"Kerfuffles" Would Be a Pretty Good Name for a Breakfast Cereal

[Amazon Link]
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James Freeman looks at the latest outrage: The ‘Cereal for Dinner’ Kerfuffle.

If Marie Antoinette had enjoyed a press corps as friendly as today’s Washington politicos do, she might have met a better end. Surging food inflation has inspired some desperate consumers to save a buck by eating inexpensive breakfast cereal for supper, and guess who the media wants to blame. No, not the policy makers at the White House and the Federal Reserve who created the inflation, but a CEO who provides the cereal and has noticed that customers often consume it outside of breakfast time.

“Cereal for dinner is something that is probably more on trend now, and we would expect to continue as that consumer is under pressure,” Kellogg’s C.E.O. Gary Pilnick recently told CNBC.

Naturally the standard rule in the Washington press corps is to avoid blaming politicians who create a problem when there’s a business to scapegoat. “Kellogg CEO under fire for suggesting cereal as a money-saving dinner,” says a Washington Post headline.

I've seen some folks recommending you add in a hard-boiled egg for additional protein. Prices for eggs spiked about a year ago, but they are not unreasonable now:

Notes: egg prices are not inflation adjusted. Journalists' opinions of themselves as economic pundits are drastically inflated.

Also of note:

  • It requires you to suppress that instinct to jerk your knee. At Josiah Bartlett, Drew Cline presents an Econ 101 primer to local advocates: How building more luxury apartments helps the poor.

    As pressure builds for local and state policymakers to address New Hampshire’s severe housing shortage, some activists and lawmakers are again blaming developers rather than regulators for the state’s high rents.

    Developers are building “too many” apartments for higher-income renters, some claim. This raises rents, hurting the poor, so government must intervene to make builders reserve a certain percentage of new construction for lower-income households, the argument goes. Some also want the state to give subsidies to low-income renters.

    The idea that building more apartments raises rents has achieved the status of conventional wisdom in some activist circles. It’s done so despite it being untrue, and confirmed untrue by growing stacks of economic evidence.

    This isn't hard to follow. But as we saw above, "activists and lawmakers" search for scapegoats in the private sector to blame and bully.

  • Because California politicians are corrupt. Next question? Eric Boehm asks: Why Is Panera Exempted From California's New Minimum Wage Law?

    When fast food restaurants across California have to start paying workers $20 per hour on April 1, one major chain will be exempted from the mandate—and it just so happens to have a connection to a longtime friend and donor to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

    Panera Bread is poised to get a boost from a bizarre clause in the fast-food minimum wage law that exempts "chains that bake bread and sell it as a standalone item," Bloomberg reports, adding that "Newsom pushed for that break, according to people familiar with the matter."

    Boehm blames Newsom, understandably. But let's also shower some opprobrium on California voters, who elected the legislators and governor. And it's doubtful they'll blame those pols when the fast food restaurants die off or they prices skyrocket. Except for Panera.

  • [Amazon Link]
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    Wishful thinking. Kay S. Hymowitz reviews Abigail Shrier's new book, Amazon link at your right, and looks at the results When Every Day is a Mental Health Day.

    Abigail Shrier’s first book, 2020’s Irreversible Damage, launched the mother of all cancel campaigns. Because the book attributed the sudden and inexplicable rise in juvenile gender anxiety to social contagion rather than the activist-approved explanation of social progress, Shrier, an occasional contributor to City Journal, was branded a “transphobe.” Amazon employees demanded the company remove the book from its virtual shelves. Unlike the suits at Target, who briefly did exactly that, Amazon stopped short of cancelling the book and settled for banning any paid advertising. Despite growing questions about juvenile transgender treatment, including among practitioners, many libraries continue to treat Irreversible Damage as radioactive. Only last month, a Japanese publisher reneged on plans to publish the book, proving that, whether or not transgenderism is contagious, the urge to cancel those out of line with approved ideas unquestionably is.

    Shrier’s new book Bad Therapy, an astute and impassioned analysis of the mental-health crisis now afflicting adolescents, may cause a similar emotional meltdown in some corners of American culture. Shrier’s target is more expansive than it was in Irreversible Damage; she aims her fire at the therapeutic mindset that pervades not just the offices of psychologists and counsellors, but elementary, middle, and high school classrooms, best-seller lists, middle-class homes, and government agencies. It’s a pernicious development because a therapeutic mindset easily paralyzes kids’ natural defenses and resilience, hence the crisis we confront today. Assuming a Bad Therapy backlash comes, it is unlikely to be as heated as it was in the case of Irreversible Damage—therapists, who have the most to lose if Shrier’s analysis were to win out, are a more sedate crowd than trans activists—but one hopes that for the sake of the rising generation, any pushback won’t prevent people from heeding the warnings of this important book. 

    It's been a few months since Portsmouth Public Library proudly celebrated "Banned Books", proudly displaying one of their three copies of Gender Queer in their promotional exhibit. But they don't own either Irreversible Damage or Bad Therapy. Banned?

    I think I'll request they purchase Bad Therapy.

Recently on the book blog:, a report regular blog readers might find of interest:


Last Modified 2024-02-29 4:24 PM EST

“Whatever It Is, I’m Against It”

Resistance to Change in Higher Education

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If I had $3610 I wanted to get rid of quickly, I'd buy a hundred copies of this book and gift them to key figures associated with the University Near Here: the president, trustees, appropriate legislators, department chairs, etc. (Maybe with instructions on what parts would be better ignored.)

The author, Brian Rosenberg, was a longtime president of Macalester College, out in St. Paul, Minnesota, and his experiences there qualify him for commentary on the challenges faced by colleges in an era of declining enrollment (and, I'd add, increasing irrelevance). The book's title, of course, is taken from the song sung by President Wagstaff (Groucho Marx) in the classic movie Horse Feathers. (You can see the movie clip here, you're welcome).

