31 December 2007

Top Financial Stories, 2007

This is my first new year's eve blogging at blogspot. I generally ask myself at this time what were the biggest stories of the past year, in business/financial news.

By "stories," I don't mean themes, such as "China rising" or "subprime mortgage troubles." I mean stories, such as one might have seen in a particular newspaper on some specific day. Two of the stories on my list involve the year's subprime mortgage crisis, so I'm not slighting its importance.

Of course, I choose the ones I do largely because they illustrate an important theme. But the theme itself isn't the story.

Further, I don't rank them, as in a top ten list. I'll simply give one "top" story from each of the twelve months of the year now ending. All that understood, here we go.

January: The Islamic Development Bank sets up structured finance unit in Saudi Arabia. The question of recycling petrodollars, and the development of a distinctive style of "Islamic finance" to do so, have been important themes for several years. This is a very good headline to hang that one on.

Feb. Fortress Investment's initial public offering. Fortress has been a very large and influential private equity operation. When it went public it (ironically?) drew a lot of attention to the private equity world it was exiting.

March. Government officials in Hanoi proposed new measures designed to attract more foreign investment capital into Vietnam. The symbolism needs no further comment from me.

April. SEC backs away from a plan to subpoena reporters about an alleged short-sellers' conspiracy.

May. A bidding war breaks out over control over the Chicago Board of Trade, one of the world's premier futures exchanges. The auction isn't resolved until July. The Chicago Mercantile Exchange ended up buying the CBOT, uniting the two venerable windy city institutions.

June. A dispute breaks out over how to document mortgage derivatives. To alert minds, this indicated that trouble was brewing in that area.

July. Cerberus Capital buys Chrysler from Daimler.

August. An appellate court rules against an intellectual property claim by the New York Mercantile Exchange.

September. The California Supreme Court throws out Gradient's motion to dismiss in a short-sellers' conspiracy case. Click on "Gradient" below to learn more.)

October. The year's inconclusive debate over the taxation of carried interest briefly occupies the Presidential candidates.

November. HSBC puts structured investment vehicles on its balance sheet -- may be turning point on subprime credit crunch, indicating that the problems that had obsessed so many in the summer and into the fall have a limit.

December. OPEC announces it will maintain existing levels of production. The announcement is generaly seen as heralding more price increases, as world demand increases are certain.

The AP has listed 10. There's is a more traditional theme-heavy sort of list. I'll reproduce it here.

1 housing contagion
2 record oil prices
3 toy recall
4 Fed moves
5 Dow 14000
6 dollar's fall
7 China and India roar
8 ethanol boom
9 bank ceo departures
10 United Auto Workers health care deals.

30 December 2007

Gambling, Debts, Opera

Yesterday, in my list of operas that will shortly be produced at The Met, I included without any special note The Gambler, an adaptation of the great Dostoyevsky novel of the same name. Both the music and the libretto are the creation of Sergei Prokofiev.

The origin of the Dostoyevsky novel is itself legendary. The great writer was addicted to the roulette tables himself, and he had to cook up something for publication fast to restore some level of contentment to the creditors he had acquired as a result. Pressed also to write on the deadline of an unforgiving publisher, he came up with a novella about -- debts and a casino.

That sounds like a prescription for a veritable hack-job of a novel. Still, Dostoyevsky was Dostoyevsky. He couldn't write a hack job, and of course he didn't.

You can read the result online:

The central character, who narrates the book in the first person, is the household employee of a general and his family who were once affluent but who are now living in tightened circumstances.

On the first page, the narrator has just returned from two weeks' leave. He tells us that things were different when he got back.

Of course, since this is the first page, we don't know what they had been like, so telling us that they had become different creates an air of mystery and plunges us into the middle of things, as an opening should.

The narrator's fascination with gambling is something he shares with several other characters in the novel, including a wealthy older woman called only Grandmother.

The General is waiting for Grandmother to die, because inheriting her wealth would ease his circumstances. She's in no hurry to help him out, and her displeasure with the deathwatch helps make her reckless at the roulette table -- at first recklessly successful, then ruinously (for the General's hopes) unsuccessful.

Here's one brief passage: "Yet now, when the Grandmother had just performed an astonishing feat at roulette; now, when the old lady's personality had
been so clearly and typically revealed as that of a rugged, arrogant woman who was 'tombee en enfance'; now, when everything appeared to be lost,--why, now the Grandmother was as merry as a child which plays with thistle-down."

I can certainly see how Grandmother would make a fine operatic character, but the complexity of the plot (quite intricate given its brevity) would seem to create some difficulties.

29 December 2007

The Metropolitan Opera

The following productions will be playing at the Met in New York in February-March, 2008.

Manon Lescaut, Puccini
Die Walkure, Wagner
Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini
Carmen, Bizet
Otello, Verdi
Peter Grimes, Britten
Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti
Tristan und Isolde, Wagner
Ernani, Verdi
The Gambler, Prokofiev
La Boheme, Puccini.

I'm no opera aficionado -- indeed, I've never seen an opera performed live -- but even I can recognize that this is the traditional canon.

Except perhaps for "Peter Grimes," which is of a more recent vintage that the others. It premiered in 1945 in Sadler's Wells, London.

I mention the Sadler's Wells theatre for a reason. That particular theatre has a fascinating history of its own, going back to the 17th century when a businessman excavating gravel for use on roads, Richard Sadler, discovered a natural spring there. Hence the name of the place. The water from Sadler's Wells was soon reputed to be medicinal.

Here's more: http://www.sadlerswells.com/?page=complete-history

Anyway, here's a question for such of my readers who might have an informed opinion about the items on the above list. If you could only see one of them this season, which one would it be?

28 December 2007

"Welcome to the helm, Mr. Murdoch"

This summer, News Corp. (the corporate parents of Rupert Murdoch's various newspapers and the Fox broadcasting properties) agreed to buy Dow Jones, the famous keeper-of-stock-indexes, and publisher of the Wall Street Journal. The price tag was $5.6 billion.

Months elapsed, though, between agreement and the closing of the deal. The latter took place earlier this month.

Anyway, the WSJ may have decided to welcome him with a bit of controversy, because November saw a memorable screw-up in a front-page story in which the Journal accused the giant broker-dealer Merrill Lynch of accounting shenanigans, then had to back down, issuing a correction.

On Nov. 2, the Journal alleged that Merrill had participated in transactions with hedge funds designed to cover up and delay the reporting of its losses on collateralized debt obligations. That article's only specific example of one of the supposed off-balance-sheet deals had been a deal in which the broker-dealer allegedly sold mortgage securities to a fund, while providing that the fund would have the right to sell the securities back to Merrill after one year for a guaranteed return. This deal did have the smell to it of the old "Nigerian barge" transactions of Enron scandal memory. Class-action lawsuits by and on behalf of Merrill stockholders have since prominently referenced that publication.

Merrill Lynch's stock price (NYSE: MER) as of the close of business Nov. 1 was $62.19 per share. By the end of trading on Nov. 2, it was at $57.28. Merrill's price continued to fall through two and a half more weeks, closing at $51.81 on Nov. 21.

The following Monday, good news arrived, in the form of a "correction and amplification" by the Journal, in which the paper acknowledged that its Nov. 2 article had been based on incorrect information. The correction focused on the only specific instance the original article had purported to produce -- that sale and buy-back.

In its later note, the Journal said that while Merrill did "propose" such a deal, it was never completed, because "the firm's finance department determined it didn't meet proper accounting criteria." This has a much more hygienic odor, suggesting simply that some risk manager or compliance officer was on the ball.

Murdoch's detractors can say if they like that it was the dispiriting influence of his looming captaincy that created such a gaffe. His admirers can say, "this is the sort of thing that he's coming in to fix!"

Say what you will, it seems like a big black eye to me. And I think it might be time for those of us accustomed to a fix of market-oriented news each morning to switch to the Financial Times.

27 December 2007

Morality is focus

William James said it, in The Principles of Psychology (1890): the whole of the moral life is a matter of focusing the mind.

The actual quote is: "To sustain a representation, to think, is, in short, the only moral act, for the impulsive and the obstructed, for sane and lunatics alike."

Here's a simple example. I may need to get up at a certain time in the morning to get a job done. Ah, but the simple act of rolling over and getting out of bed requires that I focus on doing so. There are much more interesting pleasant subjects of focus -- the warmth of the blankets, for example, and the pleasant possibility that my early morning duties might turn out to be not so important after all.

If I sustain the thought, keep the focus, on getting out of bed and on with my day, and assuming of course that my nervous system is in a healthy state -- I will get out of bed.

Likewise with the rest of the day. Sustaining a representation, focusing my thoughts ... that is the key.

So, why are you surfing about reading blogs? Don't you have work to do? Focus!

25 December 2007

From JM's Nativity Ode

Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold,
And spekl'd vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous sin will melt from earthly mould,
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

Yea Truth, and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Th'enamelled Arras of the Rainbow wearing,
And Mercy set between,
Thron'd in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering,
And Heav'n as at some festival,
Will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.

[lines 135-148].

Through the previous two Christmases, I maintained a blog with the same name as this one through another service, blog-city. Each of those years, I've used this Miltonic passage for the holiday. We've now created a tradition with cyberspatial portability.

Merry Christmas

23 December 2007

Reading Assignment

Today I'll simply suggest a bit of seasonally appropriate reading: The classic Conan Doyle story, "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle."

The story actually takes place on December 27, and a couple of years after Dr. Watson has moved out of the famous Baker Street flat.

Nonetheless, 'tis still the season ... when better to visit an old friend and wish him the best? Watson does this, and before long he's seated himself in the old armchair to listen to Holmes cogitate about an abandoned hat, while he (Watson) warms his hands by the crackling fire, "for a sharp frost had set in, and the windows were thick with ice crystals."

