Fidelity Beyond the Grave

I get spammed a lot by Fidelity, but that's OK.

A recent message suggested I take a short quiz to guide me toward a strategy for paying for health care in retirement. Also OK.

After answering the questions, I was sent to this page. Again, fine fine fine.

But I was amused by the description of one of their "relevant topics":

Find out how to help ensure that your loved ones and organizations near to your heart are taken care of today and in the afterlife.

Dude, Fidelity's so good, they'll take care of my loved ones in the afterlife.

Now, sure, I know what they meant to say: "after you are dead". But maybe they could have found a clearer way to euphemize that.

The End of Doom

[Amazon Link]

Despite my expectations this was not a Fantastic Four comic book recounting their final defeat of Dr. Doom. Instead the subtitle is "Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century". It is written by the estimable science correspondent for Reason magazine, Ronald Bailey. And thanks to the stunningly good efforts of the Interlibrary Loan department of the University Near Here, who worked a copy out of the clutches of Northeastern University.

Bailey's book is an antidote to the various predictions of near-term ecological disaster. Those have been with us since Malthus, I guess, but Bailey is more concerned with more recent Jeremiahs: e.g., Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, Bill McKibben, etc. Wolf-crying continues to be a popular and profitable undertaking to this day.

Most chapters deal with a subcategory of possibile global disaster: overpopulation; resource exhaustion; genetic manipulation; epidemic levels of cancer; anthropogenic climate change; mass species extinction. And there's an excellent chapter on the "precautionary principle" used by those who would thwart technological progress; its clever title: "Never Do Anything For the First Time".

Unlike a number of folks on this side of the libertarian/conservative divide, Bailey has been persuaded to believe in the reality of anthropogenic global warming. His chapter on the topic, however, gives plenty of respect to the skeptics, and no support at all to the notion that it's an excuse to hand worldwide governments extraordinary new powers of regulation, subsidy, taxation, and mandate. He argues, convincingly, that a lot of good would be done by elimination of existing fossil fuel subsidies without making the same subsidization mistake for "renewables".

If I had to quibble: the book at times seems to be stitched together from old Reason columns and various op-eds. Which is fine, but I'd welcome just reprinting those works, updating as necessary to reflect recent events.

Bailey's prose is OK, but he sometimes makes regrettable choices in what to include in the main text of the book. Endless studies are summarized, and sometimes no detail seems too small to omit. ("In Cartagena, Columbia, privatization boosted the number of people receiving piped water by 27 percent.")

The Phony Campaign

2015-09-27 Update

Our PredictWise punters noticed that Scott Walker's chance at the presidency have gone from "slim" to "none", and that has created room in our poll for the ample frame of Chris Christie. And, although Jeb and Carly lost a lot of their phoniness over the past week, Jeb dropped significantly more than Carly, which gives us a new phony front-runner:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-09-20
"Carly Fiorina" phony 2,470,000 -2,030,000
"Jeb Bush" phony 1,100,000 -7,740,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 482,000 +44,000
"Donald Trump" phony 367,000 -43,000
"Joe Biden" phony 153,000 -2,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 146,000 -16,000
"Marco Rubio" phony 131,000 +19,000
"Chris Christie" phony 116,000 ---
"Ben Carson" phony 108,000 +4,000

  • Carly's phony hits continue to be generated by her debate claim about Planned Parenthood's baby organ harvesting for cash. Typical headline from the Daily Kos tribe: "Planned Parenthood: Carly Fiorina cooks up fake video to 'prove' her lies". Alternatively, Jonah Goldberg: "It’s Not Carly Fiorina Who’s Wrong in the Planned Parenthood Fight".

    I report, you decide. You can't help but notice, however, that one side is desperately trying to discredit Carly, instead of describing what Planned Parenthood does in non-euphemized language and trying to defend it.

  • Hrafnkell Haraldsson reports: "Donald Trump’s Phony Christian Routine Earns Boos at Values Voter Summit". Trump walked onstage carrying the Good Book:

    “Most importantly,” he said, “I brought my Bible,” and lifted it up for all to see.

    Given what followed, you can be sure he is not very familiar with its contents, as he spent the next 20 minutes on his usual spiel, showing a complete lack of humility and loads of hubris, and an utter disparagement of everyone who is not Donald Trump.

    No, I had not previously heard of Hrafnkell Haraldsson, but I miss a lot. The PoliticsUSA "About Us" page claims "he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors."

    So lock up your daughters if you hear Hrafnkell's coming to your town.

  • Roque Planas (yes, we are unaccountably drawn to unusual names this week) thinks he noted phoniness in the Jeb Bush's claim that he "repudiated multiculturalism". Why, Roque argues, "Jeb Bush Is So Multicultural, He Doesn’t Even Know It". His wife is Mexican! He studied Latin America in school! He speaks Spanish! He eats Mexican food at home! In 2009, he identified himself as Hispanic on his voter registration! He lives in one of the most conspicuously multicultural cities in the U.S.! (Miami!)

    OK, Roque. If what you think Jeb said is so easily refuted by obvious facts, could it be possible that you missed the thrust of what he actually said?