The book's overall argument is summed up in a quote I once heard (and unfortunately can't find anymore) to the effect that the political leanings of college faculties are heavily to the left; but when it comes to the governance of their own institutions, they become extremely conservative. Innovation is resisted, producing stasis in the face of crisis. And a system that fails a significant fraction of its customers/students, but saddles them with (you may have heard) piles of debt.

Rosenberg tells his story with punchy prose and humor (and, occasionally, a taste of bitterness). On lecturing:

Consider, for example, the lecture, "the style of teaching that has ruled universities for 600 years." 600 years ago, barbers were still performing surgery. Scott Freeman […] traces the history of the lecture back even further to 1050, when universities were founded in Western Europe and when barbers were just starting to perform surgery.

Or:

The largest and most influential universities in the United States combine undergraduate and graduate teaching with research institutes, hospital systems, professional schools, semiprofessional sports teams, major real estate holdings, and who knows what else. In some sense Harvard is like Pfizer with a football team, bringing together under the same brand multiple activities that have little or nothing to do with one another.

Another telling point: US News and World Report started ranking colleges in 1983. Top five then: Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley. Their latest top five: Princeton, MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Yale.

Contrast this with the Fortune 500. In 1983, their top five were: Exxon, GM, Mobil, Texaco, and Ford. The most recent: Walmart, Amazon, Exxon Mobil, Apple, and United Health Group.

Whatever their faults, private companies prosper via innovation and competition, and the result is perpetual churn. Universities do not. Rosenberg notes that the incentives are all wrong for them; they have no reason to experiment. As Rosenberg notes, the odds of success are low, the price of trying is high. UNH is never going to vault into the US News top five, and (unless something very unexpected happens) Harvard is never going to leave.

Another quote:

Regardless of the fact that nearly every presidential job description and nearly every presidential search committee speaks to the desire of a "change agent," the truth is that an actual change agent is something that only the most desperate college communities want—and even the desperate ones are not sure about it.

Rosenberg's great on his theme… and, unfortunately, awful when he strays off it. His discussion of faculty tenure (another barrier to reform) wanders into "academic freedom"… and then falls into the pit of First Amendment issues. According to Rosenberg, all that free expression stuff can be "the right simply to act like a jerk." His footnoted "good example" of that is Stuart Reges, a computer science facule at the University of Washington. When encouraged by the unversity administration to include a "Native American land acknowledgement" on his syllabus, he went this way:

I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.

As you can imagine, the excrement hit the air circulation device. It escalated into a legal issue, and I encourage you to read the discussion at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) site. Make your own call about whether Rosenberg is being fair or accurate about this being a case of "the right simply to act like a jerk."

That caused me to look up Macalester College on FIRE's Free Speech Rankings. It is in position #211, with a "Below Average" speech climate. Reader, that's not far from the bottom (currently occupied by Harvard, at #248).

Rosenberg also takes a number of drive-by swipes at various conservatives/libertarians. "Drive-by" in the sense that they don't contibute anything to his overall thesis, and seem to serve mainly as signals to his (presumably leftist Democrat) tribe: "Don't worry, I'm not one of them, I'm one of you."

So: ignore that, and the book's pretty good. In the final chapter he outlines possibilities for reform, identifying six "long-standing and widespread assumptions" about higher ed: (1) "The faculty are the university." (2) "Higher education is a meritocracy." (3) "The university stands 'at a slight angle to the world.'" (4) "Students need a major." (5) "Offer lots of different stuff." (6) "Higher education can't change."

It probably has to change.

I Don't Want to be in Any Cult That Would Have Me as a Member

Charles C. W. Cooke channels Dana Carvey as John McLaughlin:

That excerpt is from an Atlantic (paywalled) article by Adam Rubenstein ("former New York Times Opinion staffer", emphasis on "former"): I Was a Heretic at The New York Times. Ed Morrissey has further analysis at Hot Air: Former NYT Editor: It's a Cult, and I'm Its Heretic. He provides a further excerpt from Rubenstein:

Being a conservative—or at least being considered one—at the Times was a strange experience. I often found myself asking questions like “Doesn’t all of this talk of ‘voter suppression’ on the left sound similar to charges of ‘voter fraud’ on the right?” only to realize how unwelcome such questions were. By asking, I’d revealed that I wasn’t on the same team as my colleagues, that I didn’t accept as an article of faith the liberal premise that voter suppression was a grave threat to liberal democracy while voter fraud was entirely fake news.

Or take the Hunter Biden laptop story: Was it truly “unsubstantiated,” as the paper kept saying? At the time, it had been substantiated, however unusually, by Rudy Giuliani. Many of my colleagues were clearly worried that lending credence to the laptop story could hurt the electoral prospects of Joe Biden and the Democrats. But starting from a place of party politics and assessing how a particular story could affect an election isn’t journalism. Nor is a vague unease with difficult subjects. “The state of Israel makes me very uncomfortable,” a colleague once told me. This was something I was used to hearing from young progressives on college campuses, but not at work.

As I and many others have pointed out: the precipitous decline in peoples' trust in the mainstream media is richly deserved.

Also of note:

  • Exposing something we've already seen exposed many times before. Like Eva Green's boobs. Reactions continue to Google's Gemini fiasco. Megan McArdle goes for the obvious: Female popes? Google’s amusing AI bias underscores a serious problem. It's not only generated images of the lady popes or the "diverse" Nazis, but also…

    Unfortunately, though, once Google shut down Gemini’s image generation, users turned to probing its text output. And as those absurdities piled up, things began to look la lot worse for Google — and society. Gemini appears to have been programmed to avoid offending the leftmost 5 percent of the U.S. political distribution, at the price of offending the rightmost 50 percent.

    It effortlessly wrote toasts praising Democratic politicians — even controversial ones such as Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.) — while deeming every elected Republican I tried too controversial, even Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who had stood up to President Donald Trump’s election malfeasance. It had no trouble condemning the Holocaust but offered caveats about complexity in denouncing the murderous legacies of Stalin and Mao. It would praise essays in favor of abortion rights, but not those against.

