29 June 2008

Bernard Malamud

In the June issue of Commentary, there's an article by Cheryl Miller, "Why Malamud Faded."

The premise of the title is simple: in the late 1950s and through the 1960s, American letters was possessed of three very prominent Jews (both by background and thematically), amongst its authors of prose fiction. This triad consisted of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud.

Roth was the kid of this group. Malamud was born in 1914, Bellow in 1915, and both are now deceased. Roth came into the world in 1933 and amongst us still.

Roth criticized both of his elders in an essay in 1974, "Imagining Jews," which Miller quotes.

Roth said there that Malamud paints any of his Jewish characters as "innocent, passive, virtuous and this to the degree that he defines himself as or is defined by others as a Jew."

This gave to Malamud's work "the lineaments of moral allegory." Roth wants none of it.

Miller quarrels with this reading of the differences among the troika, but she doesn't doubt that there are important differences, and that in terms of the history of taste, they've so far worked in Roth's favor against Malamud.

I summarize all this because I enjoy listening to deep things being argued about, I suppose. I'm not sufficiently erudite to make any observations on Malamud here. And I've read only two of Roth's novels, so I won't pontificate on him either.

I would guess, though, that the tides of opinion will continue their movements which, being tidal, have ebbs as well as flows. Malamud, in short, will have his day.

28 June 2008

Millionaire's Loophole

The US Supreme Court, on Wednesday, issued two important opinions. In one, it affirmed the right of an individual to "keep and bear arms" independent of membership in any militia. I'll leave this subject aside from now, because it's already received a lot of attention.

So much attention, in fact, that it has overshadowed another opinion that in other circumstances might have been the day's headliner. The Supreme Court voided a piece of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act, one of the signature acts of one of the men now running for President.

This case is known as Jack Davis v. Federal Election Commission.

Davis, the appellant, is a millionaire and a member of the Democratic Party who resides in upstate New York. He is now in his third campaign to represent the 26th congressional district in the House. He lost each of the first two campaigns to Thomas Reynolds.

Federal law limits the amount of money that a candidate for the House of Representatives can accept from individuals. Under normal circumstances, the same restrictions apply to all the competitors for a seat. But under the loophole, sect. 319(a), the rules change somewhat when one of the candidiates is wealthy and self-financing. The test for this is pretty complicated, and I'll skip it at the moment. But if a self-financing millionaire is in the race, the law (in an effort presumably to level the playing field a bit for non-millionaire candidates) eases the restrictions on the millionaire's opponent.

This is what made Mr. Davis unhappy. In his last two campaigns, he was running against an incumbent. He probably figured that he had to spend his own money in millionaire style just to even that playing field, and that making Rep. Reynold's life easier as a result of Mr. Davis' willingness to spend his own money was to tilt the field again, not to level it.

I use the metaphor of "level playing fields" because it is often employed, but the truth is it's endlessly manipulable. Anything that "levels the field" from one point of view will tilt it unfairly from another, and vice versa.

Anyway, one odd nomenclatural fact about the provision SCOTUS has now voided is surely that it is referred to as the "Millionaire's loophole." It might better have been called the Anti-millionaire's loophole, since it is designed to hamper the Davis' of the world.

At any rate, it has passed into history now.

27 June 2008

Father & Son: Singaporean plaintiffs

Lee Kuan Yew is widely admired in Singapore as an elder statesman and founder, with the formal title Minister Mentor.

His son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current prime minister.

Two years ago, the Lees as plaintiffs successfully sued Chee Soo Juan and Chee Siok Chin for defamation. The Chees are brother and sister, and members of the Singapore Democratic Party. The lawsuit concerned an article in the party newsletter that was interpreted by the court to imply corruption on the part of the government.

In Singapore, alas, it seems that it's rather easy for government officials to win such defamation suits. The real action occurs in the damages hearing, which is underway now. Why now, two years later? I don't know, I'm just trying to work my way through this myself.

