URLs du Jour - 2014-11-24

  • Kevin D. Williamson detects in President Obama a case of "A Small Man in a Big Office". It's a very interesting take on how character, or the lack thereof, manifests itself, either on the playing field or in elective office:

    I have seen a high-school football coach refuse to shake the hand of his opposite number after a football game in response to perceived affronts to sportsmanship, and that’s a serious thing. (They take it seriously in that other kind of football, too.) It’s basically Sampson biting his thumb at Abraham in the opening of Romeo and Juliet. “When good manners shall lie all in one or two men’s hands, and they unwashed, too, ’tis a foul thing.” You don’t shake hands with somebody who has behaved dishonorably.

    I do not think I would shake hands with Barack Obama.

    That's a thought experiment I doubt either Kevin or I would get a chance to test in real life, but I think I'd probably go the same way.

  • There is P.J. O'Rourke content at the Daily Beast: "Why 2016’s Hopefuls Are Hopeless", a quick look at both parties' likely presidential candidates. Jeb Bush, for example:

    He’s got everything.

    He’s young (for a Republican), just 61.

    He was a Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Texas. Hook ‘Em, Horns!

    He was a successful businessman.

    And a successful two-term Governor of a state where the balloting incompetence and idiocy is absolutely vital to the GOP.

    He’s fluent in Spanish. His wife is Hispanic. His children are too! He’s sure to move, temporarily, from Coral Gables to Houston so he can choose fellow Floridian Marco Rubio as his running mate. Kiss the Latino vote goodbye, Democrats.

    John Ellis Bush has just one problem. Perhaps you can take a “Bush-league” guess what it is. But don’t worry. Jeb is all set to legally change his name to “Scott Walker.”

  • You probably saw or heard about this past weekend's Saturday Night Live opening sketch that was openly non-reverential to President Obama and his immigration moves a few days ago! Heresy! At Breitbart, John Nolte noticed that the Washington Post actually spent time fact-checking the sketch. (Something nobody can remember happening in response to the approximately 2,396 anti-Ford/Reagan/Bush/GOP SNL sketches over the past 40 years.)

    And at Hot Air, Ed Morrissey lists a few things the WaPo could also correct, for example:

    • There are actually very few people with cone-shaped heads, and they rarely talk like robots.
    • Don’t Fear The Reaper didn’t really need more cowbell.
    • Sarah Palin never said she could see Russia from her house.

    And more.

  • And finally, a couple of seasonal links. Reason reports that the latest attack in the War Against Christmas has been beaten back:

    It's a Christmas miracle! An elementary school in a Boston suburb that was going to cancel its annual trip to see The Nutcracker has decided allowing kids to see a Christmas tree on stage will not destroy the non-Christians in the audience.

    It's usually wise to check that these stories aren't coming from some wackily paranoid right-wing source, but not in this case: link above goes to WHDH, the Boston NBC affiliate.

  • But the season would not be complete without perusing Dave Barry’s 2014 Holiday Gift Guide.

    [Amazon Link]

    But what if you want to go “old school” this holiday season? What if instead of giving your loved ones high-tech devices that will, in time, become obsolete and useless, you’d prefer to give gifts that are already useless?

    In that case, you have come to the right place: our annual Holiday Gift Guide, which has been a beloved American holiday tradition dating back to the dawn of time. Each year, we scour the entire solar system, looking for unique and tasteful gift ideas. Each year, we fail utterly and wind up with a collection of random crap we found on the Internet. This is our holiday gift to you.

    My "favorite" would have to be "The Meat", which is one in a series of toy action figures from to the Rocky movies. Pictured (with handy Amazon link) at right. No, your right.


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:16 PM EST

The Norm Chronicles

[Amazon Link]

Thought experiment:

Scenario A: Suppose your neighbor is manufacturing anthrax spores in his basement. There's no indication of evil intent, it seems to be just a hobby. He claims he's taking reasonable precautions. But you're uncertain: an accident or a robbery involving those spores could kill you or your loved ones. Is it a proper function of government to confiscate his spores?

Scenario B: Suppose your neighbor has a gun. There's no indication of evil intent, it seems to be just a hobby. He claims he's taking reasonable precautions. But you're uncertain: an accident or a robbery involving that gun could kill you or your loved ones. Is it a proper function of government to confiscate his weapon?

My guess is: most people, even most libertarians, would find government intervention OK in Scenario A, not in Scenario B.

But what's the difference? Could it simply be the perceived/actual level of risk involved? Is there some principled way to quantify that, to justify government actions that mitigate extreme Scenario-A levels of risk, while somehow stopping short of a totalitarian nanny state that disallows any Scenario B-style activity that might conceivably put innocent parties at risk, but probably won't?

