By A Spider's Thread

[Amazon Link]

So about ten years ago, I got the bright idea to read all the Edgar Award "Best Novel" nominees for 2005. This was a stupid idea, as it turns out. I read the winner California Girl, back in 2006. I picked up another nominee, Out of the Deep I Cry in 2008. And now I've read another. Yes, it's good. But what was I thinking?

This book is the eighth entry in author Laura Lippman's series featuring Baltimore private investigator Tess Monaghan (since grown to an even dozen). Tess is the offspring of an Irish father and a Jewish mother; the latter heritage helps her here. Wealthy furrier Mark Rubin's wife and three children have vanished; since there's no indication of foul play, but Rubin's anxious to avoid public scrutiny, he hires Tess to track down his family. Rubin is very much an Orthodox Jew, even declining to shake Tess's hand at their first meeting. (Yes, that's a thing.)

There is, of course, more than meets the eye. Ms. Lippman uses third-person, multiple POV to tell the story, so we know that Rubin's wife is driving through the Midwest with the mysterious, malevolent Zeke. The kids are unwilling tagalongs, and Zeke's not above sticking the oldest boy, Isaac, into the car trunk when he gets obstreperous. Everyone's motives are mysterious, and are revealed only gradually over the course of the book.

It becomes clear to Tess that Rubin isn't being entirely forthcoming with his wife's history. Is that due to a desire for privacy or something more sinister? Nevertheless, Rubin and Tess develop an interesting relationship, to the extent that Tess is reluctant to honestly convey to him what she learns about the peripatetic Mrs. Rubin.

Despite being number eight of a series, the book works pretty well on its own, without my having first read entries one through seven. There are some refrences to harrowing incidents in a previous book, mooning over an absent boyfriend, preparations for the upcoming wedding of a beloved aunt. That's to be expected.

I am not sure whether I will continue with my plan to read all the 2005 Edgar nominees. Not sure, either, whether I'll read more Laura Lippman. She's very good, but geez my TBR pile is really tall without adding eleven more.

Shaun the Sheep Movie

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

Obtained this from Netflix knowing nothing about Shaun the Sheep, but acquainted with the work of Aardman Animations through Wallace and Gromit. It is ostensibly for the kids, but you can see what the DVD box over there claims: "Will delight kids and adults alike". This is true.

Shaun is a bit of a scamp, as it turns out. The grind of doing the same thing on the farm every darn day has come to bug him a bit, so he decides to hatch a wacky plot to fool the farmer that runs things. His scheme goes way off the rails, and before you know it, everyone (save the pigs) are in the "Big City", trying to avoid the Animal Control officer, and make their way back to rural bliss.

There are gags of all sorts, many of which will go right over the tiny heads of young 'uns. (Like a Hannibal Lecter sight gag.)

I looked in vain for the subtitle setting. Then felt kind of sheepish (pun intended), as it developed that the movie is dialog-free.

Into the Woods

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

I think we set some sort of personal record for time keeping a Netflix disk gathering dust on the TV stand here. Things just never seemed right for watching. But the Christmas/New Year hiatus and the lack of new content on the TiVo, encouraged us to catch up on physical DVDs.

'Tis a big-screen, star-studded adaptation of the Broadway hit musical, a mashup of Grimm Brothers' yarns (Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella) all set to music and lyrics by the famous Stephen Sondheim. Unifying the various plot threads are a childless baker (James Corden) and his equally childless wife (Emily Blunt), who are sent on a scavenger-hunt mission by a sorta-evil witch (Meryl Streep).

Did I mention star-studded? In addition to the above, there's the pride of Portland Maine, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella, Tracey Ullman as Jack's mother, Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf, Christine Baranski as Cinderella's evil stepmom, and Chris Pine as the Cinderella-seeking prince. (There's also a Rapunzel-seeking prince, his brother.) Some of these people reveal previously-unknown-to-me singing talent. (If they ever decide to do a Star Trek musical, Chris Pine could certainly continue as Singing Jim Kirk.)

I dimly remember seeing a stage production of Into the Woods put on at the University Near Here many years ago. I remember it as pretty darn dark, but the details blurred. The movie is relatively dark-humor funny at first, then gets just dark and not very funny at all near the end. The IMDB score shows that a lot of folks didn't care for it; I thought it was better than OK.

The Phony Campaign

2015-12-27 Update

No changes to our candidate list, according to PredictWise. Trump's hit counts cratered, putting him and Hillary into a neck-and-neck battle for first place; Rubio and Sanders trade places, with Rubio in fourth place this week.

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-12-20
"Donald Trump" phony 88,600 -97,400
"Hillary Clinton" phony 87,800 +7,800
"Ted Cruz" phony 43,900 -17,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 39,500 -4,300
"Marco Rubio" phony 31,100 -12,700
"Jeb Bush" phony 30,100 -12,700
"Chris Christie" phony 20,100 -6,600

Did the Christmas season put a dent in phoniness this week? You be the judge:

  • In perhaps the week's least surprising development, Politifact awarded its coveted Lie of the Year to the collected misstatements of Donald Trump.

