Interstellar

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

As I type, Interstellar is at position 15 on IMDB's top 250 movies of all time. I don't know about that, but it's still pretty good. So Mrs. Salad and I thought it would be a good idea to catch this spectacular flick before it vanished from theaters. It was more comprehensible than it might have been: I'm a subscriber to Wired, and their December 2014 issue was more or less an a spoiler-free ad for Interstellar, with plenty of hints about the speculative science it involved.

Matthew McConaughey plays farmer/widower/ex-astronaut Cooper. He lives with his 10-year-old daughter (Murph) and 15-year-old son (Tom) on a not-too-distant-future dying Earth. Details are a little hazy, but widespread plant blight has caused famine, nasty dust storms, and (worst) a crippling effect on the national psyche. (In an especially poignant bit, it's revealed that Murph's newest school textbooks describe the Apollo program as a hoax, made up by NASA to bankrupt the old Soviet Union. Hey, it worked!)

Mankind's only hope is to get the hell off the planet. But how? Cooper and Murph stumble across a secret government program: what's left of NASA has discovered a wormhole out by Saturn that leads to another galaxy, and there are a number of possibly inhabitable worlds at the other end. The only thing lacking is a skilled astronaut to pilot the ship, and Cooper is quickly recruited. So they're off, with Cooper leaving Murph and Tom behind, on a mission that has small chance of success, and an even smaller chance that Cooper will return to his kids. Tom's OK with that, but Murph is bitter and resentful.

What follows is a heartstring-tugging family drama intertwined with spectacular hard-as-nails science fiction. I'm pretty sure there's never been as much relativistic astrophysics in any other movie. Kip Thorne, who has been a leading researcher in the field for decades, was an advisor to the film, so technical details are as accurate as you're likely to find.

It's pretty much all good. Acting is first-rate (IMDB counts eight Oscar nominees/winners among the cast). And, well, it's Christopher Nolan-directed. My only gripe is that I couldn't understand some of the McConaughey dialogue, some combination of his Texas accent and Cinemagic's poor sound system.


Last Modified 2015-01-23 2:11 PM EST

Frivoloties du Jour - 2014-12-31

Nothing serious for this last post of 2014.

  • You will of course want to stop by The Miami Herald for Dave Barry's Year in Review 2014. From June:

    In Washington scandal news, the Internal Revenue Service, responding to a subpoena, tells congressional investigators that it cannot produce 28 months of Lois Lerner’s emails because the hard drive they were stored on failed, and the hard drive was thrown away, and the backup tapes were erased, and no printed copies were saved — contrary to the IRS’s own record-keeping policy, which was eaten by the IRS’s dog. “It was just one crazy thing after another,” states the IRS, “and it got us to thinking: All these years we’ve been subjecting taxpayers to everything short of rectal probes if they can’t produce EVERY SINGLE DOCUMENT WE WANT, and here we lose YEARS worth of official records! So from now on, if taxpayers tell us they lost something, or just plain forgot to make a tax payment, we’ll be like, ‘Hey, whatever! Stuff happens!’ Because who are we to judge?”

    I will also mention that Dave is very generous about crediting the people who suggest items for his blog.

  • Answering a question that has bugged me ever since I realized that it was a question: "Why Do Brits Say Maths and Americans Say Math?". My theory ("some sort of speech impediment caused by bad teeth") turns out to be incorrect.

  • In higher education news:

    A for-profit Florida college used exotic dancers as admissions officers, falsified documents and coached students to lie on financial forms as it fraudulently obtained millions of dollars in federal money, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Miami.

    I'm not saying that administrators at the University Near Here are slapping their foreheads, wondering "Why didn't we think of that?" But I'm not saying they aren't, either.

  • One of the gifts from my generous kids this Christmas was WKRP In Cincinnati: The Complete Series on DVD. This was long-awaited.

    A previous Season-One-only release was widely held to be insultingly dreadful. (My 2007 blog post on the issue is here, and I'm still kind of fond of my punchline: "I mean, I can't believe, as God is my witness, how they thought this turkey would fly.")

    A major problem was the difficulty in negotiating the music rights. So the first thing I checked out was Season One, Episode Ten: "A Date with Jennifer". During the scene where Les Nessman is first trying on his wig from "Mr. Macho"…

    Yes! They restored the original music, Foreigner's "Hot Blooded", undoing the butchery introduced by the series' syndication. I am very encouraged.

  • But watching these old WKRP episodes raised another question for me: What the heck is that guy singing in the closing credits? A little Googling shows there are competing theories. One is at Wikipedia:

    The closing theme, "WKRP In Cincinnati End Credits", was a hard rock number composed and performed by Jim Ellis, an Atlanta musician who also recorded some of the incidental music for the show. According to people who attended the recording sessions, Ellis didn't yet have lyrics for the closing theme, so he improvised a semi-comprehensible story about a bartender to give an idea of how the finished theme would sound. Wilson decided to use the words anyway, since he felt that it would be funny to use lyrics that were deliberate gibberish, as a satire on the incomprehensibility of many rock songs. Also, because CBS always had an announcer talking over the closing credits, Wilson knew that no one would actually hear the closing theme lyrics anyway.[…]

    But this guy claims:

    Hearing it for the first time, the lyrics may indeed sound a bit like "gibberish and nonsense", but with a little careful listening, most of the words can be made out. (It only needed someone taking a little time to do it...