    Let's see… here.

    But Bush said later he viewed multiculturalism as not aspiring to an American ideal. "You have to have people assimilate into society. But that doesn't mean we have a monolithic, homogeneous population. To the contrary," he told The Associated Press before headlining a legislative fundraiser in Cedar Rapids. "The power of America is a set of shared values with a very diverse population embracing it."

    I dare say you can eat Mexican food at home and still believe something like that.

  • And then of course, there's Hillary. It has been another week of inconvenient facts coming to light, revealing her previous prevarications. In NRO, John Fund notes: "Democrats Wake Up to How Bad a Liar Hillary Is". He points to a quote from last Sunday's Meet the Press uttered by Bill Clinton biographer David Maraniss:

    She doesn’t have Bill Clinton’s charisma and amazing campaign abilities. You know, and theater. You know, you talk about authenticity. I always have called Bill Clinton sort of an authentic phony. He really is good at that. And Hillary, if you look at it, just as theater, is a phony phony. She’s not as good at it.

    Here's the problem: the American people aren't very good at their job either, which is to humiliate these people out of public life.

Bias-Free Language Guide Has a Defender

It was only a couple months ago that the kerfuffle over the Bias-Free Language Guide made the University Near Here the well-deserved target of nationwide ridicule. (The link goes to the July 28 version of the document available from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.) Over the span of a day or two, the document was removed from the University web server; President Huddleston put out a disavowal statement; and the furor and laughter eventually died down.

But now the students are back in town, and one of them, Ezra Temko, Graduate Student Body President, took pen in hand to defend the BFLG, and the student newspaper dutifully published said defense both online and in its dead-trees edition.

Let us take a look at young Ezra's thoughts; I reproduce them in full, lest I be accused of quoting out of context. His words are on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

This past July, a Campus Reform web post that highlighted a “Bias-Free Language Guide” on UNH’s website quickly entered the national news cycle.

That week, I was embarrassed to be a Wildcat.

Oh, no! Why?
I was not embarrassed by Campus Reform’s story. Campus Reform’s founder and president promotes right-wing orthodoxy. He has expressed solidarity with organizations that believe only Christians should be able to hold public office and that support discrimination against gay individuals. A tortured chain of damnation indeed: the (factual) news came from a website founded by a (gasp!) conservative (unnamed, but apparently Morton Blackwell) who (somehow, at some point) "expressed solidarity" with (unnamed) organizations that held certain tendentiously-characterized political opinions.

OK, well that's a good excuse to ignore criticism.

And it also gives Ezra a chance to ignore the criticism of the BFLG from just about everyone else.

I was embarrassed by our university’s official response. President Huddleston joined conservative pundits in lambasting the guide. Huddleston removed the guide from UNH’s website and declared that speech guides have no place at UNH. His statement was noticeably missing any mention regarding the importance of addressing microaggressions on our campus or of fostering inclusive language and discourse. True enough. President Huddleston said X; Ezra wanted him to say not-X instead. Ezra claims to have been embarrassed, but since he's making his feelings an issue, it seems more accurate to say he feels betrayed.
Language and behavior can reproduce social inequalities and de-value people. […] Language can also inflate trivial assertions into pretentious and vague claptrap. As here.
Last year I witnessed white students casually calling each other n—-r and a swastika painted on a campus building. […] Neither of these—not even casual use of the N-word—was addressed by the BFLG. Now, if those white kids had been calling each other "Negro": the BFLG would have deemed that "problematic".
I heard stories from other Wildcats of rape jokes and disparaging remarks about transgender persons and persons of varying ethnicities. […] Could we just stipulate that young people say all sorts of stupid, filthy, and insensitive crap?

But this is a diversion: the actual language the BFLG was written to inhibit is far less obvious…

I also heard more subtle put-downs, some of which were likely made by individuals who were not even aware that their language was exclusive or stigmatizing. As someone who endorses UNH’s goal of striving towards “a culture of inclusion and diversity” (one of UNH’s six “Visions and Values” in our strategic plan), I appreciated having a toolkit that encourages thoughtful expression that upholds and affirms the diversity present within our community. Now (finally) we're getting to it: the BFLG is (allegedly) a well-meaning "toolkit" to implement "a culture of inclusion and diversity".

And what kind of toolkit? Well, mostly a hammer: one you can use to beat the heads of those who speak or write at variance with what Ezra and his ilk consider to be the Official University Ideology.

And, lest you doubt, Ezra is correctly quoting UNH's Strategic Plan. "A Culture of Inclusion and Diversity" is in the list of "Six Visions and Values" (although it's not clear whether it's a "Vision" or a "Value").

And (unfortunately for us all) the Strategic Plan makes no mention of, say, "A Commitment to Free Expression and Reasoned Discourse", either as a "Value" or a "Vision".

That's (as they say) problematic.

