31 May 2007

Underdog Nostalgia

When crim'nals in this world appear
And break the laws that they should fear
And frighten all who see or hear
A cry goes up from far and near
For Underdog!

I understand that a movie based on the goofy 1960s TV cartoon Underdog is slated for release later this year.

The TV episodes always began with the above lyrics, rattled off too quickly and unmelodically for the process to be called singing, although there was background music -- a rhythmic beating -- for it.

Something like hip-hop, you might say. Doggy style?

Or you might not.

Anyway, here's the URL where you can find the trailer for the movie.


30 May 2007

East Asian iPods

In Saturday's entry, I wrote about a recent deal between the People's Republic of China and a US-based private equity firm.

I suggested that the deal was a sign of some onrushing realities, and that the integration of the PRC with the rest of the world's economy would be THE big financial/business story for decades to come.

Today I wish to add a pop-cultural angle to that observation. AFP [Agence France-Presse] has a story on a new survey of the musical tastes of thousands of young people in Asia (defined as Taiwan, China, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Malysia, India, Thailand and Indonesia). The surveyers asked them, in essence: what is in your iPod?

They seem to have been somewhat surprised that only two Western bands showed up as favorites -- Black-Eyed Peas and Linkin Park.

Even those two acts trailed far behind Taiwan's rapper Jay Chou, Singapore pop star J.J. Lin and Hong Kong's Andy Lau.

At a two-day gathering of Asian music industry bigwigs in Hong Kong, Ian Stewart shared these results with his peers. Stewart, VP of marketing and research at MTV Networks Asia, said "that Asians have more pride in their local artists."

From the AFP story, I can't really be sure what the word "more" means in that sentence. More than last year? a decade ago? It clearly means "more than the pollsters' expectations," but the story also characterizes the survey as the first of its kind, so strictly a trend can'e be established until someone does it again.

Still, the implication seems to be that the Orient has learned what it needs to learn musically from the West (and is listening to music on a technology developed in Silicon Valley, after all) but is now re-asserting itself.

Such self-assertion can get rocky, and the west ought to be ready for that. Maybe by listening to Jay Chou, J.J. Lin and Andy Lau?

29 May 2007

The Autism/Vaccine Controversy

The title of this post names a token of a type, one of a class of controversies where I have a vague awareness that there is a discussion underway, I regard the subject (from the clues that have wafted there way into my ears) as a fascinating one, yet I haven't found time for real research into the matter -- surely not research sufficient to have an opinion.

This is a blog, so let's not let my ignorance stand in the way of some bloviation! Have any/many children acquired autism due to mercury? The debate centers on thimerosal, a mercury-containing and inexpensive preservative that used to be used (my understanding is that has been phased out due to an act of Congress in 1997) in a variety of childhood vaccinations.

In 2005, freelance writer David Kirby completed and St. Martin’s Press published a monumental work of investigative reporting, EVIDENCE OF HARM, an account of the controversy over the use of thimerosal in children’s vaccines.

My personal interest in the matter dates from the flurry of critiques around the time of the release of that book. The book itself is more than 400 pages long and reportedly contains a good deal of discussion of a technical nature -- it never did make it to the top of my personal "to do" list.

But admirers of the book say it is balanced. Kirby doesn't contend that there is a real thimerosal/autism connection, although he gives very sympathetic treatment to a parents group, Safe Minds, that contends exactly that. One quotation from Kirby's book that made it into the Publishers Weekly review was, "each side accuses the other of being irrational, overzealous, blind to evidence they find inconvenient, and subject to professional, financial, or emotional conflicts of interest that cloud their judgment."

When such is the case, both sides may be right.

The Safe Minds activists have by now generated, in Newtonian fashion, a set of counter-activists, consisting of people who on the "autism spectrum" themselves who want to be accepted "as we are," and who dislike the stigma of poisoning. Or the parents of such persons. It is an old debate, "love your child as he is" versus, "love him enough to cure him," and it appears in a lot of other contexts.

Having said that, I believe, I have said quite enough. Perhaps too much.

28 May 2007

The origin of "taps" -- fact and fiction

It's such a simple and yet haunting bugle call, and always breaks some of us down at a military funeral. There was bound to be a myth about its creation.

The facts behind it are straightforward. It was created during the Peninsular Campaign of the Civil War, in the late spring and early summer of 1862. This was some of the toughest fighting of the war. The Union forces under McClellan had inched their way from Yorktown to the gates of Richmond before Davis made the inspired move of putting Robert E. Lee in charge of the army that stood in McClellan's way. Lee immediately took the offensive, within days driving the Army of the Potomac back to its boats.

During that period, one of the generals under McClellan (Brig. Gen'l Daniel Butterfield) decided that his men could use a "lights out" signal, so he asked his buglar to work up a call. That buglar was Oliver W. Norton. He apparently devised the now-famous melody by revising an older call, with the odd name of Scott Tattoo. It was soon adopted by the rest of the army and, indeed, quickly crossed the lines as Confederate buglars picked up on it. The funereal use was a natural enough extension.

The legend most often told about Taps is somewhat different. It is said that a Union captain named Ellicombe discovered his son dying on the field at the end of a day of battle. He wasn't aware his son had even enlisted. What was more shocking -- his son was wearing grey.

The dying child was musically gifted (he had left his family shortly before the war broke out to study music in Richmond) and there was one final composition in his uniform pocket as he passed away. That was Taps.

Okay, that isn't true. There isn't even any record of the existence of a Captain Ellicombe. But it's a fine story, often tripped out in a variety of further sentimental detail, and it does no harm so long as history and mythology are kept distinct.

27 May 2007

Memorial Day

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day. Like the haunting bugle call "Taps," it has its origin in the American civil war.

In 1868, General John Logan, commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued Order No. 11.

"The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land. In this observance no form of ceremony is prescribed, but posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit."

Over time the day of commemoration shifted to the final Monday of May, and the commemorated sacrifices likewise expanded, to include the American dead of all wars, and the dead of both sides of the war Gen'l Logan had in mind. Both sides, after all, saw their own soldiers as fighting and dying "in defense of their country," though they understood that differently.

Taps, both as a lights-out signal and as a funeral dirge, originated during the Civil War -- specifically during the Peninsular Campaign. More on this tommorrow.

26 May 2007

China's Foreign Reserves

The People's Republic of China is sitting on cash. It is holding foreign-exchange reserves of more than $1 trillion (pronounce that "t"!). That is twice the amount of the PRC's reserves just two years ago.

According to The Economist, that $1 trillion is enough money to buy all the gold in all the vaults of the central banks of the world.

