29 February 2008

Portfolio and municipal bonds

I wasn't a big fan of the Condé Nast business publication, Portfolio, when it debuted last spring. Indeed, you can read one of my early reactions here if you like.

But it has grown on me. Or perhaps they've found their own footing since then. No more Tom Wolfe style onomatopeia for hands rapping on a door in the middle of the night.

No, instead we have someone like Jesse Eisinger, making a very intelligent case in the March 2008 issue that the whole "municipal bond" insurance market is one big scam. No, I wouldn't buy a bridge from Mr. Buffett.

Though I love his cousin's tune, Margaritaville. I've sung it at karaoke places many times.

And where the heck is that shaker of salt....

28 February 2008

"Extrapolated" Conclusions

Judd Bagley, the proprietor of the blog "AntiSocialMedia," maintains in his latest posting there that nobody has ever shown anything he's said to be wrong.

Then he adds a neat little parenthetical qualification, for which I will personally take credit. He writes, "Yet, with a single (quickly rectified) exception, every conclusion extrapolated here has proven accurate."

The exception that I presume he has in mind involves a reporter named Susan Antilla, of Bloomberg News, who has written critically of Mr. Bagley's favorite company, Overstock dot com. That's always a good way to draw Bagley's attention, which it seems to have done.

Antilla is also the ex-wife of Dennis Leibowitz. For the particulars of why that's important to Mr. Bagley see what I wrote in September.

Anyway, after Bagley went out on a limb on an IV bulletin board and referred to the present-tense Antilla-Leibowitz marriage, he was immediately informed of the divorce. He chose not to believe it, and to write up his disbelief in Antisocial. He even suggested Antilla's divorce lawyer may have failed to file the appropriate papers, so she may still be married without knowing it.

Now, this is a matter on which there can't be a lot of room for confusion. I happen to be a member of the bar of the state of Connecticut (that is itself a matter of public record, as easily verified as is marital status!) and I know that a divorce can be verified with ease.

Anyway, after this was explained sufficiently to Bagley, he eventually deleted the babbling from his website. Since he's been called on it before, I do believe that's the "one exception" to his accurate "extrapolations" he now acknowledges so fleetingly.

We shouldn't let him off the hook too easily here, especially given the odd word "extrapolation" itself. He made a false statement of fact on an easily verified matter. What was supposedly extrapolated?

I'm not inclined to accept his implicit factual claim (in that parentheses) that this was his only factual error. He hasn't hired me as a fact checker, after all. But I'm pretty confident that is the factual error that inspired the parenthesis, because of an exchange he and I had on the subject in September of last year.

At that time, Bagley e-mailed me to note that I had referred to "demonstrably false assertions" of his. He asked which assertions were those. I replied, referencing Susan Antilla. He responded to that, claiming that he hadn't made the marital claim about Susan Antilla in his blog, only on IV. That was a demonstrably false assertion itself, as I pointed out to him in his reply. Deleting something from a blog doesn't mean it was never there. Deletion isn't a memory hole.

He replied telling me, "Forget Susan Antilla," [I'm sure he would like me to] and asking me for other examples of his falsehood, on the theory that learning of them would help him develop as a writer. At this point I was getting tired of the game, and I didn't reply.

As I had expected, he soon thereafter posted a very long blog entry in which my name plays a very small part. He puts me on a list of his blog's "harshest critics" and complains in general that none of us have replied to his e-mail. "My e-mail must be broken" he says, in what I suppose is meant to be irony or sarcasm or something stylish.

Just in case anybody who read that has now found your way here. Mr. Bagley's e-mail isn't broken. I did reply to his initial request about whether he had said anything demonstrably false, and I pointed out to him that he had. He told me to "Forget Susan Antilla." I did so, and accordingly did not respond subsequently. Now I see that all of this rates a parentheses from him.

Ah, so I have not lived and breathed entirely in vain.

Why am I taking note of it only now, five months later? Well, because Bagley doesn't occupy many of my neurons for very long and I've let time slip by occupied with other matters.

But I come back to it because I do feel a certain non-emotive indignation at being listed, as I now have been, as among Mr. Bagley's blog's "harshest critics." That's language that just makes you say: huh? If I'm among that blog's harshest critics, it leads a charmed life indeed. I've written of it rarely, and if any "harshness" has crept into my writing on the subject, I'm unaware of it. Correcting the Antilla error isn't harshness. It's fact finding. Positing the absense of any need for an article about Mr. Bagley on wikipedia may be as "harsh" as I've gotten. But, hey, there's no article on wikipedia about me, either, and that's honky-dory at this end.

