31 August 2007

Oleg Deripaska

Things are rolling ahead for a deal in which Russian mogul Oleg Deripaska will buy the Canadian auto parts concern Magna International. The European Commission has approved, [why is the EC ruling on a deal involving chiefly Russian and Canadian firms? Ah, the wonders of globalization!], as have Magna's shareholders, and a Canadian court.

The deal is that Deripaska's firm, Russian Machines, will buy US$1.54 billion in Magna's stock. When the smoke clears, OD through Russian Machines and another company he controls, Stronach Trust, will control 70% of the target's voting shares.

Also, the Toronto Stock Exchange has given its approval to the issuance and listing of the new voting shares the arrangement requires.

Why should you care? Recall that this spring, when Daimler was auctioning off its Chrysler division, Magna was a serious bidder. Deripaska was already then in the market for contgrol of Magna. Although Magna didn't get Chrysler, the fact that the Deripaska deal went forward anyway does illustrate a continuing story of great significance, the consolidation of the automotive and related industries.


30 August 2007

Our Times

As promised, my guess at the ten most important world-historical events since 1993.

First, let's treat of the military/diplomatic matters.

1. January 1, 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement goes into effect.

2. May 1998, the first "euro" coins are minted.

3. September 11, 2001, enough said.

4. February 1, 2002, a kidnapped Wall Street Journal Reporter, Daniel Pearl, is murdered by his kidnappers in Pakistan.

5. October 16, 2002, George W. Bush signs the Iraq War Resolution.

Next, let's discuss politics, in a narrow sense, in some of the leading powers of the day.

6. March 1996, the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan) holds its first-ever direct election for President.

7. December 5, 1996, The chairman of the Federal Reserve in the U.S., Alan Greenspan, gives a speech warning that stock values in the US may have become inflated due to "irrational exuberance."

8. June 2007, In the U.K., Tony Blair steps down, and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, becomes both the new leader of the Labour Party and the new Prime Minister.

Finally, there are a couple other events that I can't bring myself to leave off any such list.

9. March 1995, Nick Leeson is arrested for his role in the collapse of one of the world's oldest banks, Barings. This became known as the "rogue trader" case.

10. February 1997, Scientists in Scotland announced that they've cloned a sheep, which they call Dolly.

29 August 2007

Time after Time

I'm back in town.

So, what should we talk about today? This: someone asked me recently, pretty much out of the blue, what I would list as the ten most important events in the world since 1993. I was allowed to interpret the word "important" any way I wanted to.

I composed a list. But I'm not going to share that with you until tomorrow. Today, I want to discuss the nature of such questions.

I can only understand such a question as an effort to predict which events will make it into the history books of our posterity, and how much text or emphasis each will receive there. Of course a phrase like "our posterity" is still vague, but we might just for fun pick the date 2107. What will a historian, writing then, regard as most important to know about the years 1993-2007?

I suspect that history will remain a matter of constructing narratives, and won't deteriorate into a mere data base. Narrative history responds to the human love of stories, of plots, and adds the assurance, "by the way, it really happened." Contrary narratives keep the blodd boiling and the word processing software upgrades selling.

Furthermore, I'm going to indulge for now in the supposition that anarchists aren't going to prevail in the world any time soon, and that the central narrative of history books written in 2107 will continue to involve sovereignty. Various governments claiming sovereignty over various chunks of the earth, and their clashes with rebels who deny that authority as well as with foes from outside their chunk. History will continue to be largely (though it won't of course be entirely) a matter of past politics, past military actions, past diplomacy.

Other sorts of history (the stories of technical inventions, of commerce and finance, of everyday life) will continue to make contributions, but developments in each will be perceived as "important" to the extent that they feed into the central narrative of sovereigns, rebels, and foes.

To illustrate, here are ten events from the period 1842-1856.

We'll start with international war and diplomacy:

1. The Anglo-Chinese, or Opium, Wars.
2. A wave of revolutions, 1848-49, swept the occidental world from Brazil to Hungary.
3. November 1853, a battle between the Russian and Ottoman fleets ended in a clear victory for the former and began the Crimean War.

Now let's say something about the national politics (narrowly understood) of some of the leading powers of the day.
4. May 1846, the UK repealed its "corn laws," allowing the unimpeded importation of agricultural products. This became a key victory of free trade as a political/ideological platform.
5. December 1851, Louis Napoleon dissolved the National Assembly in France, effectively ending the life of the Second Republic.
6. 1855, the first legislature of the territory of Kansas in the US convened, and started enacting pro-slavery legislation.

What else? Well, let's try a bit of everything else.
7. 1844, in Illinois, religious leader Joseph Smith is murdered
8. 1845, the beginning of the potato famine in Ireland
9. 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention, in New York
10.1849, a Russian court sentences Fyodor Dostoyevsky, student activist/revolutionary, to death. (The sentence is later commuted, and the experience has enormous traumatic consequences for the budding artist.)


