Category Archives: Culture

Buy Your Canned Goods Now!

Associated Press:

Wholesale prices jumped last month by the most in nearly two years due to higher energy costs and the steepest rise in food prices in 36 years. Excluding those volatile categories, inflation was tame.

The Labor Department said Wednesday that the Producer Price Index rose a seasonally adjusted 1.6 percent in February — double the 0.8 percent rise in the previous month. Outside of food and energy costs, the core index ticked up 0.2 percent, less than January’s 0.5 percent rise.

Food prices soared 3.9 percent last month, the biggest gain since November 1974. Most of that increase was due to a sharp rise in vegetable costs, which increased nearly 50 percent. That was the most in almost a year. Meat and dairy products also rose.

Scott Johnson at Powerline:

I believe that food inflation is in the midst of its greatest run-up (by one measurement of a basket of basic foodstuffs) since 1974. The lead story on Drudge reports on the most recent data.

Under the rubric of QE2, the Federal Reserve Bank is engaged in the venture of increasing the money supply with the goal of moderately increasing inflation. I fear that this venture is misguided and destructive. I believe it will result in inflation exceeding the Fed’s goal, if it has not done so already, and that the Fed will apply the brakes well after the damage has been done, as is its style.

What sayeth the Fed?

Ed Morrissey:

Scott cleverly titles his post, “Let them eat iPads.”  I’m not sure I’d draw a line between QE2 and what has happened in food and oil prices, at least not as a primary factor.  The effect of QE2 will be to weaken the dollar, which will hike the cost of imports, to be sure, and that may account for a little of the large price jump.  If it was the main factor — if the dollar had been weakened to that extent — then prices would be up across the board, especially on imports.  At least according to today’s report from the BEA on the trade deficit, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

The real source of this problem is America’s continuing refusal to exploit its own energy sources.  We remain too dependent on imports for energy while deliberately sidelining at least hundreds of thousands of potential high-paying jobs by refusing to extract our own oil and natural gas.  When the unstable countries that produce oil go through political paroxysms, it spooks investors and sends commodity prices soaring on the increased risk to distribution.  Those price increases mean higher transportation costs, which impacts all goods and services that require transport to get to consumers.  It’s a multiplier factor that we have seen a number of times over the last four decades, and which our political class continues to pretend doesn’t exist.

Ron Scherer at Christian Science Monitor:

In the year ahead, expect to see the largest food price increases in the protein group: chicken, beef, and pork, as well as dairy items. One key reason: The price of corn, used as feed by ranchers and farmers, has doubled in the past year. But vegetarians won’t get off easy: Produce and orange juice are rising sharply, as well.

Higher food prices have wide economic ramifications and are being watched closely by the Federal Reserve. From a business standpoint, food producers – from agricultural giants to the corner pizza parlor – must raise prices or watch their profit margins evaporate. Many middle-class households are financially stretched to the limit, so any extra expense for such basics as milk or bread makes their life even tougher. Organizations that help the poor with food, moreover, find they can’t help as many people because their dollar doesn’t go as far.

“The more you have to spend on a loaf of bread and a pound of ground beef, the less you have to spend on everything else,” says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics in West Chester, Pa. “It’s like a tax increase, although it’s not quite as bad as rising oil prices, since at least the revenues go to US farmers, truckers, and ag-equipment manufacturers.”

The US Department of Agriculture expects the average price of food in 2011 to be 4 percent higher than last year. Some private forecasters say that, by December, prices could be as much as 6 percent higher than in December 2010.

“If food inflation comes in at 6 percent, it would be the most dramatic increase since 1982,” says William Lapp, a consumer foods economist with his own firm, Advanced Economic Solutions in Omaha, Neb. “We had a 10-year period, from 1972 to 1981, when annual food prices rose sharply – including a two-year period when increases averaged 8.7 percent.”

Mark Huffman at Consumer Affairs:

When you factor in crude foodstuff and feedstuff to food costs to producers, food prices rose at the fastest rate since 1974, when the U.S. economy was in the grips of what was known as “stagflation.” Prices were rising rapidly despite little or no growth in the economy.

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Filed under Economics, Food

It Is Ezra Klein Week Here At Around The Sphere

Ezra Klein:

There’s lots of interesting stuff in Ed Glaeser’s new book, “The Triumph of the City.” One of Glaeser’s themes, for instance, is the apparent paradox of cities becoming more expensive and more crowded even as the cost of communicating over great distances has fallen dramatically. New York is a good example of this, but Silicon Valley is a better one

[…]

The overarching theme of Glaeser’s book is that cities make us smarter, more productive and more innovative. To put it plainly, they make us richer. And the evidence in favor of this point is very, very strong. But it would of course be political suicide for President Obama to say that part of winning the future is ending the raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural living. And the U.S. Senate is literally set up to ensure that such a policy never becomes politically plausible.

Klein again:

Yesterday afternoon, I got an e-mail from a “usda.gov” address. “Secretary Vilsack read your blog post ‘Why we still need cities’ over the weekend, and he has some thoughts and reflections, particularly about the importance of rural America,” it said. A call was set for a little later in the day. I think it’s safe to say Vilsack didn’t like the post. A lightly edited transcript of our discussion about rural America, subsidies and values follows.