Such games-playing with numbers is fun, but there would be operational problems with the gold-buying spree as a policy. Might the money be used for infrastructure projects -- roads, bridges, water treatment plants? The problem is that by employing such money domestically China would inflict upon itself an inflationary spiral (inflation, remember, is too much money chasing too few goods).

China wants to invest its reserves in the rest of the world, and has decided to do something more adventurous than just buying U.S. Treasury bonds. In recent days, it announced that it's buying billions of dollars worth of non-voting equity in a US based private-equity firm, The Blackstone Group LP. Its important to note that this isn't an investment into one of the funds that Blackstone manages, but an investment in the management firm itself. (Its like buying stock in a bank rather than simply opening an account there.)

The easiest observation to make about all this is that a country still formally Communist in doctrine is now investing in a quintessentially capitalist institution. But of course the PRC's devotion to communism has been mostly lip service now for a long time, so this surprises no one.

A more speculative line of thought: what now happens to the market for US Treasuries? It's been my impression that China's enormous appetite for the stuff has been a large part of the market demand, and that this market demand is what has allowed the US government to deficit-spend itself silly in recent years with no real detrimental consequences. But what if China doesn't want the IOUs from Uncle Sam anymore? Who else will?

That's not a very pressing concern, though, because China's foreign reserve is plenty large enough to absorb those IOUs and leave a stray three billion on the side for the Blackstone deal, too. But if its a straw in the wind, then the wind could be troubling.

We should also say that China and Blackstone were both very careful, in the announcement of the deal, to specify that these were non-voting shares. The PRC thereby avoids the diplomatic consequences of appearing to 'take over' an important US based company. It learned this lesson, I'm guessing, from the recent Dubai port-management imbroglio.

It'll be nearly 10% of Blackstone's equity, though. So, whatever the formalities of voting, I suspect that the Chinese agency involved will have a seat at the table when important decisions are made.

This is a fascinating straw, at the intersection of a lot of different winds. The integration of the economy of the PRC into that of the rest of the world might prove to be the big economic/financial story for decades to come.

25 May 2007

Not what I expected

I admit, recent developments in the auto industry have taken me by surprise.

As my faithful readers may remember, my working theory has been that the US domestic auto industry will integrate with -- in effect, in will become an arm of -- the petroleum industry.

The profit margin is with the blades, not with the razor that holds them. The economic significance of the razor is to lock you in to buying the blades that fit it. The economic significance of an automobile, likewise, is to lock you in to buying an endless stream of petroleum. So: why are the two industries not one already?

The reasoning still seems sound, but ... the restructuring of the domestic auto industry has been well underway all spring, and has gone in a very different direction. There's been an auction for Chrysler of late, and none of the oil companies even stepped forward as a bidder.

Why not? The puzzle, for me, is compounded somewhat when I look at their stock buybacks. They've been very aggressive in buying themselves of late. ExxonMobil has spent close to $48 billion over the last two years in buying its own stock. There are lots of reasons why companies do this. They might want to avoid dilution, they may want to discourage a proxy fight or a takeover.

But another reason a company buys its own stock is ... to have it to offer again as part of the price of an acquisition, which may be preferable to a cash-only deal.

BusinessWeek recently quoted an Oppenheimer analyst who said: "ExxonMobil could go tomorrow and buy a company for $100 billion using its own stock."

So, why not Chrysler? It may well be hoping that the big prize yet falls into its lap -- that it can offer those shares in return for control of General Motors, the (domestic) Razor king.

Or my theory about the synergy to be found in such a combination might just be wrong. That's a possibility, too.

24 May 2007

How to Draw Manga

You know you've always wanted to learn.

Well, maybe not.... still the "How to Draw Manga" site reminds me of those old "Famous Artists Correspondence School" ads that used to be ubiquitous.

Draw "blinky the deer" and send it in, our famous artists will send you a critique, which will demonstrate how much you can learn from our correspondence lessons!


23 May 2007

Hurtling Toward the Series Finale

This Sunday's episode of The Sopranos was up to the high standards the HBO series has set for itself over the years.

Two more such Sundays remain, and fans, such as yours truly, have to wonder how the creative people behind Tony, his associates, and his family will choose to bring the curtain down.

I remember years ago, in perhaps one of the very first episodes, when we saw and heard Tony and Carmela Soprano's two children -- Meadow and AJ, discussing a poem.

Meadow hadn't gone off the college yet. She and her little brother still lived under the same roof, and were portrayed as closer than later they seemed. The poem we heard them discuss was "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost. Meadow attempted to explain to her bro that the narrator was contemplating his mortality, and that the white of snow can signify death. He didn't get it.

This Sunday's episode also shows AJ obsessing over a poem. This time Meadow can't help him. And this time it's a greater poem, by a greater poet. It's Yeat's "The Second Coming" -- and that famous devastating ending help push AJ over the edge into a suicide attempt.

Yeats conflated the Christian hope of a Second Coming of our Lord with the idea of an Antichrist or "Beast," and asks "what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

What beast indeed? Meanwhile, Tony has a meeting with two FBI agents who want his help looking for a mysterious chap of middle eastern origins whom they suspect of terrorist connections. They're willing to forgive homegrown organized crime families to the extent those families can assist them in the War on Terror. In a nice touch, one of the agents still suffers from a stomach virus he picked up on a trip to Afghanistan a couple of years ago, apparently in the line of duty.

With only two episodes left to go, I think it's pretty obvious that these two plot lines will connect for a devastating finale.

I have to say one other thing. In that heart to heart talk between Meadow and AJ this week (shortly before his botched suicide effort) ... she looked at his hastily-closed-up laptop computer and suggested that he had just been looking at internet porn. He denied this, and opened the laptop for her. "Al Jazeera?" she said.

We've got all the pieces here. AJ, struggling for something that might make life worth living -- or, in the alternative, something that might make for a death worth dying, is looking at Al Jazeera. Perhaps another Al, al Qaeda really does have an operative in the neighborhood, who will solicit AJ for a suicide bombing mission. AJ will recognize the "rough beast" and his own destiny, and will agree.

He doesn't really get Yeats, but I think he finally gets stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

22 May 2007

Analytical Philosophy

And they say the analytic tradition in philosophy is moribund!

In a recent book on the contending definitions of truth in philosophy today, a book with a distinctly Russellian/Wittgensteinian focus, I've found a passage that bears on that accusation. To me, its a very funny piece of writing too, though I'm sure it wasn't intended as such.

The author, Matthew McGrath, early on mentions sentences that contain the word "sake," as in "Lois Lane risked her life for Clark Kent's sake."

