31 July 2008

Random thoughts

Went to NYC yesterday. Drove to Stamford Tuesday evening, stayed in a motel, and took the train in Wednesday morning.

I wanted to meet face-to-face with a couple of sources of mine. Telephone and e-mail are both wonderful things, but there is still a powerful need for actual co-presence.

Along the way, I was trying to get internet access on my blackberry. I haven't been able to use it since February. My local T-Mobile outlet is telling me that the area around my home is a dead zone.

But that's wrong. My town isn't the problem. My unit is the problem. Neither in Stamford nor in Manhattan could I get access.

So I'm paying an access fee every month in order to play brick and wake up to a unique alarm. Bah, humbug. I'm gonna have to go back to that outlet.

I read a fascinating story, while on the Metronorth train, about the origin of Tupperware and of "Tupperware parties." It was a Wall Street Journal review of a book on the subject. Here's a link Under the Lid, A Fresh Sales Idea.

27 July 2008

Mathematics and Reality

Exists there a world of Platonic form aside from (transcending) the world of matter and particulars?

Today I'll give a three-part answer: no, and no, and maybe. The "maybe" is the interesting part.

1. I don't think there's any broad case to be made for a Platonic treatment of universals as such.

2. Nor do I think its helpful to morality to think of virtues as disembodied essences -- Justice, Courage, Temperance, the Good.

3. On the third hand, there IS a strong case to be made that numbers and the equations made from them ought to be considered as an independent world, which mathematicians discover rather than invent.

This case is based largely on the experiences reported to us by the greatest mathematicians since the days of Pythagoras.

Heinrich Hertz put it well. "One cannot escape the feeling that these mathematical formulae have an independent existence and an intelligence of their own, that they are wiser than we are, wiser even than their discoverers, that we get more out of them than we originally put into them."

Who was Hertz that we should pay heed to his views on math? A physicist who obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Berlin in 1880, and whose work helped refine the mathematical theory of electromagnetism developed before him by Faraday and Maxwell. He earned his bones in terms of the relationship between physical reality and abstract formulae employed to describe it. If he believed (as have many others of equal eminence) that the formulae have an independent sort of existence, this isn't testimony that those of us who have shown less facility in their use than he should take lightly!

26 July 2008

Troubles at The New York Times Co.

An article in BusinessWeek observes that a share of stock in The New York Times Co. is now worth only half what it was worth a year ago.

Why? Well, it's true that the equities of US based corporations have fallen across the board, but not so dramatically as all THAT! The S&P index has fallen about 20% in the past year. The NASDAQ 100 has fallen only 10%. So why has NYT fallen nearly 50% (or to be precise, 46.3%)?

In a July 23d release about disappointing second quarter earnings, the CEO (Janet Robinson) blamed the economic slowdown as well as "secular forces playing out across the media industry."

No. First, if this were simply a manifestation of the general economic slowdown, it should mirror the results of the broader indexes. Second, if the problem were "secular forces" etc., you'd see similar results at other companies in the media industry.

You don't. The Washington Post Co. has lost about 25% of its value over the last year. That IS in line with the general economy, or only slightly worse. And that would tend to show, by the way, that the stereotypical conservative answer ("it's because the NYT is so dam liberal!") isn't empirical. The WPO is as much on their enemies' list as the NYT. But it has done better, or only half as bad, over these last difficult months because ... because its a better run enterprise.

That is where responsibility lies. With Ms Robinson and her board.

God bless you please. [Okay I couldn't help myself there.]

25 July 2008

Oswald's son

Okay Max, please sue me.

Max Mosley is trying to let the world know that although, yes, he did have an orgy with prostitutes, Nazism was not involved in any way.

He's won a lawsuit against a Murdoch run operation, "News of the World," which apparently claimed that the orgy involved Nazi costumes and role playing. Judge David Eady says that the tabloid must pay Mosley 60,000 pounds.

The accounts I've seen, which are admittedly second hand, indicate that he didn't win on the basis of libel, but rather on that of invasion of privacy.

