Thursday, January 28, 2010

Brief Political Aside

Following Sarah Palin's selection as John McCain's running mate, there were a lot of people who argued that the very inclusion of Palin on the ticket provided case-closed evidence that McCain was not fit for office. This argument was normally built around Palin's thin record of public service and/or Palin's private character.

So how the John Edwards revelations are particularly striking, because not only is he a liar/adulterer/etc., but he comes off, at least in Andrew Young's telling, as a borderline psychopath. Coupled with his incredibly thin record of accomplishment, doesn't that make his inclusion on the Democratic ticket in 2004 an automatic disqualifier for John Kerry?

I understand that not everyone knew in 2004 that Edwards was such a monster, so I'd be completely satisfied with Palin-haters who are willing to retro-spectively disqualify Kerry.

More on the iPad

People keep telling me how smart Tyler Cowen is, so he must be. Still, writing about the iPad he says,

In the longer run the iPad will compete with your university, or in some ways enhance your university. It will offer homework services and instructional videos and courses, none of which can work well on the current iPhone or Kindle. The device also seems to allow for collaborative use.

Can you imagine one attached to every hospital bed or in the hands of every doctor and nurse?

In the longer run? I don't think it's obvious that, in the longer run, the iPad will exist any more meaningfully than the Cube or the Mac Mini does. To simply assert that a 24-hour-old piece of equipment is going to compete with the university . . . My goodness.

And as for how the iPad will revolutionize medical care, isn't this already happening, sans iPad? For the last couple years, two of the three doctors' offices I frequent have been using really sexy, mini-netbooks for all docs, nurses, and assistants. They have touch screens and seem to contain medical records, patient intake information, prescription information, etc. Perhaps an iPad could add marginal benefits to an already improving system, but this isn't the invention of the wheel.

Don't get me wrong: I think the iPad looks like a neat toy. And with a medium-sized list of improvements and modifications it could be made even better. But let's not get carried away by the Steve-o-mania.

Exit question: I saw that Al Gore was in the front row at the Apple event yesterday. I wonder what the carbon footprint of that entire show was--including transportation for guests, lighting,etc. I hear that the internet and technology is so amazing these days, that Jobs could have just sat in his office and streamed the whole spiel over the web without incurring any unnecessary carbon expenditures.

I mean, I wouldn't be concerned about these little nickel-and-dime C's except that the planet is under imminent threat of cataclysm. So you would think that every little bit counts, no?

In Defense of the Empire (cont.)

I like Cliff Chiang's work a ton (particularly his Green Arrow/Black Canary stuff), but I hadn't seen this before today: It's Chiang's Star Wars Imperial propaganda posters. Solid Gold.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Who will be first to buy the Newton II iPad?

Just asking. Notice how delightfully bitchy Wired is being about the new toy:

10:21 Mark McClusky notes: In the web demo, you could see a broken plugin icon on NYTimes site. Does that mean there’s no Adobe Flash support on iPad?

Updated thoughts: Two Galley Friends immediately likened it to the mostly-forgotten Cube. That's a little tough. But maybe not wrong. My own first-blush reaction was, Hey, they made an iPhone Touch DX!

And isn't that really what the iPad is? At least for now? With nothing more than the iPhone OS, it's a super-slick smart-phone/Kindle/netbook hybrid. Only it lacks a smartphone's portability, the Kindle's readability, and the netbook's power. For me, this last bit is the killer. Unless I'm missing something, you can't word-process on it, except for in-browser applications, like Google Docs. If you could power Word into it--or even the Apple knock-off--it might be versatile enough to carry around on reporting trips. But even then, the iPhone OS's inability to keep multiple applications running at the same time seems goes from being a minor annoyance to a crippling short-coming.

All of this isn't to say that a second-generation iPad might not be killer. If it had: (1) A camera to facilitate video-conferencing; (2) A beefed-up OS enabling it to run multiple applications simultaneously; (3) A real-deal word processing application allowing you to do actual work on it for hours at a stretch--then, I could see dropping $500, or even $650 on it to have as a travel accessory.

But even then, it's a twilight device. Without built-in cellular service, it can't replace your iPhone and I don't think it'll ever replace either your laptop or desktop machine. Do people need a third computer in their lives? A computer that is really only useful for short stretches of time, ie, travel? Maybe. Maybe not.

