31 December 2008
By "stories," I don't mean themes, such as "Bear market in bank stocks" or "volatile crude oil prices." I mean stories, such as one might have seen in a particular newspaper on some specific day.
Of course, I choose the ones I do largely because they illustrate an important theme. But the theme itself isn't the story.
Further, I don't rank them, as in a top ten list. Usually, on this blog last year at this time and at my blog-city home for two years before that, I've simply given one "top" story from each of the twelve months of the year now ending.
This year has been so wild, though, especially its second half, that I haven't been able to stick to the one-a-month presentation. I've ended up with a list of 18 big stories, two per month starting with July.
All that understood, here we go!
January. Frenchman Jerome Kerviel loses 4.9 billion euros for Societe Generale. $7 billion. The story started off the year with a bang. Kerviel leap-frogged past Nick Leeson as the all-time most rogue-ish "rogue trader."
February. A jury in Hartford, Conn. convicts a former AIG exec of skullduggery.
The executive in question was Christian Milton, once AIG's vice-president for re-insurance. He was convicted of an effort to inflate AIG's loss reserve numbers.
March. The Federal Reserve backs a JPMorgan takeover of Bear Stearns. At one point, [i.e. the morning of March 17] the price was actually $2 a share for Bear's stock, although less than a week prior -- at the close of trading Monday afternoon, March 10, the market valuation had been $70.08 a share. It was hard not to think JP Morgan was making off with ill-gotten gains somnehow. In fact, the purchase price didn't stay down at $2. To resolve some problem in the documentation, it was eventually raised to $10. Bully. Still, the value-evaporation was breaktaking.
April. Food price increases cause riots, political crises, worldwide.
There would be a lot to discuss under this heading, were that my goal in this entry. Instead, I'll just ask about the use of foodstuffs as a surrogate for gasoline: what impact did that have in triggering the price increases or the result?
May. Yahoo successful in warding off acquisition attempt by MS.
A victory for Jerry Yang, the founder of Yahoo!, who remains its guiding spirit and has preserved its independence.
June. Voters in Ireland reject the Lisbon treaty, thus slowing Euro unity..
The world continues to wrestle with the whole idea of "sovereignty," in terms of nation-states or of broader or smaller units.
Hereafter we award two biggest-story prizes per month.
July. (a) Israel, of Bayou and Bear Mountain infamy, turns himself in.
The whole Bayou funds meltdown had more than a touch of the bizaare to it. Israel's effort to simulate a suicide on the Bear Mountain Bridge, the failure of authorities to discover a body in the Hudson, and his re-appearance and surrender just added the garnish to that meal of oddities.
(b) Crude oil prices peak near $150 barrel, head down.
Why did it get that high? Why has each barrel lost close to three quarters of that value in the months since? Which one is the anamoly, prices above $140 or around $40? which one will be the norm going forward? Reviewing this year just leaves me full of questions.
August. (a) Second circuit court hears arguments in CSX/TCI dispute.
This is fascinating litigation about proxy votes and the working of the equity swaps market. These aren't issues that will go away anytime soon.
(b) CME, Nymex agree to consolidation -- part of the much broader trend of the consolidation of exchanges worldwide.
September. (a) Bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, all heck breaks loose re: bank stocks or, for that mnatter, US equities generally.
(b) SEC emergency order bans any short selling of bank stocks .
These two points rather adequately explain themselves. I'll only add that the ban later expired unlamented. Various restrictions of short-selling remain, but a simple ban on it is akin to a ban on pessimism. It is idiotic.
October. (a) Bush and 'leadership' put a TARP over troubles.
The acronym "TARP" stood for the "Troubled Assets Relief Plan," the keystone of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008, which became law on OPctober 3, after a turtuous legislative process that re-defined the Presidential campaign to Senator McCain's disadvantage. That isn't all it has redefined.
(b) Waxman hearings excoriate the credit rating agencies I'll just leave a link to my contemporaneous explanation of this hearing and its bovine idiom.
November. (a) Geithner an early cabinet choice of President Elect.
The Republicans during the campaign had sought to tag Sen. Obama a "socialist" (while a President and Treasury Secy of their party were nationalizing industries -- how odd!) Anyway, the Prez-elect's choice of Timothy Geithner as his own Treasuiry Secretary should have re-assured anyone who needed re-assurance on this front.
(b) Paulson completes the bait-and-switch with the TARP.
The outgoing Treasury boss has advertised the TARP as a fund for purchasing troubled assets. Hence, the name. Those purchases were meant to stabilize, without taking over, the banking system. But by one month out, Paulson was acknowledging that the real use of the money would be to make "equity infusions." In other words, takeovers.
December. (a) Bernard Madoff is arrested Dec. 11, one day after his sons had apparently revealed his pyramid scheme to the authorities.
You can't really call Madoff a "rogue trader" in the manner of Kerviel, the rogue with whom the year began. A rogue is a trader who gets a firm in trouble by going behind the back of his bosses there. Madoff was the guy with his name on the door. Call him a "rogue principal" if you like. Still, his fall gives a nice sense of symmetry to the year.
(b) Dec. 16, Federal Reserve lowers federal funds rate to a range between 0% and 0.25%, record territory. Three days later, the Bank of Japan followed suit, lowering its benchmark rate to 0.10%.
Wow. Funds rates are dropping like crude oil prices.
Whew. I'm sooo happy this year is over.
28 December 2008
From a November 1815 letter to Goethe.
This is a fascinating conjunction of ideas, given the latter development of psychoanalysis. Schopenhauer starts off here describing what Freudians call "defense mechanisms," i.e. subterfuges employed by a thinker against the thinker himself. Then he illustrates such subterfuge by a reference to the myth of Oedipus.
The way in which that myth is invoked here is importantly different from the way in which Freud would use it. But I'll spare you the full compare-and-contrast essay. Go and enjoy the last day of the old year's last weekend.
27 December 2008
Some selections: "Newark: I'm afforded the opportunity to upgrade to 'business class.' I take it. Not clear on the difference. More leg room?"
Washington airport: "I buy some Korean currency, the won. About US$200 worth. Comes to 190,000. But that's a sale, not a proper exchange."
"Tokyo: Brief layover waiting for the Seoul flight. Nothing exotic about the airport layout. I get to hang out in the biz class lounge, thanks to that Newark upgrade. Comfy chairs, a cup of tea, a rack of newspaper. The life. Passed through the security checkpoint but WITHOUT having to take off my shoes."
"Hotel, Incheon Korea. How far is Seoul? Not sure -- I'll see if I can get the bus there cheaply. I like the hotel room, although the shower has an intimidating control panel -- looks NASA inspired. Fortunately, there's a less intimidating bath tub."
That'll be enough. You don't want my impressions of, say, the Queen Mary Hospital in Hong Kong. The above will let you know two things about me: I'm very easy to please with even the slightest whiff of luxury. I'm also very easy to intimidate.
26 December 2008
For the OIG has sent its semiannual report to Congress and it says it "has a pending investigation into an allegation made in a recently-published book that a former SEC attorney may have taken confidential investigative materials with him when he left the Commission and provided those materials to a company he went to work for as a lobbyist."
The reference is apparently to Mark Braswell, a lawyer for the SEC who left that agency in September 2003 to join the Venable law firm.
Thirteen months later than that (according to the Einhorn book, p. 258) Braswell registered as a lobbyist for Allied Cpital. Einhorn had been publicly very critical of Allied's accounting practice since May 2002. Indeed, that criticism, the range of reactions thereto, and Einhorn's reactions to those reactions, constitute the plot of his book, which was published by Wiley in June 2008.
So it naturally caught Einhorn's attention that Braswell, who had questioned him in the manner of the "bad cop" in a "good/bad cop" interrogation, about the May 2002 speech and about his relationships with other fund managers, turned up as a lobbyist for Allied.
Indeed, exclusively for Allied. "Braswell was not generally a lobbyist [for Venable]. Indeed, we couldn't find a record of any other lobbying clients."
Then Einhorn asks the question that the OIG is presumably now asking itself: "How could it be proper, or even legal, for a lawyer who obtained confidential material from us, including e-mails, trading records and testimony about Allied, to leave the government and go work for Allied while our dispute was ongoing?"
Mr. Braswell has said that he has made no inappropriate disclosures to Allied about SEC cases and that he's followed all ethics rules.
I have no reason to disbelieve him. But it does seem to me a good example of the reason why agencies have inspector generals. It isn't just a Danny Kaye movie.
25 December 2008
And spekl'd vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous sin will melt from earthly mould,
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.
Yea Truth, and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Th'enamelled Arras of the Rainbow wearing,
And Mercy set between,
Thron'd in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering,
And Heav'n as at some festival,
Will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.
