suspect Murray and I may be kindred spirits. I don't know if Charles Murray is any relation to Bill Murray.

A Reply to a Column in my Local Paper

My local newspaper, Foster's Daily Democrat, publishes a lot of reader-generated content, mostly letters. A few of mine have appeared over the years, but I get most of my self-expression jollies right here on Pun Salad.

Back on April 13, Foster's published a short column from Wayne H. Merritt. Merritt is a prolific letter-writer, always echoing stale Democratic Party talking points; I suspect Foster's decided to "upgrade" one of his letters.

The column was an attack on Supreme Court decisions, Citizens United v. FEC and the more recent McCutcheon v. FEC. At least it started out that way; by the end, he'd wandered off into recommending pothole repair. But while he was on that topic, Merritt was, to put it mildly, aghast, accusing the "five Conservative justices" of holding "our system of democracy, with free and fair elections, in such contempt."

I was irritated enough to pen the following letter, sending it off on April 14. It has not yet been published, maybe won't be. In any case, I thought I'd share it:

To the Editor:

I couldn't decide whether to be amused or saddened by the April 13 op-ed column ("Conservative contempt") by Wayne H. Merritt. It purports to criticize recent Supreme Court decisions on campaign finance regulation (Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC).

But here are some words and phrases that don't appear in Mr. Merritt's column: "Constitution"; "First Amendment"; "Free Speech". That ought to be a bright red flag to any reader: you can't write a cogent analysis of these Supreme Court rulings without mentioning at least one of those things somewhere along the line. But instead the column quickly wanders off into the usual GOP-bashing.

Chief Roberts' opinion in McCutcheon puts the issue thus: "If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests, and Nazi parades-despite the profound offense such spectacles cause-it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition." You may not agree with this assertion, but you shouldn't pretend it doesn't exist.

Let's not forget what Citizens United was about: the government claiming the power to impose criminal penalties on an organization for daring to advertise their anti-Hillary Clinton movie. During the Supreme Court argument, the government also claimed their power extended to banning books (and jailing their publishers) if they contained forbidden words appearing too close to an election.

To me, the dismaying thing is that there were any Supreme Court justices coming down on the other side of the argument.

Mr. Merritt's thesis seems to be that unless the voting public is protected from "too much" political speech (financed by contributions from people of whom he disapproves) they'll be too weak-minded to resist. The people simply can't be trusted to evaluate competing arguments and make up their own minds.

That's a pretty damning indictment of the competence of the voting public. And yet, Mr. Merritt claims the other side is the one that holds our system of democracy "in such contempt." That's funny. Or sad. As I said above, I can't decide.


Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:12 AM EDT

The Return of Sherlock Holmes

[Amazon Link]

Another bit of progress in my long-term project to reread Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales. This book contains 13 short stories, starting with "The Adventure of the Empty House", wherein Doyle resurrects the great detective that he killed off in "The Final Problem." Doyle took a vacation of almost a decade from Holmes; I think he came back as a better writer. (I don't know if this perception matches any sort of critical consensus.)

The Holmes in these yarns is (of course) a brilliant master of deduction, but also witty and charming. He never beats a confession out of anyone; instead, they simply give up when confronted with the sheer mass of deduction that Holmes drops on their brains. He's not above letting a murderer go free (the victim was a really bad guy), or otherwise not disclosing the true facts of the case to the authorities (when it would only cause misery to a beautiful woman).

It seems to me that Holmes also has improved relations with the bumbling Inspector Lestrade, and has positively good things to say about some other Scotland Yard employees. (Again, my impression here may be faulty.)

I found myself wishing that the writers of Elementary would steer their "Sherlock Holmes" character closer to the real one. On TV, he's kind of a humorless mopy dick, always yammering about his drug problem. Doyle's guy is more fun.


Last Modified 2014-04-24 5:35 AM EDT

Disappointed in xkcd (Part 2)

An addendum to this post about my massive disappointment with Randall Munroe's recent xkcd web comic. I forgot to comment on the comic's mouseover text (title attribute on the IMG element):

I can't remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you're saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it's not literally illegal to express.

A frustratingly obtuse comment, pretending that there's a rational discussion going on, with compelling arguments being made on both sides, evidence presented, rebuttals and refutations made, and so on. All quite civilized and liberal, a vibrant marketplace of contending ideas and visions.

That is not what's going on, not what's under discussion in recent "free speech" debates, and it's difficult to believe that Munroe is so oblivious.

The "argument" from the ilk Munroe is defending is, at bottom, "shut up". I.e., it's not an "argument" at all, it's a strenuous effort to squelch and delegitimize certain arguments.

Can Munroe really think that the blacklisters, the book-burners, the thought police, etc., act that way because they have the stronger argument?

Disappointed in xkcd

xkcd

I've been a fan for years of Randall Munroe and his xkcd web comic. (I count 14 Pun Salad references to xkcd over the years, the first one nearly five years back.) I even ordered his new book the day he announced it.

Munroe's xkcd is nearly always smart and clever, making the most of the comic medium and his modest artistic skills. In fact, up until today, I would have omitted "nearly always" from the previous sentence. Because the current comic (miniaturized at right, click for the original) is obtuse, sloppy, and tendentious.

The topic is "free speech", and it's obviously meant to respond to various criticisms aimed at (for example) Mozilla for dumping its brief-CEO Brendan Eich, and Brandeis U for granting, and then rescinding, an honorary degree from Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Munroe begins:

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:

Yeah, maybe I should have added "insufferably smug" to my description of the strip above. Be grateful, ye public! For what Munroe is about to announce is a precious service granted unto you!