He then discusses the problems that we might run into if we regarded a "sake" as a thing, something Clark possesses. (Like a pet?) -- so that we might try to understand the sentence as analogous to, "Lois Lane risked her life for Clark Kent's collie." He calls this "sake realism."

"The opacity of sake-talk makes sake realism objectionable. But it is objectionable for reasons of a more general relevance. By accepting sakes, we would confront a panoply of seemingly unaswerable questions: Do all things have sakes? My socks? the number 7? Do sakes themselves have sakes? Why is it that the things that have sakes have only one sake?"

You might think that I'm being unfair, taking this out of context. Surely he was attempting a reductio? Some opponent's view strikes him as analogous to "sake realism" and, accordingly, absurd?

Not quite. He's playing defense in this passage. As near I can tell, he's trying to say that although his view of truth bears some relation to "sake realism," it is sufficiently distinquishable to survive such a reductio.

But never mind about that. The next time you want to give your mind the cleansing benefits of an Zen koan, just recall the question: "Do sakes themselves have sakes?"

But don't do it for my sake.

Mr. McGrath needs to get out more.

21 May 2007


There's a fascinating column in today's WSJ offering an unexpected glimpse of the 1940s.

Reporter Cynthia Crossen summarizes for us a book published in 1942 by Raymond F. Yates, with the title "2100 Needed Inventions." Crossen uses the book as a way to remind us of how much the world has changed.

Mr. Yates thought inventors should get to work on, for example: "a means of automatically setting pins in a bowling alley that will entirely eliminate the use of pin boys." Such machines appeared about 15 years after Yates' suggestion.

He also thought the world could use "a means by which the essence of tea or coffee can be crystallized so that it can be readily dissolved in hot water." Nestle USA announced the first instant tea only four years later.

Yates said that somebody could make a lot of money with "shaving soap that could be sprayed on the face." Right again.

There was a war on when the book was published, and his book has some military proposals. It also has something rather militaristic-sounding for the home front. "A machine gun that would fire wooden slugs from a cartridge belt for boys who like to play with war toys."

Those would be the boys who would, no doubt, have spare time since they'd no longer needed for setting up pins in the bowling alley. Upon asking for this toy, though, they'd receive the stern admonition, "you'll shoot your eye out, kid."

20 May 2007

Converts to the Church of Rome

The religious precincts of the blogosphere are abuzz these days with the name of Francis J. Beckwith, a new and surprising convert to Roman Catholicism.

Surprising because Beckwith was, until his conversion, president of the Evangelical Theological Society, an association of Protestant theologians.

(I should say that I don't feel any personal stake in Beckwith's move. I grew up as an observant Catholic, but that was decades ago, and feels as if it might have been in another galaxy. I comment only as a curious observer.)

Beckwith has become a prominent figure in church-state issues in recent years, taking predictable positions for an ETS head, arguing in favor of the teaching of "intelligent design" in public schools, for example.

Here's his blog, rightreason.ektopos.com

He has explained himself, and his new faith, there. Most of his account is absorbed in issues of timing and mechanics. Once a very visible Protestant philosopher makes such a decision, how should he best make the fact known publicly without doing damage to an institution, the ETS, for which he continues to have good will? That was his quandry. He didn't want to play into historical suspicions about "the Jesuitical secrecy of these papists," but he didn't want to make an open and dramatic break, either.

The issue of mechanics may well have been wrenching for him, but concerns me not at all. What I want to know is: what did the conversion feel like? Was it impelled by reason, or by a non-rational inner light, or something else?

I had to scroll down rather far in the piece before he addressed that at all.

"As you probably know," he says at last, "my work in philosophy, ethics, and theology has always been Catholic friendly, but I would have never predicted that I would return to the Church, for there seemed to me too many theological and ecclesiastical issues that appeared insurmountable. However, in January, at the suggestion of a dear friend, I began reading the Early Church Fathers as well as some of the more sophisticated works on justification by Catholic authors. I became convinced that the Early Church is more Catholic than Protestant and that the Catholic view of justification, correctly understood, is biblically and historically defensible."

Justification. Ah, that's the crux. Roman 1:17. "The righteous shall live by faith." The idea, as Luther and others have expounded upon it, is that faith leads to good works, but that it is the faith, not the good works, that justifies one before the Lord, that makes righteous.

What was the Catholic view on justification? The scandals that enraged Luther (the implication especially that one could buy an "indulgence" and either free a deceased friend from Purgatory or limit one's own stay there) were genuinely outrageous and no one today defends that.

So Beckwith said that key to his own conversion was a look at the Patristic writings. It was a very intellectual/academic sort of conversion experience, I gather. Like Cardinal Newman.

There may be another, even higher-profile, conversion to the Church of Rome soon.
Tony Blair is said to have been waiting for the end of his tenure at Ten Downing Street before declaring himself a Catholic -- the faith of his wife, Cherie.


19 May 2007

Northwest plan

A bankruptcy court judge in New York this week gave Northwest Airlines permission to emerge from chapter 11. The company's reorganization plan drew a rare show of support ... more than 97% of the creditors eligible to vote on the plan have approved it.

The airline said in a statement that it expects to re-emerge formally on May 31.

According to the plan, NW's secured creditors will be paid in full. Most unsecured creditors will be paid subject to a discount, which will vary in size depending on the nature of their claim. They'll get as much as 83% of what they were owed, as little as 66%.

The old stockholders will get nothing. The new company will raise its initial round of operating cash by selling new shares, which will trade on the NYSE under the symbol NWA.

This is as it should be. I don't mean that the re-emergence of the airline is a good thing. My view has long been that the airline industry desperately needs consolidation, and that the revolving-door bankruptcies are part of the problem, not part of the solution. If Northwest were actually liquidated, and its fleet melted down into scrap so that none of those planes would ever serve passengers again, the remaining airlines would face that much less competition, and the industry would be closer to a sustainable equilibrium.

This would mean higher costs to passengers -- but then, passengers aren't entitled to an endless future of below-cost pricing.

What is as it should be about the plan is that the old equity owners are zeroed out. THAT will be a disincentive for them to ever invest in an airline again, and the punishment meted upon them may serve the goal of consolidation, too.

More generally, the system of corporate law in most of the world these days, a system with Anglo-American roots, links the "residual risk" borne by equity holders to their dominance as decision makers. The board of directors of any company is supposed to represent the holders of equity, precisely because they represent the folks who have no contractual interest, who stand to lose everything if the operation fails.

There is an intuitive force to this connection of ideas and it is good to see the "loss" part of the profit-and-loss equation coming to fruition.