    It’s the trope on Trump: He’s authentic, a straight talker, less scripted than traditional politicians. That’s because Donald Trump doesn’t let facts slow him down. Bending the truth or being unhampered by accuracy is a strategy he has followed for years.

    The combination of Politifact's left tilt and Trump's general disdain for reality made this a foregone conclusion. They published an edited selection of reader comments, of which I thought the following was very on-target:

    "I’m no fan of Trump, but you all probably gave him a major boost with your partisan predictability. Hillary's lies are substantive, willful, strategic and of consequence. But she's a Democrat and you were never going to go there. Your recognition of Trump's lies as being on a greater scale than Hillary’s will only bolster the view of most Trump supporters that the media and PolitiFact is wholly in the tank for Hillary. And they would be right."

    A half-cheer to Politifact for printing this.

  • There was a lot of furor—I guess—about Trump using the word "schlonged" to describe the nature of Hillary's defeat by Obama in 2008.

    Now much of the outrage was obviously phony. For example:

    A prominent ally of Hillary Clinton said Donald Trump is invoking the image of “a black rapist” by saying President Obama “schlonged” her in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

    On the other hand…

    I'm probably old-fashioned, but it was just one more reminder that Trump has little sense of dignity. This should not be news.

  • Politico's clickbait headline: What Ted Cruz said behind closed doors. Ooh! And the subhead: "A secret tape from a New York fundraiser could mean trouble for a candidate selling authenticity." Double ooh!

    But mid-piece:

    While Cruz’s private comments to a more moderate GOP audience do not contradict what the Republican Texas senator has said elsewhere, …

    Ah. Well, never mind.

  • Tennis star Jennifer Capriati has our tweet of the week:

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.

If you are a very late Christmas shopper, or even if you're not: check out Dave Barry's Christmas Gift Guide.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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

No spoilers follow, except those you can pick up from trailers and movie posters.

We went to see this in 3-D on a rainy Wednesday night before Christmas. The theatre was still pretty busy. The brilliant folks who made this movie seemed to realize they were making a Star Wars movie, not just a marketing tool to get the kids to demand action figures from their hapless parents.

Although I'm sure that will happen too.

Specifically, I found myself smiling pretty much all the way through—my smile muscles were a little achy afterward, in fact—both in enjoyment of what was up on the screen, and the meta-pleasure of noticing all the things the filmmakers did right. Plenty of good new stuff, but also considerable nostalgic echoes of what we liked about the original trilogy.

So what does it have? Well: you see Han and Leia over there on the poster. Also the venerable Millennium Falcon. A plucky young woman who unexpectedly gets caught up into … well, let's say "galactic conflict". An equally plucky young man who helps out. (The actor is African-American, but how that translates in the setting "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away"—your guess is as good as mine.) A new cute droid, smarter than it lets on. A new bad guy in a mask commanding endless waves of white-armored storm troopers.

And, oh yeah: the Force awakens. (Apparently it had been napping.)

The acting is probably the best I've seen in any Star Wars movie. Harrison Ford has had about 30 years to get this right, but the youngsters do a fine job too. They aren't above dropping an occasional wisecrack in the middle of desperate situations; I missed that.

The IMDB raters have (as I type) the movie at #29 on the top 500 movies of all time. I don't know about that, but it's right up there.

OK, one small spoiler: folks in the Star Wars universe continues to design workplaces that would get shut down by OSHA in nanosecods.


Last Modified 2015-12-31 5:45 PM EST

The Phony Campaign

2015-12-20 Update

No changes to our lineup again this week. No changes in the top tier, but Marco Rubio jumps into a tie for fourth place with Bernie Sanders, and Jeb fades to sixth:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-12-13
"Donald Trump" phony 186,000 +84,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 80,000 +13,200
"Ted Cruz" phony 60,900 +23,200
"Marco Rubio" phony 43,800 +19,300
"Bernie Sanders" phony 43,800 +14,500
"Jeb Bush" phony 42,800 +12,700
"Chris Christie" phony 26,700 +9,600

And in phony news this week:

  • Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are professors of history at Louisiana State University, and they have taken to Salon to display their insights: "This is the bluster of a phony: Donald Trump represents rage and rudeness, not populism"

    For a moment, earlier this year, Donald Trump was being taken seriously for his supposed straight talk, the idea being that he said what others were thinking but were held back from saying because of political correctness or some such thing. Those commentators who gave Trump the benefit of the doubt realize now that there was never any straight talk coming from that famously gaping mouth. No, Donald Trump, the politician, is a grab-bag of stolen bits from previous pols. Silent majority. Bubba cap. Reagan’s platitudinous “Make America great again.”

    Sigh. Yeah, fine. Except for the Reagan sideswipe, this ain't nothin' I didn't read in (for example) National Review months ago.

    I'd also like to see the names of the "commentators" who allegedly took Trump seriously earlier this year, but now consider him a phony blowhard. I suspect this is a null set.

  • At the Guardian, Lucia Graves observes and wonders: "Donald Trump is an erratic phony. Why believe he won't try a third-party run?"

