MLK@UNH 2017: Slam!

'Tis a Pun Salad nearly-annual tradition to look at how the University Near Here will be celebrating Martin Luther King Day. As I type, UNH's announcement of the 2017 festivities is here. It's pretty sketchy, no mention of the traditional church service, candlelight vigil, or other activities. As usual UNH's MLK Celebration is held nowhere near the actual MLK day (January 16 in 2017) or MLK's actual birthday (January 15); the campus is pretty dead in mid-January.

What we have is this year's theme: "Art as Resistance and Remembrance", and the guests: "Spoken Word artists Janae Johnson and Porsha O." Janae and Porsha seem to have been picked out of the artist lineup at Strength of Doves Productions ("a management company representing social justice minded spoken word artists, teaching artists, community organizers, and activists").

At this point, I'm already wondering if the MLK Celebration had a budget cut this year.

Here's UNH's description of Janae:

Janae Johnson is a spoken work [sic] poet, teaching artists [sic], educator, and organizer residing in Berkeley, California. She is a 2015 National Poetry Slam Champion as as [sic] the 2015 Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion. Her work, which is mostly focused on black queerness and/or black masculinity, has appeared on PBS News Hour and in Kinfolks: a journal of Black expression. 

They'll probably get around to fixing those typos at some point.

This description appears to have been taken (and mangled) from the Strength of Doves site. There we get the additional info that Janae "is committed to creating safer artistic spaces and has little tolerance for people trying to kill her vibe."

I can sympathize. I hate it when people even try to touch my vibe.

In addition:

When she is not writing poems, Janae is probably making a pineapple based smoothie, eating a breakfast burrito and/or listening to a Stevie Wonder song. She also appreciates black musicals. A lot.

She also likes that "and/or" construction. A lot.

How about Porsha?

Porsha Olayiwola is the 2014 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion. Porsha separates herself from the field of issue-based performance poets by applying advanced political analysis to examine injustice while providing perspective on concrete solutions with exciting and accessible language. A native of Chicago, Porsha now resides in Boston where she writes and teaches.

Does Porsha really apply "advanced political analysis" in her poetry? I would like to see an example of that. But, you know: "advanced" is compared to what?

UNH leaves out a snippet from Porsha's Strength of Doves page description: "Black, poet, dyke-goddess, hip-hop feminist, womanist, friend".

I don't believe that "dyke-goddess" is a slightly misspelled reference to Dike, the Greek goddess of justice.

That aside, you might ask (at least I did): What's the difference between a feminist and a "womanist"? As it turns out, there's a well-known answer:

“Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender” – Alice Walker.

Ah, that explains it. Sort of. The material at the link goes on to describe it as feminism that "inclusive especially of Black American Culture", conscious of the traditional feminist "middle class white women" roots. (Not to mention “many early so-called feminists supported racist eugenics initiatives, including sterilization of minority women”.)

Bottom line: "womanism" is a branch-off feminism into which middle-class tube-tying white women are not invited.

So UNH's 2017 MLK celebration sounds as if it will be mildly entertaining, but mostly tedious. As usual, I'm not invited; it's a safe space, and my mere presence might kill vibes.

[Past Pun Salad MLK@UNH coverage: 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015. We skipped reporting the 2008 and 2016 events, because they were boring.]

You Suck

[Amazon Link]

This book is a sequel to Bloodsucking Fiends, which I read back in 2011. Some sequels stand OK on their own, but (consumer note) I would recommend reading this series in order. Unless your memory for plot details is better than mine, I wouldn't recommend waiting over five years between reading the two, either.

At the end of the previous book, vampire Jody had "turned" her Renfield, young aspiring writer C. Thomas Flood, and as this book begins, he's pretty peeved about that. But that only lasts about three paragraphs, because being a vampire in San Francisco does have its advantages. But the logistical details are daunting. You need to keep track of sunrise times, lest you be burnt to a crisp. And there's the need to feed, which is problematic if you have scruples about killing people. Plus, your old buddies on the night shift at Safeway were useful allies in combatting Jody's old mentor, Elijah. But now you're perceived as part of the problem. Elijah (as it turns out) wasn't totally defeated in the previous book. And two corrupt cops are hovering around as well.

There are a few new characters: "Abby Normal" is a profane young teenage Goth, who gets recruited to assist. And there's also "Blue", a hooker imported from Vegas by the non-vampire Safeway workers, who have quickly blown their ill-begotten windfall from the previous book on her.