THE RIGHT TO FREE SPEECH
MEANS THE GOVERNMENT CAN'T
ARREST YOU FOR WHAT YOU SAY.

The sloppiness begins: actually, it's the First Amendment that proscribes the government from arresting speakers. The "right to free speech" is a pre-existing liberty protected by the First Amendment.

That might be dismissed as a quibble, but I wouldn't agree. The First Amendment's speech protection isn't just an arbitrary legal rule picked out of the air by its authors. Not to get all sappy, but the Amendment's underlying foundation is the assumed positive value of unhindered debate and unfettered access to the marketplace of ideas. Munroe's sloppy "announcement" manages to obscure that point.

Even as a legalistic point, Munroe is incorrect. For example (as FIRE will be happy to point out) the First also prevents public universities from disciplining students, or discriminating between student organizations, simply because of their expressed viewpoints. (Something the University Near Here needed to have pointed out back in 2004.)

IT DOESN'T MEAN
THAT ANYONE ELSE
HAS TO LISTEN TO
YOUR BULLSHIT,

OR HOST YOU WHILE
YOU SHARE IT.

Uh, sure. As near as I can tell Munroe has defeated a strawman here: precisely nobody is advocating that people be forced by government action to "listen". And I haven't (for example) seen anyone claim that either Brendan Eich or Ayaan Hirsi Ali have any legal remedies against their shoddy treatment.

But the "host" part is another matter, and, strictly speaking, Munroe's just wrong. For example (as implied above): if you're a public university, you can't set up one set of rules for the College Democrats, and a different set for College Republicans, simply because you've pre-judged one of them as engaging in "bullshit".

The 1st AMENDMENT
DOESN'T SHIELD
YOU FROM CRITICISM
OR CONSEQUENCES.

Of course it doesn't shield you from criticism; another strawman.

But (equally of course) it does shield you from at least some consequences. Doesn't Munroe remember what he said in panel one?

Expanding on that half-wrong point, Munroe wanders off into the weeds:

IF YOU'RE YELLED AT, BOYCOTTED,
HAVE YOUR SHOW CANCELLED, OR
GET BANNED FROM AN INTERNET
COMMUNITY, YOUR FREE SPEECH
RIGHTS AREN'T BEING VIOLATED.

As a legal matter, that may (or may not) be true. I wouldn't expect, for example, Munroe to delve into issues like the Heckler's Veto in the limited space of a comic strip. But he's displaying (probably feigned) ignorance of such issues. As I said: obtuse.

Going beyond the strictly legal issues, Munroe is declaring himself a proud member of "The Culture of Shut Up". That's sad.

IT'S JUST THAT THE
PEOPLE LISTENING
THINK YOU'RE AN
ASSHOLE.

In panel 2, Munroe (correctly) claimed that people didn't have to listen. Here they are listening. Gosh, it's hard to follow this argument.

AND THEY'RE
SHOWING YOU
THE DOOR.

I'm not old enough to remember the Hollywood blacklist, but I remember it was supposed to be some sort of horrible thing. Munroe, I guess, would have had no problem with it.


Last Modified 2014-04-20 6:00 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2014-04-16

futurama snap

  • Not that it matters much, but geez I miss Futurama. Today's post picture is a throwaway gag from the Season 7 episode "31st Century Fox". Click to embiggen; there's a smaller additional joke on the side of the bus.

    The gang has a guest appearance coming up on The Simpsons at some point, hopefully before the 31st Century.

  • At Cato, Trevor Burris points out another instance of the general rule: people who most strenuously seek to "control" guns seem to know the least about guns. Case in point: retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, in a recent Washington Post-published excerpt from his upcoming book.

    Stevens' mistake: incorrectly referring to the guns wielded by recent mass-murderers as "automatic weapons". Which they were not. This blooper was silently corrected by the Post, but it is probably too late to fix the book.

    Stevens' proposal, by the way, is to edit the Second Amendment to read "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed." Why not just advocate repealing the amendment outright? I dunno. Don't care either.

  • Answers to questions nobody is asking: "What Do White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Soviet-Era Propaganda Have in Common?" (A: "They both live in the same house.")

    I agree with Frank J.'s one-liner: "Putting up Soviet propaganda posters in your home is a lot like putting up Nazi propaganda posters except it’s just as bad."

God Trying To Get My Attention

Not that it matters, but:

I previously mentioned that I heard a whole bunch of political speeches last Saturday. One of them [complete video] was by Senator Rand Paul. Near the end of his speech [clip], he advocated a sunny approach to political messaging:

We've gotta do it with a smile. We gotta do it with optimism.

There was a painter by the name of Robert Henron [sic] and he wrote: "Paint like a man coming over the hill singing."

I love the image of that. We need to proclaim our message with the passion of Patrick Henry, like a man coming over the hill singing, with optimism. And make sure that it's a message for all. No matter what walk of life you are.

When I heard that "man coming over the hill singing" phrase, the image that leapt into my head—oh, you too?—was Julie Andrews' opening scene in The Sound of Music. OK, fine. Imagine you are Maria. Good advice! Perhaps. Where appropriate.