    I myself lean toward "gibberish and nonsense". But I encourage you to make your own call:

Irritants du Jour - 2014-12-30

In the "URLs du Jour" posts, I usually blog about things I find insightful or funny. But I'm into my post-Christmas curmudgeon mode. So here are some items that I've found dishonest, ignorant, or generally irritating recently:

  • I'm mostly a libertarian kind of guy, but I'd like to propose legislation: any pundit that whines about the "disrespect" shown to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio by NYC cops should be required to produce past writings where he or she griped equally about lack of respect shown to a GOP politician like George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, etc. Pundits failing to do so will be required to append the description "Partisan Hack" to their byline. (E.g.: " Justin Baragona, Partisan Hack")

    I realize there are First Amendment issues here. So maybe just treat it as a journalistic guideline.

  • Another gripe is exemplified by Susan Wojcicki, who recently op-edded in the WSJ: "Paid Maternity Leave Is Good for Business".

    I was Google’s first employee to go on maternity leave. In 1999, I joined the startup that founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin had recently started in my garage. I was four months pregnant. At the time the company had no revenue and only 15 employees, almost all of whom were male. Joining a startup pregnant with my first child was risky, but Larry and Sergey assured me I’d have their support.

    So far, Ms. Wojcicki can only be accused of generalizing too broadly from the experiences of one person (her) whose leave did not derail one company (Google) from its path to success. But, sure, it's arguable that a maternity leave benefit can help companies retain valuable employees. And, if it's true, it's certainly something normal market competition will quickly demonstrate: companies offering the benefit will outperform those that don't.

    Ah, but that's not what Ms. Wojcicki is arguing for. Way down in paragraph four:

    According to a survey released in May by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, the U.S. is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t offer government-mandated paid maternity leave. [emphasis added]

    Bit of a bait-and-switch there. Despite the headline, Ms. Wojcicki doesn't really care whether paid maternity leave is "good for business" or not. She wants it to be imposed on business. What's good for Google is good for the USA!

    It's easy to poke holes in (what turns out to be) Ms. Wojcicki's argument. David Boaz does it in 11 words: "If Only We Could Be More Like Djibouti, Haiti, and Afghanistan".

    But my kvetch is with Ms. Wojcicki's deliberate obfuscation of her position, which stripped to essentials is: "We want to do this for your own good, because you're too stupid to realize your own best interests." It's an argument statists, like Ms. Wojcicki, try to prettify, but it's like putting lipstick on a pig.

  • And then there are columnists like David Cay Johnston who recently penned an inequality piece for something still called Newsweek: "One Nation Divided by Wealth". It is a plug for his recent book, pretty much the standard "progressive" screed on the topic, and, as such, it has been widely debunked by others.

    Now, to be fair, there's stuff in there that isn't wrong. For example, Johnston notes that, in some states, (some) large employers are allowed to withhold state income tax from (some of) their employees' paychecks—and hang onto it! (To be sure, the states involved paint this odious practice as a "job creation" incentive.)

    But what struck me was Johnston's inability to maintain a self-consistent argument. Paragaph 12 begins:

    Worse [sic] of all, in myriad but oh-so-subtle ways, government helps big business drain your pockets and destroy competition from family-owned enterprises.

    Note the warm-and-fuzzy feeling Johnston tries to evoke with "family-owned" here. But later, railing against wealth-inequality:

    And it’s worth remembering that, by definition, most great wealth is in the form of untaxed capital gains—money that will never be taxed if the estate tax is repealed, allowing accumulated wealth to be passed on, untaxed, to heirs.

    Good luck maintaining that Johnston-admired "family-owned enterprise" if the Johnston-advocated estate tax confiscates a hefty fraction of its net worth on a family member's demise.

    So who knows what Johnston really thinks? Or cares?

  • And finally, my local paper, Foster's Daily Democrat, maintains its occasional tradition of covering a left-wing political demonstration with fawning prose, this one an opportunistic reaction to recent legal doin's in Missouri and New York:

    A large number of motorists passing by could see and interpret the message of the signs, with things like BLACK LIVES MATTER, WHAT COLOR IS JUSTICE.

    As they passed, horns were honked and thumbs up were given to the demonstrators. As dusk settled in, one particularly noticeable message was series of black squares lighted spelling out JUSTICE FOR ALL.

    Aw!

    Now my guess is that the demonstrators did not rise to what Thomas Sowell has called "a lynch-mob atmosphere toward the police." But who knows? If they did, every indication is that Foster's would not have reported it. Nary an inkling or hint is provided that there just might be another side to the simple story put forth by the demonstrators. All we get is an orgy of ideological self-righteousness, which the reporter and his paper are more than willing to abet.


Last Modified 2014-12-30 1:14 PM EST

Prelude to Foundation

[Amazon Link]

As I've mentioned before, I placed Isaac Asimov's SF novels on my to-be-(re)?read list a few years back. We're nearing the end of the road. I was disappointed in Fantastic Voyage II, a tedious slog. But Prelude to Foundation (which, for some reason, I had not read before) was an extremely pleasant surprise, with the Good Doctor punching all my decades-old science fiction fan-buttons.

The book is set (as you might guess) before the events described in his famous Foundation series (originally written in the 1940s). The mathematician Hari Seldon is visiting the fabulous capital planet of the Galactic Empire, Trantor, where he's given a talk on the theoretical possibility of psychohistory: the ability to explain historical trends by the statistical interaction of humanity over the centuries and light years.

Emperor Cleon, via his shadowy flunky Eto Demerzel, hears of Seldon's work and invites him to an audience. Wouldn't psychohistory be an invaluable tool to cement his reign against instability and interlopers? The problem is that Hari isn't sure that psychohistory is practical.

Soon, Seldon is on the run from the Emperor's cops. He's aided by Chetter Hummin, a reporter who teams him up with the resourceful (yet beautiful) Dors Venabili. Together Hari and Dors travel through diverse sectors of Trantor, each with its own customs, foibles, and colorful characters. In their flight, Hari tries to piece together the mysterious origins of humanity, and tie it into the centuries-old legends of robots.