Moore is, as usual, hilarious and filthy, with a core of sweetness. I keep wondering if they'll ever manage to make a movie or TV series out of his books. Much of the humor is in his prose, though, so I'm not sure how well it would work.

Cognitive Dissonance, NIH Version

I saw the following articles one after another:

  • "NIH Doesn’t Know Which Federal Facilities It’s Sending Taxpayer Dollars To" (Washington Free Beacon).

    The National Institutes of Health has no system in place to track which federal facilities are receiving taxpayer dollars.

    A Freedom of Information Act request obtained by the Washington Free Beacon revealed that the health agency, which has a budget of over $30 billion, does not keep track of government agencies that receive funding.

    And then…

  • "Social Science is Busted. But the NIH has a Plan That Could Fix It" (Wired).

    Today, a tiny office in the sprawling edifice of the National Institutes of Health released a strategic plan. The 58-page document, complete with bullet points and clip art, spells out a direction for behavioral and social science research—including psychology, economics, and sociology—for the next four years. And while it doesn’t directly shunt funding around, the plan is a bat signal for social scientists across the nation: It shows what the NIH is interested in and (likely) where grants will follow. And that could ultimately shape the direction of behavioral and social science itself.

So, yes: an agency that can't keep track of where taxpayer money is being directed also has a plan to not only (a) direct the money hose onto various fields of social science, but also (b) "fix" things in those fields, something the would-be recipients have been woefully inept at doing themselves.

I'm currently reading Illiberal Reformers by Thomas Leonard, which does a masterful job of relating the Progressive Movement's mindset around the dawn of the 20th century: full of unwarranted hubris, and an overweening desire to "fix" their own era's share of woes. Oddly—by which I mean "totally as expected"—many of the intellectual leaders of the initial wave of Progressivism deemed themselves Economists.

And now a new wave of today's state-based Progressives are on the march to fix their broken field. And others. The hubris hasn't changed, it's just moved.

Disclaimer: Decades ago, I did a stint at NIH, involved in research for my doctorate. I never got my doctorate, and the experience caused me to run at full speed away from anything involving research. I was lousy at it.

Also note: cognoscenti always refer to it as "the NIH", because it's "the National Institutes of Health". For some reason, this doesn't work for NASA: you never see "the NASA". Who could explain, or at least discuss this stylistic weirdness? Oh, right: Language Log.

Last Modified 2016-11-26 8:23 AM EST

Hacksaw Ridge

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

Pun Son and I saw this in the Newington Mall multiplex, our theatre of choice. Sensitive souls should note the MPAA reason for its R rating: "intense prolonged realistically graphic sequences of war violence including grisly bloody images". If anything, that's understated. War is Hell.

It's the mostly-true story of Desmond Doss, a small-town Virginia kid (played by Andrew Garfield, who overdoes the Virginia bumpkin thing), whose early traumatic experience with internal family violence has turned him into a Conscientious Objector, but one who decides his duty lies in signing up with the World War II Army. This distresses his family, and also his sweetie back home. And that distress is well justified, as his unit gets shipped to Okinawa. Resulting in… well, you can reread the MPAA description again.

Graphic violence aside, it's pretty much a standard war movie, focusing on Desmond's journey from Virginia, through boot camp (where his CO status is threatened, and he's the target of abuse as a result), and eventually to Hell.

Vince Vaughn plays Desmond's sergeant for both (inital) laughs and (later) drama. Nice, but…

Hugo Weaving, Elrond himself, plays Desmond's tortured-soul father. If he doesn't win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, there ain't no justice.

The Golden Bough

A Study in Magic and Religion

[Amazon Link]

Sometimes enough time elapses between me (a) putting a book on the should-read list and (b) actually reading it, that I forget what the reason for (a) was. That's not the case here! National Review's Summer 2016 reading recommendations had this from rock star Kevin D. Williamson:

Consider neutralizing this ugly and stupid political season with a few beautiful and intelligent books about politics that aren’t exactly books about politics. The best book about politics that isn’t a book about politics is James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and it contains within it everything you really need to know about presidential campaigns. The book explores the most ancient foundations of religious thought, and argues that the earliest religions were fertility cults organized around the person of a sacred king. When the crops failed or the rains didn’t come, it was concluded that the sacred king had somehow failed in his duties — that the gods were not satisfied — and he was ritually sacrificed. All their careers ended the same way, and yet the position was a coveted one. You may notice that Colonel Kurtz is reading The Golden Bough before the unfortunate events at the end of Apocalypse Now.

