30 April 2007

"all antiliberal forces"

That's a neat phrase, which I take from a story in today's Wall Street Journal.

The story concerns the French presidential campaign. The second round of voting is set for this Sunday, May 6, and pits the top two vote getters from the first round against one another. The top first-round vote getter was Gaullist Nicolas Sarkozy (31.18%).

The runner up was Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, with 25.87% of the vote.

Though I usually distrust left/right spectral analyses in politics, I haven't studied the French situation with sufficient care to critique the Wall Street Journal's spectrum-driven analysis, so I'll merely summarize it here. There were six first-round candidates to Royal's left, who collectively received 10.57% of the vote. There was a centrist candidate (between Royal and Sarkozy) who received 18.57%. And there were three candidates to the right of Sarkozy, who received 13.82%.

The article's emphasis was on the difficulties that Royal is facing consolidating her base. She's presumably want to be able to take for granted not only her own 26% first-round votes, but the first-round votes to the left of her, who presumably see her as preferable to Sarkozy. If she could take them for grahted, she could then compete with Sarkozy for the centrist votes, those who went for Francois Bayrou in the first round.

Here is where the neat phrase that I've used above as a title comes in. This weekend, a Socialist named Henri Emmanuelli held a press conference stating his unhappiness with Royal. He apparently thinks of her as the French Tony Blair, co-opting a socialist party for the bourgeois. He advocated the creating of a new leftist party ... which would presumably mean sitting out the second round. The new leftist party will encompass "all antiliberal" forces.

Liberal in the context of French politics means, roughly, market-driven. I find it refreshing to be reminded of that usage of the term so vigorously, because in the US of late the term has been used as a sort of cussword by the right, as a way of lumping together our Royals with our Emmanuellis, so to speak. The Clintons with the Kucinichs. Actually, it's hard to identify a politician in the US who has views at all like Emmanuelli who is taken at all seriously, so one is driven to invoke the amusing figure of Dennis Kucinich here.

At any rate, the polls are so far favoring Sarkozy. Time will tell.

29 April 2007


"Bulverism" was the name of an essay by C.S. Lewis, outlining a fallacy that he believed was quite prevalent, especially in discussions of religion.

I'll adopt one of his examples. Suppose I believe that I have a large positive net worth. After doing all my books, adding up all my assets and liabilities as best I can, I conclude that the former exceed the latter by a comfortable sum.

This surprises the fictional character "Bulver" that Lewis invented, So Bulver says, "You say that because you are of an unrealistically optimistic temperament, the cause of which...." and so forth.

The point, Lewis said, is that Bulver simply assumes my statement is wrong, and in place of any argument why I am wrong, why my reasons are inadequate, he offers an account of the psychological cause of my (presumed and unproven) error.

Now, IF I am wrong, the fact should show itself in an examination of the books. If after looking over my accounts, you can make a reasonable case that I failed to count some liability I should have, then you can (if you wish) go on to speculate about the causes of that error, by unrealistic optimism, etc. It wouldn't be an error in that context.

Bulverism is an error whenever and because the discussion of causes substitutes for a discussion of reasons.

Lewis was writing in the heyday of Freudianism in the English-speaking world, and there was a certain amount of reductionism as applied to religion that justified itself in Freudian terms. "You believe in an all-powerful God because that is how you resolve your Oedipus complex, by planting your father-figure in the heavens." That is the kind of reasoning that Lewis wanted to rule "out of court," so to speak, by inventing the label of Bulverism.

Although Lewis had a point (of sorts) here, it may not have been quite the point he thought it was.

In "Why I Am Not A Christian," Bertrand Russell wrote as follows: "I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds.... Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes."

Russell believed, at this point in the essay, that he had provided counter-arguments to the most common sorts of theistic argumentation. He believed (in terms of Lewis' analogy) that he had already shown that the books were erroneous, and now was free without fallacy to move on to the psychological question.

And, of course, there are cases where the theistic argumentation itself takes on an explicitly emotional cast, so that the distinction between reason and motive breaks down on its own.

There are, as always, wheels within wheels. Lewis gets credit for inventing a useful term. I'm reminded of this quatrain, which gives us a fitting close.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint; and heard great argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.

28 April 2007

Niccolo: Call Your Office

John Mack announced yesterday that he supports Hillary Clinton's campaign for President. I suspect his real reasons have a Machiavellian cast.

Some of my readers might now be asking, "Who's John Mack?" If you receive a newspaper at your home, then, the business section goes unread. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Here's the short answer: Mack is the CEO of the giant Wall Street brokerage firm Morgan Stanley. Mack was also at the center of a whistle-blowing scandal a year and a half ago.

Gary Aguirre, fired from his job as a staff lawyer for the Securities and Exchange Commission in the fall of 2005, started telling the press and various committees of Congress that he was fired because people in the upper echelons of the SEC wanted to protect John Mack, who (Aguirre alleged) was at the heart of an insider trading operation.

Aguirre's charges were rather short in the supportive-evidence department, and in time the flap faded. But they do help give me this neat transition back to the issue of Machiavellianism.

What is Mack really doing in publicly supporting Hillary? If he wanted to help her become the Democratic Party's nominee, after all, he might simply have written her a check while keeping his mouth shut. But he thought it necessary to make a public statement.

Will that help her? There are, I think, people in the world who are more likely to vote for you than against you in a campaign if the CEO of Morgan Stanley has shown confidence in you. But aren't those people generally known as Republicans?

Hillary is in the midst of a fight over the Democratic base. In the context of this fight, her weakness is that she is suspected of being too plastic, too much given to the family trait of "triangulation," disinclined to pick fights with the country's prominent CEOs and Wall Street honchos. In the context of this fight, the open support of Mack is, IMHO, more likely to hurt her than to help.