24 February 2008

Once around, four acts

I did make it to the Met yesterday.

I was a little taken aback by the one-scene nature of each of the four acts of the opera. I'm more accustomed to the sort of drama that is divided both into acts and into scenes, the difference tactically being just that a change of scenes leaves less time between curtain down and curtain up than does a change of acts!

But in an opera, or at least this one, each act obeys within itself the classical unities of time, place, action. Though there are narrative gaps (huge ones) between them.

I was also surprised by the fact that the cast of each act came out to take a bow after the curtain closed on that one, rather than simply saving the curtain calls for the whole cast for the end. Well, conventions are what they are.

I won't speak of Manon Lescaut as an opera, beyond the little bit of canned-erudition I included in yesterday's entry here. Beyond that, I'll link you to a synopsis.

I will say, though, that I love seeing "understudy" slips in a program, especially with regard to the leading roles. It means some one is getting a break -- a chance to star for which he/she had prepared without any firm expectation -- without even perhaps daring to hope (since that would mean hoping for the illness of a lead, and who could do that?).

At the performance last night, Maria Gavrilova sang the title role, replacing Karita Mattila.

Richard Bernstein also fell ill. He had been singing the role of the captain of the ship that transports prisoners from France to Louisiana. That role fell last night to Keith Miller.

I can't say that the role of the Captain stood out for me. But Manon of course did! and I can say that Ms Gavrilova has a wonderful voice -- and that it's hard to imagine her performance being bettered. The crucial business in which she taunts her older lover with a mirror came off especially well, I think.

I don't see myself becoming an aficionado but I'm glad I went. Even the detour through the streets of the borough of Queens on the way home was instructive.

23 February 2008


I'll be travelling to NYC later today, to see a performance of Manon Lescaut in the evening.

Manon was the third opera composed by Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini (now THERE's a name) -- and the first of his to make a big splash at the time, or become a regular in the canon since.

So indulge me while I reflect on Puccini. What about those first two operas, the ones that preceded his fame? The first was Le Villi (1884), about forest spirits or faeries. The second Edgar (1889), about a young man of that name struggling to choose between his chaste home town girlfriend and an exotic gypsy. The two female participants in the triangle are named Fidelia and Tigrana respectively. Now there's an unsubtle bit of naming.

Manon came along in 1893. One fascinating fact about this opera to a wordsmith like myself: it had five librettists. The publisher (Giulio Ricordi) also contributed to the libretto, as did Puccini himself. None of their seven names appear on the title page of the original score.

Puccini wrote nine operas thereafter: including such repertoire pillars as Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot. Turandot was his final work, left incomplete at his death in November 1924.

There was, one might say, an operatic quality to Puccini's life. In 1909, his wife accused their maid of having an affair with him. The maid subsequently committed suicide, and her family sued the Puccinis. In an opera, of course, there would have been a duel, not a lawsuit. Still, it seems an appropriate scandal.

22 February 2008

McCain story: Keating Five Again

A story on the front page of the New York Times yesterday attracted a lot of attention. This is surprising because it is oddly structured, as if the editors and/or reporters involved wanted to delay a casual reader's recognition of their point. The headline doesn't really tip anyone off to the explosive nature of the contents. It says, "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses its Own Risk."

There's the implication in that wording that people who are too self-confident are those most likely to fall into an ethical trap or lapse, that "pride goeth before a fall." Still, its a roundabout bit of wording, and subtlety isn't what headlines are for.

The lead paragraph might also be a soporific. "Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers."

So events of 2000 are getting front-page attention just now? and they concern anxiety? about what? Ah, that would be the point.

The second graf finally gets us to the gist. Or does it? "A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity."

It sounds a bit like the story's going to be about adultery here. But it veers from that soon thereafter. The story leaves the "anxieties" of staff members unconfirmed. There is no reason to think McCain was having a "romantic" liaison.

But the woman who made the staffers anxious was a "lobbyist," and that moves the story forward a bit. The lobbyist, Ms Isenman, represented telecommunications companies for whom the work of Mr. McCain's Senate Committee, Commerce, was critical. Her clients contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his "campaigns" (by which I take it the team of reporters mean both his campaign for re-election to the Senate in 1998 [he won his third term that year] and that 2000 campaign for President.)