I love these lines, and the vividness with which they display hope, the most forward-looking of the virtues.
21 December 2008
The solstice doesn't always fall on the 21st -- that moment can come on the 20th or the 22d. But it does come today this year (at 7:04 EST),to be precise.
The 21st is also remarkable for the following anniversaries.
This day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Currie discovered radium;
in 1913 the first modern crossword puzzle as published in a New York newspaper, the creation of a Liverpool-born journalist, Arthur Wynne;
in 1958 Charles DeGaulle was elected the first president of Frane's fifth republic; and in 1968 Apollo 8, which would successfully orbit the moon and return to earth with its three-astronaut crew, launched itself majestically from its Florida pad.
Just because the sun often stands still on this date, it doesn't follow that human history must.
20 December 2008
How was the performance Saturday evening?
Wonderful. Everybody was in fine voice, acting up a storm.
I particularly admired Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Leporello. This is a great "Sancho Panza" type of part. The distinctions between Quixote and Giovanni need no enumeration, but in each case we remember the pairing of an intense and extraordinary protagonist with a man-of-the-earth. In each case, the sidekick is played for laughs yet is also the source of much of the pathos of the whole.
The curtain opens to a castle, and D'Arcangelo is the only human figure we see. His character is waiting upon his master, the title character, who is up to no good inside.
D'Arcangelo introduces himself/Leporello to us in a complaint about his boss, Notte e giorno faticar . Then we hear a scream from within, and the action is underway.
Later, the Don seeks to seduce a peasant gal (Zerlina) on her wedding day. Zerlina was played by Isabel Leonard, a mezzo soprano. You'll see a photo of Leonard, though not in character, at the top of this entry. Here, by the way, is a link to a review of a recital Ms Leonard gave in March, as covered by The New York Times. There was some business with a red shoe of hers that I enjoyed.
Zerlina has to win back her fiance after a brief interlude with the Don -- not brief enough for Masetto's liking. She does the winning back by offering Masetto her shoe, and getting him to put it on her foot Prince Charming style.
That was a fine dramatization of Zerlina's character. The Don relies not upon his good looks or charm -- with women of classes lower than his own he relies for seduction upon the fact that he is a Don, and he can offer them (falsely of course) the chance to be a Dona. He plays, if you will, upon the Cinderella fantasy.
The final scenes were staged somewhat differently in this performance than I had come to expect. In the scenes of Don Giovanni that are shown in the movie Amadeus, for example, the upright graveyard statue of the deceased Commendatore comes to life and shows up at dinner at the Don's home.
But in the staging at the Met Saturday, there was no upright statue. There was only a figure lying horizontally on a coffin or coffin-like structure in the cemetery.
Nor did anything very statue-like show up at the Giovanni dinner. There was, rather, a forbidding spectral figure behind a scrim. There was always sdome ambiguity as to whether the Don and this ghost were in the same "space," even when the Don sought unsuccessfully to free his own arm from the spirit's grasp. Presumably the Don entered the ghost's world forever when the floor beneath him gave way.
All in all, a superb evening.
19 December 2008
Of the two operas I've now seen live (surely enough of a sample to make me an aficionado!), I can say that Don Giovanni is easily superior to Manon Lescaut.
In saying that, I'm not judging between them musically. The fact, though, is that with Manon, one has to forgive the absurdity of the libretto, excusing it on behalf of the music. With Don Giovanni, the libretto, the drama, stands securely on its own two feet. The actors could speak instead of singing these parts and the resulting play -- while hardly the same! -- would be worthy of an evening.
So, with all due reverence to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, let us also pay a little homage to his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, an engraving of whom I've uploaded here. This wasn't their first collaboration. Da Ponte had worked with Mozart on The Marriage of Figaro.
With Don Giovanni, Da Ponte was working from the traditional materials regarding the Spanish rake "Don Juan," of course, but he added as much as he received.
The gist of the legend is this: a libertine rogue kills the father of a girl he has either seduced or attempted to rape. He later encounters the graveyard statue of the dead father and jovially invites the deceased to dine with him that night. The ghost or animated statue accepts the invitation, comes to dinner, and drags the Don away to hell.
The immediate precursor of the Mozart/Da Ponte work, in the development of these materials, was a one-act opera by Gazzaniga and Bertati, called Don Giovanni Tenorio. This brief work (designed to be half of a double bill) premiered in Venice in February 1787. The two-act Mozart/Da Ponte work premiered in Prague in October of the same year.
The story would continue to inspire great artists -- Byron comes to mind:
I want a hero, an uncommon want, when every year and month sends forth a new one
Til after cloying the gazettes with cant, the age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I could not care to vaunt, I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan.
I've rattled on quite enough for another entry, yet I still haven't said anything specific to the performance of Don Giovanni in Lincoln Center on Saturday, December 13, 2008. You'll have to wait one more day for that, I fear.
18 December 2008
Continuing the story of this past Saturday....
We caught a bit of a college basketball game on television before getting a cab to Lincoln Center. We saw that Marquette was winning against a team described on the screen and, so far as we could tell, in the announcer's patter too, simply as IPFW. So we wondered who the heck was IPFW.
Our best guess, putting our collective heads together, was "Institute of Photography at Fort Worth." So we had an image of tall Texan photographers competing with the Marquette Golden Eagles.
Turns out that IPFW actually stands for Indiana-Purdue at Fort Wayne, about whose sports teams (the Mastodons) you can read here.
Anyway, we left before the result of the game was decided, shared a cab with a kindly woman heading to 60th street, and arrived at Lincoln Center.
The Metropolitan Opera House there features a couple of striking murals painted by Marc Chagall. I'll upload one of them, above and to the left of this text.
The opera house also features wonderful chandeliers. I got a good view of the most striking of them the last time I was at the Met, back in February (to see Manon Lescaut) when I sat in a gallery, up with the gods.
For this trip, though, Cicily and I had orchestra seats, and back far enough so that the balconies rose up above us, cutting off the great chandelier from our line of sight. Alas.
I'll say something about the actual performance tomorrow. Today I seem to have gotten myself onto the physical description of the Met, so I'll make a historical observation attendent thereto.
Ground was ceremonially broken on the future Lincoln Center by President Dwight D. Eisenhower back in May 1959, when I was seven months old. As soon as Ike turned that first spade of earth, the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein struck up Handel's Hallelujah chorus. Who was the Messiah by implication? Robert Moses?
There is an irony in Bernstein's participation, for Lincoln Center was planted right in the middle of the neighborhood that Bernstein had celebrated in the Broadway musical "West Side Story." Well ... I don't know if "celebrated" is the right word. That musical didn't end happily, IIRC. Anyway, the neighborhood was transformed for better or worse (no doubt for both in different respects) into a cultural hub.
And so, 49 and a half years after that ceremony, Christopher and Cicily take their seats in the orchestra section of the Opera House for a performance of Don Giovanni. So moves the universe, wheels within wheels.
17 December 2008
I won't make heavy-water out of this, from the point of view of aesthetic theory or my own psychology, but in the event anybody cares, I've asked myself which among all the works at the Frick were my favorites. We'll leave aside now my fascination with Vermeer's unorthodox cartography.
One of my favorites was a pre-Renaissance Italian work, "The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain," an image of which I have uploaded here.
This is by Duccio di Buoninsegna: and no, I hadn't encountered that name before this trip, either. But his painting wonderfully captures the moment in the fourth chapter of Matthew when the devil takes Jesus to the peak of a mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of this world, offering him them all in return for homage to Satan. A varity of wealthy but fragile looking cities (the capital cities of various kingdoms presumably) are improbably clustered around Buoninsegna's mountain.
Another favorite from my trip was also a work with a New Testament theme: Claude Lorrain's The Sermon on the Mount. I'll supply a link to this one for your delectation.
These two artists worked in very different times and places, but both works have a narrative impetus. Both represent fine art in the service of a story already well known to their viewers/market. I frankly think the narrative quality may be more important than their specifically Christian themes in their appeal to me.
After we left the Frick, Cicily and I began a search for an appropriate spot for lunch. We discovered a French restaurant with a "Gay Paree" theme, which seemed an appropriate follow-up to our morning.
After that repast, we walked downtown, in a leisurely fashion but getting as far as Macy's, then taking an endless series of escalators up to the "North Pole" for a peek at the real Santa. And there were still hours to go before the inspiration for the whole trip, the performance of Don Giovanni at Lincoln Center, of which I shall write at last tomorrow.
16 December 2008
I don' usually add to this blog on a Tuesday, but this week I'll give you an expanded schedule, in order to celebrate the fulfillment of one of my New Years' resolutions for 2008 -- I had said that I would watch an opera at the Met while wearing a tuxedo. Check.
There was much else to my weekend in Manhattan too. There was the Frick collection, for example. Let me start with that.