(Maybe the open support of Gary Aguirre would help.)

But here is the Machiavellian question: Couldn't Mack have figured that out? Is he endorsing her precisely to hurt her? If I were running Barack Obama's campaign, I'd consider Mack's endorsement of Senator Clinton to be red-letter wonderful news. Wouldn't you?

Mack might be working any of several angles here. I hesitate to speculate further. But that there's more than meets the eye, I'm pretty sure.

27 April 2007

Auto Statistic

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were more than 243 million passenger vehicles registered in the United States as of 3 years ago.

According to the census figures for the same year, 2004, there were just over 293 million people in the nation. At least twenty percent of that population is too young to drive. So there were more cars than there are human beings of driving age. And 13 million more cars than licensed drivers.

These figures testify to the success of the US auto industry over a period of decades in persuading us that everybody needs a car. Also, they've been tremendously successful in persuading us that most of us need a new one. Those aren't the same cars, in this 1:1 ratio to population, year after year. There are always new models, always new gizmos.

Yet, looking at the numbers, I for one can hardly avoid the guess that some of the trouble of the domestic US auto industry is simple saturation.

26 April 2007

Death of David Halberstam

Halberstam died this Monday in a car accident.

The manner of his death was perhaps the least interesting fact about his life. Halberstam will be best remembered for his coverage of America's war in Vietnam.

His reports stood out as early as 1963, when he wrote an eye-witness account of the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc. The following year,he shared the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting with Malcolm W. Browne, for their coverage of the overthrow of the Diem regime.

He entered another realm entirely when he reporting on the Washington policy-making behind the war, in his classic book The Best and the Brightest (1972). It is sad, and disabling, for reporters to become the objects of coverage themselves -- the center of the spotlight they should be directing elsewhere -- and this was the grave difficulty Halberstam faced after the appearance of B and the B.

Indeed, the self-referential character of his next bog book, The Powers that Be (1979), a study of the media elite, confirmed the problem. This book became the object of some genuine admiration for the undiminished investigative energies that poured into it but, more visible, it became the target of satire.

Still, he was Halberstam. There was only one, and that one kept working. Four new books in the 1980s and six in the 1990s. Four books in the new century, including Firehouse (2002), his take on 9/11.

But let us leave him by remembering the moments when on his own account he felt most alive, in the rice paddies, covering THE great story of his day. He wrote once to his daughter and described his feelings in the Kennedy years, after he was re-assigned from the Congo to Indochina.

"Someday I hope you will understand how important those moments were for me; more, I want you to understand the importance of remembering, of holding onto and even cherishing a part of what you have been as, more and more, events are thrust upon you. For all too often in this world, and I think with increasing force, the present seeks to obliterate the past-something I hope you will not lightly accept."

25 April 2007

The Phonograph

The concept of "art photography" seems to be straightforward.

In the quoted phrase "art" appears as a modifier. The suggestion is that some types of photography aren't artistic -- my tourist shots of Stonehenge, for example. They are momentos, acquired with the use of a readily available technology and without a lot of skill.

A real artist with a camera could, of course, do wonders with Stonehenge.

Somewhere in between "art photography" and "tourist snapshots" there exists the land of "commercial photography," in which craftsmen and women who pay careful attention to framing, light, the film-or-pixels question, help sell automobiles or hand soap.

But what about the humble phonograph? Is there are art phonography? Is the recording of sound limited to ther amateur-to-professional range or can this sort of memorialization, too, burst out the top end of the commercial into the artistic?

Or is that an invalid question? a category mistake?

24 April 2007

Dante's appearance

Dante Alighieri looked like a normal "man in the street," according to researchers.


I have nothing to say about this, except "Scholarship marches on."

23 April 2007

Rolling out the character witnesses

News reports this weekend tell us that a jury for the upcoming Phil Spector murder trial has been chosen, and speculate about stellar "character witnesses" who may testify for the defense.

Some history, if you will. In the early days of the jury, the days when the Norman conquerors were still trying to get a handle on these odd Anglo-Saxons they were now ruling, the jurors were themselves thought likely to be familiar with the defendant's character and reputation. After all, he probably came from a village where everybody knew everyone -- and they were drawn from the same locale, so his reputation WAS the opinion they held of him.

But as cities large enough so that people didn't necessarily know each other became a common fact on the island, it naturally became increasingly common that a jury would decide the fate of a stranger. Indeed, over time the idea that he OUGHT to be a stranger to them took hold. The jurors shouldn't have any pre-conceived opinion about his reputation, but should be allowed to develop one.

Hence, the character witness, who generally doesn't testify about character, but about "reputation in the community." The jury is allowed (but of course not required) to infer that people who have a good reputation probably got it the right way -- not by fooling everybody but by acting neighborly, repaying debts, etc.

All that said, the institution of a character witness seems in the 21st century to be an institutionalization of pointlessness. What juror will be persuaded to vote to acquit Phil Spector on the basis of the willingness of some other show-business bigshot to say, "yes, he has a high reputation in the community"? I'm afraid there are such jurors, but that means I'm afraid there are people who are so celebrity-blinded as to ignore the obligations of an oath.

Anyway, Phil Spector is playing the game in that hope. His character witnesses may include Yoko Ono and Keith Richards. Neither of whom have anything to contribute to the actual question of how Lana Clarkson died on February 3, 2003. Indeed, even musically the first of those two names brings me up short. Didn't Spector do what Beatles admirers generally think was a really lousy job of producing the one Beatles album he had a shot at? Whatever....