So here are some questions for anyone who knows the law in the UK. Isn't the solicitation of prostitutes illegal? And if it is illegal, and a very public person engages in it (Mosley is the president of the agency that governs Formula One racing): what sense does it make to say that it is protected by a right to privacy? Is this ruling a precedent that will effectively legalize prostitution, and/or the solicitation thereof? Or is it just another lamentable example of the muzzling of the press?

And, for those who don't recognize the family name, there is a reason why it might be especially interesting to the public in the UK to learn (if it is true) that that Max Mosley has a Nazism fetish.

Max is the son of Oswald Mosley, the man who founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932.

Oswald married Diana Mitford, Max's mother, in 1936. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels were guests at that wedding.

The fact that Max is in a position of some prominence himself, combined with the family connection, may make some wonder how far from the tree this particular apple has fallen.

In other words, I think the court was misguided in ruling in his favor, though I'm open to further relevant facts and considerations. And please, Mr. Mosley, sue me.

24 July 2008

The wardrobe malfunction

The FCC recently lost a high profile case. CBS got the fine rescinded on the so-shocking display of one of Janet Jackson's nipples.

"Miss Jackson if you're nasty."

So what? So ... nothing, really. It was all just a lot of sound and fury. Which is the only good reason for mentioning it now. How much of the sound and fury of today's discussion will soon likewise invoke the reflex yawns that this story probably does for most of us today?

From now on a wardrobe malfunction is to me just a plot development in a C.S. Lewis novel, nothing more.

Actually, that "wardrobe" functions unfailingly. I suppose, though, that if a child wanted to travel to Narnia, and upon walking through the wardrobe with that goal found himself in Oz ... THAT would be a wardrobe malfunction!

20 July 2008

Plato and the gods

Plato's Euthyphro is a fascinating dialog about the connection between theology and morality. Of course, since the characters in it belong within a polytheistic culture, they would speak about the nature of "the gods" in the plural.
But for those of us raised in a monotheistic culture, that's an easy enough mental adjustment to make while reading it.

What is trickier is identifying the precise question at stake : Is something moral because it is what the gods command? or do they command it because it is moral?

If burying the dead in a proper ceremony is moral only because the gods command it, then are they (is He) a completely arbitrary Being, who could just as easily command one sort of act as another? Who could just as easily tell us "thou shalt kill" as "thou shalt not kill"?

After chewing that, you might move on to Plato's Republic, chapter 2. The relevant passages come near the end of that chapter, where Plato has Socrates explaining how the future guardians of the state should be educated. A proper education must not involve teaching children about the gods as Homer depicts them. (Later in the book, Plato suggests exiling poets from the Republic altogether). The Homeric gods are powerful but degenerate humans. Teaching them to children plants in children's minds the idea that it is good to get away with whatever you can in pursuit of your own pleasures.

There's some obvious synergy between these two Platonic texts and what they say about the nature of the gods Plato and his contemporaries had heard of.

19 July 2008

Not into conspiracies but....

How did this happen?

CBS appears to have posted to its website a story about how global warming may be causing an increase of earthquake activity.

They withdrew it from their site a day later. Okay ... these things happen. Somebody screwed up, you discover it, you correct.

That's not the interesting part. The original story was attributed not to the TV network's own staff, but to the Associated Press.

AP says they had nothing to do with it. Indeed, there seems to be evidence to back up the AP on that point. If it were AP it would have appeared, automatically, in lots of places other than CBS' website.


For the record, there is no reason to believe that global warming increases earthquake activity, or indeed that recent decades have seen an increase in such activity for any reason.

18 July 2008

Dysfunctional system discounted

We may be at a bottom for the present Dow-index bull market.

Keep the confetti in storage, please. I'm merely suggesting that the upward bounce this week [the chart alongside this text shows you yesterday's contribution] might not be a trap, just the Dow's tricky way of tempting you into renewed exposure. It might, rather, mean that a process of discounting the value of a (previously) overvalued system has run its course.

My theory, FWIW, is that much of this drop has been the consequence of a dysfunctional bankruptcy system.