Who was Henry Clay Frick? He was the enterprising fellow who in 1871 created the Frick Coke Company. It consisted of a beehive oven that turned coal into the coke used in turn to produce steel. Years later Frick entered into a partnership with Andrew Carnegie, because Carnegie needed a secure supply of coke for his expanding steel manufacturing empire.
The business history of that time is fascinating, but let us return to his eye for art, which would seem to have been superb.
The Frick Collection, somewhat (though it appears only sporadically) updated by his heirs remains HQ-ed where he wanted it to be, and is filled with a variety of works in many media from many countries and periods, including great works from the Italian renaissance up to those of the impressionists and post-impressionists of his own era.
One of the first paintings we saw when we walked into the place was, as it happens, a Dutch baroque work, a Vermeer that I have described on this blog before.
The painting I have in mind is "Officer and Laughing Girl" and I first encountered a reproduction thereof as the cover art for a book, Vermeer's Hat, which I read earlier this year.
I found the painting quite compelling, even as cover art, chiefly because of the map. Behind the man and woman seated at a table, and just above their heads from our perspective, there is a large wall map. I stared at that for an hour the first time I saw the book, trying to figure out what part of the world the map depicts.
Eventually, I got it. Part of the problem is that the orientation of the map treats WEST as "up." We are so accustomed in the early 21st century to seeing the north edge of a map as up that this is literally disorientating. Dis-occidentalating too.
The other problem is that Vermeer has painted the land as blue and the water as brown, rather than the reverse.
Once a viewer has made both of these adjustments, he can see that this is a map of Holland.
So I knew of this painting, and had even discussed it recently with the friend who was my companion as we walked into the Frick building. (She had used it to tweak me about my literalness, "are painters allowed to do that???") But I had no idea of its provenance, and was delighted to see it.
Indeed, nearly too delighted. I was excitedly pointing out the features of the painting that fascinate me and, in my absorption in the moment, my pointing finger must have gotten a bit too close to the painting. Some sort of alarm went off and a security guard asked me -- nicely but firmly -- to step back.
I hope the readers of this blog enjoy the painting too. And not just in the tiny pixellated form above. Get thee to Manhattan.
Still here? Okay. Anyway, I'll say something more about the Frick tomorrow and then on Thursday and Friday turn to the other elements of my trip. Including the aforementioned opera.
14 December 2008
The AA fellow also mentioned that as he had heard the phrase (he had gotten it second hand) James meant specifically by these experiences of an "educational variety," those that aren't immediate stroke-of-lightning conversions, that represent a gradual turning about.
I couldn't give him a precise use of that phrase. I was reminded of this passage, though, which is a quote from Walt Whitman to which James devotes a footnote in VARIETIES OF RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCE. I like the passage and will reproduce it here. You folks can make of it what you will.
"There is apart from mere intellect, in the make-up of every superior human identity, a wondrous something that realizes without argument, frequently without what is called education (though I think it is the goal and apex of all education deserving the name) an intuition of the absolute balance, in time and space, of the whole of this multifariousness, this revel of fools, and incredible make-believe and general unsettledness we call the world; a soul-sight of that divine clue and unseen thread which holds the whole congeries of things, all history and time, and all events, however trivial, however momentous, like a leashed dog in the hands of the hunter. [Of] such soul-sight and root-centre for the mind mere optimism explains only the surface."
This is part of a critique of Carlyle for the simple reason that Whitman believes Carlyle has never acquired the vision he describes, and thus failed to become a "superior human identity." Carlyle is the "mere optimist" of the final thrust.
I think it may have been what the archivist wanted, because the word "education" is in there twice, and in precisely the sense that would have impressed the founders of AA. Whitman is contrasting "what is called education" with what is truly "worthy of the name."
Also, the archivist had in mind the "educational variety" of experience as a drawn-out process, that Whitman had in mind -- as James was passing along to his reaers -- the notion of a certain intuition as a "goal and apex" of such a process -- which doesn't sound like a one-off stroke of lightning!
13 December 2008
I heartily recommend it to lovers of jazz -- or, for that matter, to anyone with an interest in recent American cultural history -- where "recent" includes the 1940s and '50s.
Personally, I'm fascinated both by jazz and by that history. Also, I'm intrigued by the documentary film as a genre.
If you want to know more about the movie follow that link.
12 December 2008
"There is no recession. Despite all the doom and gloom from the economic pessimistas, the resilient U.S economy continues moving ahead—quarter after quarter, year after year—defying dire forecasts and delivering positive growth. In fact, we are about to enter the seventh consecutive year of the Bush boom."
So said Larry Kudlow, cable TV economics maven. It's important not to let these blowhards go utterly uncorrected as the realities they denied smack us in the face. Its important because otherwise naive folk might think Kudlow is saying something of significant the next time he bloviates.
So let the record show: a boom is the necessary preface to a bust. Bubbles can't burst until they've been blown. The "Bush boom" for which Kudlow was still cheerleading even as it disappeared, like the Clinton boom before it, was a central-bank promoted drinking binge, necessitating an awful hangover.
And geniuses like Kudlow are the alcoholics at the party who are always saying, "I've only had two or three."
That's how an alcoholic counts, by the way.
One, two, three, four, two-or-three, two-or-three, two-or-three.
11 December 2008
On getting Beyond Enron in our understanding of energy derivatives trading.
The authors of that piece cite an article of mine in a footnote, so they're to be commended for their good taste.
07 December 2008
I haven't read the book, but a notice for it caught my eye in yesterday's Financial Times.
Ms Uglow, who grew up in Cumbria, is of course perfectly entitled to focus her attentions in such a study upon her own nation's literary traditions: the relationship between Lewis Carroll and John Tenniel, for example.
But the tradition of great narrative illustration is hardly confined to the British isles. Even when that is where the texts came from!
The classic illustrated version of Treasure Island is still that by which N.C. Wyeth illuminated R.L. Stevenson's story, after all. And Wyeth (1882-1945) was as American as Stevenson was a Scot.
Just thought I'd mention it.
06 December 2008
I'm reading through Forster's classic now, with great delight.
There's a thoughtful bit early on that involves two missionaries, Church of England presumably, and their debates with one another about the theological consequences of evolution. Or ... I think that's what it's about. Tell me if I'm wrong.
The missionaries, Graysford and Sorley by name, didn't make it into the movie at all (unless there's a bit I've forgotten already). They are present in the book so far as I can tell not as plot elements but as pieces of scenery -- local color. And here's the passage by which I'm intrigued:
Not one shall be turned away by the servants on that verandah [of "our Father's house"], be he black or white, not one shall be kept standing who approaches with a loving heart. And why should the divine hospitality cease here? Consider, with all reverence, the monkeys. May there not be a mansion for the monkeys also? Old Mr. Graysford said No but young Mr. Sorley, who was advanced, said Yes; he saw no reason why monkeys should not have their collateral share of bliss, and he had sympathetic discussions about them with his Hindu friends. And the jackals? Jackals were indeed less to Mr sorley's mind but he admitted that the mercy of God, being infinite, may well embrace all mammals. And the wasps? He became uneasy during the descent to wasps, aand was apt to change the conversation. And oranges, cactuses, crystals and mud? and the bacteria inside Mr Sorley? No, no, this is going too far. We must exclude someone from our gathering, or we shall be left with nothing.
Now there's a fascinating slide down the Great Chain of Being!
05 December 2008
This time I've rented a tux in advance. I know I risk looking goofily overdressed, but hey: I haven't worn a tux since a mid-1970s prom best forgotten. I'm bloody well gonna wear one in 8 days.
But enough about me. What about the opera? Here's the story.
And the cast? Erwin Schrott has the title role. Dorothea Roschmann is Donna Elvira: Tamar Iveri, Donna Anna: Isabel Leonard, Zerlina: Matthew Polenzani, Don Ottavio: Ildebrando D'Arcangelo, Leporello: Joshua Bloom, Masetto. Kwangchul Youn plays the The Commendatore. Lothar Koenigs will conduct.
Ms Roschmann has only recently stepped into her role. Before Dec. 1, this production's Elvira was Petra-Maria Schitzer.
Going back a bit further, in the Vienna premier of this opera, in May 1788, the part was originated by a soprano with the lovely name Caterina Cavalieri. And wikipedia tells me that Catarina had studied voice with ... Antonio Salieri.
I imagine he was teaching her well, when he wasn't too occupied cursing his own mediocrity.
04 December 2008
His reputation as a philosopher and a man of letters has suffered something of an eclipse in recent decades. He's probably best remembered today as a name to attach to the "great man theory of history," because of this book: http://www.questia.com/read/1444983#|
Carlyle's examples of history-defining heroes in that book?