I recently read something amusing on this trial. I've forgotten the source. But someone wrote an article in the form of a letter of encouragement OJ Simpson might write Phil.

"If you're lucky, at some point the prosecutor will hand you the gun you killed Clarkson with. When this happens, be prepared. Be sure to twist your fingers around each other arthritically, act pained, and say, 'I can't reach the trigger.'

"Then you'll just need a cute rhyming phrase that will get into the jury's head and do the rest of the work for you. 'If my hands can't shoot, the case is moot.' Okay, that's pretty lame. But you were in the lyrics business, you can come up with something."

It was a very clever piece, whoever wrote it. Anyway, my one suggestion to the prosecutors: keep Chris Darden miles away.

22 April 2007

Religion and News From Scotland

I'm human companion for a handsome sheltie named Angus, who's just turning two years old about now, so I've decided I have a vested interest in matters Scottish.

Let's recall a classic episode of The Simpsons, in which the stereotypical kilts-wearing Scotsman "Willie," the school groundskeeper, observes a brother and sister playing together with a surprising degree of amiability.

He tells the principal (and you'll have to imagine the burr here, I'm going to keep the spelling conventional), "It won't last. Brothers and sisters are natural enemies. Like Scots and the English. Or Scots and the Irish. Or Scots and the French. Or Scots and other Scots."

"Yes, you Scots sure are a contentious people."

"You've just made yourself an enemy for life, principal Skinner!"

(I dislike ethnic stereotype, BTW. But there do exist erudite Jews, argumentative Scots, uptight WASPs, and maybe even a Greek or two whose gifts require wary examination.)

This is Sunday, so let's speak of the Kirk. Within the post-Reformation tradition in Scotland, the tradition of John Knox, one finds of course, the established Church of Scotland, the Free Church of Scotland (which broke off in 1900), the United Free Church of Scotland (formed in 1929), the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Associated Presbyterian Churches, and the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing).

The good news is that, contrary groundskeeper Willie's presumptions about his nation, they have been coming together of late. Last September the Church of Scotland signed a covenant with the United Free Church allowing for shared services and other common activities. Talks continue between the CS and the FCS toward similar ends, which have resulted in a joint statement "of mutual recognition and understanding and a mutual commitment to cooperate in the advancement of the kingdom of God."

All the ecumenical warmth generated by reading such a statement led me to go to the home page of the FCS, http://www.freechurch.org
where I found a fascinating statement of the difficulties that face its ministry.

The minister is pulled in several directions by his congregants, I'm told.

"The traditionalists think we are there to maintain their traditions (not other people’s); the radicals think we are too traditional and want us to follow their new traditions; the liberals are theologically confused but for some reason like some aspects of the Church and want us cater for their particular tastes; the charismatics don’t understand why we don’t get it; the pietists are always bemoaning other people’s lack of spirituality (especially their ministers) and the legalists are always looking for the next war in the church to fight."

Divisiveness in religion isn't, then, a trick promoted by an elite to prevent the wonderful egalitarian unity that might break out otherwise. Divisiveness comes from the ranks and works its way up. Well ... that's one way to look at it.

A shot of whiskey, a round of "fetch" with Angus, and we'll leave the future in the hands of a higher power ("however we choose to conceive of it" as they say at AA).

21 April 2007

Tom Wolfe: On Hedge Funds

Tom Wolfe's novel, "Bonfire of the Vanities" (1987), chronicles the troubles of a "Master of the Universe." That's the self-describing phrase Wolfe puts into the head of his protagonist in that novel, Sherman McCoy, a successful bond salesman. McCoy takes a wrong turn one day, ends up in a traffic accident, and becomes what Wolfe says is every urban prosecutor's dream, the Great White Defendant.

That was then. This is now. Bond salesmen are still around, and of course many are still quite successful. But they aren't the ones that Wolfe targets as examples of hubris twenty years on.

Last year, Conde Nast announced plans to add a new business/financial glossy to its line up of periodicals (Conde Nast publishes Vogue, Architectural Digest, Glamour, GQ, etc.). CN went out of its way to lure talented and well-known writers to the new magazine, which it dubbed Portfolio. Indeed, Kurt Eichenwald left the New York Times for Portfolio, as I've mentioned before on this blog.

CN didn't ask me to write for Portfolio but, heck, they've never yet asked me to pose for GQ either. I've survived.

Their really big "get," though, was Tom Wolfe. And now that the first issue is out, there he is. The Wolfe story isn't Bonfire. To begin with, it's non-fiction. But this, too, one has to qualify immediately. It's non-fiction peppered with the use of novelistic techniques, the sort of thing he did for test pilots and the early astronauts in The Right Stuff.

Who is the new protagonist? Who has the right (or self-righteous) stuff in the financial world as Wolfe sees it? who has the hubris of a Sherman McCoy? Hedge fund managers do.

I find this fact intriguing, because when I began covering hedge funds regularly nobody in the literary world of Wolfe's stature would write about them. They were still happily obscure. Obviously, they are obscure no more. I think it's good that folks like yours truly, toiling in the day-to-day vinyard of hedge fund news, have gradually dragged these important pieces of the financial world out into the sunlight so that they've come to the attention of the lions of the forest, the Tom Wolfes. You're welcome, Tom.

My opinion of the story? Frankly, it stinks. Judge for yourself though.


20 April 2007

The Shanghai Auto Show

The Shanghai Auuto Show opens this Sunday, and runs through April 28.

Shanghai is important to carmakers because they realize that the Chinese consumer market has outlived its bicycles. There are lots of Chinese with the money and the desire to buy cars.

The auto show is using the motto, 'Technology and Nature in Harmony.'