With the familiar setting already warming him and his readers, I leave you to it.


22 December 2007

Defensible Choice from Time

The more loyal of my readers my remember my grousing a year ago about Time Magazine's choice for 2006 Person of the Year. It was "you." The cover pictured a computer, with a reflecting surface used for its screen, so the reader, or casual walker-by of a newsstand for that matter, would see him/herself on/in the screen as POTY.

I thought the whole thing was a cop-out, and that Time should stick closed to the idea of an idiosyncratic individual newsmaker for this honor -- the idea that inspired the first Man of the Year cover in 1927 (Charles Lindbergh) and most since.

The first woman to receive the nod, by the way, was Wallis Simpson, in 1936.

Time has come through for us traditionalists this year. Its POTY is ... Vladimir Putin of Russia. I'm not crazy about the aesthetics of Putin's ugly mug staring out at us but, hey, maybe that's just me.

Its a defensible choice, since Russia has been one of the world's great powers under one political regime or another since around the time Napoleon ran into trouble there, and the head of state there is almost inevitably important to the destinies far beyond its borders.

Obviously, the naming of a POTY is not a political endorsement. Henry Luce wasn't expressing his happiness about the abdication of a monarch when he put Mrs Simpson on the cover, either.

Joseph Stalin (not a Russian, strictly, a Georgian) was POTY twice: 1939 and 1942. He was Hitler's ally when the first of those covers appeared, and had become Hitler's adversary by the time the second did.

Yuri Andropov shared POTY status with negotiating partner Ronald Reagan in 1983.

Gorbachev was POTY twice -- 1987 and 1989. The first of those recognitions concerned his efforts to reform the Soviet Union from within. By the second such cover, it was clear that the process had brought an end to that superpower.

The point is, I guess, this: I shouldn't be disheartened. I couldn't really have expected that I'd win twice in a row. Heck, even Gorbachev has that off-year in '88.

21 December 2007

"My Kid Could Paint That!"

The headline of this entry is also the title of a new documentary film by Amir Bar-Lev.

Sounds fascinating. (It isn't playing anywhere in my area, so this is very much a hearsay blog entry.)

The movie concerns the Olmstead family, celebrity, and the whole idea of a prodigy. Are we as a public too eager for the next child genius, the next Mozart?

Maria Olmstead, the 4-year-old painter at the heart of this documentary, was a media sensation. Jane Pauley introduced a segment about her, "The hottest new phenomenon to hit the art scene is a painter who arrives at the gallery in a car seat."

Then came 60 Minutes, with an expose, suggesting that her father was actually doing the work, and the searchlight turned ugly.

Then, in turn, came Mr. Bar-Lev, who seems to have begun work on this movie with the idea that Maria really was a genius/prodigy, that he could prove it, thus rebuking 60 Minutes and chilvarously rescuing the Olmsteads.

Things didn't work out as he had hoped, though. I understand the over-all tone of the movie is one of ambivalence.

But finally, as I indicated above, Maria isn't really its subject. We are. The idea of the "prodigy" and our eagerness to celebrate, then to tear down the "imposter" when our expectations aren't quite met -- that's the subject.

20 December 2007

South Korea

I wrote about politics in South Korea in August, when I focused on the presidential campaign of Lee Myung-bak, why some people were calling him a "pragmatist," and what that term meant in such a context.

So now, I'm hapy to report, the pragmatist has prevailed.

Mr. Lee won the election this week with a strong plurality. He received 48.7% of the vote in a multiple-candidate field. The runner up, Chung Dong-young, received only 26.2%.

Mr. Chung was seen as the proxy for the incumbent, Roh Moo-hyun, and the electorate was unhappy with the sluggish growth of the last five years under Roh.

Sluggish is a comparative term, of course. Nearby, the Japanese government just announced that its only predicting growth of 2% in its next fiscal year. The growth that makes Koreans so unhappy has been at about 4.5% annual. Still, it was a good deal more than that in pre-Roh years.

Mr. Lee was a natural figure to replace the current leadership under such conditions, as a former executive within the Hyundai corporate empire.

East Asia in general is a crucial economic driver for the world's economy, and South Korea is in the thick of it, so everyone has a special reason, not just distant philanthropic sentiment but a genuine basis in self interest, to wish the best for the people of the half peninsula.

16 December 2007

Bodily resurrection

I encountered recently in my internet surfing an expression of the idea that "substance dualism" is dead among neuroscientists and philosophers alike. Nobody with any relevant training and intellectual focus any longer believes that the soul is a thing that could survive and remain conscious separate from the body.

This author continued: "This is indeed a CRUSHING blow to religion in general, specifically Christianity, because the idea of an immortal soul is central to most religions."

Allow me just to respond to that. The disappearance of substance dualism might not be as crushing a blow as he would think, even if it were complete. After all, Christianity incorporates the idea of bodily immortality. The new testament insists that Jesus was no ghost after his death, that he returned in body, and in time ascended to heaven to the right hand of the father still in his earthly clay.

Millions of Christians believe that there will be a general resurrection of the saved. So to say that the soul will be immortal doesn't imply that it is something essentially separate from the body.

Augustine said that no dogma of the church is "more opposed" to the ways of the world than this. In his environment, filled with strict mind/body dualisms, the idea that the soul, having escaped the body, would willingly and gladly put it back on at the end of days was the most shocking aspect of Christianity to the pagans.


If we 'awake' onjudgment day to find ourselves in a reconstituted body, will we feel continuous with our present selves? Will it matter how much time will have lapsed? Will it feel like waking from a good night's sleep?

15 December 2007

Tony Soprano Pragmatism

If you type those words: Tony Soprano Pragmatism, into the google search engine, this humble blog comes up fifth on the resulting list of more than 2,000 results.

Indeed, according to sitemeter, somebody in Burlington, Mass. did did get to my blog by typing that string of words two days ago.

That person wasn't disappointed, either. (S)he spent more than 24 minutes here, looking at 15 pages. I'm proud to have received such attention for this collection of stochastically-generated sitemaster-friendly, synaptic snapshots.

My guess? Some teacher in an intro-to-philosophy course suggested a pro or con assignment on pragmatism, as part of which, said instructor suggested asking yourself "Was Tony Soprano a pragmatist?" A teacher must always use his student's existing interests as a base, after all, and presumably Tony S. was known to our Burlingtonian student going in.

I regret to say, though, that although such an inquirer into this blog could find some material on Tony, and could of course find some material on pragmatism, in the task of interestingly relating the two, I'd be unhelpful.

And so I remain even in this post, despite its promising title.

14 December 2007


I encountered recently a quotation attributed to J.P. Morgan: the elder of the father-son financiers with that illustrious name. One has to give him credit for a neat turn of phrase here:

"The time is coming when all business will have to be conducted with glass pockets."

Morgan apparently said this in a spirit of weariness or frustration. The whole idea of public scrutiny of what he was doing was repugnant to him, but he was practical enough to make some adjustments in that direction, and to prophecy that his heirs would have to go further.

The idea of business transparency has made some headway in the ninety-six years since the elder Morgan died. But then, by the standards of most earthly projects, that's a long time. Morgan barely lived long enough to see the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson.

These thoughts come to my mind this morning because the world is moving closer toward one prerequisite of transparency -- a single global system of accounting standards. The fact that different countries and regions have long had different standards can itself make balance sheets and income statements confusing or (in terms of our guiding metaphor here) opaque.


13 December 2007


If you haven't read the final book yet, and are counting on suspense, please stop reading.

For the rest of you, it has been a long time since I last reported on my readings in the final volume of this series. October 7th, in fact.

The ending of the book/series was in some ways a disappointment. Harry gets to have things both ways. He gets to make a noble self-sacrifice -- heading off in the woods at one point to what he is certain is his death -- yet through some authorly non-magical wand-waving he gets to be still alive and well at the end of the novel, too.

And the wands. There's too much in the final chapters of this book about wands. There are rules in the wizardly world about wands, and who can steal a wand from whom and how effective it will be when stolen. These rules are much discussed, and various wands show up where they aren't supposed to be. But it is all rather more confusing than any pay-off would warrant. The final defeat of Voldemort didn't really require all the stagecraft with wands.

Still, Rowling isn't just mechanically tying things up. She still has her moments of inspiration. The final appearance of the giant spiders, for example, was both unexpected and appropriate. It will look great on a movie screen when they get to that one.

And given the vastness of her achievement over seven volumes now, I'm willing togive Rowling a pass on some of the clumsiness here.

For the sentimentalists out there: Harry ends up married to Gina. They have kids and are sending them off at the famous fractional train platform in the final pages.

Ron and Hermione and there, too, sending their kids off to school, their own destinies to be determined by the sorting hat.

09 December 2007

Jersey Boys and Reality

I saw the "Jersey Boys" at a matinee performance yesterday.

Let's get it straightened out exactly who I saw performing as whom. When I walked into the theatre, the usher handed me a program, including five separate loose slips of paper announcing cast changes. This is not unusual for a matinee, I take it.

The four lead characters are: Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, Frankie Valli, and Bob Gaudio.

As an anonymous informant reminded me in a comment on this blog last week, Travis Cloer plays the Valli role on Saturday matinees these days. One of those cast-change slips they handed me says the same thing: "The role of Frankie Valli will be played by Travis Cloer."

Before the recent changes, I understand, Cloer had played the role of Joe Pesci, the future actor, a 'jersey boy' himself. The script gives Pesci credit for introducing Gaudio to the rest of the group.