Mohammed (the hero as prophet), Dante and Shakespeare (the hero as poet), Martin Luther, John Knox (the hero as priest); Johnson, Rousseau, Burns (the hero as man of letters); Cromwell, Napoleon (the hero as King).
Notice the back-and-forth structure there. Carlyle's book starts with religion, proceeds to literature, returns to religion, returns to literature, and only at the end arrives what his first readers may have been impatiently awaiting throughout -- European political history.
But of that another day.
At the peak of his influence, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Carlyle was chiefly thought of as the author of an odd book called Sartor Resartus (the tailor re-tailored), in which Carlyle poses as an editor trying to reconstruct the life and work of a German "philosopher of clothes" named Diogenes Teufelsdrockh.
It was Carlyle as the author of Sartor that James often approvingly cited. In "The Dilemma of Determinism," for example, Carlyle figures as the great enemy of subjectivism, the voice ("so chaste and sane and strong" James calls it) for the view that it doesn't matter how you feel, what matters is what you do.
So toast Carlyle on his birthday. And tip a tailor.
30 November 2008
I have labored for years under an absurd misapprehension as to the lyrics of the sing "Kokomo."
It is the sort of misapprehension known as a "mondegreen," in recognition of an old Scottish folk ballad that includes the pathetic words, "They hae slain the Earl of Moray/ and laid him on the green." One reader, at least, thought that the "Lady Mondegreen" was assassinated along with the Earl.
Here is a link with further examples.
With that much cleared away, let me proceed to my confession. Kokomo, as you may recall, is a light-hearted Beach Boys' song in which the protagonist sings about his desire to get his lover alone at some warm island spot -- several enticing spots are listed in the chorus, thus:
Aruba, Jamaica ooo I wanna take you
To Bermuda, Bahama come on pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego, baby why dont we go
But in the midst of such geographical nuggets, I seemed for years to hear the odd expression, "to Martinique, that mount's a rotten sneak."
This seemed odd. But, hey ... who am I to question the wisdom of the Beach Boys as to the relative sneakiness of mountains on Martinique or elsewhere? My own worldly wisdom as to topographical trickery is sadly lacking.
Anyway, the sneaky mount is as much of a phantom as the unfortunate Lady Mondegreen herself. The line runs: "to Martinique, that Montserrat mystique."
Just wanted to get that off my chest.
29 November 2008
If I commend a statue, or on the other hand if I compare it invidiously to another, does it matter that I have never taken chisel to marble in my life?
Does the taint of the dilletante disappear if I have tried my hand at it, failed, and then have used my appreciation of and study in the art to assess the contributions of others? Or is that worse from the point of view of my trustworthiness than if I had never tried at all?
"Those who can do, those who can't carp," is a common enough complaint by those on the receiving end of such criticism.
So we turn, at least in some moods, with some relief to critics who have "done it themselves," and done it successfully.
Still, they have their own set of vulnerabilities. If an active and successful sculptor criticizes the work of one of his competitors in that line, is he not an interested party? Isn't it a bit like Goodyear offering an appraisal of tires one might consider buying from Firestone?
So what kind of critic is ideal?
I don't know, but those thoughts came to mind recently when I encountered, through circumstances I won't bother to relate, a scholarly paper written in 1938 on the critical writings of Walt Whitman.
The author, Maurice O. Johnson, concludes in a manner that reminds me a bit of Goodyear and Firestone. Whitman's critique of other poets was always in the service of the idea that "the poet who was to combine all the prescribed virtues was Whitman himself."
28 November 2008
In the midst of this deliberation, the FCC last week threw visual imagery into the mix, asking that the high court review an appellate court’s decision to revoke its fine in connection with the "wardrobe malfunction" that exposed one of Janet Jackson's nipples during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.
It was specifically the Third Circuit that threw out the $550,000 fine against CBS for airing Janet's breast ("Ms Jackson if you're nasty").
The Third Circuit said that the fine was based on an “arbitrary and capricious” change in policy. This was the same reasoning employed by the Secod Circuit in the Fox case over prohibited verbiage.
Accordingly, the FCC wants the issue of fleetingness -- for words and imagery –- disposed of by SCOTUS in one shot.
I think it is safe to presume that the FCC is making this argumnent because it has judged from the oral arguments in the Fox case that it has the votes at the SCOTUS level to re-assert its authority against the interference of these unruly appeals court judges.
I certainly hope that they are wrong in that judgment, and erroneous vote counting on the basis of oral arguments does occur.
I'll be hoping for the right decision, though bracing for the wrong, in the months to come, whether the two cases are combined or not.
27 November 2008
Marist teams are known as the "Red Foxes." So a natural simple cheer would be "Go, Red Foxes!" right?
Unfortunately, somebody should have told the webmaster that you have to be careful when you run words together. "Go Red Foxes" run together as a single internet-friendly phrase can look indistinguishable from "Gored Foxes"!
And who'd want to cheer for a bunch of gored foxes?
If you follow the link you'll discover that not only is the URL "Goredfoxes.cstv.com but the phrase appears at the bottom of the page followed by the helpful suggestion that one might "permanently bypass this page." Yes, indeed one might.
Anyway, the Red Foxes (men -- basketball) played Delaware Tuesday and seem to have made a fine showing though losing in overtime, 88 to 83.
The Red Foxes (women -- basketball) went to Cambridge, Massachusetts Tuesday and defeated their Harvard counterparts 76 to 63. Go, Red Foxes! Three distinct words!
23 November 2008
It comes to mind because I suspect if the economic circumstances are as bad as they seem, and as bad as some of the experts say they will remain -- a lot of us in the industrialized west are going to need to adopt stoical attitudes.
The heart of it then is this, from Epictetus:
"There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things that are beyond our will."
He and his fellow Stoics got there through the following steps.
1. Physics or cosmology. The Stoics were both materialists and pantheists. They saw the whole of the material world as a living being, whom one might well call God, Zeus.
2. Determinism. Associated with this cosmology is the idea of the future as unfolding with inevitability, i.e. a very strict fatalism.
3. Theory of knowledge. The Stoics were opposed to, and in turn opposed, the Skeptical trends of many of their contemporaries. They believed in what they called katalepsis, justified certitude about how the world works. They also believed that the acquisition of katalepsis has an element of consensus to it. This may have been analogous to an idea advanced in the 19th century by Charles Peirce, that truth is that which is fated to be agreed to.
4. Ethics. The Stoic sage, having achieved katalepsis about fate -- accepts that he can't change what will happen, and faces the world without passion. Passion, founded upon ignorance, is in turn the cause of misery. Thus we arrive at the sentiment of Epictetus with which I began.
The whole system of thought was sympathetically described by the novelist Tom Wolfe in A Man in Full.
I'm not advocating it, just putting it out there, in my lazy Sunday nothing-better-occurs to me kind of way.
22 November 2008
At 5:12 in the afternoon Friday, my sitemeter tells me, someone at a computer in Millwood, NY typed into a search engine "why isn't the sec prohibiting short selling".
This person then ended up here but my October 2 entry appears not to have told him what he wanted to hear, because he soon surfed elsewhere.
So let me try to answer that question more directly, in case any one else ever ends up here by asking it.
The SEC can't just "ban short selling" because it has no such authority from Congress. It did try such a ban for certain stocks as a temporary and emergency measure recently, but that soon lapsed as emergency authority must.
Now, our Millwoodian friend might (I'm just guessing) want to respond that the SEC has the authority to make regulations effectuating the prohibition on securities fraud. It has the authority to do so not as a temporary and emergency measure, but in general and once-for-all.
Faille: But why is short selling inherently fraudulent?
Millwoodian: Because it involves selling what the vendor doesn't own!
Faille: That's irrelevant. Vendors sell what they don't yet own all the time. No law or regulation prohibits me from seeking a greengrocer who will promise me a delivery of apples one month from now. Or prohibits you from selling me that promise. What you're selling is the promise of later delivery of the apples, and that promise is yours to sell.
You need not own the apples yet. In fact I probably don't want you to own the apples yet because apples are perishable. I want the apples to be still green as of today, on a tree somewhere. I expect you to find them and delivery them to me one month from now.
Even if you don't, the failure isn't fraud. It is breach of contract, nothing more.
If you make a promise to deliver apples a month from now, and in order to get me to go along with this you assure me as a matter of fact that you own an orchard -- and if you don't own an orchard -- THAT may be apples fraud. Or analogous assurances may be securities fraud. But that has nothing to do with banning short selling per se.
21 November 2008
As I observed in my November 14 entry, a federal district court last week held a hearing over a request by two newspapers for the unsealing of the materials on which the search warrants were based in the matter of Stephen Hatfill and the anthrax scare of 2001.