A small brag: although Asimov is known for springing surprises on the reader at the end of his novels, I could see this one coming nearly from the start. I still enjoyed the journey though.

The Interview

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

I took my low-courage stand against dictators and rented The Interview via the iTunes store. It was good filthy fun, with (as the MPAA puts it) "pervasive language, crude and sexual humor, nudity, some drug use and bloody violence." It kept me chuckling all the way through.

Given that the movie's premise has appeared ad nauseam all over the Internet during the past few weeks, you probably don't need this plot summary:

James Franco and Seth Rogen, respectively, play Dave Skylark (the dimwitted host of a trashy celebrity interview show) and Aaron Rapaport (his somewhat smarter producer). Stupid as he is, Dave has an uncanny gift for getting his interview subjects to open up on-air to reveal dark secrets. (Eminem: gay; Rob Lowe: bald.) It turns out that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un is a fan, and (incredibly) Aaron makes the arrangements for the show to broadcast live from Pyongyang.

But the CIA takes an interest, and persuades Dave and Aaron to attempt to assassinate Kim with a surreptitious dose of ricin. What could go wrong? Everything, as it turns out.

I was impressed: there was nothing here to make a right-wing freedom-loving troglodyte like me toss his cookies. Kim makes an effort to appear human and ingratiate himself with Dave; this works, briefly, but only because Dave is a gullible idiot. The movie doesn't go into the dirty details of North Korean misery and repression, but (hey) it's a comedy, and I don't recall To Be Or Not To Be showing Auschwitz either.


Last Modified 2015-01-06 11:47 AM EST

The Phony Campaign

2016 Kickoff

[phony baloney]

Despite an overwhelming lack of popular demand, Pun Salad is once again bringing its dull scalpel of political analysis to the 2016 presidential season, the Phony Campaign. Cheap shots, complete lack of respect, and facile reasoning are our guidelines. Simply because the candidates take themselves way too seriously is no reason why we should.

For newcomers: every so often, Pun Salad tabulates how many Google hits are associated with each presidential candidate's name when the additional search term "phony" is added. This reveals how the Web views the relative phoniness of the candidates, and how those perceptions change over the course of the campaign.

In our fantasy world, that is. In reality, these hit counts almost certainly mean less than nothing. They're just an excuse for Pun Salad to bitch about politics and politicians. Which amuses Pun Salad, if nobody else.

Who to include? At least for now, we'll use a wagering site where people bet their own money on likely nominees. Our arbitrary cutoff will be 10-to-1 odds; we'll ignore longer shots. That gives us seven candidates, two Democrats and five Republicans:

Query String Hit Count
"Jeb Bush" phony 623,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 369,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 301,000
"Rand Paul" phony 167,000
"Elizabeth Warren" phony 97,200
"Marco Rubio" phony 90,100
"Scott Walker" phony 81,100

Our chosen site is listing Joe Biden with 16-to-1 odds, and Chris Christie at 11-to-1. Sorry, guys, try harder.

Jeb and Hillary are—gulp!—the current favorites. (3.9-to-1 and 1.41-to-1, respectively.) Pun Salad finds itself in strong agreement with (of all people) Maureen Dowd: "Before these two families release their death grip on the American electoral system, we’re going to have to watch Chelsea’s granddaughter try to knock off George P.’s grandson, Prescott Walker Bush II." (See below for more on Ms. Dowd.)

  • The biggest shocker to Pun Salad is the relative poor showing of Elizabeth Warren, aka Fauxcahontas. Although she's facing stiff phony competition, none has seen fit to lie about their race/ethnicity for professional benefit. And while she's self-allegedly the champion of the downtrodden, Andrea Cohen noted:

    While U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren sleeps in her $5 million mansion in Cambridge, and got paid $350,000 to teach just one class at Harvard, she had the audacity to say in an interview with Jon Stewart this week that “the system is rigged to benefit the rich.”

    Making predictions about this stuff is perilous, but Liz's phony hit count has to increase as the campaign wears on.

  • Also surprising is Jeb Bush's solid phony lead. More than Hillary? More than Mitt? Please. Jeb's real problem is his positions on Common Core and immigration, which are anathema to a lot of the GOP base. And yet:

    Bush, who earlier declared that a Republican must be willing to “lose the primary” in order to win the general election, announced this week that he is “actively exploring” a potential presidential campaign. Aware that his positions on immigration and Common Core will be significant hurdles, Bush seems intent on doubling down on his moderate positions instead of flip-flopping and coming off as a phony.

  • One problem with our methodology is that certain things are so obviously true that nobody bothers to point them out. To a certain extent, for example, calling Hillary a phony is akin to calling water wet. This may explain her low numbers. Still, we have the Clinton-loving website Media Matters for America pointing out:

    For more than twenty years, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd has been attacking Hillary Clinton from a shallow well of insults, routinely portraying the former secretary of state and first lady as an unlikeable, power-hungry phony.

    MMfA portrays this history as some sort of deranged obsession on Dowd's part. Hillary non-fans will find it a fascinating summary of why they never liked her.

  • All the Republican candidates and their entourages could stand to read and memorize Jonah Goldberg's recent column "Dear GOP: Show, Don’t Tell". Key paragraph:

    The GOP is infested with anonymous flacks and hacks who get a buzz from talking strategy with the New York Times. They admit they might have to “play the race card” or “go negative.” I don’t even know what the race card means any more, but if you’re going to play it, play it. I’ve never met a poker player who said, “I’m going for an inside straight.” And if you’re going to go negative, by all means go negative. Don’t telegraph to all the world, “This is just a cynical gambit we don’t really believe.” Outrage is so much more believable if you don’t wink to the audience in advance. Don’t worry, plenty of voters, never mind pundits, will catch your phony outrage without the advanced warning.