So Cloer moved up, if you will, from playing 'Joey' to playing Frankie Valli. Another slip tells me that Eric Schneider stepped into the roles usually played by Cloer. So it was Schneider I saw doing Pesci.

The other three main roles were played as long advertised: by David Reichard (Gaudio), Christian Hoff (DeVito), and J. Robert Spencer (Nick Massi).

Donnie Kehr usually plays Norm Waxman. I'm afraid I can't tell you right now who "Waxman" is exactly. Isn't he the loan shark to whom DeVito owes $150,000?
That's my bet. Anyway, I didn't see Kehr playing Waxman. The slip tells me I saw John Leone doing so. And if he's who I think he is, he did a fine job with it.

I'm not a fan of so-called "jukebox musicals" as a form. I'd rather have the producers of a new musical have the guts to put some new songs into play, rather than relying on the fact that their audience already knows the tunes we're going to hear. Surprise us! Also, I'd like a plot that isn't just a strung-together quasi-documentary that glues the songs together. I enjoyed both Spelling Bee and Chicago far more than I did this. So sue me. Or, as they say in Jersey, Fuhgeddaboddit.

Notwithstanding: I had a fine time. There was some play with the philosophical issue of reality and appearance. We saw the figures on stage talking about the British invasion, and the need to resist it by going on the Ed Sullivan show (as the Liverpudlians famously had) themselves. Then a projection screen appears, and we see two things at once. On the stage we see the actors performing as the Four Seasons did on their Sullivan show gig. On the screen, we see black-and-white footage from that show.

So ... which is the reality and which is the appearance? On the screen we're seeing the "real" Four Seasons, whereas beneath it we're seeing "only" actors. On the other hand, on the stage we're seeing flesh-and-blood three dimensional humans performing. On the screen we're seeing grainy black-and-white images.

So the reality/appearance divide is relative? Like ... wow.

08 December 2007

Mezrich's latest

Rigged, the latest book by Ben Mezrich, describes the world of oil-futures trading.

It may not sound like the most natural subject for book by a general-interest publisher like William Morrow -- given the bald statement of the setting above, one might have expected Wiley & Sons to publish this.

But Mezrich became famous with a book about card counting in casinos. For him, the oil futures exchange, especially the New York Mercantile Exchange, or NYMEX, where much of this book is set, is as exciting as any casino in Vegas, and his goal is to make us feel the same.

I've written about Ben Mezrich in this blog before, in particular about his book about American arbitrageurs in east Asia, The Ugly Americans. As I said at the time, the claims of the book to be non-fiction are a bit unsettling. Mezrich changes more than merely the names of his characters, and at some point "protecting one's sources" and such becomes, simply, fictionalization.

I have the same difficulty with this one. Consider the subtitle of Rigged. It's "The True Story of an Ivy League Kid who Changed the World of Oil, from Wall Street to Dubai." The insistence upon the "true story" part is my hang-up here.

Consider, now, the following passage, the opening paragraph of chapter 3.

"There was something uniquely soothing about the whir of helicopter blades. The rhythmic, circular disruption of air, each and every turn apply calculable lift, allowing a thing that should not fly instead to float, like a magic carpet in a child's coloring book -- a carpet made of steel and Plaxiglas and in this case solid gold. Even as the rhythm slowed and the floating, five-ton, bug-eyed carpet came to a gentle rest on the jutting ivory-white helipad, the whirring blades continued their soulful cadence, the long steel appendages cutting slower and slower arcs until all that was left was the beat of the thing itself, the soothing rhythm of a thing that should not be -- but, indeed, was."

Clearly, the author is taking us inside the mind of one of his characters here. The character in question isn't the "ivy league kid" the book is written about. Rather, its another young man, a Cambridge University schooled heir to Arabic nobility, Khaled Abdul-Aziz. Khaled's desire to do something grand for the future of Dubai makes him in time an important ally to the central character's desire to modernize and expand NYMEX. And it's Khaled who is supposedly thinking these thoughts about helicopters and their soothing blades.

As a piece of descriptive prose in a novel, I'd consider the above over-wrought. And the "carpet made of steel" bit makes the helicopter sound like a train they call the City of New Orleans. Still, since we're reading a work of non-fiction, we can infer that at some point Khaled confided in Mezrich about his feelings regarding helicopters, right?

Wrong. At this point, we have to flip back to the author's note, where we find the following lovely disclaimer. "Characters such as Gallo and Khaled are composites and are not meant to portray particular people."

I'll ignore Gallo for this post. Khaled is a composite? Non-fiction is, I think, consistent with the use of composites to simplify an overly complex narrative when the author is (as here) upfront about that. But ... composites in that sense don't have a "stream of consciousness." If we portray a composite as thinking of the "slower and slower arcs" of a helicopter on the landing pad as "soothing" then we've crossed the line and created a fictional character.

The South Park character "Towlie" did this sort of "non-fiction" writing once. He had an excuse. He was smoking pot at the time.

07 December 2007

Greenberg: Man of the Year?

I love the website Dealbreaker, a purveyor of shameless Wall Street gossip, low-brow humor that may or may not have a finance-industry connection, and once in awhile, an actual thoughtful entry about some matter of public contemporary concerns.

In fact, as soon as I saw our fearless leader, President George Bush II, and Treasury Secretary Paulson, on television spelling out their plan to solve the subprime-mortgage-related credit crunch, I thought to myself, "I wonder if the folks at Dealbreaker are going to have anything to say about this?"

They didn't disappoint me. In accord with my usual plundering impulses, their thoughts are copied and pasted below.


"First of all, let’s call it what it is: a massive bailout.

"Second, let’s see how it works: price controls.

"Third, let’s not pretend that this thing will stay as small as it started. When was the last time a government program ever did that? With defaults accelerating in every type of residential mortgage, there will be intense pressure to expand the program. Recall that we’ll very likely have either Hillary Clinton or Barrack Obama in the White House next year, with Democrats continuing to control the House and Senate. Do you still think the parameter’s of the freeze won’t expand?

"Fourth, let’s notice that the Bush administration is being just about as dishonest about this as they can get away with. They’re denying it’s a bailout. Denying it operates through price-controls. In fact, they’re denying they had any serious role at all. They just brought the parties to the table. Not even the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal buys that line.

"Fifth, let’s stop pretending we actually know what the costs of the bailout will be. It’s going to take quite some time to learn exactly how this will all work out. But we’re none too satisfied that the folks putting this together have even asked the right questions much less arrived at persuasive answers. What’s the moral hazard risk that future homeowners will also look for government bailouts? What investors demand as the price for taking on the risk of a bailout in the future?

"Sixth, can 'Mortgages' be named Time Magazines Person of the Year?"


Brilliant. I endorse every word of it. Well ... I endorse the first five. I think Time ought to abandon its bad habit of naming a gimmicky evasion as POTY. It should name an actual person, not "you," or "the computer chip," or "the planet Earth."

With that thought in mind, let me propose a POTY for TIME. Herb Greenberg.

Novastar Financial has had as much to do with the blowing up of this credit bubble as any single privately owned institution you might name. And Herb Greenberg flagged Novastar's problems years ago, as early as January 2004, and has rigorously pursued them every since. He rocks, too.

Greenberg is the Smith/Emshwiller of the subprime-mortgages story. Put him on the cover of Time.

For those not familiar with the Novastar story, let me just say that it has spent most of 2007 flirting with a stock price of zero, although it has received various sorts of rescue that have so far kept it solvent. Early this year, one of the company's long-time fans, a fellow who had created a website exclusively for the promotion of this company's wonderfulness, lost faith. He posted the following swan song:

"This will be probably my last writing here. Like most long NFI investor, I am shell-shocked after the conference that took place yesterday, and quite annoyed that I participated in the collective hallucination that led so many into such a disaster. Yes, hallucination, or more to the point, collectice delusion, a variant of the latter."

And there was more in that line.

It's sad to see faith die. But of course the stock markets aren't the place for unreasoning acts of faith in the first place.

The Paulson plan is, along with everything else one might say about it, another rescue for Novastar. A rescue for a "collective delusion". The federal government will get behind belief in tinkerbell and keep her flying for awhile longer.

06 December 2007

Against riding tigers

It was one thousand and forty-four years ago this week that a council called by an Emperor deposed a Pope.

More specifically, it was on December 4 of 963 that a council called and controlled by the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto, deposed Pope John XII.

John's offense? were they arguing about Arianism or the payment of taxes on Church land or ... what?

Actually, the dispute between John XII and Otto was quite nakedly one about power. John had asked for Otto's help in protecting him from a more small-time despot, Berenger II of Italy, (a Lombard). But John soon realized that he was riding a tiger, that the Emperor's power both above and below the Alps threatened to eclipse his own.

John began a search for allies who might overthrow Otto. Otto heard about this and, unsurprisingly, took offense. Hence his call for a council.

Emperors and Popes would continue to battle for supremacy in western Europe for a long time to come, until the rise of national monarchies and Protestantism created multiple supremacies and rendered their old rivalry moot.

So this week, marking the anniversary of that deposition, let us give a smidgen, but only a smidgen, of sympathy to John XII and to tiger-riders everywhere. As a general rule, there are better ways to deal with the local trouble-maker than calling in the bigger bully from across the mountains.

02 December 2007

New Encyclical

Pope Benedict has issued a new encyclical, formally known as "Spe Salvi."

Papal encyclicals are issued in Latin, of course, and their first two words serve also as their title. "Spe salvi" comes from a biblical verse in a letter of St. Paul, "In hope we were saved," or Spe salvi facti sumus.

The gist of the encyclical seems to be that we should work toward improving this world, the secular reality into which we were born, and not let our hopes for the next one distract us from that.