18 May 2007

Return of the Trojan Horse

God bless us every one. David Stockman is in the news again. Best remembered as Ronald Reagan's budget director, as the man who said that the Laffer Curve was a "Trojan horse," Stockman is now in trouble private sector budgetary shenanigans.

Collins and Aikman, an auto parts company, has been in chapter 11 since May 2005. Its efforts to re-organize having failed, C/O is now in the process of liquidating. Stockman was the chairman of its board of directors from August 2002 until the time of the bankruptcy filing. He was the company's chief executive, too, for most of that time.

This week, C/O filed a lawsuit (with an 80-page complaint) in a federal court in Delaware in which Stockman is the first-named of several defendants said to have failed in their fiduciary duties.

Stockman was recently indicted on accounting-fraud charges, and the civil complaint echoes those charges, although coached in the language of breach of fiduciary duties. On his own behalf, he has contended that the prosecution is trying to criminalize optimism. There's a grim irony here. It appears that Stockman was once again using an unrealistically optimistic Trojan horse projection to lead a large entity (not as large as the US government this time, thank heavens) deep into the realm of red ink.

Optimism, schmoptimism. Here's a graf from the complaint that gives the gist of the whole.

"By early 2002 [various negative factors] were dramatically depressing the Company's financial results and the Company was increasingly finding itself locked into long-term contracts with little upside earnings potential. Unfortunately for [C/O] ... instead of dealing with the issues facing the Company in an open and legal manner, Defendants concealed the true financial results of operations and condition of the Company, embarking on a fraudulent accounting scheme which hastened the demise of the Company and left it unable to right itself."

17 May 2007

Plot Summary

I discussed the book, Ugly Americans, in Monday's entry. Today I thought I'd offer a plot summary. In coming days I hope to make inquiries into the history behind it, how true a story it is/isn't.

We're told that in 1992, twenty Ivy League football players visited Japan, to play an exhibition game against Japanese college kids. Of course, American football isn't big in Japan, and the Ivy team (which would have been mincemeat before, say, the Boilermakers or the Sooners on even a bad year for either of the latter) handily defeated the Japanese who lent themselves to the show.

On this trip, Princeton's contribution to that all-star-Ivy team, John Malcolm, encountered a Princeton alum, Dean Carney. (I'll use their names as given in the book here. For their likely real names, see Monday's post.) Carney was a big-wheel at Kidder Peabody's Tokyo office, and he suggested Malcolm contact him about a job if no pro football career panned out.

None did, so Malcolm did, in 1993. Malcolm became one of KP's two Osaka-based traders. This lasted until April 1994, when KP discovered a $350 million "accounting glitch," and assigned responsibility for the glitch to one of its managing directors, Joseph Jett. KP (and its corporate parent, General Electric) made sweeping cutbacks in their trading operations as a result. Both Carney and Malcolm -- neither of whom had anything to do with Jett's accounting trickery -- were out of jobs, and they went their separate ways.

Malcolm took a position with a venerable English bank, Barings. He was again to work out of Osaka, but this time his orders were coming from Singapore, where Barings' star trader, Nick Leeson, held court.

Leeson, though, was making huge unauthorized trades during this period, and he was losing ... big. In January 1995 he made an enormous bet on a rise in the key Japanese stock exchange index, known as the Nikkei ... large enough so that if he won, he would recover all his losses. But of course he didn't win. That huge bet went against him, due to the Kobe earthquake January 17, and its devastating effects on Japan's economy.

After a brief period as a fugitive, Leeson was captured and did prison time. That didn't save Barings, which went into receivership. For the second time in eight months, a superiors malfeasance had cost Malcolm a job.

He called Carney for help. Carney, meanwhile, had founded a hedge fund, and Malcolm was soon trading for it. Mostly index arbitrage. What does that mean? In brief, there were by the 1990s funds in existence tracking most of the world's major stock market indexes. The idea is that someone might want to bet on the direction of, say, the Dow Jones, without having to invest in each of its component stocks. The managers of the index fund, by pooling a lot of investors' money, can of course more easily invest (according to their weight) in each of the components, and all the investors have to watch is the average itself. An "arb play" in this context means that a trader buys the components while selling the index-tracker fund, or vice versa, in order to take advantage of inefficiencies in the tracking process.

Anyway, Carney hired Malcolm again to come to Tokyo and arb the Nikkei and its components.

In 1994, the Hong Kong government created a tracker fund for the Hang Seng -- its equivalent of the Dow Jones or the Nikkei. [BLOGGER CORRECTION. The Mezrich account makes these dates seem plausible by a gross foreshortening of the events. The tracker fund actually came about as a result of actions taken by the government during the currency crisis of 1998.] In 1995, after Malcolm was settled into his Tokyo job, a company named Pacific Century Cyberworks (PCC) merged with Hong Kong Telecom, and under the terms of the tracker funds' charter, its managers had to buy $225 million worth of PCC stock. [AGAIN. MY MISTAKE, though with authorial encouragement. Mezrich is referring here to events of the year 2000].

Everybody knew it was going to have to do this, so a lot of traders tried to get a risk-free profit by front-running this deal, i.e. buying PCC stock ahead of the fund's expected purchases.

Malcolm, though, discovered that the tracker fund wasn't going to buy the PCC stock through the exchanges at all. It made a private off-exchange deal with PCC's founder Richard Li. This meant that, when the day of the expected fund purchases arrived and no purchases took place, there'd be a strong downward pressure on the stock price.

Accordingly, on Malcolm's suggestion, Carney's hedge fund took a "short" position on $100 million of PCC stock. When the big day arrived, and the tracking fund didn't make the expected purchases, the price dropped dramatically, and Malcolm covered the short position, winning his firm more than twenty million dollars.

This one deal made Malcolm a star, known to expat western traders throughout east Asia as their "hot young gunslinger."

The ending of the book turns on another, quite similar, but even larger deal involving the addition of several high-tech firms to the Nikkei index. This is the deal that justifies the book -- Malcolm made Carney's firm five hundred million dollars in cash out of the restructuring of the Nikkei.

Then Malcolm leaves Carney's employ and heads for semi-retirement in Bermuda, although we're told he still does some light trading.

That's not the whole of the story, of course. There are some characters -- including Ivy Leaguers, other than just Carney and Malcolm. In the days leading up to the Hang Seng trade, for example, we're introduced to "Vince Meyer" (another pseudonym, surely), described as "the top trader of one of the biggest American banks in Hong Kong" who gives Malcolm a crucial datum. Meyer is a Harvard grad.

There's also some raw sex, some hinted-at violence, one vividly described auto accident, and some romance to liven up the prose, for those who don't think that index arb traders sitting in front of computer screens throughout the working day is by itself a very exciting spectacle even if it is profitable.

