URLs du Jour — 2014-07-29

Various things of recent interest:

  • Is there anything more shallow than an Establishment Republican's devotion to the free market? Case in point is a recent column by New Hampshire's ex-Senator Judd Gregg in The Hill in defense of the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank. His lead argument is a pathetic strawman: the "populist right" (in which he apparently lumps people like me) dislikes institutions like the Ex-Im because of our "suspicious nature". We are "conspiratorially-minded", and see such institutions as "conspiratorial" because (among other things) "they are identified with Harvard and other elite eastern institutions."

    We're just a bunch of paranoid loonies, basically. Thanks a lot, Judd.

  • If you read Judd's column and still think he makes a valid argument, might I suggest reading a rebuttal by Veronique de Rugy? She gives Judd credit for honestly recognizing the Ex-Im Bank's essential cronyism. But Judd excuses that by claiming the Bank is (arguably) profitable. Vero rebuts:

    Alas, Gregg thinks that Ex-Im cronyism is okay because it “returns a few billion dollars a year to U.S. taxpayers.” Hm . . . so the unfair treatment of some companies for the benefit of others, along with the market distortions the Bank creates, is just peachy as long as Uncle Sam gets richer on paper? And it’s only Ex-Im advocates like the Chamber of Commerce that claim Ex-Im really is a boon to taxpayers — the Congressional Budget Office projects the bank will yield billions in costs over the next decade.

  • Alas, New Hampshire's sole semi-sane member of Congress, Senator Kelly Ayotte, has gone over to the establishment side on this issue, putting herself in the corporate sack with not only Judd, but also Jeanne Shaheen, Carol Shea-Porter, and Ann Kuster.

    In (probably) a futile gesture, I've written to Senator Ayotte to ask her to reconsider that.

  • It's not just your Federal-level politicos in bed with corporate behemoths. As this Wired article points out, your local officials are pretty OK with restricting broadband competition in your community, as long as they get their kickbacks and other goodies. Good advice:

    Politically, open access won’t really happen until local governments realize they’ve been thinking too small and too short-term; they’ve become used to thinking of rights-of-way and franchising concessions as revenue streams. But they’re missing the bigger opportunity: promoting broadband as a basic ingredient of economic growth — and growing their tax base.

  • This made me curious about how good old Rollinsford, NH, home to Pun Salad, was viewing its relationship with Comcast, its designated provider. So I found this recent set of recommendations by a local committee. Sample goal:

    Renegotiate the current franchise agreement with Comcast with terms that provide the town with additional advantages, e.g., the delivery of business class internet service to all town buildings.

    I.e. Comcast will pass the charges to its local customers and funnel a part of that cash over to City Hall for high-tech government goodies. Sigh. No sign of thinking outside the box there.

  • By the way, you may have heard that Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett are making a movie about "Rathergate". They are playing (respectively) Dan Rather and Mary Mapes. And the movie is said to be based on Mapes' self-serving reality-challenged memoir of the scandal. (Which most agree was cooked up as a dirty trick to defeat George W. Bush in the 2004 election.)

    If your jaw hasn't hit the floor yet—or even if it has—you might want to check out Megan McArdle's long post on why that's a very bad idea.

    It would be a pity if Hollywood made the same blind mistakes that destroyed several distinguished careers in New York. I know that the film production company for this project is called Mythology Entertainment. That said, the journalists who deserve to have their stories told are the ones who dug into the provenance of these memos and exposed them for what they actually were. If you are going to make a movie, it should honor their fine work, not the errors that made it necessary.

    Maybe there will be a subplot showing Alger Hiss typing the Rathergate memos on his Woodstock typewriter/word processor.

  • You can follow up Megan's masterful take on Rathergate with her hubby's (Peter Suderman) equally masterful analysis of why the D.C. Circuit court ruling in Halbig v. Burwell was correct and deserves to stand. Long but worthwhile, and the conclusion:
    The administration's defenders argue that the law is difficult to interpret, the statutory language is ambiguous, and the legal particulars are difficult to understand. None of this is true.

    The clearest and most obvious interpretation, and the one that best fits the history, evidence, and context, is that the language of the law means what it unambiguously says, that the legislative incentive for states to comply works broadly like many legislative incentives that preceded it, and that even if members of Congress who didn't read the bill did not understand every detail of the legislatory [sic] they voted for, the wonks who helped draft and conceptualize the law did and said so—and have since reversed themselves because their initial understanding is no longer convenient.

    McArdle and Suderman: that's one impressive family.

Last Modified 2014-08-05 4:10 PM EDT

Dallas Buyers Club

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

What distinguishes this from a run-of-the-mill disease-of-the-month tearjerker from Lifetime Movie Network? Easy, pilgrim: the answer is Mr. Matthew McConaughey. He's a force of movie nature when he wants to be.

Here, Mr. McConaughey plays Ron Woodruff. It's the early 80's and Woodruff is a hard-charging redneck Texas non-homosexual, but unfortunately he's into a lot of other risky behavior, like drug use and unprotected sex. So he finds himself with AIDS, and the doctor gives him 30 days to live.

Woodruff also mixes cocaine with AZT, recipe for dying sooner than 30 days. He finds himself in a Mexican clinic, where an unlicensed doc makes him feel better with unapproved drugs. Which gets Ron's humanitarian/entrepreneurial juices flowing: why, if he takes this stuff up to Texas, he could make some serious money. Only problem being, it's probably only slightly less legally risky to sell FDA-unapproved medications than it is to deal in cocaine and heroin.

Of course, Ron "grows" out of his previous homophobia once he develops face-to-face relationships with his gay clientele. He also wins over Jennifer Garner, a doctor initially by-the-book, gradually becoming more humanitarian.

The movie is intensely libertarian, making a strident case against the lengthy and bureaucratic FDA process for declaring a drug "safe and effective". In the meantime people are dying. But another (unfortunate) theme strongly implies corruption between the FDA, Big Pharma, and the local doctors who stand to make a bundle off AZT.