On the other hand, the assurance of a next world, His Holiness tells us, will provide us with some useful perspective in our work bettering this one.

Secular hopes are often quite distant -- a utopia it may take several generations to build. But, the encyclical tells us, "a kind of hope that has nothing to do with me in person is not a real hope."

Further, we need criteria for the evaluation of whatever work we're doing to create a better world here, and that criteria must ultimately be otherworldly in nature.

More here (in English) if you're curious: http://www.zenit.org/article-21161?l=english

01 December 2007

Jersey Boys

The trip is back on. The strike after all is off.

One week from today.

For those of you who haven't heard. Its a musical based on the life of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The other three "seasons" (aside from Valli) were: Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi.

Among their hits: "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Rag Doll," "Oh What a Night," and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."

The cast?

John Lloyd Young plays Valli.
Daniel Reichard = Gaudio
Christian Hoff = DeVito, and
J. Robert Specer = Massi.

30 November 2007

The Prosecution of a Trial Lawyer

Dickie Scruggs, a very well-known and well-connected trial attorney, is in trouble.

The government announced Wednesday that Scruggs has been indicted for conspiracy to bribe. He and associates allegedly offered a judge $50,000 in return for rulings in their favor in a lawsuit against insurance companies that failed to pay out on Hurricane Katrina.

Of course, this shouldn't be allowed to discredit the underlying lawsuit. The insurers might (for all I know) have been acting in bad faith and in violation of their contracts, yet Scruggs might have been unwilling to trust his case to its merits.

At any rate, what makes this a big national story is that it's Dickie Scruggs. He is the brother-in-law of Republican honcho Trent Lott. He's quite well connected on the other side of the political aisle, as well, even without the benefit of blood or clergy.

In fact, the Hillary Clnton campaign announced yesterday that it has cancelled a fund raising event that it had scheduled for December 15 in Oxford, Mississippi. The event had been planned to take place in ... the home of Dickie Scruggs. Oops.

A rather terse statement attributed to campaign spokesman Blake Zeff says, "In light of new developments we have canceled the event."

Trent Lott isn't running for President. Hillary Clnton is. The Republicans, and the insurance companies, will no doubt make sure we hear a lot about this case in weeks and perhaps months to come ... unless Hillary's campaign tanks, in which case we'll hear somewhat less.

Personally, I think there's a lot to admire about the sort of class-action tort lawyers who are now so often demonized, and I regret the possibility that Scruggs may have acted in a way to amplify that demonization.

But maybe we're all just circling the drain, as George Carlin says, and the only rational response is to view it in detached fashion, as a spectacle.

29 November 2007

Lightning around Venus

Every once in awhile beautiful theories are destroyed by stubborn facts.

Planetary astronomers are marking such a tragedy this week, it seems, at a conference in Paris.

It has long been understood that Venus is surrounded by clouds. But for a long time, the dominant view has been that there wasn't much activity in this atmosphere regardless - the clouds are a haze, like what we call smog -- not really earth-like clouds, capable of generating lightning and thunder. That's the theory.

A new probe has detected lightning, though. That's the fact.

To be a bit more precise, the probe detected bursts of radio waves, called "whistlers," which are only associated with lightning. On earth, anyway.

This leaves scientists with three choices. Either smog can in some unexplained way generate lightning on Venus. Or the clouds aren't smog -- they're real clouds. Or something else besides lightning can generate these radio waves.

However that debate comes out, things will be a little more complicated than they would have been had the data confirmed the pre-existing theories.

Party on, European Space Agency dudes.

25 November 2007


Just a thought. Laws against polygamy seem nowadays only to be enforced where statutory rape is also involved.

A pseudo-Mormon patriarch in Utah can marry a dozen 21 year old gals. This is in violation of the statutes, but no action is taken, until he 'marries' one who is just 13. http://writ.news.findlaw.com/hamilton/20060323.html

Oddly, though, when he does marry the 13 year old, the indictment doesn't simply say statutory rape. It says (or it also says) polygamy. What's up with that?

24 November 2007

Jersey Boys

I may not have the opportunity to see Jersey Boys after all. I had planned an outing to Manhattan early next month for this purpose, but the strike news hasn't been good.

The first sentence of the above paragraph required a double-check. I wondered as I wrote it whether the show is named The Jersey Boys, or simply Jersey Boys. I checked and found that it's the latter. Further, although one could presumably write, "I won't get to see the Jersey Boys..." so long as one keeps the "t" on that "the" lower-case, what would be the point? That would sound as if I was regretting that I wouldn't see the performers of the show, whereas in fact I couldn't name the performers with a gun to my head: what I regret not seeing is the show, Jersey Boys.

The article "the" causes endless trouble of this sort. So do the meanderings of my stream of consciousness. Let's get back into the proper channel.

I may not have the opportunity to see a certain Broadway show after all. The lights of the White Way are dark at most theatres these evenings. One well-publicized exception is the St. James theatre, where The Grinch Who Stole Christmas is playing.

Presumably, the quick settlement of the strike with regard to thatone show only is related to the limited seasonal nature of the run. Nobody will care to see a Grinch-related movie in February. So settlement there is rather bad news for the other shows affected, since it would seem to indicate that everyone expects the strike to last right through the holiday season.

There are a handful of other shows that are open, because the strike is targeted at three organizations. Theatres not owned by one of those three aren't affected. Unfortunately, most of the theatres in the B-way district ARE owned by one of those three.

Still, for the benefit of the curious, here are the shows still running on Broadway:

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee
Dr' Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas
Mary Poppins
The Ritz
Young Frankenstein


I culled that list from the theatremania website. Note that "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" is the first on the alphabetical list. This is of course, because numbers are listed before letters in a conventional alpha ordering.

Notice, also, that the word "The" before "25th" is capitalized -- it is part of the name. So, logically, that item on the list ought to be written thus:

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The

The article "The" causes inordinate trouble. That's where I came in.

23 November 2007

Some Perspective, Please

Louisiana-Monroe defeated Alabama last Saturday.

If you aren't a college football fan, this fact may seem utterly trivial to you. Even if you ARE a fan, but one located as I am in Connecticut, a state where college football is less of an obsession than it seems to be in Louisiana or Alabama, Monroe's victory might seem like something ... well ... not so monumental.

Alabama's coach, though, thinks it a calamity of world-historical dimensions.

At a press conference afterwards, Nick Saban tried to make the point that a surprising defeat can provide the necessary impetus and motivation for a turnaround. Or at least that's the point I think he was trying to make. Decide for yourself:

"Changes in history usually occur after some kind of catastrophic event. It may be 9/11, which sort of changed the spirit of America relative to catastrophic events. Pearl Harbor kind of got us ready for World War II and that was a catastrophic event."

Okay, coach. Lay off on the coffee, okay? Thousands of human beings died on September 11, 2001. It wasn't really much like a loss to Monroe.

We're not angry, buddy. We're worried about you. Come off the ledge. [It'll be sort of like a Dunkirk. You should pull back and regroup. Oops. Now you've got me doing it.]

22 November 2007

Patton and the Press

A certain radio program aired on November 21, 1943 -- so yesterday was its anniversary -- and I think it is worth acknowledging for the way it reflects upon contemporary events.

That August, General Patton had slapped an American GI in a field hospital. Actually, there were two such incidents -- one on August 3, one on the 10th -- which popular memory has melded into one.

So far as I can tell, everyone who has studied the incidents agrees on this: neither of the slap recipients was a malingerer. Each was in fact a deserving recipient of medical attention, and Patton was acting like a jerk.

Question: how did the incident(s) become common knowledge? The reporters covering the war for the US papers were in no hurry to run stories that discredited US officers. By some accounts, several reporters knew of the slaps yet didn't think them worthy of print.

That's how matters remained for three months, until columnist Drew Pearson learned of it and ran it on his radio program. That program aired on November 21, 1943, which is why I'm writing this today.

It's a big moment in the history of combat coverage. Was Drew Pearson right to do what he did? Would he be a hero or a goat if he did the same today, if a commanding officer in Iraq did the slapping?

I know nothing about Drew Pearson, but I would assume absent evidence that there wasn't any isolationist motive to his action that November. He was likely fully convinced of the rightness of the war effort. Furthermore, the "Patton" of legend, the Patton who would be played in the classic George C. Scott movie, hadn't yet made his appearance on the battlefield. He'd create that legend in France, later in the war.

Patton's actions were a court martialable offense. Reporters, then as now, often prided themselves upon taking the ordinary rank-and-file soldier's point of view, and sharing that soldier's grievances against the brass. Surely it must have been a tempting story for some ink-stained wretches during that three-month period.

Were they wrong to agree to sit on the story? I think there is a case to be made that things worked out for the best. The in-theatre reporters (the "embedded" ones as we would say) who knew first, are the ones who have to play ball with their sources. Pearson was no party to whatever gentleman's agreement they had made. So possibly everybody was doing the right thing.

How would it play out today?

Oh, and one more thing -- happy Thanksgiving to all.

18 November 2007

Hurrah for Bollywood

At a time of emergency rule in Pakistan, when the military can't do anything about the Taliban but it can lock up lawyers and independently-minded judges at will ... the brightest ray of hope may come from Bollywood, the renowned film industry of the giant and often adversarial nation to Pakistan's south.

A new movie, called "Goal" (which is, as you might guess from the title, about soccer/aka football) is the first Bollywood movie to be exhibited in Pakistan since 1965.

Bread and circuses? Is this a case of a Caesar trying to keep the people content with entertainment?

It's possible to see it cynically. But the lifting of the ban on Bolywood movies is also inevitably an opening of the nation to influences from the south, and the lessening of an enmity between two nations that are both now nuclear.

Its a good thing. Praise Allah. And Vishnu.