Ezra Klein: Let’s talk about the post.

Tom Vilsack: I took it as a slam on rural America. Rural America is a unique and interesting place that I don’t think a lot of folks fully appreciate and understand. They don’t understand that that while it represents 16 percent of America’s population, 44 percent of the military comes from rural America. It’s the source of our food, fiber and feed, and 88 percent of our renewable water resources. One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America. It’s one of the few parts of our economy that still has a trade surplus. And sometimes people don’t realize that 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America.

EK: Let me stop you there for a moment. Are 90 percent of the people in persistent poverty in rural America? Or just 90 percent of the counties?

TV: Well, I’m sure that more people live in cities who are below the poverty level. In terms of abject poverty and significant poverty, there’s a lot of it in rural America.

The other thing is that people don’t understand is how difficult farming is. There are really three different kinds of farmers. Of the 2.1 million people who counted as farmers, about 1.3 million of them live in a farmstead in rural America. They don’t really make any money from their operation. Then there are 600,000 people who, if you ask them what they do for a living, they’re farmers. They produce more than $10,000 but less than $250,000 in sales. Those folks are good people, they populate rural communities and support good schools and serve important functions. And those are the folks for whom I’m trying to figure out how to diversify income opportunities, help them spread out into renewable fuel sources. And then the balance of farmers, roughly 200,000 to 300,000, are commercial operations, and they do pretty well, particularly when commodity prices are high. But they have a tremendous amount of capital at risk. And they’re aging at a rapid rate, with 37 percent over 65. Who’s going to replace those folks?

EK: You keep saying that rural Americans are good and decent people, that they work hard and participate in their communities. But no one is questioning that. The issue is that people who live in cities are also good people. People who live in exurbs work hard and mow their lawns. So what does the character of rural America have to do with subsidies for rural America?

TV: It is an argument. There is a value system that’s important to support. If there’s not economic opportunity, we can’t utilize the resources of rural America. I think it’s a complicated discussion and it does start with the fact that these are good, hardworking people who feel underappreciated. When you spend 6 or 7 percent of your paycheck for groceries and people in other countries spend 20 percent, that’s partly because of these farmers.

More Klein here and here

Will Wilkinson at DiA at The Economist:

IN THIS chat with Ezra Klein, Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, offers a pandering defence of agricultural subsidies so thoroughly bereft of substance I began to fear that Mr Vilsack would be sucked into the vacuum of his mouth and disappear.When Mr Klein first raises the subject of subsidies for sugar and corn, Mr Vilsack admirably says, “I admit and acknowledge that over a period of time, those subsidies need to be phased out.” But not yet! Vilsack immediately thereafter scrambles to defend the injurious practice. Ethanol subsidies help to wean us off foreign fuels and dampen price volatility when there is no peace is the Middle East, Mr Vilsack contends. Anyway, he continues, undoing the economic dislocation created by decades of corporate welfare for the likes of ADM and Cargill will create economic dislocation. Neither of these points is entirely lacking in merit, but they at best argue for phasing out subsidies slowly starting now.

Mr Vilsack should have stopped here, since this is as strong as his case is ever going to be, but instead he goes on to argue that these subsidies sustain rural culture, which is a patriotic culture that honours and encourages vital military service:

[S]mall-town folks in rural America don’t feel appreciated. They feel they do a great service for America. They send their children to the military not just because it’s an opportunity, but because they have a value system from the farm: They have to give something back to the land that sustains them.

Mr Klein follows up sanely:

It sounds to me like the policy you’re suggesting here is to subsidize the military by subsidizing rural America. Why not just increase military pay? Do you believe that if there was a substantial shift in geography over the next 15 years, that we wouldn’t be able to furnish a military?

To which Mr Vilsack says:

I think we would have fewer people. There’s a value system there. Service is important for rural folks. Country is important, patriotism is important. And people grow up with that. I wish I could give you all the examples over the last two years as secretary of agriculture, where I hear people in rural America constantly being criticized, without any expression of appreciation for what they do do.

In the end, Mr Vilsack’s argument comes down to the notion that the people of rural America feel that they have lost social status, and that subsidies amount to a form of just compensation for this injury. I don’t think Mr Vilsack really believes that in the absence of welfare for farmers, the armed services would be hard-pressed to find young men and women willing to make war for the American state. He’s using willingness-to-volunteer as proof of superior patriotism, and superior patriotism is the one claim to status left to those who have no other.

Ryan Avent at Free Exchange at The Economist:

I’ll add a few comments. First, it may be that the economists who understand the economic virtues of city life aren’t doing a sufficiently good job explaining that it’s not the people in cities that contribute the extra economic punch; it’s the cities or, more exactly, the interactions between the people cities facilitate. It’s fine to love the peace of rural life. Just understand that the price of peace is isolation, which reduces productivity.