So the story is saying that McCain became very chummy (however 'platonically'!) with a lobbyist who helped him raise money for his campaigns and it is at least suggesting that she did this for the interest of her telecommunications clients -- there was an implicit quid pro quo.

The McCain camp has unsurprisingly denied that there was any impropriety involving Ms Isenman. The Democrats are too immersed in their continuing nomination struggle to pay much attention to it, although surely they're storing the clippings and will keep an eye on anything that might give one of them ammunition for the autumn.

In the meantime, we might consider the question of the quality of the journalism involved. As I'v already indicated, the story seems oddly structured. The traditional structure for a news story is the "inverted pyramid," so called because the structure rests on a single point. The lead paragraph should state exactly what it is that makes this story worthy of the reader's time. Everything else opens out, perhaps in various directions, but rests on that point.

Aside from that, there are both auspicious and inauspicious things about this story, and it will be interesting to see how it shakes out over time.

On the positive side, some of this jives with McCain's most tarnished hour as a public servant. I mean the "Keating Five" business. If it turns out to be creditable -- and I suspect we'll discover this as other news organizations chase the same rabbit now -- then it could mean real trouble for McCain. And he'd deserve that sort of trouble.

On the one hand, there's a lot of anonymous sourcing, which is always a bad sign in terms of reliability. Not every anonymous source is a public-spirited Mark Felt. Not every, not most, not many. They generally have their own agenda and "letting the public know important truths" need not be high on that list.

Indeed, the end of the second graf of this story is: "...several people involved in the campaign said on condition of anonymity."

So, as you can see, I'm on the fence.

Anarcho-capitalism: catch the fever!

21 February 2008

The Quest for a Tuxedo

Until about a year ago, my home town supported a formal rental shop, known as Squire Tux. Until two days ago, I was under the distinct impression that Squire Tux was still in business. Unfortunately, I had no idea how much lead time the staff of such a place need to prepare a tuxedo for a formal event, so I didn't make any real effort to inquire about renting from them until Tuesday morning. The events thereafter proved surprisingly dramatic.

I'm going to the Met this coming Saturday evening, to see Manon Lescaut, a production reviewed by the New York Times here, and I had hoped (I had even resolved) to wear a tux for the occasion.

So I called Tuesday morning. The telephone number is such as to indicate that I'm talking to somebody at the old location for Squire Tux. Right area code, right prefix thereafter. Nobody at the other end of the line tells me I'm not. What they do tell me, though, is that I'll have to pay a premium, a special "rush charge" to be fitted and have the thing ready for Saturday. Fine, I say obligingly.

Then we make an appointment for 8 in the evening.

By 7:30 I obtain the Squire Tux address on the internet ("anywho.com") to be sure my memory is right -- the address conforms with my memory, and I set off though its early for the Elm Street location. It isn't there. I go up and down the street a couple of times, then go into one of the malls there, and start talking to shop owners. Finally, one of them tells me, "Oh, that closed down about a year ago, though I think they're in Holyoke now."

Well, I go back home -- I'm not in possession of my blackberry these days, though that's another story -- and start trying to call Squire Tux again to ask where they are. I get busy signals over and over. I do some quick research -- delving a little deeper than the anywho listing -- and discover that yes, Squire Tux went out of business a year ago. They seem to have merged with another company called Mr. Tux, but to have closed the stores under the older name.

I then called Beverly, Mass., the HQ of Mr. Tux. A woman there tells me the phone had probably rung through to West Springfield (not Holyoke). But it's now closing in on 8:30 and the propect of getting to that store by closing time at 9 looks dim.

So: I find that there's a Mr. Tux somewhat closer. In Springfield, at the border with Indian Orchard. That I can make. I call them to be sure they're open. They are, a young man tells me. And they'll stay open until 9. If I get there by 9, they'll stay there as long as needed to serve me. Okay, the time is a little tight, but I'll give it a try.

I hop in the car and it looks like I'll be there. Then, half way there, a freak quick snow squall hits Springfield. Almost blinding. I couldn't see three feet in front of the car at the worst of it. This, unsurprisingly, slows me down.

I pull into the Mr. Tux parking lot just as my watch is telling me it IS 9. Jumping out of the car, I see a young man and a young woman closing up the store. I identify myself as the fellow one of them spoke to on the phone half an hour earlier.

He says, "Well, we gave you the benefit of the doubt, sir, but you didn't make it in time."