17 November 2007

No butt-kissing here

These days, instead of criticism proper, many periodicals and for that matter online news sources give us an "entertainment" section.

The goal of an entertainment section isn't to criticize. It's to merchandize. Its to get "access" to Dustin Hoffman, which you can do by telling your readers how wonderful all his movies have always been and will always be -- so that maybe he'll favor you with an interview.

I appreciate it when someone swims upwards, back toward criticism, against this stream. The latest such salmon-like effort is Owen Gleiberman's delightful review of "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium." Give CNN its props for this.

I was watching the folks on the Today show gush over it recently, but from the clips they showed I couldn't really get what all the gushing was about. Gleiberman lets me suspect that my instincts are sound.


16 November 2007

Trolley Car Moral Philosophy

Its a venerable thought experiment in moral philosophy.

An out-of-control trolley car is hurtling down its tracks. It is about at a switching point (or whatever the proper terminology is) and could follow one of two routes. Along path 1, it will crash into and certainly kill one person. Along path 2 it will crash into and certainly kill two people.

No one is near the switch except you. You have no job with the trolley company, so you have no responsibility to an employer that might complicate things, you just happen to be the only person on the spot.

Suppose, as you look closely, you discover that the switch is in the position that, unless you change it in a hurry, will mean that when the trolley car gets there it will follow path 2. Do you change it? to follow path 1 and kill only one person?

If you're a radical utilitarian, like Peter Singer, you would. One death is better (or less bad) than two deaths, and that's all that matters. On this basis, Singer maintains that the affluent effectively commit murder simply by not donating money to the starving. But most people also have a contrary intuition at work in the trolley intuition.

Most people would think that if you took action, and MOVED the switch, you would be KILLING (not just "letting die") the one person into whom the trolley would then crash. If you don't do anything to the switch, two will die -- those deaths will be accidental, and they would be the same deaths that would have occurred had you been nowhere near the switch that day.

I submit that in such a situation, you might well say "it is not for me to make this decision," and you wouldn't touch the switch at all, so as not to be guilty of kiling the one. Of course, Singer thinks you'd be guilty of killing the other two by inaction. But that's the point, isn't it? Perhaps utilitarianism is an abstract theory that overrides the normal and healthy intuitions about one's own personal responsibilities and what philosophers often call "agency."

If you don't agree, consider another runaway trolley. There's no switch this time. You're standing next to the track and a fat person is standing next to you, absorbed in his newspaper or otherwise unaware of what's going on. You're a body builder, so you figure you COULD stop the trolley and save the two people in its way further downhill, but only in one way -- by grabbing the fat person and throwing him on the track. The train will hit and kill him, but the weight of his corpse will then slow it down and let the two others survive.

The calculus in sheer numbers is the same. Killing one to save two. One death is still presumably less bad than two. Only in this case it is more obvious that you're killing that one -- you're picking him up and throwing him on the track. Do you see a problem with that? I would hope you do.

And, yes, I suppose last month's trip to San Francisco made me more hospitable to hypotheticals that involve trolley cars than I had been.

15 November 2007

Cartoon captions again

How long has it been since I described the cartoon caption contest on the back page of The New Yorker in this blog? Let me go look. Talk amongst yourselves.

I found it. The last time was ... August first. Three and a half months ago. I check such things because I'm always worried I may end up on too tight a loop, repeating myself on any subject without the proper decent interval.

Three and a half months seems to me a large enough loop. So here we go.

The winning caption from last week? The cartoon is of two men in robes who look like stereotypical angels, with wings and halos. They are seated on the same cloud, but they look bored.

One of these men is speaking to the other. The caption is, of course, supposed to indicate what he's saying. The winner proposed, "I always figured Hell would be less ironic."

Just to the right of that is a caption contest that has reached its final stage. The picture here shows Mr. Potato Head sitting at a bar, with what looks like a beer in front of him. There's a well-dressed man at the same bar, one seat over. There are three finalists as to what Mr. Potato Head is saying:

a) If I start to drink too much, just pull off my lips.
b) My wife left me for Mr. Peanut.
c) I should have stopped after the botox.

Do you, gentle reader, have any opion as to which of those is most humorous? Personally, I would exclude (b) on grounds of confusion. Mr. Peanut is a commercial logo, but not so far as I know a popular children's toy. "My wife left me for G.I. Joe" would be consistent, although a bit too obvious. "for the Ken doll?"

Anyway, (b) as is won't float. Also, (a) seems pretty obvious, which leaves me leaning toward (c).

Below both of those, there's the new contest. It shows a judge (a man, judging from the hairline) in robes and seated behind the bench. But the judge's bench is also a sink, and he's washing dishes! This is a bit like Dada-ist art.

There's also a bailiff standing in front of the judge. He may be about the inform His Honor of something, "The prisoner is ready to be brought it," or whatever this bailiff might say. That, of course, wouldn't be funny and wouldn't reference the kitchen sink.

So ... what's it gonna be?

11 November 2007

Philosophic Musings

Empiricism: the view that knowledge of the world is a construct from the raw materials provided by the senses. Vision gives me "red here now." Touch tells me that what is in front of me is in a roughly spherical shape. Taking a bite adds taste to the impressions that this is an apple.

Voila! we've just constructing a datum, a bit of knowledge, "I am holding an apple," from the various senses. Empiricism says that (a) all knowledge is like that, although usually more complicated, and (b) knowledge obtained in this way is reliable, so we don't need any other source.

External-world skepticism undercuts this theory directly. It says, "My senses have been wrong about a lot of things. I see railroad tracks converging in the distance, for example, but they don't really converge at all -- they remain parallel. Maybe, then, my senses are wrong about everything, or at least about so much so often that nothing I think I know about the world outside my body -- about apples or pears, planets or stars, sound waves or ocean tides -- is at all reliable."

Hume's problem of induction undercuts empiricism somewhat more subtly. Induction is the form of reasoning that says, "every X that I've ever seen has attribute Y. I've seen enough of X to consider this a fair sample. Thus, I conclude that all Xs have Y." Every human in recorded history has proven mortal -- few have lived beyond 100 years, none that we can be sure of have ever lived beyond 150. So ... all men are mortal!

If classical empiricism is right, then induction is very important. Recognizing a single fruit's attributes, as in my apple example above, is one thing. But one might argue that impressive knowledge only comes about once we start talking about large classes of things. If we can't reliably make inductions, perhaps empiricism can't account for the more impressive sorts of knowledge at all.

So Hume's challenge: show, within the confines of empiricism, why induction is reliable!

Do you, dear reader, think empiricism can be defended from those two types of criticism? Can it best be defended by transforming itself into ... pragmatism?

10 November 2007

Documentary Movies

I saw a documentary movie yesterday, "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" -- 2005. For those of you who'd like to know more about it, go here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1016268/

It got me to thinking about the documentary as a genre. An ancient critical precept holds that the goal of any art, in any medium, is dual: the please and to teach (to "delight and to instruct," in older translations). If we're not pleased by watching it, we won't. If we're only pleased, if we don't feel that we gain anything from those two hours other than a fleeting uptick in hedonic points, there will come a point pretty quickly when it, too, isn't worthy of our time.

Perhaps the difference between documentaries and other movies is simply that in the former the "teach" part of the old formula is more in-your-face.

Not long ago, I saw an old 1930s movie about Marco Polo. Nobody would confuse it with a documentary. The Italian and Chinese characters both spoke English (which was convenient) and everybody looked Caucasian. But even that movie had some instructive value. Marco Polo discovers pasta and firecrackers, he is on hand when the Khan tries to conquer Japan, etc.

Still, genre boundaries aren't quite that loose. What is the definition of a documentary film, for the purposes say of awarded an Oscar?

There are rules that have to do with the movies' continuing competition with the small screen, television. One of Michael Moore's movies was once ruled inelible for consideration by the academy because he allowed it to be shown on TV in the same year as its theatrical release. Another highly regarded documentary, Grizzly Man, was I understand excluded because the producers relied too much on archival footage. (So what? Film editing is less valuable for a documentarian than the actual photography?)

Upon further consideration, I don't think the Academy is of much help in this matter.

And I'm not really going anywhere with this line of thought so I might as well allow it to peter out right around ....

09 November 2007

Just a Guess

A young friend of mine recently told me that about 90% of the people he meets in his "Journalism and Mass Communication" major in college are liberal, and asked me whether that was the case back in the prehistoric days when I attended college.

I didn't have intimate knowledge of our Communications Dept. at Marist, since I was a poli-sci major with a pre-law focus. But I did know some of them, and I had to tell my young friend that, yes, they were probably to the left of the campus average, however exactly one would go about measuring or defining the scale.

He asked whether I had any thoughts on why this is so. The best I could do was this:

I suspect that the characteristics that go by the label "liberal" in the US are, largely, characteristics psychologically associated with the love of words, word-play, compositional skill, etc.

I also suspect that "conservatism" tends to be psychologically associated with the love of numbers, calculation, and and keen sense of spatial relations.

I have no real good evidence for any of that, its just a hunch based on personal experience.

If there's anything to it, one would expect budding journalists to be "liberals," except possibly those who wanted to specialize in financial and/or science journalism, who might be numbers-people, and thus "conservatives."

This sort of psychological (neurological) clustering may, indeed, be at the bottom of what the words mean.

08 November 2007

New York Times goof

The New York Times did a puff piece on "Money Honey" Maria Bartiromo on Monday. She came under intense criticism in January for conflicts of interests, under circumstances that suggested hanky-panky on a corporate jet. That's all settled down, though, and as the NYT story suggests at length, she's had a good year since.

