URLs du Jour

2021-08-08

Low volume (but high quality) today. Still struggling to recover from vacation and a dead Dell.

  • Making the Rounds on Twitter.

    Can't argue with that. The Science is Settled, bitches.


  • Not to be a Debbie Downer, But… The Heritage folks have released their latest Index of Economic Freedom. And the news is not that great for Americans.

    The United States’ economic freedom score is 74.8, making its economy the 20th freest in the 2021 Index. Its overall score has decreased by 1.8 points, primarily because of a decline in fiscal health. The United States is ranked 3rd among 32 countries in the Americas region, and its overall score is above the regional and world averages.

    The United States received its lowest score and lowest ranking ever in the Index, although it remains “mostly free.” The major obstacles to greater economic freedom in the United States continue to be excessive government spending, unsustainable levels of debt, and intrusive regulation of the health care and financial sectors.

    If you want to get really depressed by our #20 scoring, just look at the countries that are beating us. The freakin' United Kingdom is in seventh place! Making me ask the question: just why did we do that whole American Revolution thing anyway?


  • Our Stupid Article du Jour is from (as usual) WIRED. Which is, for some reason, upset with AI that works: These Algorithms Look at X-Rays—and Somehow Detect Your Race.

    Millions of dollars are being spent to develop artificial intelligence software that reads x-rays and other medical scans in hopes it can spot things doctors look for but sometimes miss, such as lung cancers. A new study reports that these algorithms can also see something doctors don’t look for on such scans: a patient’s race.

    The study authors and other medical AI experts say the results make it more crucial than ever to check that health algorithms perform fairly on people with different racial identities. Complicating that task: The authors themselves aren’t sure what cues the algorithms they created use to predict a person’s race.

    The rap on AI algorithms in the past was that they were trained on biased samples, for example, facial recognition with too few African faces. But that's not the problem here:

    Radiologists don’t generally consider a person’s racial identity—which is not a biological category—to be visible on scans that look beneath the skin. Yet the algorithms somehow proved capable of accurately detecting it for all three racial groups, and across different views of the body.

    For most types of scan, the algorithms could correctly identify which of two images was from a Black person more than 90 percent of the time. Even the worst performing algorithm succeeded 80 percent of the time; the best was 99 percent correct. The results and associated code were posted online late last month by a group of more than 20 researchers with expertise in medicine and machine learning, but the study has not yet been peer reviewed.

    The results have spurred new concerns that AI software can amplify inequality in health care, where studies show Black patients and other marginalized racial groups often receive inferior care compared to wealthy or white people.

    The gripes, as you might expect from a totally-woke WIRED, are incoherent and highly speculative. Somehow racial bias is so ingrained in the medical community that AI accuracy can trigger disparate treatment.

    Or something. If you can pull any non-garbage lessons out of the article, let me know.

Stillwater

[3.0 stars] [IMDB Link] [Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

If you're interested (and there's no reason you should be) we went to see this in what's called a "movie theater". Weird, right? Some of you older folks may still remember what those "movie theaters" are.

Seriously: the last movie I saw in a theater before this was 1917, about a year and a half ago.

And, for the record, I'd guess the next movie I see in a theater will be No Time to Die. Pun Son and I have a tradition of seeing Bond movies in theaters.

Anyway, this movie: Matt Damon takes on the challenging role of a decent human being a working-class Oklahoma dude named Bill. Who gets off his lousy-paying job one day to fly off to Marseille, France. We're not told the reason for such unexpected behavior, but it soon becomes apparent. He's visiting his lesbian daughter Allison in a French slammer, where she's been imprisoned for the stabbing murder of her roommate/lover. She claims innocence, and tells Bill the news that she's heard about a party where a guy claimed to have stabbed a girl without consequence. Bill is tasked with getting Allison's lawyer to have the investigation reopened.

Which isn't going to happen. The lawyer tells Bill that this hearsay evidence is insufficient to get the cops to reinvestigate. Bill can't bring himself to give Alison this bad news, so he decides to investigate on his own. Along the way, he gets involved with young Maya (cute kid!) and her mother Virginie.

It's very much a fish-out-of-water tale in addition to being a crime thriller and romance drama.

Consumer note: a lot of information is disclosed in dialog. Which, unfortunately, is often delivered by people in the throes of intensre emotion (fear and remorse, respectively). Listen very carefully!

Fun fact: this site purports to be "Stillwater Ending Explained!". But it's pretty obviously a bad English → French → English auto-translation, because Matt Damon's character "Bill Baker" is called "Invoice Baker".

A Private Cathedral

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Wow, I really read quite a few books in the past couple weeks. It helps when you're sitting in airports and planes for extended periods.

I've been a longtime fan of James Lee Burke's novels featuring moody heroic sometimes-cop Dave Robicheaux. So this latest one was a must-read too. And even though James Lee is getting up there (specifically, he's 84) he still does not disappoint: this is another harrowing tale of Dave, with sidekick Clete Purcel, getting into deadlhy conflict with the worst folks Louisiana has to offer. The mean streets of LA, the city, have nothing to compare to the mean bayous of LA, the state.