The benefit of the doubt? What kind of expression is that? What doubt? what benefit?

I yell, "how much more quickly through the snow storm would you have wanted me to drive?" and get back into my car, feeling thoroughly disgruntled.

Okay, so the storm wasn't their fault, unless Mr. Tux has snow making equipment and used it to play with me. Which seems unlikely. But is that "benefit of the doubt" line what they teach in customer service classes? And why, a year after Squire Tux is gone, is it still so easy for the casual customer to think he's talking to an Enfield store of that name? Anywho listing, location-appropriate phone number, an "appointment" with no specification of place other than that which I thought I had just called.

I wrote the folks in Beverly about all this. I'll accept a free tuxedo in the mail. It would make me feel better.

17 February 2008

Barber of Seville

I saw a DVD of Barber of Seville recently. One point that struck me was a bit of stagecraft.

The plot turns on the machinations of a wealthy nobleman, Count Almaviva, who pretends to be an impoverished student so he can win the love of Rosina, and who then pretends to be an inebriated soldier so he can get into her home under the nose of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo.

While the count is wearing both levels of pretense, in the Bartolo home, he gets in some trouble. The real regiment shows up, and it appears that he's under arrest. He shows the officers a medallion hanging around his neck. This apparently proves that he's a powerful person, and they back off.

The problem is this: Rosina can't see the medallion, or can't understand the reason why it matters. For she knows that the inebriated-soldier bit is a pretense, but she thinks (and in the second act will still think) that her beloved is an impoverished soldier.

So, how show the medallion to the soldiers without tipping off Rosina? In the performance recorded on the DVD that I saw this week, there was no real attempt to solve this problem. We were just supposed to figure it out for ourselves (or the audience was already supposed to know the story) who knew what thereafter.

I can't help but think that there's more to it, perhaps made explicit in the older Beaumarchais play on which it's based. And perhaps that another director would be more imaginative in overcoming this difficulty. Nothing more is necessary than a wall, so that the count can show off the medallion in one room while Rosina and the Doctor are conveniently in the other. But something of the sort really ought to be arranged.

16 February 2008

Revisiting the Enron Docket

Everyone who cares, knows: Ken Lay, the long-time chairman and some time chief executive of defunct energy trading concern Enron, was found guilty of securities fraud and related matters in May 2006, but died before he could be sentenced.

Jeffrey Skilling, the long-time chief operating officer and some time chief executive of the same company, was also convicted. He was sentenced that autumn, and is now serving time in a federal facility in Minnesota.

Criminal litigation continues in regard to less well known figures in the Enron matter. In the matter of Kevin Howard, for example, the prosecutors have recently received a setback at the hands of the fifth circuit court of appeals.

Here, too, it is possible that everyone who cares (a much smaller circle) already knows. Still, I'll bend your cyber-ear about it, because it is possible that prosecutors over-reached.

Kevin Howard was the CFO of an Enron subsidiary, Enron Broadband Services (EBS).

EBS' mission, in partnership with Blockbuster (which had by the late 1990s figured out that the brick-and-mortar model of movie rentals itself would become obsolete in due course) had a plan to stream movies into the desktop computers of Blockbuster customers.

Enron, though, wasn't all that interested in actual execution on such a plan. Their modus vivendi by that time had become: draw up an ambitious plan, book it as if the dream had come true and all the revenue was on the books, let somebody else (like the folks at Blockbuster) sweat the details and move on to something else. Clearly, not a great attitude, but the flaws in such a business model don't by themselves make the case that Mr. Howard should be in prison.

The gist of the criminal case is the government's contention that EBS, inclusive of Mr. Howard, lied to Enron's outside accountant in order to try to book these unrealized profits.

I'm trying not to get bogged down in details here, so simply take my word for it that the "honest services" theory was one of five counts of the indictment against Howard, and the only one to survive previous rounds of appeal-court inquiry. The notion is that if you've been hired to do a job, you've been hired to give your empoyer (Enron's investors in this case) the benefit of your honest services. That "honest service," is , then, one of the forms of value of which you can be found to have fraudulently deprived them.

The problem is that the "honest services" charge would have to stand on its own. The jury was instructed on conspiracyt theories (related to other counts) and the usual instruction is that if Howard was part of a conspiracy then he is responsible for what everybody else who was part of it did. So if any of them deprived Enron of THEIR honest services, and he conspired with them, the jury might well have found h im guilty of the fifth count onthat basis.