Second, the idea that economically virtuous actors deserve to be rewarded not simply with economic success but with subsidies is remarkably common in America (and elsewhere) and is not by any means a characteristic limited to rural people. I also find it strange how upset Mr Vilsack is by the fact that he “ha[s] a hard time finding journalists who will speak for them”. Agricultural interests are represented by some of the most effective lobbyists in the country, but their feelings are hurt by the fact that journalists aren’t saying how great they are? This reminds me of the argument that business leaders aren’t investing because they’re put off by the president’s populist rhetoric. When did people become so sensitive? When did hurt feelings become a sufficient justification for untold government subsidies?

Finally, what Mr Klein doesn’t mention is that rural voters are purchasing respect or dignity at the price of livelihoods in much poorer places. If Americans truly cared for the values of an urban life and truly wished to address rural poverty, they’d get rid of agricultural policies that primarily punish farmers in developing economies.

Andrew Sullivan

Arnold Kling:

Ezra Klein sounds like my clone when arguing with the Secretary of Agriculture.

James Joyner:

Essentially, Vilsack justifies subsiding farmers on the basis that rural America is the storehouse of our values, for which he has no evidence. And he’s befuddled when confronted with someone who doesn’t take his homilies as obvious facts.

Nobody argues that America’s farmers aren’t a vital part of our economy or denies that rural areas provide a disproportionate number of our soldiers. But the notion that country folks are somehow better people or even better Americans has no basis in reality.

Jonathan Chait at TNR:

Why is it so common to praise the character of rural America? Part of it is doubtless that rural life represents the past, and we think of the past as a simpler and more honest time. But surely another element is simply that rural America is overwhelmingly white and Protestant. And completely aside from the policy ramifications, the deep-seated veneration of rural America reflects, at bottom, a prejudice few would be willing to openly spell out.

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Filed under Economics, Food, Go Meta, New Media

The Politician And the Movie Star

Michael D. Shear at NYT:

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a potential 2012 presidential candidate, has been getting lots of press recently for his comments on radio shows. The latest? This week, as first reported by Politico, he went after Hollywood star Natalie Portman.

“People see a Natalie Portman or some other Hollywood starlet who boasts, ‘we’re not married but we’re having these children and they’re doing just fine,’” Huckabee told conservative radio host Michael Medved Monday. “I think it gives a distorted image. It’s unfortunate that we glorify and glamorize the idea of out-of- wedlock children.”

Katrina Trinko at The Corner:

In framing the question to Huckabee, Medved had noted that Portman had said during her acceptance speech that she wanted to thank the father of her child for giving her “the most wonderful gift,” and argued that Portman’s message was “problematic.”

“I think it gives a distorted image that yes, not everybody hires nannies, and caretakers, and nurses,” Huckabee said. “Most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can’t get a job, and if it weren’t for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death and never have health care. And that’s the story that we’re not seeing, and it’s unfortunate that we glorify and glamorize the idea of out of children wedlock.”

“You know, right now, 75 percent of black kids in this country are born out of wedlock,” he continued. “Sixty-one percent of Hispanic kids — across the board, 41 percent of all live births in America are out of wedlock births. And the cost of that is simply staggering.”

Laura Donovan at Daily Caller:

During Portman’s Oscar acceptance speech Sunday, she thanked Millepied, saying he gave her “the most important role” of her life.

Medved responded that Millepied “didn’t give her the most wonderful gift, which would be a wedding ring!”

People Magazine reported at the end of last year that Portman and Millepied were engaged. Us Weekly revealed Portman’s engagement ring photos at the beginning of this year. They’re currently still engaged.

Tommy Christopher at Mediaite:

Here’s one humble suggestion. Maybe there would be fewer out-of-wedlock pregnancies if there were more sex education, including abstinence and safer sex. Even Bristol knows that.

Also, stop calling it “wedlock.” Sounds like something you get from stepping on a rusty nail.

Steve Benen:

But in the larger context, hearing about Huckabee’s criticism reinforces the notion that we really are stuck in the 1990s. After all, are there any substantive differences between what Huckabee said yesterday about Natalie Portman and what Dan Quayle said about Murphy Brown in 1992? Other than the fact that Brown was a fictional character, the remarks are remarkably similar.

Indeed, I feel like this keeps coming up. What do we see on the political landscape? Republicans are talking about shutting down the government and impeaching the president; Newt Gingrich is talking about running for president; a Democratic president saw his party get slammed in the midterms; the right wants a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution; conservatives are falsely labeling a moderate health care reform plan “socialized medicine”; and some national GOP leaders are preoccupied with Hollywood and out-of-wedlock births.

Andrew Sullivan:

The general point about the importance of two parents and marriage for children in poverty is well taken. But using Portman as an object of scorn? A woman who is in a loving relationship, is engaged to be married, and who publicly called her impending motherhood “the most important role of my life”?

She seems an unlikely culture war target. And a hopelessly tone-deaf one. Huckabee seems unready to me, or unwilling, to enter the race. And if he doesn’t, we all know what that means …

Robert Stacy McCain:

BTW, in case you didn’t notice, Mike Huckabee badmouthed Natalie Portman. Dude. How stupid is that?

Everybody loves Princess Amidala. Luke Skywalker’s mom, for crying out loud! And why would a conservative trash a woman who just called motherhood “the most important role of my life“?