    As James Damore found out back in 2017, and Adam Rubenstein (see above) back in 2021, some places are "hostile work environments" for anyone dissenting from the woke ideology.

    Nate Silver weighs in as well: Google abandoned "don't be evil" — and Gemini is the result.

    It’s increasingly apparent that Gemini is among the more disastrous product rollouts in the history of Silicon Valley and maybe even the recent history of corporate America, at least coming from a company of Google’s prestige. Wall Street is starting to notice, with Google (Alphabet) stock down 4.5 percent on Monday amid analyst warnings about Gemini’s effect on Google’s reputation.

    Gemini grabbed my attention because the overlap between politics, media and AI is a place on the Venn Diagram where think I can add a lot of value. Despite Google’s protestations to the contrary, the reasons for Gemini’s shortcomings are mostly political, not technological. Also, many of the debates about Gemini are familiar territory, because they parallel decades-old debates in journalism. Should journalists strive to promote the common good or instead just reveal the world for what it is? Where is the line between information and advocacy? Is it even possible or desirable to be unbiased — and if so, how does one go about accomplishing that?2 How should consumers navigate a world rife with misinformation — when sometimes the misinformation is published by the most authoritative sources? How are the answers affected by the increasing consolidation of the industry toward a few big winners — and by increasing political polarization in the US and other industrialized democracies?

    Full disclosure: I

    1. am a loyal Google customer (their search engine, Gmail, Calendar, Drive, Chrome, even a Chromebook);
    2. don't remotely trust Google on any even remotely political issue.

    What can I say. I am large, I contain multitudes.

  • But Jeff Maurer has some advice that won't be taken. And that is: Gemini Can Teach Liberals Why Nobody Likes Us.

    Like a lot of people, I’ve spent the past week enjoying the 50 clown car pileup known as Google Gemini. It’s incredible that a major company shipped such a hilariously inept product; it’s like if Serta released a mattress made of broken glass, or if Playschool sold a xylophone that explodes on contact. Companies don’t normally manufacture and release their own PR disasters; the Harvey Weinstein scandal, for example, was a secret that got revealed — it wasn’t a $100 million film called The Magical Masturbator of Miramax.

    [Jeff's poster for that film is at the link.]

    As useless as Gemini seems, it might actually be good for one thing. I believe that Democrats have a broadly popular agenda centered on things like job growth and preserving abortion access. But I also believe that they punch below their weight because liberals/progressives/whatever you want to call us are frequently really annoying. Worse still: We often don’t know that we’re annoying. We think we’re on a crusade that compels us to speak out, even though probably the best thing we could do to advance progressive causes would be to live in a trailer underground and never talk to anyone. Gemini embodies the type of righteous left-wing jagweed that most people hate. By spending some time with Gemini, I think people on the left can come to understand why much of the country would like to see pianos fall on our heads.

    Of course, Jeff's wrong about the "broadly popular agenda". Otherwise, though…

  • Whatchamacallit. Robert Graboyes has an interesting post about political nomenclature: Equity, Equitist, Equitism.

    Egalitarians aspire to equalize individual rights and opportunities, and perhaps to equalize ex post outcomes across individuals via social safety nets. Equitists, well-intentioned though they may be, pigeonhole people by immutable characteristics (race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, disability, etc.) and then seek to equalize average outcomes across groups. Someone in charge (an equitist, naturally) must devise a taxonomy of mankind, assign every individual to some cell in that taxonomy, rank each cell along something like an oppressor/oppressed spectrum, and then allocate rights, privileges, opportunities, and wealth among these cells.

    Generally, egalitarians seek to define “equal” objectively (e.g., equal rights, opportunities, access to education, income), whereas equitism’s definitions of “equal” are subjective. Equitism is largely an outgrowth of Frankfurt School critical theory, which rejects the very notion of objectivity.

    I'm not as copacetic as is Graboyes about "egalitarian"; it had a bad French-Revolution odor about it when I was growing up. And I think his label of "equitism" is too obscure to catch on. Still, it's a good essay.

  • See the Headline du Jour. So I'm not "signing up", but David Harsany might: If This Is 'Christian Nationalism,' Sign Me Up!

    The other day, Politico writer Heidi Przybyla appeared on MSNBC’s “All In with Chris Hayes” to talk about the hysteria de jour, “Christian nationalism.” Donald Trump, she explained, has surrounded himself with an “extremist element of conservative Christians,” who were misrepresenting “so-called natural law” in their attempt to roll back abortion “rights” and other leftist policy preferences. What makes “Christian nationalists” different, she went on, was that they believe “our rights as Americans, as all human beings, don’t come from any earthly authority.”

    As numerous critics have already pointed out, “Christian nationalism” sounds identical to the case for American liberty offered in the Declaration of Independence. Then again, the idea that man has inalienable, universal rights goes back to ancient Greece, at least. The entire American project is contingent on accepting the notion that the state can’t give or take our God-given freedoms. It is the best kind of “extremism.”

    A telling observation:

    It’s also true that the “Christian nationalism” scare is a ginned-up partisan effort to spook non-Christian voters. And, clearly, to some secular Americans, the idea that a non-“earthly authority” can bestow rights on humans sounds nuts. As a nonbeliever myself, I’ve been asked by Christians many times how I can square my skepticism of the Almighty with a belief in natural rights.

    My answer is simple: I choose to.

    “This is the bind post-Christian America finds itself in,” tweeted historian Tom Holland. “It can no longer appeal to a Creator as the author of its citizens’ rights, so [he] has to pretend that these rights somehow have an inherent existence: a notion requiring no less of a leap of faith than does belief in God.”