President Huddleston’s statement also bought into the right-wing framing of the language guide as being about free speech. These charges were associated with misleading headlines like “[UNH] Bans Word ‘American.’” The guide, however, was not in a policy handbook; it was on UNH’s Inclusive Excellence page under a section entitled Resources. The guide explicitly states that it is about “starting a conversation about word choice” and encouraging critical and reflective thinking, and that it is “not meant to censor… [or] represent absolute requirements.” I am not the first to point out that those who claim to want to "start a conversation" are often the first to get really, really annoyed when people talk back to them.

In truth, the BFLG makes no explicit disciplinary threats against those who violate its guidelines. But its tone is unmistakeably didactic and ex cathedra: 10 "avoid"s; 6 "should"s; a whopping 55 "problematic"s. Ominously, the document is shot through with references to "aggression", "assault", "violence": the fuzzy conflation of language acts with terms used to refer to actual physical brute force certainly implies that certain language should be sanctioned/punished, even if that's not (yet) explicitly stated.

Should our administration be taking cues regarding how to realize our vision from Campus Reform? Or should our administration take its cues from the students and community members who are on the receiving end of microaggressions, and from the researchers and practitioners on our campus who understand these issues and are on the front lines of working for a campus climate that engenders inclusive excellence? If we're giving cue-taking advice to President Huddleston:
  • It might be too much to hope for, but the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has an excellent suggestion: UNH should work to improve its current "red light" rating there.

  • Recommended additional reading: "The Coddling of the American Mind" by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in the September issue of that well-known right-wing hate mag The Atlantic.

  • At all costs avoid advice from anyone who uses the term "microaggressions" without giggling.

President Huddleston, whose side are you on? That's not a very "inclusive" question, Ezra. Doesn't "diversity" suggest that President H listen to diverse opinions, not just one side? This side, that side… can't we all just get along?
In the coming months I will look to the UNH administration’s actions for an answer to that question. Hey, like all of us.

(My previous posts on the BFLG: here, here, and some here.)

Big Eyes

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

Director Tim Burton directs the more-or-less conventional story of Margaret Keane, the artist who became famous for her paintings of kids with eyes the size of billiard balls. I mean to say, they're big. The picture is genre-classified at IMDB as "Biography, Crime, Drama", but the crime is so low-level that nobody goes to jail, and it's also hilarious in spots. Substitute "Comedy" for "Crime".

It starts off when Margaret (Amy Adams) leaves her first husband in the late 1950s and takes off for San Francisco, there to make a living as a starving artist. She gets a job painting pictures on baby cribs; nowadays, that would be some Asian kid's job. In her spare time, she paints portraits on demand at an outdoor art show. There she meets Walter (Christoph Waltz) who takes her under his wing. Gradually, Margaret's paintings develop into a cult item, then (more rapidly) into a mass phenomenon.

Unfortunately, Walter succumbs to the temptation to claim Margaret's work as his own. The general sexism of the era, combined with Margaret's dysfunctional relationship with Walter, make this easy. Margaret is eventually forced out of the public eye, working in solitude, while Walter sucks up the fame, adulation, and riches. Can Margaret claim the recognition due to her, and get out from under Walter's paint-stained thumb?

This could have easily turned into Lifetime Movie fare, but Mr. Burton, Ms. Adams, and Mr. Waltz make the movie into kind of a treat. Worked for me, anyhow.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

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

OK, it's a fine movie. And I watched the first two, not to mention the three before that. When the Extended Editions come out as an attractive combination, I may take a long look at them.

It's just real hard to get excited about watching yet another two hours and twenty-four minutes of fantastic PG-13 spectacle of fighting, fighting, and more fighting. And sometimes tragic character flaws.

Anyway, when we left the Hobbit, Bilbo, he and his dwarf companions had just awakened the evil dragon Smaug, who has flown off to wreak deadly havoc on Laketown, whose inhabitants have pissed him off by sending the retinue to the castle where he guards his immense treasure. The town is nearly defenseless, because the only townsperson with any defensive talent is locked up in the town jail.

Spoiler: dragon havoc is indeed wrought. But that's just the beginning. Other problems abound: Thorin, the dwarf leader, is succumbing to the madness involved in hoarding great riches. The lovely elf, Tauriel, has taken a shine to one of the dwarves, and that gets her in trouble with the elf king. Meanwhile an orc army is bearing down on the Lonely Mountain, threatening all sorts of nastiness. Gandalf has been imprisoned by the Necromancer. And …

Well, that's probably enough.

Observations: Orlando Bloom returns as Legolas, and it's a sheer joy to watch him in fearless action. I was trying to figure out where I had seen Lee Pace, who plays the snooty elf Thranduil. Ah, it was in the the quirkily charming comedy "Pushing Daisies": he played Ned, the pie-maker with the ability to bring the dead briefly back to life. The guy has an impressive range.