Something about the Amazon blurb caught my eye: "After finding himself caught up in one of Louisiana’s oldest and bloodiest family rivalries, Detective Dave Robicheaux must battle the most terrifying adversary he has ever encountered: a time-traveling superhuman assassin."

Dude, what? Are we getting into Marvel Comics territory here? Not quite. Dave has had an on-again, off-again relationship with the supernatural, going back to at least In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead (1993).

The book is unusual in that it's explicitly set in Dave's past: in terms of wives, it's post-Bootsie, and pre-Molly. This gives him some additional latitude in dealing with a couple of ladies he encounters along the way. But he keeps his hands off young Miss Isolde Balangie, who belongs to one of those families mentioned in the blurb above. One night when listening to talented musician Johnny Shondell perform—Johnny belongs to that other family—Isolde walks up to Dave, claiming that she's being delivered by Johnny to his uncle, Mark Shondell.

Dave declines to get involved, disappointing Isolde. At first. But his crusading curiosity leads him into it, and pretty soon he and Clete are up to their necks. And get associated with that time-travelling superhuman assassin. Who turns out to be a troubled soul himself.

Yes, I Can Say That

When They Come for the Comedians, We Are All in Trouble

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

This was one of Nick Gillespie's "Reason roundtable recommendations" last August. It was available at Portsmouth Public Library, so I put it on my get-list. These recommendations don't always work out.

The author, Judy Gold, is a standup comedian. My expectations were for an amusing, but full-throated defense of the venerable concept of freedom of expression.

In other words, I expected the book to be funny. My first disappointment. Perhaps Judy's humor doesn't translate well to the printed page, but I made it through the entire text without laughing once. I smiled a few times, but it was nearly always when she was quoting some other comedian. She does that a lot.

So, not funny. Worse, the book wasn't so hot on freedom of expression either. Instead, the defense, such as it was, was pretty much restricted to comedians. Judy is not to be mistaken for John Stuart Mill. Political Correctness? "I'm all for it," she states. Except for comedians. Judy says not a word about poor (unfunny) saps who lose jobs for dissenting from woke ideology.

And (despite the book's title) Judy has rules for things You Can't Say, even if you're a comedian. N-word? If you're a person of pallor, that's out. "Jokes about Jews" are OK for her to make, because she's Jewish. OK for others? "It depends on what the joke is and who's telling it."

The book is repetitive, profanity-laden (Judy's fond of the F-word), and unfocused stream-of-consciousness rambling. Unless you're fascinated by anecdotes about comedians in trouble with The Man, it will be totally uninteresting. We learn much about Judy's likes, mostly other comedians. (They've returned the favor by effusive blurbs on the cover.) We also learn about Judy's (multitudinous) hates. Trump. Ivanka. Pence. Jerry Falwell. Hecklers. Censors (but primarily comedian censors). Many insults are directed at Judy's hates. She punctures the preachy advocates of traditional morality, while being just as stridently and intolerantly moralistic herself. Her political views are shallow reactionary leftist, fine. But I can't detect any indication that she's anything other than a "free speech for me (and my peers), but not for thee" hypocrite. (One minor exception: she quotes Ira Glasser in a couple places. Glasser is a principled free-speech advocate.)

Bottom line, if you want a funny defense of liberty, I'm pretty sure you have to go to someone like P. J. O'Rourke.

Facing Reality

Two Truths about Race in America

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

This new, short, book by Charles Murray is a plea for Americans to accept a couple of uncomfortable facts. Succinctly laid out early on:

The first is that American Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, as groups, have different means and distributions of cognitive ability The second is that American Whites, Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, as groups, have different rates of violent crime.

The "as groups" caveat is vital. Group differences imply nothing about any given individual.

Murray meticulously lays out the evidence for these two truths. Convincingly, in my mind. And he doesn't speculate on the underlying causes of those racial differences; the causes simply don't matter much to his argument. He points out that the cognitive differences are not susceptible to easy fixes; they are not simply due to poor schools, or poverty, or environmental factors, or anything else held out by naysayers.

Science is real, in other words.

(The uncomfortable truth about group cognitive differences is becoming more widely accepted. See, for example, the recent book by self-admitted Marxist Fredrik deBoer, The Cult of Smart, which comes to the same conclusion. His proposed remedies are, of course, somewhat different than Murray's. Unfortunately, Murray doesn't reference deBoer here, just as deBoer ignored Murray in his book. I really think these two could have a productive discussion.)

Murray uses the "two truths" to point out the false and damaging foundations of today's "progressive" ideology as it applies to racial matters: identity politics, with its accusations of "systemic racism", "white privilege", etc. to explain racial statistical disparities. That's a dagger aimed at the heart of the American ideal of treating people as individuals. Think it's bad now? Just wait until white people discover the advantages of playing the I'm-racially-oppressed card.

Murray advocates two "solutions", one he sees politically infeasible, the other possible. The infeasible one: get rid of government-sponsored race-based preferential treatment. That's a worthy goal, but Murray is probably correct that (like walking away empty-handed on 25 Words or Less) it ain't gonna happen.

