31 March 2007

Take-Two Takeover

The proxy fight, as an institution in US corporate life, moves in and out of the spotlight. There are times when proxy fights are rare and, in essence, symbolic. Somebody wants to make a point and sees the solicitation-mechanism as the way to do it, without any real hope of changing the corporation's leadership. But there are times, like the present, when the proxy fight - in earnest, as a way of doing just that -- becomes central.

Consider, in this connection, Take Two Interactive Software Inc. Take-Two has had its share of controversy in recent years. Its premier product is the "Grand Theft Auto" line of video games, which with their hyper-violent first-person-shooter design has become something of a paradigm for "the trouble with kids today."

Two years ago, there was actually a Congressional hearing about the nefariousness of a particular game in the Grand Theft line. It also inspired talk of a prostitutes/parents alliance. http://news.com.com/Sex+workers+call+for+boycott+of+Grand+Theft+Auto/2100-1043_3-6040420.html?tag=st.bp.story

This week a dissident group won a vote at the Take Two shareholders meeting and has installed its new board. The dissidents aren't moralists concerned with the welfare of video-game addicted childrten. They are capitalists, including the managers of Oppenheimer Funds, concerned with "unlocking value." Ain't it cool?

The new chairman of the board is Strauss Zelnick. Zelnick wants to widen the demographics of its customer base. In other words, he's decided you can only get so far by appelaing only to adolescent boys and their unending desire to shoot someone. Even with regard to those customers, the games have gotten stale and something new might be welcome -- for other customers, they were born stale.

In other business, the shareholders defeated a proposal to include social responsibility as a criteria for the setting of executive compensation. That was one of those old fashioned "symbolic gesture" proxy fights I mentioned above.

This has been today's lesson. There are actually three object lessons buried in the above prose, despite its deceptively pedestrian appearance: how change doesn't come about. How it does. And, again, how it doesn't.

30 March 2007

Hybrids and diesels and shares. Oh my.

JD Power and Associates has come out with a new report on the future of the auto industry. The title gives away the thesis. It's called, "The Steady -- but Slow -- Rise of Hybrids and Diesels in the U.S. auto market."

The bottom line is a prediction that hybrids and diesels will reach a 9% share of auto sales by 2009, and that Toyota will continue to be the leading player in this market segment.

That's heartening news. I'm seldom in at the start of anything big in terms of technology shift. I'm not a gadget kind of guy. As I remember, though, I was one of the first on my block to buy a Nehru jacket back in the late 1960s when that was hot for a week or so. I was getting worried that my Toyota Prius would seem, in retrospect, a lot like that.

Yes, fellow fans of South Park, I've seen the episode. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smug_Alert!

Something will replace the internal combustion engine as the chief way in which people get around. I doubt that the "something" will be a move to mass transit in the U.S. We're accustomed to spread-out living patterns and go-when-you-want habits. Though buses and trains could conceivably amount to a larger share of the transportantion market ten years from now than they do today, I'd be willing to be heavily that it would be more than a doubling. And if they 'only' double those they carry, this wil still leave a lot of room for a revolution in the world of personal transport.

The two alternatives in the JD Power study are in effect jockeying in position to become the next Big Thing. There is also the possibility that engines will stay more-or-less the same, but that the big change will come in the area of fuel: ethanol.

Unfortunately, so long as the fuel use of ethanol involves taking corn away from food-related uses, there are limits to what could be done in that line. We can hope for a breakthrough in the area of cellulosic ethanol, which will mean we're re-cycling garbage into fuel. Here's a primer,

The news in that Motley Fool article is that a very respected figure in the Venture Capital world, Vinod Khosla, now seems to be on board the cellulosic-ethanol bandwagon.

Let a thousand entrepreneurial flowers bloom.

29 March 2007

Updike's "Terrorist" -- Should I Read It?

I'm a great admirer of John Updike. I won't say I've read everything he's written -- that would be an enormous task, leaving little room for anything else. I have, though, read and admired Roger's Version, S., A Month of Sundays, The Beauty of the Lilies, Couples ... you get the picture.

The "Rabbit" series is, I think, over-rated. Update is at his best when his characters are engaged with ideas. He can give us a picture of the academic/intellectual worlds without making us choke on the chalkdust.

Both Roger's Version and S. are replete with religious/theological debates, so it might have seemed logical, after 9/11, for Updike to take on the question of jihadism, both at the intellectual and at the all-too-practical levels.