Why do I care? I don't. But this is what I care about. The reporters transcribing her interview evidently didn't know enough about contemporary finance to know what a "sovereign fund" is.

“I love this thing now called sovereign funds,” she said, meaning the large pools of capital amassed by governments in Asia and the Middle East, and managed by groups like Cutter Associates, an international investment firm. “I had the head of Cutter on and he said: ‘Look, we have $60 billion we want to put to work.’ I find that kind of stuff so exciting. I find it so sexy.”

(That's how the final graf of the story read when it first ran. It's been changed since, so that's not exactly what you'll see if you look for the online version. I'm getting to that.)

A "sovereign fund" is by definition an investment fund operated by, and in pursuance of the policy goals of, the government of a sovereign nation. Usually a nation that's got way more revenues that it can spend on ordinary government operations, and it needs to figure out what to do with the surplus. Oil exporting nations are often in that situation.

It seems pretty obvious, if you know that much, that she wasn't talking about Cutter Associates. That's a research/consultancy. http://www.cutterassociates.com/cutter_research/index.html

I doubt Cutter has $60 billion lying around. And even if it did, it wouldn't be a "sovereign fund."

No, the Money Honey was talking about the Qatar Investment Authority. Qatar is pronounced much like Cutter, at least by those of us unaccustomed to the phonetics of the Arabic tongue. I can only hypothesize that the interviewer heard "Cutter something something," wrote it down, and did a google search later. What do you know? google doesn't recognize "Cutter" as being "Qatar," but it would refer the inquiry to Cutter Associates, which "must be what she meant." So that's how it got into the story.

I'm not a reliable reader of the New York Times. I read something when I have a reason to. In this case, a couple of blogs I check out regularly jumped on it, and I followed the link from one of them.

Surely, you might think, this would be easily fixed, right? It would come to the attention of some editor who knows what a sovereign fund is, and "Cutter Associates" would be changed into "Qatar Investment Authority." Heck, Maria might give them a call and say "that's not what I said or meant" if she had a moment.

Well, I don't know whether Maria called. But somebody at the NYT recognized the problem. And there was a change. But not really the right one. If you surf over to the on-line version of the story now (unless they change it again between the time I'm writing this and the time you read it) it'll say "Qatar Associates." You'll also find a "For the Record" correction pointing this change out.

There is no Qatar Associates. At least when they printed "Cutter Associates" they were referring to a real institution, even if it's the wrong one. On the third try, they might actually check out a link like this: http://www.zawya.com/cm/profile.cfm/cid1003480

and learn something about the Qatar Investment Authority.

I think Felix Salmon draws the right lesson from all this, so I won't make any puns about his feline/fishy name. Here's his take.


04 November 2007

James Russell Lowell

I trust that this poem, "The Present Crisis," is in the public domain, because I'm going to reproduce all thundering 90 lines of it.

Lowell wrote the following in 1844, and the "present" crisis he had in mind involved expansion -- the Oregon boundary dispute to the northwest and the proposed annexation of Texas, with the prospect of a war with Mexico in the near background, to the southwest.


WHEN a deed is done for Freedom, through the broad earth’s aching breast
Runs a thrill of joy prophetic, trembling on from east to west,
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels the soul within him climb
To the awful verge of manhood, as the energy sublime
Of a century bursts full-blossomed on the thorny stem of Time.

Through the walls of hut and palace shoots the instantaneous throe,
When the travail of the Ages wrings earth’s systems to and fro;
At the birth of each new Era, with a recognizing start,
Nation wildly looks at nation, standing with mute lips apart,
And glad Truth’s yet mightier man-child leaps beneath the Future’s heart.

So the Evil’s triumph sendeth, with a terror and a chill,
Under continent to continent, the sense of coming ill,
And the slave, where’er he cowers, feels his sympathies with God
In hot tear-drops ebbing earthward, to be drunk up by the sod,
Till a corpse crawls round unburied, delving in the nobler clod.

For mankind are one in spirit, and an instinct bears along,
Round the earth’s electric circle, the swift flash of right or wrong;
Whether conscious or unconscious, yet Humanity’s vast frame
Through its ocean-sundered fibres feels the gush of joy or shame;—
In the gain or loss of one race all the rest have equal claim.

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
Parts the goats upon the left hand, and the sheep upon the right,
And the choice goes by forever ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Hast thou chosen, O my people, on whose party thou shalt stand,
Ere the Doom from its worn sandals shakes the dust against our land?
Though the cause of Evil prosper, yet ’tis Truth alone is strong,
And, albeit she wander outcast now, I see around her throng
Troops of beautiful, tall angels, to enshield her from all wrong.

Backward look across the ages and the beacon-moments see,
That, like peaks of some sunk continent, jut through Oblivion’s sea;
Not an ear in court or market for the low foreboding cry
Of those Crises, God’s stern winnowers, from whose feet earth’s chaff must fly;
Never shows the choice momentous till the judgment hath passed by.

Careless seems the great Avenger; history’s pages but record
One death-grapple in the darkness ’twixt old systems and the Word;
Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,—
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

We see dimly in the Present what is small and what is great,
Slow of faith how weak an arm may turn the iron helm of fate,
But the soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din,
List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within,—
‘They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.’

Slavery, the earth-born Cyclops, fellest of the giant brood,
Sons of brutish Force and Darkness, who have drenched the earth with blood,
Famished in his self-made desert, blinded by our purer day,
Gropes in yet unblasted regions for his miserable prey;—
Shall we guide his gory fingers where our helpless children play?

Then to side with Truth is noble when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses, while the coward stands aside,
Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord is crucified,
And the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

Count me o’er earth’s chosen heroes,—they were souls that stood alone,
While the men they agonized for hurled the contumelious stone,
Stood serene, and down the future saw the golden beam incline
To the side of perfect justice, mastered by their faith divine,
By one man’s plain truth to manhood and to God’s supreme design.

By the light of burning heretics Christ’s bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever with the cross that turns not back,
And these mounts of anguish number how each generation learned
One new word of that grand Credo which in prophet-hearts hath burned
Since the first man stood God-conquered with his face to heaven upturned.

For Humanity sweeps onward: where to-day the martyr stands,
On the morrow crouches Judas with the silver in his hands;
Far in front the cross stands ready and the crackling fagots burn,
While the hooting mob of yesterday in silent awe return
To glean up the scattered ashes into History’s golden urn.

’Tis as easy to be heroes as to sit the idle slaves
Of a legendary virtue carved upon our father’s graves,
Worshippers of light ancestral make the present light a crime;—
Was the Mayflower launched by cowards, steered by men behind their time?
Turn those tracks toward Past or Future, that make Plymouth Rock sublime?

They were men of present valor, stalwart old iconoclasts,
Unconvinced by axe or gibbet that all virtue was the Past’s;
But we make their truth our falsehood, thinking that hath made us free,
Hoarding it in mouldy parchments, while our tender spirits flee
The rude grasp of that great Impulse which drove them across the sea.

They have rights who dare maintain them; we are traitors to our sires,
Smothering in their holy ashes Freedom’s new-lit altar-fires;
Shall we make their creed our jailer? Shall we, in our haste to slay,
From the tombs of the old prophets steal the funeral lamps away
To light up the martyr-fagots round the prophets of to-day?

New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.

03 November 2007

Bram Stoker

It hasn't been so long since Halloween already that we can't spare a moment to remember Bram Stoker, 1847-1912, the novelist and dramatist who gave to vampire lore its classically Victorian formulation.

I say "dramatist" because Stoker -- an Irishman -- was an actor at, and the manager of, a London theatre beginning in 1878. To an ambitious Irishman in the arts in the 19th century, politics notwithstanding, going to London was "making the big time." Indeed, it is still thus, as you can see from the attitude of the Dublin musicians in the recent bittersweet romantic movie "Once."

It is, I submit, worth spending the time and pixels to make that observation because Stoker gave to vampire lore the element one might expect from a man who crashed the London dramatic scene in his early thirties. Dracula is the same way. A man trying to make it in the big time.

One theme of the fanous novel, I submit, is that the Count could be a frightening bigshot to the peasants of Transylvania. He could have the huge scary castle on the mountain. But if he really wanted to be in the center of the world he's have to bite some blood in London!

When we first see him, the Count is already negotiating with a real-estate agent to obtain a house in that city.

I can hear Frank Sinatra in the background of the novel. "If you can bite necks there you'll bite them ... anywhere."

02 November 2007

U.S. Trade Deficit

Okay, so not everything I have to say about economics and finance will go onto my other site, despite the bifurcation.

Proxypartisans.blogspot.com will get the micro-economic stuff, which will free me up to be macro when I write here.

Today, let's say a little something about the U.S. trade deficit, which is the one of our nation's problems that troubles me the most -- the war saddens me, but the trade deficit troubles me.

I'll begin with what must be the least controversial statement possible on the subject. The trade deficit comes about because, by definition, the US is selling to the rest of the world less than what we collectively are buying from the rest of the world.

The US/China trade deficit has caused the greatest amount of angst, although to talk about these things in bilateral terms always risks distortion. Consider my relationship with my barber. He cuts hair for a living, I write about economics for a living. He doesn't have any need of my services -- except perhaps very indirectly -- I have regular need of his. So I'm in a drastic condition of trade deficit vis-a-vis my barber.

Fortunately, I'm in a condition of trade surplus vis-a-vis my employer, so I use the proceeds from the labor I sell to pay for the haircuts I buy.

The problem arises, though, when I'm in a trade deficit as against the rest of the world. And the problem compounds as that trade deficit preserves itself year after year, decade after decade, and I have to borrow from the rest of the world in order to finance my purchases from the rest of the world.