The very next day when I was reading one of the essays by William Zinsser in his recent book, The Writer Who Stayed. And right there on page 72, Mr. Zinsser reports on an address given by the historian David McCullough to a small graduating class of a Connecticut fine-arts college. And:

He had written a talk specifically for those newborn artists—a talk generously furnished with helpful admonitions by great artists of the past. The one that I wrote down was by the American painter Robert Henri: "You should paint like a man coming over the top of the hill singing."

And I thought: Um, hey.

What are the odds that I'd get exposed twice, within a span of 24 hours, via very different channels, to a quote I'd never before encountered from a painter I'd never heard of before?

(Yeah, sorry, I'm a Philistine.)

There's a semi-accepted term for this: the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. (When I say semi-accepted, I mean: its Wikipedia page has been deleted.)

But Keb' Mo' has an alternative explanation, which I think I prefer:


Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:15 AM EDT

Open Season

[Amazon Link]

So after reading two standalone C. J. Box novels (the Edgar-winning Blue Heaven and the equally impressive Back of Beyond), I put all 16 of his other novels on my to-be-read list. This is his first book, written back in 2002, and it's another winner. I regret I didn't start sooner.

It is also Box's first novel with Joe Pickett, his series hero. Joe is a game warden, toiling in a remote county for Wyoming's Game and Fish Department. It's (literally) his childhood-dream job. Unfortunately, the pay is bad, his state-provided housing is small and shabby, and he's got two daughters with another kid on the way.

Also, Joe's trusting nature leads him to make a mistake. When confronting Ote Keely, a poacher caught (literally) red-handed, he allows his sidearm to be taken. This gets Joe (understandably) in some trouble.

But he keeps his job, and his life. Ote shows up again a few months later, murdered, in Joe's back yard. For some reason, he's travelled gut-shot for miles to Joe's back yard, only to expire by the woodpile. The only clue is an open cooler containing poop of unknown origin and significance.

The crime is immediately solved to the satisfaction of everyone except Joe. He makes a few inquiries, and the response is a multi-pronged attempt to get Joe to back off. Things escalate rather quickly, exposing the corruption of some of Joe's co-workers. And his family become the targets, which is harrowing reading.

New Hampshire Freedom Summit

So I went to the "New Hampshire Freedom Summit" in Manchester on Saturday (April 12). I swiped borrowed their logo image for this post's illustration:

[NH Freedom Summit]

A good blogger would have at least a same-day report, possibly even live updates from the scene. Sorry, I'm not that guy. The following is just an unfocused list of stuff I noticed, with no overarching theme.

I had a surprisingly good time. It was one speech after another, mostly by slick politicians, on barely-comfortable 0.95-asswidth hotel mass seating. There were (it was claimed) in the neighborhood of 700 people in attendance, and the speakers (as near as I could tell) did not interact much with the masses. And (everyone kept pointing this out) it was a beautiful day outside. So I held open the possibility of cutting out early. But the speeches were pretty good. The event was put on for free, even the box lunch. So, although a normal person probably wouldn't have liked it, I did.

This free-to-me event was sponsored by Citizens United (you might recognize them as First Amendment heroes and left-wing bogeymen). and Americans for Prosperity (which, in the left-wing stylebook, must never allowed to be uttered without the phrase "Koch brothers" somewhere nearby).

So, yay: after years of being accused of being in the underhanded employ of the Koch brothers, I can report: they might have indirectly bought me lunch. About damn time.

The speakers included:

  • Four Senators (Lee, Cruz, Paul, Ayotte)
  • Three current Representatives, one ex-Representative (Steve King from Iowa, Louie Gohmert from Texas, Tennessee's Marsha Blackburn, and Newt Gingrich)
  • One Ex-Governor (Mike Huckabee)
  • One President (of the American Enterprise Institute), Arthur Brooks
  • One talk-show host (and new ABC News contributor), Laura Ingraham
  • In a category of his own: The Donald Trump

There were also a host of local pols and representatives from CU and AFP.

I had forgotten that politicians tend to be charismatic and polished (or, pejoratively, "slick") speakers. Most had laugh lines and jokes, delivered with practiced skill. The funniest story (to me) came from Senator Lee, who had a pretty good one about how his relative youth caused problems getting the Capitol security cops to recognize him as a Senator.

Probably the biggest surprise came from AEI President Arthur Brooks. You might have noticed that he's kind of the odd man out in the speaker list: never held, or attempted to hold, elective office. But, as it turned out, I thought Brooks gave the best speech of the day. (Here's the C-SPAN video, see what you think.) Brooks was funny, and had good, insightful, advice for conservative/libertarian candidates. Their problem is shown in the polls that ask "Does Candidate X care about the problems of people like me"? Our guys invariably come up on the short end of that stick.

I used to—up until Saturday, in fact—think that didn't matter. Brooks convinced me I was wrong. The argument needs to be made that conservative/libertarian policies actually help middle/lower classes. (That should be easier to do after the Obama/Pelosi/Reid years, fortunately.)

Some other, more random, observations:

  • The audience was surprisingly up on current events. You could tell, for example, that many in the crowd were aware of Rep. Gohmert's run-in with Atty. Gen. Eric Holder the previous Tuesday. ("You don’t want to go there buddy, all right? You don’t want to go there, OK?”) Rep. Gohmert also (amusingly) revealed the source of his "casting aspersions on my asparagus" comment to Holder last year.

    The audience also recognized references to Jeb Bush's recent "act of love" immigration remarks, and clearly, um, disagreed. Kathleen “Unfortunately, a page is missing" Sebelius's farewell remarks were also lampooned, to knowing laughs.