Good enough for me! Google tells me that Kevin has, over the years, recommended The Golden Bough again and again.

There are a number of options for the potential reader. The original two-volume work was published in 1890, but Fraser kept dinking with it. By 1915, it was 12 volumes. In addition, its history includes removal and restoration of material on Christianity, which was judged by many Victorians to be scandalous. See Wikipedia for details. I wound up with the 1994 abridgment ("It restores the material on Christianity purged in the first abridgement.") because if you've watched The Simpsons, you can't be offended by Fraser's mild sacreligiousity.

I didn't get off easy, though. Even the single-volume "abridgment" is north of 800 pages of main text, small type, narrow margins, and paragraphs that span multiple pages. So I took it slow, roughly 25 pages/day over 32 days. Still, it was a slog. Yes, you can pull Williamson's insight out of it. A book this long, you can pull just about any thesis out of it.

Essentially: Fraser looks for grand themes uniting the religions, rites, customs, festivals, etc., worldwide and throughout history. He finds those grand themes, but this involves relating—literally—hundreds of tales from mythology, history, and anthropology. The activities involved are (variously) elaborate, foolish, disgusting, gory, wasteful, and (most importantly) nearly always pointless in accomplishing anything of benefit to the participants. This gets a little mind-numbing at times: I lost track of how many times he relates the ritual of Aztec human sacrifice. (They always manage to rip out your heart, though.)

You can get a slight amount of amusement from the Victorian-era prose. Fraser is workmanlike in relating most historical details, but occasionally bursts into Bulwer-Lytton-style flowery descriptions of some idyllic scene when it strikes his fancy. He's also refreshingly non-PC: savages are "savages", primitives are "primitives". But also: bumpkins are "bumpkins", clod-hoppers are … well, you get the idea.

More importantly, there are little signals throughout that Fraser is straining to make the anthropological facts fit into his overall thesis. The book is rife with speculative phrases like "it is not unreasonable to assume that", "it is quite possible that", "seems to be best explained by the hypothesis that". That ain't a confidence-builder, Jimmy.

While out walking the dog, I amused myself by wondering how some future Fraser would describe the present day.

Early 21st century inhabitants of New England were obviously devoted to pagan celebrations on the eve of All Hallows' Day. As shown in the so-called "comic strips" and "television specials" of that era, children with unusually large heads would worship the "Great Pumpkin". In sympathy with this cult, a tradition of leaving pumpkins on one's doorstep was established; the gourds would be left on stoops for weeks afterward, to be consumed, bit by bit, by squirrels and raccoons. There can be little doubt these creatures were considered to be disciples of the Great Pumpkin himself.

But I'm glad I read it.

On Inequality

[Amazon Link]

I read Harry G. Frankfurt's delightfully-titled On Bullshit a number of years ago, so this title was self-recommending. As always, I'm extremely grateful to the University Near Here for allowing me to maintain my library privileges in retirement, and thanks to the Interlibrary Loan people who wangled a dead-trees copy up here from Rivier University down in Nashua.

It's a very slim volume, 89 pages of main text. And those pages are small, the margins are wide, and the type is normal-sized. But don't be fooled: Frankfurt is a Professor (Emeritus) of Philosophy at Princeton, and (as you would expect) his argument is carefully made and tightly argued. And, good news, it's easily accessible to anyone who (like me) can appreciate philosophical discussions at a "dilettante" level.

Frankfurt's main point: equality is not a fundamental moral good. Hence, inequality is not inherently objectionable. Arguments about inequality's dreadfulness are just about always actually about something else.

Specifically, economic inequality (whether based on wealth or income) isn't inherently bad. What's bad is that people don't have "enough" economic resources to live a decent and fulfilling life. That's demonstrably bad, Frankfurt argues, and is bad without reference to what resources other people might have.

There is a utilitarian argument against economic inequality based on the diminishing marginal utility of money: If you have merely $5, an extra $1 is a huge deal; if you have a million, that extra buck is near-negligible. Hence, utility is maximized when everyone has the same.

Frankfurt shows the holes in this argument deftly. Even assuming utilitarianism is valid (I don't think it is, by the way), the further assumptions about what money-utility looks like are false or unsupportable. (And, in any case, the specter of the Redistribution Police wandering the countryside with their Utility Meters, making sure everyone doesn't vary from equality… that's a little dystopian, right?)