The newspapers won. This Tuesday, Nov. 18, Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that "a qualified first amendment right of access exists and the government has no compelling interest in keeping the materials secret."
Here's a link to the opinion.
The court laid a good deal of stress on the fact that the underlyig investigation is at an end, i.e. that government has declared that Buce Ivinsis the only culprit, Bruce Ivins is dead, QED there is no continuing investigation that can be compromised.
So: now that the materials are available, is there anything explosive in there?
We'll know soon enough. If nobody is shouting "eureka" in a year or so ... probably not.
20 November 2008
After receiving an undergraduate degree in astronomy, he went to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship -- to study law.
In 1913 he returned to the US, and began the practice of law in Kentucky. Fortunately for the world of science, he soon realized he wasn't happy in that profession, and returned to his scientific passion. In 1917, he received a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Chicago.
It was Hubble who established that our own Milky Way is not the whole of the universe, just one galaxy among many, and Hubble who devised the classification system for galaxies still in use. Further, it was Hubble who noticed the redshift, indicating that galaxies are uniformly moving away from one another -- in short, that the universe is expanding.
Hubble died in 1953, two months short of his 66th birthday.
It's always fitting to remember the giants of our species, and Hubble belongs in that company. Indeed, Einstein visited him once in the 1930s to personally congratulate him on his accomplishments -- Einstein believed that the assumption of the constant size of the universe had been the greatest error in his own work on relativity and its cosmological implications, and that Hubble's observations had set him straight in this.
This anniversary of his birth is, I think, deserving of a limerick.
Here's to Edwin Hubble
in afterlife untroubled.
May your soul
Enjoy its stroll
Through galaxies unhuddled.
16 November 2008
American Idol contestants come in different stripes. Some are genuinely talented individuals -- the ones who make it through to the final rounds -- and they're looking for their break in show business. Grabbing for your chance at a jackpot, the good old American way.
Some (especially among those eliminated in the early rounds) aren't cut out for show biz at all, are aware of this, and are another sort of American 'type.' They expect Simon to say something derogatory and they enjoy their moment in the spotlight.
A third sort though isn't "in on the joke." They ARE the joke. They aren't any good, but have somehow built up the fantasy that they are. Some of THESE in turn give the impression of being mentally ill.
And for much of the show's fan base, they are the attraction.
So now a former contestant is dead, apparently of a deliberate drug overdose
When she was on the program, she gave an off-key version of "Proud Mary." Randy Jackson said: "That was terrible. What was that?"
Simon Cowell criticized her braces, "I don't think any artist on earth can sing with that much metal in your mouth."
Paula Abdul -- who appears to have been the object of the contestant's fixations -- described herself as "speechless ... that's not a good thing."
Now she -- Paula Goodspeed -- is dead. A victim of whatever inner demons may have driven her, and of an environment that doesn't help ill people deal with their demons, but serves them up as a feast for millions to snigger at.
Just another high-profile instance of "the tearfulness of things".
15 November 2008
With the savings from this radical cost cutting he would distribute money to the common folk. [Gaddafi's history notwithstanding: the proposal would sound good to me were I Libyan -- though I would prefer such enlightened government-reducing measures come about from the grassroots rather than by dictatorial decree.]
A story in The Financial Times yesterday suggests that Gaddafi (I use the FT's spelling of his name) is ready to back away from this proposal, though he is backing away in a typically theatrical manner.
The story says that Gaddafi appeared on television this week to debate the merits of his plan with two of his own government officials: the governor of Libya's central bank, and the prime minister.
The bank governor warned that such a plan would cause inflation and create a balance-of-payments deficit.
The prime minister said that if Libyans are to receive such a payment, they should get it not in cash but in the form of stock in the country's banks, telecomm, and manufacturing companies, through portfolios to be managed on their behalf by its financial institutions.
Gaddafi sounded unpersuaded. Still: why did he feel it necessary to hold such an event? That is what the FT's Heba Saleh tries to figure out.
Her view -- expressed in typical reportotial fashion through quoting and paraphrasing the views of others -- seems to be that there is no enough of a technocracy in Libya that even a Gaddafi can't push through a Grand Plan in defiance thereof. He is preparing to back away frm his plan and, in so doing, he wants his constituents to know that he is doing so with regret.
In the words of Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya specialist who teaches at Dartmouth and whom Saleh quotes: "He is trying to portray a potential setback as a democratic move."
You don't have to be a weatherman to know ....
14 November 2008
You'll remember, if you were sentient and living on this planet at all at the time, that Hatfill was named a "person of interest" by those investigating anthrax scares - soon after envelopes containing the stuff were sent to news outlets and Congressional offices.
Hatfill (who has worked at the army's infectious disease laboratory 1997-99) was eventually cleared. Suspicion fell more recently on Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide this summer.
But let's stick with the Hatfill side of the case. The government searched Hatfill's home pursuant to a warrant, and authorities must have obtained that warrant by making a "probable cause" showing to a judge -- that is, a showing that there was probable cause to believe that they would find specified evidence of a crime or crimes if they looked in the specified place.
The New York Times and The L.A. Times have asked the court to see the documents on the basis of which that warrant was obtained.
As a general common-law matter, the court would weigh the government's interest (and Mr. Hatfill's privacy interest) in keeping these matters sealed against the value to public understanding and debate in having them made available. The government's interest in secrecy is considerably reduced by virtue of the fact that there is no ongoing investigation -- after Ivins' death, the US has said that the matter is closed.
I'm hoping these documents are unsealed. The reason? I think of an exchange at the press conference that the district attorney for DC held after Ivins' death:
Question: So there was at least a two-year delay between the forensic evidence
leading to Fort Detrick, and really focusing on Dr. Ivins. How big a factor
was Dr. Hatfill in that, and how did the FBI get so off-track in focusing on
him, apparently as the sole and primary suspect?
Mr. Taylor: Let me refer back to what I said: It was an extensive investigation.
In an investigation of this scope and complexity, the task is to follow the evidence
where it leads . . . .
Question: Was Dr. Hatfill under investigation at this time?
Mr. Taylor: Again, the evidence – they followed where it led. That’s all I’m
prepared to say at this point.
Somebody at some point should be able to say a good deal more. An investigation as important and high-priority as this hit a dead end for several years? focusing on the wrong guy? And the public, for whom the whole federal law enforcement apparatus works, isn't supposed to learn anything more about it? we're just supposed to be happy with anodyne remarks like "they followed the evidence where it led!"???
13 November 2008
Two former hedge fund managers, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, have won a round in their resistance to enforcement actions both civil and criminal. The U.S. District Court for the eastern district of New York has denied a motion by prosecutors to stay discovery in the civil proceeding pending the completion of the criminal case.
Messrs Cioffi and Tannin managed the Bear Stearns High Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund from October 2003 until July 2007 -- Mr. Cioffi was the senior portfolio manager, Mr. Tannin as portfolio manager reported to Cioffi. They created a related fund near the end of that period, calling it the Bear Stearns High Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Fund.
The U.S. Attorney, Benton Campbell, filed indictments against both men on June 18, 2008, alleging securities fraud, conspiracy, and wire fraud. The central charge is that they made fraudulent statements regarding the prospects of these entities. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil action the following day on the same theory.
Mr. Cioffi (but not Mr. Tannin) is also accused of insider trading, because late in March 2007, according to the indictment, he transferred approximately $2 million of the money he had personally invested in one of these funds to another hedge fund.
The arguments over a discovery stay
The U.S. Attorney moved to intervene in the civil action in August, and asked for a stay in the SEC’s action -- and so in the defendants’ ability to conduct discovery in that context -- pending resolution of the criminal charges. His filings claim that this will protect the secrecy of grand jury proceedings and in general “prevent the broad civil discovery available in the Civil Case from circumventing the more limited discovery that will be available to the defendants who have been indicted in the Criminal Case.” The SEC has taken no position on this motion.
Each defendant has retained his own counsel. Mr. Cioffi is represented by Edward J.M. Little of the New York law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed; Mr. Tannin by Susan Brune of Brune & Richard, also of New York. Both have vigorously opposed the motion for a stay.
Defense counsel argue that such a stay is extraordinary, and that under the applicable precedents the government is required to make a specific showing of how the public’s interests will be prejudiced by the continuance of civil discovery. Mr. Little describes the discussion of prejudice in the government’s memo as consisting only of “a few weak assertions [that] simply parrot the usual, generic, and worn claims of prejudice,” e.g. that the defendants would obtain material in the civil case to which, in the criminal context, they are not entitled.
Further, as Little's brief points out, it was the decision of the United States to bring nearly-simultaneous proceedings in the first case that led to the difficulty under which the government now claims to labor. “The government milked all the advantages of initiating simultaneous proceedings -- holding joint press conferences to laud their dual enforcement efforts -- yet now seeks to evade any of the obligations that come with that choice.”