Anyway, Chee Siok Chin, the sisterly Chee, is representing herself at the hearing, and had the chance to confront her accuser, cross-examining the prime minister. You can find a partial transcript via this wonderful thing we call blogspot.

It begins with Chee telling the prime minister that his lawyers has been making him "look bad" by objecting to every question. Then she goes on to ask such straightforward questions as "how many libel suits have you brought in the last four years" to which the lawyer in question objects. Proving her point.

I enjoyed reading it: and I'll be keeping an eye on the situation, trying to understand it better.

26 June 2008

Pearl Buck

Pearl Buck was born on June 26, 1892 -- 106 years ago today.

She was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, and died a little more than 80 years later, in March 1973, in Danby, VT.

She's worth noting on this birthday because she illustrates the long (though of course not always friendly) relationship between the United States and China. Her parents were in West Virginia at the time of her birth only as a temporary matter -- they were on furlough from their missionary work in China. They soon returned, with their new baby Pearl as company.

As all expats raising children agree: in the conflict between the playmates' language and the parents' language, the former always triumphs. That's the "first" language. So that became Pearls' as she grew.

Pearl's masterpiece was The Good Earth (1931), about family life in China in the early twentieth century, and about the human condition. Its great popularity coincided with the first assertions of Japanese colonial rights in Manchuria, a fact in which you might find portentious geo-political significance if you like.

Anyway, this is the thought for the day. A pearl from Pearl Buck: "There is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness."

22 June 2008

Could be a fun read

Peter Ackroyd, a very successful author of historical novels, has written most recently The fall of Troy.

The book's setting is a good deal more modern that the title alone might lead you to infer. It's a fictionalization of the excavation of "Troy" by Heinrich Schliemann in the 1850s. Its a short book, looks like it might be a quick read -- by guesstimate, about 70,000 words.

Schliemann is renamed Henrich Obermann in the novel, and there's a cute pasage early on that is supposed to illustrate the protagonist's arrogance. On board ship heading to the Dardanelles he encouters an English admirer, Decimus Harding. They have this exchange:

"You know that Mr. Gladstone came to hear me on the subject of Homer? It was a great moment in my life."

"Mr. Gladstone is a scholar."

"Of course he is. He perfectly accepts my theories."

That's a wonderful bit of character establishing dialog, IMO.

21 June 2008

Romance and Reprieve

A death-penalty case in Texas is playing with my head these days, as such cases often do.

Charles Hood was scheduled to die Tuesday, June 17, 2008, for two murders, pursuant to a sentence imposed in 1990.

The victims were an unmarried couple, Ronald Williamson and Tracie Lynn Wallace. Hood had been living with them, his bloody footprints were found in their house, and he was found driving Williamson's Cadillac in Indiana some time thereafter.

Anyway: Hood's most recent efforts at securing for himself a new trial turned on allegations that the judge (Verla Sue Holland) and the prosecutor at his trial (Tom O'Connell) were romantically involved.

The state's response has been that it is too late to raise that point, because rumors of the affair have been rampant for years. Inmates aren't supposed to be able to store up possible arguments, bringing them out of their sleeve at strategic points in order to string out their tenure on death row. The condemned are expected to be better behaved than that.

But is that what happened here? It seems to me that the defense counsel might have been culpable had they put forward a mere rumor as the basis for appeal. Only last month did they get anyone to sign an affidavit.

It seems to me reasonable under existing law for Hood's attorneys to expect the judge and DA themselves to make some sworn statement on the matter of what relationship, if any, existed between the two of them when Judge Hood was presiding over a life-or-death trial.

For now, Hood lives. The death warrant expired at the end of the day Tuesday, while lawyers on both sides were haggling and filing and re-filing. The clock just ran out.

How difficult would it have been for the state to get another death warrant? Could they have done so on Wednesday? I don't know.

But it didn't happen. The state's Governor has issued a 30-day reprieve.