The Phony Campaign

2015-09-20 Update

Our 2% PredictWise criterion causes us to welcome Carly Fiorina to our phony poll, and bid adeu adeiu adous farewell to John Kasich. And Carly makes a fine showing:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-09-13
"Jeb Bush" phony 8,840,000 +7,830,000
"Carly Fiorina" phony 4,500,000 ---
"Hillary Clinton" phony 438,000 +3,000
"Donald Trump" phony 410,000 +18,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 162,000 +34,000
"Joe Biden" phony 155,000 -28,000
"Scott Walker" phony 140,000 +31,000
"Marco Rubio" phony 112,000 +9,000
"Ben Carson" phony 104,000 -8,000

  • One of the big current "phony" drivers for Carly is her claim in last week's debate about what the Planned Parenthood videos released by the Center for Medical Progress show: "Watch a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says, ‘We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain."

    Nay, shouted many "fact checkers". Federalist has a decent rundown of Carly vs. the "fact checkers". Key:

    The media have consistently failed to cover the Planned Parenthood footage, and now they are covering up the truth. The reality is that babies of the same gestational age are having their organs harvested every day. These videos feature graphic footage of abortionists mangling babies to harvest organs to sell. They feature abortionists admitting that babies often survive those abortions. They show high-level Planned Parenthood officials encouraging this organ-harvesting scheme, acknowledged that it is happening, and attempting to skirt scrutiny from it.

    We try to keep things light here. And (disclaimer) I haven't watched the Planned Parenthood videos, don't plan to. I know they are horrifying, not only due to the explicit gore, but also the window into the depraved and ghoulish mindset hiding behind the fundamentally dishonest "Planned Parenthood" moniker.

  • Jeb still has a comfortable lead on the field, though. In an effort to put the game away, his Super PAC recently released an ad that contrasted Jeb's upbeat optimism with Trump's dour darkness.

    The video, called "Bright," then pivots to the sun rising in a field along with the text “choose a brighter path” as Bush says his message will be an optimistic one.

    "If we get a few big things right, we can make lives better for millions of people in this nation where every life matters and everyone has the right to rise,” he says.

    The only problem: The sun is rising over a field in Cornwall, England — a clip available for between $19 and $79 on Shutterstock.

    The Politico story also claims the ad uses the "silhouette of a construction worker"—taken in Southeast Asia and "kids heading off to school"—probably from the United Kingdom.

  • A Salon lefty, one Shane Ryan, pontificates on phoniness:

    Any presidential election has a superficial quality to it, but as Rachel Maddow pointed out recently on MSNBC, merely looking presidential, in the patrician sense that John Kerry and Mitt Romney embodied, means little. Instead, a modern candidate has to pass the “phony test.” The history of recent electoral losers tells the story—Romney got caught dismissing half of America, McCain lost his maverick credentials when he added a fringe lunatic from Alaska to his ticket, Kerry was a flip-flopper, and Gore was a snob. There are a thousand reasons why one candidate loses and another wins, but personality defects are no small part of the formula.

    … and then loses it in the very next paragraph:

    When you hear progressives laud [Bernie] Sanders’ “authenticity,” it goes deeper than his political record. The judgment takes aesthetics into account—with his guileless manner, and the way his face defaults into a dogged, curmudgeonly glare, you get the sense that it would never occur to him to tell anything but the truth. Just like it would never occur to him to change his positions on wealth inequality over three decades, or to accept money from super PACs, or to shy away from the word “socialist.”

    Swooning over a "curmudgeonly glare" — that's what American Progressivism has come to. Shane, please play the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" over and over on your iPod until you snap out of it.

    Somewhat more honest leftism is to be found from Stephen Lendman at Counterpunch, in which Bernie Sanders is compared with current head of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn:

    Differences between them are stark. Sanders is more opportunist than populist, nearly always supporting Democrat pro-war, pro-Israel, pro-business, anti-human/civil rights policies – voting with party members 98% of the time, more than most Democrats, polar opposite his high-minded rhetoric, hiding his real agenda.

    Ooooh, tell me more about Bernie's "real agenda".

    He’s no populist/anti-war savior. His voting record belies his stump speeches. He represents business as usual dressed up in phony high-minded rhetorical mumbo jumbo.

    OK, so beyond the vague "business as usual" claim, Stephen never actually gets around to telling us what Bernie's "real agenda" is. I bet it's nasty, though. Maybe next week?

  • Bernie was down the road last week, at St. Anselm's College, telling students what he meant by the term "democratic socialism". Not to fret, he declaimed, you'll still get your important liberties:

    "So what does [democratic socialism] mean?” Sanders asked the students. “Does anyone here think I’m a strong adherent of the North Korean form of government? That I want all of you to be wearing similar colored pajamas?”

    A sigh of relief went through the throng, as they realized their sleepwear choices were not under imminent threat.

    When the laughter died down, […]

    Wait a minute: there was actually enough laughter at the pajama remark for it to "die down"? It seems St. Anselm's students are very easily amused. Or maybe you had to be there.

    […] the longest-serving independent in Congress asked how many of the students were familiar with the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Finland and Norway.

    Hm. Check the Heritage Foundation's 2015 Index of Economic Freedom. Denmark, Finland, and Norway are all ranked in the "mostly free" category, along with the U.S. And Denmark is actually ranked slightly above the U.S.

    What does it mean when a self-proclaimed socialist, scrambling for examples of ideal economic systems, points to ones that are more or less like the one we already have?