More thoughts on this tomorrow, but other items of note:

* Amazon breathes a sigh of relief, no? With just an LED screen, the iPad can't compete with the Kindle's ink, and can't be taken as a serious challenge to dedicated eReaders.

Bonus D&D Goodness

Galley Friend B.W. sends along this link to a three-sided die.

Surely The Pig needs one.

Andrew Young and the Democratic Party

Reading through the money shots of the Andrew Young book, only one thought crosses my mind: Hillary Clinton must be pissed.

No D&D in Prison!

Galley Brother B.J. sends along this excellent story about a 7th Circuit ruling on a Wisconsin prison's rule prohibiting Dungeons & Dragons play by inmates:

The prison’s rationale for the ban is that playing D&D might stimulate “gang activity” by inmates. But the government conceded that there is no evidence that Dungeons and Dragons actually had stimulated gang activity in the past, either in this prison or elsewhere. The only evidence for the supposedly harmful effects of Dungeons and Dragons were a few cases from other states where playing the game supposedly led inmates to indulge in “escapism” and become divorced from reality, one case where two non-inmates committed a crime in which they “acted out” a D&D story-line, and one where a longtime D&D player (not an inmate) committed suicide. Obviously, almost any hobby or reading material might lead people to become divorced from reality, or in rare cases commit suicide. And disturbed individuals could potentially “act out” a crime based on a scenario in almost any film or literary work. Should prisons ban The Count of Monte Cristo on the grounds that it might encourage escape attempts? Moreover, the “escapism” rationale conflicts with the gang argument. People who become engrossed in escapism and retreat from society are presumably less likely to become active gang members.

That said, the Seventh Circuit decision may well be legally correct. It is based on the highly deferential standard under which most prison regulations are to be upheld against constitutional challenge so long as they are “rationally related” to some legitimate goal of prison administration. And, as lawyers know, when courts apply such a “rational basis” test, that usually means that almost anything goes. The test is mandated by Supreme Court precedent, and the Seventh Circuit judges had little choice but to follow it.

Plus, as we all know, a 50-sided die can easily be used as a weapon.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Kubrick, The Shining, and the Faked Moon Landing

Santino has the greatest conspiracy theory ever: It theorizes that the moon landing was faked; that Stanley Kubrick filmed the fakery at the behest of the U.S. government; and that The Shining was Kubrick's secret confession.

Fire up the awesome.

Brief Political Aside

Now that health care reform seems mostly dead, I wonder whether or not--as a political matter--it ultimately helps President Obama. One suspects that legislation of the type which Congress almost sent to the president might have done the broader economy some measure of harm. At least that was one of the main arguments against it. So what happens if, in the medium-term future, America enters a period of economic recovery?

On the face of it, that would be very good news for Obama. Hard to imagine him winning reelection if the economy--in particular employment--hasn't gone a good deal of the way toward 2007 levels by 2012.

But on the other hand, what does it say about the president if the economy enters a period of broad recovery without his healthcare reform having been passed? You'll recall that in his big February 2009 address he claimed that passing three giant legislative re-orderings of the American economy, in healthcare, energy, and education, was critical to recovery, and that without these initiatives, America would be crippled. If none of these initiatives pass, and yet the economy recovers anyway, surely that says something about the president.

Friday, January 22, 2010

More on Leno and Conan

Confused about exactly what went down on NBC over the last couple of weeks? Here's a Chinese news, CGI video explaining the whole thing.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Viva the 'Nam

So what if someone shot a full-length, stop-motion movie about Vietnam, using G.I. Joe figures?

And there it is: "I can make a sissy hard, but the only thing I can make a Commie is dead!"

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just Asking

Jonathan Cohn at TNR knows just how to pass health care reform:

For all of the panic in Democratic ranks right now, the reality of the situation is stunningly simple. In the span of twenty-four hours, the House of Representatives--the House in which Democrats command a huge majority, in which liberals actually have some sway, and in which leadership actually has power--could put health care reform on the president's desk for signing.

One lousy vote. One lousy, stinking roll call vote. That's the only hurdle in the way of health care reform.