16 May 2007

Music Critic

I've had an idea for a story -- or, rather, for a character around whom a story could be written. But I've never gotten very far with it. So I'll just mention the idea here, and put it in the public domain.

The character, and my imagination associates him somehow with the name Mortimer, is a music critic for a major weekly magazine. But -- this is the twist -- Mortimer never writes about music. Somebody else in the newsroom (let's call him Basil) does a search at some point in the story.

"In the five years that he's worked here," Basil reports to some third party, "filing [some number] or album reviews and [some other number] of concert reviews, Mortimer has not yet expressed any considered judgment about rhythm, melody, or harmony -- about, in a word, the music."

The story can have some fun with the various subjects a non-musical music critic could write about to keep such a string alive for a Basil to discover. The design of the concert stage or album cover, the ups and downs in the popular reputation of the band under review, the lyrics. A non-music critic might last in this way for some time.

But the story needs a lot of development. Mortimer would have to react to Basil's discovery in some way -- there might be some comedy to be found in his effort to write something distinctively musical in order to shut Basil up and win the publication's turf war.

And there'd need to be some explanation of why Basil made an issue of it anyway. What is Basil's job? Ombudsman?

I've given up on it. If any of you wanted a story idea: Go.

15 May 2007


There continues to be life in the old debates about truth.

George Englebretsen, a logician who teaches at Bishop's University, Quebec, has just come out with a book entitled Bare Facts and Naked Truths: A New Correspondence Theory of Truth.

While researching that book, I discovered a similar one that came out a few years back (as long ago as 2000, but much more recent than most of the books and articles on the subject I've ever seen given my old-school habits of mind!) Between Deflationism and Correspondence Theory (2000).

Matthew McGrath at the University of Missouri.

What both books have in common is that they see the chief rivalry in the definition of truth as the one defined in Dr. McGrath's title. Either truth is merely a word of approval, (when you say "the sun is yellow" and I say "that's true," I could as well have nodded my head, or given you a thumb's up signal) OR it is an ontologically significant state of agreement between a proposition and a fact-in-the-world.

Englebretsen takes the side of correspondence. McGrath stays in the middle ground, which he also calls "weak deflationism." His theory is summarized on-line, in this article:


Something else both books have in common: they both accept and in fact turn on the idea of a "proposition." A proposition is the meaning of a sentence. Presumably, a proposition is the commonality we have in mind when we say that two sentences "mean the same thing."

The idea of correspondence inherent in both books is that a true PROPOSITION is one that corresponds to a fact.

But in practice (always my touchstone) the truth bearer is a sentence in some natural language, and if we slice propositions out of the account we can still (a) cope quite well with the fact that some pairs of sentences are equivalent to one another in meaning, while (b) leaving a ghostly pseudo-entity out of our ontology.

14 May 2007

Ugly Americans

I've been inspired (not for any very good reason) to look again at a book I first read three years ago, soon after its publication.

The book is "Ugly Americans," by Ben Mezrich, who is better known as the author of the beating-Las-Vegas tale, "Bringing Down the House," soon to be a Hollywood movie, http://cicilycorbett.blogspot.com/2007/04/luck-be-lady.html

The two Mezrich books bear some similarity, but in "Ugly Americans" the casinos that the protagonists want to beat consist of the east Asian stock markets and their indexes. The unwieldy subtitle describes the book as "the true story of the Ivy League Cowboys who raided the Asian markets for millions."

Mezrich writes in the "new journalism" borderline style of a Tom Wolfe or Truman Capote -- novelistic techniques abound, although we're assured that they apply, as that subtitle says, to a "true story."

The chief of the protagonists are two Princeton grads, known here as Dean Carney and John Malcolm. When we're first introduced to Carney, circa 1992, he's a Tokyo based senior trader for Kidder Peabody, "derivatives mostly," and we're told that he hired Malcolm for his KP's Osaka office. An author's note tells us the name "John Malcolm" is fictitious, and strongly implies the same for the name "Dean Carney." It also says that "job titles and positions at companies that were actually in existence at the time the events in the book took place ... should not be read to refer to any specific people who were actually employed by those companies at any time."

Aside from an obvious desire to keep libel lawyers at bay, I'm not sure what this means. That sounds sweeping enough to render the phrase "true story" rather pointless. How different is that language from, "The facts as stated here are not to be confused with the facts as they actually were at the places and times purportedly described"? And if it isn't different, why not just re-classify the book as ... fiction?

For such reasons as that I wasn't initially impressed by the book. But I've been giving it another go of late. Why? Because of the upcoming movie version of Mezrich's other book, because of a possible re-assignment to east Asia in connection with my own employment, and because ... I have a couple of real-life names to attach to Mezrich's characters.

The Boston Globe did a profile of Mezrich soon after the book appeared, and its reporter did some commendable spadework, discovering that the particulars in the book concerning Malcolm fit pretty closely those of Princeton grad and football player Michael Lerach.

That inspired me to do a little more googling, which led to the suspicion that dean Carney could be Richard Tavoso, also a Princeton alum, who managed Kidder Peabody's equity derivatives business in Tokyo, 1990-93.

With real names, and with some determination, one might piece together the truth behind the "true story" as Mezrich has sort-of-given it to us. I'll work on it a bit.

13 May 2007

An Oriental fable

In the words of Leo Tolstoy:

"The oriental fable of the traveler surprised in the desert by a wild beast is very old.

"Seeking to save himself from the fierce animal, the traveler jumps into a well with no water in it; but at the bottom of this well he sees a dragon waiting with open mouth to devour him. And the unhappy man, not daring to go out lest he be the prey of the beast, not daring to jump to the bottom lest he should be devoured by the dragon, clings to the branches of a wild bush which grows out of one of the cracks of the well. His hands weaken, and he feels that he must soon give way to certain fate; but still he clings, and sees two mice, one white, the other black, evenly moving round the bush on which he hangs, and gnawing off its roots.

"The traveler sees this and knows that he must inevitably perish; but while thus hanging he looks about him and finds on the leaves of the branch some drops of honey. These he reaches with his tongue and licks them off with rapture."

Let that be our sermon for this beautiful Sunday. I hope it is beautiful where you are! Enjoy the honey.

12 May 2007


Ah, the too-muchness of it.

Yes, everybody has understood for some time that the data-and-news market (I hate the term "media") is crowded and low-margin. From this it follows -- and has followed -- that a wave of consolidation is nigh.

But it's nigh no more. It's now.