Once Frankfurt disposes of economic inequality, he proceeds to take a buzzsaw to inequality by other measures: inequality of "rights", of "respect", of "consideration", of "concern", of …. In no case can "equality" be shown to be the fundamental issue. There's simply no reason to assign the same (say) "rights" to two totally different people with differing life histories, values, desires, etc. Only when we are considering generic "Person A" and "Person B" can we, kind of, argue that there's no reason to favor A over B, or vice versa. But that's working from ignorance; the actual primary moral value at work is impartiality, not "equality".

So, recommended.

Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom

[Amazon Link]

I can't quite remember how this got into my to-be-read list, probably this post by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. Thanks as always to the University Near Here Interlibrary Loan staff.

Jacob Levy is a PoliSci prof at McGill and posts at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (which I haven't read in the past, but will now start). Prof Levy admits up front that he's written here for his fellow scholars, so I have nobody to blame but myself.

Why do I say that? Here's why: my understanding of political philosophy is at the dilettante level. It has been there for decades, and I don't see the needle budging off that value anytime, sooner or later. Yet, I keep reading stuff, hoping that at least some of the material will stick. That sometimes gets me into trouble, as with reading Richard Epstein on matters legal. And it did here. I probably wouldn't pass a test on the material, Professor. But I swear, I looked at every page. Given that I may be displaying my ignorance in what follows…

The book discusses the role of "intermediate groups" in liberal polities: religious/ethnic/charitable organizations, universities, and the like. We tend to take "freedom of association" for granted among our rights, which includes, of course, the freedom to be a member, or not to be a member of such groups.

And the reverse is at least roughly true: those groups have a right to define themselves, which includes the right to restrict their membership to those they choose, and to remove members that fail to follow their rules.

And therein lies some conflict: such groups, even in the midst of liberal states, can have highly illiberal structures and policies. Could that be a problem? Levy plausibly argues so.

Also: the mere existence of such groups is in inherent tension with the state(s) in which they are embedded. The state likes to be in charge, and any outside powers and authorities represent a possible challenge to that.

Levy takes us on a historical tour of these conflicts, showing how the a range of political philosophers tackled this issue. It dates back to the rise of the modern state only a few centuries ago, when the statists of the day had to prevail over the existing political institutions in order to succeed. So there is (and has been) no arguing from fundamental principles possible here: everything's tied into actual historical events and how things played out in different countries, mostly in Europe.

Here's where I was especially weak. Levy namedrops names and movements, assuming you're as familiar with them as kids today are with the movements of Kanye, Taylor, and Beyonce. Jansenists? Let me check Wikipedia…

Does Levy have a solution? No, he does not. He convincingly argues that neither "pluralists" (roughly, advocates for strong, relatively unfettered intermediate groups), nor "rationalists" (advocating strong state control or prohibition of such groups) have correct arguments. Essentially: the struggle is unresolvable, involving incommensurable (but valid) human values, and the best course of action is to admit there are no "ideal" solutions that pop out of the dialectical mist.

Fine. I just recommend that my fellow amateurs might want to wait for Prof Levy's "… for Dummies" book.

The Lonely Silver Rain

[Amazon Link]

Another windup to a years-long re-reading project: all of the Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald, in order. The Lonely Silver Rain was published in 1985, and Mr. MacDonald passed away the next year.

Travis is hired by a rich acquaintance to find and recover a stolen luxury yacht. The task turns out to involve a lot of aerial reconnaissance and tedious scanning of the resulting photos. (If updated for the 21st century, I'd imagine Travis would have a gray-hat hacker tap into a satellite feed and have an AI program scan the images.)

But finding the yacht is straightforward. When Travis boards the abandoned vessel, he discovers long-dead, badly abused, bodies and piles of counterfeit dough. Everything screams "drug deal gone bad". Which would be fine, except for the subsequent nearly-successful attempts on Travis's life. He'd like to get that to stop, if possible. This effort takes him on an odyssey through the cocaine trafficking biz, as it was in the 1980s.

This is all accompanied by McGee's general angst about his personal life. A lot of his old friends from Bahia Mar Marina have moved on, and the new crowd … well, they're not his type. How is he to grow old gracefully, when for decades he's scornfully eschewed everything resembling a normal middle-class life? You can only boink so many beach bimbos before that gets tired. Or so I'm told.

When I reached the end, I couldn't help but notice how perfect it was as a "final" sendoff book. Allegedly—beware, spoilers at the link—that was not necessarily Mr. MacDonald's intention. But fans can now imagine Travis shambling off into new sordid scrapes as they wish, dispensing rough justice, disguised as "salvage work".