Last Modified 2014-12-29 6:36 AM EST

Joe

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

One of Ms. Salad's seemingly at-random picks out of the Netflix bowl. She liked it much better than I did, and she didn't like it that much.

Joe, the title character, is played by Nicolas Cage. He inhabits a desperately poor area of (I think) Texas, an unending sprawl of destitution. (The nicest structure that appears on film, I think, is the local whorehouse.) Nearly everyone is overly fond of alcohol and cigarettes. The local cops can only hope to keep a lid on overt lawlessness, and they don't do such a hot job of it.

Joe is an ex-con trying to go straight, but he has serious anger issues. In what may have been a metaphor, had I thought about it hard enough, his job is to manage a work gang that's poisoning junk trees in order to make room for a future woodlot. It's dirty and arduous work, but it keeps him honest-but-poor.

In comes Gary, a 15-year-old from an extremely dysfunctional family. His dad is a (literally) murderous drunk, who terrorizes his mom and probably sexually abuses his mute sister. But he's relatively clean, wants to work hard. Joe takes a shine to him.

And then: mostly depressing stuff happens. It goes on and on. And (spoiler alert) nearly everyone winds up dead.

Not my cup of tea, although the IMDB raters have it slightly above mediocre. IMDB trivia saith that the guy who played Gary's father was an actual homeless guy plucked off the streets of Austin; he died, back on the streets, a few weeks after the filming. Now that's authenticity. Not that it's fun to watch.


Last Modified 2014-12-29 6:40 AM EST

What If

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

Not to be confused with the book What If? by Randall Munroe. (Which I got for Christmas, thanks very much.) And, despite the title, it's not one of those imaginative movies that explores what someone's life might be like if they'd made one simple decision differently. Instead, it's a nice little romantic comedy, and it's perfectly OK at that level.

As you can probably tell from the Amazon link image over there on your right, one of the stars is Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, playing a slacker named Wallace. You might be less familiar with the female lead, Zoe Kazan, who plays an amiable goofball named Chantry. (She's Elia Kazan's granddaughter.) The movie works due to their winning chemistry, and above-average dialogue.

Mr. Radcliffe is British, Ms. Kazan is American, so (of course) the movie is mostly set in Toronto, with them both playing Canadians. (According to Wikipedia, there was a minor controversy about the movie's "entirely caucasian cast". Even though Toronto has, using the language of modern racial pigeonholers, a 49% "visible minority population", they're invisible here.)

Anyway: Wallace is in a lengthy funk from his betrayal by his previous girlfriend. He meets Chantry at a party, and is enraptured by her clever banter. But she lets him know right away: she has a boyfriend named Ben (a nice guy), so it's strictly a let's-just-be-friends deal. So that sets up the conflict: Wallace doesn't want to break up Ben and Chantry. But he doesn't want to lose her either.

There is the usual array of friends and relatives, all happy to offer advice and to serve as plot devices.

As near as I can tell, this movie spent about 10 minutes in theatres before going to DVD. Is it impossible to make a financially successful PG-13 romantic comedy these days?


Last Modified 2014-12-29 6:49 AM EST

M e r r y  C h r i s t m a s !

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

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

Nine Dragons

[Amazon Link]

I'm a longtime fan of Michael Connelly and (especially) his series of books featuring LA police detective Harry Bosch. But it's tough trying to keep up with Connelly's output: this book is from 2009, and there are still six later books from him in that mile-high to-be-read pile.

In this installment, Harry is investigating the murder of the Chinese owner of a run-down convenience store. He is (as always) the champion of the victim, but there's more of a connection than usual: the victim had offered him refuge in his store years back during a nasty riot.

Signs point to the involvement of the "Triad", a Chinese organized crime gang, who had been shaking the store down for protection money. Harry quickly ferrets out a suspect, who he manages to nab just before he hops a flight out of the country.

But things rapidly unwind: the actual evidence against the guy is weak, and Harry gets two phone calls. One warning him to back off, but that's nothing new. The second call is worse, though: Harry's ex-wife Eleanor and their daughter Madeline live in Hong Kong, and there's every indication that (somehow) Harry's arrest of the Triad goon in LA has put his daughter in danger.

In other words: "this time, it's personal." And it's off to Hong Kong, where frantic detective work alternates with a lot of slam-bang action.

So: a good read. Colorful settings, a tricky and surprising plot. You don't want to get on Harry's bad side. And just about everyone (save his daughter) can get on his bad side.

An irrelevant note: A few months back, I watched the Amazon Prime "pilot" for Bosch, an online series featuring our hero. Titus Welliver played Harry, and it is a tribute to his acting chops that I "saw" him as I was reading this book.

In contrast: Tom Cruise recently played Jack Reacher in a movie, and ever since seeing it, when I read Lee Child books, I "see" Reacher as … Kiefer Sutherland. Sorry, Tom.

URLs du Jour - 2014-12-16

  • Jonah Goldberg is a master pundit. His Friday "G-File" mail is great PG-13 fun to read, and often preview his more respectable op-ed columns.

    Example: last Friday's G-File was subject-lined with: "Jonathan Gruber’s Pants Inferno". Sample:

    In almost every exchange, Gruber fell back on language you’d expect from a stockbroker tied up in an S&M dungeon. I did it because I am a flea! A worm! I am no master of the universe, I am nothing! Punnnniissshhh meee!

    All that was missing were some riding-crop and melted-candle-wax welts, and maybe a shorn scrotum. Hey man, it’s a defense.

    But it’s not a good one. You can blame your arrogance for calling the American voters stupid, but you can’t blame your arrogance for claiming that the bill was designed to hide taxes and deceive the public. If I stab someone 34 times, the jury might want to hear about my arrogance, but whether I’m arrogant or humble, it doesn’t change what I did — and apologizing for it doesn’t clarify where the body is buried.