And the wave crashed in on the shore of Now on April 24, when shareholders for The New York Times withheld 42% of their votes on the question of the re-election of the directors. They knew the directors had a majority of the votes sewed up, and they had no alternative slate of directors to offer. But, led by Morgan Stanley, they wanted to register a protest.

And they did. Forty-two percent is huge under the circumstances. A similar protest led to the resignation of Michael Eisner as head of Disney not long ago.

What has gotten Morgan Stanley (and one of its execs, Hassan Elmasry, in particular) so ticked off about the controlling group of the NYT? Falling profits, a slumping share price, and the dual roles of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., who is both chairman and publisher.

What seems behind Elmasry's campaign for change at the NYT, though, is the expectation that if the company changed its stock structure, it would become attractive to buyers. Not just to people buying small blocks of shares to round out portfolios, but to buyers aiming at control and offering a premium. In short, though not quite explicitly, Morgan Stanley wants the NYT to put itself up for sale.

The Times has so far successfully resisted, and Sulzberger has kept both jobs. Still ... the withheld votes served as a signal to the market.

Then on May 1, the Dow Jones (which publishes the Wall Street Journal) announced that Rupert Murdoch's vehicle, News Corp., had made an unsolicited bid to buy it at $60 a share. That's about $20 more than the level at which the stock was trading before the news.

The controlling group in this case is the Bancroft family, which owns 62% of the stock. If the Bancroft family holds firm, then, Murdoch can't buy a controlling share. It is by no means certain that they will hold firm, although so far (two weeks later) they seem to be.

But the logic of consolidation remains powerful and the offers will keep coming until somebody starts selling. On May 8, Thomson Corporation, a publishing company that provides data, software, etc. to lawyers, accountants, tax consultants, etc. -- and that has its operational headquarters in Fairfield County, Conn., offered to buy the London-based Reuters Group for 8.77 billion pounds (US $17.5 billion). If the combination goes through it could create the world's largest financial news and data concern.

Reuters' management is making nice. It appears that Thomson and Reuters will strike some sort of deal, pending review by several sets of regulatory/antitrust authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. Regulators likely won't just stand in front of this train yelling "stop!" At most, they'll demand some divestitures that will make the resultant combined company somewhat less huge than otherwise. But the wave of consolidation is upon us, and with this third offer in a few days, the sand castles on the shore have started dissolving.

11 May 2007

The Rise of Deripaska

Daimler-Chrysler, the German-led automobile company that of late has come to regard its US-based Chrysler branch as dead weight, has found a buyer.

Actually, there are now three buyers bidding an at informal auction, but the most likely buyer by far is a Canadian auto parts manufacturer, Magna International.

Take that with a grain of salt, and recall for example that the last time I wrote about Chrysler here (on April 6) the favorite was Kirk Kerkorian and his company, Tracinda Corp. They seem to have faded from discussions over the last five weeks.

But assume for purposes of discussion that Magna does get Chrysler. Their bid is worth approximately $5 billion. Magna doesn't have that kind of money in its petty-cash drawer, and will likely raise some of it by selling some of its own equity. In other words, one question now is: if Magna gets Chrysler, who gets Magna?

Answer: an aluminum kingpin from Russia, Oleg Deripaska.

Deripaska is a fascinating character, who even if he does end up owning a large chunk of the company that in turn owns a controlling interest in Chrysler, won't be able to visit the Michigan offices thereof. He was stripped of his U.S. visa last year as a result of the FBI's view that he is (a) involved with organized crime and (b) was less than truthful when they asked him about it.

If what we want if for Chrysler to become and remain a sustainable, productive, even innovative car company: would the ascent of Deripaska be a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know, and I consider his difficult relations with the FBI to be a rather ambivalent bit of data for the purpose of answering that question.

Update, May 14. Oops. Shows what I know. Over the weekend, Cerberus apparently brought this auction to an end, bidding $2 billion more than had Magna.


Cerberus is everywhere, as I mentioned in March.


It continues to creep me out.

10 May 2007

Derbyshire & Clifford

I've recently been reading a book by John Derbyshire on the history of algebra, called "Unknown Quantity." It's a follow-up of sorts to his book on the still unproven (and unfalsified) Riemann Conjecture concerning prime numbers, which I believe I mentioned earlier in this blog.

Anyway, in the more recent Derbyshire book, I came across a brief passage about the 19th century English mathematician William Kingdon Clifford.

Clifford is an important name for those of us who admire William James. Not for his mathematical accomplishments (which are undoubted) but for his venture into philosophy (which was unfortunate). It was Clifford who wrote that it is our general duty to our species to guard our minds from unproven beliefs, even if they should happen to be true. Believing something on insufficient evidence is like accepting into one's body "a pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town."

James thought this simply ridiculous, with "too much of robustious pathos in the voice" as he said, and it inspired him to write the famous/notorious essay "The Will to Believe."

But Derbyshire's passage doesn't mention any of that. He's interested in Clifford as a mathematician, one responsible for generalizing "Hamilton's quaternions into a whole family of n-dimensional algebras."

I won't explain here what that means, what Hamilton's quarternions are. It is fully discussed in the context of the book. I was simply impressed by this example of what seems to have been a general 19th century truth. One could still get a reputatiuon as a considerable philosopher without any academic credentials in the field, but one did have to have academic credentials in some field.

Clifford earned his bones in math, as James did in psychology.

09 May 2007

Lucien Freud

We're into the art world's auction season, and Lucien Freud's "Bruce Bernard" (1992) will go "under the hammer" at Christie's auction house in London next month.

This is one of twenty-one major works from the so called "School of London" that are coming to auction for the first time. I've tried to find a decent on-line photo to which to link you here, but am having poor luck.

In September 2003 the London Times ran an appreciative essay on Lucien Freud's career by John Russell Taylor, which said in part: "He has continued to change and develop throughout his 80 years: it is perfectly permissible to prefer his early, hard-edged style to his later flourishes of heavy impasto, but that is a matter of taste rather than of general consent."

The painting on the block in June will presumably belong to the "later flourishes" category.

I read something recently about how the art market is a way in which "the rich try to get richer." But I suspect that's wrong, that speculation on possible price increases is a relatively small part of the motivation that will presumably fill the room at Christie's.

Aside from such speculation, and aside too from any genuine love of the art, there is I think a sense of status anxiety that drives the market.

But, of course, possessing a Lucien Freud only soothes your status anxiety if you put it on a wall somewhere. Having it in a carefully monitored, climate-controlled, warehouse might be just fine for a speculator, but improves one's status not at all. It has to be, "Oh, look at what a nice painting I've got in my foyer." THAT will relieve some anxieties.