Frances Ha

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

This 2012 movie has received the Criterion Collection treatment, so it's arty. It had been sitting in my Netflix queue for a long time, and it was available for streaming; I hit the button. It stars Greta Gerwig as the titular Frances, and she also co-wrote with her "partner" Noah Baumbach, who directed.

Frances has dreams of being a dancer in New York City. (A respectable one, leaving her clothes on.) Even my untrained eye can tell that's a misguided career choice, bordering on delusional. She's tall, noticeably non-willowy, and clumsy. Still she persists.

She lives with her college best friend, Sophie. Their relationship is complicated by the men in their lives. Frank and detailed discussions of their sexual behavior are included, and I would imagine at least some theatre presentations were marred by people in the audience shouting "Too much information!" The movie covers a few subsequent months, as Frances' declining professional life is paired with personal changes.

I liked Greta Gerwig a lot in the quirky comedy Damsels in Distress. She's not quite as likeable here, but still managed to hold my what-happens-next interest.

Trivial points:

  • "Hey, isn't that Kylo Ren?" Yes, it was.

  • Also in a small role: Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep's daughter.

  • IMDB reports that Ms. Gerwig appears in every scene; apparently that's unusual.

  • In a sweet move, Frances' parents are played by Ms. Gerwig's actual parents.

The Blue Hammer

[Amazon Link]

Long ago, I dumped all the Lew Archer novels written by Ross Macdonald (the pen name of Kenneth Millar) onto my to-be-read pile. (In that case: the to-be-reread pile). That's a slow-motion process. There are 18 of them. I checked off the first 15 of them by 2004, reading the last three in 2008, 2012, and this final one, 1976's The Blue Hammer, just now.

This last story finds private investigator Lew short on wisecracks and long on melancholy. He's been summoned to a copper magnate's mansion in the hills above Santa Teresa to find a missing painting of a beautiful, also naked, woman. It was possibly painted by Richard Chantry who disappeared from Santa Teresa twenty-five years previous. The plot rapidly gets complex: the magnate, his wife, and Chantry himself all knew each other in Arizona decades ago. If you're an Archer fan, you'll already guess that there were shady things going on back then that nobody wants to talk about, but that Archer must diligently uncover.

There are a bewildering array of characters: the magnate's drug-addled daughter; her earnest art-student boyfriend who seems obsessed with Chantry; the boyfriend's alcoholic dad and belligerent mom; the shady art dealer who sold the painting; Chantry's widow, also relocated from Arizona to Santa Teresa; the newspaper society reporter who senses an important story. And many more. You may want to take notes as you go, maybe draw up a family tree.

Kenneth Millar wrote this as he was descending into Alzheimer's, but it doesn't really show. (There are apparently some contradictions in the text, and more ironed out in editing.) He died at age 67 in 1983, before it was common to continue a popular character using another author. I guess I'm OK with that.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

[1.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I can't say I'm proud of having watched this. Only excuse: Mrs. Salad was out of the house, and I didn't want to watch anything that she might possibly want to watch down the road. No problem there.

It's not exactly thought-provoking. About the only thought provoked, in fact: shouldn't there be an apostrophe in the title word Scouts?

Anyway: Ben, Carter, and Augie are the few remaining scouts under the reign of "Scout Leader Rogers" (David Koechner). Ben is the normal one, Carter the world-weary cynical one, and Augie the gung-ho one; Carter has convinced Ben to ditch Augie and Rogers and go to a hot teenage party instead. Unfortunately, everyone's plans are waylaid due to (guess what) a zombie outbreak, thanks to carelessness at a nearby lab.

What follows is R-rated zombie comedy, as the kids try to rescue their peers and escape with their non-zombified lives. I laughed occasionally, but there's considerable smuttiness, including genitalia gags (one male, one female, only one graphic, both disgusting). A complete waste of time, yet it held my interest better than Inferno for some reason.

Last Modified 2016-11-12 4:39 AM EST


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

Mrs. Salad loooves fellow Granite Stater Dan Brown, devouring his books as they come out. And we've always managed to see the resulting movies in the theater. So …

Brown's hero, Robert "Mary Sue" Langdon (Tom Hanks), wakes up in a hospital with no memory of how he got there. In fact, he guesses he's at Mass General Hospital, and he's astounded to find he's actually in Italy. He has a head wound apparently caused by a bullet graze, and his only link to sanity is that plucky rebel from the Rogue One trailers, Felicity Jones, here playing his attending physician.