    No less but no more. Just as an atheist or agnostic or irreligious secular American accepts that it’s wrong to steal and murder and cheat, they can accept that man has an inherent right to speak freely and the right to defend himself, his family, and his property. History, experience, and an innate sense of the world tell me that such rights benefit individuals as well as mankind. It is rational.

    Rational. Well, that's a relief.

Recently on the movie blog:

Asteroid City

[2.5 stars] [IMDB Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I tried to watch Asteroid City four separate times. I kept falling asleep. But I think over those four attempts, I "watched" the whole movie, so it counts. In any case, I'm giving up, and hope the next movie I try to stream will keep me awake.

It is star-studded: Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Bryan Cranston, Matt Dillon, Tilda Swinton, Margot Robbie, Willem Dafoe, Steve Carell, Adrien Brody, and others you may have heard of. The director, Wes Anderson, is kind of famed for having his actors recite their lines in deadpan, flat delivery. I think this, while occasionally amusing, contributes to the movie's soporific quality.

I may not have this exactly right, but the movie's outer framework is an old-style teleplay, and most of the movie operates inside that frame as how the play's cast and crew imagine it. And there, "Asteroid City" is a minor desert town, famed for the crater created long ago by that falling asteroid. It's also the site for a science fair/stargazing event. Which gets disrupted by an alien demanding his asteroid back.

The actors interact in not very interesting ways. There's a roadrunner. Ms. Johansson has a "nude scene" performed by a body double.


Last Modified 2024-02-28 7:39 AM EST

The Blog is 19 Today!

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The first Pun Salad blog post, Introduction, was made on February 27, 2005. As the Deadhead said: "What a long strange trip it's been."

I reread that post, and it still seems to hold up. Pun Salad remains "a repository for half-baked thoughts, ill-informed opinion, bad-tempered rants, gooey sentiment, and links to things on the Web I think are worth clicking upon, which you could probably find on your own anyway."

Yes, I've always been this eloquent.

Will we make it to an even 20 years? "At my age" it's foolish to make rash promises, so I'll just say: stick around for 366 days and find out.

But on to the important stuff:

  • I assume the moon-nuking will commence any day now. The Time I Shut Down Google. By noticing something a little … off when he asked Google Gemini

    Plenty more examples at the link. Experimentation:

    I went on to do several more experiments to figure out how this “diversity” algorithm worked. I found out it filtered to only add diversity when the result was something where you’d often get white people as the response. So, while “popes” became diversified, you only got black people when asking for “Zulu warriors” and only Latinos when asking for a “mariachi band.”

    I also found it ignored pronouns… but only male pronouns. So, when I asked for “a firefighter wearing his hat,” I got a mix of men and women (all people of color), but when I asked for a “firefighter wearing her hat,” I got only women.

    I also had some interesting results finding some diversity holes with fantasy creatures. When I asked for elves, I only got white elves. But when I asked for vampires, they were all vampires of color. And when I asked for fairies, I got a racial mix, but pixies were all white.

    We could draw somber conclusions from this, but I will just chuckle. Is Google now sorry it fired James Damore? Nah, probably not. But they should be.

    Glenn Harlan Reynolds (blogfather to Pun Salad and countless others) has thoughts about Google's AI Debacle. With more hilarious examples. And deep thoughts.

    Well, this is a funny fail at one level, and a not-so-funny story of built-in prejudice in artificial intelligence at another. One lesson is that it follows up woke revisionist versions of history on college campuses, where we’re supposed to “decolonize” the past.

    Another is that you’d be a fool to trust Google. Assuming this is just bad programming, then, well, it’s really bad programming. That somehow nobody noticed. One suggestion is that this means that Google has a diversity problem:

    Glenn goes on to quote extensively from that last link.

    Keep in mind that Gemini has been in development for nearly a year, and there is no doubt that it has been heavily tested. Google has seen these results for months (at least) and believed they were completely normal. As mentioned: to employees at Google, it was performing AS EXPECTED.

    How does that happen? How does an organization with thousands of engineers remain blind to what is easily seen by the rest of the population?

    The answer: a complete LACK of diversity in Google’s leadership and employee population (and this isn’t limited to Google, of course).

  • This item goes well with the book I recently read… And, no, it wasn't by Ayn Rand; it was Crack-Up Capitalism:Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy by Wellesley professor Quinn Slobodian.

    Professor Slobodian could have, but didn't, mention that in some locations "democracy" seems to be dreaming about a world without capitalists. The latest example is described by Daniel Kowalski: California’s Politicians Appear Determined to Bring ‘Atlas Shrugged’ to Life.

    During the 20th century, California was the jewel of America. Beautiful weather, diverse landscapes, access to the Pacific Ocean, and other features made it the leading state of the nation. There is a saying that says “As California goes, so goes the nation” because to many Americans this seemed like the best place in the entire country to live and raise a family.

    Things seem to have changed in the 21st century though. When times were good, the government of California grew and spent more money than it had. In the short term, most people ignored this problem, but as time went on the deficits grew and grew. By the year 2000, the government had run up a debt of $57 billion. Twenty-two years later that number had almost tripled to $145 billion dollars. Since California is a state and not a nation they couldn’t print money to make up for the downfall, so their only options were to either cut spending or raise taxes. They chose the latter.

    For state income taxes, California has the highest rates in the entire nation. They also have a declining population, with a loss of more than half a million people since a peak population of 39.5 million in 2019—and they did not all die of Covid. The majority are people who left to live in other states that did not have oppressive taxes and draconian Covid restrictions.

    While wise leaders might look at this indicator and see it as a sign that they should change course, wisdom seems to be in short supply for the political elite in this state. Rather than move towards freedom, they are instead moving to erode and attack property rights even more through the form of a wealth tax. Of course, the people proposing this are trying to sell the idea to the public by saying only the super wealthy will be on the hook for this. The rest of us in the ninety-percent will benefit thanks to the rich paying their “fair share”.