General Motors, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Ford will offer their battery-powered and hybrid models in accord with that theme. But its Volkswagen that seems to be going all out presenting a wide range of cars with what it calls "vanguard" technology. It says the gas consumption and emissions from VWs sold in China will decline by more than 20% by 2010.

Let a thousand flowers bloom.

(Did I just quote Mao Zedong?)

19 April 2007

The Sopranos

I love "The Sopranos," although in writing about it I am too often tempted to add the "e". If you were writing about several singers with a high vocal range, you'd have to write "Sopranoes," but the TV show is quite clearly titled "The Sopranos."

They are now in the midst of their final run of episodes, the second half of their bifurcated sixth season.

Johnny Sack is dead. Sack has been an important character in the series, the head of a rival gang in New York (Tony Soprano, of course, presides over ganglife in north Jersey). Sack, in prison, wasted away of cancer. In a neat characteristic plot twist, Sack received some false hope in his final days, because one of the prison hospital's orderlies used to be a doctor. The orderly is in prison, and lost his license, for killing his wife, but hey ... that presumably didn't cause him to forget what he had learned in medical school.

Anyway, when John learns from a real doctor that he has perhaps a month or two to live, he is given some false hope because the orderly looks at his chart and says that he may have a year or more.

If one wants to see a message there, one can see any of several. The delusion may have made John's final days marginally more enjoyable, after all, so you might think of it as an (accidental) kindness.

Or one could inquire into the motives of the orderly wife-murderer in injecting himself into John's confidence in the way he did. My reading of it is that he simply wanted to feel important again -- he is indignant at being a 'mere' orderly.

I'll be watching again this weekend.

18 April 2007

Olivier Messiaen

I'd like to thank Henry for his comment on my post of yesterday, and in particular for reminding us of the great composer Olivier Messiaen.

For those not familiar with his work, here's a URL to get you started.


And, because I'm not feeling well today, I'm afraid this'll be it.

17 April 2007

Jokes About Murder

I've missed the actual anniversary by a couple of days, but I'll say something on point regardless.

It was on April 15 that John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln.

In recent decades, there has circulated various versions of a joke that has the punchline, "Other than that, Mrs Lincoln, how was your night at the theatre?"

But I've been told that its bad taste to tell the same joke, ending it with, "how was the open-air ride through Dallas?"

Is it just a matter of the passage of time? How does that work? In the 1960s, a broadcast network aired Hogan's Heroes, deriving humor from a Nazi prison camp. That would suggest a twenty year moratorium on jokes about such tragic circumstances, after which they become fair game.

But then, the "open air ride" joke should be unobjectionable.

Of course, Hogan's Heroes wasn't very funny. But I suspect that's just because it was written by network hacks. The Producers, in its various incarnations, was the creation of geniuses, and was very funny.

I'm just wondering, as always, whether there are some implicit rules I've never quite been clued in on....

16 April 2007

Wolfowitz scandal: Who Should Care?

I'm just trying to think my way into this one. Just getting my feet wet.

As regular readers know, I don't believe in sovereignty. Sometimes when I say so, people reply, "ah, you must be pushing world government, then." Or harsher words with that implication.

Why do they say that? Chiefly because the word "sovereignty" is nowadays often used to imply "the sovereignty of nations." The antithesis of sovereignty, then, is international organization and law.

But no, I reply when the question arises. I reject that antithesis. International organizations come about through agreements among and to serve the ends of the national governments involved. The same issues of command-and-control or hierarchy, the issues of unearned privilege, are at stake in the one case as in the other. We as humans have to think our way toward better ways of relating to one another than those implied in the myth of sovereignty, and this requires a rejection both of nationalism and of internationalism.

The Bretton Woods organizations in particular (the IMF and the World Bank) have outlived any utility they may once have had by anybody's measure, and they should close up shop.

It is with these biases that I look rather gingerly at the scandal that seems for the moment to have immobilized one of those institutions, the World Bank. Its president, Paul Wolfowitz, has come under fire for showing favoritism to a particular staffer, Shaha Raza, allegedly due to their romantic relationship.
As usual, the basics are at wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaha_Ali_Riza

There is no principled difference between romantic cronyism and the more traditional all-guys-who are-golfing-buddies sort of cronyism. In either case, such favoritism is inevitably because human beings are hard-wired for dealing with each other, with a small group of acquaintances, rather than with masses and big abstractions. This means that organizations devoted to serving the masses and big abstractions, but nonetheless composed entirely of human beings, rather than robots, are in a biologically determined bind from the start.

What this leads to is an endless trench warfare in which factions profess enduring commitment to the masses and the big abstractions, while using the other factions' scandals as ammunition to advance their own aims. I haven't quite psyched out the hows of this in the Wolfowitz/Raza matter, but I'm pretty sure (a priori, if you will) that this is what is happening.

Which is to say, again, that we need to move toward less absurd and inherently hypocritical ways of dealing with each other than the ways that the latest contre temps would seem to embody.

Here, for those of you who may enjoy bureaucratese, is the URL for an official inquiry. http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/NEWS/0,,contentMDK:21297732~pagePK:64257043~piPK:437376~theSitePK:4607,00.html

15 April 2007

Thoughts About Islam and History

I simply pass this along folks. A participant at a listserve to which I belong (usually as a humble lurker) represented himself as a student of Middle Eastern history and made the following statements about the early history of Islam.

It seems plausible, but what do I know? Nothing. So I'll be happy to learn.

"Historically, very little is known about Muhammad, except that he
preached what can be called an Abrahamic monotheism at the time of the
Roman-Persian wars (603-630) which Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians
interpreted according to their respective apocalyptic traditions. Both
Muhammad's biography and the Koran are works dating in their beginnings to
no earlier than the 690s. When the Syrian and northwest Arabian Arabs
conquered their Mediterranean-Southwest Asian kingdom there was no
developed Islam around about which anything can be said with certainty.