Oh, wait. I forgot.

Mike Huckabee isn’t a conservative. Just ask Ann Coulter.

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Filed under Families, Movies, Political Figures

Rest In Peace, Frank Buckles

Paul Duggan at WaPo:

Frank W. Buckles died Sunday, sadly yet not unexpectedly at age 110, having achieved a singular feat of longevity that left him proud and a bit bemused.

In 1917 and 1918, close to 5 million Americans served in World War I, and Mr. Buckles, a cordial fellow of gentle humor, was the last known survivor. “I knew there’d be only one someday,” he said a few years back. “I didn’t think it would be me.”

Mr. Buckles, a widower, died on his West Virginia farm, said his daughter, Susannah Buckles Flanagan, who had been caring for him there.

Flanagan, 55, said her father had recently recovered from a chest infection and seemed in reasonably good health for a man his age. At 12:15 a.m. Sunday, he summoned his live-in nurse to his bedroom. As the nurse looked on, Flanagan said, Mr. Buckles drew a breath, and his eyes fell shut

Mark Thompson at Swampland at Time:

There used to be a newsletter for American veterans of World War I. When I first saw it some two decades or more ago, it noted there were some 4,000 of them still alive. I haven’t seen it in many years — I don’t recall its name, but it might have been The Torch. Amazing that any were still alive, given that their war began in this decade a century ago. Alas, its subscriber base dwindled to zero over the weekend with the death of Frank Buckles of West Virginia at 110.

Will Rahn at The Daily Caller:

The last American veteran of World War I has died.

At first, it didn’t seem like the like the Missouri-born Frank Buckles would ever go to war. He was repeatedly turned down by military recruiters on account of his age (he was only 16 when the war broke out) but successfully enlisted when he convinced an Army captain he was 18.

“A boy of [that age], he’s not afraid of anything,” said Buckles, who had first tried to join the Marines. “He wants to get in there.”

“I went to the state fair up in Wichita, Kansas, and while there, went to the recruiting station for the Marine Corps,” he told the AP in 2007. “The nice Marine sergeant said I was too young when I gave my age as 18, said I had to be 21.” A week later, Buckles returned to tell the Marine recruiter he was 21, only to be informed that he wasn’t heavy enough.

Buckles then tried for the Navy, but was turned down on account of his flat feet. Finally, he tried for the Army. When a captain asked for his birth certificate, Buckles said they weren’t issued in Missouri at the time of his birth, but that there was a record in the family Bible. “I said, ‘You don’t want me to bring the family Bible down, do you?’” Buckles remembered with a laugh. “He said, ‘OK, we’ll take you.’”

bk at Redstate:

After leaving the Army as a Corporal, he ended up getting a job with a shipping company and traveling all over the world. As luck would have it, he was in Manila when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor a few hours before bombing and invading the Philippines. He ended up in Japanese POW camps until 1945 when his was liberated.

He got married several years later and moved to a farm in West Virginia, where he still drove his own car and tractor until he was 102. His wife died in 1999, the same year he was awarded the French Legion of Honor.

In 2008 he became the oldest surviving WWI vet, which of course got him some attention in Washington (including a visit to the White House with George W. Bush) and beyond. George Will wrote a nice column about him. Not everything in WV is named after Robert C. Byrd – then-Gov Joe Manchin named a section of WV Route 9 in his honor at the time.

RIP Corporal Buckles!

Moe Lane:

Sounds like he was a good-natured, amiable sort who did not take his status as the last remaining US WWI veteran as being anything except a testament to his longevity… and as an opportunity to push for refurbishing and rededicating DC’s WWI memorial as a national one.

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Filed under History, Military Issues

Another Reason, Another Season, Another Palin Post

Sean Cockerham and Kyle Hopkins at Anchorage Daily News:

A leaked manuscript by one of Sarah Palin’s closest aides from her time as governor charges that Palin broke state election law in her 2006 gubernatorial campaign and was consumed by petty grievances up until she resigned.

The unpublished book by Frank Bailey was leaked to the media and widely circulated on Friday.

The manuscript opens with an account of Palin sending Bailey a message saying “I hate this damn job” shortly before she resigned as Alaska’s governor in July 2009, less than three years into her four-year term. The manuscript goes on for nearly 500 pages, a mixture of analysis, gossip and allegation.

Copies of the manuscript were forwarded around Alaska political circles on Friday. The Daily News received copies from multiple sources, the first from author Joe McGinniss, who is working on his own Palin book. McGinniss didn’t respond to a message asking where he obtained the manuscript and the reason he circulated it.

Bailey, a political insider who joined Palin’s 2006 campaign for governor and became part of her inner circle, has never before told his version of the Palin story. Bailey has consistently refused requests for interviews and did so again Friday. The book was co-written with California author Ken Morris and Jeanne Devon of Anchorage, who publishes the popular anti-Palin website Mudflats.