Ms Brune makes much the same point. “If any party has had an unfair advantage it is the government, which has already obtained extensive discovery, including from Mr. Tannin, for use in the civil and criminal cases. At the crux of the [motion for a stay] is the government’s effort to preclude Mr. Tannin entirely from investigating the facts and from defending himself.”
In a reply brief October 8, Mr. Campbell tried to make the argument that he isn’t obliged to provide a specific accounting of possible harms from civil discovery, because “there is no precedent to deny a stay where the government agrees to provide broad discovery in the criminal case.”
There’s such a precedent now
The court’s decision, filed by Senior Judge Frederic Block October 23, sides firmly with the defendants.
Judge Blank denied the USAO's motion. At the very least, he indicates, it is premature. “Neither defendant has answered the civil complaint and no discovery requests have been proposed. In this context -- or, more accurately, absence of context -- the Court cannot engage in any meaningful balancing of the competing interests at stake.”
He also echoed the arguments of the defense counsel about the deliberate choice of tactic on the government’s part. “Courts are justifiably skeptical of blanket claims of prejudice by the government where -- as here -- the government is responsible for the simultaneous proceedings in the first place.”
Discovery will go forward. The decision to deny a stay is without prejudice to the prosecution’s right to object to particular discovery requests.
Investors in the two Bear Stearns funds were among the early victims of the bursting of the subprime bubble, and Messrs Cioffi and Tannin were the first managers accused of crimes as a consequence. But the nature of their allegedly deceptive behavior is less clear-cut than that of a more typical fraud case, such as that which arose out of the collapse of the Bayou funds in 2005. The government isn’t charging that Cioffi and Tannin, like Samuel Israel and Dan Marino in the Bayou affair, pretended to the investors that the returns were positive when they were in fact negative.
The charge, rather, is that the Bear Stearns defendants misrepresented to investors “the financial prospects of the funds [and] their opinions regarding the financial prospects of the funds.” That sounds a bit slippery.
What is especially worrisome is the government’s reliance upon email conversations between the two defendants in an effort to establish that they weren’t always as cheerful as they let on when communication to investors. A pertinent question has come from Tom Kirkendall, a Houston-area lawyer who maintains a much-read blog on business law, “Do we really want a marketplace in which people are afraid of being candid and analyzing the market with associates for fear of criminal liability?”
Given such questions, every step forward in these twinned enforcement proceedings will come under careful scrutiny.
09 November 2008
In this passage, about one-quarter of the way into the book, Hope is showing Kathryn her studio.
"Photographs of herself with others in other times goingback to Ardmore in the 'twenties, framed certificates of graduation and commendation ... the hideous trophies of crystal and painted metal one gets as tokens of recognition and public gratitude (the most ungainly of them handed to her sheepishly by the first President Bush, a tall and boyish Connecticut gent apparently as pleasantly surprised to find himself in the White House as she was; at lunch afterward, seated beside her, he pointed out for Hope to admire the daily flowers, the elegantly clad Marine guards, the splendidly imposing punctilio which momentarily surrounded them, two proper children of the fading Protestant hegemony): these souvenirs, still in the hasty order of an afternoon's arranging when the studio was newly built, attract Kathryn's attention less than Hope exected. Only the old photographs tempt the interloper to move closer, her neck craned forward in that unbecoming way: 'How pretty you were.'"
I love that. But in my lazy-Sunday fashion, I won't bother enumerating why.
08 November 2008
Maybe unions should concern themselves with the size of the bond issues by which their employer corporations are financed. The thought comes to mind while reading about the link between capital structure and corporate strategy. Before I delve further into it, let me do my bibliographic duty.
Elsevier, the Amsterdam-based academic publishing company, has come out with a new anthology on corporate finance, repetitively and undramatically titled, Handbook of Corporate Finance: Empirical Corporate Finance, Vol. 2.
Volume 1 of the set, out last year, covered banks, public offerings, and private sources of capital.
This second volume focuses on bankruptcies, margers, dividend policy and capital structure. [For those who don't know the lingo, the "capital structure" of a corporation is its mix of debt and equity financing, taking into account also the different varieties of equity -- preferred versus common -- and the different levels of seniority of debt.]
So this brings us back to "Capital Structure and Corporate Strategy," by Chris Parsons of McGill University and Sheridan Titman of the University of Texas, chapter 13 of this volume.
One question Parsons & Titman consider is the relationship between the indebtedness of a firm and its relationship with its employees. The empirical research -- most of it with a U.S. focus - suggests that firms with high leverage "pay lower wages, fund pensions less aggressively, and provide less job security to their workers during downturns," in their summary.
This makes intuitive sense. A company that has issued a lot of bonds relative to its equity may struggle to make the interest payments and thus be more quck to lay off employees in a downturn. Looking at it the other way, in industries where a good deal of the relevant labor requires a lot of training, or where sheer experience counts most, a company might want to "hoard" its laborers through a downturn. it might want to keep them on payroll so that it can take better advantage of the eventual recovery of demand for its products. If the company is going to hoard talented labor, it will want to limit its interest obligations. Industries where labor is talented (i.e. not fungible) are, interestingly, the industries most susceptible to unionization.
So I wondered as I was reading: why don't unions know about this research? And if they do know, are they pressing their employers to use more equity issuance, less debt issuance, in their capital structure? Dividend policy, after all, is discretionary. A company funded mostly by the sale of stock can withhold dividends during a downturn to hoard its labor. There's no discretion in interest payments.
Parsons & Titman address this issue only in a brief footnote, in which they say: "Labor laws specifically prohibit unions from negotiating over issues that do not directly influence workers."
That statement sent my head spinning. I do have memories of taking a course in labor law way back in my law school days -- more than twenty years ago -- and I must have passed it. I'd remember a fail. So I learned something, but nothing that stuck.
So I asked a lawyer friend, Henry. This isn't his field of expertise (he's a first amendment maven), but I was confident he'd know someone whose expertise it is. I was right. Thanks then, to Henry and thanks to the recipient of the passed buck, Vince, for enlightenment on this point.
That brief footnote was, it seems, excessively simple. Labor laws in the U.S. prohibit employers from REFUSING to negotiate with unions over certain subjects. These mandatory subjects of negotiation are the matters that "directly influence workers" as the above footnote phrases it -- wages, hours, conditions of employment. Some subjects are prohibited: the two sides aren't supposed to discuss requiring union membership as a condition of employment. But in between there is a region of "permissible" subjects.
It seems to me, if I understand Vince right, that capital structure would fall into the permissible range. If a union had enough "juice," or if it were willing to make concessions elsewhere, it might well persuade an employer to talk about the matter and to limit its equity-debt structure.
Ah, concessions elsewhere. That's the rub. There's always a trade-off.
I'm reminded of an episode of The Sopranoes. Tony is talking to Dr. Melfi, after watching some educational/historical television show. He says, "Do you know that the United States is the only country that mentions happiness in its founding document? Well, where's my fuckin' happiness, eh?"
Melfi: "It says 'pursuit'."
Tony: "There's always a loophole."
07 November 2008
These men have little in common other than they have all happened to die in recent days. Still, each had his moment in the sun, and it is worth our while to bid them all farewell, sic transit gloria mundi. That phrase roughly translates into English thus: "Poor Gloria, she's always in the bus station."
For Minister Mourino's untimely demise, I refer you to the news story here.
For a photo of Michael Crichton with a random fan at an autograph signing the Star-Tribune has the story.
And for hearts-and-flowers for John leonard's tenure as editor of The New York Times Books Review, I refer you to SLATE.
Cheers to each, and have a fine voyage to wherever you're going.
06 November 2008
Though it all leaves me emotionally cold, this week's election results do have some appeal as an object of analysis. And in intellectualizing about Obama's victory, I find myself torn between two cyclical theories. According to one view, the subprime crisis that began last year will be a transformational event, akin to the stock market crash of 1929 or John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. On such a reading, Obama is necessarily cast as Lincoln or Roosevelt.
According to another possible view, though, he isn't the beginning of anything. He is the end of something. I'll devote the remainder of this blog entry to that possibility, which depends upon a grasp of the 30-year cycles in American political history identified by Arthur Schlesinger.
Of course, the number 30 isn't divisible into 4. So in presidential election terms, on which the mind is focused today, a cycle must be either 28 or 32 years long. Let's look at the recent ones.
1. There's a reform election, in which a party (in recent cycles, always the Democratic Party) takes office -- executive and legislative -- promising sweeping change, generally leftward.
1932 was the classic reform election.
1960 (28 years later) was another.
1992 (32 years later) yet another.