Yet with the other counts vacated, the honest services count now has to be understood to require that Howard stole the value of HIS OWN honest services. There's no reason to believe the jury found that. Given the way the prosecution phrased its summation, it didn't clearly ask them to find that.

Here is a link to the write-up on the White Collar Crime blog. From there, you can follow another prominent link to get to the opinion itself.

So Howard will either walk free, or the government will re-try him on count five.

I'm hoping he walks free, so he can direct a movie about the whole ordeal. Assuming he's related in some way to Ron Howard.

Maybe not.

15 February 2008

Different newspapers

Here's something my aunt sent me recently in an e-mail. I recycle it in this shameless way because I'm feeling lazy.

1. The Wall Street Journal is read by the people who run the country

2. The Washington Post is read by people who think they run the country

3. The New York Times is read by people who think they should run the country and who are very good at crossword puzzles.

4. USA Today is read by people who think they ought to run the country but don't really understand The New York Times. They do, however, like their statistics shown in pie charts.

5. The Los Angeles Times is read by people who wouldn't mind running the country -- if they could find the time -- and if they didn't have to leave Southern California to do it.

6. The Boston Globe is read by people whose parents used to run the country and did a poor job of it, thank you very much.

7. The New York Daily News is read by people who aren't too sure who's running the country and don't really care as long as they can get a seat on the train

8. The New York Post is read by people who don't care who is running the country as long as they do something really scandalous, preferably while intoxicated.

9. The Miami Herald is read by people who are running another country but need the baseball scores.

What have you been reading?

14 February 2008

Love that Beagle

The crowd favorite won.

I spent way too much time in front of a television on two consecutive nights watching the big dog show.

My sentimental favorites were the dogs in the herding group. And the winner of that group was a beautiful creature indeed, an Australian shepherd named Deuce,
celebrating here.

But the crowd favorite was the winner of the Hound group, the beagle Uno. A Beagle had never before won Best in Show, and even the hound group as a whole, seldom wins. Perhaps it is fair to say they are a less photogenic group than some of the others.

Nonetheless, the beagle, Uno, won this year. It is a year of firsts. A good portent for the breaking of barriers everywhere.

One neat coda to this story. There was a technical glitch near the end of the NBC Nightly news yesterday and they couldn't show their final commercial. This meant that the anchorman, Brian Williams, had to prattle on for an extra unscripted minute to fill the time.

Uno gave him something to prattle about, and he went on a riff about beagles, their howl, and Snoopy. I thought for a second he was going to start discussing the ship that took Charles Darwin to the Galapagos.

10 February 2008

Good Will

Let's think our way through Kantian ethics for a change of pace this Sunday.

There is nothing that can be called "good" without qualification except a good will. Everything else is sometimes good, sometimes not, depending on context. But a will aimed at doing its duty is always good.

That, at least, is the heart of what Kant was trying to tell us.

If you accept that much as valid (a big "if") the next logical question you'll raise may be: how does one determine one's duty?

This is where the categorical imperative comes in. There are two inter-related formulations. First, one should always act such that one's action could become a universal law.

This means, for example, that one should never lie. Lying couldn't become a universal law because if all statements were lies, language would lose all value and significance, and the act of lying itself would become impossible. So lying is always and everywhere a violation of duty.

From this "universal law" formulation, Kant inferred another version of the categorial imperative, the means/end formulation. Never treat another human being as entirely a means to an end, but always as an end in himself.

All of this has given rise to an enormous literature of exposition and debate, of course, but I hope I've given you a sense of the inter-relation of some of the basic terms.

One standard objection to this view of right and wrong is sometimes summarized in the phrase "one thought too many." If my wife is drowning in a lake, and I swim out and save her, Kant would think this act moral only if I saved her because it is my duty. What if I just save her because I love her? Or because I'd feel devastated if she weren't around any more? As I understand it, even those are the "wrong" reason for Kant, and remove value from the action.

Only duty is the right reason.

That sounds absurd because if I'm actually standing ont he shore reasoning about my duty, I'm over thinking the matter. One thought (at least) too many. And even if I do save her life, our marriage may well be in trouble.

Good article on this point? Barbara Herman, "On the Value of Acting from the Motive of Duty," THE PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEW (July 1981).

09 February 2008

The words of a parrot

I believe it was Alfred Marshall who said, "a parrot can be taught to be a competent economist." The point is, one need only teach the parrot two words: "supply" and "demand."