That is, at any rate, what "Terrorist" tries to do. So I'm told. I've put off reading it, though, not just because the subject matter still seems a bit too close to home but because so many of the reviews were so scathing.

Should I take the plunge? Have any of my faithful readers done so?

By the way: the cover design is striking. It takes a moment to adjust to what you're seeing, then mentally flip the image around, and realize that that way, it makes perfect sense. See for yourself what I mean.

28 March 2007

Romanticism and Classicism

Should you feel it necessary to develop a considered position on aesthetic philosophy (a felt necessity for only a small part of the population of the globe, I grant) it won't be necessary, or I think advisable, to do so by taking sides as between romanticism and classicism.

It is better simply to see those two labels as representing timeless possibilities for craftsmen, and markers in the history of taste. The history of taste, one might say, is a battle between novelty and connoisseurship. When a new movement gets underway, it is because taste has been sated by the old, and people are ready for novelty. Connoisseurs of the previous dominant school (which had been a revolutionary innovation itself once), who know all its rules and standards, are unhappy about this because their expertise has been rendered obsolete. So they end up writing art history texts, while the new school in time develops its own rules and standards, and its own connoisseurs. It time, this new becomes old, and the quest for novelty has been sated, so there is another break and the cycle is complete. That cycle has a lot of "cosms," micro and macro.

The greatest macrocosmic form of that cycle is the alternation between classicism and romanticism. I believe that what is known as "modernism" was in its essence a reversion to classicism, and "post-modernism" has been a re-enactment of the romantic rebellion.

By "classicism" in this sense I understand chiefly art that appeals to the intellect, whereas by "romanicism" I understand art that appeals chiefly through physiology. A classicism will understand the rightness of a chord, a romantic will feel the thrill of the trill. It is possible to write for either taste, for standards to develop around both, and for satiation to develop around both. Good and bad are possible in each line.

So let's not presume to choose sides between them, any more than we would presume to choose sides between hot dogs with, and those without, the relish.

The above is nearly identical to a column in my old blog posted a year ago today. I confess this before anyone catches me at it.

27 March 2007

Thomism and the Problem of Evil

I was reading something just yesterday about how Thomistic philosopher/theologians address the problem of evil.

How is there so much evil in the world given the infinite goodness of the God who designed it?

As I understand it, they answer the question by saying that God's goodness isn't what we understand by goodness, given our limited human minds. For example, God can't be moved. God is an "unmoved mover." So God doesn't react to events as they happen, feel pangs of sympathy, or develop a character over time. Yet reactions, sympathetic pangs, and character development are integral to our notions of what is good. Insofar as those form our notions, we don't know what we mean by saying that God is good, and the puzzle is ill formed.

The evil in the world, then, is perfectly compatible with the goodness of God, and our inability to see this (though we know, at least well enough, what evil means) comes about because we don't know well enough what good means.

This sounds like an inadequate answer to me. After all, what is the real pragmatic difference between the following two propositions?

1) God is good in a way we can't understand and which is compatible with evil,
2) God isn't good.

The tendency of the Thomistic argument is toward the second proposition, but it is covered by being clothed in the somewhat nicer-sounding words of the first proposition.

26 March 2007

Reporting on Slime, and Slipping

Yes, that headline might sound like I'm rather desperate for readers. But there's a real story here, and one worth following. Those of you who have followed me here from blog-spot know that I've become interested in the travails of a former New York Times reporter, Kurt Eichenwald. In December 2005, the Times ran an Eichenwald story about how a teenager who was drawn into the world of gay internet porn and prostitution. The series of events Eichenwald described began when the boy, Justin Berry, was just 13. The first time I blogged about Eichenwald it was a review of a book of his about some scandalously high-pressure marketing by securities salesmen who worked at Prudential. they sold very high-risk products to the market as if they were secure retirement-oriented savings plans. http://cfaille.blog-city.com/serpent_on_the_rock.htm That, I think, was a good book and a fine example of what Eichenwald was good at. He wrote similar books about a price-fixing conspiracy and about the collapse of Enron. But I think we can say without doing an injustice that his judgment in pursuing a rather different sort of story, about Justin Berry and his abusers, has not been impeccable. He paid Berry a $2,000 check at one point. The Times has a policy against paying for sources (in general a very good policy idea) -- and Eichenwald has defended this payment/loan (Berry's family subsequently re-paid it) on the ground that it wasn't made qua reporter but qua human being. In other words, Eichenwald felt touched by Berry's situation and wanted to give him some "clean money" that would help him break withhis associates and start a new life that didn't involve showing nude movies of himself on the internet.