This is a thoroughly objectionable list, surely. You might object for example that I've given scientific and technological achievement no place at all. Morse's telegraph, Siemens' improvements upon it, and the creation of the Siemens corporation in 1847, all have one might argue importance as great as that of anything I've listed.

Or what about the discovery of gold near Sacramento in 1848 and the subsequent rush of would-be prospectors?

And so it goes, on and on. At least in arguing about inclusion and exclusion we have the benefit of the practices of contemporary historians to work from. We aren't forced to speculate about the contents of texts still unwritten. Tomorrow then, we'll do just that. We'll return to the original question, most significant world events from 1993 to the present.

23 August 2007

A Few Days Without Blogging

I don't anticipate making any further posts here until Wednesday, August 29. I'm certain that even my more ardent fans can hang on without me.

While I'm on an autobiographical note, let me mention also that I recently had some tissue from my back biopsied. This was the 'second round' of such biopsies. The first, in the late spring, resulted in negative lab results.

So far as we know, then, I don't have anything on my back less healthy than ugly moles. Still, the dermatologist wanted to do a second round (and, has, I fear, left open the possibility of a third round down the round) to be sure, and to bill my insurer.

I'm reminded somehow of the old SCTV character, Tommy Shanks, whose televised talks to Mellonville as Mayor also took a rambling memoirist turn. While purportedly speaking about gun control, he said, "I heard on the radio the other day that there are as many guns in North America as there are baseball cards. I couldn't help but wonder: where do they come up with facts like that?" This was the sum of his discussion of 'gun control.'

I wonder that, too, mayor. About a lot of things. But nowadays the blogosphere generates endless comparisons of everything to everything else, quicker than the poppings of the wood in your fireplace.

22 August 2007

Writing about music

Elvis Costello said, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, it's a really stupid thing to want to do."

That sort of comment is cute, but not especially perceptive. After all, in principle a dance could as easily be about architecture as it can be about, say, a children's Christmas Party or a beautiful maiden magically transformed into a swan.

People in Mr. Costello's line of work would presumably like to see "writing about music" limited to, say, press releases advertising their gigs. Its critical writing about music about which they get grumpy.

That is, of course, the set-up to the wonderful movie "Almost Famous," where an adolescent boy learns how to write about music, and how to get an interview.

What about jazz music? Writing on that subject seems especially difficult, since the content is uniquely slippery, jazz musicians being perhaps uniquely wedded to extemporaneous creation.

Here, though, is a forum on the subject:


My point? Don't ask. I'm thinking aloud, you're just listening in.

21 August 2007

Pragmatism in South Korea

A former CEO of Hyundai, Lee Myung-bak, is now running for president of South Korea as a member of the Grand National Party.

Lee calls himself a pragmatist. Indeed, he uses the phrase "empirical pragmatist," which sounds a tad backwards to me, but that may be an artifact of translation. I prefer "pragmatic empiricism" when both terms are used, because pragmatism is a variant within the broader empirical camp.

Lee, at any rate, used "empirical pragmatism" as a label for his desire to get beyond ideologies, which he believes have simply blinded previous governments to the national interest. He also thinks the national interest is best served -- pragmatically advanced, by what he calls the "smart market economy," in which on the one hand competition, freedom and creativity are protected, and on the other hand stragglers are assisted.

I don't know South Korean politics well enough to comment, but I will say as a pragmatist I don't object to Lee's use of the term. In my own mind, as I have long contended, the fullest political expression of pragmatism is anarcho-capitalism. But ....

I recognize that the Republic of Korea is unlikely soil for anarcho-capitalism, largely because the notion of a free-market system for territorial defense leaves people queasy, and with Communism-induced famine so evident just to the north of an arbitrary line on a map, that queasiness is rather hard to overcome. So, pragmatically, I suspect Lee is going as far in what I regard as the rational direction as could be expected of him.

Iceland, after all, in the days sometimes evoked as an anarcho-cap model, or for that matter in all days since, has been ... well, an island. Not the southern half of a peninsula.

20 August 2007

Mike Huckabee again

I think, frankly, that it's refreshing to find a conservative Republican who can talk like this:

"You know, I've never hated the Clintons. I still don't, I have great respect for them. He made a lot of mistakes — a lot of personal ones — but you know something that I think should not be forgotten. There's two things about Bill Clinton I tell Republicans, it drives them nuts, but here it is.

"Number one, don't get it lost on you that a kid out of a very small, Southern rural state aspired to be President of the United States. This kid came from a dysfunctional family — alcoholic abusive father. And yet he didn't just aspire, he was elected president of the United States not once, but twice. That is an affirmation of the system. And it's a wonderful testament to give to every kid in America that no matter where you've come from, you've got an opportunity to do something extraordinary.