  • The phrase that caused the most consistent applause, uttered by several speakers: "Abolish the IRS". I'm all for that, of course, but I was surprised how popular the sentiment was amongst the crowd.

    Also a reliable applause-getter: being against Common Core. (I don't think Jeb Bush would have made a good showing if we'd had a straw poll.)

  • I had no idea how short Rand Paul is. Yes, that's superficial. (I'm far more worried by his foreign policy statements.) But I Googled it, and it's not that I'm the only one who's noticed.

  • This was billed as the first New Hampshire "cattle call" for 2016 GOP presidential candidates. Based on the crowd reaction, Cruz and Paul were the clear favorites.

  • The Donald Trump gave a pretty good speech, given that he seemed to have no prepared remarks, just rambling off the top of his head for his allotted time, mostly about himself. (Not a surprise.) I think the only speaker to use the word "bullshit".

    While most speakers avoided issues that divide the GOP, Trump singled out Paul Ryan and his proposed budget for criticism. We should not touch the big-ticket entitlements, Trump argued, it's a recipe for getting large masses of people to hate you. He argued that, if we get "smarter" about international trade and internal economics, we can get wealthy enough to grow our way out of budgetary disaster.

    I doubt Trump's math works, for any reasonable assumptions about economic growth.

  • More on "divisive" issues: as this BuzzFeed guy notes, everyone steered pretty much clear of "social" issues. (But also read Ramesh Ponnuru on that.)

  • Senator Cruz deployed a decent Jay Leno impression.


Last Modified 2014-04-14 6:37 PM EDT

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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

I went to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier on my Friday off, a late afternoon show, and there was only one other person in the theater. But I had a great time. Consumer note: I sprang for the 3-D experience, and my advice would be not to bother.

In this episode, Cap is trying to get integrated into the modern-day world (like our own, but with superheroes and cataclysmic battles in and around famous American cities.) But he does errands for Nick Fury and SHIELD, partnering with the fetching Black Widow and a menacing strike force. Cap is no fool, however, so it gradually dawns on him that Nick and the Widow aren't entirely sharing their agendas. Worse, Nick is getting the feeling he's being played for a fool by Robert Redford. (It must be the big illuminated "bad guy" sign Redford has hanging above his head. Or was that my imagination?)

Also in the mix is the "Winter Soldier", a super-assassin whose origins are a mystery to anyone who doesn't pay attention to the actor playing the role. Didn't we see him in something else a few years back? Oh yeah…

Fortunately, there's also a new good guy: the Falcon! played by Anthony Mackie. Aided by a Stark Industries flying rig, he's resourceful and fearless.

Overall: Lots of action, good acting, clever dialog. Minor spoiler in white ink: one of the minor characters (Jasper Sitwell) from my ancient comic book-reading days appears here, treated in a way that causes me to downgrade the movie by a half-star from my usual 5. Don't mess with my comic memories, Marvel!


Last Modified 2014-04-14 5:23 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2014-04-10

For some reason, I'm Washington Post-centric today. I'll seek help.

  • I plan on attending the Citizens United/Americans for Prosperity "Freedom Summit" in Manchester on Saturday (April 12). I have no idea what the arrangements or schedule will be, but if you're there too, please look for a tall bald geek and say hello. Chances are it will be me.

    Jennifer Rubin, the WaPo's "conservative" blogger, has already worked up a preemptive condemnation of the event due to its inclusion of speakers she deems unacceptable (The Donald Trump, Rep. Steve King). Jennifer calls the future event a "pratfall" and a "circus".

    But I haven't been to the circus in a while. See you there.

  • Brandeis University declared itself an enthusiastic participant in what Jon Lovett called the "Culture of Shut Up". By first extending, and then rescinding an honorary degree and a commencement-speaker spot to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Someone noticed she's not a punch-puller when discussing Islam.

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali's response to the disinvitation is here. The one small bit of amusement is Brandeis's weaselly-worded statement that begins "Following a discussion today between President Frederick Lawrence and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s name has been withdrawn…". Ms Hirsi Ali notes:

    I wish to dissociate myself from the university’s statement, which implies that I was in any way consulted about this decision. On the contrary, I was completely shocked when President Frederick Lawrence called me — just a few hours before issuing a public statement — to say that such a decision had been made.

    It's hard to disagree with John Podhoretz, who happens to be the nephew of a previous Brandeis president: the current guy's engaging in "nothing less than the act of a gutless, spineless, simpering coward." But also dishonest.

    Reason editor Nick Gillespie speculates that a 2007 interview in the magazine might have contained the quotes that caused the Brandeis administration to decide to clap its hands over its fragile graduates' ears, lest they hear something ideologically discordant. Nick observes:

    There is something particularly appalling about an institution that is predicated upon the idea of free and open discourse throwing in the towel so quickly. Either the people running the school there are simply total ignoramuses or they are cowards who refuse to defend their choice. Of course, they could be both. In any case, the reputation of the school should suffer, both as a place where ideas can discussed and where smart people congregate. Who wants to be the first person to turn up far more dubious recipients of Brandeis honorary degrees?

    Let me repeat and concur: of course, they could be both.

  • My own CongressCritter/Toothache, Carol Shea-Porter, hasn't penned a "Carol's Column" since last October. Too bad, they were fun to make fun of. But she does issue the occasional press release, like this one on "Equal Pay Day". Containing the phrase:

    […] but women in America still make only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.