I submit that in order to make ourselves at least as smart as Marshall's parrot, we have to leave behind some of the regnant myths as to gasoline prices.

What makes gasoline prices go up? The parrot will tell you. Or, to fill out the avian wisdom a bit, imagine that on Tuesday, Exxon is charging me $3.00 per gallon. On Wednesday, Congress enacts a new law increasing their taxes. So by Thursday, in order to pass this along to me they'll have to charge me, we'll say, $3.50 per gallon.

Why weren't they charging me $3.50 already on Tuesday, though? Because they were being nice to me? Or because the market wouldn't bear that extra cost -- it might force me to start car pooling or move closer to where I work or something?

If there's any good reason why Exxon wasn't charging me the whole $3.50 on Tuesday, that reason still exists on Thursday, doesn't it?

From a manufacturer's point of view, an increase in the price of the raw material and an increase in taxes work out the same. They are each an increase in the cost of doing business. Neither translates into higher market demand. Does an increase in crude oil prices cause the companies to pass along that increase to consumers, thereby pushing up the price? No. Unless it can be explained through one or the other of the two factors enumerated by the parrot, this is simply irrelevant.

But haven't we seen the increase in crude oil prices causing an increase in petroleum prices, through direct pass-alongs, thereby refuting the parrot. I submit that we have not.

We've seen gasoline prices as denominated in dollars rise as a result of the loss of value of those dollars. Suppose I'm making more money this year than I was last year --- because inflation works on the wage/salary side of the economy as well as on the prices of the goods those wages are used to purchase. If I'm making more money, then I have more to spend, and I will presumably be willing to spend some of that "more" on the higher gas prices, especially if they two sides of the inflationary coin are keeping pace with one another.

The gasoline price increases that have held up after discounting for inflation are modest and have either demand or supply-oriented causes. For an example on the supply side, refinery fires and other problems putting them out of commission have limited the supply of gasoline, (not of crude oil) which of course has driven up the market price.

A toast, then, to the wisdom of Mr. Marshall's parrot.

08 February 2008

Crime and Punishment

A Pole named Krystian Bala sits in a crowded prison, awaiting a second trial on a murder charge. Not just any murder, but an abduction/torture/drowning, and one in which the prosecution's theory of his motive sounds Dostoyevskian.

The theory is that Bala was a proud intellectual who killed the old pawnbroker -- no, scratch that, the marketer of billboard advertising space -- because he had decided he could get away with it, thinking himself a Nietzschean overman.

And for a long time he DID get away with it. The body of Dariusz Janiszewski surfaced on the Oder River in December 2000. The initial investigation yielded nothing and the case was written off as about as cold as the corpse by the middle of the following year.

The case warmed up. The story of the revived investigation, Bala's arrest, trial, conviction, and partially successful appeal (only partial because he's still locked up -- successful nonetheless because he has been promised another trial) makes for a fascinating story. One can read it as detailed by David Grann in the Feb. 11th issue of The New Yorker.

Here are some delectable bits and pieces, to tide you over. The case was re-opened in the fall of 2003 by a detective named Jacek Wroblewski, which translates in English into "Jack Sparrow," which is of course also the name of a fictional pirate. (What's the name of the detective who catches Raskolnikov?)

On the day that the victim, Janiszewski, disappeared he had his cell phone on him. That same phone was sold through an internet site, apparently a Polish version of eBay, only four days later. The website's records show that the man who put it up for auction had logged in as ChrisB[7], and Chris[B]7 is not a very well-disguised form of the name of Krystian Bala.

When Sparrow first discovered that in fact it was Bala who had sold Janiszewski's old phone in this way, he (Sparrow) drew no further conclusion from it. His inquiry hadn't centered on Bala at that point. And, after all, it seems a more likely supposition that the murderer would pawn the phone, knowing that pawnshops are more anonymous institutions than websites, and that some innocent party had then bought it at the pawn shop and sought to turn it for a quick profit on line. That the murderer himself would do this, especially a murderer who in other respects had been very good at covering his tracks, seemed to begger credulity.

The working-hypothesis was that the phone had passed through a pawn shop, and this gives the case one of its many Dostoyevskian echoes.

Also in 2003, as Sparrow was taking up the case, Bala was publishing a book. It was a novel -- an account of a philosophical murderer who gets away with the perfect crime. The name? Amok.