Before you know it, there's another attempt on Langdon's life, and he and Felicity are off on a Europe-spanning cat-and-mouse chase. It turns out that a madman has developed a nasty bioweapon that threatens to take out most of humanity; the madman is a dedicated Malthusian who sees this as a good thing. Langdon disagrees.

There are a number of shadowy people with various motives involved, enough to keep Langdon and Felicity on the run while they track down various inconveniently-placed clues to determine the location of the weapon. Beware, movie-watcher: all is not what it seems. At least I'm pretty sure it's not, I really got lost at times in all the convolutions.

There's some first-rate acting talent here, not the least because the actors are asked to spout some pretty lunatic dialogue. I think there should be a special Oscar for that. Tom Hanks is always good. I especially liked Irrfan Kahn as an unflappable, deadly, and ambiguous menace. But I liked him in The Lunchbox even better.

Veterans Day 2016

Veterans Day 2016

… thank a vet near you.

Wrong About Everything (Election Thoughts)

Whoa. Did not see that coming.

  • I admit that nearly every prediction I made about this election season was wrong, wrong, wrong. Sometimes spectacularly so. I'm not ashamed, much. I never claimed to be a master prognosticator. But still.

  • I'm not alone though. I've just finished up reading through the November 7 issue of National Review, and the back page article by Daniel Foster begins:

    Some of you won't read this column until after Hillary Clinton is elected 45th president of the United States. But I'm writing it before she is [Obviously — pas], and so it feels like I should offer some summation of these, the longest 83 years of my life, or perhaps a few weighty portents of things to come.

    So how seriously or insightful should I take the rest of the column?

  • Also with a large amount of egg-on-face this morning: the University Near Here Survey Center, whose last New Hampshire polling had:

    • Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump by 11 points (51%-40%). As I type in the early 11/9 AM, the race is pretty much tied at 47% each, The Donald slightly ahead.

    • Maggie Hassan beating Kelly Ayotte for the US Senate by 5 points (52%-47%). As I type, the results are another squeaker, with both Kelly and Maggie at 48%, Kelly slightly ahead.

    • Colin Van Ostern beating Chris Sununu for NH Governor by 11 points (55%-44%). Sununu has been declared the winner by (currently) 49.1% to 46.6%.

    • Carol Shea-Porter beating Frank Guinta and Shawn O'Connor for US Congress NH District 1, 44%-38%-18% respectively. Current results: 44.3%-42.8%-9.4%.

    • Annie Kuster beating Jim Lawrence for US Congress NH District 2, 59%-40%. Current results: 49.5%-45.7%

    I like those guys at the Survey Center just fine, but it's clear they should probably take a long hard look at their methodology.

  • Even worse, although much funnier, from Sam Wang, Princeton prognosticator:

    Bon appetit, Prof Sam!

  • Although I didn't vote for Trump, and didn't think he'd win, I found myself fantasizing in recent weeks that it would be fun to watch lefty heads explode if he did.

    So far, it's not as much fun as I thought it would be. Schadenfreude is overrated as a pleasure.

  • It appears I will have a couple more years of toothache Carol Shea-Porter representing me in Congress, as she did previously (2007-2011 and 2013-2015). Here's hoping she resumes writing her insipid op-eds for local newspapers; they were a blast to make fun of.

  • I'm slightly gratified by the Libertarian candidates' showing in most local races; they appear to have gotten more votes than the vote difference between the major party candidates. Perhaps this will cause the losers to reflect: Gee, if I'd only made a slight nod in favor of free markets and individual liberty!

    Well, I can dream.

Last Modified 2019-01-06 1:11 PM EST

The Phony Campaign

2016-11-06 (and Final) Update

This is the 97th "Phony Campaign" installment for the current political season, which we've been doing mostly weekly since late December 2014. (Interestingly, Donald Trump did not make the initial cut; he didn't show up in our standings until June 21, 2015.)

It's probably time for me to admit that the voters show absolutely no sign of breaking hard for the Johnson/Weld Libertarian ticket. Even ignoring the massive character flaws of the major party candidates, it's the only one that offers any respect for the Constitution, fiscal sanity, and individual liberty. So the horse race is between two old nags whose campaigns are nearly entirely based on pointing out how dreadful the other one is. And, for that, the campaigns deserve some points for accuracy: they really are both dreadful.