I have no profundities to offer. The whole thing is just, as I say, messing with my head. Like ... wow. The judge and the prosecutor hooking up in chambers. Then acting all, "Your honor" here and "Mr. District Attorney" there in the courtroom.

The jury is the finder of fact, not the judge of course. Still, on contested issue of evidence attorneys appeal to the bench, and they ought to be able to do so with some confidence in an impartial bench. But of course this is all terribly naive of me. I'm an anarchist and should expect nothing.

20 June 2008

Drudge Retort

The Associated Press has called off the dogs, um, the lawyers in its brief confrontation with the Drudge Retort. This is being billed in some places as a clash of "old media" versus new. Maybe.

The Drudge "Retort," by the way, isn't a typo. This aint' the same as this.

The Retort began with the intention of parodying the already infamous Drudge Report, but over time has evolved into a left-leaning social networking site. The proprietor regularly posts short excerpts from wire services stories in order to get conversations among the subscribers underway.

The AP objected to this uncompensated use of its material, and the founder of the Retort, Rogers Cadenhead, lawyered up. His lawyers said lawyerlike things about how the snippets from AP stories that Cadenhead employed were "fair use," how they not only didn't deprive the AP of readers but actually helped it acquire readers, etc.

The AP has retreated, and declared that the matter is closed. And the blogosphere celebrates.

I'm not sure there's anything to celebrate here. All that is clear to me is that nobody has yet figured out the economics of the internet, nor the economics of the news business in the world the internet is refiguring so dramatically. What can you charge for and what can you not?

It is (and the King of Siam will presumably hire a lawyer if he reads this) a puzzlement.

Etcetera etcetera.

19 June 2008


It was on this day in June 1865 that the slaves of Texas were informed of their freedom.

I'll save myself the task of exposition and simply refer you to the relevant page of wikipedia.

Specifically, the day commemorates "Order No. 3" issued by a Union general, Gordon Granger, in Galveston on this day. Those of us who take a too-simple view of the civil war, who think of it as having ended in Appomattox two months before, should keep this holiday in mind as a corrective to that simplicity.

The best date for a real end to the war is actually four days AFTER Gen. Granger's famous announcement. The last Confederate General to surrender was Stand Watie, in the Oklahoma Territory, on June 23d.

But even June 23 may be too early for some persnickety folk, who will remind you that the last shots fired in the struggle of secessionists were fired that November, in the waters off the Aleutian islands, by the CSS Shenandoah, under the command of Capt. James Waddell.

15 June 2008

The weekend FT

There's an intriguing story in the weekend Financial Times about Darwin and the Sistine chapel.

Well, okay. That isn't exactly what it's about. Religion and science, origin and destiny, polarities and reconciliation. That's what it's about.

The Natural History Museum in London wants to create a new ceiling for one of its galleries, and it has commissioned proposals for several prominent artists.

The NHM has told the artists that it wants the new ceiling to celebrate the life and work of Charles Darwin, for 2009 will mark both the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of its author's birth.

Comparisons to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are surely inevitable under those circumstances. "Hmmmm. There's that iconic image of God conveying life to Adam. But where's the analogous image for Darwinism? It oughta be on a ceiling!" Neville Hawcock's story in FT tells us there's "a whiff of the divine" in many of the proposals the artists have submitted. A whiff, at least, of an effort to turn natural selection itself into the sort of soaring Faith that might inspire a Michelangelo.

Here's the money quote: "Dorothy Cross suggests ... installing a floor-to-ceiling column of glass; within this would be engraved a skull, and engraved within that a skeletal foetus. This, she says in her accompanying statement [would represent] 'a collusion between birth and death, inheritance and thought, and particularly nature and art.'" My understanding is that the skeletal-foetus/skull would be inside a ball at the top of the column, and thus pressing against the ceiling. The ceiling itself would be gilt, and would simply serve as background for this icon.

At any rate, she's going for the sort of all-embracing reconciliation of polarities that religions have always offered.