    I'll tell you what it means to me: it means we need to do a lot better, economic freedom-wise. What do we have to do to get to the "Free" category?

  • Ben Carson trails badly in our phony poll. At the Daily Beast, P. J. O'Rourke claims "It’s Time to Pull the Plug on Dr. Ben Carson’s Campaign." But why, Peej?

    Ben Carson is brilliant and kind. Therefore, he has no business running for president.

    Ah. But read the whole thing.


Last Modified 2015-09-21 5:19 AM EDT

Million Dollar Arm

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

A PG-rated Disney movie starring Jon Hamm. The mind reels. Slightly.

It is based on a true story: Hamm plays sports agent J. B. Bernstein, who has set up a small independent agency with a partner and savvy administrative assistant. They are failing, unable to compete with the big boys. What they need is a Big Idea, and J. B. gets one while channel surfing between an Indian cricket match and "Britain's Got Talent" (the Susan Boyle episode, coincidentally). Hey, what if we set up a reality-TV talent search in India for cricket bowlers to see if they could throw a baseball with speed and accuracy enough to get a shot at a Major League Baseball contract?

Well, that's exactly what happens. It is very formulaic, following (as the astute Mrs. Salad predicted) the Bad News Bears plot recipe right down the line: amusing misadventures based on cultural clash, occasional doom-threatening crises, mistakes are made, lessons are learned, and does everybody wind up more or less happy? No spoilers here, but what do you think?

Lake Bell plays J. B.'s tenant and eventual romantic interest. (Which apparently accurately reflects reality.) Alan Arkin is a crusty agent, and Bill Paxton is a crusty coach tasked with providing the Indian prospects with enough baseball skills to get them to (at least) single-A minor league level. Acting talent raises the quality of the movie to overall watchable.

The Conservative Heart

[Amazon Link]

This book's author, Arthur C. Brooks, was one of the speakers at the "New Hampshire Freedom Summit" I attended last year; I thought he gave the best speech of the day, better than the host of professional pols that also attended. So I was favorably inclined to check out his new book.

This book's breezy, informal, accessible style reminded me of something… but what? Oh, I know: self-help books. Back when I used to read self-help books, this is exactly what they sounded like.

(Nowadays, I figure I'm beyond help.)

But that impression is pretty much on target: Brooks has written a self-help book for conservatives, libertarians, and the GOP. Brooks' thesis: For too long, these groups been satisfied with being right. Shouldn't that be enough? Brooks says no, instead they (we) have the responsibility of packaging their (our) ideas in ways accessible and acceptable to those who can be persuaded by them.

Would it work? Maybe. Among Brooks' suggestions, the one I liked best is for conservatives (et al.) to "fight for people, not against things". I.e., don't be satisfied with an abstract, reactionary response to progressive/socialst proposals: show how your ideas and values act to make peoples' lives better.

Quibble: Much of Brooks' argument involves alleviating American poverty. He (convincingly) argues that the best methods to help the poor is to wean them off government dependence, involve them with private-sector work, provide their children with school choice, and remove the barriers to entrepreneurship they encounter.

He's right. But to what extent is this the politically winning strategy he says it is? I have my doubts. The economic issues in recent campaigns (to the extent I've paid attention to them) seem to be aimed squarely at middle-class pocketbook issues, not poverty issues. Remember the "Life of Julia", a 2012 Obama campaign web presentation, designed to show how an imaginary woman was "helped" throughout her life by various Federal programs (and how Mitt Romney would gut those programs)? Well, there was no pretense that Julia was mired in poverty.

Surveys also indicate—sorry, Arthur!—that people don't consider poverty per se to be a major issue. Check Gallup; the "poverty/hunger/homelessness" issue is nowhere near the top of the list of concerns.

All in all, however, The Conservative Heart is a fine book, written by an insightful and entertaining thinker.

The Theory of Everything

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

This movie won an Oscar for Eddie Redmayne, who plays physicist Stephen Hawking. Good for Eddie, but as this WaPo story notes, a majority of best-actor wins since 1988 (Dustin Hoffman for Rain Man) have gone to those portraying a character with some sort of malady or disability. So Eddie kind of got a leg up on the competition, so to speak.

The movie also got nominated for Best Picture, Felicity Jones (playing Jane Hawking, Stephen's first wife) was nominated for Best Actress, and there were also nominations for "Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay" and "Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score". The movie was based on Jane Hawking's memoir of their relationship—making it a bit light on the physics.

The movie follows the arc of the Hawkings' relationship. They met at Cambridge in the early 1960s, when they were both students. In brief, Stephen developed Lou Gehrig's disease, he and Jane got married, they managed to have kids, but (spoiler alert) their relationship grew strained, and they both Found Other People: Stephen with one of his nurses, Jane with Daredevil.

It held my interest, which is saying something for a movie of this type. I knew next to nothing about Hawking's personal life. The consensus seems to be that the movie makes him "nicer" than he is in actuality; that's understandable. But I tend to cut geniuses with serious debilitating illness some slack.