In said horse race, PredictWise gives the filly an 87% chance of winning, unchanged from last week. FiveThirtyEight pins a 65.5% tail on the Donkey, down about 13 points from last week.

It's worth pointing out that 65.5% is considerably less than certainty.

It's safe to declare Trump the winner in our Phony polling:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
"Donald Trump" phony 1,490,000 -50,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 951,000 -89,000
"Jill Stein" phony 498,000 +70,000
"Gary Johnson" phony 75,800 -9,100

So what's behind all those phony hit counts this week?

  • In the WaPo, reliable Democrat flack E. J. Dionne claims "Donald Trump is a phony outsider". Dionne's evidence on this point is thin; he mainly concentrates on reporting Missouri polling results. But here's the assertion repeated, with some weak evidence:

    Trump has bragged about his influence peddling and his closing argument was reinforced with help from anti-Clinton Republican congressional insiders and the FBI as well. How in the world has he been allowed, almost unchallenged, to paint himself as an anti-establishment rebel?

    I seem to remember a time when Dionne was less superficial than this. I could be wrong, though.

  • In HillaryLand, the Americans for Tax Reform note "Hillary’s Phony $250,000 Tax Pledge".

    Hillary Clinton has endorsed several tax increases on middle income Americans, despite her pledge not to raise taxes on any American making less than $250,000. She has said she would be fine with a payroll tax hike on all Americans, she has endorsed a steep soda tax, endorsed a 25% national gun tax, and most recently, her campaign manager John Podesta said she would be open to a carbon tax.

    Why it's almost as if she were a congenital liar (as William Safire noted over 20 years ago).

  • Ah, Jill Stein, we will miss you. Because of headlines like: "Jill Stein Wants National Conversation On Oppressive Comedians". Jill was put out at HBO's John Oliver for his Stein-negative comments on his show. A sample from her rant:

    This country was built on oppressing The Other (Blacks and indigenous people) and I’m not going to stand for more of this while we deal with major crises in this country that could determine whether we’ll even survive as a species.

    What's missing from Jill's analysis? Only that (1) the mainstream media, including HBO/Time-Warner, are nearly entirely boring shills for the Democratic Party; (2) that means that Jill Stein must either be ignored or ridiculed, lest she cut into Hillary's vote totals; and the only surprising thing is (3) that Jill seems to be surprised by this. She should know better.

  • You can click the link to discover "Why Gary Johnson Won Over Some Voters After Faking Heart Attack At Debate".

    Unfortunately, the debate wasn't against Trump and Hillary. It wasn't even this year. But:

    Back in February 2015, Johnson - formerly Governor of New Mexico - appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference to debate marijuana legalization. Onstage with him was for U.S. Rep. Anne Marie Buerkle (R - New York), who began making an exaggerated claim about marijuana before correcting herself and reining in the prohibitionist rhetoric.

    "You have a one-in-five - a higher chance of having a heart attack within the first hour after you smoke marijuana. There are legitimate side effects of this drug," she said.

    Rather than argue the point, Johnson mocked Buerkle by clutching his chest and falling over on the stage.

    Good one, Gary.

UNH's Carsey School is Wikileaked

Thanks to the Washington Free Beacon sifting through the Wikileaks mail dump to find yet another embarrassment for the University Near Here:

A senior faculty member at a public university in New Hampshire proposed using his position to “be helpful” to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, hacked emails show.

The faculty member is Michael Ettinger; his primary position is director of the Carsey School of Public Policy, a UNH department funded by alumna Marcy Carsey. Marcy recovered from her UNH English Lit degree to make bazillions of dollars producing TV fare, such as The Cosby Show and Roseanne.

Prof Ettinger's leaked mail was sent to John Podesta (currently chairman of the Hillary campaign) and Ann O'Leary (currently a Hillary senior policy advisor) back in March 2015. It begins:

This note arises from a conversation I had with Ann about how I can be helpful from my perch in New Hampshire. I’m open-minded on that, and I’ve helped out on some small matters in my private capacity, but the best place to start is with what I can do formally from heading the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

What's wrong with this? Well, it skates right up to, and maybe over, the red line set out in the University System Policy Manual:

Organizations exempt from tax under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3) (such as the University System of NH and its component units) may have their exempt status revoked if they are involved in any political activity.

Note that Prof Ettinger seems to be offering UNH-based services explicitly to the benefit of a single political candidate. I doubt UNH's tax exemption status is in jeopardy as a result. The IRS doesn't care about 501(c)(3) violations when they're committed by Democrats. But to normal folks, it looks bad.