Put the merits aside for a moment. As a political matter, it's awfully easy for Cohn to say. After all, he isn't going to lose his job in November if it turns out that voters are more inclined to vote against a member who supported a package that passed as opposed to a member who supported a package that failed.

Brief Political Aside

All the face of the world is changed . .

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

* How many times do you think the phrase "and let the chips fall where they may" was used on JournoList over the last 48 hours?

* The Olympics. The Copenhagen climate summit. Corzine. Deeds. Coakley. That President Obama is one heck of a persuader. A master politician, even! Good thing he keeps his enormous persuasive powers bottled up and doesn't toss them around willy-nilly.

* Martha Coakley must be thinking to herself, Two years ago Al Franken wins while running as a hot-headed, leftist jerk against a serious Republican incumbent in a battleground state and the White House says this is my fault? Hey, D-Axe, I got two words for you: Suck it.

* How long until we're confronted with the terrible racism of the American people again? I mean, it was nice that it went away for a little while, but clearly, it's back. (It's not just the Mass. voters' rejection of Obama's health care plan--look at poor Harold Ford.)

* Let Obama be Obama? There's nothing in the president's background to suggest that he's going to change course, politically. Like George W. Bush, he's one of those fellows who always seems to luck into success. Like Bush, someone was always standing nearby waiting to give Obama a gold star and pass him along up the ladder. And I suspect that, like Bush, he unshakeably believes that one way or another things will work out just fine for him, because they always have in the past.

And they just might. After all, they worked out fine for Bush. Sure, President Bush shipwrecked his party, but he didn't pay any personal consequences for his failures. Other people picked up that check. Obama might be able to pull off the same feat.

* If Republicans would like to deny him a second term, however, one piece of advice: Do not win Congress in November!

This shouldn't be hard. As bad as things are for the Donks, Republicans probably have too much ground to make up in either chamber. But you never know. If, in late October, it looks like they might take the House (or even the Senate), some candidate should fall on his sword and claim a crippling addiction to crush videos or something, leaving the GOP just shy of a majority.

Update: This talk about Scott Brown running for president is ridiculous. Sure, he's been a state senator and now he's a U.S. Senator, but what kind of resumé is that? He hasn't even written one autobiography!

Update II: Boy, that was fast.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Where's the Hart Foundation?

Ever think to yourself, "Man, if only MMA had tag teams . . . That would be sweet . . ."

P.S.: Fast forward to the 8:00 mark to see the all-in, two-on-two overtime session.

Maybe David Bradley should just get ADT?

Someone keeps stealing his money.

Remember when Andrew Sullivan was crowing about being "the most popular one-man political blog site in the world"?

Well, it turns out that he doesn't run a one-man blog. He has a staff--and not only do they help administer it, but they post under Sullivan's name.

Also, he probably isn't the most popular political one-man blog site in the world.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Iceland and the Wolf

Elsewhere I have a short post on Iceland's latest very bad problem, which is mostly a link to a Martin Wolf essay over in the FT.

All of which is an excuse to point to this worthwhile TNR profile of Wolf from last September.

As Always, Late to Everything

Stumbled across the game Braid the other day, available for Mac or PC (and on consoles), and with a very generous free demo you can download.

Imagine if Super Mario Bros. had been designed by Stephen Hawking and Claude Monet.


Thursday, January 14, 2010

Obligatory Conan/Tonight Show Post

I don't have a dog in this fight--I've never seriously watched late-night TV and I don't find any of the characters who populate it particularly funny. The entire enterprise seems like more of an infomercial for the celebrity-industrial complex than actual entertainment.

That said, I'm a little surprised by roundly-recorded shock and objection to the way Conan O'Brien is being treated. This isn't to say that he isn't being treated shabbily--he is. But how did everyone think this movie was going to end? Conan wanted to replace Jay Leno, who was doing the #1 rated show in his slot and who wasn't ready to be replaced. Jeff Zucker and NBCU worked out a plan that would move Conan into that slot and keep Leno from moving to another network by putting his show into primetime five nights a week.