"The second thing, and this'll really wrangle, again, some of my Republican colleagues. Bill Clinton and Hillary went through some horrible experiences in their marriage, because of some of the reckless behavior that he has admitted he had. I'm not defending him on that — it's indefensible. But they kept their marriage together. And a lot of the Republicans who have condemned them, and who talk about their platform of family values, interestingly didn't keep their own families together."

19 August 2007

Religion and Partition

One of the memes floating about these days, in connection with the war in Iraq, is that political partition along religious lines is the way to go.

The thinking runs thus: Someone -- and of necessity this someone would be an occupying power -- should simply divide the Shiites from the Sunnis (or most of one from most of the other anyway) by drawing the necessary lines on a map. Then there'd be two republics, no reason for domestic violence, and stability would bloom, along with petroleum-fueled prosperity.

How, after all, could such a plan fail? Religion-based partition has such a marvelously successful history in, say, Ireland, Cyprus, and the Indian subcontinent!

Okay, not so much.


18 August 2007

Mark Cuban's idea

Everyone is now discussing subprime mortgages. While the excitement on Wall Street has moved well past that specific catalyst, it clearly WAS the catalyst, and deserving of some meditation.

One of the 'everybodies' is Mark Cuban, a billionaire, the owner of an HDTV cable network, and never one to suppress his ideas.

Cuban's take-away? Home owners should be able to sell some percentage of equity in their home, have an "initial public offering" in their home the way a business when its ready to go public. The point would be the same in both cases, to spread and thus manage the risk.

Cuban has evidently given some thought to the possible creation of an exchange for homes, and expounded on the rules by which that exchange could be run on his own blog.

There are lots of practical difficulties with the plan, and no likelihood of a liquid market in, say, 432 East Maple Street, Houston. There's nothing wrong with it, regarded simply as a provocative market-theoretical thought experiment, though. And there are other ways that still-nascent markets might help diffuse risk. There are indexes that track residential housing property prices, and there is a market for derivatives constructed on those indexes, which may if it develops properly yet have the kind of soothing consequences Cuban would like for his brainstorm.


17 August 2007

Auto Parts, and the Whole Auto, Too

Don't lets all panic. People paying too much attention to biz news lately may feel a bit frazzled, but that means this is a time to look for signs of hope.

There may be such signs, even in the fractured North American auto industry. Here are three:

1. The auto parts company, Dana Corp., which filed for bankruptcy in March 2006, says it plans to exit bankruptcy by the end of this year.

That isn't just an optimistic rosy-tinted sayso, either. Dana's reorganization plan has been picking up some support. The company's bondholders formally approved it earlier this week.

2. Ford Motor Company has set a new land speed record. Its Ford Fusion Hydrogen 999 reached 207.28 miles per hour on the Bonneville Salt Flats. The reports I've seen aren't clear about the date, but it appears to be something of a breakthrough for the fuel cell technology involved.


3. GM, too, is making a "green push" and seems ready to show off the results at the upcoming auto show in Frankfurt, Germany.


So ... think good thoughts!

16 August 2007

No Quidditch???

I recently saw the latest Harry Potter movie -- the fifth in the series.

This is the first of the movies not to contain any scenes of quidditch, the broom-flying polo-like game that was a motif running through all its precursors.

The fifth book in the series does involve some quidditch, but most of it doesn't involve Harry. If I recall correctly (it has been some time since I read it) Harry had to quit the team due to his detentions assigned by the despicable Dolores Umbridge. This meant that Ron had to step up and play a bigger role in upholding Griffindor over the playing fields of glory.

That was a subplot that, in the novel, shows Ron's increasing self-confidence.

But there is so much else going on that I can understand how the director found it dispensable.

There was other excisions that I found regrettable, though, some of them worked to diminish the importance of the character Luna Lovegood. One of the major themes in the book is that Luna's father is the publisher of a disreputable supermarket-style tabloid. Not nearly as prestigious as the Daily Prophet. Yet the Daily Prophet is lying about Harry (we get some sense of this in the movie, too) while the rumor-moongering tabloid is telling the truth about him (we get no sense of this in the movie at all.)

Indeed, Luna's father is reduced to a single bit of dialog. Luna tells Harry "my father and I believe you," but that his father might be a person whose credence matters goes right by us.

It turned out to be a perfectly decent movie, but not by any means as good as some of its precursors. As always: read the book.

15 August 2007

Anatoly Fomenko

I'd like to recommend the drawings of Russian mathematician Anatoly Fomenko.

Here's a URL. http://anatoly-fomenko.com/art/main.php

From what I understand, Fomenko is a brilliant mathematician, who has taken it into his head that he's also a historian -- although his theories in the latter sphere (his "New Chronology") have the whiff of the crackpot about them.