People have become afraid of owning equity in finance corporations because those corporations so frequently and easily become the target of lawsuits by trustees or DiP on the slightest of pretexts -- consider the fall-out from Manhattan Investment Fund, or Refco, and the institutions that are targeted in such cases.

Anyway, the stock market swoon caused by such factors has reached its natural end. All the discounting that our dysfunctional bankruptcy system requires has been accomplished. So we've found a bottom of sorts.

BTW, nothing I say is to be understood as investment advice. This is a blog dammit! You're reading this for free and its worth every penny.

That said ... suppose I'm right. If the Dow has found its bottom, discounting everythig that needed to be discounted as a result of the revelations of last year ... does that automatically means we're going up now?

No. As the saying goes, if you throw a dead cat out of a skyscraper window, it will bounce a bit when it hits the sidewalk. That won't mean it's come back to life. We might simply be seeing the dead cat bounce after the discovery of a bottom. If there is no other animating force that enters the scene at this point, we could have a period of meaningless zig-zags around a horizontal line.

17 July 2008

Seventy years ago today

It was on July 17, 1938 that aviator Doug Corrigan flew out of Bennett Field in New York.

He was supposed to be heading for California. He actually ended up in Dublin, Ireland, 28 hours later.

Hence the nickname he bore for the rest of his life, Wrong Way Corrigan.

No one believes that this was an accident. Corrigan had repeatedly applied for permission to fly to Ireland and been turned down, and presumably thought it would be neat to put one over on the bureaucrats.

Corrigan, who lived until 1995, never once acknowledged having flown eastward on purpose. I imagine that once he created the cover story he figured he might as well keep the bluff going.

Every one of the early trans-Atlantic solo flights was an act of bravery, and this was still very true in Corrigan's day, eleven years after Lindbergh's flight. That it was in his case a combination of bravery with trickery wrote him into pop-culture immediately.

Soon thereafter the three stooges cried "Hey, we're doing a corrigan" in one of their shorts -- they were cast as firemen, and realized that they had been going in the opposite direction from the fire.

And, decades later, the obviously Corrigan-inspired character "Wrong Way Feldman" appeared on Gilligan's island.

Ah, fame.

13 July 2008

New work on theology

Charles Bellinger has announced on his blog that he has completed work on a book called The Trinitarian Self.

Who is Bellinger? An associate professor of theology at Brite Divinity School, part of Texas Christian University. He holds his Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Virginia.

Though Bellinger and his book came to my attention by random circumstance, I choose to spend a little time this Sunday summarizing what I take to be its message.

He gives us a critique of what he takes to be the reductionism of secular social science, particularly in its efforts to understand violence, which gets reduced to childhood traumas or difficult social conditions. All very "horizontal" in his lingo, destructive of the idea of responsibility.

As a "vertical" alternative, Bellinger turns to the thought of three adopted mentors: Søren Kierkegaard, René Girard, and Eric Voegelin.

To Kierkegaard in particular, various forms of violence are responses to the challenges of spiritual growth, an "I'll never grow up" tantrum. Humans feel painfully ambivalent about God and God-relatedness, and the negative side of this ambivalence is violence.

Kierkegaard also spoke of the three "stages" of human development: aesthetic, ethical, and religious. Bellinger transmutes these "stages" into dimensions. He thinks of the aesthetic dimension as inward/outward, the moral as horizontal, and the religious as vertical.

Bellinger sees Girard as the best expositor of the horizontal dimension, and one who became such largely through emphasizing the scapegoat mechanism, its role in society, and indeed the role of scapegoating in all its violence and ugliness, in separating humans from the beasts.

The vertical dimension doesn't bring an end to the violence of this mechanism, bur redeems it.

From Voegelin Bellinger derives the lesson that human existence occurs "in between" materiality and the transcendent realm of God, that human beings have a marked tendency to avoid living honestly with the messiness of this "between," and that this causes us to create lies, "second realities" in which we can lead less messy lives.

Those alternative realities are what Voegelin famously called gnosticisms.