The possible solution: we should all embrace the "American creed" of treating people as individuals, rather than pigeonholing them by their genetics. And we should do that loudly and affirmatively. Repudiate the "extremists" (on both ends of the political spectrum) who claim otherwise.

Another good idea, and easy for people to do. But I'm still pulling for that impossible remedy myself.

Pretty as a Picture

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Pretty as a Picture was one of WSJ reviewer Tom Nolan's picks for his list of best 2020 mystery novels. I've had mixed success with these, but this one was a winner.

It's narrated by Marissa, a movie editor by occupation. She's a very appealing character with some minor psychological quirks, like some mild OCD involving bedtime rituals. And she has Sherlockian deduction skills, as long as those are relevant to moviemaking. She has problems establishing meaningful relationships. And she's given to hilarious observations of others and self-deprecating observations of her own foibles.

Her résumé is filled with arty films done in collaboration with her friend/roomie Amy. But (for good reason) she's looking to break away from Amy, so she goes to a mysterious interview for a new gig. Which turns out to be a sorta-true-crime movie set on a resort island off the Delaware coast, the scene of a long-ago (apparent) murder. And, yep, that's where they're making the movie. And the film's oddball director, Tony Rees, demands that Marissa be on location. (He's fired his previous editor, for mysterious reasons.)

I said "oddball director", but I repeat myself. The entire cast and crew are various flavors of oddball. As are the island inhabitants. Most notably Billy, who everyone considers the most likely suspect for that death. But that's too easy, isn't it? But also notably: Grace and Suzy, two teenage girls who are smart beyond their years, also hiliarious.

If Elizabeth Little writes more adventures featuring Marissa, I'm there.

Righteous

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Book two in the "IQ" series by Joe Ide. I'm in for the long haul.

In the sorta-cliffhanger from the previous book, IQ (Isaiah Quintabe) discovered the car used to mow down his brother Marcus years ago. He uses his prodigious powers of deduction to arrive at a disturbing revelation: Marcus wasn't a victim of a random hit-and-run driver. Instead, this was a deliberate murder. Why? Marcus was a straight arrow, seemingly without enemies. Isaiah renews his investigation, and quickly finds disturbing evidence that Marcus might have been involved in some shady dealings.

But (like the previous book) this is a two-timeline novel. In the other timeline, IQ is implored by Marcus's old girlfriend, Sarita, to track down her half-sister Janine. Which is a little outside of Isaiah's wheelhouse; he usually just does freelance investigations for his neighbors for iffy compensation. But he's smitten with Sarita, and driven by those romantic notions, he's off to Vegas.

Janine's in trouble, though, largely of her own making. She's a talented DJ, but also a gambling addict. And her boyfriend Benny is too. And he's into a local leg-breaking loanshark for a bunch of money. Fortunately (for sufficiently weird values of "fortunately") Janine's dad is involved in a very sordid business of human trafficking. So he's got plenty of money, he just needs to be persuaded to cough it up. And so Janine…

Well, that's enough detail. Pretty soon, Isaiah finds himself enmeshed in Janine's problems, which escalate to conflicts with criminals of various races and ethnicities. (As an Amazon reviewer points out, there are no cops to intrude on numerous scenes of violence. Criminals don't call the cops, fine, but…)

The Bitterroots

[Amazon Link, See Disclaimer]

Another book read in the Great C.J. Box Catchup Project. This one's from 2019. (I own the next two, and maybe I can get those read before another one comes out…) This one is an entry in what Amazon calls the "Cody Hoyt/Cassie Dewell" series, despite the fact that Cody has long since shuffled off this mortal coil. The latest season of the TV series "Big Sky" was (very) loosely based on this book.

Which finds Cassie working as a private investigator. She's still kind of a cop at heart, though, so she's kind of reluctant to take on the job she's offered by a defense lawyer: check out the evidence against accused rapist, Blake Kleinsasser, who's rotting away in a Lochsa County Montana jail awaiting trial. The case seems kind of open-and-shut, with a convincing statement from the young girl victim (who, in an extra bit of sordidness, is also a Kleinsasser). And there's DNA. But Cassie is dogged and meticulous, and a number of little details just don't check out. It turns out the Kleinsasser Klan has its corrupting influence all through Lochsa County, and there just might be very good reasons why they want Blake to be out of the picture. As Cassie digs, she finds herself in increasing amounts of peril.

Meanwhile, Cassie's young son, Ben, is left alone with Cassie's hippie mother. They don't see eye to eye on anything, including diet. And Ben's having trouble fitting in at his Bozeman high school, but he finds a new girl, Erin, to be perhaps a kindred spirit.

I wouldn't be reading these Box books if I didn't think they were consistently great. This is no exception.

"Big Sky" is kind of a disappointment in comparison, by the way; I assume C.J. took the money and let the producers do what they wanted. Apparently there's a Joe Pickett series in the offing, and maybe that will be better. I hope it winds up on some service that I can access without shelling out yet another subscription fee.