    Much has been made of Donald Trump’s latest promise not to run as a third party candidate – a specter that has haunted Republican operatives ever since Trump started surging in the polls this summer.

    The curious thing is that anyone believes him this time.

    Ms. Graves notes that Trump has said this before. Another not-exactly-stunning insight: Trump does and says whatever pops into his head, unconstrained by previous positions and commitments.

    But she goes on to speculate on the legal challenges to mounting a third-party bid. Remember John Anderson? I (barely) did.

  • The WaPo serves up "campaign scoops" at the "Daily 202". On Friday, they asked the question on everyone's mind: "Is Ted Cruz a phony?"

    To stop Ted Cruz, the Republican establishment is working around the clock to caricature the Texas senator as just another career politician who follows the political winds and not core principles.

    There's been a lot of fire directed Cruz's way about his amendment to the failed immigration reform bill back in 2013. As local pol Jim Merrill (head of the NH Rubio campaign) tweets:

    Via Hot Air, which has more on the back-and-forth, and is excellent on the history.

  • So the Democrats debated last night. Quoth Hillary on Donald Trump:

    He is becoming ISIS's best recruiter. They are going to people showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.

    That was too much for even the left-leaners at Politifact, who rated Hillary's allegation FALSE.

    They have a lower rating: "PANTS ON FIRE".

    Of course, in Hillary's case that would be … oh, wait, way too obvious.

  • Final note: gonna go see Star Wars Wednesday night, even despite J.J. Abrams giving Hillary a million bucks.

Obtuse Angels

[Obtuse] 'Tis the season, as they say. Specifically, 'tis the season for viewing letters (with multiple signatories), distributed en masse, lecturing us on our alleged moral failings.

'Tis also the season for Pun Salad to mean-spiritedly mock and deride such communications. We all have our roles to play, I suppose.

We looked at one from a group of UNH administrators the other day. And recently, to what did my wondering eyes should appear, but another such letter in my local newspaper, Foster's Daily Democrat.

It's from fifteen or so local preachers (hereinafter: the Revs). And this automatically cuts them some slack. After all, it is more or less in their job description to point out the misbehavior of the unenlightened. Stepping out from behind the lectern and chiding a wider audience than their own congregations is probably an unavoidable temptation.

I was going to do the fisking thing, interspersing my comments into the original, but let me just reproduce the entire thing here and criticize it holistically.

Dec. 10 — To the Editor:

We are writing to express our dismay at the rhetoric of hate which has become common currency in the political sphere. The racial and religious intolerance that is being spoken so carelessly is abhorrent, and contrary to the very principles of freedom and tolerance upon which our nation is built.

The briefest glance at history reminds us that hatred cannot give rise to anything except hatred; that violence can only beget violence. The angry, fearful and intolerant words which are so casually spoken are already doing violence to the fabric of our society, forcing many Americans to live in the very real, daily fear that such words will incite physical violence as well. The responsibility for those acts will be upon all those who have spoken in anger, fear and violence; but it will be as well upon those who did not speak out against it. We choose to do so now. We reject the way of violence, both spiritual and physical. We reject the fear-mongering and violence of current political rhetoric. We reject the silence that would render us complicit.

The rhetoric of hatred and violence is particularly repulsive to us as Christians. Pope Francis said recently that "The fearful Christian is one who has not understood the message of Jesus Christ." The Gospels tell us, over and over again, that we should not fear, for fear is an idol which would turn us from God. Our scriptures remind us that the very people whom our culture tells us to hate are the ones in whom God may be made manifest; that the ones whom we reject are beloved by the God who created us all.

We, as Christians, choose to follow on the path of the one who refused violence even as He was repeatedly subjected to it. We, as Christians, choose the way of our God, who took on frail human flesh, and showed us the power of infant vulnerability.

We, as Christians, stand with our kindred in faith in the Muslim community. We stand with those who are battered by fear and hatred. We stand with those who are victims of spiritual and physical violence. We, as Christians, stand on the side of love.

In peace,

[signatories elided]

  • Quickly you will note the self-congratulatory sanctimony; how good and brave the Revs are for being against… well, hatred and violence are pretty easy targets, aren't they? Are there people out there who approve of hatred and violence? Well, if so, the Revs have their number. They "stand on the side of love", right alongside God and Jesus and the American flag and (selected portions of) the Bible. So neener-neener.

  • There's also the simplistic theology, and the sentiment that makes your typical Hallmark card look cynically profound. "Hatred cannot give rise to anything except hatred" and "violence can only beget violence"? Aquinas wept. These assertions are too silly to bother refuting here, failing on both evidential and logical grounds. I encourage the Revs to take more than "the slightest look at history" or spare a few seconds to, "in the Bowels of Christ," think it possible that they may be mistaken.

  • And repetitive. The word "violence" appears 10 times; "fear" shows up 6 times; "hatred" and "hate" combine for 6. Obsessed? Sounds like it.