Sparrow found out about this novel, and read it. He was struck especially by a passage in which the killer/protagonist, who has used a Japanese knife to commit his murder, says: "I sell the Japanese knife on an Internet auction." [The police had never released to the public the fact of the internet-auctioning of the cell phone.]

Poland has an "Unsolved Mysteries" type television program called 997. The program asks viewers to call in, and its related website also asks for tips. After they aired a program on the Janiszewski case, they got tips via their website from Japan, South Korea, and the United States. This was unusual. Polish murders are rarely of interest to the rest of the globe. When Sparrow eventually looked through Bala's passports, he saw stamps from ... Japan, South Korea, and the United States. The dates matched. He had done a lot of travelling between 2000 and 2003, while working on his book, and when people came to know him, they somehow decided to look up a particular murder on a website associated with a Polish television program and write a comment.

The content of these comments was unhelpful, but Sparrow compared the time when Bala was in each of those countries with the timing of the tips, and they matched.

All quite circumstantial. You can see the appellate court's problems with a prosecution case largely based on such coincidences. But oddly compelling.

07 February 2008

Birthdays today

February 7 appears to be a good day for literary birthdays. Sir Thomas More (remembered for much else, but for writing Utopia surely) was born on this day. So was Charles Dickens, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Sinclair Lewis, and Gay Talese.

But the most intriguing literary birthday I could find for this date is that of James Murray, editor of the first Oxford English Dictionary.

A birthday toast to Mr. Murray! What a marvellous creation is the OED. Anyone with even a single bookwormish molecule in his body (and I'll confess to more than one) can get lost in the OED for hours, discovering the unexpected manifolds of meaning in even the most common and humdrum-seeming of works, and discovering that every thread of meaning of every word has its own history.

Work on what would eventually become known as the Oxford English Dictionary began in 1857. The first edition finally appeared in 1927. And not a moment of those seventy years went to waste, either.

The story of the first OED is told, with panache, by Simon Winchester in The Professor and the Madman (1998). Mr. Murray is the professor of Winchester's title.

For more, start here:Amazon's entry.

A toast, then, to Professor Murray. You and all your collaborators have made the world a better place.

04 February 2008


What a game. One of the most exciting sports events I've ever seen -- right up there with, say, the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. Or Super Bowl 3, [excuse me! III]the one Joe Namath accurately guaranteed in defiance of the odds.

Or Han Solo's ride through an asteroid field, saying "Never tell me the odds."

Wow. The Giants, who started the regular season badly, who only got in to the playoffs as a wild card, won -- defeating the til-then-unbeaten New England Patriots.

It gives me hope that the fluke statistical correlation I discussed yesterday could hold for another year.

03 February 2008

Life is full of coincidence

Today is Super Bowl Sunday, so it is my once-a-year opportunity to remark on the notorious statistical correlation between Super Bowl results and US stock market performance.

Sadly, it doesn't appear likely that 2008 will weaken that correlation at all.

In general, in years when a pre-merger NFL team wins the big showdown, the stock market valuations rise. In years when the championship rings go to either a pre-merger AFL team or to an expansion club, stock markets decline.

This year, the favorite to win the Super Bowl is the AFC (and former AFL) team, the New England Patriots. Known in the old pre-Foxboro days as the Boston Patriots. Also this year, the consensus among economists calls for a recession, which will strengthen the over-all correlation.

So let's root for the Giants, not because cause and effect could possibly be involved here but ... just in case cause and effect is somehow involved here.

Why don't those of us who discuss this correlation every year talk about "AFC" versus "NFC"? The two competing Conferences? Why is the coincidence always defined in terms of the old NFL? Ah, there lies the key to how this statistical finangling works.

In 1970, when the AFL and the NFL merged, most of the old NFL became the NFC, a conference within the larger new NFL. The old AFL became the new AFC. Except....

Three teams from the old NFL were moved into the AFC to even out the numbers. Those teams were: the Baltimore Colts (now the Indianapolis Colts), the Cleveland Browns (now the Baltimore Ravens), and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

For purposes of Super Bowl statistics, by far the most important of those three teams is the Steelers. They've been in the Super Bowl six times, and have won it five times. Each of those five years was one in which stock market prices rose. So by speaking of the "pre-merger NFL" we can ignore the inconvenient fact that they played those games as AFC champs, and we can create the correlation we're after.

But let me not to the marriage of impressive numbers admit impediment.