Here is his former employer's ombudsman's latest take on it: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/opinion/25pubed.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

At the NY Times, by the way, the position known everywhere else as an "ombudsman" is called a "public editor." What they think they gain by a unique nomenclature there isn't clear to me. Regardless: Byron Calame has the post, and he's unhappy with Eichenwald. He said the reporter misled his editors on the subject of that payment.

Also, he's unimpressed by the distinction between Eichenwald's capacity as a journalist and as a private person touched by a humanitarian need. "Times journalists are free to do many things as private citizens, such as donating money to a struggling charity in their community. But they can’t then simply turn the switch to 'journalist' and do a story about that charity; that assignment must go to another reporter."

A decent point. But we need to keep our minds on a couple of simpler points here. There's been no credible challenge to the facts of the story that Eichenwald obtained through Berry's assistance. And, as a result of that story, three sexual predators have been incarcerated.

21 March 2007

Undercutting the Gothic with the footnotes

I'll be traveling for the next few days, so there'll be no new entries until, most likely, this coming Monday, March 26.

Today, I'm wondering: why did T.S. Eliot attach his own scholarly supplement to The Waste Land?

Clearly, when we're reading Homer or Dante, we expect some footnotes. Rare is the reader who doesn't find references to the Bronze Age Aegean or late-medieval Florence puzzling and appreciate the apparatus of enlightenment. But Eliot chose to write as if he were already at a considerable remove from his original audience, so he had to append some pages explaining himself

Even the best informed literati of the time required the explanations. In a review of the poem in The Dial (1922), Edmund Wilson told readers they shouldn't expect to find Eliot's work "intelligible at first reading," and he proceeded to navigate his way through what Eliot was doing with reference to the notes. Edmund Wilson!

The various philistine bones in my skeleton tell me to tell Eliot, "If you can't make yourself clear to the Wilsons in your readership, you need to re-write the text."

But of course that is philistinism, and if I try to rise above those impulses I can understand how Eliot's notes aren't merely a "supplement" to the text. They have a creative interplay with the lines upon which they expound, and have become part of the text.

In "The Burial of the Dead" for example, Eliot writes of the place "where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours/ With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine."

If I didn't have the benefit of the footnotes, I would understand regardless that Eliot is referencing a Church's bell tower. The context makes it clear that the Church in question is in London, "Unreal City."

There's a footnote for this line. It doesn't tell me anything about Saint Mary Woolnoth. It simply says (of the dead sound on the final stroke), "A phenomenon which I have often noticed."

Why did he append such a note? I suspect it was simply that the poem's language sounded too Gothic, something one might encounter in a Poe story, where of course if there were Church bells they would ring with a "dead sound." Eliot wants to ground this in his living, pedestrian, reality. He wants to remind us that he has walked down that street and heard that bell, and knows what it bloody well sounds like. He wants to give us both the Gothic and the pedestrian.

He didn't want to drive away the philistines. He wanted to draw is in.

Here, by the way, is wikipedia on that Church. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Mary_Woolnoth

There must be some Eliotan significance to be found in the fact that the Church is, as that article tells us, near the Bank of England.

20 March 2007

Three Cheers for the Red Fox

Congrats to my alma mater, Marist College, for the ongoing success of their Red Foxes in the Women's NCAA Tournament.

For those of you who haven't been paying attention, here's a link:


The Marist school motto is "cum optimus litigare," which literally translates, "to struggle with the best." In that translation, though, it sounds like Marist is on the wrong side.

I've been assured that a better translation would be "to struggle alongside the best."

But in their first two tournament games, Marist has been very much the underdog against teams with a fiercer reputation than anybody from the unassuming Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference has ever had. Contra optimus litigare ... and a little veni, vidi, vici, to boot!

19 March 2007

TV Cameras in Court for Spector Trial

The latest celebrity-murder trial is underway. Phil Spector, legendary record producer -- Tom Wolfe once called him the "Tycoon of Teen" -- stands trial as of today for the alleged murder of Lana Clarkson four years ago.

There will be cameras in the courtroom, for the first time in a California criminal court since Lance Ito became a television star. The length of the period since the OJ trial seems to be part of the rationale for trying it again. "We have to get beyond OJ," said someone in authority.

