30 November 2007

The Prosecution of a Trial Lawyer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 November 2007

Lightning around Venus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Party on, European Space Agency dudes.

25 November 2007


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

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

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

24 November 2007

Jersey Boys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, The

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

23 November 2007

Some Perspective, Please

Louisiana-Monroe defeated Alabama last Saturday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 November 2007

Patton and the Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would it play out today?

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

18 November 2007

Hurrah for Bollywood

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

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

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

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

Its a good thing. Praise Allah. And Vishnu.

17 November 2007

No butt-kissing here

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

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

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

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


16 November 2007

Trolley Car Moral Philosophy

Its a venerable thought experiment in moral philosophy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 November 2007

Cartoon captions again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So ... what's it gonna be?

11 November 2007

Philosophic Musings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 November 2007

Documentary Movies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

09 November 2007

Just a Guess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

08 November 2007

New York Times goof

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and learn something about the Qatar Investment Authority.

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


04 November 2007

James Russell Lowell

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 November 2007

Bram Stoker

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 November 2007

U.S. Trade Deficit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

01 November 2007

The Day of Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.