I don't know. And (as a dilettante in libertarian political philosophy) I've been thinking about this sort of thing for a number of years without coming to a satisfactory conclusion. It all seems to revolve around the concept of risk, though.

One of my efforts at self-education was to pick up this book: The Norm Chronicles by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter. Its subtitle: Stories and Numbers About Danger and Death. Seemingly very relevant to my lackadaisical intellectual quest!

Blastland and Spiegelhalter illustrate their story using fictional typical characters: there's the risk-averse Prudence; the thrill-and-pleasure-seeking, risk-be-damned Kevlin brothers (Kelvin, Kevin, and Kieran); and then there is Norm, who is completely (guess what) normal, all the way down to his weight and height, and seeks moderation in all things risky. (At one self-reflective point, he marvels at how paradoxically unusual his normality makes him.)

The book is a romp through the major categories of Things That Could Possibly Do You In: getting born, of course, but also giving birth; sex; crime; transportation; drugs, licit and illicit; your lifestyle; medical woes; etc. Wherever possible, the authors quantify: risky activities are measured in "micromorts", a one-in-a-million chance of death. (For example: serving in Afghanistan exposes one to a risk of 22 micromorts per day; World War II RAF bomber pilots experienced 25,000 micromorts per mission.) Chronic risks are measured in "microlives", about a half-hour in length. (Examples: each cigarette smoked will set you back about 0.5 microlives; being male instead of female will cut off about 4 microlives per day.)

And there are the big risks: climate change, earthquakes, and stuff falling from above (meteors, killer asteroids, unfortunate stowaways in airplane wheelwells …)

All these morbid facts and numbers are presented with enough wit and charm to make them (paradoxically) lively and interesting. Norm, Prudence, and the Kevlins become actually sympathetic characters in the narrative.

And it's funny. Try reading this without amusement:

[…] We know for sure that countless things—unlikely or not—will happen somewhere to someone, as they must. More than that, we know that they will often happen in strange and predictable patterns. Fatal falls from ladders among the approximately 21 million men in England and Wales in the five years to 2010 were uncannily consistent, numbering 42, 54, 56, 53, and 47. For all the chance particulars that apply to any individual among 21 million individuals, the numbers are amazingly, fiendishly stable—unlike the ladders. Some calculating God, painting fate by numbers up in the clouds, orders another splash of red: "Hey, you in the dungarees, we're short this month."

So: a fine book, wonderfully entertaining, and I learned a lot.

But did I get any illumination on the topic that drove me here, seeking some sort of objective, principled guidance on the proper regulation of risk in a free society?

No. If anything, the opposite. The authors just about convinced me that there is no bright line that can be drawn between risks that must be prohibited and risks for which laissez-faire is the proper policy. Some cases seem clear, but those in between will probably forever be a matter of unresolvable conflict between people with different values and attitudes. We could handwave about distinguishing between "rational concerns" and "irrational fears", but there's no infallible test, as near as I can tell, that will allow one to tell one from the other in all possible cases.

But I'll keep looking.


Last Modified 2014-12-08 3:31 PM EST

X-Men: Days of Future Past

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

So, yeah, it's okay. And I'm glad I watched it. But, for some reason, I've always been considerably less enthusiastic about the X-Men than I am about (say) Cap or Shell-head. Even though this one has Jean-Luc and Gandalf in minor roles. It doesn't help that this one works off a time-travel premise that will be totally familiar to anyone who watched the Back to the Future movies or relevant installments of Star Trek.

The movie starts off in a grim future with eternal genocidal warfare between mutants and non-mutants. The mutants are about to be on the losing end, due to the "Sentinels", deadly robots that are able to absorb mutant powers and jiu-jitsu-like reflect them back on the mutants. All this tracks back to the good/bad shape-shifting mutant Mystique, who fatefully killed the Sentinels' inventor back in 1973. That turned out to be a bad call.

So the obvious solution (obvious at least to Professor X, since he was in some of those Star Treks) is to send someone back to 1973 to prevent Mystique from working her murderous mischief. Time-travel turns out to be another handy mutant power. Wolverine is the only practical choice for the trip. And (to avoid a certain class of paradoxes), it involves sending W's conciousness back to '73 to inhabit his then-body.

So: all he has to do is seek out the 1973 versions of Professor X and Magneto, and whatever other X-men they can gather, then to thwart Mystique. There are a number of complications due to the involvement of Magneto, who starts out helpful, but is soon enough up to his old tricks.

So: not a bad flick. Clever and occasionally funny, and seemingly not as tediously didactic as previous entries. (Or maybe I'm just getting used to that.)


Last Modified 2014-12-10 12:16 PM EST