So, first, we have the news about the news here. We have another OJ-style media circus in the making. Second, we have the story of the life and death of Lana Clarkson itself, an actress best know for playing amazon-warrior characters. She had the title role in the Roger Corman cult classic "Barbarian Queen," and a later sequel.


And who could forget her performance as Alpha Beta in "Amazon Women on the Moon," by director John Landis?

At any rate, Spector brought Clarkson to his home after a night on the town. The next certain fact is that a neighbor placed a 911 call about a gunshot. When police responded, they found Clarkson dead, and Spector described it to them as an accident.

Spector has been going through lawyers pretty quickly in the subsequent years. He first hired Robert Shapiro, another OJ echo. Not only is Shapiro not working for Spector anymore, Spector has sued Shapiro for $1 million -- because he apparently refused to return his retainer.

Spector has also hired, and then fired, Leslie Abramson -- the one-time defense counsel of Lyle and Erik Menendez. His latest attorney is Bruce Cutler, who gained some notoriety on the other coast defending John Gotti.

Cutler apparently plans to contend that Clarkson committed suicide. That strikes me as odd, not just because its intuitively implausible but because there is some reason to believe an insanity defense could be made in a plausible way. http://www.playfuls.com/news_00002781_Phil_Spector8217s_Desperate_Trial_Set_To_Commence.html

But there is much to be said about the insanity defense. I hope to say it at another time.

18 March 2007

Trying Too Hard for Significance

David Byrne's Journal includes a recent account of a trip to the set where "Big Love" is filmed.

That sentence may require some explanation, so here goes. David Byrne was a founding member of Talking Heads, which I'm told was a seminal New Wave band. Big Love is an HBO program about a polygamous household -- one husband, three wives.

Obviously, the very existence of such a show has led to some efforts at psyching out the point of view. Whose ox is being gored? in religious, political, cultural terms? and why?

But Byrne doesn't really seem interested in any of that. Read the journal entry and you'll see that he's much more interested in the set on which it is all filmed. http://journal.davidbyrne.com/2007/03/3507_big_love_s.html

The main character runs a successful building-supply business on the "Home Depot" model, and maintains three separate homes, with one wife and his children by her in each. The three homes share a common backyard.

" I love these places — you’re in the set and it’s completely believable as a suburban home or an office and then you look up and there is no ceiling and huge AC hoses loom outside and the view through the window is a massive photo backdrop of the mountains that ring suburban Salt Lake City. "

This sets him off in pursuit of depth. What is real? what is fake? Isn't the sight of mountains the same visual experience if its a well-done backdrop as it would be if the show were filmed in Salt Lake City? Or, at least, I think that's what he's trying to get at. You decide.

My point? Maybe writers shouldn't strain too hard for profundity and should let the superficial be the superficial. A TV set is a TV set. It may be a fun place to visit, but doing so won't turn you into Rene Descartes.

17 March 2007

The Forces of Secrecy Gather

My entry one week ago was entitled "A Cheer for Bloomberg News." I want to return to the subject I discussed there, because there's been a new development.

A bit about corporate bankruptcies, though, as filler here. Whether it takes the form of liquidation or re-organization, there is a well establish order of precedence.

Imagine a newly bankrupt corporation as a see-saw with a much heavier weight at one end than at the other. The lighter end, accordingly, is up in the air. The heavy end on the ground.

In terms of the right to receive a payoff, the most senior or best secured debt instruments have first dibs, and after that payments follow in legally defined sequence with the owners of equity sitting on the ground. At some point, moving down the lever/see-saw, the tangible assets of the estate run out. But, if we're assuming that there is some good will for the ongoing enterprise, there is still some value to be distributed. The instruments that represent that point are, accordingly, sometimes called the "fulcrum securities."

A lot of jockeying goes into determining the placement of the teeter-tooter. Some interests don't want their own securities to be too high on the lever. They'd rather get equity in the re-organized company, in the hope of course that it'll prove more valuable. On the other hand, if you have a high position on the lever, and jockey to lower it in search of the fulcrum, you might miscalculate, end up below the fulcrum, and get ... nothing.