So what? Well ... it gives one pause. As a philosophical pluralist,I don't want all the polarities to be reconciled, I don't want a block universe. I want the alpha to be the alpha and the omega to be the omega.

Still, good luck to Ms Cross. It sounds like this skeletal fetus on the top of a column would be a heck of a sight.

14 June 2008

The Irish Vote "No"

In a referendum held yesterday, voters in Ireland rejected the so-called Lisbon treaty, i.e. a package of proposed amendments to the institutions of the European Union.

Eureaucrats have been touting this treaty as the key to a "more democratic and effective" continent. It seems intended chiefly to make the EU a single player on the world stage, with a unified foreign policy. This is part of the slow movement of sovereignty out of the national capitals such as Dublin and London. [Anarchist though I am, I'm thinking within-the-box this morning, so I'll use words like 'sovereignty' without quarrel.]

So: what happens now? Do the changes require unanimity? And if so: is the Lisbon treaty dead?

The answers seem to be, "a lot, yes, and no."

The Eureaucrats are saying that they'll continue to press the "ratification process," the results of which now stand at 18 to 1, with 8 member countries not yet accounted for. Evidently, the treaty enthusiasts want to rack up as many "yes" votes as they can, so that they can go back tot he Irish and say, "it came out 26 to 1, you contrary slugs" or words to that effect, in hopes of getting a second vote there. Where better than Ireland for a "mulligan"?

Lisbon will likely be dead if there's a second "no" vote somewhere. One country standing alone against aspirations for One Europe has a problem. Two countries standing together mean those aspirations have become the problem.

Ireland, in compliance with its own constitution, is the only country in the EU that scheduled a ratification referendum at all. In the other countrues, ratification is by legislative act, although in the UK, the Tories are demanding a referendum, though prime minister Brown and his Labour government apparently plan to ratify via Parliament.

Anyway: why the "no" vote? Were the Irish rebelling against the loss of national sovereignty? Was it just the extremely complex character of the treaty ... and their sensible unwillingness to support something they couldn't understand?

Ireland's PM, Brian Cowen, who supported the treaty, now it appears supports the result of the vote, opposing a do-over. He'll meet with EU honchos next week and discuss where things go from here.

[Here I go outside the box again] The whole idea of sovereignty, at ANY level, national or continental, is perhaps unravelling. We can hope.

Anarcho-capitalism. Catch the fever!

13 June 2008

Fight or Flight

Henry raised an interesting question in his comment yesterday.

Where does the phrase "on the lam" come from? I've seen it spelt "on the lamb," which raises humorous imagery of someone like Kobi Alexander saddling up a lamb for flight from the authorities.

The real origin is psychologically intriguing. The human mind seems to combine the verbiage of fight and of flight. Consider: I might "hit" my opponent, or I might "hit the road," before he shows up.

If I hit my opponent, that is also called a "beating." But if I'm the smaller and weaker of the parties involved, I might prefer to "beat it."

In Elizabethan times, it appears, the word "lam" meant "to hit." It came to mean "run away" in the same way that hit and beat acquired the above-mentioned extensions -- flight is dignified with fight language. In the case of "lam," though, the original aggressive meaning died away, leaving only the flight.

Except for the word "lambaste," meaning to criticize harshly. This, it seems, is a compound that includes the original significance of "lam."

12 June 2008

"On the Lam" -- a neat idiom

A colleague, for whom English isn't the native tongue, asked me recently about American-English idioms for life as a fugitive.

The one that came to mind was "on the lam." It's an expression I first heard in high school, when I had a supporting role (one of the more-or-less anonymous baseball players) in a production of Those Damn Yankees.

Here's the plot: a middle-aged baseball fan who wants to help the Washington Senators makes a Faustian pact: He'll sell his soul for a great new outfielder for the Senators.

The devil, superbly named "Mr. Applegate," shows up and agrees. His way of effectuating the deal is to make Joe himself that new outfielder, giving him the body of a young ballplayer and making him the new star for the Senators for a season.