It's a nice story, but there's a contrary take at the Washington Post that makes it difficult to buy the movie's medical basis.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT


[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

A small effort at Pun Salad multiculturalism, inspired by a plug earlier this year from certified Smart Fellow Tyler Cowen. Decoded is a 2002 novel by the celebrated Chinese novelist Mai Jia, and it was translated into English earlier this year. (When I say "celebrated", I mean: he's famous in China; this is the only book that's made it into English.)

Executive summary: it's interesting and charming at the beginning, but bogs down near the end. And at the end, I found myself saying: "OK, so what was that all about?" But I am not experienced in the reading of Serious Literature, so it could well be that much went over my head.

I was looking for either a tale of cryptography or international intrigue. Both, preferably. A Chinese Neal Stephenson! Wouldn't that be cool? But no.

It is the story of Rong Jinzhen, mathematical prodigy, who gets drafted into a Chinese intelligence unit dedicated to the making and breaking of military-level ciphers. The early (good) part of the book details his ancestry: colorful, mostly sad, tales of his relatives and acquaintances and how they came to guide his unlikely birth and upbringing.

Rong Jinzhen turns out to be a master codebreaker, solving the riddle of PURPLE, a cipher that (it turns out) was invented by his teacher and mentor, Liseiwicz, who got out of China and started working for Israel and "Country X". (Amusingly, most of his co-workers think that Rong Jinzhen is just goofing off until he delivers the broken code.) But after PURPLE, there is BLACK. And his anti-BLACK efforts threaten to send Rong Jinzhen over the edge of sanity.

As a devout despiser of Communism, I was unimpressed with the book's politics. Mai Jia is no Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He stays away from anything that might offend the regime. (There is a brief fictional example of the lunacy of the Cultural Revolution, which I guess is OK to do these days.)

Consumer note: this NYT review claims that Rong Jinzhen's mother was killed in childbirth by his "freakishly large head". That's incorrect; although Rong Jinzhen's mother does die in childbirth (page 24), the freakishly-large-head death is on page 14, and it's when Rong Jinzhen's grandmother gives birth to his father. So there, mainstream media.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

The Lego Movie

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

Another movie ostensibly for the kids, but with enough content and originality to make it more than acceptable for Mrs. Salad and I.

It's (mostly) set in a universe of Legos, where things are (mostly) orderly and peaceful, thanks to the grand designs of a godlike creature called (variously) "President Business" or "Lord Business". But Business is increasingly upset with the small amount of chaos introduced into the land by underlying forces of individuality and creativity. So he plans to "unleash the Kragle" which (small spoiler) is a scratched-up tube of Krazy Glue: he'll lock down the rebellious characters into poses they'll hold forevermore.

Opposing Business is a diverse array of characters: "Wyldstyle", a Lara Croft-style action figurine, "Vitruvius", a wise bearded wizard. They draft Emmet into their scheme, because they perceive him to be the "Special", bequeathed with special powers to allow him to defeat Business's evil plot.

Oh, and Batman. Who (of course) introduces himself with: "I'm Batman".

There are fantastic cameos, non-stop action, lots of sight gags (many of which I missed), and PG-safe humor. (Mostly jokes involving the word "butt", and associated concepts. My inner 10-year-old found this amusing.)

And (again, slight spoiler) one Jadon Sand plays the (human) Finn, who's revealed to be the driving force behind much of the action. He's a very talented young man, and no relation.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

The Grand Budapest Hotel

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

True fact: I fell asleep trying to watch this at my first attempt. But I was wide awake for my second time, and it was perfectly fine, and very funny. As I type, IMDB has it at #151 of the top 250 movies of all time, and I guess I'm OK with that.

It's definitely the only movie I can recall with a triple flashback: starting in (presumably) the present day, a girl visits a memorial to "Author"; we then flash back (1) to 1985, where "Author" narrates his thoughts on the creative process to an unseen camera; which recalls (2) his 1968 visit to the deteriorating Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets the eccentric owner, Mr. Moustafa; who (3) describes his "lobby boy" employment with the hotel and his relationship with the eccentric concierge, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), back in the 1930s.

What happens is a shaggy-dog tale of discreet carnal relationships between Gustave and the hotel's wealthy old-lady guests, murder most foul, and a subsequent frame-up of M. Gustave. Gustave and Moustafa must expose the true perpetrators while trying to stay out of jail.

Director/Writer Wes Anderson brings some of his trademarks to the movie: dazzling sets, slow horizontal pans, loopy and hilarious dialog delivered deadpan, an imaginatively complex and original plot. There are also a bunch of fine actors in smaller cameo roles.

If some of his earlier movies left you with a "who cares" reaction, me too. But his last few have worked much better for me, and if you've been avoiding him, give him another try.

Also: watch to the end of the credits for a small treat.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

Pathetic Hillary Flacktivism (In My Local Paper)

A recent op-ed in my local paper, Foster's Daily Democrat, impressed me with its sheer vapidity and self-importance. The author, one "Douglas Smith of Durham [NH]" wants us to know how vital he and Hillary Clinton were to enticing foreign visitors to come to the United States to spend money. The author blurb at the bottom of the column describes Smith's recent history as a Federal employee:

He is the former Assistant Secretary for the Private Sector at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, where he served from October 2009 to November 2013. During his tenure, Assistant Secretary Smith was the DHS representative on the President’s Travel and Tourism Advisory Board, the President’s Export Council, the White House Business Council, and the World Economic Forum Risk Officers Community.

Or: "a political appointee who went to a lot of meetings." He is now "the Executive Vice President of MWW, a public relations firm." (His DHS bio is still online and it's a minor example of the revolving door between business and government.)

