Back in Time

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I loved the Back to the Future movies, so I was kind of eager to watch this documentary about it. I was disappointed, as it turns out.

It is about 90 minutes, but seems longer. There are many talking-head segments with both filmmakers and fans.

Michael J. Fox is, of course, interviewed; he does an impressively brave job telling some stories about the film, negotiating with his own body, which is in the cruel grip of Parkinson's Disease. Other actors interviewed include Lea Thompson, Christopher Lloyd, Claudia Wells (Jennifer in the first movie), James Tolkan (Principal Strickland), and Donald Fullilove (Goldie Wilson). (No Crispin Glover or Thomas F. Wilson, unfortunately.) Also showing up: producer Steven Spielberg, writer Bob Gale, and director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis. And good old Huey Lewis, who has wrinkled impressively.

Only about 30% of what these people have to say isn't that insightful or interesting, sorry. There's a lot of inside-baseball studio-politics talk about how the movie got made. Maybe fascinating for denizens of Hollywood, but for those of us in the sticks… eh.

But the documentary also covers the devoted fans. And… wow. Just wow. These folks are devoted.

There are, first and foremost, the DeLorean restorers, spending piles of money to bring back the look and feel of the fabled time machine. One guy owned two. But also: the bitchin' Toyota truck Marty winds up with at the end of the first movie. (Sorry, spoiler alert.) And—this was amazing too—also had a VW bus that was a dead ringer for the vehicle driven by the homicidal Libyan terrorists, for maybe two or three minutes of screen time in the first movie.

As I said: devotion.

Particularly inspiring: these guys, who have driven their restored DeLorean to all fifty states "to raise awareness and funding for Parkinson's Research." Good for them.

Grand Piano

[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A Mrs. Salad pick. She need not reveal her reasons.

Frodo himself, Elijah Wood, plays famed concert pianist Tom Selznick, returning to the stage after a long hiatus; he went into seclusion after an embarrassing freeze-up while attempting to perform a piece widely considered impossible to play. His beautiful, dutiful wife, who is a famous actress, supports and encourages his return.

Unfortunately, he is menaced during his performance by a sniper. Who is in touch with him via earpiece, demanding that he attempt to play the impossible piece once more, perfectly this time, or he will be shot dead. And his pretty wife too!

Also in the audience are Tom's good buddies, Wayne and Ashley. When I saw Wayne, I was sure the actor playing him was Sean Astin. Giving us the long-awaited Frodo/Samwise reunion! But no, it was that guy who plays the nice guy from Downton Abbey. Boy, he and Sean Astin look alike.

John Cusack and Alex Winter play the bad guys. Disappointingly, Mr. Winter neither exclaims "Excellent!" nor "Bogus!".

The motivation behind the whole thing turns out to be ludicrous. We are left wondering: how was that supposed to work exactly?

The Phony Campaign

2016-01-31 Update

According to PredictWise, the President Bloomberg boomlet is over. At least for this week. So it's a good thing we bashed him last week when we had the chance.

And, for what seems like the 47th week in a row: the first four places are unchanged, while Bush/Rubio swap fifth/sixth place:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2016-01-24
"Donald Trump" phony 360,000 +163,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 202,000 +105,500
"Ted Cruz" phony 158,000 +80,900
"Bernie Sanders" phony 97,900 +31,100
"Jeb Bush" phony 67,700 +36,200
"Marco Rubio" phony 59,100 +23,000

Note the increase in phoniness across the board. Should have expected that.

  • Intrepid pundits are in Iowa, of course. Roger L. Simon reports from a Des Moines hotel room, apparently unwilling to spring for pay-per-view:

    I was anxious to get back to my hotel because I had an eight a.m. interview with Carly Fiorina, a woman who is alway good for a soundbite. But being on L.A. time, I was unable to sleep and watched television for a couple of hours -- which means I viewed a non-stop orgy of political ads, some 96% of which were of the attack variety with some 96% of those completely phony nonsense. There wasn't even time for one measly Cialis ad. The amount of money spent on this swill -- $30 million against Marco Rubio alone, according to a press release from his campaign (and I tend to believe it) -- is mind-boggling and tests the limits of your belief in free speech. Mine survived, but barely.

    Roger, Roger. I can report that things are about the same here in New Hampshire. I think I would vote for any candidate whose commercials showed the slightest bit of humor, but that hasn't happened yet. TiVo and Netflix are saving my sanity.

  • My close personal friend Dave Barry is also in Iowa, and providing fresh content for the Miami Herald. You should check out his observations on Iowa restaurant cuisine, the curse of low-flow toilets, fringe candidate Roque "Rocky" De La Fuente, and the "Manure Applicator Training Session" at the annual Iowa Pork Congress. (And, yes, Dave does make the obvious "manure" connection to presidential politics.)

    Sample Iowa mythbusting from Dave:

    MYTH: Iowa lacks diversity.

    FACT: According to the 2010 Census, only 143 percent of Iowa’s nearly 8,000 residents are white, down from 156 percent in 2000.

    Dave's not running for President this year, which is a damn shame, because I would totally vote for him before voting for Trump. I may write him in.

  • You probably heard that Trump skipped a recent GOP debate due to his feud with Megyn Kelly. Instead, he held a "veterans event" at the same time. (Dave Barry: "a tribute to veterans, in the same sense that an Elvis concert was a tribute to Elvis’ backup band.")

    Trump also set up a website to solicit donations to help veterans! Yay! But as the Federalist reports: donations made at that site go "directly to Donald Trump’s personal non-profit foundation".

    And Trump's concern with vets seems, at best, newly-minted:

    Between 2009 and 2013, Trump’s non-profit donated between $100,001 and $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation. Over the same period of time, Trump’s group gave only $57,000 to veterans groups. A 2015 analysis by Forbes noted that barely 1 percent of the Donald J. Trump Foundation’s $5.5 million worth of donations betwen 2009 and 2013 went to organizations that support military veterans[.]

    If voters can't see through this guy, we're in trouble.