That, then, is the gist of the book. From these three thinkers we can construct a new Summa, which would be as important an achievement for our own day as Aquinas' was in his. Bellinger doesn't see his own work as constituting the new Summa -- but if I understand him rightly he thinks he's written the table of contents for it, in book form.

12 July 2008

Obama and Jackson

Obama may have won the election. Jesse Jackson may have just handed it to him.

Specifically, Jackson may have handed Obama his Sister Souljah moment.

The general significance of that term is a moment when a politician gains credence beyond his base by a confrontation with someone within his base.

The paradigmatic example involves -- the very same Reverend Jesse Jackson. Sister Souljah herself was too insignificant a phenomenon to deserve attention except to the extent that Jackson took her seriously, and invited her to speak at a conference of the Rainbow Coalition.

Anyway, Clinton understood that anyone who would be offended by his criticism of Souljah would be no real threat to him -- since the alternative was George H.W. Bush.

Obama has tried to distance himself from Jeremiah Wright and that crowd. But Jackson's now-infamous remarks into a live mike do the job for him, and Obama has very little need to say anything more.

And what, after all, would he say? "Please keep that guy away from me if he's holding garden shears?

Ah, La Comedie Humaine.

11 July 2008

Horace Greeley

For no very good reason, I feel like writing about Horace Greeley today.

Actually, there is a reason. I've serendipitously realized that Marx' famous book, On Capital, was published in the year (1867) also marked by history's greatest real estate transaction. Marx published On Capital in 1867. I don't have a month. The US purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire in a transaction that closed on March of that year. I began speculating on a possible connection in this world or in others. But let's start with Greeley, the newspaper editor who was the best-known opponent of the sale (and, for a time, Karl Marx's employer).

SFAIK, Greeley never pretended to be anything other than what he was -- an opinionated and well-informed individual who wanted to share his take on contemporary events with anyone willing to buy his newspaper.

He never took an oath not to have or express any opinions. Nor was it common in those days to separate opinions into particular sections or pages -- his readers knew that they would encounter his take on the facts on page after page, and that is what they got.

He didn't believe that states had the power to secede from the union. Once they started to secede, he made clear his views that they were in a lawless rebellion, and his hope that the US army would quickly crush it.

When the crushing proved difficult, Greeley made known his view (long before Lincoln came around) that the best way to win the war would be to make it a war about slavery -- issuing a promise of emancipation.

Note the language there: "We think you [Lincoln] are unduly influenced by the counsels, the representations, the menaces, of certain fossil politicians hailing from the Border Slave States."

Gee, sounds like someone who is shy about the fact that he has a particular point of view, doesn't it?

After the war was over, Greeley again made his position crystalline -- the chief goal of statesmen on both sides ought to be one of reconciliation. Thus, he paid the bond for Jefferson Davis' release from federal prison.

He also believed that the prosperity of the nation depended upon western expansion. He popularized (though he did not invent) the expression, "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country."

As I say: Greeley had a point of view. He used his newspaper to inform the public, but he (and his public) took it for granted -- and IMHO they were right on both sides to take it for granted -- that he was providing them with information not as a sort of magic mirror of the world, but as a passionate observer and partisan.

One might well believe that what journalism needs today is to return to that model -- where no one professes to be a neutral magic mirror and no one feels betrayed upon making the not-so-shocking discovery that every medium carries a message.

Ah, but was he, as some have complained to me, on "the wrong side of history"? Well, not in quite the way that the secessionists were, perhaps.

Yes, he did denounce the purchase of Alaska. "Seward's folly" and all that. In part this was because he believed it would make the settlement of the contiguous western territories a slower and more hazardous matter. Any particular "young man" could go either to, say, Wyoming OR to Alaska. One or the other! No one would settle in both places. He saw Alaska not as a contribution to the western impetus but as a dilution of it.

One can always speculate on other possible worlds, including the divergent world in which Greeley's criticisms prevailed and the US didn't purchase Alaska. What happened in that world?