08 May 2007

Countdown to Bloomsday

I received my ticket in yesterday's mail to the Bloomsday 2007 Breakfast, at the James Joyce Centre, 35 North Great George's St., Dublin.

June 16th, of course.

Things are moving nicely toward the satisfaction of one of my resolutions for this year, at least.

07 May 2007

A Bit of a Tooth

Prosecutors are now charging that one of Phil Spector's former lawyers may have removed evidence from a crime scene.

The defense contends that Lana Clarkson's death was some combination of accident and suicide -- she put the gun in her own mouth and pulled the trigger, perhaps in the belief that it wasn't loaded.

That contention means that "splatter evidence" may be crucial to this trial, so a bit of a tooth found at the crime scene (all accounts are calling it a fingernail-sized piece of tooth) is important in itself even aside from the general principle that any tampering with a crime scene smacks of obstruction of justice.

The allegation -- that Sara Caplan (apparently an experienced and well-regarded attorney) pilfered this bit of tooth -- comes from a law clerk at Caplan's firm. Caplan denies it.

My guess is that Caplan is probably innocent, simply because that just seems such a blatant and high-risk thing for someone in her position to attempt. Why would the clerk say it, then? I don't know. I would presume innocent misunderstanding.

Though I think Caplan innocent, I'm sure her former client is guilty of murder, and I suppose on balance I'm happy the prosecution is taking an aggressive stance.

06 May 2007

The Meaning of Life

Terrence Eagleton, a Marxist literary theorist, has written a new book on what, for those who've followed his career, is an unexpected subject.

The Meaning of Life.


Some of the reviews seem to regard the book as a sort of Gilbert's Outline (excuse the former law student's allusion) of the major philosophical/religious efforts to answer the ultimate question.

Actually, there are two ultimate questions, which are psychologically intertwined although logically distinct: why is there something rather than nothing? is the metaphysical question. Why (if at all) does it matter how I live my life, is a foundational/ethical question.

Let us say, for purposes of discussion that the answer to the first question is that it is just a fluke that there is something rather than nothing. Furthermore, the somethingness came into existence and will pass out of existence. Nothingness preceded it forever, nothingness will follow it, after the universe ends in a "Big Crunch," a singularity that amounts to the Big Bang run backwards.

If we gave that kind of answer to the first of those questions, wouldn't we find it difficult to give any sort of answer other than "it doesn't matter at all" to the second question.

Certainly, at the moment of the Big Crunch it won't matter how Christopher Faille or Terrence Eagleton have led their lives. So does it follow that it doesn't matter now?

Those are the questions with which, as I understand it, Eagleton is grappling. Good for him.

05 May 2007

Mythology Misused

Daedelus. That's a name you likely remember from some a yer schoolin'.

Daedelus was a prisoner on Crete, because he knew the secret of the Labyrinth (which he had designed) and Minos didn't want that secret to get out. Daedelus escaped by inventing wax wings, with which he and his son Icarus flew out of Crete, heading toward the safety of Sicily.

Icarus, of course, never made it. Intoxicated by the thrill of flight, he went too high, and the sun melted the wax.The story inspired the song "Carry On Wayward Son," by Kansas. "Once I rose above the noise and confusion Just to get a glimpse beyond the illusion I was soaring ever higher ...."

Why do I bring this up? Because of a recent misuse of the myth.

In recent years a con artist in his late teens, named Hakan Yalincak, managed to persuade a lot of financially savvy people that he was the scion of a wealthy Turkish family, that he managed the family fortune in a hedge fund called Daedelus, and that he was willing to give them (the marks) a chance to invest through Daedelus, too! Of course, the Daedelus fund didn't exist.

Yalincak was sucessfully prosecuted and has been sentenced. He's supposed to turn himself in this coming week to begin serving that sentence but (and this has been the subject of my recent stories) he's trying to delay that "self report" obligation for another 30 days, on a variety of reasons and pretexts I won't get into now.

What amuses me is that many of my colleagues, covering this story, have found the mythological tie-in irresistable. They've tried to show their erudition by explaining, in the course of stories about Yalincak, why there is an irony in his naming his fund Daedelus, so there's always a sentence like this: "Yalincak, like the character for whom he named his fund, wrongly thought he could fly."

Oops. Yalincak got the myth right, and the reporters stretching for irony get it wrong. Yalincak didn't scare investors off by naming his fund "Icarus," after all. He named it after someone who KNEW he could fly, and who did get to Sicily that way.

The lesson? Stretching for irony is dangerous. If you're going to try a twist on a classical allusion, always check to be sure you have the basics right. Keep Bulfinch handy. Or Edith Hamilton.

04 May 2007

BP: The Wrong Scandal

The chief executive of BP (the company that used to be known as "British Petroleum" -- although nowadays they insist that BP is the whole name, not a set of initials for anything) resigned this week. On Mayday, in fact.

The chief executive, John Browne, a/k/a Lord Browne, a/k/a Baron Browne of Madingley, resigned after he lost a court fight to keep certain secrets with regard to his relationship with a young man, named Jeff Chevalier. The two broke up last year, and it seemed to dawn upon Mr. Chevalier (what a great name!) that if you break up with your sugar Daddy, you can't keep up the lifestyle that he had been buying for you.

So Jeff decided to tattle about their relationship for pay, and Lord Browne sought to enjoin Fleet Street's finest from reporting on their dalliance. In the course of this litigation, the Lord seems now to have perjured himself, on such issues as how the two met. They met on a website designed for such meetings, but they had apparently invented the cover story (when they were quite opening moving about in society circles as a couple) that they met while jogging in Battersea Park. The Lord seems to have tried to sell that cover story to the courts, too, but the scorned Chevalier wouldn't let him get away with it.

Do I care? Of course not. Gossip is a rather low form of amusement. But what saddens me here is that Lord Browne had a lot of GOOD reasons over the last couple of years why he should have resigned, yet no one on the board of directors seems to have been at all interested in rebuking him (indeed, they only recently -- April 12 -- sweetened his pension deal) until gay-sex scandal entered the picture.

Consider the good reasons for getting rid of Lord Browne. Related to his actual ... well, you know ... business.

BP was indicted by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board for its role in the Texas City Refinery disaster in 2005. Fifteen people dies in large part because BP scrimped on safety measures.

Other US agencies are investigating BP on charges of market manipulation.

There's a continuing investigation of the pollution related to its pipeline at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska -- oil on the tundra after years of poor maintenance.

Well ... if it took a sex scandal to get him out of the corner office, thank goodness for the salacious instincts of the London press.

03 May 2007

Why Should Wolfe Work?