Still, the drawings have a wonderful quality to them, combining minimalism and surrealism if you will. What is the minimum you can do on a two-dimensional surface to produce a surreal result?

14 August 2007

Put "penguin" in the paper

I love hearing grand things, deep things, discussed. Unfortunately, I also love to understand what I'm hearing. These two loves are of course in conflict because, quite frankly, I'm not equipped to understand a serious discussion of subatomic particles. I'll start listening, or reading, and then when bafflement overcomes intrigue, walk away or close the book.

This is why I was delighted to learn about penguin diagrams. It reconciles my two loves. Physicists use penguin diagrams to help keep track of "deWitt indices." Never mind what that means. When I read the story about a certain barroom bet, I had the feeling both that I understood what I was reading and that it was important and deep. Almost as if I were one of the folks who know what a deWitt index might be.

Here's the story according to John Ellis, a Cambridge-educated Brit who led a particle theory group at CERN for six years.

Mary K. [Gaillard], Dimitri [Nanopoulos], and I first got interested in what are now called penguin diagrams while we were studying CP violation in the Standard Model in 1976… The penguin name came in 1977, as follows.

In the spring of 1977, Mike Chanowitz, Mary K. and I wrote a paper on GUTs [Grand Unified Theories] predicting the b quark mass before it was found. When it was found a few weeks later, Mary K., Dimitri, Serge Rudaz and I immediately started working on its phenomenology.

That summer, there was a student at CERN, Melissa Franklin, who is now an experimentalist at Harvard. One evening, she, I, and Serge went to a pub, and she and I started a game of darts. We made a bet that if I lost I had to put the word penguin into my next paper. She actually left the darts game before the end, and was replaced by Serge, who beat me. Nevertheless, I felt obligated to carry out the conditions of the bet.

For some time, it was not clear to me how to get the word into this b quark paper that we were writing at the time…. Later…I had a sudden flash that the famous diagrams look like penguins. So we put the name into our paper, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

ACtually, you have a squint a lot to agree that the diagrams "look like penguins." But he was a man of his word, and the phrase has stuck.

13 August 2007

Mike Huckabee

The old primary season in Presidential politics is dead. There was a time when casual readers of newspapers started following the campaign as the New Hampshire primary neared in February, and for a series of Tuesdays, lasting sometimes into June, the field of pretenders in each party, or at least the one without an incumbent, would be gradually winnowed to one nominee presumptive.

That's all dead because everybody wanted to be first. The primaries now will all take place at essentially the same time, which of course eliminates any winnowing value. The winnowing will take place before hand.

This, in turn, has meant that key events in our electoral calender are taking place now, and that the Ames straw poll among Republicans this weekend was one of them. I regret this everlasting-campaign, but I have no suggestion as to what to do about it.

Giuliani, McCain, and Fred Thompson sat this one out, though they each received some votes anyway. For the record, among the three well-known non-participants, the "winner" was Mr. Thompson, with 1.4% of the votes cast, or 203 votes.

Over-all, of course, the winner without quotation marks was Mitt Romney, with 31.6%, which is roughly what George W. Bush received eight years ago. But Romney's showing was no surprise, and it's the element of surprise that makes news.

The news coming out of Ames, accordingly, is the second-place showing of Mike Huckabee, with 18.1%. Here are all the numbers, with some analysis about the new hierarchy, if you will, or pecking order, this has established:


12 August 2007

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley was an evangelical who wrote a memoir of his spiritual life in 1830.

His name survives today because William James quoted him in his "Varieties of Religious Experience." I'll reproduce part of one of those quotes, regarding Bradley's conversion experience, not because I recommend Bradley's sort of faith, but simply as a token of a type.

"At first, I began to feel my heart beat very quick all on a sudden, which made me at first think that perhaps something is going to ail me, though I was not alarmed, for I felt no pain. My heart increased in its beating, which soon convinced me that it was the Holy Spirit from the effect it had on me. I began to feel exceedingly happy and humble, and such a sense of unworthiness as I never felt before. I could not very well help speaking out, which I did, and said Lord, I do not deserve this happiness, or words to that effect, while there was a stream (resembling air in feeling) came into my mouth and heart in a more sensible manner than that of drinking anything, which continued, as near as I could judge, five minutes or more, which appeared to be the cause of such a palpitation of my heart."

There's a lot that fascinates me about this quote, for example the scrupulous fashion in which Bradley, having quoted what he remembers himself as saying in prayer at the time, adds, "or words to that effect," to account for the imperfection of human memory.

James notes that the effect of this conversion experience upon Bradley in later life is something "of which we gain no information." Bradley dates the experience to Novemver 1829, when he was 24 years old, and the memoir was published in 1830.

If by their fruits we shall judge them, as pragmatists always hold, then it would be of interest to learn of Bradley's later life.