It's a very high stakes game. Further, its a game with consequences for the rest of us, because the system is supposed to work in a way that lets a productive corporation re-emerge into the higgle-haggle of the market again ready to serve customers, treat employees fairly, and otherwise embody quaint ideas of productivity. Since the public interest is involved, the process is supposed to have some transparency. Anyone ready to look through the court records (which are available on line through the wonderful PACER system) can figure out who ismaking what motion, and what they have at stake in it.

All that said: in the ongoing Northwest Airlines bankruptcy proceedings, certain Wall Street speculators have tried to operate an "ad hoc committee" to jockey for position without disclosing anything -- or very little -- about their own stakes. They want such information to the "under seal," which means that it won't be on PACER, it won't be available in paper form to somebody asking at the court clerk's desk, and the other parties to the action who do see this information will be sworn to secrecy.

As I observed last week, Bloomberg News and its counsels, to their undying credit, are fighting the good fight here, trying to obtain and make public information about the Northwest Airlines proceedings.

Unfortunately, the forces of secrecy are gathering. Two industry groups that between them represent much of Wall Street have joined in assisting the speculators in their efforts to (a) persuade the bankruptcy judge to reconsider his pro-disclosure ruling, and (b) appeal over his head if they can't.

In a memo they said that such disclosure of "proprietary and highly confidential information" will quite probably "erect a substantial obstacle to the participation of many stakeholders—in particular, those sophisticated stakeholders that are most likely to have the means and the experience to make a positive contribution toward reorganization."

Get that? The speculators want to keep their secrets because keeping secrets helps them win. They should be allowed to keep their secrets because they are so "sophisticated" that they can help the court in its goal of re-organizing.

Um, sorry. No sale. This is sounding a lot like military procurement. The bankruptcy court is like a little Pentagon, the "sophisticated" speculators are like contractors selling it weapons, uniforms, vehicles, or whatever. The greater the transparency, the less the threat that the rest of the country is being ripped off by cronyism, double-dealing, and other earmarks of the sophisticates of every age since record-keeping began.


Do you, dear reader, want to do something in the service of such transparecy? Okay. Write to judge Allan Gropper, of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of Manhattan. Tell him you approve of the stand he has taken, and he should stick with it, however many Wall Street purchased amicus briefs he receives the other way.

16 March 2007

Not A Conspiracy Theory

Indeed, I don't plan in this post to offer a "theory" of any sort, not even the most tentative of hypotheses.

What I will do, though, is confess that a certain fact pattern creeps me out. And that if I weren't the level-headed fellow that I am, I would probably spin a conspiracy theory around it. It would be something of a novelty too, because this particular pattern has so far escaped the net of most such theorists.

Which brings us at last to the point: Cerberus is everywhere. I don't mean the multi-headed hellhound.

I mean the global-investment company associated with former vice president Dan Quayle. Could it be that Quayle wasn't as dumb as we thought in the days when he couldn't moderate a spelling bee properly?

Cerberus is everywhere, just behind the headlines. Refco, once a very prominent commodities futures trading concern, melted down in 2005. The bankruptcy court auctioned off its assets, and Cerberus was in the thick of that.


The Austrian bank, Bawag -- that country's fourth largest -- runs into trouble (due to its own entanglement with Refco), and Cerberus steps in to pick up the pieces.

The logging and paper industries are going through a period of consolidation. Cerberus is in the thick of that.

Finally, only because accumulating more examples would be too easy: Daimler is looking to unload its American operation, Chrysler. It looks for buyers and guess who surfaces? Yes, the hell hound.


So Cerberus is a large successful company, and Quayle has found himself a job. What is there especially that bothers me? Well ... chiefly that Cerberus seems to be always just behind the headlines, and also that it seems to be always just behind the headlines. It has managed to intrude itself into innumerable high-profile goings on, while staying remarkably low profile itself.

That just makes me go hmmmm.

15 March 2007

Man of La Mancha

I saw a production of Man of La Mancha at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn. this weekend.

It was an unusual production, and one that mnight disappoint you if your expectations for this musical were created by the old Broadway play or the 1973 movie (with Sophia Loren and Peter O'Toole) based thereon.

As always, the frame story is that Cervantes is awaiting trial by the Spanish Inquisition arising from his activities as a tax collector. In this grim surrounding, Cervantes encourages the other prisoners in a "pantomime," in which they act out the story of Alonso Quijana, the man who in his madness persuades himself that he is Don Quixote, the knight of the woeful countenance.