The op-ed, as previously indicated, is awful. Executive summary/paraphrase:

"Tourism is good. It helps the economy. Before Hillary and I came, tourism was down, because Bush. Hillary and I brought tourism back. Hillary and I talked to many people. Hillary and I saved America by promoting tourism and stopping terrorism. She's running for President, vote for her."

Yes, it's almost that bad. Smith's actual prose seems to come out of the Soundbyte-2000 political boilerplate generator, which I understand you can get off the discount PC software rack at Staples.

Speaking of Hillary: "This kind of smart, pragmatic leadership is just what Americans want and just what America needs from its leaders."

Speaking of Hillary's deep thinking: "Secretary Clinton understood that there was no need to make a false choice between economic and national security and that we can — and must — have both."

Anyone who writes like that thinks his readers are gullible idiots.

But what about Smith's implication that Hillary (and he) managed to lift foreign tourism out of the toilet where it had languished post-9/11?

Here is a one-page PDF from the "National Travel and Tourism Office", part of the Department of Commerce. There is a small graph, which I snipped:

US Visitors and
Spending 1998-2013

Eyeballing, this says: foreign tourism grew throughout 1998-2013, save for recessions (2000, 2008) and terrorism (2001).

Did Hillary and Smith do anything exceptional for foreign travel during their tenure? Not really.

  • Looking at the 2003-2008 (non-Hillary) period, visitor spending went from $80 billion to $140 billion, which works out to be a tad under 12% growth per annum.

  • The Hillary era saw (in 2009-2013) growth from $120 billion to $180 billion. This comes to a bit under 11% per annum.

I'm sure Hill and Smith went to a lot of meetings and talked to a lot of people and went on a lot of fun junkets, but I don't see any evidence that this had any effect on tourism growth, which is riding a long-term growth trend.

A slightly more interesting question is: what possessed Douglas Smith to write this utterly lame op-ed? I suspect there's an effort by Hillary groupies to embellish her record as Secretary of State. Somehow people may have gotten the impression (Libya, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Russia, Ukraine, China, Israel) that her foreign policy ranged from foolhardy to dangerous. Actual accomplishments are hard to find.

By the way: a little Googling finds that Douglas Smith is the son of Marjorie Smith, longtime Durham Democratic pol. (Formerly a state Senator, currently in the House.) Did Doug's mom tell him to write this?

Last Modified 2014-08-05 4:16 PM EDT

Tim's Vermeer

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

A very good documentary about an unlikely subject: a high-tech inventor and entrepreneur, Tim Jenison, decides to duplicate a famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. And (spoiler!) does.

But the details are what makes this interesting. Jenison's background and fortune result from his innovative linking of computers and video, with his inventions in use across the world. But somehow his interest is piqued by an art-history oddity: how did Vermeer accomplish his near-photographic depictions of his subjects, unprecedented in history, and even unusual for its time?

Jenison became acquainted with the theory, explicated by David Hockney and Philip Steadman, that Vermeer was somehow using optical gimmicks to match details and color while he was painting. There's little or nothing in the historical record to back that up, but Jenison starts reverse-engineering a possible mechanism, using only materials and methods that would have been available to Vermeer back in the 17th century Netherlands. After some initial encouraging success, he decides to attempt reproducing The Music Lesson. He duplicates Vermeer's studio in a San Antonio warehouse; he buys props and pigments, and otherwise gets to work.

In the wrong hands, this could have been as interesting as watching paint dry. (Heh.) (And they make that joke in the movie too.)

The nature of Vermeer's genius (artistic or "merely" technical) is apparently still mired in controversy, but the film points out a lot of evidence in the painting pointing to optical wizardry: chromatic aberration, distortion that might have been introduced by a concave mirror in the setup, differences in illumination too subtle for the human eye to pick up itself. I was convinced, but I only heard Tim's side of the story.

The film was produced by the comedy/magic duo of Penn and Teller, with Penn Jillette (a longtime friend of Tim Jenison) providing a lot of narration and Teller directing. Hence, much of the reason Jenison's not just another obsessed geek working on an obscure project is due to piggybacking on Penn and Teller's fame. Which is fine, but makes me wonder: what about all those other guys. Do they have equally interesting stories to tell?

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

The Glass Rainbow

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

Another fine Dave Robicheaux mystery from James Lee Burke.

After his Montana "vacation" in the previous book, Dave investigates a possible serial killer preying on young women in his Louisiana parish. He is intrigued by the story told by an prisoner held up in Mississippi, the brother of one of the victims; he's no prize, but he tells Dave that (unlike the other victims) his sister was no prostitute. And he points his accusatory finger at a local pimp/dealer that Dave has long despised.

Nothing is ever simple though. (It's a long book.) The pimp turns up dead, unfortunately after Dave's friend Clete Purcell has beaten him up and threatened him.

In addition, Dave's daughter Alafair has grown into a young woman; she's moved into the orbit of Kermit, the scion of a local rich family. (And in these books, rich families always have a corrupt and sordid history that leaks malevolently into the present.) Kermit has an ex-con associate who's become a literary success with his tales of his previous life. Dave is appalled, and this drives a heart-breaking wedge between him and Alafair.

For Robicheaux fans, the plot trajectory will not be surprising: Dave is witness to various horrors, Clete's outrageous behavior skates on the edge of self-destruction. What's different in this episode is Dave's increased sense of his own mortality, symbolized by his hallucination of an old river paddlewheel out on the bayou.

A throwaway line reveals that Dave is 70 years old in this book. (Close to the author's own age.) None of us is getting any younger, but I hope to see Dave in a few more yarns.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

Pun Son and I wanted to go see a movie last Friday afternoon. For anyone interested in why the movie business isn't doing that well these days, I can offer a possible explanation: our choices were extremely limited, and we almost called it off.

IMDB reported a lot of movies playing near us. But nearly without exception: sequels to movies which one or the other of us had not seen; critically-reviled R-rated comedies; mostly-mediocre movies aimed squarely at the kiddos.