Caitlin Dickson at The Atlantic:

The book comes with all sorts of caveats–it’s not yet published, there’s been no outside verifcation, and Palin has yet to comment–but these are the new nuggets that Palin obsessives are digesting:

  • Palin may have violated Alaska’s state election law by collaborating with the Republican Governor’s Association on a campaign ad. “State candidates can’t team up with soft-money groups such as the Republican Governor’s Association, which paid for TV commericials and mailers in Alaska during the election in a purported ‘independent’ effort,” the Anchorage Daily News’ Sean Cockerham and Kyle Hopkins explain.
  • Bailey claims he was “recruited” by Palin’s husband, Todd, to take down Mike Wooten, a fire trooper who was engaged in a child custody battle with Palin’s sister, his ex-wife. According to Bailey, “Todd Palin kept feeding him information on Wooten, which he passed on to troopers.” Bailey also asserts that the selection of Superior Court Judge Morgan Christen as one of the top two judges considered for Supreme Court appointment by the governor was directly influenced by Christen’s ruling against Wooten in the custody fight with Palin’s sister.
  • Palin supposedly abandoned a commitment to work with the Alaska Family Council to promote a ballot initiative outlawing abortions for teens because she was working on her book. In the manuscript, Bailey writes that this was the final straw, as he had realized Palin was motivated primarily by the prospect of making money.
  • Bailey claims that the campaign trail revealed Palin’s widespread support was less than genuine. Bailey recalls, “we set our sights and went after opponents in coordinated attacks, utilizing what we called ‘Fox News surrogates,’ friendly blogs, ghost-written op-eds, media opinion polls (that we often rigged), letters to editors, and carefully edited speeches.”

Andrew Sullivan:

Frank Bailey’s co-authored manuscript, “Blind Allegiance To Sarah Palin,” which leaked out via his agent’s emails to potential publishers, is dynamite. Why? Because Bailey was as close to the Palins as anyone from Palin’s first race for governor to the bitter end, is a rock-ribbed Fox News Republican, has vast amounts of firsthand data (the emails he has published alone reveal a lot), has contempt for Trig skeptics like yours truly, and comes to a simple conclusion in retrospect: Palin is a dangerous, vindictive, incompetent, congenital liar who has no business in any public office. Any publisher interested in the truth about Palin (Harper Collins therefore need not apply) should fight to publish it.

There’s a useful summary of its contents at the Anchorage Daily News, and some notes from the paper’s gossip column with this tart truth:

In the end, what makes Bailey’s manuscript worth more than other Sarah books is his liberal use of contemporaneous records — long quotes from e-mails written at the time by the actual participants. If you want to understand who Sarah really is, you can’t beat her own words.

There’s also just, well, nutritious nuggets like the following. Bailey describes Palin’s eventual media strategy: avoid any MSM interviews and get talking points out through surrogates. Who were they? Bailey names names: Bill Kristol, Mary Matalin, former Bush aides Jason Recher and Steve Biegun, GOP officials Nick Ayers and Michael Steele, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck, Greta Van Susteren, Sean Hannity, and Bill O‘Reilly.

Jon Bershad at Mediaite:

Unlike that other Palin book in the pipeline, Bailey wasn’t just geographically close to his subject (strangely, the Anchorage Daily News reports that author and Palin-neighbor Joe McGinniss was one of the people to pass them the leaked manuscript), he was actually a close confidant to both Palin and her husband, Todd. The book was reportedly put together with the help of 60,000 emails back and forth between he and the former governor. It actually opens with a quote from one of those emails as Palin tells Bailey she “hate[s] this damn job,” shortly before her resignation.

But, everyone’s wondering, what’s the dirtiest “all” that this tell-all “tells?”

Ed Morrissey:

The article quotes several passages from Bailey’s book, but none of them seem to rise to a level of scandalous behavior or shocking revelation.  Palin obsesses over her media image?  Well, maybe, but few politicians at the national level don’t.  Palin confidentially told Bailey “I hate this damn job”?  Even people who love their jobs have those moments, especially jobs with large responsibilities.  Bailey wonders why Palin decided to get caught up in the Carrie Prejean controversy in May 2009:

Concludes Bailey after the episode: “The question we failed to ask was: What does this possibly have to do with being governor of Alaska? While it had nothing to do with Alaska, it had plenty to do with publicity. Fox News made this an ongoing story, giving it wall-to-wall coverage. Sean Hannity in particular latched on with both hands. With Sarah suddenly an outspoken supporter, he had gorgeous Prejean on one arm and sparkling Governor Palin on the other. He appeared a happy man.”

It’s not exactly an unfair question, but it also presumes that every other governor ignores national stories and keeps themselves insulated, which is hardly the case.  Palin by this time had already become a national political figure, especially on conservative issues through the burgeoning Tea Party movement, and had been outspoken on social issues since the presidential election.  It’s hardly surprising that Palin would want to work to keep up a national profile, which is harder to do from Alaska, both for the grassroots leadership she wanted to provide and for her own political ambitions.  While it’s a fair point for criticism from the perspective of Alaskans, it’s hardly the mystery or the anomaly Bailey suggests.