  • But note that the "violence" that puts the Revs into such a tizzy is not actual violence. It's hypothetical violence they think might be just around the corner, or the "violence" of "current political rhetoric".

    Which is, well, odd. Damned odd, and I mean that literally. The letter is dated December 10, a mere 8 days after 14 murders in San Bernardino, and less than a month after 130 deaths in Paris.

    Note: actual violence, not just the sort the Revs imagine to be hiding in American political rhetoric, or might jump out and say "boo" someday.

    Just on recent body count alone, you might think the Revs' dismay might also extend to radical Islamism. Just maybe mention how that rhetoric triggers (again) actual violence.

    But no. The Revs' moral vision is selective and obtuse.

  • There is a strong component of the strawman fallacy in the Revs' letter. Who, specifically, are the occupants of the "political sphere" spewing "hate" and "intolerance"? Names? Dates? Context? Naah.

    Why should you name actual people making actual arguments, when those you can imagine are so much easier to invidiously caricature and refute?

  • Which brings us to the final point: To the extent the Revs are talking about actual (albeit unnamed) people, their letter is remarkably lacking in charity and sympathy. They have looked into the hearts of the politicians in question and—even at long distance—detect therein only a twisted black mass of hatred, violence, and fear. There can be no other explanation: those politicians are bad, bad people. No doubt the Revs thank God that they are not like…

    Oops. Doesn't anyone in the Rev biz read Luke 18:9-14 any more?

The 5-Minute Iliad

[Amazon Link]

Another deep dive into the non-fiction TBR pile. (I'm really making inroads! Only 15 books on there now!) The copyright on this book is 2000, and I think I got it for a Christmas present sometime after that. Thanks much, to whoever gave it to me.

It is a collection of 15 brief parodies of literary works, starting with—guess what—the Iliad. Each is written (sort of) in the style of the parodied work. I had previously read 7 of the target texts, but this didn't seem to affect how much I was amused by Nagan's takes, one way or the other.

I found the results uneven, but I wouldn't be surprised if other readers were amused (or not) by pieces that left me cold (or found me chuckling). Humor is funny that way. In addition to humor being funny in the "ha ha" way.

For example, I liked this from the 1984 chapter:

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
BUT DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL'S BEST FRIEND

… but I got all the way through the Sense and Sensibility chapter without cracking a grin.

Also good: The Divine Comedy written in limericks. The inscription on the gate of Hell:

COME THROUGH ME TO THE SORROWFUL CITY.
COME THROUGH ME AND FORGET ABOUT PITY.
    EVERY LAST DOPE
    MUST ABANDON ALL HOPE
WHEN THEY PASS ON INTO ETERNITY.

This made me wonder if Nagan had written anything else. Nothing I can find. Maybe he's living off the royalties of this book; it's still in print. He has a long-defunct website justmorons.com, and seems to have moved to Denmark. (Maybe he's researching a parody of Hamlet.)

Spam From The Bosses

As near as I can tell from my mile-off-campus cubicle, the University Near Here has been blessedly free from the turmoil besetting other schools over the past few months. Nevertheless, the UNH community was spammed last week with an e-mail missive from "senior leaders": twenty-eight administrative officials, from President Mark Huddleston down to various Vice Presidents, Deans, Directors, Chiefs, Chairs, and …

Whoa, UNH has five different flavors of Provost: Interim, Acting Vice, Senior Vice, Interim Senior, and Associate. Think that's enough?

Thought I might share my comments on the message with the Whole Wide World. What's the worst that could happen? The original (here) is reproduced below in full, on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

Dear Fellow Wildcats:

These have been difficult months. From Ferguson and Charleston to Paris and San Bernardino, our world has been shaken.

What do those cities have in common, other than being the sites of horrible news events that made us feel bad? Nothing really.

They're diverse, though, and "diversity" is an Official University Value, so maybe that's enough.

Still, having a short attention span is no virtue. Why not go back to 2001 and toss New York, Arlington, and Stonycreek Township in there too?

Anger, frustration and anxiety are in the air, fueled both by real events and by political leaders who seem either feckless or intent on appealing to the basest of human instincts. I would wager that Pun Salad has a lower opinion of political leaders than do the 28 signees. But… feckless? Is that really the best word here? Admittedly, some find it apt. But can't 28 (presumably sober) UNH administrators do better than drunk Hillary?

Dishonest. Corrupt. Hypocritical. Arrogant. Narcissistic. Incompetent. Demagogic. Untrustworthy. All more specific (and more accurate) than the weak "feckless".

It's understandable, but disappointing, that the signees would prefer not to name the pols who are "intent on appealing to the basest of human instincts". But we all know who they're talking about, right?

Yup, you read my mind: clearly they're talking about Bernie Sanders with his encouragement of envy, resentment, and hate.

What? You think they're referring to some other blowhard? Well, maybe.

We wish that the University of New Hampshire were somehow immune from these forces. Such is not the case, however. UNH is part of the broader world. Sadly, we have even had incidents on our own campuses that have seen members of our community treated with disrespect, or worse. With respect to "or worse", it's worth pointing out that a UNH student was raped and murdered back in 2012 (albeit not on campus). So, yes, things get much worse than "disrespect".