But Joe has heard stories like this, and he insists on an escape clause -- he can opt out of the contract on September 24, at midnight.

Of course as September 24 approaches, Applegate devises a plan to keep Joe -- now a sensation as the baseball season comes to an end -- from invoking that clause in time. Two plans, really. One involves the seductress Lola. The other: a scandal. Applegate persuades baseball's authorities that Joe is really "Shifty McCoy," a Mexican ballplayer who took bribes.

The Joe-might-be-McCoy scandal proves enough of a distraction that the 24th passes, and the escape clause has lapsed. Joe is apparently trapped in the contract for eternity. But ... Applegate has other fish to fry. He wants Joe to throw the final game of the season to the Yankees, losing them the pennant, crushing the hearts of Senator's fans, causing suicides etc.

He says that Joe Hardy the suspect ballplayer will suddenly disappear. The headlines will say Shifty McCoy "took it on the lam."

All ends happily. Joe refuses to go on the lam and shows up at the ballpark. Applegate magically turns him back into his pre-contract middle-aged self to be sure he won't be able to do the Senators any good. This also annuls the contract. Despite the creakiness of his restored non-youthful physique, Joe makes the crucial catch. The Senators beat 'those damn Yankees,' the fans are happy, and Joe has his soul back.

Anyway, that's where I first encountered the expression "on the lam." You can see it in a headline of today's Wall Street Journal, in a very different context.

08 June 2008

What is language?

There's a fascinating essay (in a pdf) on the homepage of philosopher John Searle that concerns language.

Searle alleges that philosophers who have discussed language have failed to treat it naturalistically, i.e. as "a natural extension of non-linguistic biologic capacities."

The key philosophers of language, throughout the 20th century, were also students of formal and mathematical logic. Coming at language from a logicians' background necessarily yields different results than one would get coming at language from biology.

So Searle suggests the 21st century should take a new look.

"At one time, animals more or less like us, hominids, walked the earth without language. Now we have language. What happened in between?"

Even those pre-language hominids must have had a lot of the cognitive categories by which we navigate the world -- space, time, causation, agency, object -- though in speaking of what they had Searle deliberately uses the term "category" rather than "concept."

A dog has a category of space -- it recognizes that the squirrel is running across the lawn and getting further away from where the dog now is, whenever it gives chase to remedy the situation. So our pre-linguistic hominids had at least that much mental apparatus as well.

What don't dogs have? what didn't the early hominids have, exactly, by virtue of not having language? Searle's answer: the manipulable segmentation of the flow of experience: the segmentation reflected in periods and capital letters, or in the analogous inflections and pauses of speech.

"So the situation we are in when we move from experience to language is analogous to the situation when we move from a movie to a series of still pictures."

Instead of just watching the movie of our life, we can study it frame by frame.

I am simplifying Searle's article of course, but it seems to me that "the manipulable segmentation of experience" is his answer to the question "what is language." On a related point, he holds that semantics and syntax are in principle distinguishable, that cries like "Danger!" amongst hominids would have been steps toward language, though only small ones. Semantics without syntax.

07 June 2008

Yesterday's crude oil excitement

Crude oil prices rose yesterday by more than $10 a barrel. As you can see from the attached chart, from the New York Mercantile Exchange, prices were trending down Tuesday and Wednesday. They were flat through Thursday morning in the neighborhood of $122 a barrel. Then, Thursday afternoon, came the start of the spike that continued until Friday afternoon.

So ... what happened? Trading at the New York Mercantile Exchange may have been driven (I say "may" because I'm guessing) by a combination of news items that together suggest further violence in the Middle East and, accordingly, more supply disruptions.

Item: On Thursday, the Turks and Iranians announced that they had launched co-ordinated attacks against Kurdish rebels in the north of Iraq. Condi Rice met with Turkish officials on the subject and released a statement that didn't mention the Iranian role at all, but did say that the Turks and the US are "on the same page" as against the rebels.

Item: a deputy prime minister of Israel said: "If Iran continues its nuclear weapons program, we will attack it."