I wished Edge of Tomorrow were still around, but it wasn't.

So we settled on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes; I'd seen the previous movie, but my son hadn't. I summarized for him: well-meaning scientist develops a way to boost the mental capacities of simians, but things go poorly, and the clever apes split off from humanity to live in a remote Northern California forest.

So in this movie, it's a number of years later, and humanity has been decimated by what's called the "simian flu". A ragtag remnant lives in the ruins of what was once San Francisco. Meanwhile, the supermonkey community has thrived into a growing primitive enclave, living in harmony with nature, blah blah blah. The humans are unaware of Apedom, and Apedom suspects that the humans may have gone extinct.

Trouble brews when a small band of humans are dispatched to try to revive the hydropower generated by a small dam in the apes' territory. The humans and the apes discover each other, and quickly agree to work together to their mutual benefit.

Just kidding! Although the movie delivers generous indications as to how that happy-but-boring result could have happened, mutual distrust, suspicion, and intra-species betrayal eventually cause the situation to fly right into the crapper.

The movie does an excellent job of making all this believable and interesting. Everything works: the actors are all wonderful, especially Andy Serkis as Caesar, the noble ape leader. (I agree with this guy and anyone else who says Serkis deserves an Oscar.) The special monkey effects are jaw-dropping; or they would be if you noticed them as special effects, which you probably don't.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2014-07-17

Screeching toward the end of the week…

  • NR's Phi Beta Cons blog provides a post headlined "Specializing in Unemployment", noting a higher education trendlet: students searching for, and universities offering, "esoteric and niche fields" of study. Second paragraph:

    Well, [students] won’t have to look far for such programs. From “Adventure Education” to a dual major in “EcoGastronomy”—yes it’s a program for environmentally-friendly eating—the list of highly-specific university programs has been growing in recent years. And while these disciplines may sound innovative and exciting, the reality checks that ivory tower over-specialization bump into may tell the story better.

    I normally wouldn't quote that, but the second link in that paragraph goes back to the University Near Here. (The first link goes to another member of the University System of Near Here, Plymouth State University.)

    It's so exciting to have one's employer served up as a Bad Example to a wide readership.

  • It's interesting what you can surmise from the results of Googling a word. For example, when I Google "ecogastronomy", what the results tell me is: "a made-up self-important word that's desperately trying to sell itself to the rest of the world." Most of the top results refer to UNH's program, indicating that the rest of the world may not be that interested.

  • Pun Salad recently examined the decision of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch to remove the column of George F. Will, replacing it with that of Michael Gerson. Gerson seems to be trying his best to convince everyone that was a very bad idea, as in this column bemoaning the expansion of legal weed and gambling. And those pesky libertarians are part of the problem!

    The ideological alliance behind these changes is among the strangest in U.S. politics. Libertarians seek to lift governmental restraints on consensual acts. State governments seek sources of revenue without the political inconvenience of requesting broad tax increases. Both find common ground in encouraging and exploiting the weaknesses and addictions of citizens. (And business interests and their lobbyists, of course, find new ways to profit from reliable vices.)

    At best, Gerson has half an idea here: sin taxes bring in revenue that doesn't have to come from the average taxpayer. But the charge that libertarians want to encourage and exploit "the weaknesses and addictions of citizens" is thoughtless and baseless slander.

    I wouldn't have found that on my own, having given up on Gerson long ago. But I do read Jacob Sullum and he offered up a quick rebuttal: "Michael Gerson Explains Why Libertarians Should Want to Ban Everything".

    By Gerson's logic, a true libertarian would want to criminalize as much commercial activity as possible, the better to starve the beast. The less there is to tax, the smaller government will be, so when all peaceful transactions are banned, we will be living in a libertarian paradise.

    A commenter to Sullum ("John") is also good: "Gerson is a curious breed of moron. It is not that there isn't an element of truth to what he says. It is that he takes that element and manages to derive epically stupid claims."

  • MST3K has been gone since 1999, but Michael J Nelson can still make me laugh:

Last Modified 2019-01-06 6:26 AM EDT

Geek Seeks iPod Song-Shuffling Nirvana

[Note: out of whack with normal Pun Salad content. Feel free to skip, unless you're interested in the kind of mental aberration that causes people to algorithmize everyday issues.]

Ever since I've had one kind of iPod or another, I've been trying to come up with a good algorithm to govern its music selection. Herewith a description of my latest scheme. It assumes some easily-acquired familiarity with iTunes/iPod operations.

Guiding principles and relevant facts:

  • I prefer a random shuffle of songs. Apple has a "genius" feature that, among other things, will create an "aesthetically coherent" playlist of songs (they say) "will sound great together". I don't care about that.

    In fact, I actively don't want that. I kind of like hearing a sweet Linda Ronstadt tear-jerker immediately followed by an ass-kicker from The Who.

    So shoot me. (Also: yes, I'm old.) But this preference makes things easier.

  • But! I do want to hear certain songs more often than others. For whatever reason. I may simply love the song (e.g., "Bernadette" by the Four Tops) and could listen to it every day for the rest of my life. Or it might be new and fresh, just downloaded/purchased.

    Conversely, I might prefer to hear certain songs less often than others, because they are older or less-loved.

    This preference makes things more difficult.

  • My iTunes song collection is much larger (about 40 GB) than the space available for songs on my primary iPod (an older Nano, about 7.22 GB). So I need to cycle a subset of iTunes library songs onto the iPod when it syncs. It would be nice if songs that have been recently played were replaced with songs not-so-recently played; that way, everything gets heard eventually. [See update below.]

The iPod/iTunes system has a simple way of representing song preference: the rating, which can be 1-5 stars. (Songs can also be unrated.) So let's say I rate all the songs in my library (and, going forward, remember to rate any new incoming songs).