    Even the Los Angeles Times was forced to sound like a headline in an Ayn Rand novel last December: Rich people are leaving California. That's bad for the economy. Ya think?

  • And this item goes well with a book I read back in 2018. That book is The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money by Bryan Caplan. The Slashdot headline sums it up pretty well: Half of College Graduates Are Working High School Level Jobs. Quoting a CBS News report:

    If a graduate's first job is in a low-paying field or out-of-line with a worker's interests, it could pigeonhole them into an undesirable role or industry that's hard to escape, according to a new study from The Burning Glass Institute and the Strada Institute for the Future of Work. The findings come as more Americans question the eroding value of a college degree, and as more employers are dropping higher education degree requirements altogether.

    "What we found is that even in a red-hot economy, half of graduates are winding up in jobs they didn't need to go to college to get," Burning Glass CEO Matt Sigelman told CBS MoneyWatch. Examples of jobs that don't require college-level skills include roles in the retail, hospitality and manufacturing sectors, according to Sigelman.

    Another study from the HEA Group found that a decade after enrolling in college, attendees of 1 in 4 higher education programs are earning less than $32,000 — the median annual income for high school graduates.

    [Amazon Link]
    (paid link)

    I'm currently reading a different book that sheds some light on how we are stuck with a "higher education system" that makes results described above likely to continue. Link at your right.

  • How about some R-rated hilarity for a palate cleanser? Jeff Maurer hosts a review of a new movie: Ethan Coen's "Drive-Away Dolls". And that review is (um, allegedly) by Ethan's brother Joel.

    Is driving away from something the same as driving towards something? That’s the question that “filmmaker” Ethan Coen asks with his new project, Drive-Away Dolls. But the only place that movie-goers will want to drive after kicking the wheels on this tired turd is straight off a fucking cliff.

    In the interest of full disclosure, my editor has requested that I mention that I am Mr. Coen’s brother, and that he negatively reviewed my film The Tragedy of MacBeth on this site two years ago. I have also occasionally collaborated with Mr. Coen in the past. Nonetheless, I feel that I am fully capable of objectively reviewing Mr. Coen’s work, and in fact, I have gone so far as to obtain this notarized Certificate Of Objectivity from the state of California.

    I strongly recommend you read Ethan's review of Joel's Macbeth movie first if you haven't.

My Ego Surrendered Years Ago…

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I think it was around the time when a computer program I wrote beat me soundly at Reversi (aka "Othello").

Anyway, I could have used our Amazon Product du Jour at the time, putting up some signs around my desk to cheer me up.

There's plenty more ego-bruising going on these days, thanks to AI. Dylan Allman has thoughts at the Foundation for Economic Education: The Ego vs. The Machine.

The insistence that human intelligence is sacred while AI intelligence is profane is not just naive; it’s fundamentally hypocritical. The difference between human and artificial intelligence is not a matter of kind but of degree—of processing speed, of efficiency, and, ironically enough, of impartiality.

AI is not the enemy of human creativity; it’s the next chapter in its evolution. What’s threatened by AI is not our purpose or our ability to create but our ego. And in the grand scheme of things, that’s a small price to pay for a world enriched by higher quality, more innovative, and more efficient creative works.

Not to toot my own horn, but here is my commentary last month about an anti-Machine rant from a local faculty member with an outsized ego.

Also of note:

  • The GOP could use some Artificial Intelligence; they seem to be running short of the natural kind. Kevin D. Williamson looks at the Elephant's current attitudes: Do the Wrong Thing.

    The Republicans have become the party of self-harm. This kind of self-harm isn’t really about harming oneself—people who are very serious about that just kill themselves quietly and deliberately—it is, instead, about theater. Self-harm as a form of political theater has a long and sometimes proud tradition, from Mohandas K. Gandhi’s self-starvation to Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation. I admire Cato the Younger’s resolve to die with dignity by his own hand rather than live under Julius Caesar’s tyranny, though I generally do not approve of suicide. Cato’s was a good death, a concept increasingly difficult to hold on to in a society that values prestige over honor and pleasure above all.

    Republicans took up self-harm as an ethos in the matter of COVID-19 vaccines (to take one example) not because they suddenly had an interest in mRNA technology—it was purely a case of what we would call, if we were talking about a surly teenager, “acting out.” The people Republicans hate (urban progressives, “elites,” etc.) made enthusiastic adherence to COVID-19 protocols (much of that was theater and hysteria, too) into a kind of moral test, one of the few situations in our national life that genuinely demands the much-abused term “virtue-signaling.” Rather than responding to pandemic safety excesses in a mature way—for example, by talking reasonably about the trade-offs involved in vaccinations and vaccine mandates or by dealing patiently but firmly with masking hysteria—Republicans just did what Republicans now do, i.e., they took up the opposite course of whatever the hated cultural enemy was doing. And so the kind of New Age health quackery that once was mainly associated with macrobiotic loonies in Park Slope became a shibboleth for right-wing populists and the cynical radio and cable-news entertainers who milk them for profit. Hence the ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine and such, and the paranoid disdain for vaccines. Republicans are “doing their own research,” but that “research” is the dumbest kind: Look at what they’re saying on MSNBC and stamp their feet and insist on the opposite. They are the bleach boys. Thank goodness the so-called elites didn’t get all huffy about hand-washing or we’d have every nut-cutlet Trump voter in the country running around looking like Michèle Lamy

    Unpleasant image at that last link. You were warned.

  • The answer, my friends, is blowin' in the wind. Unfortunately, Eric Boehm's rhetorical question doesn't fit the meter of the song, but here it is anyway: If Semiconductor Chip Demand Is High, Why Do We Need More Subsidies?

    The Biden administration has yet to announce how it plans to spend the $52 billion in semiconductor manufacturing subsidies that Congress approved more than 18 months ago.

    But the administration is already laying the groundwork for another round of taxpayer-funded subsidies for advanced computer chips—with an argument that reveals how economically illiterate the whole effort has been all along.