But our correspondents aren't really talking about that sort of thing. The real threat is… well, read on.

In these uncertain times, it is important for our community to stand together and recommit ourselves to the bedrock principles that make us a strong and caring Wildcat family. Calling the 20,000-plus students, faculty, and staff of the University Near Here a "family" just might be straining a metaphor way too far.

Anyway, what about those "bedrock principles"? Turns out there's only one that matters right now:

The first of these principles is and must always be that we embrace, respect and care for one another, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. "Is and must always be."

This is offered in the same spirit as: "As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen." I.e., we're talking about the University's Official Religion here, and you best not be revealed as an Unbeliever or Heretic, lest you be cast into the darkness.

(I should point out that the "regardless of" list is almost certainly fluid and somewhat arbitrary. Harvard, for example, would add creed, (plain old) sex, ancestry, veteran status, disability unrelated to job requirements, genetic information, military service, and (the catch-all) "other protected status.")

Finally, note that "embrace" should not be taken literally. Because if you go around embracing your "Wildcat family" members indiscriminately, you might find yourself in big trouble. That's what I've heard anyway. Haven't tried it myself.

This is our responsibility not only as individuals, in the way we conduct our particular lives, but also, perhaps even most importantly, as educators—and we are all educators, students, faculty and staff alike—in the messages we send, in what we tolerate in others, in our refusal to look away when members of our community need our help. And if we are all educators, are we also not—in a very real sense, and even more ultra-importantly—all students as well? For do we not all have something to learn, as well as something to teach?

As long as it's not quantum mechanics. That shit is difficult.

We say this, by the way, as university leaders who not only believe this, but who literally embody this principle. I am working very hard to think what the senders could possibly mean by claiming they "literally embody this principle". Literally. Hm.

Does Mark Huddleston have the "embrace, respect and care for" language above tattooed somewhere discreet on his person? Maybe this happens as an initiation ritual?

As we prepare to head off to join friends and family for the holidays, let us use this season of peace as a time of restorative reflection. Let us come back together in the new year stronger, more resilient and even more resolved in our commitments to one another and to the great work of the University of New Hampshire.

[Signer list elided]

"More resilient": that would be nice. Because this letter seems like it springs from the brittleness of the easily offended.

But—geez—couldn't they just have quoted Abraham Lincoln?: "Be excellent to each other. And... PARTY ON, DUDES!"

The letter could have been a lot shorter.

Somewhat more seriously, it's been only a few months since President Huddleston forthrightly proclaimed that the "only UNH policy on speech is that it is free and unfettered on our campuses." What happens when that policy conflicts with the "embrace, respect and care for one another" principle articulated now? Especially when the most sensitive among us decide that they've been insufficiently embraced, respected, or cared for?

(Today's case in point: New Yorker headline Shutting Down Conversations About Rape at Harvard Law.)

Examining that issue would be useful and interesting. Instead, the University hopes to ignore it with sappy feel-good sentiment.

Finally: I'm getting a little old to be nagged about "being a nice person" by my employers. Folks, I am a nice person, despite my multiple dissents from politically correct dogma. If you need to hector bigots, fine, but do so more selectively and accurately.

The Phony Campaign

2015-12-13 Update

No changes to our phony lineup this week, according to our 2%-at-PredictWise criterion. Jeb edges out Bernie for fourth place in the standings:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-12-06
"Donald Trump" phony 102,000 +24,700
"Hillary Clinton" phony 66,800 +500
"Ted Cruz" phony 37,700 +1,900
"Jeb Bush" phony 30,100 +6,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 29,300 +3,900
"Marco Rubio" phony 24,500 +1,300
"Chris Christie" phony 17,100 -1,200

And the latest PhonyTown low-down:

  • You might think a Reason article headlined "The Phony Mystery of Why 'They' Hate Us" would be right up our alley.

    What do Barack Obama and Donald Trump have in common? Among other things, they have—or pretend to have—no clue why some Muslims hate us. Trump says (I almost typed believes, but I'm not sure anyone, including Trump, knows what he believes) Muslims should be barred from the United States until "until the country's representatives can figure out what's going on."

    That's an auspicious beginning from author Sheldon Richman. In a libertarian mag, you might expect him to point out that the phrase "until the country's representatives can figure out what's going on" is roughly equivalent to "until Mars is fully terraformed."

    Alas, from there Richman instead outputs the same old blame-America-first boilerplate. Drones, of course. But it really all goes back to 2006. Or 1953. Or 1096. It's rare when a Reason article makes me roll my eyes in fundamental disagreement, but this is one of those times.

    Sheldon, we dropped atomic bombs on Japan. Do we have major problems with radical Shintoist terrorists today? There just might be other explanations for Islamist misbehavior than "we made them do it."

  • If you have ever wondered why Hillary Clinton should thank God for Donald Trump, then you should get on over to the Daily Beast and read the article from Reason editor Nick Gillespie: "Why Hillary Clinton Should Thank God for Donald Trump".