This reduces the problem to: how do I insure higher-rated songs get played more frequently, while still keeping things simple?

Initial vague answer: keep more of my high-rated songs on the iPod than low-rated songs. A simple song shuffle will play the high-rated songs more often, simply because there are more of them.

Duh, right?

To firm this up, let's do some simple math. Let pn be the probability of playing a song with an n-star rating. So we have:

p5 + p4 + p3 + p2 + p1 = 1

And the "play higher-rated songs more frequently" implies that:

p5 > p4 > p3 > p2 > p1

The values I'm using are

( p5, p4, p3, p2, p1 ) = ( 13, 415, 15, 215, 115 )

Those numbers are arbitrary and could change (within the above constraints), but (modulo randomness) they say: out of a shuffle of 15 songs, it's expected 5 songs will be 5-star, 4 will be 4-star, 3 will be 3-star, 2 will be 2-star, and 1 will be 1-star. (This seems to work for me in practice.)

[Aside, added a couple of days later: it's an arithmetic progression, where each rating-star increases the play probability by a fixed amount. One could also imagine a geometric progression, where the play probability gets increased by a fixed factor. For example, if we wanted each rating star to double the play probability, we'd have:

( p5, p4, p3, p2, p1 ) = ( 1631, 831, 431, 231, 131 )

Nothing magic about that either. It's all about what produces a mix that "sounds right" to you. End of aside. On with the show:]

How do we make that happen? Surprisingly easy!

I created 5 smart playlists: "Nano1", "Nano2", …, "Nano5", one for each rating. The math described above enters when we define each list:

Suppose we want to store a total of N songs on the iPod. (For my Nano, a conservative choice for N is 900.) Simply populate each playlist with songs having the corresponding n-star Rating, but limit it to N * pn items.

Consider "Nano3": the p3 probability is 15, so the playlist should be limited to

900 * 15 = 180 items.

And that translates into the smart playlist definition:

smart playlist nano3

The "least recently played" criterion is not that important (at least not to me), but it insures that the songs in the library will get sync'ed out to the iPod sooner than they might if we were to rely on a random selection. [Oops. See update below.]

To keep things uncluttered, I put these five playlists into a Playlist Folder named "Nano".

And finally (finally!), I plugged in my Nano, and specified that it should sync from the aforementioned "Nano" folder. Looks like this: NanoSync spec

All done!

Going forward: if I happen to notice that a certain song isn't getting played enough, or getting played too often, it's easy to raise/lower its rating to increase/decrease the probability it will get played. And if I decide I don't want my iPod to play a song ever again, I can de-rate it (or more drastically, delete it.)

I'm not sure whether I should be admired or pitied, but I'm happy with the setup, and maybe someone out there with the same geeky compulsion will find inspiration here.

PS: this was inspired by Jamie Zawinski's (apparently failing) efforts to come up with an iTunes playlist solution to match his desires. Fortunately, my desires were far less complex than his. And I recognized I could satisfy them even with iTunes doing (as Jamie puts it) "the stupidest possible thing."

Update 2014-08-14: I noticed a couple things:

  • I was implicitly assuming that the "least recently played" criterion would select randomly from any songs that had never been played. Instead, it seemed to pick songs from artists that were alphabetically last in the library.

    I had a lot of songs that had never been played, because I'd recently done a mass-rip of my CD collection. So I noticed my iPod playing a lot of Who, Van Morrison, T-Bone Walker, and Talking Heads, but no Beatles, Beach Boys, Band, Billy Joel, …. Kind of a fail.

  • So I switched from "least recently played" to "random" on my playlists. And ran into another minor gotcha. iTunes will generate a random smart playlist once when you specify its criteria. The playlist is not regenerated when you use it to sync your iPod. So you don't get any new songs swapped in.

    That's not a huge deal. You just need to re-randomize the playlist: display it, select-all, and press Delete. The songs are removed, and a fresh set are generated.

  • OR you can add a new date-based criteria to the playlist rule. For example:

    new smart playlist nano3

    This will select randomly, but the date criterion will force it to automatically update the playlist when a device syncs (which updates the last-played information).

    I think so anyway. We'll see.

Last Modified 2014-08-14 10:20 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2014-07-14

With the heat index sneaking toward 90°…

  • I mentioned previously that I was of mixed feelings about immigration policy, but leaning negative toward the current "comprehensive" proposals. That said, Kevin D. Williamson seems to have a very sensible take on things, as he usually does. A key point:

    Where the national government acts to establish rules and standards for immigration, it must first establish the controlling criterion, answering the question of what it intends to accomplish through its immigration policies. While some governments may be liberal in the sense that Robert Frost understood the term — too broadminded to take their own side in a fight — the government of the United States is generally expected to act in the interest of the people of the United States. Sometimes it engages in humanitarian efforts in service to a consistently ungrateful world, but its controlling principle is the national interest of the United States.

    This is number two of seven points, and they all seem unassailable. Check it out.

  • A. Barton Hinkle advises a cooling off:

    Reaction to Supreme Court decisions generally falls into two camps: (a) The court wisely followed the Constitution, legal precedent, first principles, logic, and sensible jurisprudence, or (b) WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!

    Reaction B was on full view after the Hobby Lobby decision, in which the Supreme Court held that some companies could cite religious objections to avoid complying with a federal contraception mandate. The New Yorker offered a typically measured and thoughtful response: “When the Taliban Meets Hobby Lobby,” which was based on the extremely realistic premise that the Taliban would move to the U.S., set up a closely held corporation, and then file suit to avoid having to pay insurance coverage for polio vaccinations.

    Don't freak out, he advises. But when does that ever stop people from freaking out?

  • Dave Barry reveals (in the WSJ) why "Gloria" is, well…

    I think one of the greatest works of music ever written—and I include Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in this category—is Van Morrison's "Gloria."