    But the argument carries over to the less raucous version in Jonah's op-ed, "Jonathan Gruber should've been Time's Person of the Year". The word "scrotum" does not appear. The sober conclusion there:

    […] Gruber's arrogance goes beyond the personal. He represents the arrogance of the expert class writ large. They create systems, terms and rules that no normal person on the outside can possibly penetrate. They make life and living more complicated and then get rich and powerful off of their ability to navigate that complexity. Time and again they sell simplicity and security and deliver more complications and insecurity, which in turn creates demand for more experts promising simplicity and security the Gruberians never deliver.

    So read both, and give thanks for Goldberg.

  • Could P. J. O'Rourke's employer, The Daily Beast, make him write about Lena Dunham? Find out the awful truth at "They Made Me Write About Lena Dunham". Part of Peej's research was to watch an episode of Dunham's HBO series, Girls.

    The young people in Girls are miserable, peevish, depressed, hate their bodies, themselves, their life, and each other. They occupy apartments with the size and charm of the janitor’s closet, shared by The Abominable Roommate. They dress in clothing from the flophouse lost-and-found and are groomed with a hacksaw and gravel rake. They are tattooed all over with things that don’t even look like things the way a anchor or a mermaid or a heart inscribed “Mom” does, and they’re only a few years older than my daughters.

    The characters in Girls take drugs. They “hook up” in a manner that makes the casual sex of the 1960s seem like an arranged marriage in Oman. And they drink and they vomit and they drink and they vomit and they drink and they vomit.

    It’s every parent’s nightmare. I had to have a lot to drink before I could get to sleep after watching this show about young people who are only a few years older than my daughters.

  • I like the homepage at MagicLeap.com. Neal Stephenson is involved with them somehow, so it—whatever "it" is—could be indescribably wonderful.

  • Also check out Kevin Clark's wonderful article about Indianapolis Colts QB Andrew Luck's "trash talk".

    Luck has become famous for congratulating—sincerely and enthusiastically—any player to hit him hard. Any sack is met with a hearty congratulations, such as ”great job” or “what a hit!” He yells it after hard hits that don’t result in sacks, too. It is, players say, just about the weirdest thing any quarterback does in the NFL.

    Weird is a welcome relief from most of the NFL news this season. If the Pats falter, I think I'll be cheering for the Colts.

  • And I think you will laugh at least twice while reading through VAViper's collection of warning labels.

The Bookwoman's Last Fling

[Amazon Link]

I've been following John Dunning's mystery series about cop-turned-bookseller Cliff Janeway for a number of years. This one, which came out in 2006, looks as if it will be the last; his website says problems originating from a "large benign brain tumor" have prevented further books. Here's hoping he's having a good life otherwise.

Cliff has been called up to a remote ranch to evaluate the book collection of the late horse trainer H. R. Geiger. (Not to be confused with the disturbing artist H. R. Giger.) What Cliff finds is the remnants of an extremely dysfunctional family (and family business), with surviving offspring and employees squabbling over the estate, now in legal limbo.

The title's "bookwoman" is Candice, Geiger's lovely young wife who predeceased him by several years. When Janeway gets a chance to examine her collection, he discovers that a number of rare and valuable volumes have been snitched and replaced with crap. And (eventually) it develops that he's expected to determine whether Candice's death was due to foul play.

Janeway needs to untangle a Ross McDonald-like tangle of bad behavior going back decades. He goes undercover, doing horse-work with a trainer in order to plumb memories of Candice, H. R., and their relatives and associates. It all works out to an untidy conclusion.

I have to say: it was a long read, over 500 paperback pages. Could have easily trimmed 150-200 of them without loss to plot, character, or setting. But it's clear that Dunning loves the world of horse-racing just as much as his normal rare-book world. It's funny: there's more discussion of horse stuff here than there is in the typical Dick Francis novel, and Francis was supposed to be the horse guy.

URLs du Jour - 2014-12-10

These posts don't often have a unifying theme. But (you may have noticed) it's been an apology-filled few days. So:

  • Iowahawk calls it the "latest dispatch from Planet College". As Robby Soave says:

    Smith College President Kathleen McCartney thought she was showing solidarity with students protesting racism and police brutality when she sent a campus-wide email with the subject line, "All Lives Matter." But the anti-racism slogan popular with students is actually the more selective "black lives matter."

    Prez McCartney apologized. Abjectly. Of course.

    At today's institutions of higher learning, you have to utter your stupid slogans using exactly the right words.

    (I thought there might also have been a perception that Prez McC was making a subtle point about abortion. But it seems that misconception was not seriously entertained: nobody thought she was implying that unborn babies' lives matter. At Smith? Be serious!)

  • University of Iowa President Sally Mason found herself apologizing as well. Was her apology even more craven than President McCartney's? It's a close call, I think.

    University of Iowa (UI) students, faculty, and administrators are speaking out in support of the censorship of a statue created and displayed on campus by visiting professor Serhat Tanyolacar that they say constitutes “hate speech.” Tanyolacar’s piece comprised a seven foot tall sculpture of a Ku Klux Klan member whose robes are crafted from newspaper articles about racial violence. Many members of the UI community, however, ignored the intended anti-racist message of the piece and instead demanded that the university take action against what they perceive as a racist display—and the university is complying.

    President Mason apologized, as did UI's Office of Strategic Communication (is there also an office of Tactical Communication?). As did the artist.

    To any mind not inclined to be offended, the "sculpture" was clearly intended to be anti-racist (albeit lamely). But, as at Smith, a lot of Hawkeyes decided to ignore intentions and get outraged instead. The Iowa City collective IQ dipped about 10 points, and gutless self-censorship won. Yay!