Alex Pareene at Salon

Wonkette:

“A leaked manuscript by one of Sarah Palin’s closest aides from her time as governor charges that Palin broke state election law in her 2006 gubernatorial campaign and was consumed by petty grievances up until she resigned.” Nah, that doesn’t sound like her. Must be a governor of another unpopulated northern meth-and-jerky wasteland they’re thinking of. On the other hand, it appears this book has been leaked to Wonkette at least twice, by somebody with a South African e-mail address. And the publisher is said to be upset. Fine. Anyway, here is the good quote holding everything together, dating to right before her resignation as governor: “I hate this damn job.” If she didn’t like that job, she must be very happy she will never be president!

Laura Donovan at The Daily Caller:

Pam Pryor Palin, spokeswoman for Palin’s political action committee, said Palin probably won’t acknowledge Bailey’s book.

“Doubt she will respond to this kind of untruth,” Pryor wrote in an email to the Daily News.

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Filed under Books, Political Figures

I’ll Take Skynet Is Taking Over The World For $800, Alex

Ken Jennings at Slate:

When I was selected as one of the two human players to be pitted against IBM’s “Watson” supercomputer in a special man-vs.-machine Jeopardy! exhibition match, I felt honored, even heroic. I envisioned myself as the Great Carbon-Based Hope against a new generation of thinking machines—which, if Hollywood is to believed, will inevitably run amok, build unstoppable robot shells, and destroy us all. But at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Lab, an Eero Saarinen-designed fortress in the snowy wilds of New York’s Westchester County, where the shows taped last month, I wasn’t the hero at all. I was the villain.

This was to be an away game for humanity, I realized as I walked onto the slightly-smaller-than-regulation Jeopardy! set that had been mocked up in the building’s main auditorium. In the middle of the floor was a huge image of Watson’s on-camera avatar, a glowing blue ball crisscrossed by “threads” of thought—42 threads, to be precise, an in-joke for Douglas Adams fans. The stands were full of hopeful IBM programmers and executives, whispering excitedly and pumping their fists every time their digital darling nailed a question. A Watson loss would be invigorating for Luddites and computer-phobes everywhere, but bad news for IBM shareholders.

The IBM team had every reason to be hopeful. Watson seems to represent a giant leap forward in the field of natural-language processing—the ability to understand and respond to everyday English, the way Ask Jeeves did (with uneven results) in the dot-com boom. Jeopardy! clues cover an open domain of human knowledge—every subject imaginable—and are full of booby traps for computers: puns, slang, wordplay, oblique allusions. But in just a few years, Watson has learned—yes, it learns—to deal with some of the myriad complexities of English. When it sees the word “Blondie,” it’s very good at figuring out whether Jeopardy! means the cookie, the comic strip, or the new-wave band.

I expected Watson’s bag of cognitive tricks to be fairly shallow, but I felt an uneasy sense of familiarity as its programmers briefed us before the big match: The computer’s techniques for unraveling Jeopardy! clues sounded just like mine. That machine zeroes in on key words in a clue, then combs its memory (in Watson’s case, a 15-terabyte data bank of human knowledge) for clusters of associations with those words. It rigorously checks the top hits against all the contextual information it can muster: the category name; the kind of answer being sought; the time, place, and gender hinted at in the clue; and so on. And when it feels “sure” enough, it decides to buzz. This is all an instant, intuitive process for a human Jeopardy! player, but I felt convinced that under the hood my brain was doing more or less the same thing.

Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman. But unlike us, Watson cannot be intimidated. It never gets cocky or discouraged. It plays its game coldly, implacably, always offering a perfectly timed buzz when it’s confident about an answer. Jeopardy! devotees know that buzzer skill is crucial—games between humans are more often won by the fastest thumb than the fastest brain. This advantage is only magnified when one of the “thumbs” is an electromagnetic solenoid trigged by a microsecond-precise jolt of current. I knew it would take some lucky breaks to keep up with the computer, since it couldn’t be beaten on speed.

Instapundit:

DID THE SINGULARITY just happen on Jeopardy? The Singularity is a process, more than an event, even if, from a long-term historical perspective, it may look like an event. (Kind of like the invention of agriculture looks to us now). So, yeah. “In the CNN story one of the machine’s creators admitted that he was a very poor Jeopardy player. Somehow he was able to make a machine that could do better than himself in that contest. The creators aren’t even able to follow the reasoning of the computer. The system is showing emergent complexity.”

mistermix:

I’m not a big Jeopardy geek, but my understanding is that players are surprised at how big a role button management plays in winning or losing a round. In the few minutes of the Watson game that I watched, it was pretty clear that Watson was excellent at pressing the button at exactly the right moment if it knew the answer, which is more a measure of electromechanical reflex than human-like intelligence.

To the credit of IBM engineers, Watson almost always did know the right answer. Still, there were a few bloopers, such as the final Jeopardy question from yesterday (paraphrasing): “This city has two airports, one named after a World War II hero, and the other named after a World War II battle.” Watson’s guess, “Toronto”, was just laughably bad—Lester Pearson and Billy Bishop fought in World War I, and neither person is a battle. The right answer, “Chicago”, was pretty obvious, but apparently Watson couldn’t connect Midway or O’Hare with WW II.