    Even the liberal Washington Post Fact Checker can't abide this statistic, awarding it Two Pinocchios (out of a possible four). And it's not as if the claim hasn't been widely debunked elsewhere. The WaPo's Ruth Marcus deems it revolting demagoguery.

    Either Carol is

    1. utterly ignorant, or
    2. deliberately misleading. In which case, she's hoping/assuming that you are utterly ignorant.

    Of course, she could be both.

    [Don't, by the way, expect Politifact to be honest or self-consistent on evaluating the truthiness of this claim, but you might get a chuckle.]

  • This Washington Post story illustrates how quickly a baseless scurrilous accusation about a Republican can be picked up and echoed uncritically by "respectable" MSM outlets. Corrections come grudgingly, if at all.


Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:21 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2014-04-08

  • Joel Kotkin writes in the Orange County Register about the strange new respect on the American Left for debate-stifling.

    But when it comes to authoritarian expression of “true” beliefs, it’s the progressive Left that increasingly seeks to impose orthodoxy. In this rising intellectual order, those who dissent on everything from climate change, the causes of poverty and the definition of marriage, to opposition to abortion are increasingly marginalized and, in some cases, as in the Steyn trial, legally attacked.

    The reference to Steyn, of course, concerns global warming huckster Michael Mann's effort to stifle criticism of his activist-posing-as-scientist activities.

  • But you know things are really bad when Jon Lovett, who is an ex-employee of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, writes an article titled "The Culture of Shut Up", and it appears at the Atlantic website. And it's funny and perceptive.

    There once was a remote village deep in the rainforest that had no contact with the outside world. And in this small village there were only three village elders who had the ability to speak. So they were in charge. And they’d have arguments. One would say, “I support a woman’s right to choose.” Another would say, “I oppose a woman’s right to choose.” And then the third would say, “A real debate here on a woman’s right to choose. When we come back, Justin Bieber arrested!”

    Now if you were one of the many villagers who didn’t have a way to speak, you just hoped that one of the three elders who could speak would make the argument you wanted to make. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t. And it was okay, but it bothered you that these three voices didn’t really speak for everybody. They were, after all, pretty rich and all one color. (Green. These were green people.) And they didn’t really understand what it was like to be aqua or purple or gay or poor like you were. You’re a gay poor purple person. They tried to cover the whole world, but generally they focused on what was on the minds of green people from the big cities who watched Mad Men and went to Middlebury.

    Check it out. People can go on to be funny and sensible even after working for Clinton and Obama. Who knew?

  • Don Boudreaux links to and quotes extensively to "The ’77 Cents on the Dollar Myth About Women’s Pay" in the WSJ. Both are well worth your reading, but Prof Boudreaux makes a more general point about the hubris involved:

    Far too many policy proposals are premised on the absurd notion that privately available profit opportunities exist but remain unnoticed by all but professors, politicians, pundits, and preachers – officious observers who never offer to stake their own funds and efforts on seizing these opportunities. Seizing with their own private initiative these opportunities (if these opportunities are real) would not only yield well-deserved profits to the these professors, politicians, pundits, and preachers, but it would also solve the very problems that they assert are so awful. But instead, these officious know-it-alls cower in their punditry and preaching; they restrict their own actions to instructing the government on how to force other people to spend money and to act.

    A certain amount of arrogance is probably necessary for anyone who wants to get into the opinion-expressing biz, present company included. It should be tempered with humility, though. Is it my imagination that the arrogance/humility ratio is disproportionately high on one end of the political spectrum? By which I mean: that other one?

  • Jonah Goldberg would agree I think. He discusses Vox.com, a liberal site which prides itself on "explanatory journalism". But:

    The whole explanatory journalism project fits neatly into the core argument driving The Tyranny of Clichés: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas. They cheat by denying their ideological motivations — even to themselves.  Indeed, it is a constant trope of liberalism to believe — dogmatically, ideologically — that they are just empiricists and fact-finders doing what is right and good in a battle against dogmatic ideologues on the right. The more honest approach would be to simply admit your biases upfront and defend the principles that inform your biases. Instead they prefer to make arguments grounded in the assumption that the liberal “frame” is really a perfect window onto reality.

    That makes me sad and tired.


Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:14 AM EDT

Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain

[Amazon Link]

I think I've mentioned my placement of Isaac Asimov's SF novels on my to-be-(re)?read list a few years back. Here's the latest entry, one I actually hadn't read before. For good reasons, it turns out.

Semi-interesting background: Dr. Asimov wrote the novelization for the fondly-remembered movie Fantastic Voyage back in the sixties. It was based on a screenplay written by someone else, and it told the story of the miniaturized submarine Proteus as it carried a life-saving laser to destroy a life-threatening blood clot in the brain of a defecting Soviet scientist.

Asimov was apparently long-bugged about the movie's total disregard for even remote scientific plausibility. (His book cleaned up some issues, but far from all.) Hence this "reboot".

There are a lot of differences. There is a handwaving attempt to justify the miniaturization process as a localized field where Planck's Constant (h) is reduced. So everything that depends on h (mass, atomic size, quantum forces, etc.) gets "smaller" proportionately. Cool!

It's set at some point in the 21st century, far enough ahead so there are permanent moon bases. Amusingly, although Asimov wrote this in the mid-1980s, much of the plot revolves around the rivalry between the US and the still-nasty, still existing, Soviet Union. The protagonist is essentially shanghaied to participate in a Soviet mission to recover the thoughts of a comatose Russian scientist. (He's comatose because—gulp!—a previous minaturization experiment went awry.) The crew is plagued by inner dissension and the many obstacles inherent in trying to find a likely brain cell that might be used to extract the right combination of brain-wave patterns.