    Hopefully, Iowa's football team will show more spine next month against Tennessee in the Bowl Formerly Known As Gator.

  • Lena Dunham also apologized. (Although that apology is buried in, to quote Treacher, a mass of "self-pitying claptrap".)

    But anyway: when Lena wrote that passage in her recent book accusing a library-employed, Oberlin College Republican named "Barry" of raping her back in her college days, she didn't mean the actual library-employed, Oberlin College Republican named "Barry". That was—and I am not making this quote up—"an unfortunate and surreal coincidence."

    I must admit, I would have liked to see this played out in court, with Lena paying "Barry" a very large sum, enough to send his kids to … well, probably not Oberlin. But it appears he's gonna let her off the hook.

  • MIT Professor J. Gruber also got his apology out yesterday.

    He delivered a mea culpa of sorts in his opening remarks on Tuesday for what he called his "mean and insulting" comments, explaining some of his remarks while trying to take some of them back. After once saying a lack of transparency helped the law pass, Gruber said Tuesday he does not think it was passed in a "non-transparent fashion." He also expressed regret for what he called "glib, thoughtless and sometimes downright insulting comments." "I sincerely apologize for conjecturing with a tone of expertise and for doing so in such a disparaging fashion," Gruber said. "I knew better. I know better. I'm embarrassed and I'm sorry." He said he "behaved badly" but stressed that "my own inexcusable arrogance is not a flaw in the Affordable Care Act."

    Enough? But let me tell you what made me chuckle.

    One of my favorite old sitcoms was "WKRP in Cincinnati". It opened with a driver fiddling with his car radio, briefly hitting a news station:

    "And the senator, while insisting he was not intoxicated, could not explain his nudity."

    Compare with this Newsweek paragraph (quoted by Jennifer Rubin):

    Gruber could not fully explain his comments about subsidies through the federal exchange—comments that Democrats fear will become grounds for the Supreme Court to gut the law. But Gruber repeated Tuesday that he always assumed in all of his economic models that subsidies would be available for plans purchased through the federal exchange. He also offered one theory on why he might have made those comments.

    Or: "The professor, while insisting he was not intoxicated, could not explain…"

Free

[Amazon Link]

The author, Alfred Mele, is a philosopher based at Florida State; he specializes in the "free will" topic. As you can tell from the book's subtitle (Why Science Hasn't Disproved Free Will), he's decided to argue for the survival of the concept. (Which, he argues, is a choice he's freely made.)

It is a very slim book, under a hundred pages even counting References and Index sections. (It's an actual book, though, and I am counting it on the my list.) It is aimed (fortunately for me) at the layman, and the style is chatty and accessible.

So we have a philosopher at odds with "science", specifically recent research in neurophysiology, psychology, and sociology: it seems like the odds wouldn't be on his side. But (to my mind) he does a good job of arguing that all those experiments do not prove the non-existence of "free will". Instead, the anti-free willers (Mele argues) are setting the bar for what they consider to be "free will" absurdly high, all the better to debunk it. If we define "free will" reasonably well ("modestly"), it appears that the concept survives.

To be sure, a number of experiments show that we can (for example) fool ourselves about the timing of our choices; for example, a famous experiment's neural monitoring demonstrates that a subject's "decision" about when/whether to push a button can actually be made a few hundred milliseconds before the subject is conscious of the decision.

But, Mele argues, even if such observations apply to some types of "decisions", the experiments fail to show that they apply to all decisions. The human decisions where experiments seem to demonstrate "unfree" will are those based in mental processes we share with animals: instincts, reflexes, appetites, herd behavior, etc. Conscious, rational decisions are another story.

It has long seemed to me that arguments that free will is illusory are self-refuting: if you're summoning rational arguments and evidence to get me to change my mind on the matter, you're already kind of admitting that I have a choice to do so or not. So I'm on Mele's side.

I suppose to be fair, I need to read something on the other side. This book seems like the best bet. One reviewer says " Read it: you have no choice." We'll see.


Last Modified 2016-07-15 6:21 AM EDT

URLs du Jour - 2014-12-04

  • income quintile net transfers One would hope that the people who prattle on about the continuing need for "the rich" to pay their "fair share" of taxes would read Mark J. Perry's post with the lengthy title: "New CBO study shows that ‘the rich’ don’t just pay their ‘fair share,’ they pay almost everybody’s share". But, alas, they probably won't.

    Key graphic at your right. I would like to ask (say) President Obama: how tall does that blue bar have to be in order for you to pronounce it "fair"?

  • And one would hope MSM bigwigs might read Mollie Hemingway's "Dear Media: This Elizabeth Lauten Nonsense Is Why Everybody Hates You". But (again), alas, they probably won't.

    If you don't know what the "Elizabeth Lauten nonsense" is: (a) good for you, it's stupid; (b) Mollie will provide you background. But it's only the latest instance of the MSM's blatant double-standards, bias, and hypocrisy in deciding what is to be considered "news".

    Disclaimer: I'm not a hater myself, but I'm a disrespecter.

  • And one would hope that anyone who believed a word of what Lena Dunham claimed about getting raped by "a Republican" at Oberlin College would read John Nolte's article "Investigation: Lena Dunham ‘Raped By a Republican’ Story in Bestseller Collapses Under Scrutiny". But (once again), alas they almost certainly won't.

    Ms. Dunham claimed that her assailant was the host of a show "Real Talk with Jimbo" on a local radio station, almost certainly the campus radio station. Nolte's efforts to check whether such a show existed were stonewalled down the line, but not before the current station manager deemed Nolte's efforts to check Dunham's story were "irrelevant" and "could create a conflict of interest on campus regarding sexual assault."