  • Did Hillary Clinton send top secret emails on her homebrew server? Find out the shocking answer from Peter Suderman's article, headlined "Despite What Her Campaign Wants You to Believe, Hillary Clinton Did Send Top Secret Emails on Her Homebrew Server". Suderman's well-documented conclusion:

    At virtually every turn, she and her campaign staffers have misled and dissembled, repeatedly making statements that later turn out to be false. In general, her attitude is one of disdain and dismissiveness, as if transparency and truthfulness about her unorthodox decision to conduct her State Department email business exclusively on a homebrew email server was unnecessary, or beneath her. She has displayed both a willful disregard for the truth and as a generalized resistance to public scrutiny and oversight. And that may tell us more about her, and what kind of president she might be, than any email she’s sent.

  • Back to the Republican side: you can't beat those Huckabee fans for phony-spotting:

    Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee put out a new television ad attacking fellow candidate Ted Cruz's Christian faith, accusing him of being a "phony" Christian for giving far less than 10 percent of his income to his church.

    This is the sort of thing that happens when you try to out-God your opponents.

  • I usually <abbr type="stupid">LOL</abbr> at the prank-signage worked up by Obvious Plant. He ventured into politics recently, with a comparison of Hillary vs. Bernie on the issues. Sample:

    [Obvious Plant]

Bloodline

[Amazon Link]

Note that, judging by the book's cover, the title here could be Dick Francis's Bloodline. And Felix Francis, being his son, certainly would fit that bill.

Yes, it's another shake of the money tree, invoking the name of a beloved-but-deceased author to sell some books. This is Felix's second solo effort, although he and his dad co-wrote four previous.

Plot: Mark Shillingford is a TV sportscaster, narrating horse races at various British venues. At one fateful race, he notices what nobody else seems to: his jockey twin sister, Clare, holds her horse back just enough to come in second. This is a huge no-no, and Mark confronts her later. That goes unsatisfactorily, and before you know it, Clare has met her end in an apparent grisly suicide.

Unlike your normal Dick Francis protagonist, Mark doesn't handle this stoically. (His first-person narration tells us about his frequent weeping.) Still, he's determined to figure out Clare's bizarre behavior, if only to assuage his own guilty conscience. He must deal with his fractious family, a rumor-mongering gutter journalist, a lackadaisical police investigation, an irate husband he's been cuckolding, and—of course—a villain who's turned to murder most foul.

I didn't enjoy this book as much as I did Felix's previous effort, Gamble. The tone is uneven, I didn't find the protagonist particularly interesting or likeable, and the eventual revelation of the bad guy seems kind of arbitrary. (There are a bunch of likely suspects and it turns out to be … that one. Oh.)

The Devil's Pleasure Palace

The Cult of Critical Theory and the Subversion of the West

[Amazon Link]

Encouraged by glowing reviews at numerous websites, I wangled the sainted Library staff of University Near Here to borrow me a copy of The Devil's Pleasure Palace by Michael Walsh, through the magic of the Boston Library Consortium.

Walsh's thesis (to the extent that I can understand it) is that the Left is not just full of bad ideas. It's fully of unholy ideas, their goal being to further the work of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden. Walsh doesn't (quite) mean this in the sense that Bernie Sanders literally shuffles off to a top-secret Black Mass every so often. (That would be neat, though, kind of the flip-side of the Republican gatherings portrayed on The Simpsons.)

Instead, the Left has (mostly semi-consciously) bought into Satan's side in his argument with God, succumbing to his false promises and temptations. Walsh frames this mostly as a takedown of the so-called "Frankfurt School" of criticism and philosophy, which sought refuge in America after fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930's. Their baneful influence goes from strongholds in Academia into various niches of pop culture, politics, music, and art, whence they wage war on tradition, morality, family, and freedom.

Walsh writes from the standpoint of a devout Catholic, and he doesn't make a lot of effort to phrase his arguments to appeal to those of us less-than-devout folk. Still, if you buy that Christian theology is speaking (at least) a metaphorically true story about good/evil human nature, and its relationship to the real world, you can find quite a bit of insight in the work.

On the other hand, as Walsh points out, one of the Left's heroes, Saul Alinsky, really did write about "the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom -- Lucifer." Your enemies can sometimes make your case for you.

It's also kind of a fun read. Walsh bases his argument not just on the Good Book, but also the epic works spun out thereof: Marlowe, Goethe, Milton, et. al.. If those are a little heavy for your tastes, don't worry: Walsh also throws in references to Chinatown, Rosemary's Baby, and High Noon.

It's short, just slightly over 200 pages. If I had to quibble, it seems like a stitched-together book of independent essays rather than a coherent work with a sustained argument. People with a deeper grounding in classical literature and music than I will probably get more out of it than I did.

Sicario

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

Kind of a downer. Emily Blunt is pretty easy to look at, though, even when she's generally miserable and putting up with various sorts of abuse. Throughout the entire movie.

She plays an FBI agent who does field work in a kidnap rescue team. In the aftermath of a particularly grisly mission in Arizona, a CIA spook (played by Josh Brolin) recruits her into a special operation, one where (he promises) they will be going after the drug kingpins who perpetrated this Arizona atrocity. Also involved is a gloomy Hispanic played by Benicio Del Toro.

If you noticed the "CIA" reference above, you will have accurately guessed that things are not as they initially appear. Ms. Blunt is perplexed, as her law-enforcement instincts are thwarted at every turn. She finds herself in mortal danger, and not just from the bad guys.

Arty (Oscar-nominated) cinematography. Ms. Blunt also handles an American accent well. Without going into spoilers, the plot's assumptions about the moral depravity of Our Side strains credulity. At one point, when confronted with his barbaric ways, one of the Bad Guys disclaims something much like one of the anti-drug commercials from the good old days: "I learned it by watching you!"

The Phony Campaign

2016-01-24 Update

Well, that's exciting! Sort of. Well not at all: PredictWise has raised the probability of Michael Bloomberg becoming President to our 2% threshold. Welcome to the Phony Campaign, Mike!

He enters at the bottom, however. In other news, as seems to happen every week: Jeb and Marco have switched fifth and sixth place, no changes to the standings otherwise.