11 August 2007

Corporate (Voluntary) Bankruptcies

On June 23 I wrote in this blog about corporate bankruptcies, chiefly to make the point that the chapter 11 "process is and should be a very public, very transparent one."

But today I'm wondering why that piece was so timid. Maybe I should've called for the abolution of any such process, insofar as it can as now be voluntarily chosen by the debtor.

There should be a procedure for the orderly liquidation of chronically insolvent corporations. I concede that. But wouldn't it make more sense to expect that the creditors themselves would initiate the process in the normative situation? If the creditors decide there is no other way they'll get much of their money back, they'll be the ones to petition for an orderly wrap-up.

The company management represents the owners of equity. In principle they should always care more about seeing to it that the stock retains some value than they care about anything else -- even the payment of their bonds. They aren't working in the first instance for the bondholders. Bondholders don't have proxies.

If a corporation's management is the party that initiates a bankruptcy proceeding, there is already a prima facie case that they think it possible they'll survive, to be the managers of the re-organized company. As, often. they are. They can do this either while assuring that the original stockholders still get some share of the new company, or despite their failure to ensure that. Logically there is no third choice.

So, logically, it seems that whenever a corporate voluntarily files for bankruptcy either the decision-making management is hoping to help the stockholders cheat the bondholders, creditors, etc., or it is planning to cheat those stockholders. Neither is a good thing, or even a policy-defensible thing.

So ... down with voluntary bankruptcies and re-organizations! That is my new view of the matter until something or someone persuades me otherwise.

10 August 2007

A road test

Jeff Sabatini evidently had a lot of fun in researching a story that appears on p. W1 of today's Wall Street Journal.

Headlined, "Five Days, 4,000 Miles," the story chronicles Sabatini's road testing of the Audi R8.

The car can achieve a speed of 187 MPH with its 4.2 liter, direct-injection V8, and can go from zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds.

Even just standing still in looking sci-fi sleek, it impressed the heck out of a gang of 14 year old boys that Sabatini encountered in rural North Dakota.

There's an important point about marketing here, though. Audi, a division of Volkswagen, hasn't branded itself at the high end of high-performance. It hasn't been trying to compete with Aston Martin, Ferrari, or Lamborghini. Rather, its a mass-market luxury brand. The R8, a "limited production exotic car," is a departure for them, and their effort to break into the elite company of those three names is presumably why they let him put 4,000 miles on it.

Even were my income considerably greater thanit is, I think it highly unlikely I'd ever fork over the $112,000 Audi wants for this. Unless inflation proves to be worse in coming years than anyone imagines. In some scenarios, I might ten years from now pay that much for some more modest car and then mutter about how "I can remember back when $112,000 would have been real money!"

09 August 2007

On Not Pressing the Question

As the disclaimer on this blog makes plain, I speak here for myself, not in any way for my employer. That said, I'd like to share a story relating to that employment.

On Friday, August 3, two committees of the Senate, having jointly investigated a scandal at the Securities and Exchange Commission, issued their report. I won't go into the particulars -- it would bore some of you, and those of you whom it would interest already know of at least the general outlines. For now, just take it as a given that there was a scandal, and that the New York Times ran a very prominent story on the Senate report Saturday morning.

I was supposed to play catch up or (better) leapfrog with the Times. So over the weekend I read the report, (700 pages) and on Monday I started making some phone calls to flesh out my story. From my reading, I knew that the Senate staffers had taken a rather negative view of the Inspector General (I-G) of the SEC, Walter Stachnik. So, playing the journalistic game according to Hoyle, I called the I-G's office.

I expected a standard responsive comment. You know the type. "I believe all my actions were appropriate and any implication to the contrary by the investigators is misguided," or words to that effect. Regular news readers encounter quotes like that all the time.

I didn't get that sort of statement, though. Instead, the secretary at the I-G's office told me that Stachnik no longer worked there. This was news to me, though I rather assumed at this point that it had been properly announced perhaps weeks before and I had simply missed it. I asked whether he had left forwarding contact information. The secretary said, "No, he's retired." So I now had a mental image of Mr. Stachnik on a Florida beach.

If I had the proper bloodhound instincts, I would no doubt have pressed to learn how LONG he's been retired. I might then have discovered the real buried scoop in this situation ... that Stachnik "retired" on the previous Friday ... the day the Senate committees put out their report. As Ned Flanders, from The Simpsons, might have put it: "What an amazing coincidinkalidink."

But I didn't think to press the nice lady on the other end of the phone for a day of departure. I just asked whether a successor had been appointed. "No, not yet."

This, then, is in the story I wrote on the underlying SEC scandal for our website and news service. "Mr. Stachnik has since retired from his post as inspector general, and that office said on Monday ... that there has been no new appointee."