2. Then there is a confirming landslide. Four years after electing the reforming Dems, the public says, "you're doing a good job," and the Republicans lose in a really big way. Consider in this light: 1936, 1964, 1996.
3. But the initial liberal-reform impetus has lost its strength by another four years out. The Republicans make a comeback to some degree, perhaps in alliance with discontented Dems who think the reformists have 'gone too far.'
1940 (preparedness issues had replaced domestic Reform on the Roosevelt agenda by this time, and Wilkie did much better than his two GOP predecessors had).
1968 (Eight years into the New Frontier/Great Society era, Nixon -- who had lost the election that began that era, deals it a blow, because Humphrey is unable to keep the George Wallace voters in the Great Society fold).
2000 (eight years after the Man from Hope, the advent of the man from Kennebunkport by way of Crawford).
Call these the loss-of-impetus elections.
4. Eight years after that loss-of-impetus election, the Democrats win in a quite distinctive way, with a relatively obscure figure who seems to many to have come from nowhere. A haberdasher from Missouri. A peanut farmer from Georgia. A community organizer from Hawaii by way of Chicago.
1948, 1976, 2008. Call this the guy-from-nowhere phase of the election cycle if you like.
One crucial thing to remember: the guy-from-nowhere election isn't the start for something. It is the end of something. It is the last win for the liberals/reformers/leftists/whatever within that cycle.
After the reformers of this cycle have had their say, there is usually a period in which the desire for "normalcy" and stability governs. After Truman's one term in his own right -- the final New Deal victory -- came Eisenhower. After Carter's single term -- the final New Frontier victory -- came Reagan. Then, eight or twelve years later, the cycle kicks up again with another reform election. But that's waaay ahead of us. For now, we face a guy-from-nowhere Presidency, with quite likely the usual issues and dissatisfactions of such a Presidency. Then Huckabee (or whomever) will pick up the pieces.
On this view, Obama's win is simply the final victory for the reformists who first won in 1992.
So: which is it? Is he more fittingly seen as the start, or as an ending? I don't know, since I've long managed to hold both of these cyclical views in my head simultaneously. Eventually, I'm gonna have to choose between them.
02 November 2008
"At Stratford-on-Avon," was among these essays. It aimed at portraying Shakespeare's "untroubled sympathy for men as they are, as apart from all they do and seem."
An intriguing portion of that essay concerns the character of Henry V, not as "Prince Hal," foil for Falstaff in the plays named after Hal's father. But Henry V as he appears in the play named for himself, the play whence many of us derive our understanding of the battle of Agincourt.
This King, Yeats tells us, "has the gross vices, the coarse nerves, of one who is to rule among violent people, and he is so little 'too friendly' to his friends that he bundles them out the door when their time is over. He is as remorseless and as undistinguished as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the gallows."
The St. Crispin's Day speech is deliciously ironic. A man who could coldly send his old drinking buddies to the gallows could promise the rank-and-file of this battle, "he today that sheds his blood with me/shall be my brother."
This was a prophecy that could only have inspired those who didn't know their King. And the speech inspires today only because we manage to forget that everything won at Agincourt was lost again within a generation. Shakespeare's original audience was surely aware of that.
There have always been those who have missed the irony, and the story makes great cinema without it. Indeed, the contemporary scholar Harold Bloom writes of the two famous movies of this play -- Olivier's and Branagh's -- as "patriotic romps, replete with exuberant bombast."
I don't like the title of Yeats' book, since I dislike profoundly the idea of reviewing literary works in order to pick out the writer's (or the characters') ideas of good and evil. Still, Yeats gives a deep and impressive reading.
01 November 2008
I might have had my say on this holiday yesterday, but I was just bursting with amazement at the strangeness on display Thursday on CNBC.
The 19th century German logician, Christoph von Sigwart (1830 - 1894), didn't believe in the Lion's affirmation. Well ... presumably he had never walked through that particular forest. Still, let us record that he wrote: "No amount of failure in the attempt to subject the world of sensible experience to a thorough-going system of conceptions, and to bring all happenings back to cases of immutably valid law, is able to shake our faith in the rightness of our principles. We hold fast to our demand that even the greatest apparent confusion must sooner or later solve itself in transparent formulas."
The "we" in the second of those sentences is the western post-Renaissance scientific spirit, inclined to put facts into tables and draw conclusions, then impute those conclusions to God or (what is the same) the nature of things.
As Dostoyevsky knew, as his "underground man" expressed with eloquence at about the time that Sigwart was writing those words, there is also that within "us" that rebels against the "transparent formulas" in which "we" have such faith. So let the thorough-going system of conceptions have the other 364 days of the year. This one is given over to defiance, to sensible experiences that aren't so sensible, and aren't interested in "solving themselves." To flights on broomsticks and knocks on the door though nobody is there.
To the unenlightened belief in spooks.
31 October 2008
CG, as many of you must know, is an on-air editor at the business-oriented cable channel CNBC.
On their regular late-afternoon program, "Closing Bell," anchor Dylan Ratigan introduced CG, obviously under the impression that CG was in possession of some new important information about Merrill Lynch.
The camera then framed Charles with the words "Management turmoil continues at Merrill Lynch" bannered beneath his face.
But whatever news or rumor Charles had been ready to convey on that subject never got out to us. Apparently, he took offense at the way he was introduced, the open-ended phrase "what do ya got?" -- what followed was an extremely odd colloquy over the Zen-like nature of that expression.
When Dylan tired of this, he told Charles that he didn't have all day, here's a "capitalist system" to cover.
Charles replied, "shoot to the capitalist system," an expression I've never heard. I would assume he meant, "then cut to your other stories about the capitalist system, because I don't really have anything about Merrill."
Dylan replied by repeated Charles' words while dropping the preposition: "shoot the capitalist system??"
Watch it yourself. Tell me what the heck you think was going on, and how safe can Charles' job be.
30 October 2008
Bloody time, too. Ms Clarkson has been dead for five and a half years, and the first effort at adjudication was declared a mistrial about one year ago.
That first jury was deadlocked at 10-2, with the two holdout voting "not guilty." I believe it was Jay Leno who remarked at the time: "Amazing coincidence that OJ Simpson and Robert Blake happened to be on that jury, isn't it?"
The usual people are playing the usual parts. Alan Jackson is again prosecuting the case. As reports indicate he gave an opening statement that sounded a lot like the one he gave last year.
Still, one should make an effort to avoid getting jaded. Just because something sounds familiar to those of us who've been following it probably too closely doesn't make it wrong.
Here's a quick link to some not-at-all jaded particulars.
26 October 2008
She lived until 1972.
For much of the time in between those two years she was known as the Queen of gospel music.
Jackson was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame 1978, given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1988, and honored by the US postal service with her image on a stamp in 1998.
Since it is now 2008, and one wouldn't want the string of posthumous honors in years ending with the year "8" to snap, she now has the distinction of a Pragmatism Refreshed salute.
You can learn more about her here.
I admire a quotation sometimes attributed to her: "It's easy to be independent when you've got money. But to be independent when you haven't got a thing -- that's the Lord's test."
25 October 2008
I've written of wikipedia and its conflicts over "sock puppetry" here often enough. I'll try not to repeat myself unduly.
I don't think I've ever mentioned Wikipedia Review (WR), which is a website designed by and for those with a wikipedia-related grievance, something of a "shadow site," if you will.
I've only recently discovered that I've become a subject of some discussion at Wikipedia Review. This seems to have been set off by a piece I wrote in the HedgeWorld blog, back when HW was still a semi-autonomous newsgathering organization within the Reuters family and when they still employed the likes of me.
I wrote in that piece about certain wikipedia articles that had a direct or indirect connection with the "naked short selling" debate, and about the contention -- in that context especially hot -- about who was a sock puppet of whom.
I also was explicit in this piece that I have edited wikipedia myself. I gave the name I use in that context, Christofurio. So, just to be clear: the identity of Christopher Faille and Christofurio isn't something that anybody else had to do any detective work to discover. I have been very clear about it.
Another point: within wikipedia, I am always and only "Christofurio," -- so nobody ever has to wonder whether I am using two or more names strategically. There's only the one.
This is all simple enough, and unremarkable, one would think. Yet I find myself mentioned in the Wikipedia Review as if I were being especially sneaky.
Here's a direct quote from someone who writes there with the name Piperdown.
I think the reason Christofurio hasn't been publically curbed on editing Byrne/NSS/Weiss/etc is that he's been very careful to not actually do any editing that could be blatantly cited as breaking any WP rules.
Um ... right. The reason I haven't been disciplined for breaking any rules is that I haven't broken any rules.
Likewise, the reason I've never been imprisoned for burglary is that I've never burgled. Pretty crafty, eh?