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2016-01-17
"Donald Trump" phony 197,000 +95,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 96,500 +4,000
"Ted Cruz" phony 77,100 +6,500
"Bernie Sanders" phony 66,800 +17,700
"Marco Rubio" phony 36,100 +6,000
"Jeb Bush" phony 31,500 -100
"Michael Bloomberg" phony 8,830 ---

  • At Reason, Jesse Walker reminds us that Bloomberg made the magazine's 45 Enemies of Freedom list back in 2013. In fact, he was enemy number one, with Reason pointing out that he was "a figure who embodies so much that is wrong with public policy and the political conversation in these United States." There's no reason to assume he's undergone a libertarian conversion since then.

    More than anyone else in public life today, Bloomberg embodies the idea of managerial control. He will endorse the pettiest restrictions on human behavior as long as he can convince himself that they're for everyone's own good, and he isn't shy about enforcing his intrusive rules with intrusive policing. On the plus side, I doubt there's more than 50 people in the world who'd actually want him to be president. Then again, that's what I thought about Trump.

    Yes. In a year where the mass of voters seem to be uninterested in limited government and personal liberty, who's to say Bloomberg wouldn't have a shot?

    On the plus side, Bernie Sanders' head would probably explode on live TV.

  • At Breitbart, Michael Patrick Leahy complains:

    Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson says the Sen. Ted Cruz campaign makes a claim, in a 30 second television ad now playing in Iowa, that Donald Trump “colluded with Atlantic City insiders to bulldoze the home of an elderly widow for a limousine parking lot at his casino,” which is an outright lie.

    Outright lie? Well… Here's the ad:

    About the only thing slightly shady is that it might imply that the Atlantic City widow's home was actually bulldozed. It wasn't: she successfully fought off its condemnation.

    Trump has long been a bête noire of the Club for Growth. Here's their video on the topic:

    Aside: I've pretty much given up on Breitbart.

  • If you've ever wondered whether Rubio comes off as phony in matters of faith like Trump does, you can find your answer in this Red State article headlined "Rubio Does Not Come Off as Phony in Matters of Faith Like Trump Does".

    Included is a pointer to a CNN Report where Trump was asked if he had ever asked God for forgiveness for his actions.

    "I am not sure I have. I just go on and try to do a better job from there. I don't think so," he said. "I think if I do something wrong, I think, I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't."

    But!

    "People are so shocked when they find ... out I am Protestant. I am Presbyterian. And I go to church and I love God and I love my church," he said.

    Um. Possible explanations:

    1. Presbyterians don't say the Lord's Prayer. You know, the one that contains "Forgive us our trespasses."
    2. Trump doesn't pay attention when saying the Lord's Prayer.
    3. Trump is a yuuuge liar about going to church.

    I know which way I'm leaning.

  • Note to AI researchers: efforts to appear authentically human via forced laughter and exaggerated body language can backfire.

Night Vision

[Amazon Link]

Number 18 (I think) in Randy Wayne White's "Doc Ford" series of thrillers. The reviewers at Amazon are surprisingly brutal. I liked it fine, though.

Doc's buddy Tomlinson drags him to a trailer park mostly inhabited by illegal immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala. It's to help out 13-year-old Tula, a girl posing as a boy. But they never get much of a chance to accomplish this, as an old drunk is attacked by a large gator. Ford and Tomlinson pull off a peril-fraught rescue, putting them on the bad side of Harris Squires, the park proprietor, who's deeply involved in illegal drugs (steroids, etc.) and perverted porn. In the confusion, Tula vanishes.

Unfortunately, Tula has witnessed Squires engaging in very bad behavior with a corpse. This puts a bullseye on her. But Tula believes she has a hidden ally on her side: she speaks with Joan of Arc. To the reader, that seems like a pretty thin reed to rely on for survival. Still, the plot works itself out in totally unexpected ways.

Oh, yeah: Doc gets a girlfriend. We'll see how long she lasts.

Unusually, only about half the book, maybe less, is told from Ford's first-person POV. The rest follows Tula, Squires, and Squires' nasty double-crossing retinue as they pursue their holy/unholy goals.

Quibbles: the book has that padded-to-meet-a-contractually-obligated-page-count feel, could easily have been cut down to half its length. The copy editor was sloppy: I caught a couple of howlers without looking for them. And Mr. White has an annoying habit of starting his narrative, then backing up a few minutes/hours to tell what happened immediately before, then continuing on. Please.

Still, an honest page-turner, and I enjoyed the unusual plot.

Love & Mercy

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

I am somewhat surprised at how much I liked this movie.

It's the based-on-true-fact story of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Paul Dano plays 1960s Brian, the mentally fragile musical genius, abused by his dad, obsessed with competing with the Beatles and Phil Spector. But he pursues his creative vision, putting himself at odds with (most notably) bandmate Mike Love.

But tragedy is in the offing, because adding large amounts of psychoactive drugs to an already unstable personality is not a good idea. The ambitious Smile project crashes and burns, and Brian retreats into seclusion, paranoia, and morbid obesity.

Interleaved with the young-Brian story is the middle-aged Brian story: here, he's played by John Cusack. We first see him popping into a Cadillac dealership to impulse-buy a Fleetwood from beautiful salesperson Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks). Brian is sweet, but clearly still mentally damaged. Still, he and Melinda strike up a relationship, only to run into the opposition of shrink Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). Landy keeps Brian on a tight leash, feeds him copious amounts of different drugs, and is generally controlling and abusive. Can this unlikely romance be saved?

All four primary actors here deserve Oscars. Just wanted to point that out.

There are quibbles. There's the usual problem with biopics, wooden dialog that's used to explicate what's going on. ("I'd like to make a toast. To 'Good Vibrations', Brian's pocket symphony to God. And the biggest selling single the Beach Boys ever had. Ever!") And VanDyke Parks shows up (as a pretentious twit), but his role is not developed at all.

One of the plot points is the relative commercial failure of the Pet Sounds album. That must be true, a matter of historical (heh) record. But back in 1966 Omaha, I thought it was fantastic; so did my friends at the time. And when I got to college, everyone I knew there loved it too. This is probably the inverse of Pauline Kael's provincialism on Nixon. But I didn't feel particularly avant-garde back then.