Mark Krikorian at The Corner:

I was on the show, in 1996 or ’97, and success is based almost entirely on your reflexes — i.e., pushing the buzzer as soon as Trebek finishes reading the question, er, the answer. (I came in second, winning a dining-room set and other fabulous parting gifts, which I had to sell to pay the taxes on them.)The benefit to society would come if we could turn Alex Trebek into Captain Dunsel.

Jim Behrle at The Awl:

If I owned a gun, it would probably be in my mouth as I type this. I don’t know how the physics of that arrangement would work, but the mood in Chez Jim is darker than Mothra’s hairy crotch. I’ve just been sitting here listening to Weird Al’s weirdly prescient “I Lost on Jeopardy” in the dark, cuddling with a tapped-out bottle of WD-40. Humanity took a hit tonight. Our valiant human heroes made it close, but that Watson tore us new assholes in our foreheads. ALL OF US. That noise you heard driving to work was your GPS system laughing at you. While you were sneezing on the D train this morning your Kindle was giving you the finger. There is blood in the water this morning and this afternoon and forever more. This wasn’t like losing some Nerdgame like chess. Who the hell even knows how to play chess? The horsies go in little circles, right? “Jeopardy!” is the game that makes dumb people feel smart. Like National Public Radio, it’s designed to make people feel superior. And we just found out that people are not superior. No, not at all.I might personally call the whole thing a draw. I read Ken Jennings’ piece in Slate and I can tell the machine was just better at ringing the buzzer than him. If it was truly a battle of Humanity versus Accursed Frankensteinian Monstrosity there should have been one human and one monstrosity. Or one smart human, one machine and me. I could answer sportsy questions. And the rest of the time stay out of Ken’s way. No disrespect to Brad, but this is one fight that ought to have been fought one-on-one. Don’t make humans battle each other to save the world from machines. It’s too cruel. I’d sit back and let the goddamned human expert answer the tough questions. I’d just be there to figure out a way how to unplug the fucking thing when no one was watching. So, here’s the lineup for this Rematch that I demand, formally, right here on The Awl—which I know everyone at IBM reads—Me, Ken and your little Betamax.

And you have to put a little more at stake than just money. For Ken, Me and the Watson. Why did they call it Watson, anyway? Wasn’t Watson just Sherlock Holmes’ butler? And Alexander Graham Bell’s friend who was in the other room and got the first phone call. Why not call the thing what it is: HYDE. Or LILITH. Or Beezelbub of the Underland? Its dark, soulless visage no doubt crushed the very spirit of our human champions. Maybe force it to wear a blonde wig. And talk in Valley Girl language. “Like Oh My God, Gag Me with a Spoon, Alex. I’ll like take like Potpourri for like $800!”

This rematch should happen on Neutral Ground. I suggest Indianapolis. Halftime at the next Super Bowl. This gives Ken a chance to put the pieces of his broken ego back together. And for me to eat some Twinkies. There probably won’t even Be a Super Bowl because of the Looming Lockout, so America will just be watching commercials and various superstars mangling America’s Favorite Patriotic songs. Make IBM take their little Cabinet of Wonders on the Road. Get the military involved to make sure there are no shenanigans this time like plugging it into the Internet or texting it answers from the audience. Also, I want the damned thing to NOT be plugged into the Jeopardy game. It needs to be able to hear Alex and to read the hint on the little blue screen. How much time does it take a human to hear Alex and see it printed out and understand just what the hell the half-idiot writers of “Jeopardy!” were getting at? (Was a Dave Eggers mention really necessary during Wednesday night’s episode? The category was Non-fiction. And it’s obvious that Watson has some kind of super Amazon app embedded in its evil systems. The first 200 pages of Dave’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius were pretty good. Everything else is Twee Bullshit. “I am a dog from a short story. I am fast and strong. Too bad you know I die in the river from the title of this short story. Woooof!” I mean, seriously, “Jeopardy!” Get a library card. There are billions of other writers and I’ve seen at least 5 shows in which you’ve used some form of Dave Eggers. )

Ben Wieder at The Chronicle Of Higher Education:

The victory made one group of people very happy.

The computer-science department at the University of Texas at Austin hosted viewing parties for the first two nights of the competition.

“People were cheering for Watson,” says Ken Barker, a research scientist at Texas. “When they introduced Brad and Ken, there were a few boos in the audience.”

Texas is one of eight universities whose researchers helped develop the technology on which Watson is based. Many of the other universities hosted viewing parties for the three days of competition as well.

Mr. Barker says he was blown away by Watson’s performance on the show, particularly the computer’s ability to make sense of Jeopardy!‘s cleverly worded clues.

But the computer did make a few mistakes along the way.

Most notably, Watson incorrectly wrote “Toronto” in response to a Final Jeopardy clue in the category of U.S. Cities. Both Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter returned the correct response, which was Chicago.

Mr. Barker says Watson may have considered U.S. to be a synonym of America and, as such, considered Toronto, a North American city, to be a suitable response.

Raymond J. Mooney, a computer-science professor at Texas, says Final Jeopardy is the Achilles heel of the computer.

“If it didn’t have to answer that question, it wouldn’t have,” he says.