    But you might be able to guess the (heh) reason:

    Forget the fake facts, the Mexicans-are-rapists racism, the stupefying ignorance of international trade, and the unambiguous and unapologetic anti-Muslim bigotry. Forget even the fact that he’s just a gold-plated Billy Mays who has pitched every goddamned crap product from frozen steaks to a failed namesake university to mattresses.

    Perhaps the very worst thing about Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy is that it’s keeping us all—Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike—from examining just what a god-awful and terrible president Hillary Clinton will be. Less than a year out from the 2016 election, that’s the horror we all need to be confronting.

    "Indeed." If you need a brush-up on Hillary's fundamental awfulness, Nick has you covered.

  • New Hampshire's Union Leader newspaper has endorsed Chris Christie, so it's fun to watch 'em slag the other guys: "Cruz bombs: Tough talk to cover up weak record".

    Ted Cruz is taking his Texas Tough Guy act on the road in Iowa.

    It’s because tough talk is all he has to offer. Facing mounting criticism from fellow freshman Sen. Marco Rubio over his vote to suspend the NSA’s controversial bulk data collection program, Cruz is ratcheting up his already overheated rhetoric. He told potential caucus-goers he would “carpet bomb” ISIS and that anyone who joins is “signing your own death warrant.”

    I dare say that it's logically possible to support both (a) undoing massive NSA spying on Americans and (b) bombing the crap out of ISIS. But the UL isn't really interested in figuring that out.

    The UL editorial did manage to get an approving nod from Salon:

    Ted Cruz is a phony, pandering as a tough guy in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino terror attacks to win votes, according to a blistering new editorial in the New Hampshire Union Leader — New Hampshire’s largest paper.

    Perhaps the first and last time a UL editorial position draws praise from Salon.

  • But if the UL won't slag Christie, the New Jersey Star-Ledger will, even sending a columnist up here to cover his campaign. One Tom Moran shadowed his state's governor to a Manchester "recovery center" for heroin addicts. And came away mostly unimpressed: "Christie on heroin: A prophet and a phony".

    Christie tells moving stories of his mom's tobacco addiction, and makes compassionate noises about the similarity to heroin. For Moran, this is good.

    But, oh no:

    The number of people admitted to drug treatment in New Jersey has dropped on his watch, and so has state spending on treatment.

    Because, for Moran, the only possible measure of "compassion" is how much of other people's money you spend.

    Don't get me wrong: the government stats on heroin deaths (and those from other drugs) are sobering. But what they say to me is: the "solution" is not more of the same, not to double down on clearly failing policies.

    If you want to hear a true prophet, try listening to Jacob Sullum instead of Chris Christie.

Spy

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

Hey, Melissa McCarthy can talk dirty. All those surprised by that, please raise your hands … nobody? … fine, then. Does this make Spy "the funniest movie of the year", as claimed by Mara Reinstein of Us Weekly? No it does not, sorry Mara.

Ms. McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent dedicated to sitting at Langley, doing behind-the-scenes stuff. For example, she excels at making her co-worker Bradley Fine (Jude Law) appear to be an unstoppable action hero, mainly by chattering advice into his earpiece about the bad guys coming around the corner, and calling in the occasional drone strike.

Susan is (of course) secretly infatuated with Fine. What heterosexual female wouldn't be? But she can't save him when he goes after Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who's looking to supply a nuke to the highest terrorist bidder; Rayna easily captures and (apparently) kills Fine.

This puts heartbroken Susan on a course for revenge. She wangles herself into a mission, and before you know it, she's in mortal danger herself. She must rely on her wits, spy skills, and talent for filthy invective to prevail.

It's OK, but they would have done a bit better by plagiarizing gags from old "Get Smart" episodes. Honestly, the funniest thing about this movie is Jason Statham, a hot-tempered superspy. Don't believe me? Check out the "Rick Ford" quotes on IMDB's quote page.

The Gift

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

The IMDB ratings, Netflix predictions, and RottenTomatoes scores said there was a good chance I would like this movie. They are not infallible, but they got it right this time.

It's the story of Simon and Robyn, who are moving into an expensive Southern Cal house. (Which means it's really expensive; they are obviously doing well.) While on a trip to the local upscale home furnishing store, they run into Gordo: he and Simon went to high school together way back when.

Although the encounter goes affably, there are little clues that all is not right. For one thing, Simon asks for Gordo's phone number, but doesn't supply his own. Don't call us, we'll call you. Gordo doesn't take that hint, though, and simply by being pleasant and insistent, he wangles a dinner invitation. No spoilers, but things get progressively more creepy, the plot takes a few out-of-the-blue twists, and characters are revealed to be Not What They Seem.

Allison Tolman, Molly from Fargo Season 1, has a small part. It's great to see her.

The movie is rated R, and its IMDB genres are Mystery & Thriller. But (according to the MPAA) the only factor in the R rating is Language.

Again, no spoilers, but when you think about all the other things thrillers can do to garner an R rating, you'll get a picture of why this movie is special and unusual.