The miniaturized vessel does not even have a name. Sigh.

The talk/action ratio is high, maybe higher than usual for Asimov. While the underlying science might be better, they all spend an unusual amount of time yakking about it. The result is not too interesting, let alone thrilling.

URLs du Jour — 2014-04-07

  • As a conservative/libertarian within an organization where the prevailing orthodoxy is anything but, I've been checking out the case of Brendan Eich, briefly CEO of Mozilla.

    James Taranto points out an obvious corollary to the dustup. Eich was "outed" as a dissident by laws demanding public disclosure of contributions to campaigns (in this case, a ballot initiative). Such disclosure laws are routinely demanded by liberals/progressives. They usually leave unsaid their actual motive: so that they can get even with you for opposing them afterwards.

    Taranto notes that this was foreseen in Justice Thomas's opinion in the Citizens United case. Thomas is quoted extensively, and you should read the whole thing, but here's his conclusion:

    I cannot endorse a view of the First Amendment that subjects citizens of this Nation to death threats, ruined careers, damaged or defaced property, or pre-emptive and threatening warning letters as the price for engaging in “core political speech, the ‘primary object of First Amendment protection.’ ”

    Unfortunately such perceptive pro-liberty arguments are rare these days.

  • Jonathan Last is also pretty perceptive on the issue. RTWT, but here's the executive summary: (1) To be really consistent, Mozilla should conduct a total purge of all pro-Proposition 8 employees, not just Eich; (2) Eich probably could have saved his job by doing the apologetic repentant-heretic act; that he didn't speaks well to his principles; (3) oh, yeah: stop using Firefox.

    So, yes, I've started using Google Chrome exclusively. I doubt this will be anything other than symbolic.

  • I noticed a relatively recent update to the timezone database, only a couple weeks since the previous one. What could they have missed? So I went to the release announcement and…

    Crimea switches to Moscow time on 2014-03-30 at 02:00 local time. (Thanks to Alexander Krivenyshev.) Move its zone.tab entry from UA to RU.

    Oh. Ouch. Could have also added a thanks to Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, I suppose. The Russkies don't miss anything when they take over.


Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:16 AM EDT

When Is Violence Not Violence?

UNH Anti-Violence Rally Announcement

When you're at an Institution of Higher Education, of course.

At the University Near Here, we're against violence! That goes without saying. Or so you might think, if you're unaware of today's campus atmosphere. This month, being "anti-violence" is April's excuse to demonstrate that we are "more enlightened, noble, tolerant, wise, sensitive, conscious, and smart than most other people." As if we needed an excuse.

And so we have the "'Stepping Out to Speak Out Against Violence at UNH' WALK&RALLY!" this coming Thursday, sponsored by the U's Sexual Harassment & Rape Prevention Program (SHARPP).

It is a triumph of sloppy feelings and attitudes over careful thought and measured expression. Example: when you're caught up in strident earnestness, you find yourself autotyping silly demands as in this blog post:

blog blooper

(I'm not a total cad, so I've written the poster to point out the blooper. It might be fixed by the time you click there.)

As another amusement, the event's announcement page proudly points out:

This event is sponsored by SHARPP with support from the following organizations and department [sic] at UNH and in the local community.

… and there are exactly zero organizations and department[s] listed following this sentence.

But more interesting (albeit unsurprising) is the infusion of tendentious ideology into what you might think would be a near-universal distaste for campus violence. Here's a remarkable paragraph from the announcement page, with my snarky comments interspersed:

This localized social movement aims at gathering students, faculty, staff and Durham community members together to take a collective and powerful stance against all forms of violence on our campus, […]

"Localized social movement" is apparently an up-and-coming term of art in the community organizer game. Do you think they hit that collective bell hard enough?

including violence against women.

In a more logical world, since you've already said the "movement" is against all forms of violence, it would be unnecessary to point out that that stance includes violence against women. The University is not part of that more logical world.

Violence against victims/survivors results from […]

Lord forbid that they simply say "Violence is…"

the use of force or threat to achieve and maintain control over others in relationships, […]

In relationships? You notice how quickly we're driving off into the weeds here?

What about your garden variety felony assault, like this one, in which a non-UNH dimwit attacked a UNH employee with a broken bottle? Were they in a "relationship"?

Is the word "relationship" really appropriate to how the sordid murder of UNH student Lizzi Marriott played out in October 2012?

Apparently UNH faculty member Eric Paul Engel did have a "former family friend" relationship with Aleksander “Lenny” Wysocki. That is, before Engel shot Wysocki dead last Valentine's Day in Cary, NC. Before turning the gun on himself in Florida the next day. But was Engel's violence an effort to "achieve and maintain control" over Wysocki? I can't imagine why it would matter if it was.

By the way, one of Engel's students was quick to point out that Engel "always talked about how he was very anti-violence and against wars". (UNH: the kind of place they say that sort of thing about you even after you've murdered someone.) Perhaps Engel attended a previous year's anti-violence rally.

But it gets worse:

and from societal abuse of power and domination in the forms of sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, able-bodyism, ageism and other oppressions.

Yes, let's drag in all the current -isms, and add in "other oppressions" just to be safe. Despite the fact that their causal relationship to actual violence is close to nil. The message is clear: to be "against violence" at UNH, you need to buy into the entire current left-wing litany of victimology, privilege, and oppression. Otherwise, sorry, but you're pro-violent scum.