The November Man

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

Pierce Brosnan as a retired spy. But (in case you were wondering) not particularly Bond-like.

His character is Peter Devereaux, living the quiet life in Switzerland, retired from the CIA after a botched security operation led to the death of an innocent bystander. We don't get to see much of that quiet life, though, because he's called back into action to extract Natalia, a CIA spy, planted in the inner circle of the slimy Russian pol, Arkady Federov.

The plot immediately gets very twisty. There are more than two sides, and they are all trying to kill each other. It's not bad guys vs. good guys, either: it's pretty much bad guys vs. even worse guys. The Macguffin is the elusive "Mira", a Chechen refugee who has damning information about Federov. And there's also a subplot involving Devereaux's ex-protégé, Mason, learning how to be as deadly as Devereaux was. Will he be Devereaux's undoing?

Also un-Bondlike is the R rating for "strong violence including a sexual assault, language, sexuality/nudity and brief drug use." Very gritty unpleasant stuff.

The Phony Campaign

2016-01-17 Update

And then there were six: PredictWise judges that Chris Christie has dipped under our arbitrary 2% threshold for inclusion, so we (again) bid him farewell. The ordering of our top four remains unchanged from last week, but Jeb and Marco have swapped fifth and sixth places.

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2016-01-10
"Donald Trump" phony 102,000 +15,500
"Hillary Clinton" phony 92,500 +14,500
"Ted Cruz" phony 70,600 +27,400
"Bernie Sanders" phony 49,100 +16,600
"Jeb Bush" phony 31,600 +5,200
"Marco Rubio" phony 30,100 +3,000

  • The big phony controversy this week was over Ted Cruz's accusation that Donald Trump had "New York values".

    This was a stupid statement, not least because of "news" stories such as ABC's: "9/11 Widower Invites Ted Cruz to Learn About 'New York Values'". (No surprises if you click through: the story's every bit as bad as the headline.) Ted, my friend, you shoulda seen that coming.

    But there's been a backlash, too. The Daily View's Ben Shapiro offers: "Here's The Video Proof Trump's a Cynical Phony on 'New York Values'".

    And Cruz also issued a phony—I think we can all agree that it's phony, right?—apology. A sample:

    I apologize to all the pro-life and pro-marriage and pro-second amendment New Yorkers who were told by Governor Cuomo that they have no place in New York because that’s not who New Yorkers are.

    (Text and video from the Cruz campaign here.)

  • Jonah Goldberg's Friday G-File touched on the "New York values" controversy, but also hit the other Cruz-Trump imbroglio, the issue of whether Cruz is Constitutionally qualified for the Presidency due to his geographically-Canadian birth.

    Even less plausible than Cruz’s not being a natural-born citizen: that Donald Trump actually cares about this or any of the other attendant constitutional niceties. Personally, I think it is hilarious the way Trump pretends he’s only raising the issue out of “concern” for “Ted” and the GOP.

    I’m honestly curious if anyone, anywhere, actually believes Trump is being sincere. This is a different question from whether there are people who think he’s right. I know those people exist. But does anyone actually think Trump’s explanation for how he’s bringing up Ted’s “problem” to help Ted is genuine?

    Not me. Anyone?

  • NYT columnist Maureen Dowd draws a strained, but funny, parallel between Hillary Clinton and Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Hugh Glass, victim of a near-fatal bear mauling in the Oscar-nominated movie The Revenant.

    And finally, of course, there’s the politician most like Glass in her willingness to crawl through glass, flip her positions and persona, and even bear up under a mauling by a merciless, manic bear to reach that goal most yearned for. In Hillary Clinton’s grimly relentless trudge toward the White House, the part of the bear is played by Donald Trump. (The bear in the movie is also a counterpuncher; when Leo tries to shoot the animal in the face, the grizzly races back to molest him again.)

    I haven't seen the movie yet, but I'm pretty sure I won't be able to shake Dowd's analogy when I do.

    But wait, I haven't got to the funny part yet. Which is: Media Matters for America's analysis of Dowd's column: "Maureen Dowd Starts 2016 With Return To Anti-Clinton Crusade". With the tsk-tsk subtitle: "Dowd's Last 17 Clinton Columns Have Been Negative".

    The crack MMFA team scoured 212 columns where Ms. Dowd "made significant mention of Hillary Clinton". And counted "47 columns (22%) [that] characterized Clinton as a phony".

    The writer offers the "variables" MMFA looks for in their Dowdy analysis.

    Plotting For Power
    • Hillary is inflexible/uncompromising
    • Hillary has a bunker mentality, will not listen to detractors
    • Hillary acts tough
    • Hillary is always scheming for more power
    Betrayed Feminism And Played The Victim
    • Hillary is bad for feminism
    • Hillary traded on slights from men to get ahead
    • Hillary fakes her feminism
    People Don't Like Her, She's Not A Nice Person
    • Hillary is mean
    • Hillary is not likeable
    • Hillary is cold and unemotional
    She's A Phony
    • Hillary doesn't know who she is
    • Hillary has no 'real' identity
    • Hillary doesn't believe what she says
    • Hillary is scripted and prepackaged and poll-driven
    Targeting The Clintons As A Couple
    • The Clintons won't go away, even though everyone wants them to
    • Their marriage is a sham, a trade of power for more power

    Remember, MMFA is a pro-Clinton website.

    I'm a little bemused that (at least according to the MMFA "variables") Dowd has nowhere mentioned either Hillary's serial dishonesty, corruption, or greed. Still, Dowd writes for the NYT, and complaining about that would be unseemly in those pages.

URLs du Jour

2016-01-14

  • Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and Bernie Sanders doesn't even come close to that accuracy. But let it be said he was right about this:

    Sen. Bernie Sanders said Monday that campus rape disputes should always be handled by the police, rather than university administrators, departing from conventional left-feminist thinking on student-on-student violence.

    For anyone not enraptured by ideology, this is utterly sensible. Rape is a crime; handling crimes is what we have a justice system for; QED. But poor Bernie is getting pilloried.

  • And if you want to feel further sympathy for Bernie, read Jim "Indispensable" Geraghty's thoughts on "Chelsea Clinton, Shameless and Dishonest Attack Dog".