Superforecasting

[Amazon Link]

Science fiction readers Of A Certain Age will remember Asimov's Foundation books fondly, which prominently featured Hari Seldon's "psychohistory", a subversive science that allowed the accurate prediction of the (dismal) future of the Galactic Empire. The brave effort to minimize the inevitable barbarism gave rise to many stories and novels.

This book says: we ain't there yet. We're unlikely to ever get there. But it is an excellent overview of the best current efforts to (at least) make predictions about the near future.

The book's primary author, Philip Tetlock, is a UPenn prof (in Psychology, Political Science, and the Wharton business school, impressive). The subject has been the primary focus of his research for most of his career. The secondary author, Dan Gardner, is a journalist, and probably punched up the prose and ironed out some of the academese. The result is excellent, very readable even for the layman. (As long as the layman doesn't seize up at an informal presentation of Bayes' Theorem.) It is full of insights, wittily presented.

Most popular "pundit" forecasting is sloppy: full of weaselly qualifications and vague time scales. (NYT columnist Thomas Friedman is used as an example.) Worse, pundits don't usually get called on their failed predictions. (Example here is from "our" side: Larry Kudlow, CNBC superstar, who was consistently, disastrously wrong about the 2007-2008 recession. Yet, he's still in the lucrative business of TV punditry.)

So it's easy to despair. Yet, Tetlock approached the issue as a rigorous science: let's ask for predictions precisely, with unambiguous language, and specific timescales. (Example: will Kim Jong-Un vacate his office by June 2015?) And ask for probabilities rather than yes/no: ("My forecast for Kim Jong-Un vacating by June 2015: 20%.")

Tetlock assembled a raft of volunteers who threw their brains into judging the likelihood of such outcomes. (Still ongoing. There's a website.) Result (although the book's title is kind of a spoiler): some forecasters did a lot better than others, even better than a dart-throwing chip would have. (High praise, as Tetlock shows.)

Then the interesting question becomes: What did the superforecasters have in common? A lot of things, as it turns out. Humility. Skill in breaking down problems into more-easily analyzed parts. Knowing where to get information is relatively easy; knowing what to get is vital. Math literacy helps, although few superf'ers applied math rigorously in making their predictions. A determined non-ideological approach is also a plus; if you "know" that the right answer is determined by your faith in capitalism/socialism/bureaucracy/democracy/etc. then you are likely to be way too confident in your guesses. And more.

So, highly recommended. If you don't believe me, and you shouldn't, the back cover has High Praise blurbs from some people you may have heard of: Daniel Kahneman, Steven Pinker, Robert Rubin, Tyler Cowen, and Jonathan Haidt.

The Phony Campaign

2015-12-06 Update

Our 2% PredictWise inclusion criterion demands no changes in the makeup of our phony poll. Ted Cruz moves up to third place, dropping the hapless Bernie Sanders to fourth:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-11-29
"Donald Trump" phony 77,300 -2,800
"Hillary Clinton" phony 66,300 +3,300
"Ted Cruz" phony 35,800 +8,100
"Bernie Sanders" phony 25,400 -8,300
"Jeb Bush" phony 24,100 -600
"Marco Rubio" phony 23,200 -1,100
"Chris Christie" phony 18,300 +1,700

In another week of horrible news, a lot of phoniness was committed by non-candidates: President Obama, New York Times editorialists, etc. They really sucked the phony air out of the room. But that's for a separate post, should I work up the energy/intelligence to say something insightful. So let's go with what we know:

  • Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight website has an amusing phony interview between (real) Nate, a phony "Democratic-leaning political scientist", PhDemocrat, and a phony die-hard Trump fan named “Trumpfan1959". The latter "drawing inspiration from the many Tweets and Facebook comments" sent to FiveThirtyEight. Ladies and gents, I give you "Big Phony And Loser Nate Silver Can’t Even See Donald Trump Is A Winner! What A Joke!".

    Nate's thesis, ably defended against his phony opponents, is that historical Trump-like candidates (e.g., Steve Forbes, Herman Cain) do not win, and do not come close to winning. But what about the polls?

    natesilver: Dude, this isn’t complicated. Go back and look at past polling frontrunners at this stage of the campaign. They have a poor track record. By contrast, go back and look at who was leading in general elections in late October. They have a very good track record.

    The point of being empirical isn’t that you love polls. It’s that you learn from experience, and our experience tells us that polls aren’t reliable predictors at this stage of the race.

    It's not that Trump has zero chance of getting the GOP nomination, Nate argues, but his chances are far less than even betting markets say (PredictWise, as I type: 24%.)

  • I'm relatively certain that most Pun Salad readers are looking for clues about which candidate radical Anarchist and Millennial Marshall Harford III is supporting. The answer: "Hillary, Not Phony Socialist Bernie, Is The True Choice For Radicals".

    Why not Bernie?