The Phony Campaign

2015-09-13 Update

PredictWise is down this morning for some reason, so we'll assume the same phony lineup as last week:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-09-06
"Jeb Bush" phony 1,010,000 -180,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 435,000 +14,000
"Donald Trump" phony 392,000 +11,000
"Joe Biden" phony 183,000 +25,000
"John Kasich" phony 166,000 -9,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 128,000 +5,000
"Ben Carson" phony 112,000 -8,000
"Scott Walker" phony 109,000 -3,000
"Marco Rubio" phony 103,000 -2,000

  • On Monday, the NYT reported yet another planned makeover for Hillary. Key ludicrous paragraph:

    There will be no more flip jokes about her private email server. There will be no rope lines to wall off crowds, which added to an impression of aloofness. And there will be new efforts to bring spontaneity to a candidacy that sometimes seems wooden and overly cautious.

    Planned spontaneity—that's the ticket!

  • Hillary also, sort of, kind of, "apologized" for using her own e-mail server to conduct government business while she was Secretary of State. James Taranto offers a perceptive take (as is usual for him). But first he quotes Paul Waldman of the WaPo, and Waldman's article is also worth perusal. Waldman's thesis "authenticity is baloney" (italicized in original):

    The truth is that all campaigning is a performance, by its very nature. When you stand up in front of a group of people, whether five or five thousand strong (not to mention the cameras that will carry the event to untold numbers more), you’re presenting a version of yourself crafted for an audience. That’s true of a politician, it’s true of a teacher in front of a class, and it’s true of you or me when we tell a joke at a party. You may be trying to communicate something substantive — say, an argument about why we should cut taxes or impose emissions limits on coal-fired power plants — but you’re also communicating something about yourself. The persona we present in public settings isn’t necessarily “true” or “false,” it’s just a particular version of ourselves.

    How postmodern! Taranto lets Waldman off pretty easy, but it seems to me that Waldman is trying way too hard on the "c'mon, everyone does it" defense. Practical presentation tactics are just tools in the pol's belt: not inauthentic in and of themselves. Using them to prevaricate and obfuscate—that's where true phoniness horns in.

    To that point, Taranto's conclusion seems on-target:

    Regarding the current scandal, [Hillary] told [Ellen] DeGeneres: “I am now trying to be as transparent as I can.” In a way, she is succeeding. She is delivering scripted evasions, and it is obvious to everybody that is what they are.

  • Another couple of read-the-whole-thing insights: "The MacGuffinization of American Politics" at Ace of Spades HQ and Friday's G-File from Jonah Goldberg; Jonah's piece expands and extends Ace's thoughts.

    Ace's thesis is that "politics as spectator sport" has gone from an apt metaphor to the more-or-less literal truth to a large chunk of the population. Specifically:

    This is a movie. And Barack Obama is the Hero. And the Republicans are the Villains. And policy questions -- and Obama's myriad failures as an executive -- are simply incidental. They are MacGuffins only, of no importance whatsoever, except to the extent they provide opportunities for Drama as the Hero fights in favor of them.

    Explains a lot of otherwise mystifying behavior. Like why David Muir thought it would be appropriate and interesting to ask Hillary "Is your [late] mother's voice in your ear?" Because who hasn't seen a movie where that's been a thing?

    As said, Jonah expands on the idea. Key paragraph:

    Ever since Hegel or maybe Plato, statists have been telling a story about government in which government itself is the hero in an epic struggle. At least for Hegel, the state was the mechanism by which God worked out His will. For Marx, the State was an expression of cold immutable forces. For the socialists who followed, control of the state was a kind of MacGuffin but over time it became the hero itself.

    I've recently been thinking of statism as a kind of secular religion; but Ace/Jonah may have a more insightful take on it.

  • Walter Olson notes Hillary's Labor Day speech in which she pledged "to make sure that some employers go to jail " for various misdeeds alleged against their workers.

    Olson points out that some employers should, and do, get in trouble for employee-related misdeeds. But once you get past the easy questions, the Federal law is "vague and hard to interpret", and "anticipating what is lawful is often a matter of guesswork." Just the right situation for demagoguery!

    This is bait and switch terminology and there is no reason to give it a pass. Reporters should ask Hillary Clinton which cases, specifically, she has in mind when she talks of jailing employers, and whether that includes cases in which managers were obliged to guess what the law required of them.

    But "reporters", see above, are far more interested in asking Hillary whether she hears her mother's voice in her ear.

  • It has come to this:

    “When Ben Carson makes a phony statement, I am going to attack him.” Trump said on Thursday. “Ben Carson is not going to be the next president, that I can tell you.

    Trump and Carson are currently debating who is religiouser. Personally, I liked Bobby Jindal's comment about Trump:

    “When asked, he couldn’t even name a specific or a single Bible verse that was important to him, that had an impact on him,” Jindal said. “Well, do you know why? It’s clear Donald Trump has never read the Bible. The reason we know he’s never read the Bible? He’s not in the Bible.”