Usually, the staging escapes the frame story pretty quickly. Cervantes has a miraculous trunk with him in the dungeon which he employs to dress every prisoner appropriately, and we are off -- out of the dungeon -- battling windmills that are giants, hosted by innkeepers who are noble lords.

In this case, the staging never escaped the frame. We're always kept very aware of the fact that Quijanes/Quixote is "really" Cervantes, and everybody is really still in the confined dungeon awaiting word on their respective fates.

Personally, I enjoyed this production on its own terms. Herbert Perry was in wonderful voice as the idealistically delusional knight, and Hollis Resnick brings the right vulnerability, wistfulness, and wariness to the roles of Escalante (in the dungeon), Aldona (in Cervantes' story) and Dulcinea (in the Don's fantasy).

14 March 2007

Social psychology and music

Rentfrow, P.J., & Gosling, S.D. (2003). The do re mi's of everyday life: The structure and personality correlates of music preferences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1236-1256. Also ...

Rentfrow, P.J., & Gosling, S.D. (2006). Message in a Ballad: The role of music preferences in interpersonal perception. Psychological Science, 17, 236-242.

Rentfrow and Gosling divide music thus:

1. Reflective and Complex (blues, jazz, classical, and folk)

2. Intense and Rebellious (rock, alternative, heavy metal)

3. Upbeat and Conventional (country music, Broadway Showtunes, Top 40 formats)

4. Energetic and Rhythmic (rap, soul, electronica....).

According to Rentfrow et ux, people who prefer (1) are likely to be open to experience, intelligent and aware of that, verbally agile, emotionally stable, and politically liberal. Those who prefer (2) are also open to experience intelligent etc., but are more extraverted than the first group, more likely to be athletic and have a "social dominance orientation" -- i.e. they'll want to become the president of whatever outfit they join. Those who prefer (3) are friendly extraverted folks, conscientious, probably not as intelligent as members of the first two groups, and are politically conservative. Finally, the folks who like (4) are extraverted, agreeable, physically attractive and aware of it, and also politically conservative.

You can now have some fun deciding whether any of this describes you and your preferences. Personally, my iPod is split between songs that these professors would probably put in (1) and those they'd put in (3). But utterly lacking in songs they'd put in (2) or (4).

You are free to draw your own conclusions.

Please don't conclude that I refrain from giving credit where it's due, though. I didn't run across this research, I lifted it from a science-oriented blog.


13 March 2007

As the vernal equinox nears ....

Back in January, on my "other" blog, the one I'm now abandoning, I listed my resolutions for this year.

As part of my move, I'd like to list them here. Drum roll please.

1. Breakthrough at work (I'll leave the nature of it indefinite here -- but I'll know it if it happens)
2. Weigh no more than 185 at some point this year
3. Contact agents/editors who might be interested in my novel on antebellum US. Begin work on revisions.
4. Be in Dublin for Bloom's Day
5. Follow-up on Reason publication, place something else there.

I've made some of the necessary preparations for (4), and I've heard good things that may indicate I'll keep (1) on schedule. The other three remain, for now, in the realm of projects.

I have plenty of excuses, as I always do. Because I've picked up the intensity of my focus on my work, in hopes of helping with (1), the cause of (3) has rather suffered. Also, it has been too cold of late to do as much outdoors walking as I'd like, a fact that has limited my progress toward (2).

We can consider this posting to be my self-flagellation, though, and now I'll get on with the business of keeping the lot of them.

12 March 2007

Those Australian Philosophers named Bruce

Okay, just a brief one today. If you have never seen the Monty Python "philosophers' song" skit, you owe yourself the treat. If you have seen it, but not recently, you'll surely want to see it again.


Many thanks to Andy Sullivan for posting this, and for lifting me out of my overly somber mood.

11 March 2007

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me....I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see. T'was Grace that taught...my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved. How precious did that Grace appear...the hour I first believed. Through many dangers, toils and snares...we have already come. T'was Grace that brought us safe thus far...and Grace will lead us home. The Lord has promised good to me...His word my hope secures. He will my shield and portion be...as long as life endures. When we've been here ten thousand years...bright shining as the sun. We've no less days to sing God's praise...then when we've first begun. "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me....I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see.

Those are the words to the famous hymn by John Newton. Newton appears (as played by Albert Finney) in a new movie that takes the name of the hymn, centered on the life of William Wilberforce (played by Ioan Gruffudd).