This is a dynamic situation. On a national level, its the de-something-or-other. Deindustrialization? Maybe not. But de-something. And on a national level, too, it is worth noting, whatever the particular terminology you wish to adopt for it.

Fortunately, things may be improving. The US trade deficit decreased somewhat in August 2007, the last month for which statistics are available. But it decreased to the still quite impressive number of $57.6 billion. In other words, in August the United States sold the rest of the world goods and services worth $138.3 billion. We bought from the rest of the world goods and services worth $195.9 billion.

Blaming "the media" doesn't cut it. Don't shoot the messenger. That is real news about which there ought to be more reporting, not less. This sort of deficit has become almost taken for granted over the last twenty years or so. Google the phrase "Plaza Agreement 1985" and you'll see what I mean.

01 November 2007

The Day of Battle

The title of this blog entry is that of a new book by historian Rick Atkinson, about the war in Sicily and Italy in 1943 -- 44.

This is the middle part of a projected trilogy on the Anglo-American armies and the liberation of (western) Europe.

The first book, An Army at Dawn, discussing the liberation of North Africa, was very highly praised -- and won the Pulitzer Prize.

The third book will of course start with Normandy and end at the Elbe.

But let's get to it: the first sentence of the second book reads: "She could be heard long before she was seen on that foggy Tuesday morning, May 11, 1943."

The "she" in question, it soon transpires, is a ship -- the Queen Mary -- which on thatdate brought Winston Churchill into New York harbor. He was coming, with a sizeable retinue of staff and generals, to argue with Roosevelt and his retinue about the next step in the war, as well as to offer Congress a first-hand taste of his oratorical skills.

At that time, the American high command was very wary of moving up the boot of Italy. Thegenerals' preference was to mass forces in England in preparation for a Cross-Channel landing on the presumption that when Hitler fell, Mussolini would be just a mop-up operation. They didn't expect that the cross-channel invasion could happen until another year had passed, but they figured there was enough to do in the Pacific and Asian theares during that intervening year anyway.

Churchill was an enthusiast of an Italian campaign, a strike at what he called the "soft underbelly" of Europe. At best, it might inspire the Italians to change sides quickly, and the assist their new allies in a quick war-winning strike north, across the Alps, to Berlin, making a cross-Channel action unnecessary. At worst, it would pressure Hitler to send troops south, relieving pressure on the Russians.

What they adopted -- an Italian campaign coupled with continued plans for the cross-channel invasion the following years -- might or might not have been the best thing militarily. If it was, the fact was an accident. The compromise wasn't a result of a strategic breakthrough but was a political deal to paper over the profoundly different perspectives of the allies, and Atkinson explains the wheeling and dealing that went into this quite well.

28 October 2007

A Halloween Column

A few words, appropriate to the season, about logic and the spirit of defiance.

My expectation is that my next entry into Pragmatism Refreshed will have to wait until November 1,m Thursday, by which time of course the Great Pumpkin will have risen, rewarded Linus for his fidelity, and gone on his way.

In the words of a 19th century German logician, Christoph von Sigwart (1830 - 1894): "No amount of failure in the attempt to subject the world of sensible experience to a thorough-going system of conceptions, and to bring all happenings back to cases of immutably valid law, is able to shake our faith in the rightness of our principles. We hold fast to our demand that even the greatest apparent confusion must sooner or later solve itself in transparent formulas."

The "we" in the second of those sentences is the western post-Renaissance scientific spirit, inclined to put facts into tables and draw conclusions, then impute those conclusions to God or (what is the same) the nature of things.

As Dostoyevsky knew, as his "underground man" expressed with eloquence at about the time that Sigwart was writing those words, there is also that within "us" that rebels against the "transparent formulas" in which "we" have such faith. So let the thorough-going system of conceptions have the other 364 days of the year. This one is given over to defiance, to sensible experiences that aren't so sensible, and aren't interested in "solving themselves." To flights on broomsticks and knocks on the door though nobody is there.

27 October 2007

My future as a blogger

I'm going to cut back on my entries to Pragmatism Refreshed. Why? Because I've begun a new blog, here, www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com -- and I'm splitting my constant quantum of blogging energy into two.

Proxy partisans is what it sounds like -- a blog with a tighter focus on the battles for control in corporate America, as waged through the proxy machinery required by the laws of the state of Delaware (usually) with some impositions on the federal level.

Meanwhile, Pragmatism Refreshed will continue as it is -- a receptacle for whatever is passing through my head on a particular day -- the ultimate vent.

The distribution of efforts should be 50/50, so I hope those of you who've been checking in on a daily basis will keep up that habit, or modify it only slightly and check in once every couple of days to see what's new.

By the way, the new issue of Conde Nast's Portfolio is on newsstands. I bought one in an airport on my way across the country Thursday. It's their best issue yet (though that isn't a really high bar for them to clear, either). They may be beginning to find a distinctive voice. The articles on the chocolate industry and the pertinent FDA regulations was a fun read, from the pen of Alexandra Wolfe, the daughter of Thomas Wolfe.

Her father didn't really do the magazine any favors in its inaugural issue, as I believe I've mentioned on this blog. His contribution, which started with a failed effort at onomatopoeia -- in this case, an effort to represent the sound of fists banging on a door -- was just silly, on a lot of levels.

But Alexandra has done Portfolio, and the family name, proud.

26 October 2007

Good to be home

As regular readers of this blog likely remember, I check out the local newspapers when I travel, not for the usual AP/Reuters stuff that I'd read anywhere else in the world, of course, but for the local stories.

As might be expected, in San Francisco over the last few days the BIG story has been the devastation in the southern part of their state, with some obvious local angles -- the bay area fire departments are sending assistance to their brethren, etc.

Less, predictably, a front page story in the San Francisco Chronicle Saturday said that there may be a serial killer preying on the homeless who camp out in Gold Gate Park. There have been three recent homicides there in recent weeks -- September 4 and 8, and October 16. Tensions with neighbors who see the homeless not as harmless eccentrics but as somewhere between a nuisance and a danger has been runing high at any rate. Some of the interviewees thought that might be behind the killings. But that seems implausible to the experts interviewed, who think there ismore likely a connection to the lively crack-cocaine traffic in the area.

A much lighter story inside the same paper, same day, concerned the consolations to be found in moving out of a home one owns, especially in an overpriced area, into a rental situation. The reporter, Susan Fornodd, and her husband, moved to a rental house less than a mile from one they used to own.

Still too serious a subject for you? In implication if not in tine? there's one even further inside the paper about collectors of Halloween kitsch, who are apparently excited now about Tiffany plates with pumpkin illustrations.

I did a lot of thinking during my travels about my own blogging future, and I'll bring you all into my confidence tomorrow.

17 October 2007

"It's Not a Picture, Daddy."

This will likely be my last post here for a few days. I hope its a good one.

On my Vermont travels this weekend, my friend and I stopped at a gorge, where the Black River cuts deep through the mountainside just down the road from Woodstock.

We weren't the only ones with cameras to have stopped there. It was a beautiful day for sight-seeing (site-seeing? -- either homonym works) and the bridge over this gorge was crowded.

I saw a father trying to encourage the inner sighte-seer in his daughter. He asked her, "Isn't this a wonderful picture? The colorful trees and the water...."

She interrupted his exposition to say: "It's not a picture, Daddy."

That's an insightful little girl. She has a great career in philosophy ahead of her. Dad was using the term "picture" non-literally of course, but the child's mind grasped the difference between being 'really here' and the mediation of somebody else's photo, painting, etc.

She is the connection between my post Monday on the Vermont trip and my post yesterday on the philosophical question: What is reality? The reality/picture distinction is that between the artificially framed view someone else has chosen for me, and the unframed view -- or, more strictly, the naturally framed view my nervous system provides.

Hollywood can imagine a "matrix" for her in which she only thinks she's standing at a gorge, and Descartes can imagine an evil demon who tricks her into thinking she's at the gorge. But even within those artfully constructed worlds, the reality/representation distinction reasserts itself. Within the matrix, there would still be a here-now experience of the gorge on the one hand and various partial representations of it on the other, so such hypotheses don't shed the sort of doubt upon that valuable distinction that their creators sometimes think they do.

If you had a home at that scene, you'd have realty near the reality, which would put your "i" in the middle of it.

16 October 2007


Let's ask that everlasting favorite question: what is reality?

We must begin any chain of thought somewhere, and since the question itself presumes that "reality" is our goal, not our premise, we can't start there.

So let's begin with what is sometimes taken to be its antonym, "appearance."

I submit that although there is a sense in which it is right to take appearance/reality as antonyms (and I'll get back to that) there is a broader sense in which our conception of reality has to be built up out of appearances.

Reality, broadly considered, has the following four constituents:

1)Everything that has ever appeared to anyone – whether the appearing has been long-lasting or fleeting, consequential or not – a wood stove keeping you warm or purple spots before your eyes indicating illness. Everything that has ever appeared to anyone has this much reality – it really has appeared! So we start with that. This is the "cogito" part of a famous formula.

2)Also, there are potential appearances. The noise the tree makes in the uninhabited forest. Of course, somebody might have been there. Somebody might be there the next time a tree falls. We ought to have a conception of reality broad enough to include such unrealized possibilities.

3)Invisible cosmic machinery. We postulate that various things must be happening or have happened in order to make sense of that which appears to us. After all, appearances are strikingly law-like and predictable. The sun appears to rise in the east every morning. We postulate the laws of gravity and inertia that make sense of this, and this machinery too is real.

4)Those to whom things appear. Conscious minds. Us. This is the "Sum" part of the formula.