    I chuckled, but can't help but think this is the wrong road for the GOP clown car to drive down. Questioning the amount and quality of the religious faith of others is a negative sum game. I suggest the candidates ponder the wisdom expressed by the modern sage Mike Birbiglia: "What I should have said … was nothing."

Ant-Man

[5.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

We waited until it was almost too late to see Ant-Man in a theatre. I'm certainly glad we caught it in time; it's a pretty wonderful movie.

The story: once, long ago, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) was the Ant-Man, with shrinking powers and the ability to communicate with actual ants to command them to his will. A tragic outcome to one of his missions caused him to retire from the superhero game, and to withdraw his shrinky technology from use by others.

In the present day, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is released from San Quentin, where he was doing time for a Robin Hood-style caper. He struggles to make an honest living and be reunited with his beloved (utterly cute) daughter Cassie. Spoiler alert: he becomes the new Ant-Man in order to save the world from Pym's old protégé, Darren Cross, who's on track to rediscover Pym's secrets and sell them to the highest bidder.

Physics majors (like me) will need to temporarily forget their education about various conservation laws and the square-cube principle. But once you've done that, have fun. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the movie intertwines its ostensibly serious world-in-peril plotline with abundant jokes and hilarious sight gags. This is tough to do right—even the genius Brad Bird didn't quite get it right in Tomorrowland—but it really worked for me.

Consilience

[Amazon Link]

I'm getting pretty deep (in a geological layer sense) into my nonfiction to-be-read pile. This book, Consilience, by the famous biologist Edward O. Wilson, is from 1998. It seems I picked this paperback edition off a remainder table for $6 sometime after that. My motives for doing so are lost in the mists of time.

The book was written around the time Wilson retired from Harvard, and could be seen as kind of a farewell address. Although the research that made him famous was on ants, he quickly became interested in much broader fields, and that's more than evident here.

His thesis here is the "unity of knowledge". To use some labels he (admittedly) dislikes: reductionism and scientism. (As he says: "sins made official by the hissing suffix.") He pleads for the use of scientific insights to illuminate all fields of study: economics, sociology, anthropology, of course. But also the arts, philosophy, ethics, and even religion.

He makes a decent case, probably the best that can be made. His arguments on "sociobiology", applied to humans, argues how our genetic inheritance constrains culture, and made him some of the right enemies. (See this Wikipedia entry for examples.)

I wish he had devoted more space to an issue that's bothered me for a while: the probable finitude of intelligence. We don't seem to have any problems with applying this concept to animals; we don't try to teach calculus to dogs, even very smart, very good dogs. And yet we don't seem to seriously carry this observation over to human intelligence. There might be some things we can't know. There might even be things we can't even tell that we can't know. (In the same way your dog doesn't understand that he can't learn calculus.)

Wilson seems to brush up against this issue at points, but I didn't notice any serious consideration. And yet it indicates that there might be impassible barriers to the "unity of knowledge".

Wilson's style reminds me of Hayek's: gently argumentative with an frosting of sweet reasonableness, maybe a little too flowery for my tastes. Sweet reasonableness, at least until the last chapter, which (for me) kind of goes off the rails. In discussing what the likely future holds:

We will also come to understand the true meaning of conservatism. By that overworked and confusing term I do not mean the pietistic and selfish libertarianism into which much of the American conservative movement has lately descended. I mean instead […]

Oh, well. Never mind what he means instead. This kind of drive-by slur probably went over well at Harvard faculty soirées, but for me it's a signal that Wilson likes to pontificate in areas in which he really hasn't done his homework.

The last chapter also contains an environmentalist aieee-we're-all-gonna-die jeremiad, hitting all the scary scenarios trendy at the end of the previous century. Nearly two decades later, it seems more than a little alarmist. Weren't we all supposed to be dead by now?

The Phony Campaign

2015-09-06 Update

We welcome Dr. Ben Carson to the phony poll, as PredictWise puts him with a 2% probability of being our next president. But how does he stack up against the crowd, phony-wise?

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-08-30
"Jeb Bush" phony 1,190,000 -1,150,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 421,000 -69,000
"Donald Trump" phony 381,000 +38,000
"John Kasich" phony 175,000 -10,000
"Joe Biden" phony 158,000 -10,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 123,000 +1,000
"Ben Carson" phony 120,000 ---
"Scott Walker" phony 112,000 -3,000
"Marco Rubio" phony 105,000 +1,000

  • We've occasionally noted politicians reading their stage directions out loud was considered a gaffe. (The classic example: George H. W. Bush's " Message: I care.")

    But now, as Andrew Ferguson notes in the WSJ, it's become a trend: "The 2016 Race Has Already Gone Meta".

    Even now, so early in the presidential contest, we are seeing vivid signs of the “meta-campaign”—the spectacle of candidates who would rather describe the wonderfulness of their campaign than tell us what they’ll do in the unlikely event it succeeds.

    I can't help but think this is a symptom of campaigns that hold voter intelligence in contempt. And the campaigns may find it a successful tactic, at least this time around.

  • At the Daily Beast, one Betsy Woodruff headlines her article "Scott Walker: Anti-Immigrant Phony", and chronicles the candidate's "every position imaginable" on birthright citizenship and other immigration-related matters.