Rather lame, but it's there. Even before we posted that story, I had written a comment on Greg Newton's blog, informing him that Stachnik was retired. But there were other things to do, and I didn't pursue the particulars.

They've come out since. An anti-naked-short-selling activist, David Patch, probably tipped off by either my comment on Greg's blog or by my story proper, called Stachnik's office the next morning and did the pressing I hadn't done. Then Greg did so himself.

The SEC hadn't announced Stachnik's retirement, there was none of the usual "thank you for your years of dedicated service" stuff. I didn't know this, either, until it started popping up in the blogosphere, because I had simply assumed I had just MISSED the official announcement and that with a little surfing I could find it.

"Never assume anything, the word divides into three parts" as Felix Unger once explained. Well, new proof of that principle. I couldn't find it because uit had never been issued.

For those of you who read Newton's follow-up Wednesday morning, I'm the "Mr. F" he references.

[Mental note: when you hear something unexpected, press it.]

08 August 2007

Movies I'm Not Eager to See

I've changed my mind about Underdog. When I first heard such a movie was in the works, I thought it would be great fun. But the response of those who have seen it is so uniformly negative that it has all rather killed my interest. Here's a good example -- http://www.avclub.com/content/cinema/underdog

Another movie I have no interest in seeing is "Becoming Jane." But sometimes the redeeming feature of a really bad movie is that it inspires very entertaining and informative reviews, and I recommend Anthony Lane's take on Becoming Jane in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

"To the modern mind, of course, this [a writer's life without crises] is wholly unacceptable, and any decent literary agent would have counselled Miss Austen to at least have a modicum of private scandal if she wanted to sell any books."

There's another period drama in theatres nowadays that purports to present us with a literary life ... Molière. Read about it here. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0796335/plotsummary

I'm not eager for that one either. It isn't that I have a bias against period dramas, mind you. But when they involve writers they are adequately captured by one old visual cliche. Imagine a writer at a table, and a sheaf of papers on the side. Imagine quick cuts forward, and crumpled up pieces of that paper start to surround the desk, representing the rejected first drafts of some great work struggling to be born. As the piles of crumbled paper get higher, at some point the Artist shouts "Eureka!"

Music swells. End of movie. Give that short film the name of any author you want, cut the customes to fit the period, use any writing implement from a quill pen to an iMac on that desk. It's all pretty much the same.

07 August 2007

The Big Picture

I realize that this blog must seem rather unfocused. Still, in my mind there is a Big Picture in back of everything, into which everything fits. Let me try to state it in "Tractatus" style, with numbered propositions.

1. To know is simply to be warranted in one's beliefs.
2. You are warranted in believing the evidence of your senses as modified over time by your own memory and your species’ records
3. The world is a place where a plurality of mutually irreducible (and, perhaps, incommensurable) forces contend, and where sometimes these irreducibles find themselves in co-operation.
4. Consciousness and life are inexplicable in terms of mechanism.
5. You are warranted in believing that the world as a whole is both conscious and alive, in just the sense in which you are conscious and alive.
6. There was no time without conscious material life, nor shall there be such a time.
7. Right and wrong don’t follow from commands or deductions. They follow from the great higgle-haggle.
8. This proto-ethical haggling is of necessity self-interested.
9. Self interest isn't itself an ethical judgment.


Not surprisingly, there is some room for further explication of these statements. Let's start with the thesis about knowledge as such.

1.1 A belief is a disposition to articulate a certain range of sentences in certain contexts
1.1.1 It is the sentence that is said to be “true” in the first instance, the “belief” that induces it is true by association only
1.1.2 Attributing “true” to either a sentence or a belief has no univocal meaning except that of approval
1.2 The common efforts to define knowledge as “warranted true belief” are too wordy. The adjective "true" can drop out and all of value in the definition remains
1.3 Warrant may be understood pragmatically, as a reference to the workings of the beliefs of particular people in particular contexts.

Then the second thesis, regarding knowledge of the external world? I'd expand it thus:

2.1 Even if life is a dream, it is a dream within which the senses provide evidence which in turn is modified by, etc., so the same inferences follow despite the re-labelling
2.2 The specious present allows for the continuity of our individual memories
2.3 Your own memories intermesh so conveniently with the accounts of others that you are warranted in the belief that those others, too, have minds
2.3.1 So if life is a dream, you aren’t alone in it.
2.3.2 So life is not in any significant sense a dream.
2.4 This intermeshing doesn’t depend upon bodily similarity or other incidents of the “argument from analogy.”

The third thesis describes the most general features of the world as we find it.

3.1 The “world” in the sense of this statement is the whole of what we can learn through the methods described in statement 2.
3.2 Whether the world is “everything that is the case” is an open question
3.2.1 but not a very interesting one.
3.3 The recognition of disunity is an imperative, precisely because the drive to unification is so tempting as an ideal.
3.4 The world consists of things and events, though both have very permeable boundaries.