    The Clinton campaign keeps inventing innovative, groundbreaking new ways to be shameless. Now they’re using Chelsea Clinton as an attack dog, making one of those patented technically-true-but-epically-misleading-out-of-context accusations.

    RTWT, and you'll get bonus links to Jim's comments on Chelsea over the years. For all the Democrat outrage about a "riggged system" or a "stacked deck", they are remarkably complacent about one of their own waltzing into professional opportunities despite minimal qualifications and no demonstrable talent.

  • what3words is very neat. Just go. My home: cosmic.gearbox.gazing. My workplace: latest.nights.myself

  • Yeah, sure, he was Hans Gruber. And Severus Snape. But Alan Rickman's finest role was certainly Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest. RIP, sir. By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Worvan, you shall be avenged!

  • I've actually seen two of Oscar's Best Picture nominees. (This one and this one.) There were outrageous snubs, as Stephen Miller points out:

Mr. Holmes

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

I've been a minor Sherlock Holmes fan for about a half-century now, and I'm kind of a sucker for various efforts to leech (heh) off his continuing popularity. For the record, I didn't much care for reinventing Holmes as an action hero; I watch Elementary, which is OK, but often doesn't play fair with the viewer; I like the mind-twisting Cumberbatchian Sherlock quite a bit.

In comparison, this movie deals with a near-canon Holmes, portrayed masterfully by Ian McKellan. It's set in a universe where the stories were written by Dr. Watson, not A.C. Doyle. It takes place mostly in 1947, when the great detective has long been retired (in Watson's words) "living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs." There are three intertwined plot threads: (1) Holmes' interaction with the young son of his current housekeeper (played by a near-unrecognizable Laura Linney); (2) flashbacks to his recent trip to Japan to retrieve "prickly ash", said to assist in maintaining mental acuity in the aging; (3) which he needs to try to untangle exactly what happened years ago in the case that led to his retirement: a wayward wife's inexplicable obsession with lessons on the armonica.

In the latter two, of course: Not All Is As It Seems. Holmes' efforts are complicated by his failing memory; he keeps track of really important stuff by making notes on his shirt cuffs.

No crimes. Still fun, though.

URLs du Jour

2016-01-12

  • It's the State of the Union message tonight; I'll be maintaining my (at least) quarter-century tradition of not watching. Kevin D. Williamson had it right two years ago:

    The annual State of the Union pageant is a hideous, dispiriting, ugly, monotonous, un-American, un-republican, anti-democratic, dreary, backward, monarchical, retch-inducing, depressing, shameful, crypto-imperial display of official self-aggrandizement and piteous toadying, a black Mass during which every unholy order of teacup totalitarian and cringing courtier gathers under the towering dome of a faux-Roman temple to listen to a speech with no content given by a man with no content, to rise and to be seated as is called for by the order of worship — it is a wonder they have not started genuflecting — with one wretched representative of their number squirreled away in some well-upholstered Washington hidey-hole in order to preserve the illusion that those gathered constitute a special class of humanity without whom we could not live.

    And that's just the first paragraph. Unless you have some sort of professional obligation: don't watch. And even then, you might consider Peter Suderman's State of the Union Drinking Game.

    [Bonus URL from Charles C. W. Cooke: "The State of the Union Is Inappropriate". I'm pretty sure that refers to the speech, not the actual state of the union.]

  • Andrew Klavan writes on a point I've been fumbling with for a while, and (of course) manages to express it eloquently and convincingly:

    For those of us who love comedy, one of the most delightful ironies of progressivism is how regressive it is, how mired in the past. While conservatives gather to discuss fresh reformist ideas on how to fight poverty and keep a free society afloat, all progressives ever do is reach into their Magic Box of Tomorrow and draw out the same sclerotic socialism that's been poisoning the lives of nations since at least the 19th century.

    Note that the most recent report of the Fraser Institute on the Economic Freedom of the World puts the US in sixteenth place among countries. Similar research, using slightly different methodology, from the Heritage Foundation puts us at number 12. Both are dismal results. Would some/all GOP candidates pledge to move us up in the rankings, with a Klavan-like explanation of why that's important? That would be nice.

  • President Obama isn't above using the specious "if it saves just one life" argument in favor of "gun control":

    We know that we can’t stop every act of violence. But what if we tried to stop even one? What if Congress did something – anything – to protect our kids from gun violence?

    That argument doesn't apply, however, when it comes to

    The Pentagon said Monday that it transferred Muhammed Abd Al Rahman Awn Al-Shamrani from Guantanamo Bay home to Saudi Arabia, bringing the prison’s population down to 103.

    So: Mr. President, if it could protect our kids—even just one of the little tykes—from terrorism, why not just leave these bastards safely locked up?

    But never mind: Obama isn't constrained by logic or principle when it comes to doing what he wants.

  • A reminder of why I put "gun control" in sneer quotes: it goes back to this Thomas Szasz quote:

    The FDA calls certain substances "controlled." But there are no "controlled substances," there are only controlled citizens.

    So it is with "gun control"; the aim is not to control guns, but to control citizens.

The Phony Campaign

2016-01-10 Update

The leader board appears to have congealed into a conventional-wisdom seven candidates, according to PredictWise; no changes since November. Compared to last week, Ted and Bernie swapped third and fourth place; Jeb and Marco swapped fifth and sixth. (This returns to the same ordering, I think, as we had two weeks ago.)

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2016-01-03
"Donald Trump" phony 86,500 -7,600
"Hillary Clinton" phony 78,000 -500
"Ted Cruz" phony 43,200 +6,900
"Bernie Sanders" phony 32,500 -9,400
"Marco Rubio" phony 27,100 -200
"Jeb Bush" phony 26,400 -3,400
"Chris Christie" phony 17,500 +1,500

  • The CNN headline is bleak: "Donald Trump must be destroyed". (The ever-helpful CNN site classifies it as "opinion", and I assume this is not the same Sean Kennedy who played bass for "I Killed the Prom Queen".) Anyway, key quote:

    If his opponents can show Trump is the emperor with no clothes, they can win over voters. When attacked, Trump seems to grow stronger but to date Trump's phony persona has yet to be unmasked. That's his Achilles' heel with his voters. An inauthentic and craven Trump would have little appeal to those seeking a candidate who would really fight for them.