Fearless prediction: despite all the speechifying on Thursday, there will be little or nothing said that might prevent the next homicide, assault, or rape perpetrated by or against someone at UNH. All that is beside the point when your purpose is self-congratulation, moral preening, and indoctrination.


Last Modified 2014-04-08 5:10 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2014-04-04

  • Congressman Paul Ryan brought out the FY2015 version of his "Path to Prosperity" budget earlier this week. President Obama deemed it a "stinkburger" or a "meanwich". (Unconfirmed reports claim that he also said Congressman Ryan was a "poopyhead" with "cooties".)

    Many on our side were negative as well, because Ryan's budget increases near-term spending while relying on future Congresses to make cuts necessary to bring the budget into balance in 10 years. Big Government gathered thumbs-dows quotes from a host of Tea Party stalwarts. Mark Kevin Lloyd, a "Virginia Tea Party activist" is on point:

    "The sad fact is that the promised reductions never come," Lloyd said. "Future congresses are not bound by the dreams, schemes, and chicanery of previous congresses. These people think the American people are stupid, and the fact that we keep letting them get away with it makes me believe they might be right."

    And Sarah Palin, equally unimpressed, deemed Ryan's PtoP "a joke". But not an actually funny one.

    However, the scorn was not unanimous. Keith Hennessey looks on the bright side, which is easy to do when you use his methodology: comparison with President Obama's budget. He also sees the Ryan budget as a possible potent component of the 2014 GOP election strategy: it (at least) projects budget balance at some point, while Obama's budget does not, ever.

    And, as seems to happen more often that not, Kevin D. Williamson makes the most sense to me: Ryan's budget is (a) far from ideal; but (b) probably the best we can do right now; and (c) totally unlikely to pass, because the American people won't buy it.

    My pessimism is rooted in my belief that there is not in reality a very large market for meaningful fiscal conservatism. People tell pollsters that they support balanced budgets and that they believe that our entitlement programs need to be reformed, and they tell them even more strongly that they oppose virtually all of the measures necessary to balance the budget or to reform entitlements.

    What our side needs is more convincing spokespeople. Unfortunately, I see nobody on the horizon.

  • The Amazing Geraghty writes:

    So what do progressives really want? If, as I suspect, the currency of progressivism isn’t policies or results, but emotions, what does that approach build? What kind of a country do you get when political leaders are driven by a desire to feel that they are more enlightened, noble, tolerant, wise, sensitive, conscious, and smart than most other people?

    Answer: you get a bunch of people whose first and last reaction is: "If you disagree with me, you must be a dumb bigot. Also, you hurt my feelings."

  • Speaking of which… <voice imitation="professor_farnsworth">Good news, everyone!</voice> You can win a lunch date with Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Elizabeth Warren.

    Allegedly you can enter without giving them money. I couldn't get that to work. But I'll keep trying because I would dearly love to give them a piece of my mind.

  • I wish Gwyneth Paltrow were as smart and level-headed as… well, Pepper Potts. But no. In a recent interview with E! (which I pronounce "Eeeee!") she revealed how tough it is for celebrities to be parents.

    Dean Norris is probably not as well known as Gwyneth, but he chimed in:

    I became very impressed with Mr. Norris's acting skills during my recent Breaking Bad marathon. Now I'm kind of impressed with his sense of humor. Because I also found:


Last Modified 2014-10-07 5:00 AM EDT

Code Words, Dog Whistles, and Other Lies

In Googling around for a previous post about the batshit hostility directed at Paul Ryan's welfare remarks, I came across this Politico story from one Ian Haney López. Its theme: Ryan was in a long tradition of GOP politicians making "racial attacks". Quoting uncritically Rep. Barbara Lee's (D-Calif.) rant against Ryan, López expanded her argument:

By calling out his use of “code words,” Lee put Ryan in the company of past politicians who have blown the proverbial dog whistle—using surreptitious references to race to garner support from anxious voters. Examples of dog whistling include Barry Goldwater’s endorsement of “states’ rights”; Richard Nixon’s opposition to “forced busing”; Ronald Reagan’s blasts against “welfare queens”; and George H.W. Bush’s infamous Willie Horton ad.

All these examples are well-known, because they are endlessly flogged by people who have given up argument, and resort to, essentially, "I'm right because you're a racist."

López is identified as (oh oh) a "law professor at UC Berkeley" and the author of a recent book, Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class. So he's prettily heavily invested in the whole "code words"/"dog whistle" thesis.

Let's concentrate on López's allegation about Reagan. It's certainly widespread (in various forms) as you can see by Googling. The blurb at Amazon for López's book doubles down:

Campaigning for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan told stories of Cadillac-driving "welfare queens" and "strapping young bucks" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps. In trumpeting these tales of welfare run amok, Reagan never needed to mention race, because he was blowing a dog whistle: sending a message about racial minorities inaudible on one level, but clearly heard on another. In doing so, he tapped into a long political tradition that started with George Wallace and Richard Nixon, and is more relevant than ever in the age of the Tea Party and the first black president.

And Amazon has allowed "search inside the book", so we can tell that López is pretty darn certain about what Reagan said:

Reagan also trumpeted his racial appeals in blasts against welfare cheats. On the stump, Reagan repeatedly invoked a story of a “Chicago welfare queen” with “eighty names, thirty addresses, [and] twelve Social Security cards [who] is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”14 Often, Reagan placed his mythical welfare queen behind the wheel of a Cadillac, tooling around in flashy splendor.