Item: There's been a new outbreak of violence in Sri Lanka in recent days, including two bus bombings in the capital city Friday. The guerillas, a/k/a/ the Tamil Tigers, demand a separate homeland in the north of the island nation.

Consequence? The rise in the price of a barrel Friday (forget the start of the run-up Thursday) was the equal of the WHOLE price of a barrel in 1998.

If the sense of imminent doom passes over this weekend and things calm down a bit, contracts will lose some of this value in trading again next week.

But I'm still just guessing.

06 June 2008

R. Kelly trial

Rapper R. Kelly is on trial in a courtroom in Chicago, in connection with a tape that seems to show him having sex with a minor.

There briefly seemed to be a 'respectable' reason to concern one's self with this case. There was a reporter/confidentiality Judy Miller type angle to it. The authorities first obtained the tape, and arrested R. Kelly, because a reporter had gotten a hold of it and turned it over to them. That reporter was/is a music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, Jim DeRogatis.

The defense wanted DeRogatis to testify, chiefly -- if I understand the situation -- because they wanted to suggest that he doctored the tape while it was in his possession.

DeRogatis refused to testify, at first asserting a privilege against violating the confidences of a source. The judge didn't accept that, and ordered DeRo (as his friends seem to call him) to take the stand nonetheless.

He took the stand. And proceeded to invoke the fifth amendment. Obviously a different privilege than the one with which he had begun, but a privilege more securely grounded in the Constitution.

Here are some particulars.

Let me say that I'm pleasantly surprised the R. Kelly trial has gotten the relative dearth of media attention (outside of the Chicago area) that we've seen. Yes, there's a war on. Dramatic financial news. And a presidential election campaign entering a new phase. Still, it is easy to imagine a parallel world not too different from this one in which the big sex-tape trial grabs all the headlines away from such trivia as that.

I'm glad it hasn't happened. Consider this my noisy tribute to the general silence! This will be (hand to heart) my last post on the R. Kelly trial.

05 June 2008

Ed McMahon

Ed McMahon, the sidekick from the old Carson-era Tonight Show, is getting foreclosed on.

How does someone like that get behind in payments on a friggin' house? Did he buy one mansion too many?

Ed McMahon. Not just the Tonight Show, either. There was Star Search (which came in between "The Gong Show" and "American Idol" -- every generation gets to laugh at amateurs) and the Publishers' Clearinghouse. Don't folks like that have financial advisers who keep them out of the sort of situation where you can be foreclosed on?

Or is it really possible to run through the kind of money an Ed McMahon must have made in his heyday?

Color me naive, but this story just seems absurd to me.

By the way, I'm trying a new look for this blog. Hope you (idealized reader "you") like it.

01 June 2008

Wright & Pfleger

Barack Obama's campaign has confirmed that he has left Trinity United Church of Christ, where he has worshipped for more than 20 years.

Two months ago, YouTube snippets of a sermon by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright there seemed briefly about to derail Obama's campaign. Fortunately for him, Hillary Clinton then drew attention away from the matter by inventing an easily falsified story about airport sniper fire.

More recently, Rev. Michael Pfleger, a former adviser on the Obama campaign's Catholic advisory council, delivered what wire service reports are calling a " racially-fueled tirade," from the same podium against Hillary Clinton.

Personally, I don't think Pfleger said anything out-of-line, from what I've heard. He said that HRC feels entitled, and that the whiteness of her skin is part of her sense of entitlement. I think that's right, or very likely right, and at any rate no very good reason for Obama to leave his favored place for the worship of God.

But, obviously, that's his call. Not mine. It's simply worth noting here because it's Sunday. Perhaps if we are to try to draw any deep conclusion from such stuff, it should be this: where we worship isn't important. God doesn't care all that much about the where. If we attach ourselves and our worship to a particular where, we are diminishging Him.

So if politics has pushed Obama to detach himself from one worship-where to another, it may have done him a spiritual favor.

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.