    The brilliance of this song is evident from the opening lyrics:

    "Like to tell you 'bout my baby, you know she comes around;

    Just about 5 feet 4, from her head to the ground."

    Right away, you know exactly what this song is about. It's about a woman who is approximately 5 feet, 4 inches, measured vertically, as opposed to horizontally. So you can assume she is reasonably fit.

    Musicologists, take note.

    Also, I should add that today's Getty illustration is one of the top results when you search for "Gloria" there. So it's not just gratuitous beauty, and she looks like she could be about 5 feet 4 from her head to the ground. [I may have to peruse the picture further to be really confident about that.]

  • Dave also accepted a suggestion I sent him with gracious credit.

    KANSAS CITY, Mo. —A man wearing a cowboy hat and a dress was arrested in Salina, Kansas, after leading police on a strange high-speed pursuit on Saturday.

    The perpetrator is from New Hampshire, and you know how we get a little wild when we're out of town.

Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:28 AM EDT

The Valley of Fear

[Amazon Link]
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Continuing my project of re-reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes yarns… This is billed as a novel, but it's pretty short, and (in fact) is actually two longish stories, connected by a thin thread. But that's OK.

The first story kicks off when Sherlock is warned, via a mysterious encrypted note, that the crime syndicate led by the villainous Moriarty has designs on one "Douglas", at Birlstone Manor. (So it's set pre-Reichenbach Falls.) Near-immediately after Holmes and Watson decode the note, a Scotland Yard inspector shows up with news of a grisly crime: Mr. Douglas of Birlstone Manor has taken a couple sawed-off shotgun blasts to the cranial region, and it's quite a mess.

So Holmes and Watson head off to Birlstone Manor, and are confronted with the usual set of clues, suspects behaving oddly, and clueless cops. But (hopefully not a spoiler) Holmes cracks the case theatrically.

The second (Sherlock-free) story is a 20-years-previous prequel, set in the mid-1870s in a Pennsylvania coal-mining valley. This is the titular "Valley of Fear", as it is controlled by a particularly nasty organized crime ring through murder, extortion, and terror. It's very much plus ça change territory: not too much different than Whitey Bulger in South Boston, a century later, or Boyd Crowder in Harlan County Kentucky, a few decades after that.

The most notable thing in the second half is the overwriting. I found myself thinking: if Edward Bulwer-Lytton were reading this before publication, he'd probably say "Gee, Art. Don't you think you need to tone this down a bit?" But it's good fun for a short read, and Doyle really does convey the grime and squalor of that time and place.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

Worthless Immigration Poll (and Why Jennifer Rubin Irritates Me At Times)

I have a weak, leaning negative, opinion on immigration "reform". People I like are on both sides. Mostly they have decent arguments.

But the pro-"reform" side is getting desperate, seeing their "comprehensive" legislation going nowhere, and desperate people make progressively poorer arguments.

Case in point is a recent "Right Turn" blog post from Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post's designated right-winger. The title: "Immigration polling tells Congress to act". All it's missing is an exclamation point. Act, Congress, act!

Jennifer's post presents the results of a recent poll carried out by Harper Polling, sponsored by groups who would like the stalemated legislation passed: Partnership for a New American Economy (PNAE), the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers. Compare with PNAE's press release, which has links to the detailed poll results (to which I refer below). Jennifer echoes this consortium's talking points with zero skepticism. Skepticism is certainly warranted by a poll that just happens to support the legislative goals of its sponsors. (And, not coincidentally, coincides with Jennifer's own preferences.)

Jennifer also flings drive-by spitball insults at the opponents of the legislation: they are "loud but in the distinct minority". Their worries that Obama can't be trusted to implement and enforce the border security measures mandated in the bill? That's an "excuse for not acting" and it "is not fooling anyone." Her clear implication is that the other side is acting in bad faith, and rudely to boot.

Jennifer finds one poll result portentious:

The survey of likely voters finds, for example, that the vast majority of voters believe the system is in need of fixing.  86% of Republicans believe Congress should take action to fix the immigration system. 79% of Independents agree.

One of the least meaningful polling questions ever is to ask the respondents whether something obviously dysfunctional should be "fixed". And make no mistake: the question generating the response that so impresses Jennifer was just that vague:

When thinking of the issue of immigration, do you believe the United States immigration system is functioning the way it should or is in need of fixing?

Arrgh. Again, who is against something being "fixed"? The amazing thing is the 7% of respondents who said the system is "functioning the way it should". (Another 8% were "not sure".)

But it is fallacious to imagine that the pro-fix "vast" majority even agree on what needs to be "fixed" in immigration policy, let alone what tactics should be adopted to "fix" it. The poll implies a false near-unanimity where none exists.

(Similarly for "reform", which the poll asks about too. Unsurprisingly, everyone's for "reform". Because doesn't reform, by definition, "fix" things?)


As for the substance of reform the so-called principles set out by House leadership — secure our borders, expand visas for high-skill workers and farm workers, provide an employer verification program, allow DREAMers to earn citizenship, and provide visas to live and work here legally to undocumented immigrants without a criminal record who pay penalties and back taxes – get support from 60 percent of voters.

Sorry, Jennifer, but that's at best an arguable conclusion. Here's the actual poll question:

Would you support or oppose an immigration reform plan that secures our borders, expands visas for high-skill workers and farm workers, provides an employer verification program, allows young persons brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents an opportunity to earn citizenship, and provides visas to live and work here legally to undocumented immigrants without a criminal record who pay penalties and back taxes?

The options are: Strongly support; Somewhat support; Somewhat opppose; Strongly oppose; and Not sure. What I noticed (and PNAE/Jennifer did not mention): Only 32% of the respondents picked "Strongly support".

So, suppose you only strongly support securing our (manifestly insecure) borders, and don't care about or oppose that other stuff? Is it plausible that you might average things out and pick "Somewhat support" from that list of options? I think so.