UNH's official response to this is posted at the end of the Free Beacon story, and it claims that "The Carsey School of Public Policy extended invitations to all the major candidates in early 2015." Probably technically factual!

But I'm relatively certain those invitations weren't as cozy and chummy as Prof Ettinger's missive to "John and Ann". I doubt whether other candidates were offered hosting services "at venues in nearby Portsmouth which has a large population of influential and well-off progressives who [Ettinger is] getting to know."

Prof Ettinger also offers the Carsey Institute's "NH Listens" forum to the campaign, and offers to make it a safe space for Hillary, free of anyone who might ask inconvenient questions, or record any embarrasing gaffes:

People understand that with trackers, cameras on everything, provocateurs, etc the risks can outweigh the benefits for the candidates. Thus, the idea has arisen that NH Listens could convene groups of people to meet with candidates in a less dangerous environment. NH Listens would make and enforce the ground rules thus taking the onus off the candidates for keeping the discussion civil and constructive. NH Listens is experienced at this. I don’t know if that’s an attractive idea or not, but we’d be glad to do it for Senator Clinton if it would fit with her plans.

"Keeping the discussion civil and constructive" is a euphemism for disallowing anything that might have thrown Hillary off her talking points.

One final amusing thing in the mail: Prof Ettinger gets in a sideswipe at folks who have (accurately) found "NH Listens" to be a progressive sham:

[NH Listens is] well regarded in the state with the exception of a small tea party group that has accused it of exercising mind control.

Ah, I know at least some of the folks he's talking about there! I'm sure they'll be happy to learn they're still living rent-free in Ettinger's head.

The Kingdom of Speech

[Amazon Link]

Acting only on the strength of the author's name, Tom Wolfe, I requested this book from the University Near Here's interlibrary loan; it took over a week but it finally showed up, all the way from Texas Tech University in sunny Lubbock. It's surprisingly short, about 170 pages of main text, with unsmall fonts and unnarrow margins. It's a lot of fun.

It's a bit of a stretch for Mr. Wolfe, whose previous non-fiction words have been about art, architecture, and observations of modern American culture. Here, his general topic is the quest to merge the phenomenon of syntactical language, only appearing in a single species (us), into the classical constraints of Darwinistic evolution. His outrageous assertion: such efforts have failed, and they're likely to keep failing.

His argument is wide-ranging, starting with the beginnings of modern evolutionary theory in the mid-19th century. He tells the story with an entertaining and iconoclastic twist: Alfred Wallace, a "flycatcher" naturalist trudging in the nasty swamps of the Malay peninsula comes up with the theory of natural selection while in a malarial fever. He writes his idea up, sends it back to England, where Darwin gets a pre-publication whiff. As it turns out, it's pretty much the same idea he's been working on, without publishing, for decades since the voyage of the Beagle. A little legerdemain, and he wangles publication in the same prestigious journal as Wallace's article. And goes on to grab the lion's share of scientific fame and glory.

Wolfe doesn't bow to Darwinism; he echoes the criticisms it has faced through the years, most tellingly the "Just-So Stories" that it adopts to account for evolutionary outcomes: this is a plausible explanation, so this is what must have happened.

Fast-forward to post-WWII MIT, where Noam Chomsky is developing modern linguistics. He's the acknowledged guru of the field, kind of like physics' Feynman. He postulates a brain-based "language organ", implementing a universal syntax, accounting neatly for all possible language permutations, so game pretty much over. Except nobody can nail down the language organ. And, worse, Daniel Everett, another "flycatcher" working in the remote Amazon, finds a primitive tribe, the Pirahã, whose language doesn't fit into Chomskyite theorizing at all. Confounding all who look for confirmatory evidence of the "evolution of language".

Wolfe's contention: language isn't part of natural evolution. It's a human-made artifact, like a pencil or a Buick. Wolfe gets quite lyrical about this; for all I know, he might be right. I'm pretty sure the fans of Chomsky and Darwin are on the attack.

Does Wolfe do all this with his trademark pyrotechnical prose? Yes, he does. (I wish Wolfe narrated the Audible version of this book; it would be a blast to listen to him read his own stuff; unfortunately, someone else does it.)

A side note: back when I was in high school, I snagged a $2.95 copy of Mortimer J. Adler's The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes, touching much the same issues. It's followed me from Nebraska, to California, to Iowa, up to New Hampshire, down to Maryland, back to New Hampshire. Now, nearly 50 years later, it might be time to reread it.