Here's one guess. Keep in mind that the reason the Czar was ready to sell Alaska in the 1860s was that the Czar was desperate for cash, after bearing the expenses of a war in the Crimea. In this other world, the deal doesn't close, the Czar doesn't get the cash, his government's fiscal crisis worsens, and his country ends up having its revolution in the 1870s -- forty years ahead of our world's analog events.

The 1870s Russian revolution doesn't take a Marxist-Leninist turn. How could it? Marxism as a movement is still in its infancy -- consider the chronological coincidence with which we began.

An 1870s Russian revolution might have overthrown the monarchy in favor of, say, a multi-party republic. That country might have been spared its Soviet period with all its nightmares, and the rest of the world might have been spared the Cold War.

Greeley was right.

Okay, as a form of reasoning, this is pretty unpersuasive. But I hope the minutes you've just expended on reading it have been painless.

10 July 2008


I spent several hours on a Cape Cod beach Tuesday. I did this for a variety of reasons. There was the obvious rest-and-recuperation idea. There was also the sense that if I don't get to a beach on a given summer then after Labor Day I'll feel that I've missed out on something.

I drove out to Falmouth Monday evening, checked in to a motel there. It was a decent hotel, though rather further from the beach than I had envisioned. Still, compared to the digs I adopted as my own in San Francisco for more than a week last fall -- this was Shangri-La.

The next morning I headed beachside very early. I found a good parking space near a English-style pub named British Beer Company. The name is sort of a joke -- it allows the place to use the initials BBC, famed more for the broadcasting context.

The parking space was metered. I stayed all day -- from 7 until 4:30, and only fed the meter quarters from time to time. I was quite lax in this, the meter must have been showing "expired" for 75% or more of my stay. Still, I never saw a metermaid (or whatever is the proper term nowadays) and never got a ticket.

It was "in season," but it was also a Tuesday, so the beach was nicely crowded -- pleasantly busy but not sardine-style packed.

I had expected big ocean-beach style waves. This expectation was disappointed. Martha's Vinyard is visible in the distance and presumably breaks any incoming waves.

All things considered, though, I'm happy to report: it was a fine day. I reached a level of Zen contentment and unconcern with the affairs of the world I seldom attain. That's good, because I go back to work this coming Monday.

06 July 2008

McClay's Contribution

I noted yesterday the views of Anthony Kronman on the role of the humanities in the university, and Stanley Fish's response.

This came to my attention due to an article by Wilfred McClay in The Wilson Quarterly.

McClay digs into the issue in a Socratic manner. What do we mean by "the humanities," anyway?

Some can answer (the NIH does officially answer) with a list of the sorts of inquiries that count as "the humanities." Socrates's interrogatees used to similarly list acts that they considered courageous or virtuous. But, as Socrates would tell them, this is NOT the same as defining their essence, as saying what courage or virtue IS.

McClay's answer? The humanities are those branches of knowledge that "seek to grasp human things in human terms, without converting or reducing them to something else: not to physical laws, mechanical systems, biological drives, psychological disorders, social structures, and so on. The humanities attempt to understand the human condition from the inside, as it were, treating the human person as subject as well as object, agent as well as acted-upon."

The problem, in his view, with the contemporary state of the huanities is that they have abandoned their anti-reductionist mission. Literary scholars interpret Dickens or Proust through the abstract propositions of Marx or Freud.

The genuine holistic project still survives, not in universities, but "among the intelligent general readers and devoted secondary school teachers scattered across the land."

That's a good point, and I would say a Jamesian one. I'll leave the matter there. I hope all my readers have enjoyed their holiday weekend.

05 July 2008

The Humanities

A debate over the role of the humanities, is underway, a debate that goes beyond the usual inanities on the subject.

Last year, Anthony Kronman wrote a book with the scathing title "Education's End."
His point was that somebody at the university needs to focus on the question of the meaning of life, and that the departments of art, literature, and philosophy have abdicated this role -- at the expense of the whole institution.

Stanley Fish replied with a piece on the New York Times' blog in January of this year, "Will the Humanities Save Us?"