Back on April 21, I wrote about Tom Wolfe’s article in the premier issue of Portfolio magazine. Chiefly, as you may remember, my point was simply that it was cool that Wolfe had turned his attention to hedge funds. That fact gives added importance to those of us who toil in those journalistic vineyards on a daily basis.

I didn’t presume to judge the literary merit of Wolfe’s story, though, until the final lines of my blog entry for that day, when I wrote (in one of the irresponsible examples of opinionating that make blogging fun), “Frankly, it stinks.”

Today, let’s look at the story and try to provide some basis for that judgment, shall we? Here, again, is the URL. http://www.portfolio.com/executives/features/2007/04/16/The-Pirate-Pose

But I’ll make three specific points. First, there’s the lame opening. Wolfe wants to describe for us a hedge fund manager banging on his landlady’s door in a manner that terrifies her, persuades her that a fire or a break-in is underway. The idea is to show that hedgers are unmannered to the point of barbarism. How does Wolfe do this? Here is the opening.

“Not bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam, but bama bampa barama bam bammity bam bam bammity barampa FIRE! was the first thing she thought of because nobody ever banged on your apartment door in a building like this nobody would be so impolite as to even rap on your door with his knuckles unannounced in a building like this much less bang on it with both fists for this was not one fist pounding on the door but both fists bama barampa bam bam bammity barampa bam bam—”

Now, does that work as onomatopoeia? Does anyone, hearing someone else banging on a door, however frantically, actually hear “bama bampa barama”? I doubt it. It sounds to me more like a line from an old doo-wop song. “Who put the rama in the bampa barama?”

One enviably snarky blogger has suggested that Wolfe must have been getting paid by the word. “Let’s put in another bam. That’ll count as a word, won’t it?”

Second, the whole point of the scene that follows, the conversation between (unnamed) landlady and (unnamed) hedge fund manager client, seems to be the re-enactment of a hoary cliché. She is old money, with cultivation. He is new money, with pretension.

He asks if her vase is Tiffany. She replies that it isn’t, and thinks to herself, “it was older and considerably more precious than a Tiffany, but she hadn’t the faintest desire to prolong the conversation with any discussion of the higher ceramics.” The sort of literary effect for which he’s reaching here is older and considerably more fragile than a Tiffany.

All that bama bampa has led us only there??

Third, there’s the “gee whiz, what big houses” stuff. The guy banging on the door is a renter, of course. He may be living in very nice apartment, in Manhattan yet. But he’s still living in an apartment. He doesn’t really suit Wolfe’s theme of wretched excess, so soon enough we forget about him and we’re talking about the manicured lawns of Greenwich, Connecticut.

Or, rather, we’re calling them, “manicured-bucolic wildernessless-woodsy rolling hills and arboreal dells, all ornamented by mansions and irrigated by cash flow.”

I don’t think we can really blame the hedge fund industry for the fact that Greenwich isn’t a wilderness anymore. It hasn’t really been wilderness since a Dutch colony lay next door.

The whole thing is just lazy. Poorly researched (he’s Tom Wolfe – he doesn’t have to work to sell his writings anymore – so why do any real research) and stylistically a pathetic self-parody. Enough!

02 May 2007

A Conversational Opening

I've often wondered about "small talk." Since I've never had the gift of gab myself, the whole idea of complete strangers conversing strikes me as full of mystery and complexity.

Not to say that this is a bad thing.

Of course, by writing these words I'm engaging in a conversation of sorts with anyone in the world inclined to read it. And sometimes it amounts just to small talk. Perhaps this will be one of those times.

But I'm thinking of such matters now because of the odd opening of a certain book review in the latest issue of The New Republic. Sherwin Nuland is reviewing a book by Katherine Park about the origins of human/medical dissection.

Nuland starts by telling a story intended to illustrate the conventional wisdom on the subject. He was recently at a "luncheon where alumni of a large Ivy League university had gathered ... one of the group's officers was holding forth at my table on a thesis ... regaling his attentive listeners with accusations of the obstinacy with which the church opposed human dissection during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This, he pointed out as emphatically as if he were addressing a jury, had necessitated all kinds of clandestine and gruesome activities on the part of those whose aim was to study the human body, whether for scientific purposes or because they were artists of the caliber of Leonardo, Titian, and Raphael. Not only was medical knowledge thus stunted in its advancement, he added in his summation, but such opposition necessitated the well-known horros of grave robbing in order to obtain cadavers for study, an unnatural activity that marred the image of the profession of healing until late in the nineteenth century."

Nuland goes on to say that his table-mate was quite wrong, and credits Katherine Park with getting the history of dissection right, as against a venerable tradition of such misconceptions.

But I have to wonder about that conversation at the table. My thoughts linger there. This was, I imagine, an alumi association of a medical school, or of a university with a strong medical school as an important component. Even so, I find it hard to think of Renaissance-era dissection as a natural topic for post-prandial discussion.

Suppose you were brimming with thoughts, erroneous or otherwise, about the history of dissection, and its connection with grave-robbing. Would you just dive into action, to share them with a table full of strangers (or people you hadn't seen in the 20 years since you and they graduated, perhaps?). Or would you have to wait for an appropriate opening in the conversation?

And what might that be? If I complain about my aching muscles, "oh, I did too much walking today, my leg muscles are still sore," would that suffice? "Oh, the science of anatomy developed only rather slowly to the point at which such things can be understood, Christopher. Why, did you know that this is how the horrors of grave robbing came about?" -- and off, in my Nuland-stoked imagination, my imaginary table mate is launched.

As you see, I still have a lot to learn about small talk.

01 May 2007

The Crystal Palace

Today is an anniversary worthy of note. The "Great Exhibition" opened on the first of May, in London, in 1851. It continued through the summer and into October of that year.

It was the brainchild of Prince Albert, and the ancestor of all subsequent World's Fairs, Expos, etc.

There were eight miles of tables of exhibits of all imaginable sorts from around the world, but visitors especially marvelled at where all these tables were housed -- inside a Crystal Palace, a giant glass-and-iron hall designed by Sir Joseph Paxton.

The Crystal Palace itself became a symbol of the progressive technical impetus of the mid nineteenth century. For some, such as for Dostoyevsky's "underground man," it was a symbol of rationality, and of a blindly optimistic appraisal of the human condition.

To such sunny utopians, the U.M. says, "You believe in a crystal edifice, forever indestructible; that is, in an edifice at which one can neither put out one's tongue on the sly nor make a fig in the pocket. Well, and perhaps I'm afraid of this edifice precisely because it is crystal and forever indestructible, and it will be impossible to put out one's tongue at it even on the sly."

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.