    The thing is: everyone who's been paying the least attention knows this already. But maybe it's true what they say about voters not paying attention until the last minute; maybe Trump's high poll numbers are based mostly on name recognition, and once voters clue in, his support will collapse like Sue Ann Nivens' soufflé.

    Maybe. Or maybe we're in for another demonstration of what Mencken said about democracy: "the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

  • The headline on the Reddit post was encouraging: "Hillary Clinton underestimates the intelligence of Millennials". And the opening was at least semi-encouraging:

    I hope this post doesn't become ironic because of my sh*t spelling. Anyway...

    I was watching this --> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRufoNNV3ig analysis of Hillary Clinton and it got me thinking:

    Hillary Clinton's main problem is that such a high proportion of millennials are intelligent enough, curious enough, and well-informed enough to see right through her piles of bullshit. She is really really smart, but we happen to be smarter. [...]

    OK, so you're really smart, but you can't spell for shit. Still, points for recognizing piles of Hillarian bullshit. (Also, points for spelling "millennials" correctly. Not easy!)

    But then we take a deep dive (continuing our theme) into the crapper:

    Also, Millennial values intersect with Bernie Sanders' values so well. We care about attention to detail, truth/integrity, curiosity, flexibility, and optimism with a future-oriented focus. That practically defines Bernie to a tee. I also think the vast majority of millennials have certain skills in more abundance than our predecessors. We are capable of deeply understanding nuance/shades of grey. We also seem to be able to hold two conflicting ideas in our minds at one time, and realize that both can be true, even though they seemed at odds on face value.

    … and it goes on for a while in the same vain vein. I should have noticed the "Sanders for President" title on the Reddit before I got my hopes up and clicked in from Google.

  • Although from the Reddit commentators, I was led to this classic Hill-tweet:

    Condescending, while at the same time insulting. Implicit: "We assume your student loans provided you with merely enough education to communicate your feels in pre-literate hieroglyphics."

  • At NR, the tag team of Tim Alberta and Eliana Johnson report on evangelical skullduggery out where the tall corn grows:

    Many supporters of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, the last two winners of Iowa’s Republican presidential contests, are grappling with a pair of grim realities as the 2016 caucuses approach. Not only have their candidates been stuck in the low single digits for months in Iowa, but they also view Cruz, the new front-runner, as a phony opportunist who has pandered to Evangelicals for political gain, particularly in Iowa. And they fear that if Cruz notches a win in the Hawkeye State — especially if he does so by a wide margin, which many Republicans now view as a distinct possibility — he will emerge as the overwhelming favorite to capture the nomination.

    Stranger things have happened, but (as I type) the Real Clear Politics poll average for Iowa GOP caucuses has Huckabee with 2.6% and Santorum with 0.6%. Adding that to Rubio's 12.6% and you get 15.8%. Which is about half of Cruz's 30.2%.

Worth Dying For

[Amazon Link]

It's been too long since I last read a tale of the exploits of Jack Reacher. This book (number 15 in the series) is set soon after the events of 61 Hours which ended with a Reichenbach-Falls-level cliffhanger. Did our hero escape from a seemingly certain demise?

Spoiler: yes, he did. And he's on the way to Virginia, smitten with Susan, the voice on the phone that was of significant assistance in 61 Hours. Unfortunately, that takes him to an unnamed small town in middle-of-nowhere Nebraska, where his natural talent for blundering by chance into massive deadly conspiracies seemingly kicks in yet another time.

The town is essentially owned, operated, and terrorized by the Duncan clan, three scions and an adopted son. They are assisted by a small band of ex-Cornhusker football players, ones not quite good enough for the NFL. (I'm sure the University of Nebraska loved the implication that one likely postgraduate career path for their football jocks is being a brutal thug for small-town crime lords.)

On the evening of Reacher's arrival, the Duncan son pops his wife in the nose (a common occurrance). She calls the local watering hole, where the local doctor is getting shitfaced on scotch (also a common occurrance). The doc doesn't want to get involved in an act of defiance against the Duncans, but Reacher shames him into a house call.

Things don't go well when the Duncans find out. Pretty soon Reacher is battling the Cornhusker thugs, trying to discover what's going on. Also solving a decades-old mystery. Also dealing with incoming professional enforcers worried about the disruption in supply of whatever it is the Duncans are providing.

At points, the choreography of the various characters make Worth Dying For resemble a French bedroom farce, except with armed criminals, no sex, and a high body count. But things sober up, as the Duncans' crimes are slowly revealed, and rough justice is delivered.

Foolproof

[Amazon Link]

Yet another shout out to the intrepid librarians at the University Near Here: I requested this book on Interlibrary Loan, but it turned out to be unavailable. So UNH ordered it for its own shelves, and put it on hold for me. This is pretty good service, especially when you consider I'm not a paying-customer student or a faculty member, just an IT droid from Sector 7-G. (But an intrested droid: please see my 2014 discussion of The Norm Chronicles for details on my interest.)

Hopefully, people with more serious academic needs will check it out in the near future.

The author, Greg Ip, is a writer for the WSJ, so it's not surprising that his prose is accessible and understandable to a wide audience. The book's subtitle is "How Safety Can Be Dangerous and How Danger Makes Us Safe". (Which you can see over there on the book's cover, unless you've blocked ads, which you shouldn't because they are completely tasteful.) Paradoxical! But, as it turns out, completely sensible. The pattern that Ip explores is (roughly):

  1. People detect a situation that puts their lives, health, or property at risk;

  2. Steps are taken to mitigate the danger;

  3. These steps make previously-risky behavior less risky;

  4. Lulled, people respond to the new less-risky environment by engaging in more of said behavior.

  5. But, since the risk was only mitigated, people still get bit! (Or, alternatively, get bit by a new risk that suppressing the previous risk revealed.)

  6. In either case, however: return to step 2.

Ip shows how this pattern develops in all sorts of situations: natural disasters (floods, hurricanes, fires, …); finance (personal, national, global); transportation (automobiles, airplanes,…); etc. Once you understand the process, you start to see it everywhere.