The humanities, said Fish (in his usual icon-smashing mode) give pleasure to those who enjoy them, but they've been over-sold, they have no broad character-building role. Kronman's book is Fish's prime example of the over-selling. Its a pretty idea, Fish says, but there is no evidence that people who study the humanities lead better lives than anyone else in any recognizable sense of 'better,' so it isn't clear how they'd play the salvific role he postulates for them.

This led Wilfred M. McClay, in the Summer issue of The Wilson Quarterly, to discuss Kronman, Fish and much else.

More on this line tomorrow.

04 July 2008

Quick notes on white-collar crime

Phil Bennett, subject of yesterday's entry, didn't have a good day in court.

He received a sentence of 16 years. The judge, Naomi Buchwald, seems to have started from a baseline of 20 and then asked herself whether there were any reasons for leniency, bargaining herself down by a fifth of the whole.

Here's a link.

Intriguingly, and despite all the attention Samuel Israel's flight has received in recent days and weeks, Buchwald denied the prosecution's request that Bennett be incarcerated immediately. He's expected to turn himself in on September 4th.

Jeffrey Skilling, former chief executive of Enron, is still in prison. That sentence may sound to some like the evocation of an old Saturday Night Live routine. Generalissimo Franco is, after all, still dead.

But the Skilling thing is worth mentioning because, a week ago, admirers of his were confident that a break, and perhaps even freedom for JS was imminent.

Okay, "admirers" is an excessive word in this context. But Larry Ribstein and those to whom he refers there do believe that Skilling is the victim of prosecutorial misconduct and would like to see him walk. They haven't persuaded me. At any rate, their hopes of an imminent rescue by the fifth circuit are still just ... hopes.

Mel Weiss. A month ago, Mel Weiss, once one of the most prominent class-action attorneys in the US, was sentenced to 30 months in prison for kickbacks, i.e. undisclosed payments to class representatives in class action lawsuits that his firm handled.

He broke the rules and has been punished. Risks you take, etc. But ... what is the evidence such kickbacks do harm? and to whom? to his clients? to the system as a whole? The whole question deserves some serious inquiry.

Unfortunately, its a holiday and in providing you with this three-item list, I've done as much serious stuff as I plan to do today. But I'm open, as always, for comments. Agree, dissent from, or just bloviate about any of the above.

03 July 2008

Bennett to be sentenced

Today is the scheduled date for the sentencing hearing for Philip ("Refco") Bennett.

Here are the basics beneath the decision the sentencing judge must make.

Mr. Bennett has pleaded guilty to securities fraud, wire fraud, bank fraud, money laundering, and making false filings with the SEC. If his case is disposed of in a manner similar to that of other recent analogous cases (especially the Bayou hedge fund matter) then Bennett faces twenty or more years in prison. Assuming that he survives that (he is 60 years old) he'll be deported to the UK after his emergence again into the light of day.

He has argued for leniency on a variety of theories. In any of these battles-of-the-sentencing memos, there is of course a lot of selective picking through 'similar' cases. The defendant's counsel say, "Look! Joe Schmoe was ever worse that our client, and he received a mere five years." The prosecution responds, "Joe Schmoe wasn't as central to the conspiracy there as the defendant is to this one."

The defense replies to that, the prosecution replies to the reply, and the judge probably has his clerks read it all and provide him with a one-page summary.

If we conscientiously read through all these memoranda, though, we get the impression of eavesdropping on a debate among pre-Copernican astronomers about how many epicycles are needed to explain the motions of Jupiter.

I suspect the one-page summary from Judge Buchwald's clerks runs something like this:

Defendant claims that he has co-operated with the civil plaintiffs in the litigation that arose from the melt-down of Refco, which has helped them locate assets they need to make themselves whole. The prosecution responds that his co-operation hasn't been all it could have been. Defense says that if you don't give him leniency, you'll discourage defendants in the future from similarly co-operating, harming the plaintiffs in such situations. Prosecution replies that, fortunately, cases on this scale aren't common enough to make that a very powerful consideration.

We'll see how it plays out today.

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.