So reality, I imagine you might say, has all of those constituents. But it is often used in a narrower sense, focused especially upon (3). This is what we mean when we say, “I’m not interested in the appearances, only in the underlying realities.” Some appearances are privileged because they fit nicely with one another into a coherent whole, and with the underlying cosmic machinery we postulate. Other appearances, like the strange sights I dreamy last night, or the purple spots that swim briefly before my eyes when I suffer from a fever, don’t have that privilege, and are “merely” appearances, nothing more.

We might also consider the English language term “realty” or “real estate.” Land and the buildings permanently affixed to it are more real than other forms of property, by common consent as suggested in the language used to describe them. Why is that?

15 October 2007


I drove to Vermont Saturday with a friend to see what we could see of the colorful leaves of October.

What sticks in my mind is that we spent some time in Springfield, Vermont, the town that hosted the Simpsons premier.

The Simpsons, as you probably know, is a cartoon television show that takes place in a "Springield" of no definite state. See my August 2 blog entry for a description of the movie. The point to retain for now is that the clues that the series (and the movie) provide to the location of its Springfield are famously contradictory. Still, Springfield Vermont hosted the movie premier, and it is still celebrating.


Its got a statue out in front of a building that may be townhall, of a hand (Homer's, presumably) holding a donut with sprinkles and a bite in it.

Also, the restaurant we stopped at for a cup of coffee has Simpsons-themes menus.

Another point sticks to mind: the difficulty of finding decent radio stations while driving through the Green Mountains. When I tired of statis, I put on my CD of the songs of the musical "Spelling Bee," which I'm afraid my leaf-peeping partner disliked.

See my April 12 entry for what I like about that musical.

Still, by the time we got back into Massachusetts it was possible to get a decent signal from radio stations we could both listen to with pleasure.

And that will conclude this travelogue.

14 October 2007

Robert Barclay

In the words of Robert Barclay, one of the first generation of Quakers:

"All true and acceptable worship to God is offered in the inward and immediate moving and drawing of his own Spirit, which is neither limited to places, times, nor persons: for though we be to worship him always, and that we are continually to fear before him, yet as to the outward signification thereof in prayers, praises or preachings, we ought not to do it in our own will, where and when we will; but where and when we are moved thereunto by the stirring and secret inspiration of the Spirit of God in our hearts; which God heareth and accepteth of, and is never wanting to move us thereunto when need is, of which he himself is the alone proper judge. All other worship then, both praises, prayers or preachings, which man sets about in his own will and at his own appointment, which he can both begin and end at his pleasure, do or leave undone as himself seeth meet, whether they be a prescribed form, as a liturgy, &c., or prayers conceived extempore by the natural strength and faculty of the mind, they are all but superstitions, will-worship, and abominable idolatry in the sight of God, which are now to be denied and rejected, and separated from in this day of his spiritual arising, however it might have pleased him (who 'winked at the times of ignorance,' with a respect to the simplicity and integrity of some, and of his own innocent Seed, which lay, as it were, buried in the hearts of men under that mass of superstition) to 'blow upon the dead and dry bones,' and to raise some breathings of his own and answer them; and that until the day should more clearly dawn and break forth."

13 October 2007

Yes, Close the Loophole

I don't believe in taxation in general. I don't believe in sovereignty or government either. All that is implied in the label "anarcho-capitalist" which is part of the mission statement of this blog.

Ordinarily, then, I wouldn't get involved in debates over particular tax proposals up or down. It is my mission as an anarcho-cap to think out of precisely that box.

Still, I have seen (relatively) strong and weak arguments made in "within the box" terms, in debates especially over what does or doesn't count as a capital gain. I know the difference -- between strong and weak that is -- and some of the arguments made to defend tax loopholes, made to defend in particular favorable capital-gains like treatment for some very ordinary-income type cash receipts (by the managers of hedge and private equity funds) are painfully weak.

I keep hearing and reading these bad arguments for how compensation for that particular sort of well-remunerated employment should really be considered capital gains because it takes place within the context of a limited partnership and the managers have their own money involved so its only fair to be nice to them and we don't want to wage class warfare by calling compensation by its right name. It is painful to watch it, but I do my duty.

On September 8, on this blog, away from the obligations of employment and propriety, I discussed the general considerations governing why capital gains are generally treated favorably in the first place. All I'll say today in expansion upon that is: Leges non verbis, sed rebus, sunt impositae.

Or, in humbler non-Latin terms, I reminded of the story about Abraham Lincoln in which he asked a cabinet member, "how many legs does a dog have if we call a tail a leg?"

"Well, sir, then it would have five."

"No. It would have four. Calling a tail a leg won't make it a leg."

Income is income, and income earned by managerial effort is "ordinary income" for which the law prescribes a rate. Calling it capital gains for various spurious reasons ought to stop. Or ought to be seen for what it is by the general run of folks who can't benefit by such trickery, in the hope that seeing what is underway here will diminish their attachment to the myth of sovereignty and will help hasten the day of anarcho-capitalism.

12 October 2007

Advertising on XBox

Yesterday's New York Times ran a fascinating business story about Toyota's movement into the video game world.

It isn't selling the games. It is selling itself within the games. Advertising -- or more strictly, product placement -- has come to the world of the Xbox.

The Times' story starts with a new Toyota Yaris which "has a giant tentacle that reaches out of its roof to shoot enemies as it races through a futuristic tunnel, sometimes within inches of soaring fireballs," and is the central character in the new Xbox game, also accordingly called Yaris.

This may be the best pop cultural thing to happen to Toyota iun the US since South Park portrayed the owners of its Prius as impossibly smug people whose self-satisfaction may result in meteorological disaster.

Actually, it might be an even better bit of product placement than that.

The Yaris (not the model with the robotic tentacle, though) is BTW a real car. It was introduced in Europe in 1999 and in America in the spring of last year.
The 2007 models come as a three-door hatchback ($10,950), a basic four-door sedan ($11,825), or a sportier sedan, $13,325).

Although advertising through video games isn't entirely new, (advertisers will spend $502 million on such deals this year, the NYT story says) it does appear to still be new to the automobile business. And another case where Toyota has stolen a march on its US based counterparts.

11 October 2007

Is the Net Good for Writers

I'm feeling too lazy today to do anything more than leave you with a quote. Fortunately, a good one is available. The subject line for this entry, Is the Net Good for Writers, is the subject of a symposium over at 10ZenMonkeys, whence my quote comes.

One of the contributors, Mark Dery, gives us the following reflection, on what Oscar Wilde might be doing today. Enjoy:

Skimming reader comments on Amazon, I never cease to be amazed by the arcane expertise lurking in the crowd; somebody, somewhere, knows everything about something, no matter how mind-twistingly obscure. But this sea change — and it's an extraordinary one — is counterbalanced by the unhappy fact that off-the-shelf blogware and the comment thread make everyone a critic or, more accurately, make everyone think they're a critic, to a minus effect. We're drowning in yak, and it's getting harder and harder to hear the insightful voices through all the media cacophony. Oscar Wilde would be just another forlorn blogger out on the media asteroid belt in our day, constantly checking his SiteMeter's Average Hits Per Day and Average Visit Length.

10 October 2007

In praise of a camera

Anthony Lane wrote in praise of the M-series Leica cameras in a surprisingly interesting essay in the Sept. 24 issue of The New Yorker.

There have been Leicas since 1925, and as Lane points out early in his piece, the famous head shot of Che Guevara, the one reproduced on countless posters and tee-shirts over decades now, was taken on a Leica, as was the "celebrated smooch caught in Times Square on V-J Day, 1945" the photo in which a nurse gracefully bends in a half-circle while receiving a sailor's festive attentions.

You can read Lane's article here.


In the letters sections of the more recent TNY, the one dated Oct. 15, I see two letters that expand a bit on the Leica cult. One of them is from Frank Van Riper, a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer himself, who writes that the great thing about his two M6 Leicas is that they don't look intimidating to the subjects. The great bugaboo of serious photography is that spontaneous moments like that kiss can't really be caught by the "typical photojournalist, bristling with ling lenses attached to S.L.R. bodies whose shutters and motor drives sound ominously gunlike."

I'm a lousy photographer, and take bad touristy shots, but listening in on the fervent discussions of almost any cult can be interesting. And in this case, the real issue is one of preserving and recovering the past.

(I was sufficiently captured by the exchange to look up what the initials S.L.R. mean. Single lens reflex. It's a camera in which the photography views the subject through a mirror. Sadly, I don't feel any wiser for having looked that up.)

09 October 2007

Math notation

I'm not accustomed to thinking of mathematical notation as having a history. After all, the equals sign, "=," just is what it is. When did I first encounter that sign? First grade? I can't remember, and this "time out of mind" quality is what protects it from historical inquiry.

But of course such notation does have a history. The number zero has a history that supports a legion of scholars, as does the history of pi. How we write a number is connected with the way we think about numbers, so that writing "0" is something very different from writing "zero."

Still, let's not drift away into number theory. Let's stick with a sample of what one might call "pure notation," the equal sign. This = was invented in 1557 by Robert Recorde, of Wales, in what was actually the first book on algebra printed in the British isles.

Here's the URL for an image of the page in which the equal sign first appears.


You'll notice if you go to that page that Mr. Recorde used two rather longish parallel lines.

The old-fashioned fonts can make comprehension difficult. So I'll reproduce the final paragraph for you, just before his list of seven equations.

"Howbeit, for each alteration of equations, I will propound a few examples, because the extraction of their roots, may the more aptly be wrought. And to avoid the tedious repetition of these words, 'is equal to,' I will set as I do often in working, a pair of parallels, or remote lines of one length, thus: ===========, because no two things can be more equal. And now mark these numbers."

We should all have as solid a claim to immortality as Mr. Recorde and his scheme for the avoidance of tedious repetition.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.