    Lesser minds at reactionary, rightwing publications like Jacobin and Pravda have fallen head-over-heels for Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed “socialist” candidate. However, as a true radical Marxist, I can tell you that Bernie is no socialist at all. He supports Israeli apartheid, drone bombings, and the network of prison camps for children known as public schools. He promises a guaranteed minimum income administered by the state — the very thing we’re supposed to be smashing! He even says he wants to make America more like Denmark (Nazi sympathizers). Clearly, the fauxialist Bernie Sanders is somewhere to the right of General Franco, and his fascist Presidency would make us pine for the days of George W. Bush.

    Well … OK, but Hillary?

    Hillary Clinton, despite being a center-right corporatist, has my endorsement for the Presidency. With her experience she can effectively manage the American Empire and thus heighten the contradictions of capitalism, something that will ultimately bring about the violent revolution and dictatorship of the proletariat we need. We may have to wait through one or two terms of a Clinton Presidency for the conditions to be right, but I’m confident that by 2023 at the latest, most major cities will be under the control of worker’s councils directed by Millennials.

    Thanks for clearing that up, Marshall. Readers, more of Marshall's wisdom at the link.

  • Right here in New Hampshire, a bright young woman (specifically, Allie Nault, Miss America’s Outstanding Teen 2016) asked Hillary about her specific plans about the national debt:

    Hillary launched into typical partisan blather, about the fiscal nirvana we were in from 1992-2000, and how, yea and alas, 'twas spoilt by the evil Dubya. But as far as what she proposed to do, the key quote was: "And if you want to know the kinds of things I will do, please go to website, HillaryClinton.com."

    PowerLine bravely took Hillary's suggestion and…

    The Clinton campaign website features an issues section. It lists 24 of them. The debt is not included.

    There is a section on the economy, but it doesn’t include a discussion of the national debt. In fact, the word “debt” appears only in connection with student debt (twice).

    Most candidates would have been satisfied for ignoring the request for specificity. Extra phony points to Hillary this week for simply lying about her website. She didn't have to do that, but at her age lying is probably a reflex by now.


Last Modified 2015-12-07 7:16 AM EST

Inside Out

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

We usually go to see Pixar features in the theatre; for some reason we missed this one. But Netflix managed to send it to us as soon as they were able. And it is (as I type) #86 on IMDB's list of the top movies of all time. Better than Up (#114). Better than Toy Story (#96). Better than Monsters, Inc. (#212). Better than Finding Nemo (#162). Better than The Incredibles and Ratatouille (neither in the top 250).

(But IMDB raters rate Wall·E at #61 and Toy Story 3 at #78.)

Anyway: I liked it, but not that much.

'Tis the story of Riley, a young girl uprooted by her parents from her happy Minnesota home, and moved to San Francisco. The gimmick is that most of the movie takes place inside Riley's head, and her mental processes are given avatars of various sorts. Five emotions mostly run the show: Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust, and Sadness. Riley's difficulties in adjusting to her new surroundings are echoed as a complex plot in Brain-Wonderland, as her usual predominant Joy gets lost, far away from the main control center.

It is a neat idea, but I was put off a bit by the arbitrary anything-goes nature of Riley's mental world. I know this is an odd thing to gripe about; obviously most people love it. And it does set up some great, absurd, gags.

So, yeah, never mind. Obviously, I don't know why I didn't find this movie as captivating as other Pixar features.

The Passage

[Amazon Link]

A big doorstop of a book, the paperback has (according to Amazon) 785 pages. So it took awhile to wade through. As sometimes happens, I don't even remember how it got into my TBR pile; I must have read something good about it somewhere.

And it really got a rave reception when it was initially published in 2010.

It starts out with young Amy, whose unfortunate upbringing is … well, let's just say she took a nosedive out of the melodramatic cliché tree and hit every branch on the way down. She is one of those Steven King kids, though, a prodigious semi-supernatural talent hidden behind an unprepossessing appearance.

That's followed by the horrible story of a scientific expedition into the isolated South American jungle. Accompanied by the military, for initially mysterious reasons. No major spoilers here, but people start dying by page 23, from an attack by creatures right out of a classic horror genre you will recognize immediately.

This is all set in the roughly-near future. Jenna Bush is governor of Texas, gasoline is $13 per gallon. But things are about to get really bad, involving a secret military facility in the Colorado mountains, a team of FBI agents recruiting death-row inmates for a mysterious purpose, making sure there's no trace of their destiny. And mass murder used as a tool to make sure.

Eventually, we jump forward a couple decades to a barely-recognizable future where the government's evil experiments have borne their dystopic fruit. The remainder of the book has a very Walking Dead vibe, except not with zombies.

Occasionally we have to put up with paragraphs like this:

When all time ended, and the world had lost its memory, and the man that he was had receded from view like a ship sailing away, rounding the blade of the earth with his old life locked in its hold; and when the gyring stars gazed down upon nothing, and the moon in its arc no longer remembered his name, and all that remained was the great sea of hunger on which he floated forever— still, inside him, in the deepest place, was this: one year. The mountain and the turning seasons, and Amy. Amy and the Year of Zero.

"Look at me! I'm writing!"

But, bottom line, it's pretty good genre fiction, and it is not surprising that the front cover has a Steven King rave-blurb.