This was, at the time, an incredibly risky move. And so, if you're Conan and it's 2008 and you see that Leno has a clause in his contract where he gets paid $80M if his show fails and NBC decides to cancel it, and you only get $60M if you get canned, you'd have to be blind not to realize that there are only two likely outcomes. (1) Leno's show succeeds and everyone lives happily ever after. (2) Leno's show fails, he moves back to 11:30 and you're the odd-man out. That's the price you pay for moving in on Leno before he's ready to walk.

From the moment NBC announced that Leno's prime-time experiment was over it was pretty obvious that the endgame here involved getting Conan out. Every move NBC has made seems designed to simply reduce the payout they'll be sending his way. They've created a scenario which he's unlikely to accept (a 12:05 start-time), but in such a manner as to force him to be the one to breach his contract. Conan's own statement seems designed to lay the predicate for alleging that NBC is the one breaching their contract--he's alleging that The Tonight Show after midnight is not The Tonight Show. This is a legal, not a semantic, argument.

The only real questions are: (1) How much will NBC pay Conan? (2) How long will Conan be required to stay off the air?

Some Advice for Scott Ritter

Galley Friend M.G. notes that Scott Ritter has been caught soliciting sex from a minor on the internet for the second time!

Let me let you in on a little secret: Only 50% of the "14-year-old girls" online looking for sex with 45-year-old guys are police officers. That's the good news. The bad news (for Ritter & Co.) is that the other 50% are FBI agents.

Monday, January 11, 2010

All Hail the New Media

Galley Friend Tucker Carlson has launched The Daily Caller. May it last longer than Talk and Culture11 combined.

Big selling points so far: TDC is providing platforms for two of my heroes: A video from the supremely talented Billy Cerveny and a regular advice column from Matt Labash.

Can't go wrong with either one.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Brief Political Aside

It occurs to me that the passengers aboard Northwest Flight 253 saved Obama's presidency. If Abdulmutallab had succeeded in blowing up the plane, and it then became known that the government knew he was on the flight, but had simply decided to question him after he landed . . .

Well, let's just say that I don't think we'd talk about anything else for the next three years and I doubt there are very many circumstances that would have been able to align to bring about his re-election.

If Obama winds up as a two-term president with a grand, historical record, it will be in large part because a group of anonymous patriots kept a very large dog from barking.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Return of Red Letter Media!

In case you missed my Christmas present to you, Red Letter Media has posted new hotness: A trailer for his review of Attack of the Clones:

I cannot wait.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

About Sherlock Holmes

Back when Snatch was released, Brad Pitt predicted that one day Guy Ritchie would re-invent the Western. Maybe. With Sherlock Holmes, however, Ritchie has re-invented the buddy-cop movie. And it's kind of awesome.

There's a lot to like about Ritchie's Holmes--how he structures it like a series of magic tricks; how he uses flash-backs to keep himself honest while also demonstrating Holmes's cleverness; how Jude Law has triumphantly returned to character acting. But the thing that struck me most was how closely Ritchie and Downey's Holmes resembles Hugh Laurie's House.

Before Steve Sailer mentioned it, I had never considered what a close cousin House was to Holmes. But the Ritchie's Holmes and Watson could be House and Wilson's brothers.

Update: With deep chagrin I now realize that Galley Friend Erasmus was on the House/Holmes case years ago. In addition to noting the direct relations, Erasmus picked up that (1) House has Black Adder on his TiVo; and (2) House actually lives in 221B.


Santino is back and blogging full time.

As the marines say in Avatar, go get some!

Lazy Columnist Alert

Tom Friedman is all butched out today calling on Muslim societies to act responsibly and conjure up a sense of shame about terrorism committed in their name. He's so tough he practically sounds like George W. Bush! Only sensible and fair-minded!

In the course of this nothing-burger column, however, Friedman tosses out this bit of off-handed wisdom: "Every faith has its violent extreme."

Really? Is that true? There are violent extremist Quakers? And Unitarians? And B'hais? And Buddhists? And, well, never mind.

Earlier in the week Froma Harrop, who seems to be on staff at the otherwise very smart RealClear Politics, wrote that Democrats shouldn't get all worked up about the 2010 elections yet. Here's her stunning conclusion: "Ignore the polls-du-jour. Democrats could lose big on Nov. 2, 2010. Or, perhaps they won't."