    "I suspect there will have to be—whether you call it Chips Two or something else—continued investment if we want to lead the world," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said this week while speaking at an Intel corporate event, Bloomberg reported. "Chips Two" is a reference to the CHIPS and Science Act, that 2022 bill that authorized $52 billion in subsidies, a sizable chuck of which is expected to find its way into Intel's pockets when the White House announces its funding plans in the coming weeks.

    Perhaps nothing better illustrates the way the government approaches issues than throwing an arbitrary amount of money at a perceived problem, and then declaring that more money will be needed to solve that problem even before the first pile of money has been distributed or the usefulness of the spending measured.

    For the record, this is the way I get some of my tax money back. Nvidia stock makes up a small slice of my portfolio, but I've made a decent amount of money from it.

    Which Uncle Stupid will want his share of, I guess. Gee whillikers.

  • Not a sequel to Godzilla vs. Kong, unfortunately. David R. Henderson imagines a pretty good contest though: Piketty Vs. Taylor Swift.

    Contrary to what I used to believe before I researched this article, 19th-century French novelist Honoré de Balzac did not say, “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” Yet he is often thought to have said it and certainly a fair number of people, especially on the left, seem to believe it. Indeed, although my father, a public school teacher, never said it explicitly, he seemed to attribute even small fortunes to some kind of crime. He was suspicious of businessmen who earned just 20 percent more than he did. I picked up some of his views on this. Thank goodness I studied economics.

    I thought of all this when watching this year’s Super Bowl. I had bet on a friend’s Facebook site that we would see Taylor Swift eleven times. Midway through the fourth quarter, I lost track at eight because the game was so exciting. But the presence of Taylor Swift got me thinking about what I had thought Balzac had said and about what French economist Thomas Piketty came close to saying. Although Piketty references Balzac many times in his magnum opus, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty comes closer than Balzac to casting aspersions on people who get rich. So the question I want to address, and then widen to other successful people, is “Did Taylor Swift become a billionaire illegitimately?”

    Spoiler: She did not.

Recently on the book blog:

Crack-Up Capitalism

Market Radicals and the Dream of a World Without Democracy

(paid link)

Another attempt to keep myself honest, and read something that won't simply reinforce my biases toward free-market capitalism and personal liberty. The author, Quinn Slobodian, is a professor at Wellesley. His book-flap thesis is alarming: "the most notorious radical libertarians—from Milton Friedman to Peter Thiel" plot to subvert and eliminate "democracy" by setting up "different legal spaces: free ports, tax havens, special economic zones." Examples are many: the author endorses the so-called Open Zone Map to demonstrate their ubiquity. There's almost certainly one near you.

There is one near me, although the map's description differs somewhat from the description provided by the New Hampshire Department of Business and Economic Affairs. All, or parts of, 9 NH counties are considered "Foreign Trade Zones"; as the page explains: "For the purpose of assessment and collection of import duties, foreign imported merchandise entered into a zone is considered not to have entered the commerce of the United States, so duties are not paid while the merchandise remains at the site." Granite State democracy does not seem to have been seriously threatened. As yet.

The author presents a number of case studies, from historical to present-day: Hong Kong, London, Singapore, South Africa, Lichtenstein, Somalia, Dubai, Silicon Valley, and "the cloud". These are interspersed with profiles of some of those "radical libertarians": not only Milton Friedman, but also son David, and grandson Patri. And a host of others in addition to Thiel: Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, James Dale Davidson, Hayek, Mises, etc.

Let's get some stipulations out of the way:

(1) The interactions between governments and businesses are well-known to be rife with rent-seeking, corporate welfare, and corruption. Slobodian does a fine job pointing this out.

(2) Libertarians generally do not hold "democracy" up as an ultimate good. For example, Cato's Human Freedom Index notes a strong international correlation between freedom and democracy. But it cautions "Unrestrained democracy can be inconsistent with freedom." And it sends you off to Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty" for explication, if necessary.

(3) There's an awful lot of libertarian thought devoted to imagining utopian liberty-maximizing social structures. This is blue-sky stuff, and it's full of possible models and guesswork. And (see above) "democracy" might show up in them, and it might not.

(4) There's also an awful lot of libertarian criticism of current systems, nation-states running their fiat currencies. Some of that can get overwrought and apocalyptic, because that sells books. (I have a number of those on my bookshelves from previous decades predicting many imminent economic/social disasters that never happened.)

(5) There are a number of grifters and crackpots in the libertarian movement.

Slobodian tries to gather all these messy features into a coherent whole. It's far from a perfect fit, and at times his thesis resembles one of those dot-connecting conspiracies, corkboards with ragtag newspaper clippings, pushpins, and connections in red yarn. He imputes way too much importance and influence to libertarians, especially the ones outside (say) the Reason magazine-mainstream.

Slobodian never really engages with libertarian worries about "democracy" and its possible threats to liberty and prosperity; he just treats those worries as self-evidently misguided.

("And, yes, David Friedman is a longtime member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Your point being?")

Occasionally, Slobodian lets some level-headedness creep into his discussion: he grants that nation-states are a relatively recent development, and they could well be replaced by "something else". He treats that as obviously bad; I think it might be inevitable. As that process unfolds, you really want people thinking about the best ways to preserve human freedom and well-being along the way.

All is Vanity, 2024 Edition

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

Our Amazon Product du Jour is a poster version of C. Allan Gilbert's clever 1895 illustration "All is Vanity". If you don't get it (I didn't, not right away), keep looking. Or click the link. Gilbert did other stuff as well, but that's his claim to fame.

Its inclusion here was inspired by Lance Morrow's op-ed in the WSJ, especially appropriate today: Biden, Trump and American Vanity.

The election of 2024 is a train wreck. But is it an accident?