I don't know what axe exactly Piperdown is grinding here (actually I think I do, but I'll let it pass) but it does seem that he is oddly perplexed by the spectacle of someone who joins a collective editing enterprise, uses one and only one name, edits as he thinks best, sticks to the spirit as well as the letter of the collective enterprise, gives his reasons for his edits in the Talk pages, and generally comports himself according to Hoyle.
If any of that makes me remarkable, I'll see if I can keep it up.
24 October 2008
The pdf is 231 pages long, but some of it is prefatory matter, so the report itself is a slender 191 pages.
And you were worried you'd have nothing to do this weekend.
Some points to ponder:
1. Good news. Newspaper readers are better educated and more affluent than TV news viewers. According to one recent survey, 70% of the readership of the average newspaper consists of households with incomes of more than $60,000 annually. This compares to about 40% for CNN and Fox News. Presumably this makes the tree killers of continued value to advertisers.
2. Bad news. The stock of the parent corporation of the US "paper of record," The New York Times Co., is now down in the sub-$10.50 per share neighborhood. It hasn't been this low for at least a decade. The Times Co. stock spent most of the period between the presidential elections of 2000 and 2004 above $40 a share. It was briefly above $50 in mid 2002.
On a related front, the NYT has announced its profits for the third quarter of 2008. They're down 51% from the 3d quarter of last year.
3. Moving on and starting over?
I don't know what to make of this, as to whether it is good news or bad for the NYT or for newspapers as such ... but ... famous/notorious former New York Times reporter Judith Miller is going over to television. Fox News announced Monday that she will "provide commentary and analysis on national security issues, counterterrorism, and international affairs, including the Middle East...."
Here's her blog.
Just putting this stuff out there. Make up your own WMD punchline.
23 October 2008
Henry Waxman has been excoriating Wall Street and all who have any connection therewith in recent weeks from his post as chairman of the House Committee on Oversight. For the most part, the hearings have been the standard look-like-I'm-doing-something stuff.
Were I a cynic, I might suggest that there's an element of shake-down in them, too. Of course my faithful readers know better than to suggest I'm one of those.
At one point, though, Waxman had scheduled a hearing for Oct. 16 in which he expected to have several of the most prominent hedge fund managers in the world testify on the question: whether excessive speculation had contributed to the present financial crisis. Soros was going to be there, Simons, Griffin, and others of that ilk.
On October 14, Waxman announced the delay of that hearing until November 13. Cynical minds suggested that he was telling those witnesses and other speculator types, "hey, we've got an election coming up. You may have noticed. Its been in most of the newspapers. There's still time to get a check to our campaign committees. The size of the contributions you make may correlate inversely with the intensity of the question you'll face when we do get around to this post-election hearing thingy."
Anyway, as I say, he may have blundered into something. Yesterday's show was entitled "Credit Rating Agencies and the Financial Crisis."
There is a powerful case to be made that the credit rating agencies have had an inherently conflict-prone business model, and that this has introduced an element of instability into the US financial system in recent years. In short, they're paid by the issuers they rate. If they rate an issuer's garbage AAA, that issuer will presumably give them repeat business. If they downgrade, the issuer has had the option of shopping around for a higher rating elsewhere. So there's been a race to the bottom, and anyone can get a AAA.
The above paragraph is a very simplistic statement of a very complicated matter, but there is enough truth to it to be disturbing. I'm glad Waxman and his colleagues grilled some agency execs on this subject.
Efforts at reform in this field have been underway for some time. But its been one of those policy-wonk things for a small circle of professional ponderers. It is just as well that this has gone mainstream.
And those cows! The committee unearthed an i-m exchange that crystallizes the situation in a way that makes wonks and non-wonks both laugh out loud.
Two of the analysts at the largest of the raters, rating agency Standard & Poor's, started gossiping about a year and a half ago. It went thus:
"That deal is ridiculous," Rahul Shah, wrote.
"I know right ... model def. does not capture half of the [risk]," Shannon Mooney replied.
"We should not be rating it," Mr. Shah said.
"We rate every deal," Ms. Mooney wrote. "It could be structured by cows and we would rate it."
Insert your own e-Cow-nomics joke here.
19 October 2008
A friend and I had lunch this Friday with an author's group in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
Why? Well ... as I mentioned in this August entry I have a way-too-unwieldy manuscript sitting around that is meant to be a novel. In recent weeks I've formulated a plan to get the ms into publishable shape, by trimming and re-writing it in the YA model.
The lunch meeting's authors involved those with YA experience and success, and I was happy to hear from them. I've since ordered three of their books.
One of the authors there was Jeannine Atkins, the author of Anne Hutchinson's Way.
I'm especially curious to see how that one is written. It involves I have to expect not just the conveyance of events, an adventuresome narrative, but the conveyance of the ideas. What the events were all about to the participants.
Anne Hutchinson was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for her antinomian theological opinions.
Booklist says, "Atkins is able to take the issue of religious freedom and make it personal ... this offers something solid for children, especially those studying early American history."
18 October 2008
Birthdays are arbitrary, and the idea of giving special significance to one birthday per decade is doubly so. But there is that human impulse to divide the flow of time, and the digital imperative of making the divides subservient to the base ten number system.
There's an episode of Monk, in fact, in which Adrian complains about the packaging of eggs by the dozen. A new acquaintance, trying to become his buddy, says, "I see what you mean. We've got a base ten system, let's stick with it!"
So we watch the odometer of our lives spin about and look with some awe at those moments when another "0" comes up on the right side.
Since I was born in mid-October, and I've long been a baseball fan, one way to measure my life and its landmarks involves the fall classic, the World Series. I was delighted Thursday by the Red Sox' come-from-behind win to keep alive their chances for a World Series appearance this year. But I was reminded that the event itself is creeping forward in the calender, creeping toward colder days.
Looking at the big picture, over the decades, the trend has been toward expansion of the leagues and then division. The marketing folks have felt the need to get more teams involved in the post-season play, so more fans stay interested longer. This in turn has made the post-season longer.
There is a lesson in that, I suppose. As any set gets larger it tends to break up into sub-sets, and those into further sub-sets, and so on in fractal fashion.
As people age, likewise, we find that we've had more experiences, so we divide them too into sets and sub-sets. We have more categories of "things to think about" and ways to try to think about them. And our efforts at them sorting out ... need sorting out. The sorting efforts break up into subsets and sub-subsets!
The World Series of sorting-outs arrives, if at all, on one's death bed. That would be one of those classically literary death beds, where the protagonist says, "Aha!" and then imparts the distilled wisdom of his years to young'uns gathered round.
I'll try to avoid my death bed for a few decades yet. Obviously, I need a lot more time with this wisdom-distilling stuff. When I try to come up with something these days I end up reaching for Monk and baseball.
Let's end, instead, with a quote from Herbert Spencer. He thought it described the history of civilization -- it might better describe a human life, or at least mine as I look back in self-definition and forward in hope.
"Civilization is a progress from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity toward a definite, coherent heterogeneity."
17 October 2008
The reference is to the Interstate Bakeries Corp., which had filed for chapter 11 protection two years before. The IBC, which is the company behind such famous brands as Twinkees and Wonder Bread, failed to adapt in time to the low-carb diet craze and went under.
The letter gives an idea of how that affects ordinary folk. After all, a corporate entity on IBC's scale is general one of several inter-related corporations, a family in which it isn't clear to outsider who is a subsidiary of whom.
"My name is ***** *****. I am the landlord for Dolly Madison Bakeries located at 584 S. -------- Rd., ------, Texas....
"The Attorneys for Interstate Bakeries are asking you to disallow my claim in the amount of $5,230.75 due to IBC being the improper Corporation.
"I was told in 2004 to request payment from IBC and did so. Interestate Bakeries made payment in the amount of $1,993.61 (copy of check attached) which was for the 2004 taxes prior to the filing of bankruptcy. The total amount of the taxes for that year was $7,224.36. They still owe $5,230.75. Their lease states that they are to pay their pro-rata share of the property taxes each year.
"I respectfully request Interstate Bakeries Corporation debt to me not be demolished."
I was looking to develop some story ideas recently, rummaging (in a cyberspatial sense) through the years-old file for interesting legal issues. Not much luck.
But I did find the above letter, which I consider very poignant and in its own sociological way, fascinating.
The usual mental habit is to think of the landlord as the 'upper hand,' the tenant as the one fearing, and often experiencing, oppressionor ill treatment.
But here the landlord is one guy, a natural person not a corporation. And not enough of a big shot to have a lawyer write a letter for him. He writes it himself. Not even a lawyer friend who can give him a once-over and some free advice. Or that strange use of the word "demolished" wouldn't have made the cut.
I hope he ends up with something out of the re-organized entity. Some stock in the new version of IBC when it emerges from the court's protection, perhaps. Let's root for that.
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.