Note that "minimizing risk" is not a good option. People voluntarily taking on risk is a driver of prosperity; denying that path would make us all poorer.

Note also the involuntary assumption of risk: this happens mostly when government steps in, offering bailouts for "too big to fail" institutions, underprices flood insurance, or lends tuition money to womens' studies majors. As taxpayers, we're all on the hook for that stuff, and we didn't ask to be.

But Ip argues, semi-convincingly, that even the occasional bailout has its benefits, if it tides over an institution that can straighten out and fly right in the future. Moral hazard, sure. But if other options (again) make everyone else worse off, saying "well, at least we avoided moral hazard" is cold comfort.

I've been interested in this topic for years, and Ip's general thesis is not new. For example, I remember reading Aaron Wildavsky's Searching for Safety, a similar discussion, back when it was written in the late 1980's. In fact, my major quibble with Ip's book is that he doesn't acknowledge Wildavsky at all, and makes only a brief reference to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who's also done popular work in the area.

Jupiter Ascending

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

Folks dump on the Wachowski (uh) siblings for not making a single good movie since The Matrix. Not me; I liked Speed Racer just fine, and Cloud Atlas even better. Even though both were box office duds.

Not so with Jupiter Ascending; it was yet another B.O. bomb and its dudditude (or bombosity) was richly deserved.

Jupiter is a young lady (Mila Kunis), a Russian immigrant living in Chicago, whose barely-above-poverty-level life is consumed by her drudge-filled job in the family cleaning business. But (suddenly) she turns out to be the genetic duplicate of the deceased matriarch of a rich family, part of a spacefaring civilization that routinely "harvests" the inhabitants of planets by turning them into attractive blue powder, used in manufacturing longevity drugs for the elite.

Now, there's a lot of mumbo-jumbo here. Jupiter's genes make her, according to the rules, the monarchical owner of Earth. This poses a threat to the existing members of her genetic family, and each makes a play to either do away with her, or to co-opt her (and then do away with her). Fortunately a studly young bounty hunter/mercenary, "Caine Wise" (Channing Tatum) gets on her side.

A number of things irritated me. And I'm going to tell you about them, sorry:

  1. The movie seemed to be aimed squarely at the fantasies of a 14-year-old girl: plucked out of her menial existence and suddenly everyone's calling her "Majesty", and she gets to wear nicer clothes and make goo-goo eyes at Channing Tatum.

  2. Over and over again, Caine (literally) swoops in to save Jupiter's bacon at the last possible second. (When I say "literally": he has special boots that allow him to swoop.) I lost track of how many times this happened.

  3. Gratuitous swipes at capitalism throughout. The baddest of the bad guys has a soliloquy extolling the system that just happens to be built on the sudden termination of billions of innocent lives: the human population is a "resource waiting to be converted into capital", whose purpose is "to create profit." The Wachowski's need to read some stuff from my other favorite sex-switcher, Deirdre McCloskey.

    But most of all:

  4. The movie managed to put me to sleep both times I tried to watch it in the evening. I finally managed to see the whole thing by waking up early and watching at 2x normal speed. I certainly believe the filmmakers dropped a bundle on special effects; unfortunately, they also managed to make spectacular palacial sets and epic battle scenes utterly boring. At least for me. YMMV, as they say.

Watching this movie made me wish they made a movie based on Heinlein's Citizen of the Galaxy instead. Sort of a similar plot. Go ahead and make Thorby a girl if needed. It would be difficult to do worse than this.

Cop Car

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

Reviewer's note: the best movie I've seen this year. So far.

The plot device is ingenious: two small-town kids run away from home, out into the rural wilderness, as kids do at times. Hiking cross-country, they come across a … police vehicle, apparently abandoned. Daring each other, they work up a foolish mutual courage. First to touch it, then to get into it, and—hey, the keys are here!—then to start it up and …

Little do the kids know (but we do, because of a flashback): the car is there because Sheriff Kevin Bacon parked it in an out-of-the-way location, the better to dispose of a body. Immediately we suspect that this is not normal good police procedure, even out in the boonies. And we're right: when he returns for his vehicle, he is nonplussed to find it not found. He immediately realizes this makes his life a whole lot more complicated, as he needs to retrieve the car, hide its loss from the inquisitive dispatcher (voiced by Kyra Sedgwick, Kevin's wife), and probably murder the kids to cover things up. Sticky!

Well, things get interesting from there. We don't learn much about anyone's back-story, and the ending is slightly ambiguous, but that's OK. I stayed awake through the whole thing, and that's getting to be my standard of quality movie-making.

The Classical Liberal Constitution

[Amazon Link]

Let it be said that if I ever find myself needing a Constitution for a new country, I would try to get Richard Epstein to write it.

As always, many thanks to Dimond Library at the University Near Here for wangling this book on a loan from Williams College. Otherwise, getting it from Amazon would have set me back $52.50 (or $44.99 for the Kindle version).

It is a doorstop of a book, 684 pages in all, with 583 pages of main text. And it's not particularly easy going for those of us whose acquaintance with US Constitutional law is scattershot and amateurish. For just one example, I was stopped by the phrase ultra vires on page 130—what's that mean? (It means, as it turns out, "beyond the powers": the Supreme Court refusing to rule on the constitutionality of legislation, because the plaintiffs could not show they were directly harmed by the legislation, hence had no standing to bring the case. But I had to Google.)

The book itself is a sweeping analysis of contentious Constitutional issues over the centuries. Epstein's thesis is that the Constitution can be, and should be, interpreted in light of its philosophical underpinnings: specifically, the theory of classical liberalism as expounded by John Locke and the other thinkers influencing the original authors. Epstein shows that efforts by both progressives and conservatives to explicate other theories of constitutional interpretation have led us to our current muddle.

Epstein's primary target is the "progressive" side: the stretched-beyond-credibility interpretations of Constitutional clauses that have allowed the Federal government to legislate in matters properly left to the states, or to the citizenry.

Not all of Epstein's arguments will find favor with current-day conservatives/libertarians, however. For example, he reads the Second Amendment to limit the Federal power over state militias. (Noting the previous mentions of "militia" in Article I, Section 8 and Article II, Section 2.)