Isn’t it true that America’s presidents reflect the society that sends them to the White House—its tone and style, its character, some intangible national self? Think of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge as representatives of the 1920s. Think of Dwight Eisenhower, icon of America in the 1950s. Or of Ronald Reagan as the incarnation of the 1980s.

Now, a generation or two down the line, the 2020s have given us Donald Trump and Joe Biden. No one much likes the choice. Both men, almost everyone agrees, are selfish, tiresome old cartoons. Does that mean that America itself has turned into a selfish, tiresome old cartoon?

You could argue the opposite—that these things are a matter of random selection, as in quantum mechanics, too complex and contingent to support a theory of karma and comeuppance. Would some oracle, gifted at reading the fate of nations, have predicted that America would wind up with a dilemma like this in 2024? Maybe the gods are as surprised as the rest of us at the country’s bad luck.

Some say a country gets what it deserves. Others claim it gets what it doesn’t deserve. Did the Russian people deserve Stalin in the 20th century? Do they deserve Putin in the 21st? Do Russians have a mystic, Slavic need for an autocrat/czar? What of Hitler and the German people? Was he the fulfillment of their dark, chthonic longings? Or did he preside over the Reich for 12 long years despite the civilized inclinations of his people?

That's a gifted link, so check it out. And then reflect on one of H. L. Mencken's quotes on democracy, politics. and government:

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

So we'll see how that works out. He wrote that over 100 years ago, and we've somehow survived, so I suppose there's reason to hope we'll dodge 2024's bullets.

Our weekly look at the oddsmakers' opinions of the field:

Candidate EBO Win
Probability
Change
Since
2/18
Donald Trump 51.1% +1.1%
Joe Biden 31.4% -0.5%
Michelle Obama 4.9% -1.4%
Gavin Newsom 2.7% -0.7%
Other 9.9% +1.5%

As last week, our big gainer is the mysterious "Other". A long shot, but still considered to have better odds than anyone except Bone Spurs and Dotard.

Also of note:

  • "E" for Effort. Noah Rothman sounds like he doesn't want to write about a certain candidate anymore: Nikki Haley Has Run a Courageous Campaign.

    Say what you will about Nikki Haley’s ill-starred bid for the Republican presidential primary, but no one can honestly claim she did not spend the interim between New Hampshire’s election and Saturday’s South Carolina contest running as hard as she possibly could against Donald Trump.

    "Say what you will"… but don't say that.

    But since New Hampshire, Haley has taken a different course — burning her ships in the process. “I don’t care about a political future,” Haley told a crowd of supporters yesterday. “If I did, I would have been out by now.” We have no reason to believe she doesn’t mean it. Haley spent the better part of the last month savaging Trump from every angle in ways no one who privileges her future in a Trump-dominated Republican Party would.

    Haley took maximum advantage of Trump’s implication-laden attack on her husband’s absence from the campaign trail (he is deployed to Africa with the South Carolina National Guard) to criticize Trump’s record expressing his mistrust of the men and women who dedicate themselves to national service. “If you don’t know the value of our men and women in uniform, if you don’t know the sacrifice that they go through, why should I — as a military spouse and all our military families — trust you to know that you’re going to keep them out of harm’s way?” she asked pointedly.

    Rothman has more, and that's my last "gifted" NR link for this month, so I encourage you to check it out.

  • But for a less charitable take… we'll go to Townhall and Matt Vespa: Nikki Haley Couldn't Break 40 Percent in Her Home State...And She Went Wild.

    Nikki Haley isn’t going anywhere, which was expected, but what’s the point? I feel like her entire speech tonight could be summarized in a meme, specifically of sports journalist Stephen A. Smith, with the caption: Just smile politely, y’all. We’re witnessing mental illness. There is no path for Wreck-It Nikki, so she’s remaining in the race to help Democrats and ruin any chances of being part of the Republican Party’s future.

    "Mental illness."

    Stay classy, Matt. Don't for a minute entertain the idea that she's speaking uncomfortable (and in today's GOP, unpopular) truths.

  • But at least he's making Rashida Tlaib happy. Michael Goodwin in the NYPost pulls no punches: Biden’s betrayal at the forefront as he demands ceasefire in Gaza to stoke his re-election campaign.

    Just days ago, I wrote that Joe Biden was “inching toward a full betrayal of Israel.”

    Forget the inching.

    He’s now sprinting toward the final act.

    And he’s doing it at the United Nations, a forum that has been openly promoting antisemitism for decades.

    Biden’s latest salvo against the Jewish state is a new plan to have the UN Security Council support his demand for a cease-fire in Gaza.

    I'm in agreement with JPod's take too:

  • But muh democracy! Dan McLaughlin looks at the latest upcoming crisis: Democrats May Refuse to Certify Trump Election If He Wins. Supreme Court Could Prevent It.

    If Donald Trump wins the election, Democrats in Congress won’t commit to certifying the election. That’s not just speculation from conservatives eyeing the extremely long track record of leading Democrats rejecting the legitimacy of Republican victories. It’s the theme of Russell Berman in the Atlantic, and he’s talked to enough House Democrats to paint a truly alarming picture of what might happen to prevent the winner of the 2024 presidential election from becoming president. That’s never happened in all of our history. As Berman notes:

    As Republicans are fond of pointing out, Democrats have objected to the certification of each GOP presidential winner since 2000. None of those challenges went anywhere, and they were all premised on disputing the outcome or legitimacy of the election itself. Contesting a presidential election by claiming that the winner is ineligible, however, has no precedent.

    This is no idle threat. Berman talks to former House majority whip and outgoing assistant Democratic leader James Clyburn, who voted against certifying George W. Bush’s victory in 2004; Senate candidate Adam Schiff, who abstained rather than vote to certify Bush that same year; Zoe Lofgren, who did the same; Jamie Raskin, who objected to certifying Trump’s victory in 2016; and Eric Swalwell. None of them would commit to certify electors for Trump, even if it was clear that Trump won. He could not get a response from House Minority Leader Hakeem Jefferies, who repeatedly claimed after 2016 that Trump was not a “legitimate president.” As Berman notes, every House Democrat voted for the 2021 articles of impeachment of Trump for “incitement of insurrection,” and many of them still contend that he is an insurrectionist ineligible for the presidency.