A more meaningful result would have been obtained if the pollsters asked a series of questions about the support/opposition for each individual element of the so-called comprehensive reform. I suspect the support for "secure our borders" would be vastly higher than for the other measures. And I further suspect that's precisely why the pro-"reform" group didn't pose the questions that way: they knew they wouldn't get the answers they wanted.

Jennifer/PNAE's purpose, of course, is to convey a sense of panicked urgency among House Republicans to push the legislation through ASAP. So the funny thing is the response to the poll question they are not publicizing:

Which of the following issues is most important in deciding how you will vote for Congress this year: The Economy, Jobs, Spending, Obamacare, Immigration, National Security, Taxes, or Moral issues like abortion and gay marriage?

"Immigration" is such an important issue, it came in at a solid fifth place:

[poll results 1]

OK, so people are really concerned with other stuff. But surely if we ask them:

And, what is the NEXT most important issue to you?

… we'll find that more people will mention immigration, right?

Well, no. Still in fifth place:

[poll results 2]

So (executive summary) 84% of the likely-voter poll respondents did not rank immigration in their top two issues in judging how to vote for Congress in the upcoming election. You wouldn't expect supporters of immigration legislation to promote that result, and they don't. And neither does Jennifer Rubin.

[Note: I posted a comment on Jennifer's blog, but it got flooded out quickly by an array of commenters that hate Republicans and/or Jennifer. So you get my revised and extended comments here instead, sorry.]

Last Modified 2014-08-06 9:30 AM EDT

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
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I was somewhat surprised at how much I liked this movie. The overall critical reaction was mediocre. The IMDB raters have it as a ho-hum 7.4 (as I type). But (apparently) the movie plucked all my emotional strings, so there you go. It stars Ben Stiller (who also directed) as Walter, and he's dead solid perfect.

It's based on the classic short story by James Thurber. As in the story, Walter is prone to zoning out while he daydreams various scenarios where he's movie-hero brave, capable, and witty. ("Women want him, men want to be him.") In the short story, that's pretty much it. In the movie, this results in a couple hilarious scenes, but it's only the beginning.

Movie Walter is not Thurber's henpecked husband; instead, he's a middle-aged schlub working as a "Negative Assets Manager" for Life magazine. There's a play on words there, but what he does is take care of the photographic negatives in the Life archives.

Walter has no nagging wife, but has other problems: Life (in this sorta-alternate universe) is about to publish its last dead-trees issue. Legendary photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn) has submitted what he claims is the perfect photo for the final issue's cover, but the negative (O'Connell is a dinosaur who still shoots on film) has gone missing. The boss appointed to oversee Life's demise is a sneering bully and makes Walter personally responsible for getting the picture.

Walter is also infatuated with new employee Cheryl (Kristen Wiig); he has a complicated plan to arrange a "meet cute" through a computer-matching site, but the total lack of anything interesting in his life is defeating the site's matching algorithm.

Walter gulps hard, and sets out on a mission to track down the elusive O'Connell and his missing picture. This turns out to present awesome globe-trotting challenges, and Walter must use his (previously only fantasized) bravery and wits in real life.

Bottom line: very funny, but also quite touching.

I have to mention this sentence from movie's the Wikipedia entry:

Later sequences set in Stykkishólmur were actually filmed in Seyðisfjörður.

… lest you be misled.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

The Lunchbox

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

A very nice little Indian movie; Netflix correctly predicted I'd like it. It's built on a romantic comedy premise, but the structure is mostly dramatic. Although there are some very funny bits. Got that? OK, let's proceed.

Saajan is a widower, old, lonely, a bureaucrat on the verge of retirement from his soul-deadening job processing insurance claims. Ila is a housewife with a young daughter and neglectful husband. One day she puts an extra effort into making hubby's lunch, an array of tasty courses, packed into a tiered tiffin.

Apparently this is a thing in India: a service (called a Dabbawala) delivers your lunch to your desk. But wires get crossed somehow: Saajan gets the tiffin meant for Ila's husband, and Ila's husband gets the tiffin from Saajan's provider. When lunch is over the service works in reverse, returning the tiffin to its origin.

The mixup persists over time, and Saajan and Ila start corresponding through notes placed in the tiffin. Perfunctory at first, but they soon start to exchanging personal details and confidences.

In addition, Saajan's impending retirement gets him a trainee, Shaikh. Shaikh is initially your worst racist stereotype of the unctious Indian. (But it's OK, because… well, I'm not sure why it's OK.) Saajan initially treats Shaikh with ill-concealed contempt. But there's more there than meets the eye, and their relationship develops interestingly as well.

Interesting: many of the actors shift between speaking Hindi and English within a scene. I guess this is also something Indians do? At least according to this WSJ blog post, that's the "conversational style of many urban Indians". As you might guess, the there's a controversy.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

The Ringworld Throne

[Amazon Link]
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Well, that was disappointing. Larry Niven and I have grown apart. It's hard to know who's more to blame. I'd like to think it's him.

The Ringworld Throne, written in 1996, is the third in the Ringworld series. Set after the events of number two, The Ringworld Engineers, it follows further adventures of Louis Wu, with his Kzin and Puppeteer co-explorers. In the previous book, the Ringworld was saved from running into its own star, but at what Wu thinks was a grievous loss of life. Hominids have also populated various ecological niches, evolving different appearances, intelligences, and survival strategies. (There's a Wikipedia page devoted to listing and describing them.) They engage in rishathra, hanky-panky between subspecies. And we follow some of them too.

Part of the problem: I'm pretty sure that I lost track of what exactly the plot was about while reading the book. Why are they doing this? What's the point? I had no idea. Could I maybe figure it out by backtracking and rereading? Probably. Maybe. Do I want to do that? No.