    I'm thinking that if Dunham's story could have been verified on this detail, Oberlin would have been a lot more cooperative.

    And John Nolte should be widely commended for doing actual investigative journalism. But he won't be.

  • A little astronomical geekery: a gentleman named Michael Zeiler is looking forward to the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse and after visiting his blog, perhaps you will be too.

    The highlight is an eight-inch by ten-foot (!) graphic (if you printed it full size), that shows the path of the moon's shadow as it will travel across the country from Oregon to South Carolina. It is an amazingly fact-packed, beautiful visualization. (You'll learn, for example, that "Hotels in Oregon in the center of the eclipse path between Salem and Albany are scarce or already reserved.")

    The April 8, 2024 eclipse will be closer to us here in New Hampshire, but, um, who knows how mobile we'll be then?

  • Pun Salad's public service notice du jour: Taylor Swift is not singing about "all the lonely Starbucks lovers."

For Us, The Living

[Amazon Link]

Three-word review: it's not good.

This was Robert A. Heinlein's "first novel", written around 1939. He and his wife Ginny burned their copies of the manuscript shortly before his death. But one copy he loaned out to a would-be biographer was unearthed, and it made its way into publication in 2004.

Based on reviews, I was (obviously) in no hurry to read it. But it nagged at me: to have read every Heinlein novel except this one was too much of an imperfection to bear. So I picked up the paperback a few years ago, and it eventually got to the top of the to-be-read queue, and… well, it took a long time to read because I kept finding better things to do. As I said, it's not good.

There isn't much of a plot, but here's the idea: in 1939, Navy pilot Perry Nelson accidentally drives his car off a California seaside cliff, getting pretty smashed up on the rocky beach below. But (somehow) his conciousness gets transported to a different body the year 2086. He's rescued by the lovely Diana, who introduces him to this strange future world. After a few missteps, he finds a good niche and lives happily on from there.

There are seeds of Heinlein's future stories here: moving express sidewalks ("The Roads Must Roll"); Coventry, where incorrigable anti-social types are exiled; ubiquitous flying cars; the threat of Nehemiah Scudder's theocracy (he was victorious in Beyond This Horizon, defeated here); and so on.

It comes complete with an alternate history, one where FDR was beaten by Arthur H. Vandenberg in the 1940 Presidential election. (In actual fact, FDR stomped all over Wendell Willkie that year.) No World War II for the US, but Europe went dark for awhile. Gradually, the US transformed itself into (essentially) Utopia, a free, prosperous, socially liberated land where a lot of people are naked all the time, cheerfully inhaling vast clouds of tobacco smoke.

The details of the brave new world are tediously laid out in endless pedantic lectures that Perry endures cheerfully. (Me, not so much.) Everybody remarks on the backwardness of 1939 compared to the glorious present. After a while I heard these lectures in my head as being delivered in a high-pitched irritating nasality from bad 1930s movies. The key concept is a wacky socialist sub-ideology called Social Credit, which … well, I kind of skimmed over that part, but Heinlein's lecturers go on and on and on and on describing it, demonstrating its obvious superiority via a simulation game involving chess pieces, playing cards, and… yes, I skimmed over that too, muttering "When. Will. You. Shut. Up. About. This."

I shouldn't be too hard on Heinlein's technological predictions, of course. But: in his 2086, there's no Internet. Or computers. Or even lousy calculators: at one point Perry whips out a slide rule. (Kids who don't know what those were: click here.) If you need to get information from one place to another, you put it in a capsule and (shades of ex-Senator Ted Stevens) send it through a series of pneumatic tubes. And, although rocket ships are used for long-distance air travel, space exploration is just getting started.

And then there's sex, which is uninhibited and free from all those 1939-style taboos. The 2086 people just don't get Perry's hangups, especially when he falls in love with Diana, but can't abide it when her ex-flame shows up.

So, bottom line: a painful read, but at least I can say I've read 'em all. And I'm glad he kept at it.


Last Modified 2014-12-07 5:40 PM EST

URLs du Jour - 2014-12-03

  • [I HATE TEA (PARTIES)] The Official Store of the Democratic Party has decided to shed all that phony we-are-all-Americans rhetoric, and is selling the "I HATE TEA (PARTIES)" travel tumbler". It's a cool $30.

    A message-free mug will only set you back, what, $7 or so? But if you're a Democrat, apparently your party apparat thinks you're willing to shell out more than that in order to perfectly express your blind hatred.

  • Kevin D. Williamson unveils "The BET ME Challenge":

    If I were inclined to violate my own libertarian leanings, I’d lobby the new Republican majority in Congress to enact the Better Expertise Through Monetary Exposure Act of 2015 — the BET ME Act. The purpose of the BET ME Act would be two-fold: First, it would impose accountability on pundits and self-appointed experts of all descriptions by requiring them to wager a month’s pay on the real-world outcome every time they published a prediction.

    Second, and consequently, it would surely eliminate the national debt in a matter of months.

    As Kevin notes, there are Constitutional issues. But…

    I've occasionally avocated a similar proposal for politicians and their legislation:

    • Each bill going through the legislature must explicitly describe, precisely and objectively, the foreseen benefits it will accomplish.

    • Then—this is the critical bit—if at any point any of those benefits fails to materialize, the legislation will immediately and automatically go out of effect.

    I.e., force advocates of the bill to bet its continued enforcement on whether it will do what they claim it will. (It would be OK to claim that the bill would have no measurable benefits, but why then would anyone vote for it?)

    Is there any doubt that if this provision had been in effect in 2009, ObamaCare would have been gone by now, and its advocates even more embarrassed than they are?

  • For example:

    [About to be ex-] Sen. Tom Harkin, one of the co-authors of the Affordable Care Act, now thinks Democrats may have been better off not passing it at all and holding out for a better bill.