To me, Newton is the more fascinating character, and if I had aspirations as a screenwriter I'd be at work making him the protagonist. The only aspiring screenwriter with whom I'm acquainted dislikes historical fiction -- she's allergic to powdered wigs, I guess.

Newton's life, his conversion experience(s), and that song have all been wrapped up in mythology, and the urban myth busting website snopes does its usual good job of untangling the threads of truth and falsehood.
He didn't quit the slave trade because he found God. He appears to have converted to Christianity in 1748. If so, it had no immediate effect on his livelihood. He quit the trade in the mid 1750s, simply because he wanted a more settled life.

Newton composed Amazing Grace in the early 1770s, but still doesn't seem to have expressed any doubts about the morality of his former line of work until 1780.

The real lesson here might be that conversion doesn't mean re-birth, with the implication of that term that there is a specific moment when it all happens. Conversion means, as its etymology suggests, a turning. And the wheel of a life can be a heavy thing, the turning of which, by God and man together, requires years or decades. It is not the birth into a new life but the accomplishment which is a life.

Here's the snopes link.

10 March 2007

A Cheer for Bloomberg News

Does information really "want to be free"? Of course not. A piece of information isn't a wanting or doing sort of creature.

Anthropomorphism aside, is there some natural tendency in the world, now that the world has an internet (and wireless access yet!) toward the ever-wider spread of what had been secret?

There is a historical tendency here, but it isn't inherent in technology. The tendency is one that Adam Smith would have understood quite well. If there is a demand for information (a demand in the market sense, a demand that will express itself in the payment of money), then someone will seek to supply it. The greater that demand, supply being constant, the greater the price. If we also assume constant costs, then the increase in price will make for a greater profit.

As you can see, there are a lot of assumptions involved in that reasoning. Still, private and corporate espionage both long predated the internet. What information "wants" is to be bought and sold. Free in the sense of "liberated," not "free" in the sense of "gifted."

But then there are the structures of power. And they haven't changed all that much of late. I doubt I'll get into any conspiracy theorists' hall of fame if I make the general observation that governments like to keep secrets, and they like to enable their private sector cronies to keep secrets as well. These are the would-be prisons whence information has to be liberated in order to be (freely) bought and sold.

These thoughts didn't drop down into my head out of the blue. They've come to me now because of the ongoing Northwest Airlines bankruptcy proceedings. Bloomberg News and its counsels, to their undying credit, are fighting the good fight here, trying to obtain and make public information about who owns what claims against the company in the context of that reorganization.

The issue is whether certain Wall Street speculators can use court orders -- and, thus, governmental power -- to keep certain secrets "under seal" that have a good deal of relevance to Main Street USA -- to the future of an important company within a very high-visibility and troubled industry. A ruling Friday went the way Bloomberg News wanted. It now appears that the speculators will have to disclose.

We should mark this as a small victory for the liberation of data. Information doesn't want anything, but those of us who are wanting beings should want this sort of information to be available.

09 March 2007

On Making Myself At Home

William James wrote somewhere (I'm feeling too lazy to look it up) that there is a class of cases where the word "it" has no clear antecedent, yet where this apparent ambiguity is perfectly acceptable as a matter of idiomatic English. "It is raining," after all, is a simple statement of fact. Nobody, hearing it, scratches his head and askes, "what is raining?" The phrase in question conveys the same meaning as "Rain is falling at this moment," yet conveys it in half as many syllables.

The lesson: we can't deduce a metaphysical fact from a grammatical subject.

So what of the pronoun "I" in the sentence "I think"? This is one crucial problem with Descartes' famous reasoning. The thoughts with which he tormented himself in the course of his methodical doubt, the thought that there might be a powerful evil demon, etc., and the thought "I think" itself, might all be rain, as it were, coming from no "substance" more specific than the atmosphere at large. Or much less specific than that. All we can really get from paraphrasing "cogito ergo sum" with such an understanding is this: "Thinking goes on, therefore a universe that includes thought, exists."

Okay, all of this is derivative. Not only have I stolen from James, I've stolen it from myself. I just posted the same thoughts on a listserve I run. But why should the first post on a new blog not be derivative? At least, in this way I don't set myself any impossibly high hurdle for future jumps.

I have been blogging for about a year and a half now at blog-city. Unfortunately, blog-city will cease offering us the cyber-real estate for free at the end of this year, and is already making various changes that seem designed to drive us out ahead of that. So I figured I'd begin my migration to blogspot today.

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.