And the fourth thesis rules out reductionism as a strategy of comprehension. Consciousness and life are inexplicable in terms of mechanism.

4.1 Neither of the three key words in this statement is obscure in its meaning. Each is understood to all fluent in the language.
4.1.1 “Mechanism” means the action of particles in motionm conceived of as pushing and pulling one another
4.1.2 “Life” means the delicate mutual adjustments and self-perpetuation of a planetary ecosystem
4.1.3 “Consciousness” means that which ‘comes on’ when you awake.
4.2 The relationships among the realities that these terms connote is often characterized as “emergence,” i.e. life emerged from matter/mechanism, and consciousness “emerged” from life.
4.3 But to speak of emergence is merely to state a puzzle, not to resolve one.

I'll conclude (for now) with some explication of the fifth thesis.

5.1 Perhaps matter itself requires explanation, or perhaps it may sometime be reducible to self-generating knots in space-time or something of that sort.
5.1.1 The philosopher must leave such matters to the advance of empirical science, knotty as that advance is likely to be.
5.2 Yet if we are open to that possibility, should we not (a reductionist might ask us) be open to the possibility that life shall be the next step up the ladder, knots in the knots in space-time?
5.3 To which we can answer fairly, "no." Because the order of explanation must be reversed, and the parts explained with reference to the whole, the species and organisms by the eco-system.

06 August 2007

Overstock: Pathetic

An amusing site called hedgefunnies ran a photo of a "naked short seller" recently.


This is amusing, at any rate, to those of us who have followed the controversy over "naked short selling" and the central role of Overstock boss, Patrick Byrne, therein.


But Mr. Byrne and his fans, including one Judd Bagley, Overstock's Director of Communications, have been rather nasty about this. Either they don't have much of a sense of humor or they really have no business plan OTHER than to silence any critics. So they've gone after the proprietor of the hedgefunnies site in a big way.

He's a 19 year young man, so this means, say, critiquing his high school via wikipedia. Yes, High School. Does that sound petty? Yes, I think so too.

I'll save myself some typing. Here's more.


05 August 2007

Jesus Camp

Not long ago I watched the documentary Jesus Camp. It was less gripping than I had hoped, based on the subject-matter and the advance publicity. Still, it had its moments.

At the titular camp, there was a scene in which the young campers were discussing Harry Potter. Their elders had warned them against Potter -- even fiction about wizards is evil, of course. We see that one camp counsellor even warned them against telling each other ghost stories in their bunks.

But, kids being kids, they start discussing Harry Potter among themselves anyway, and one child says that his parents are separated. When he's with Dad (apparently the more permissive one) he gets to watch the HP movies.

Good for him. Good for Dad.

You can find more particulars here:

04 August 2007

Questions for Senator Dodd

I recently wrote a piece for an eMag my employer publishes in which I discussed China's investments in the US and related matters. Two of the experts I interviewed for this story made unflattering references to a bill on "currency manipulation" now before the US Senate, a bill sponsored by Senator Christopher Dodd, of Massachusetts.

Naturally, I offered the Senator, through his office, every opportunity to respond to these comments. In fact, I formulated the gist of them into five specific questions.

The replies I got from his staff members were unfailingly polite and unfailingly unproductive of any reply, either in time for inclusion in the eMag piece or subsequently.

Okay, the Senator's a busy guy. He's busy managing a much-ignored Presidential candidacy and all that. Still, I'm going to post the questions here, because its as good a form of typing practice as any.

1. Is currency manipulation (or misalignment) really a large factor in the US/China trade imbalance? Wouldn't there be a huge imbalance in wage levels at any plausible yuan/dollar rate of exchange? And if China disappeared from the picture, wouldn't a lot of the manufacturing/outsourcing simply move to Vietnam, Indonesia, or elsehwhere -- again for wage rather than for currency-specific reasons?

2. One view I encountered, in discussing the matter with experts, is that the US has made a virtue of necessity by making a diplomatic push for the free float of every currency against every other currency. From the Bretton Woods period until the Nixon administration, fixed rates of exchange were US policy, after all. Does your bill assume that everything must float freely against everything else? If so, why? Given the volatility such a situation allows (as exhibited starkly in east Asia just ten years ago) aren't there good reasons why a particular sovereign nation might want to avoid convertibility altogether?

3. I understand that the Financial Times may soon run a letter-to-the-editor from several economists -- including, for example, T.J. Marta, fixed income analyst, Royal Bank of Canada -- who maintain that Senator Dodd and the other sponsors of the bill "audaciously pretend to have a certainty over something that's fundamentally uncertain." The bill, the letter says, is plainly directed at China, yet there is no certainty that the yuan and dollar are badly misaligned, intentionally or otherwise. Would you like to respond to that general critique?