    Harkin spent 5 terms, 30 years, in the Senate. And it took him all this time to admit he was really bad at the job.

    Peter Suderman, by the way, deems Harkin's musings "a revisionist liberal fantasy". Not that there's anything unusual about revisionist liberal fantasies.

  • And another example comes from Walter Olson at Cato:

    Economic sanctions, when they have an effect at all, tend to inflict misery on a targeted region’s civilian populace and often drive it further into dependence on violent overlords. That truism will surprise few libertarians, but apparently it still comes as news to many in Washington, to judge from the reaction to this morning’s front-page Washington Post account of the humanitarian fiasco brought about by the 2010 Dodd-Frank law’s “conflict minerals” provisions. According to reporter Sudarsan Raghavan, these provisions “set off a chain of events that has propelled millions of [African] miners and their families deeper into poverty.” As they have lost access to their regular incomes, some of these miners have even enlisted with the warlord militias that were the law’s targets.

    But I'm sure Dodd and Frank are quite proud of their handiwork.

  • At Reason, Ira Stoll looks at the recently-defunct "green" Xunlight Corporation, the latest "example of how government at all levels—state and federal—and in both parties—Republican and Democrat —wastes taxpayer money by subsidizing politically connected businesses." Worth reading, especially if you think one party's more guilty than the other on this issue.

  • I liked Jonah Goldberg's essay on integrity when it was in my dead-trees National Review and now it's out from behind the NR paywall. He bemoans the ever-more-popular Nietzschean concept that one must "look within" for one's moral compass.

    Such saccharine codswallop overturns millennia of moral teaching. It takes the idea that we must apply reason to nature and our consciences in order to discover what is moral and replaces it with the idea that if it feels right, just do it, baby. Which, by the by, is exactly how Lex Luthor sees the world. Übermenschy passion is now everyone’s lodestar. As Reese Witherspoon says in Legally Blonde, “On our very first day at Harvard, a very wise professor quoted Aristotle: ‘The law is reason free from passion.’ Well, no offense to Aristotle, but in my three years at Harvard I have come to find that passion is a key ingredient to the study and practice of law — and of life.” Well, that solves that. Nietzsche-Witherspoon 1, Aristotle 0.

    As usual, Jonah draws multiple lessons from pop culture. Check it out.

  • Finally: Readers on Pun Salad's "Default" view might be interested in my takes on some recent reads: The Up Side of Down by longtime blogger Megan McArdle (aka "Jane Galt"); and The Norm Chronicles by Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter.


Last Modified 2014-12-05 11:17 AM EST

The Up Side of Down

[Amazon Link]

I've been reading Megan McArdle ever since she emerged from obscurity as "Jane Galt" on her "Live from the WTC" post-9/11 blog. So checking out her first book, The Up Side of Down, was an easy pick.

The book is (roughly) about failure. As the title implies, it's not all bad! Good news for those of us whose personal lives and professional careers have had a few jarring bumps along the way. (I might especially recommend the book to anyone in the midst of such a setback.)

Megan (I call her Megan) tells the anecdote that undergirds her philosophy of failure:

There is a famous story of a rich old man being interviewed by a young striver, who asks him for the secret of his success. “Good judgment,” says the magnate.

His eager young follower dutifully scribbles this down, then looks at him expectantly. “And how do you get good judgment?”

“Experience!” says our terse tycoon.

“And how do you get experience?”

“Bad judgment!”

It's funny because it's true.

The book is wide-ranging (some might say "rambling"), but there are all kinds of "shit happens" events that happen to people. There are mistakes, malfeasance, miscommunications, … None are much fun, but they oft contain the seeds of future success.

"Wide-ranging" might be an understatement: for example, there's an interesting section on bankruptcy. (No, I'm not kidding.) It turns out the USA's bankruptcy laws are very lenient compared to European countries; given our hardnosed reputation compared to the mushy socialists of Eurpe, that's kind of surprising. Megan argues this is a good thing: the important part of this particular mode of financial failure is that one can start afresh and do better the next time around.

Another chapter finds Megan investigating a response to a totally different brand of failure: Hawaii's Project HOPE is a probation setup for criminals who need to be weaned from the bad habits that brought them afoul of the law. Monitoring the offender is ongoing; infractions are dealt with promptly and without uncertainty—it's back to jail for at least a few days. This, Megan argues convincingly, is much more effective than the standard setup on the mainland. It's also cheaper, since (in the long term) recidivism is decreased.

This is standard investigative/advocacy journalism, but Megan is not reluctant to bring up examples from her own life: her rocky romances (again: not kidding); getting out of debt and getting back into it by buying a house; her professional setbacks (going from a Chicago MBA to Bloomberg journalist is not a typical career path). And even the story of her mother's dicey encounter with appendicitis; the diagnosis was botched, the hospital staff didn't always follow sterile practices, and so on. (I happened to read this part concurrently with reading about medical risks in The Norm Chronicles, so, yes, stay out of the hospital if you can. It's not the safest place to be.)

Megan's a fine journalist-style writer (although she never lapses into the dread USA Today-ease breeziness, thank goodness). I'll mention one quibble: on page 65, a paragraph begins:

Ronald Reagan's 1976 campaign against a probably fictional "welfare queen" tapped into middle-class America's growing belief that […]

Two serious things wrong here:

  1. "Welfare queen"-in-quotes implies that's a term Reagan actually used at the time. He didn't, as near as anyone can tell. (He did use the term once in one of his post-campaign radio commentaries, as an example of what other people were calling her.)

  2. The person Reagan referred to wasn't fictional at all.

I blogged about the Reagan "welfare queen" mythology here.


Last Modified 2014-12-08 3:28 PM EST