"(2) The full-blown Islam as we know it today is the result of religious
scholars writing in Iraq during the 800s and 900s and nostalgically
projecting a pristine religious community back into the desert of Arabia.
(There is no archaeological proof that Mecca existed before the Arab
conquests.) This projection took place in a cosmopolitan, sophisticated
Iraq in which wine, poetry, Greek philosophy, and the Sassanian royal cult
were freely celebrated. Religious scholars designed a utopian community in
the past in opposition to the 'worldly' caliphs, their court, and the
empire at large, hoping it would eventually overcome the 'immoral' behavior
they abhorred."

Sound right?

14 April 2007

More on the Solengo Brochure

For background, see Monday's entry.

The one-paragraph version is that Brian Hunter, who lost billions on natural-gas related speculation last year working for a hedge fund named Amaranth, is creating a new fund, to be called Solengo. He e-mailed the marketing brochure for this new project, and (since little effort was made to avoid this) bloggers got hold of it. Hunter hired lawyers, a firm with the Kiplingesque name Kobre Kim, to start suing those bloggers.

So what's new? The Cobra and Kim have, to give them credit, had some success getting the pamphlet removed from various places. For example, if you use the url that I gave you for it on Monday, you'll get to an error notice. "The page you are attempting to access has been removed because it violated Angelfire's Terms of Service."

But Angelfire seems to have reconsidered, or to have failed to notice ... this.

Or perhaps it was just that when the lawyers aren't actively breathing down its back, AngelFire isn't concerned about the particular "terms of service" at issue. By now, of course, anyone who is interested has had plenty of time to download it. If you don't have it in your harddrive yet, ask somebody who has, and the old e-mail trick will do its duty.

But if the lawyers are going to get paid to play twister, they'll do so. I'm a recovered lawyer myself. The mantra of the species is "webillbythehour." Ommmmm.

Sadly, Dealbreaker, one of the two blogs that started the whole thing, the ones who first shouted out "right foot, red!" have agreed to a temporary injunction keeping this matter off of their site until a full hearing.

What are the big secrets in the brochure? Psst. Come closer. Solengo plans to create a series of "sector specific" funds in, among other things, base metals, crude oil, and UK natural gas.

That's it. Not really. But that's about as secret and proprietary as it gets. The great secret that Solengo and its lawyers are working so hard to protect is that their plans are quite common-place and jejune. They are working hard to protect an unearned air of secrecy.

13 April 2007

Two Lessons in Capitalism

This will be my first and last comment on the Don Imus matter.

Imus has lost his job over ill-advised words uttered in reaction to the women's basketball championship game. I was never a fan of his, but since he has always been rather easy to avoid, I can't say I have any aversion to him either and won't feed the frenzy by citing the phrase he used here.

The only value to the whole thing is as a quick lesson in capitalism as a self-policing system. Imus was apparently confident he could ride out the storm so long as he attracted large numbers of listeners/viewers (his program was initially a morning radio show, though in recent years its been simulcast by a television network). The viewers would attract advertisers, and advertisers would defend him to the network bosses as needed.

But advertisers don't only want the raw audience numbers. They want to know what a show is going to do to their brand. They want to know whether their association with your show is going to help them or hurt them in the eyes of potential customers.

For a very few days after the initial comment, Imus' network bosses stuck by him, suggesting that a two-week suspension would be sufficient. It was only when the show's sponsors started pulling out (not because numbers dropped -- but because of the idea of a brand) -- that the network brass changed their mind.

If I had any reason to believe that the FCC was behind Imus' fall, I'd be ticked off. But it appears that this was simply how freedom works. Imus had his run -- now somebody else will get that airtime in the everlasting whirl of "creative destruction." Let it whirl.

Second lesson: batteries. There's a story in today's Wall Street Journal about car batteries, hybrids, etc. Of course, there are plenty of engineering geniuses in the US, but there's been little incentive for them of late to concern themselves with pushing the frontiers of battery performance.

Two years ago, General Motors executives decided to look for a new battery that would power a new generation of gas/electric hybrids, letting them leapfrog Toyota. The search led them to Toyota's back yard, in both national and corporate terms. Several GM honchos had a meeting in Japan with their counterparts at Panasonic EV Energy Co., Ltd.

There was, they found, a limit to how much their hosts would tell them about how their new products work. Why? Well, because Panasonic is a subsidiary of ... Toyota. It isn't clear from the article whether the GM execs were aware of that corporate affiliation before they made the trip.

Anyway, now that US based car makers have got the message that this is an important subject, there ARE incentives for the development of a US-based leading-edge batteries industry.

Some of the homegrown experts work for this outfit: http://www.a123systems.com/html/home.html

12 April 2007

Lyrics From Spelling Bee

In the musical "Spelling Bee," each major character gets one big character-establishing song. For Olive Ostrowsky, that song is "The 'I Love You' Song". This title is a neat little irony in itself, because Broadway's audiences know that the legends, Rodgers and Hammerstein, made a point of never writing a song for any show that contained the phrase "I love you." They obsessed over how to avoid it.

The title is ironic in another sense, internal to this show, because Olive has just been asked to spell the word "chimerical," a word meaning fastastic or unrealistic. At this point in the play, it's becoming clear to the audience that Olive has in effect been deserted by both her parents -- geographically by Mom, and psychologically by Dad. But she longs to hear "I love you" from them, and so she does. In the course of preparing to spell the word "chimerical."