How's that for earning penetrating insight?

Harrop's general proposition--that polls 10 months out need not be determinative for Democrats--isn't necessarily silly. It would be interesting to see some data points: What did the polls look like at this point in the 2006 cycle? Or the 2002 cycle? Or the 1994 cycle? But Harrop wants nothing to do with data. Data is hard! Some of it might not even be available on the internet! You might have to pay $35 for an academic journal article. Or actually call someone at Gallup!

Instead, Harrop's entire analysis is based on this: "Yes, most Americans have told pollsters that they don't approve of the health care legislation. But an even greater percentage -- I guarantee you -- has little idea what's really in it." And really, what's a little bit of data in the face of a columnist's personal guarantee.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Environmentalists and Their Dogs

A couple weeks ago I noted a story about the environmental impact of dogs and wondered how people who claim to be deeply concerned with the environment would react when challenged about part of their lives that they deemed important: Namely their pets. Now we have our answer.

Someone over at TNR has posted a brilliant econometric analysis: Dog walking promotes vibrant communities, and hence

And if the parks and streets are safer, wouldn't that convince more people to live in those urban neighborhoods (say, instead of the suburbs)? Doesn't that ultimately have a green effect? I don't know how it all tallies up, but surely there are a few marks on the positive side of the dog externality ledger.

Who can say how it all tallies up! But dogs are awesome, so they must be a net green. Ditto for other things noble-hearted liberals like, such as vacations to France.

PS: Elsewhere TNR has a long take-down of Malcolm Gladwell that's worth reading. Sample hotness:

Gladwell's overarching thesis in Outliers is so obviously correct that it hardly merits discussion. "The people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are." Also, tomorrow is the beginning of the rest of your life. Gladwell writes as if he is the only person in the world in possession of this platitudinous wisdom. The central irony of Outliers is that, Gladwell's discomfort with the self-help genre notwithstanding, he has written a book that conforms to it perfectly. This is a motivational manual. It is larded with inspirational stories, and with interactive games to capture the reader's attention--with handy charts and portentous graphs. Its language puts one in mind of, say, Tony Robbins. (On his blog Gladwell recently referred to two speaking engagements on his book tour as "shows.") We are in guru-land here. "We're going to conduct a crash investigation," Gladwell exhorts--a little tastelessly--near the start of a chapter on plane wrecks. Occasionally he tells the reader to write things down. Sometimes he preaches hope: "The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for." Si, se puede. His stories display the mild melodrama of all inspirational books: they are either uplifting or tragic (and therefore also uplifting). One subject's tale is called "heartbreaking" three times in less than six pages.


Unfortunately it is buried beneath more claims about society. "We think that, say, Nobel Prize winners in science must have the highest IQ scores imaginable, " Gladwell flatly states, before going on to patiently explain that many Nobel Prize winners do not go to Harvard. In a footnote, he admits that in fact Harvard "produces more Nobel Prize winners than any other school." Finally, he adds: "But wouldn't you expect schools like Harvard to win more Nobels than they do?" Here is the Gladwell method nicely on display: a questionable assumption, a partial walk-back of an earlier claim, and finally another questionable assumption synthesizing the half-reversal. The upshot is the mundane observation that Harvard produces more Nobel winners than anyone else, but not too many more. Gladwell wants to be provocative and inoffensive. It is, in fact, his special gift.


It's funny how the things deemed really harmful to the planet--SUVs, plasma TVs, children--are things liberal environmentalists are generally happy to live without.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Some Thoughts on Avatar

Mostly spoilers below, so be warned.

Saw it in non-IMAX 3D over vacation and was struck by several things. First, the movie Cameron has released differs in small, but ultimately substantial, ways from the scriptment many people read over the last few years. Ultimately, the scriptment is better--much better--in some important ways. And since I suspect that Cameron got to make exactly the movie he wanted, I wonder why he made different choices in the end. It's one thing never get a story quite right. It's another to have had the story basically honed, and then to change your mind.