4. Although there seems to be a majority view, among observers of the question, to the effect that if the yuan were freely convertible and allowed to float, it would strengthen vis-a-vis the US dollar, there is also a contrarian view expressed by some experts, that the yuan would fall. This is (the contrarian theory goes) in part because China's elites would likely prefer to keep their own money offshore, and in other nation's denominations, and in part because foreign corporations doing business in China would likely find it easier to repatriate their profits by holding them in dollars, or something other than the yuan. If the yuan is in fact over-valued already relative to the dollar, isn't any alleged manipulation working in favor of the US?

5. Do you see the investment this year by a China state agency of $3 billion in an American investment fund management firm as a good sign of mutual interdependence, of the repatriation of dollars, etc.? Or is it ominous, as many thought when China considered the purchase of Unocal? Are the Blackstone/Unocal cases markedly different?

03 August 2007

Chrysler and its captains

The buyers and sellers first announced the Daimler/Chrysler deal in the middle of May.

It was a merry merry month, but wasn't a done deal -- there were a lot of particulars to arrange before it could close, especially the details of the financing. And the devil turned out to be in the details.


Bankers announced last month the postponement of a multi-billion dollar syndicated loan integral to the closing. Daimler and Cerberus both said they were confident everything would go through in this, the third, fiscal quarter as planned. But some -- and I count myself among them -- suspected an element of whistling passed the graveyard there. I thought the deal might be in trouble, though I'm happy to say that I didn't go so far out on a limb as to say so, here or elsewhere.

The political climate also turned against private-equity in some quarters, and that stoked fears that either the buyer or the seller might want to cut and run from this highly visible example of the privatization of a formerly public enterprise.

Still ... captain, my captain ... you've brought the ship to port. It could close as early as today.


There might be hope for the North American auto industry yet.

02 August 2007

The Simpson's Movie

It was a great movie. Some of those with whom I shared an audience may have regarded my laughter as excessive -- but hey, if you don't want to expose yourself to the reactions of your fellow audience members you'll have to wait until its a DVD.

The opening scene involves "Itchy and Scratchy." As all true Simpson-philes know, this is a send-up of Tom & Jerry. Itchy is an ultra-violent mouse through whose schemes the cat, Scratchy, always meets a horribly gruesome end. The scene on the moon is true to form.

By making Itchy & Scratchy a cartoon-within-a-cartoon, the creators of The Simpsons long ago gave their program, if I may say so without sounding pretentious, an Id. It's so off-the-wall that even the events of dysfunctional "Springfield" seem normal, seem the sort of world an "ego" can inhabit and of which a "superego" can disapprove. After all, the impulse to violence, the cat-and-mouse violence, is suppressed by virtue of being unreal FOR that world. Thanatos is under control. Eros is relegated to Alaska.

Okay, that does sound pretentious. Just go see the movie-rino, or Flanders will adopt you. ARRRGH!

01 August 2007

Three subjects

1. Tom Snyder, best known as the star of the Tomorrow Show between 1973 and 1982, passed away, due to leukemia, at age 71, this weekend.

I'll miss him. I'll miss my memories of late nights/early mornings in my dorm at college, staying up to see what guest Tom had, enjoying his laugh. I'll miss Dan Ackroyd's take on Snyder's mannerisms and ... again ... that laugh.

Do I regret his passing because he was a talented guy or just because I regret my own aging? It hardly matters. May the road to heaven rise up to meet him now, and may the wind at his back never be his own.

2. Last week, I described the cartoon caption contest in The New Yorker, and especially one uncaptioned cartoon. It involved a monkey and a typewriter. A scientist is looking at a piece of paper and saying ...

Here are the three finalists. Not in the right order (or with exactly the right words either, because I'm doing this from memory), but, roughly speaking, here they are:

* Bad news, another rejection letter.
* Why don't you re-write it from a third-monkey point of view?
* We'll run this past our infinite number of editors.

It seems to me that the first of those is something of a cheat. There aren't any visual clues (like a ripped-open envelope) that the page is a letter from an outside source. The clues suggest that its a page that just came from the monkey's labors. The second and third of the above answers both work from that premise. And they're both funnier.

I like the infinite number of editors line. What about you folks?

3. The Bancroft family and, accordingly, the board of Dow Jones, the business-news publishing company responsible for the Wall Street Journal, Barrons' and the famous Dow Jones stock indexes, have agreed to sell the company to Fox and Rupert Murdoch.

As with Tom Snyder, I regret the passing. I wish the old WSJ the best of afterlife fates for a newspaper. But, really, consolidation is inevitable and there is no real point wailing or gnashing one's teeth.

The recent demise of the Weekly World News, though ... now THAT was a tragedy. Where will supermarketr shoppers get their Elvis-sightings fix now???

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.