Olive's Mom is living in India now. In her fantasy, Mom appears, and sings, "We always knew you were a winner/ we saw it when you smiled."

Later, Olive expresses her own frustrations about her mother to the fantasy stand-in.

"When are you returning?
I know we agreed
Tell me what you’re learning
Ma, I had forgot, this neeeed."

To what did Olive and her Mom 'agree'? That Olive wouldn't ask when she was returning? Or that Mom would explain what she has learned, when she did? Does the line "I know we agreed" look forward or backward within that stanza?

We can, of course, hear it either way or both ways. It's a wonderful song.

11 April 2007

Van Gogh Discovery

Curators at a museum in Croatia report that they've found a new Van Gogh.

Apparently, they simply asked themselves, "what is this thing in storage in our attic?" and unwrapped it. Then said, "Gee, those brushstrokes look familiar" and called in an expert on Dutch art.

That expert, John Sillevis, says it is Van Gogh.

Here's a link to the story as covered by a newspaper based in Berlin, Germany.


Personally, I'm just astonished that the world of museum curating is as casual as this story makes it appear.

10 April 2007

Gravity without the Apple

I heard the story this way. Isaac Newton, as a young man, was very interested in optics. He got into an argument with Robert Hooke, an older man who had a reputation in the field to defend and wasn't happy with this bright whipper-snapper.

One day, at a coffee shop, (Ye Olde Starbucks), Hooke encountered a friend of his named Halley. An astronomer, as you've probably guessed.

Said Halley, "I've just discovered a comet. Also, I see in some old records from 86 years ago that there was another one like it then. It might be the same comet.

"If I could prove they were the same, I could name this returning rock after myself and attain immortality. There's a problem, though.

"To prove the point, I'd have to know of a general mathematical principle or law that explains why objects moving around the sun follow the path they do. Do you know of such a law?"

Hooke didn't. But he knew a bright young man who should be given some problem to work on that would take his mind off optics for a few years.

So Hooke introduced his rival to his friend, Newton did the work that helped Halley establish the two comets were the same one, and creating calculus and the laws of motion in the process, and the world lived happily ever after.

Okay, that story is a tad over-simplified. But It's fun, and truer than the one about the apple.

09 April 2007

Psssst. That Solengo Brochure

Lawyers keep working at hiding a certain brochure from you.

Let's talk about why.

Last year, a certain high-flying futures trader, Brian Hunter, lost $6 billion of other people's money (some of it pensioner's money) speculating on the future price of natural gas. Ah, well. That's how the capitalist cookie crumbles, right? Well ... right.

I'm not aware that any elderly pensioners have been thrown out of their garret apartments due to Mr. Hunter's loses. He worked for a hedge fund called Amaranth -- a Greek term for an unfading flower -- and in general the institutions that invested in Amaranth didn't generally fade out as a result, i.e. Amaranth was only a small portion of their portfolios, so no great harm was done.

One would think, though, that after losing $6 billion, Mr. Hunter's career as an asset manager would be somewhat cramped. He'd be well advised to try his hand at something else. I understand that the retailers of previously owned automobiles are always looking for new talent.

Instead, Hunter has created a new fund, which he calls Solengo. He's named this one for a wine.

Within the financial press, the story that Hunter was looking for new suc ... investors ... was naturally considered fascinating, so there was something of a competition to get a hold of a copy of the marketing brochure he's been using.

This proved to be not too difficult to do, because Solengo had been sending out its brochure as an unsecured Adobe Acrobat document through cyberspace. I can't say how widely, but widely enough so that a couple of alert bloggers got it and posted it.

That's when copyright lawyers entered the picture. Throughout Holy Week, a drama played itself out in which lawyers for the Solengo-retained firm of Kobre & Kim repeatedly sought to ... well, entomb this information. And somebody or other -- some invisible hand? -- kept rolling the rock to the side.

What Kobre (is the name pronounced like that of the snake?) is trying to do is fundamentally both wrong and futile. The copies of the brochure keep spreading. Here is one of them.

The angelfire blogger, who calls himself Publius,has explained his action here.

I tip my hat to Greg Newton, who's been covering developments on this story intensely.

General rule? Transparency, good. Political fixes to produce silence and preserve ignorance, bad.

08 April 2007


Count me as one of those grumps who prefer the stately language of the King James bible to all the subsequent English language editions.

Consider the crucial Easter morning passage from Luke (24:1-4).

Now upon the first day of the week, very early in the morning, they came unto the sepulchre, bringing the spices which they had prepared, and certain others with them.

And they found the stone rolled away from the sepulchre.

And they entered in, and found not the body of the Lord Jesus.

And it came to pass, as they were much perplexed thereabout, behold, two men stood by them in shining garments.

That's the KJV. Here's The Living Bible (1971) -- which I keep always near because it was a high school graduation present from family friends.

"But very early on Sunday morning they took the ointments to the tomb -- and found that the huge stone covering the entrance had been rolled aside. So they went in -- but the Lord Jesus' body was gone.

"They stood there puzzle, trying to think what could have happened to it. Suddenly two men appeared before them, clothes in shining robes so bright their eyes were dazzled."


I leave my reader to the contemplation of the differences. And trust that the Christians among my readers will enjoy the holiday for which their shared meaning serves as foundation.

07 April 2007

Catching Up With Jim Cramer

Jim Cramer is scary. Personally, I'd rather watch an investment/finance television program hosted by Boris Karloff.

Cramer throws things, he shouts the world's most pointless catch-phrases (and his "boo-yah" sounds a lot like my burping, so I find the possibility that he actually means to emit that sound especially freaky) and there's a vein on his forehead that always seems about to burst.