So I've removed the fourth Ringworld novel, Ringworld's Children from my to-be-read pile.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

The Outer Limits of Reason

[Amazon Link]
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A very readable and interesting book by Brooklyn College professor Noson Yanofsky. Although his page pegs him in the "Department of Computer and Information Science" there, the book shows that he's pretty good in physics, math, and logic too. Some of the chapters are based on lecture notes from a course he gives. The book's subtitle is: "What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us". You might suspect that what's upcoming is mystical handwaving, but no. Professor Yanofsky's musings are all pretty well grounded in real science, so good on him.

I don't remember why this went on my virtual to-be-read pile, but I had to wait until it came off the course reserve list at the Physics Library of the University Near Here. Someone else has a high opinion of it as well.

The book is a series of semi-independent topics, and each can be read by a bright teenager with a decent grounding in science and math. (I remember getting introduced to some of these ideas as a seventh-grader by the 1946 book, One Two Three … Infinity by George Gamow.) It is (therefore) somewhat of a hodgepodge, but a very entertaining one, romping through a host of counter-intuitive, paradoxical, mind-boggling areas. A random sampling: the two-slit interference experiment; the Monty Hall problem; the Travelling Salesman problem; the Halting problem; Gödel's Proof; Cantor's different types of infinity; Russel's Set Paradox.

And more, much more. I kept imagining that Yanofsky might be the type of guy who would punctuate each amazing revelation with a wide-eyed challenge to the reader: "Did I just blow your mind?"

Then on page 175, I see: "There are ideas and concepts here that are counterintuitive and will blow your mind!" Yeah, he probably is that type of guy.

I was slightly disappointed to not see any discussion of my late friend Ken Appel's proof of the Four-Color Theorem, which (at the time) was only achievable through a considerable number of computerized operations, unachievable by a human mind in finite time. Is that cheating?

Also absent (unless I missed it) is my standard sophomore dorm-room topic: what cosmic truths are beyond the reach of humans because we're simply not smart enough to see them? Dogs are pretty smart, but there's never been one that could solve even the simplest quadratic equation. What are the limits to our intelligence, and how could we tell if we were bumping up against them? Could we tell if we were bumping up against them? (Can a dog "get" the fact that mathematics is out of his intellectual ballpark?)

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

Lone Survivor

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I don't think I've ever made a recommendation like this: every adult American should see this movie. In a democracy, we are ultimately responsible for sending young men to foreign countries to engage in deadly, dangerous activities; we should know something about who they are and what they do. You won't easily find a better learning experience than this movie. The IMDB parental guide uses the phrase "hard to watch" four times; that's exactly why you should.

The title (and the movie's opening scenes) tell you everything about how this movie ends: Marcus Luttrell, played by Mark Wahlberg, is the only one in his Navy SEAL unit who returns alive from a 2005 mission in Afghanistan.

The SEALs are a close-knit team, and we're shown how that happens: training that's close to torture, new-guy hazing, physical competition, zero privacy. Nobody's a loner, everyone gets advice on stuff like what color to paint the kitchen back home, or whether a prospective groom can afford to buy his fiancée a fancy horse as a wedding present.

Marcus and three comrades are picked to locate/capture/kill a particularly dangerous Taliban commander, Ahmad Shah. They're dropped in at nighttime from a helicopter, and they make their way to an outlook above the village where Shah is suspected to be. Through sheer bad luck they are discovered by some civilian goat-herders. Rules of combat say: let 'em go, and they do. Communications are flaky enough to prevent a quick exit from the area, and the team is quickly located by a lot of Taliban.

What follows is horrible.

Director/writer Peter Berg made this movie after reading Luttrell's memoirs; although he clearly means to honor the servicemen and their sacrifices, he scrupulously avoids politics, letting the situation and the events speak for themselves.

Last Modified 2024-01-27 5:36 AM EDT

Seth v. Supremes

Little did anyone realize the impact of a simple Tweet:

Shortly after Rogen's analysis appeared, Chief Justice John Roberts called an emergency Supreme Court session to consider its merits. Within eight minutes, the justices decided unanimously to reverse its ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.

Speaking for the nine Justices, Roberts explained: "Mr. Rogen has devised a powerful and yet simple test for legal analysis: it should not be legal to be an asshole, and all you need to determine this is not to be an asshole yourself."

"This will eliminate a lot of painstaking work in sifting through the Constitution, enacted legislation, and mountains of judicial precedents, " Roberts said. "Frankly, all that work was getting to be pretty tedious. Some nights I even took documents home to study in my office. I could have been watching Superbad instead."

Justice Samuel Alito, author of the original court opinion, was contrite. "You know, I went to Yale Law School; I was on the Court of Appeals for 15 years; I've been a Supreme Court justice since 2006. And I swear I worked really hard writing that 49-page decision."

"But I totally missed the 'assholes' factor that Seth Rogen pointed out," Alito continued. "To be fair, it didn't come up in the arguments on either side. But if it's that obvious to a pot-addled Canadian high school dropout, it really seems like something we should have noticed ourselves."

"Mea Culpa," Alito concluded, lapsing into legalese.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author of the dissenting opinion in Hobby Lobby, was also nonplussed. "OK, so I only went to Columbia Law School, not fancy-shmancy Yale. OK, so I only wrote a 35-page dissent, not 49. But I checked, and the word "asshole" isn't in my opinion at all. It was my job to notice things like that, and I just totally blew it."

"It's no excuse," Justice Ginsburg added, "But it's probably because I don't smoke nearly as much marijuana as Seth Rogen does. I'll try to up my game next term."

The assembled justices also decided that, beginning next term, all attorneys appearing before the Court would need to certify that they had viewed and enjoyed (at minimum) the Rogen films You, Me and Dupree, Drillbit Taylor, The Guilt Trip, Observe and Report, and The Green Hornet.

"Otherwise," Justice Elena Kagan pointed out, "How can we be sure you're not an asshole?"

Last Modified 2018-03-05 4:40 AM EDT