All in all, I learned stuff. Not as much as I could have, or probably should have. As I've said before (but about a different author): "when I say I "read" it, what I mean is: I looked at just about every page, honest."

The Phony Campaign

2016-01-03 Update

[phony baloney]

The PredictWise bettors give us the same names as last week. The Donald and Hillary continue as our solid phony leaders; Bernie moves into third, switching places with Ted Cruz; Jeb and Rubio swap fifth and sixth place:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-12-27
"Donald Trump" phony 94,100 +5,500
"Hillary Clinton" phony 78,500 -9,300
"Bernie Sanders" phony 41,900 +2,400
"Ted Cruz" phony 36,300 -7,600
"Jeb Bush" phony 29,800 -300
"Marco Rubio" phony 27,300 -3,800
"Chris Christie" phony 16,000 -4,100

Did any candidate resolve to be less phony in the new year? To quote noted pundit Zhou Enlai, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution: "Too early to say". (Well, not really.)

  • Among the amusing 2015 media fails compiled by Raw Story, number one is "The Huffington Post’s phony ‘No Trump’ policy".

    With more than a hint of sanctimony, HuffPost in July laid down what it must have thought was a policy that would set it apart from the rest of the gullible press pack: It would be filing all news about Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump to the Entertainment section rather than hard news. “Our reason is simple: Trump's campaign is a sideshow,” wrote D.C. Editor Ryan Grim and Editorial Director Danny Shea. “We won't take the bait.”

    They refused to "take the bait" for nearly five months; early in December, Arianna Huffington herself said, in effect, "never mind."

  • Down the road, at South Church in Portsmouth, Hillary took a question from a young man (maybe 13 years old or so?) who read aloud from a card:

    “When you become president, what is your plan to connect mental health problems and guns to make sure that me, my brothers, and my friends are safe from violence at school?”

    Speculation was rife that the questioner was a plant, reading something that his mommy wrote for him. A possible clue: the sloppy, vague phrasing. What could it possibly mean to "connect mental health problems and guns"?

    To the bias-free ear, it sounds as if he's requesting some kind of bizarro consumer guide: "Have a mental health problem? We'll find just the right gun for you! Schizophrenics, we have a special this week on the SIG Sauer P229!"

    Don't be fooled: the careless wording indicates the question probably was written by an earnestly progressive adult; years of thought-free allegiance to lefty causes can atrophy the ability to ask sharp, precise questions.

    Also note the explicit assumption in the query: all we need is a President with a plan; then we'll all be "safe from violence". A glaring example of magical thinking, which is another clue that it came from an adult. Kids are usually too skeptical to buy into that bullshit.

  • Carly Fiorina vanished from our leader board months back, but we need to bring her back onstage this week, as she approached Peak Phony with a pre-Rose Bowl tweet:

    Carly's alma mater is Stanford, who (for people not paying attention to such things) was playing Iowa in the Rose Bowl.

    This pandering to Iowa caucus-goers (caucasians?) earned her nothing besides much-deserved derision . About an hour into the game, with Iowa behind by multiple touchdowns:

    Personal note: my sister went out for the festivities, reporting a "good trip", aside from the game.

  • A bonus non-political phony:

    Missouri Shark Attack

    Slightly more amusing: the Snopes debunking page. Yes, we need to call in a big Snopes artillery strike to be sure this didn't actually happen.

    And I may write in Bill Tennison for President in November.


Last Modified 2016-01-03 5:10 PM EST

Happy New Year 2016

Just a few brief notes:

  • You would not want to get too far into 2016 without reading Dave Barry's 2015 Year in Review. Sample:

    Are we saying that 2015 was the worst year ever? Are we saying it was worse than, for example, 1347, the year when the Bubonic Plague killed a large part of humanity?

    Yes, we are saying that. Because at least the remainder of humanity was not exposed to a solid week in which the news media focused intensively on the question of whether a leading candidate for president of the United States had, or had not, made an explicit reference to a prominent female TV journalist’s biological lady cycle.

    Many recollections of the past year, some of which I bet you've diligently tried to forget.

  • Also, slightly more serious, is George F. Will's take.

    We learned that a dismal threshold has been passed. The value of property that police departments seized through civil-asset forfeiture — usually without accusing, let alone convicting, the property owners of a crime — exceeded the value of property stolen by nongovernment burglars. The attorney general of New York, which reaps billions from gambling — casinos, off-track betting, the state lottery — moved to extinguish (competition from) fantasy football because it is gambling. Florida police raided a mahjong game played by four women aged between 87 and 95 because their game’s stakes allegedly exceeded the $10 limit set by state law. A Michigan woman was fingerprinted, had her mug shot taken, and was jailed until released on bond because she was late in renewing the $10 license for her dog. New Jersey police arrested a 72-year-old retired teacher, chained his hands and feet to a bench, and charged him with illegally carrying a firearm — a 300-year-old flintlock pistol (with no powder, flint, or ball) he purchased from an antique dealer.

    And there's more. Much more.

  • Certainly 2015 was the year of the victim. In 2014, the aforementioned Mr. Will stirred up some controversy by arguing that victimhood was becoming "a coveted status that confers privileges" on modern college campuses. After a year and a half of evidence, Will's claim looks (a) prescient; (b) understated. But it has slopped out of academia to despoil the wider culture as well, and no longer confines itself to its traditional home on the left wing.

    Arthur Brooks penned some wise words about victimhood earlier this week in the NYT.

    So who cares if we are becoming a culture of victimhood? We all should. To begin with, victimhood makes it more and more difficult for us to resolve political and social conflicts. The culture feeds a mentality that crowds out a necessary give and take — the very concept of good-faith disagreement — turning every policy difference into a pitched battle between good (us) and evil (them).

    Mr. Brooks has science on his side.

  • We can also review predictions made about 2015. For example, Kevin D. Williamson's. Contra Dave Barry:

    So here’s the one prediction I will make: 2015 will be one of the best years in human history. And next December, we’ll all be bitching about it.

    Read the whole thing, especially if you reflexively disagree.