Still, Cramer's personal story is fascinating. He's a "Citizen Cramer" figure, likely to end up alone in a mansion mouthing the name of a favorite childhood toy as he expires. So I keep coming back, if not to Cramer's show, at least to thoughts about Cramer as a symptom of ... whatever is it in the contemporary world that has made him a public figure.

For those who didn't follow the "Pisanis of the world" scandal last month, I'm loathe to review it. Here's a link to bring you up to speed, though.


After all, pop culture obsessions whiz by so quickly these days we never know if we're all on the same page. What is the gossip about over your cubicle wall? Who has the best voice, or the worst voice, or the oddest hair, on American Idol? Do you debate about who'll get the estate of Anna Nicole? Or are you more concerned about the dancing talents of the soon-to-be-ex-wife of a Beatle? The intercontinental adoptions of street urchins by Hollywood starlets?

For a little while last month, the story of Jim Cramer and his indiscretions seemed to be in that elite company. This month, he has confirmed the comparison. Because, like so many such scandals, this one has just blown over, without consequence. Maybe there's another shoe yet to drop, but probably not.

If he really has survived it, then here's a boo-yah for him.

06 April 2007

Chrysler, Exclusivity, and an Auction

Kirk Kerkorian has put a bid on the table. He wants to buy Chrysler from Daimler-Chrysler, for $4.5 billion. There are lots of conditions attached to that, and the most likely deal-breaker of the bunch is that he wants a two month period during which he and his investment company, Tracinda Corp., will have the exclusive right to examine Chrysler's books.

Two month exclusivity? Daimler doesn't want to 'go steady' yet. Daimler wants to flirt with a number of prospects. Or, in less romantic language: Daimler wants an auction. Other bidders or potential bidders are likely to find their interest piqued by the very public interest Kerkorian has expressed, and Daimler is best off letting them all stand on a level floor for now, which means denying KK his exclusive access.

By the way, one of those other bidders is: Cerberus. More confirmation for my quasi-conspiracy theory of Cerberus, which is simply: that hell-hound is everywhere.

Meanwhile, over at Deal Journal, Dennis Burnham is having some fun translating Kerkorian speak into English. He's posted a two-part series on this, here's the URL for the first of those parts.


And, if you don't want to read through it but would like a bit of the flavor, you're at the right place already. KK -- trying to boost his own cred, wrote, "Tracinda has been the controlling shareholder of MGM Mirage (originally MGM Grand) for twenty years–having built it into a public company with a market capitalization of nearly $21 billion today." Burnham translates: "Dr. Z, do you like craps? I can hook you up at a nice table."

Yuck yuck.

05 April 2007

Rachel Plummer

Free career advice today (and worth every penny) for you younger readers who are still puzzling over the "color of your parachute" and all that.

Do you want to write for a living? Have you heard how daunting a market it is? how high the entry barriers? You heard right, alas.

But one route to making a solid living with keyboard, mouse, and word processing software (or pen and paper, if you're a determined luddite) is that described last year by Rachel Plummer.

Her own career turns on the distinction, especially in the juvenile market, between a publisher and a "book packager." If you go into a bookstore and look at the juvie or the "young adult" shelves you'll see series, like Sweet Valley Twins. The book packager will hire the writer, and provide him/her with a two-to-three page outline about what has to happen in the story.

There are plenty of gears to the machine. The writer gets an agent, the agent contacts the packager, and of course that relationship between the packager and the actual publisher is ... well ... none of your business.

It sounds like you have to be able to put your hack hat on though. "I learned how to finish a book in the time allotted me by dividing the book’s contract-established word count by the number of days to deadline and not stopping until I finished the required word count each day," Plummer says.

But, hey, why should I give you bits and pieces? Here's the whole.


04 April 2007

Lady Vols the Champions

The Tennessee Volunteers won the women's college basketball championship, beating Rutgers last night 59 to 46.

That isn't an unusual outcome. It's their seventh national title since Pat Summit has been coaching. Although this is their, and her, first title since 1998, that doesn't really mean the program has been fallow for the last decade -- it's been to the final four during five of those intervening years.

So one of the traditional powerhouses of the game, won a championship. "Big Whoop" you might be tempted to say, if you come from some place outside of Tennessee and if you use corny expressions like "Big Whoop."

The significance for me is that it illustrates what a great year the Marist women had. As I explained in my March 20 entry,

the women's team from my alma mater not only got into the 64 team tournament this year (itself an unprecedented achievement not only for them but for their whole conference) -- they won the first two rounds against heavily favored team. This means (since its a single-elimination tournament the math isn't too hard) that they were one of only 16 teams still standing when the inexorable brackets matched them against -- Tennessee.

Okay, they lost to Tennessee. The score was 65-46. Look at that sentence again, and look at the score of the final game, at the top of this entry, again. Marist scored as many points against the Lady Vols as Rutgers did in the final game. Both teams lost to the Lady Vols, and both scored exactly 46 points in the process.

So Marist was defeated only by the team that defeated everybody else, and in doing so they did as well against the unbeatable Vols (on the offensive side, anyway) as the team those Vols played in the final. I'm just basking in some reflected glory here.

Oh, by the way. On the men's side of the tournament, the Florida Gators won the title, beating out Ohio State.

03 April 2007

Riemann hypothesis

My recent reading has included a book by John Derbyshire, who bravely attempts to explain the Riemann hypothesis, and efforts to prove or falsify it, to those of us without much formal education in math.

This problem seems to have been the inspiration for the drama Proof, which won the 2001 Tony Award for best play and became the basis for a Hollywood movie. That movie starred Gwyneth Paltrow as Catherine, a young woman who learned mathematics from her father, and who may have devised an extraordinary solution to a long-standing puzzle about prime numbers. [On Broadway, Mary-Louise Parker was Catherine.]