    Charlie Sykes, one of the most influential conservative talk-radio hosts in Wisconsin, estimates he’s interviewed Walker hundreds of times over the last 20 years. Sykes said there may be a very simple explanation for why Walker has had so much trouble talking about the issue: The governor doesn’t believe what he’s saying.

    We'll give him points for being an obvious phony.

  • As noted at Power Line, Hillary tried out yet another e-mail talking point to a complaisant interviewer, Andrea Mitchell:

    AM: Did anyone in your inner circle say, “This is not a good idea. Let’s not do this?”

    HRC: You know, I was not thinking a lot when I got in. There was so much work to be done. We had so many problems around the world.

    I didn’t really stop and think, “What kind of e-mail system will there be?”

    Note that Andrea Mitchell did not follow up with the obvious queries:

    1. "You claim you were 'not thinking a lot' when you became Secretary of State. Can you give voters any reason to believe you'll be 'thinking a lot' if you become President?"

    2. "But wait a minute. You had to have made a conscious decision to set up your private mail system; otherwise you would have just settled on the default State Department system. Didn't you just tell me an obvious lie?"

    We can only hope that someday Hillary will have the bad luck to get interviewed by someone able to nail her down on obvious dishonesty.

  • For example, some future interlocutor might read Timothy P. Carney's article: "Hillary’s ethanol flip-flop reveals a Democratic sclerosis on cronyism". She was agin' ethanol mandates… until it was time to start campaigning in Iowa.

  • Speaking of ethanol: Our phony poll newcomer, Ben Carson, has come out in favor of taking "$4 billion a year we spend on oil subsidies" and using that to support "fueling stations" with a 30% ethanol blend.

    He took this stand immediately after saying "I don't particularly like the idea of government subsidies for anything because it interferes with the natural free market."

Safe House

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

An action thriller with Denzel Washington! What could go wrong?

Well, for starters, he plays Tobin Frost, kind of a bad guy. A disgraced CIA super-agent, who has spent years on the run, allegedly freelancing his intelligence services to any and all enemies of the US.

Well, that's the story anyway. But after a transaction with a similarly disenchanted MI6 agent in Capetown, he finds himself hotly pursued by a shadowy assassination squad, one with an uncanny ability to track his every move. His only recourse is to turn himself into the American consulate. Which in turn puts him in the titular "Safe House", a dumpy suite of drab rooms maintained by young CIA agent Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds). Weston has been in this position for a year, hardly anything ever happens, he's totally bored. Frost's arrival is an unexpected fireworks show.

But much, much worse, because the assassination squad knows that Frost is there, and is still out to get him. Pretty soon Frost and Weston are on the run together. Car chases, gunplay, knifeplay, fisticuffs, explosions, betrayal happen apace.

It would be pretty ludicrous if not for Denzel's acting talent; Ryan Reynolds does pretty well for himself too.

Funny: Brendan Gleeson sports an American accent, and does OK with it.

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered

[Amazon Link]

A biography of the founding father by Lynne Cheney (yes, Dick Cheney's wife). My interest was prompted by Charles Murray's recent book By the People; Murray calls himself a "Madisonian" therein, indicating his agreement with Madison's understanding of the strictly limited powers of the Federal government described by the Constitution. And there was a good review in the Wall Street Journal.

Madison lived from 1751 to 1836. For about forty of those years, he was deeply involved in the invention of our country; it's fair to say that we'd be a different, and probably worse, nation without him. His biography is pretty much a biography of the USA.

Just consider the résumé: an early advocate of American independence; member of the Virginia legislature (1776–1779); delegate to the Continental Congress (1780-1783); delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1787; author of many of the Federalist Papers; member of the US House of Representatives (1789-1797); Secretary of State under Jefferson (1801-1809); and US President (1809-1817).

And then he took it easy for a while.

Mrs. Cheney's book is a pretty good history lesson for those of us whose last formal study of the matter was a dimly remembered high school course. I was surprised by a number of things, but mostly by Madison's fervent advocacy of the "national veto", by which the Federal legislature could nullify legislation passed by state legislatures. That idea (weird to my ears today) went nowhere in the convention, and Madison eventually dropped it. Obviously this defeat didn't stop him from becoming a fervent advocate of the version of the Constitution that was eventually produced.

Mrs. Cheney also deftly sketches the relationship between Alexander Hamilton and Madison, originally partners in getting the Constitution adopted, only to turn into ideological rivals over its eventual interpretation. Madison considered the enumerated powers in Article 1, Section 8 to be strict limits on Congressional powers: if it's not in the list, guys, you can't do it. (This was also the reasoning behind Madison's initial opposition to including a Bill of Rights into the proposed Constitution; unneeded, he argued, since Congress was limited only to its enumerated powers.)

Hamilton, on the other hand, advocated for viewing the enumerated powers as (mere) examples, while the General Welfare essentially gave Congress a blank check for all sorts of not-expressly-prohibited actions. And, unfortunately, that's where we are today.