Clues in that final round are often more complicated than others in the show because they involve multiple parts.

The phrasing of the question Watson got wrong included what linguists refer to as an ellipsis, an omitted phrase whose meaning is implicit from other parts of the sentence. The clue that tripped up Watson, “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle,” left out “airport is named” in the second clause.

Mr. Mooney says it will be some time before the average person will be using a computer with the capabilities of Watson, but he did see one potential immediate impact from the show.

Ezra Klein:

The sentient computers of the future are going to think it pretty hilarious that a knowledge-based showdown between one of their own and a creature with a liver was ever considered a fair fight.

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No Orcs Were Harmed In The Making Of This Trailer

Steven Nelson at The Daily Caller:

FreedomWorks will host a premier of the trailer for the film adaption of Atlas Shrugged at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Since the novel by Ayn Rand was published in 1957, efforts to produce a film version have been attempted. All failed due to a variety of legal and editorial disputes.

Protagonist Dagny Taggart will be played by actress Taylor Schilling, who previously was the lead character in NBC medical drama Mercy.

Atlas Shrugged has been highly influential within conservative and libertarian circles for its support of laissez-faire economics.

FreedomWorks has been distributing “Who Is John Galt?” signs and merchandise at CPAC, part of an advertisement for a faithful adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged.” Clips from the movie have been playing at CPAC. I haven’t watched them all. I have seen the trailer.

James Joyner:

Last night, the CPAC Bloggers Bash attendees were “treated” to an excruciatingly long preview of the forthcoming “Atlas Shrugged” movie, which will hit a theater near you on April 15. Actually, it’ll just be Part I.  Like the Lord of the Rings, this will be a trilogy.

Judging by the preview, I can fully understand why it took more than two decades to find a studio to produce the flick. This is quite possibly the most boring film ever made — and I include documentaries that are shown in grammar school so that children can request to view them backwards.

Put it this way: I simply do not know enough expletives to adequately express how truly horrible this film was. I would rather be subjected to the “Clockwork Orange” treatment than sit through one part of this. I might well prefer death to enduring the trilogy.

Philip Klein at The American Spectator:

As a long-time fan of the novel and a very discriminating movie viewer, I’ll admit that I’ve had my doubts about this project all along, given its low budget and rushed production schedule. Viewing the scenes that I did – albeit a small sample size – did not assuage my early concerns.

Like the book, the film is set in the near future, though now it’s given the date of 2016. The filmmakers went for a “ripped from the headlines” type vibe, with images of the economy tanking, the country’s infrastructure collapsing, protests raging in the streets, Congress passing statist legislation, and a TV news anchor leading a panel discussion between some of the book’s characters.

The dramatic scenes were true to the book. The problem is that Rand’s characters don’t really speak like normal people, and this can be particularly jarring on film if not handled correctly. I found the dialogue in the parts between Dagny Taggart and Hank Reardon to be unnatural and their acting subpar.

I spoke with some fellow bloggers afterword who thought I was being too harsh and others who were outright enthusiastic about what they saw. I felt compelled to write something given the immense interest in this film, but I’ll withhold further judgment until I see the entire movie, which is the first of a planned three-part series.

Allah Pundit:

If anything, to me it feels too generic, like a promo for some new Fox primetime soap about young, beautiful businesspeople. Think “Melrose Place” meets “Wall Street.” Or isn’t that what “Atlas Shrugged” basically is, plus some loooooooong didactic passages about libertarianism? (Haven’t read it!)

Cole Abaius at Film School Rejects:

Who is John Galt, and does anyone care?

For all I know, “meh” is not actually a word, but somehow it perfectly describes the new Atlas Shrugged trailer. This movie has been through true development hell – detailing every incarnation would be a long, strange trip, but for some reason, no one’s ever pulled the trigger on it until now.

Its 40 year ride through development, through Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe, through Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron, has deposited it here – without any big stars and split up into three films.

Tbogg:

Before I begin, no post about Atlas Shrugged is complete if it does not include this:

There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.- KF Monkey

So, for your Friday evening’s viewing pleasure (courtesy of DougJ  aka A Writer At Balloon Juice, LLC) and pretty much everyone else who has stumbled across this youtube nugget: Atlas Shrugged: The Movie, coming soon to cinema emporium hopefully nearer to you than me.

Trains. Who in America doesn’t want to see more movies with lots and lots of trains in them? And industrialists talking about money and profits. And trains. Let’s go to the imdb description:

A powerful railroad executive, Dagny Taggart, struggles to keep her business alive while society is crumbling around her.

As we can see from the preview, Dagny is going to shut down her train business and that will make America fail. Because America’s trains …. well, I guess they power iPhones or make porn or something. And we all know that America cannot live without those things.

According to someone at imdb who seems to be in the know:

Rand’s dramatic classic comes to the screen after decades of endeavor. Although on a tight budget, it is well cast, and the story is given a modern setting to appeal more to today’s audiences.

If they wanted to update it to appeal to modern audiences then the trains would change into big robots are start fighting each other amidst shit blowing up. Then they could have gotten Michael Bay to make this film. It would still be shitty, but at least it would make money.

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