Go Giants!

02 February 2008

Thoughts on the campaign

These absurdly front-loaded primaries have had their winnowing effect.

To the extent there can be any real justification for the existing primary-election calender, I suppose it is this: the parties don't want a long bruising knock-down drag-out fight over who their nominess is going to be, akin to Ford/Reagan in 1976.
When there is a dispute, the party elders (in each of the majors) want it settled quickly, then they can rally around the choice and get down to the task of knocking the other party.

If that is the telos for this process, then the elders seem likely to get their wish. The nominations might be pretty much settled this week.

On the Republican side, due to the winner-take-all nature of several of Tuesday's events, it is very likely that either McCain or Romney will emerge not just as the front-runner but as the nominee presumptive. By the way, four of the winner-take-all races are northeastern states: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware. This is why Giuliani's strategy wasn't as crazy as it seemed. He banked everything on the support of northeastern retiree snowbirds in Florida, in the hope that a strong showing there could give him some "Big Mo" going into this week, and allow him to focus on those four states, his 'back yard.' (It didn't work, but that doesn't imply it was an irrational plan.)

On the Democratic side, the lovey-dovey nature of the latest debate between Clinton and Obama indicates that they both suspect their upcoming primaries are going to decide the matter, they both know that it is possible the other guy/gal will become the presumptive nominee this coming week, and each is positioning him/herself for the "healing process."

But of course on the Dem side things aren't winner-take-all. I don't believe they have ANY primaries with that sort of rule. So its perfectly possible that we still won't know where we stand Wednesday. In that case, things could get nastier quickly.

No matter how things play out, I wouldn't expect a "dream ticket" out of the Dem convention. People who are talking up a Clinton/Obama ticket, or Obama/Clinton, are just trying to fill out their assigned column inches.

01 February 2008

Three brief items

First, Dan Rather.

His lawsuit against CBS for wrongful termination will likely go forward -- it has survived a motion to dismiss. I can't help but be happy about this, as I think the proceedings may help unearth testimony and documents that will in turn prove useful for the historians of the future as they struggle with this period in the history of the United States.

Rather, you will remember, narrated a report on the CBS evening news that said that George W. Bush shirked his duties while in the National Guard.

The authenticity of the documents came under attack, and CBS apologized for the report, expelling Rather from the anchor chair.

Rather maintains that the report was, in essence though not in every particular, accurate. He also says that he was made a scapegoat because the parent corporation of CBS, Viacom, was seeking regulatory favors from the Bush administration and had to hide the whole AWOL issue under the nearest rug.

CBS' lawyers made a motion to dismiss. No definitive decision has yet issued from the bench on that motion, but the judge has indicated he is inclined to let the matter proceed to discovery, that there is "enough in the complaint" to do so. Good for him.

Second, Crude Oil Prices.

How low will they go? And is their recent decline a good sign or a bad one? Just wondering.

You'll likely all remember that when crude prices were bumping up against $100 a barrel in the final days of 2007 that fact was covered extensively in all news media. This is natural enough: my attention tends to focus on my car's odometer as the zeros line up!

With odometers, the numbers only move in one direction. With prices, the general tendency is toward an inflation of the currency (given the fiat nature of money since the demise of the gold standard) and thus toward higher prices, but there's some non-odometer like downward movement too.

And that's what we've had. On Nymex, the spot price of a barrel of oil is now barely above $90. Is this good news or bad? Good if it amounts to a lifting of a drag upon the economy. Bad if it is symptom a symptom of a slowing-down already underway. After all, if there's going to be a lot less industrial activity in coming months, there's going to be a reduction in the demand for energy in all its forms, and the decline may simply reflect that.

Third, Springfield, Mass.

Springfield appears to have gotten away with something. For the background, go here.

Springfield has apparently persuaded Merrill Lynch that it has a case that somebody at Merrill tricked somebody in Springfield's city government into signing on to some highly speculative investments. Accordingly, Merrill has agreed to by the securities at issue back from the city at the same price at which it sold them.

This is quite a bath Merrill is taking. Those securities have lost 90% of their value since the sale, last spring, now being revoked.

Merrill has also agreed to pay outside legal fees incurred by the Springfield Finance Control Board.

This stinks. Has anybody associated with any institution ever heard the phrase "moral hazard"?

So of my three items for today, I find the first cheery, the second ambiguous, and the third depressing. A balanced portfolio of news items!

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.