In sum: Reagan made up an anecdote about welfare fraud that encouraged bigots to vote for him, or something, but kept his hands clean by not explicitly mentioning race.

Looking a little more closely, López's neat little anti-Reagan yarn begins to unravel. His footnote goes to a 1976 New York Times story (which is well behind a paywall, but the original story was from the Washington Star, and you can read the same thing here.) In addition, the footnote cites the book Cheating Welfare: Public Assisstance and the Criminalization of Poverty by Kaaryn S. Gustafson (pp. 34-37).

Both references are Reagan-hostile, but both point to the likely source of Reagan's anecdote, a woman with many names, but most often referred to as "Linda Taylor". There's a recent meticulously-researched article about "Linda Taylor" by Josh Levin in Slate. Recommended; Levin is also critical of Reagan, but grants the essential accuracy of his anecdote. Levin describes how Taylor's story is much more sordid than Reagan realized.

What can we learn from all these sources?

  • Despite López accusing Reagan of doing this nasty deed in 1980, the actual occurrences (such as they are) seem to have been from his earlier 1976 campaign. Sloppy.

  • Despite López labelling the subject of Reagan's anecdote as "mythical", Linda Taylor was a real person. There's no reason for López not to have known this.

  • Despite López putting the alleged dog-whistle code words "welfare queen" in quotes, nobody can, um, actually cite Reagan using that phrase "on the stump". He did, Levin notes, use the phrase once in one of his radio addresses in the fall of 1976, and he made it clear that it was a term others were using about her. (The “welfare queen, as she’s now called.”)

    That's quite a dog whistle: not only do you need special ears to imagine racism in the words that don't mention race, you actually have to imagine that Reagan used the words in the first place.

  • So Reagan didn't coin the phrase "welfare queen" for Taylor; it was (however) very common in the media of the day. For example, Google has preserved for us this 1974 article headlined "Alleged 'Welfare Queen' Is Accused of $154,000 Ripoff".

    Is that article using a racist "dog whistle"? Well, it's from Jet magazine. So I doubt you could make that charge credibly. (And, yes, that is Redd Foxx on the cover as the police chief of Taft, Oklahoma. Which is a whole 'nother story.)

  • And, yes: Linda Taylor did indeed own a Cadillac. Reagan did not place her "behind the wheel": she did that herself.

  • There's some doubt whether Taylor was even black. She claimed to be, when it suited her purposes. But her birth records, in the race-obsessed South, show her as white. Whatever her genome, she was not a good target for a "dog whistle" racial attack.

Bottom line: López's swipe at Reagan is sloppy and mendacious. I have little doubt those qualities extend to the whole of his argument about dog whistle code words.

[Note: I haven't discussed Reagan's use of the term "strapping young buck" here, but this post from David Bernstein make it seem even more farfetched than "welfare queen". The phrase was occasionally used, apparently without racial overtones, by others at the time. And Reagan apparently used the phrase once; if he considered the phrase to be an effective dog whistle, don't you think he'd use it more than once?]


Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:20 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2014-04-01

Well, it's that day again. Not all the links below are relevant, though.

  • Last month, Congressman Paul Ryan made a comment on a radio show, connecting poverty with “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”

    Cue lefty outrage! Cue accusations of racism!

    Andrew Klavan calls bullshit.

    In order to create a world in which powerful elites (them) can steal the money of hard-working Americans (us) in order to buy votes by flinging coins from their limousines at the poor (often in the inner city), the left has created a perpetual motion machine of black self-destruction. Convince black people they are helpless victims, give them free stuff that discourages work, sell them feminist and anti-religious social policies that destroy families, infiltrate their churches so that they cease to preach moral and ethical behavior and instead preach “social justice,” that pernicious phrase…  and then, when someone like Ryan has the testicular fortitude to point to the problems created by all this leftism, call him the racist. As bloody if.

    The left has developed a wonderfully self-sustaining system. It works great — if, that is, you don’t like your fellow Americans whose skin happens to be dark. But the truth is: there is not one single thing inherent in being black that causes generational poverty and violence. It’s the leftism, stupid. It’s the policies.

    But extra credit goes to a very unlikely source: Bill Maher. Who produced an even more damning quote on a recent episode of his HBO show:

    [W]hen it comes to getting an education, too many of our young people just can’t be bothered. Today, instead of walking miles every day to school, they’re sitting on couches for hours playing video games, watching TV. Instead of dreaming of being a teacher or a lawyer or a business leader, they’re fantasizing about being a baller or a rapper.

    Maher spoiled things a bit by quickly identifying the Republican racist who made this outrageous attack.

    Michelle Obama.

    It would have been so much more delicious if Maher had let his liberal guests condemn this statement while they were under the impression it came from Ryan or some other Republican.

  • Netflix is bringing Firefly back! Yay!

  • I counted myself a Ken Jennings fan. Until today. Turns out he's a jerk. Disappointing.

  • You might like Kafka's Joke Book. Sample:

    Why did the chicken cross the road?

    It had been crossing so long it could not remember. As it stopped in the middle to look back, a car sped by, spinning it around. Disoriented, the chicken realized it could no longer tell which way it was going. It stands there still.

    You'll laugh, but it will be a laughter full of angst and depression. Still, you'll laugh, so…

  • Find your inner Finn with the Finnish Name Generator. For the record, the Finnish name for this blog is "Väinämö Rinne".


Last Modified 2015-06-12 10:22 AM EDT