Examples? The biggest is the character of Pandora itself. In the scriptment, Pandora plays roughly the same role that New York City plays in Law & Order--it's basically the chief protagonist. Cameron establishes Pandora as such an entity by (1) Beginning the story on Earth, so we can see what the "real world" looks like and (2) Spending a goodly amount of time on the human base in Pandora, showing us how the humans must cope with this new and strange land. In the film, we begin with Jake Sully coming out of cryo-sleep and spend only a small bit of time on the main base before Cameron gets the lead characters out of Dodge. The end result is that we get more time on Pandora, but I would argue that we get less of a sense of its alien-ness. Finally, the scriptment creates a little a mystery, with some odd occurrances (random animal attacks; animals working together) which pay off with the revelation that Pandora itself is a semi-conscious, networked entity. In the movie, all of that is dispensed with; the idea of a living Pandora is dealt with mostly through exposition.

The second thing that struck me is that many of the substantive criticisms leveled against the film are perfectly valid. Galley Friend Mike Russell has a long and very thoughtful critique over at AICN and I can't say that I disagree with much, if any of it. To hit on just a few of the film's problems:

* The villains--both the blood-thirsty colonel and the Company's on-site executive--are terribly under-written. They're stock bad guys. Cameron is so lazy about telling us how weasely the Company boss is that he's introduced by showing him putting golf-balls in the command center. It's astonishing that a movie as inventive and artful as Avatar would resort to something so cliched and off-the-shelf. Likewise, the Colonel is an uninteresting adversary. He's neither intelligent, nor cunning, nor particularly competent. His motivations are unclear. What's worse, he's so out of control that it's not obvious why a big, important corporation would trust the security of their most expensive and lucrative operation to him. And it's not like Cameron doesn't know how to create complicated, interesting villains (see Aliens).

* Another big issue of motivations: Why do the humans need Unobtanium so badly? Why is it worth the expense? Why would anyone be willing to go to Pandora? (These questions are all answered quite well in the scriptment, by the way.)

* There's something a little on-the-nose about how simplistically thug-ish the (para?) military types are. And Cameron hits the nose over and over. "Shock and awe." "Let's get some." "Hoo-ah." Nearly every line ever uttered in cinema by an out-of-control war-dog is used. And it's all unnecessary. We all understand what Cameron is trying to say without any of that help. I promise.

* How noble are these savages? The most noblest savages, ever. They're all wise and brave and fair-minded. Even their hot-headed warriors aren't all that mean to Jake Sully. Mind you, even the ewoks had a suspicious, over-protective, vaguely villainous shaman type. Not the Navi.

* At one point, the evil Colonel is using a Mech-Warrior suit. And he pulls from the Mech-Warrior's waistband a giant Bowie knife. Really.

All of that said, I was kind of blown away by Avatar. It's nowhere near a perfect movie. But it's certainly a great, and probably important, movie. I'd argue that it's worthy of admiration, even if you deem it a failure.

When people say that Avatar is "immersive," you may not quite understand what they mean. It isn't just the CGI used to create Pandora, which blends computers and live-action about as well as we're likely to see--CGI milestones come and go--it's that he combines this with 3-D that's so different from anything you've ever seen before that this he's essentially creating a new format for in-theater movies.

I think Avatar's box office bears this out. It opened very big (though only half so big as the Transformers sequel. But then look at these dailies: In its second week of release it showed increases on five of the seven days. On its third Saturday of release, it made a little bit more money than it did on its first Saturday. It's at $352M domestically and we yet we have very little idea of what its final take will be. The only other movie I've ever seen with an early performance pattern like this is this one. As a point of reference, by this point in its release, Titanic had earned $157M, just 25 percent of its total domestic take. I doubt Avatar is headed toward $1.4B domestically. (Though you never know.) The Box Office Guru sees a relatively easy path to $547M. All I know for sure is that I'll be heading out to a theater to see it again.

And by the way, if Avatar doesn't win Best Picture, I'll be shocked. I've seen maybe five movies this year, so this isn't a comment on the quality of other films. I like Jason Reitman very much and I'm sure that Up In the Air is a fantastic movie. But the Oscars are industry awards and if the industry as a whole really is worried about its future in the digital age--piracy, big-screen HD TVs, video on-demand, movies on iPod and all the rest--then they'd be suicidal not to do everything in their power to promote a product which showcases the unique power of film on a giant screen and points the way to the future for other filmmakers.