In the meantime, and in the real world, the Riemann hypothesis remains unproven.

What is it? Just to test whether I've been wasting my time with the book, I'll try to explain it now. It involves the distribution of prime numbers, and the fact that primes are bunched up in the lower numbers but become more scarce further up the line. The early primes are: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and so forth. They're already beginning to thin out, even in that brief series.

The thinning continues. There are 26 primes of less than 100. Between 401 (inclusive!) and 500, there are just 17. Between 901 and 1,000, there are only 14 primes.

Is there a rule that governs this thinning out? Yes, the rule is (unsurprisingly) called the Prime Number Theorem (PNT). That isn't the Riemann hypothesis (RH) though. The RH proper is something Riemann suggested as a rather incidental spin-off of his work on establishing the PNT.

In order to state the PNT, one has to invoke complex numbers (numbers with both a real and an imaginary component), and the complex value of something Riemann called the zeta function, because he was too humble to call it the "Riemann zeta function" as everyone else now does, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riemann_zeta_function

The Riemann hypothesis is that the real part of any non-trivial zero of the zeta function is 1/2.

We're almost to the point where that bare statement makes some sense. The "zero" of any function is that value at which the function produces a result of zero. Simple example: x squared – 6x + 9 = y. [I write "x squared" because I haven't figured out superscripts here.] The "zero of f(x)" in the relevant sense is that value of x for which y = 0. In this case, 9 - 18 + 9 = 0, so the zero of f(x) is 3.

The zeta function generated by the search for the PNT though, turned out to have an infinite number of zeros, each complex numbers. Some of these zeros (the "trivial" ones) are generated when the variable s (don't ask) is an even negative integer: -2, -4, -6 and so on. But that leaves us with the non-trivial zeros and the question: do they all (as Riemann believed) have a real component of exactly 1/2?

No wonder the Anthony Hopkins character lost his mind, and Catherine seemed on the way to losing hers.

02 April 2007

"Gotcha!" says NYTBR

Brian Doherty, a senior editor at Reason magazine, has written what he calls a "freewheeling history" of the modern libertarian movement, centered on five figures of enormous importance: von Mises, Hayek, Rand, Rothbard, and Milton Friedman.

The New York Times has run a rather mean-spirited review of the book, in which critic Leonhardt plays trivia games of "gotcha."

Here's a sample from the review, "In a single chapter, Milton Friedman is described both as an active writer at Stanford University and, accurately, as deceased."

Well, yes. That kind of thing can happen when one of the crucial figures upon whom a book is based happens to die while the book is in page proofs. Leonhardt doesn't seem very lion-hearted here, more like a jackal.

Another example of this critic's oh-so-substantive contribution to the conversation about serious ideas, about liberty and sovereignty and such, is this gem: "And almost everything about 'Radicals for Capitalism' is too long: the terms ('Popperian falsificationist'), the sentences that sometimes run more than 100 words, and the book itself, at more than 700 pages."

That seems a remarkable expression of anti-intellectual bias. "Why shucks, I can't handle dem big words, Brian. That's why I write book reviews for this down-home cornpone type publicashun." If you aren't interested in the intellectual history of recent political and economic ideas, you won't read the Doherty book at all. If you are interested enough to read the book, you'll probably already know that there's been a lot of debate over whether such ideas can be considered "scientific," what is the demarcation of science, and so forth. You'll be ready for the term "falsificationism," modified by the name of its best known advocate.

The whole Leonhardt review reads like a sad failed effort at a fisking.

01 April 2007

Baigent/Leigh lose their appeal

On Wedesday, the UK's court of appeals upheld a trial court ruling last year against Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh. These are the author of non-fiction (but quite speculative) works on the life of Jesus and the history of Christianity.

Dan Brown, author of the phenomenally successful (but poorly written) novel the Da Vinci Code, acknowledged that much of that book was a simple novelization of the Baigent/Leigh theories. That was never in question. The problem for the plaintiffs is that they have no intellectual property in the ideas they espoused, only in the words they used to espouse them.

And Dan Brown seems to be able to do his own bad writing without lifting there.

Nominally, at least, the defendant in this case wasn't Brown himself but his publisher, Random House, which put out a statement after the appeals court's judgment this week, saying the case was a tremendous waste of time and money.

"Misguided claims like the one that we have faced, and the appeal, are not good for authors, and not good for publishers," it said. "But we are glad that the Court of Appeal has upheld the original judgment and that, once again, common sense and justice have prevailed, helping to ensure the future of creative writing in the UK."

Yet the claimant's lawyer, Jonathan Rayner James, doesn't seem to have given up the fight entirely even now. He said at a hearing earlier this year that issues still remain (i.e. another lawsuit may be launched) concerning the role of Brown's wife, who did much of the research.

A few words of wisdom from Kenny Rogers might be of value to Mr. Rayner James. Sometimes you gotta know when to fold 'em.

Lord Justice Bernard Rix made the point that Brown never disguised the nove's use of the Baigent and Leigh work. In fact, he works it into the book. Much of the expository material in the book is put into the mouth of a character called Leigh Teabing, an anagram of "Leigh Baigent." Teabing refers to the best-known book of those collaborators, "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail," callin it "perhaps the best known tome" on the subject.

"That is not the mark of an author who thought that he was making illegitimate use of the fruits of someone else's literary labors, but of one who intended to acknowledge a debt of ideas, which he has gone on to express in his own way and for his own purposes," said Justice Rix.

Good point.

So why am I rehashing all this? It simply seemed an appropriate way to start Holy Week.

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.