    Voters could ask Democrat candidates for Congress whether they'll commit to certifying election results.

    But they probably won't.

    Power Line piles on Democrat Denialists, with a few more excerpts of the paywalled Atlantic article. And:

    The Democrats have become so insane on the subject of Donald Trump that it is hard to know which of their mutterings to take seriously. But if Trump wins the election and a Democrat-controlled House refuses to certify his election on the ground that he is an “insurrectionist” under the 14th Amendment, we will be past the point of a constitutional crisis. If that happens, the only realistic path forward will be disunion, possibly accompanied by civil war, but preferably not.

    Indeed, preferably not. For one thing, it would really ding my retirement nest egg.

Recently on the book blog:

The Curse of Pietro Houdini

(paid link)

The latest novel from Derek B. Miller. It's totally unlike his other books, except for its general excellence.

It is mostly set during World War II in Italy, and follows the odyssey of a young Italian orphan whose parents were killed in an American bombing run in Rome. The orphan flees to the town of Cassino, gets choked and left for dead in a gutter, rescued from that gutter by Pietro Houdini ("not his real name") and enlisted in Pietro's outrageous scheme to save priceless Renaissance paintings from Nazi looters. Those paintings are up in Montecassino Abbey, home to Benedictine monks, a storehouse of centuries of art.

You can see the paintings that Pietro wants to save here.

Pietro warns that it's going to be dangerous. In fact, it involves a great deal of violence, lies, accidents, and the general horror of war. Pietro accumulates a number of accomplices along the way in addition to the orphan, including a mule named "Ferrari", and … sorry, they don't all make it to the end of the book.

The book is a mixed bag of fiction and fact. The town of Cassino and Montecassino Abbey are real, and the wartime events Miller describes actually happened. Specifically, the Allies bombed the abbey into ruins in February 1944, killing zero Germans, and a couple hundred Italian civilians seeking refuge there.

When I started the book, I worried that it was going to be too "arty" for me. There's a lot of narrative trickery involved, and some garish descriptions. I should not have been concerned; Miller knows what he's doing.

No spoilers, but page 338 in the hardcover is magical.

Snarking at My CongressCritter

I may do this every time I notice a member of my Congressional delegation bragging about bringing home the bacon:

I should add that that cash is nearly never sent back to taxpayers. Instead it goes (mostly) to local governments who may distribute it to favored companies, institutions, or individuals. Benefits may eventually "trickle down" to us, after everyone along the way has taken a cut.

Yes, I'm feeling kinda libertarian today. And snarky. Let's see if that continues below…

Also of note:

  • The answer is obvious. But Jim Geraghty asks the question anyway: Why Does President Joe Biden Need Notecards to Talk to Donors? He provides a host of recent "impromptu" remarks President Dotard has emitted, and they are a mishmash of lies, arrogance, delusion, and incoherence. Some of which we've noted previously, but here's a cute one:

    In San Francisco, at the home of Gordon Getty, one of the heirs to the Getty oil fortune, Biden repeated one of his favorite stories, about the time Jill Biden got mad at him over news coverage claiming that he was the poorest U.S. senator:

    In addition to that, we’re in a situation where — you know, we now have — which is not a bad — I’m a capitalist, although I — for 36 years, I was listed as the poorest man in Congress. (Laughter.) Not a joke. I got a phone call, Jer, when I was campaigning for Pat Leahy in the — in the mid-’90s.

    And I got a call — I called every night, as you all when you’re away and your kid is at home. I called Jill, who was teaching school — my wife. And I said, “How are you doing?” And she said, “Fine.” (Laughter.) Okay, well, I’m in trouble. I said, “What’s the matter?” “Nothing.”

    I said, “Jill, what’s the matter?” She said, “Did you read today’s paper?” — meaning the Wilmington News Journal. And I said, “They don’t have it up here, honey.” And she said, “Well, top of the fold, ‘Biden, Poorest Man in Congress.’  Is that true?” (Laughter.) I swear to God, true story.

    Biden has told versions of this story several times. The best fact-checkers can determine, Biden usually ranked near the bottom of Congress in net worth, but he was never the poorest. No one has ever found the newspaper headline Biden describes. (It must have been an awfully slow news day for the Wilmington News Journal to put Biden’s financial-disclosure forms above the fold on the front page.) And note that as vice president, Biden claimed to audiences that he didn’t have a savings account, when his financial-disclosure form indicated he did.

    Bidenese ➡ English translation: "I swear to God, true story." ➡ "I'm lying."

  • I've been called a lot of dirty names in my time, Pilgrim. But I think this is a first:

    What people are amazed/amused/disgusted by is her assertion:

    “The one thing that unites them as Christian nationalists — not Christians by the way, because Christian nationalists is very different — is that they believe that our rights as Americans, as all human beings, don’t come from any earthly authority; they don’t come from Congress; they don’t come from the Supreme Court — they come from God,” Przybyla said.

    To put it mildly: many people, not just "Christian Nationalists", believe they "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights". And not only is that a truth, it's a self-evident truth; attempts at denial mire themselves in self-contradiction.

    (For those of us who are doubtful about "their Creator": substitute "the basic nature of their humanity".)

    Anyway, speaking of miring oneself in contradiction, you might find further amusement/disgust/bewilderment at Ms. Przybyla's further remarks, gathered at the Federalist: Politico Reporter Flails To Defend 'Christian Nationalism' Smears.

    Spoiler: Nowhere does she say, "Gee, I shouldn't have said that."

Recently on the book blog:


Last Modified 2024-02-24 1:10 PM EST