31 August 2008

The Book Thief

I've decided to rework my unwieldy antebellum-America novel in terms of genre and target audience.

I hope to make it a "Young Adult" novel. That seems to be the publishing industry's term for works aimed at the 12-18 age group.

The manuscript is wildly unfocused as it stands, and follows the wanderings of a handful of fictional characters who bump into historical persons at intervals.

I've decided that in the re-write, the central consciousness of the book will be a historical figure. Daniel Webster, no less. The ms as it stands has some passages about Webster I especially like, and this will make it easy both to save and to expand on them.

Since I've made this decision, I've also started to look into examples of YA. And one that intrigues me, published two years ago, is called The Book Thief.

I urge you all to read that review. Most of it is a simple plot summary, with a minimum of critique (or of praise for that matter) and the ambition of the book's author is breath-taking.

Bravo, Markus Zusak.

30 August 2008

Only Nine Headlines

Scott Adams, the cartoonist who created Dilbert, likes to say that there are only nine news stories, constantly re-written.

Let's see if he's right. I'll give his wording of one of the template headlines, then look for the nearest and most recent equivalent.


This is too easy. Pick the Gustav headline of your choice or this one.


Always too easy. But this time, the idiocy in question is bizaare. "Ohio jury convicts Mom in microwaved baby case."


It seems that a member of the city council in Seattle Washington was recently fined in connection with awarding a no-bid contract. Then he got in further trouble by trying to use CITY funds to pay HIS fine. An old story about a murderer/orphan pleading for mercy comes to mind.


The primate in question would be the X-Files star David Duchony, who has just checked himself into a clinic for sex addiction. Presumably there must have been some precipitating event, which somebody would have regarded as inappropriate, to bringh this about.

If you insist on a non-human primate, one wonders what that frozen "Bigfoot" in the news of late was really up to just before his unfortunate demise.


Almost the exact wording of a story I encountered earlier this month.

"Experts Warn of Unrest over Food Prices."


Innotek and Micron.


Its a good thing a did an idle google search to find a good fit for this template, or I would never have known of the existence of the following headline: "Demi squirts milk at lesbians." About a hot night out for famous person Demi Moore, while she was lactating. I don't think you want me to provide you with a link to that. Interesting, in a bizaare sort of way.


Cows naturally point north. Sort of making each bovine a redneck GPS.


Hence this: "Bid to break state budget impasse falls short" from California, shockingly.

Yes, Scott, maybe there are only nine headlines. Except that you left out the sports section.

10. "One Team Defeats Another."

29 August 2008

One gutsy lady

Apparently this is a reporter of Georgian nationality, reporting on Georgian state TV regarding the Russian invasion of her country, a couple of weeks ago.

As you'll see, she's hit by small arms fire ... and continues doing her job unfazed.

Awesome. Watch for yourself.

Her name is Tamara Urushadze.

The name and the incident have both become a blogosphere sensation. Says TMZ: "Don't let your boss see this video, you'll never be allowed to call in sick again."

28 August 2008

Tobin tax

I'm confident that the trend of history is toward the disaggregation of sovereignty, and I'm happy that Ireland's recent rejection of the latest round of Euro-treaty making looks like an example of that.

That said, there are still efforts underway in the other direction, toward some sort of global political federation. This would require a world tax, and the latest plausible candidate for such a thing is the "Tobin tax."

The original idea, posed by American economist James Tobin in the 1970s as the Bretton Woods structure was unravelling, was that if an international authority imposed a tax upon currency speculators, they'd dampen down the volatility of that market, preventing wild swings in say pound-versus-yen rates that might otherwise generate crises.

Tobin, a Nobel Prize winner, didn't pay much attention to the issue of what would be done with the money once it was collected. The point for him was chiefly to discourage the sort of thing that later made Soros so wealthy.

At any rate, the "Tobin tax" is almost always cited nowadays as a neat idea for collecting money for a lot of idealistic causes as here.

My usual mellow response to Tobin tax supporters, though, is: in your dreams.

Why do I bring it up? Well, I find the original idea behind the proposal intellectually interesting. I wrote about it a few times while at HW, and I'm happy to say that advocates of the tax thought I was being fair to them.

And besides, what else would you have me write about? the news from Denver? Boooooring.

24 August 2008

The Monty Hall Puzzle, continued

Most people, when confronted with the story in yesterday's entry, will answer that there is no reason to change, that the contestant might as well stick with curtain A. After all, there are two unopened curtains. The big prize is behind one of them. The odds that it is behind curtain number one are, then, 0.50, or 1:2, so the rational contestant is indifferent as between one curtain and the other.

Conditional probability theory, though, looks carefully at what Monty Hall's own actions have already told us. When the contestant made her first choice her odds of having picked the right curtain were: one out of three. The chance that she had made the wrong choice then, was: two out of three. What Mr. Hall has told us hasn't changed the chance that her initial choice was wrong at all—it has concentrated that chance—which is now embodied, so to speak, by curtain B. Why? Because Mr. Hall knows where the $1 million is, and surely wouldn't have opened curtain three if he knew it was there. So his choice to open the one that he did was non-random.

At any rate, conditional probability theory says that given the fact that Monty now has eliminated curtain C the rational contestant will pick curtain B, giving herself a two-thirds chance of winning. Don't be surprised if this is counter-intuitive and even disorienting. It has that effect on a lot of people. As a psychological matter, if she picked curtain A, and Monty opened curtain C, she might well take that as a confirming event ("so far, what has happened is consistent with my initial guess") which would make her likely to dig in her heels and stick with it, theory be damned!

I mention it because conditional probability theory has important consequences in the world of finance and may have something to tell us about last year's credit crunch. But I'll give the connection some thought before pontificating further,

23 August 2008

The Monty Hall puzzle

Suppose you're on the old quiz show, "Let's Make a Deal." For those of you who are too young to remember it -- don't worry, you'll catch on as we go along. Quiz shows are quiz shows through every generation.

The host, Monty Hall, shows you three curtains: A, B, and C. Behind one of these curtains is a fabulous prize. Behind each of the other two is some absurd gag gift.

At random you say, "I'll take what's behind curtain A, Monty."

Monty replies, "Before we pull back A, let's pull back C, just for fun."

His beautiful assistant gracefully pulls back curtain C revealing ... a mound of shaving cream.

Then Monty turns back to you and asks: "Do you want to stay with A, or change your guess?"

Well ... do you? Does it matter one way or the other for your chances whether you do?

22 August 2008

Why Didn't Liu Run

I've been enjoying the Olympics. I hope you have, as well, dear reader.

There was something of a disappointment for aficionados of track and field events around the world, and especially in the host country, early this week. Liu Xiang withdrew from the men's 110 meter hurdles.

At the last Olympics, in Athens, Liu won the gold in that event. It was a stereotype-shattering event, too. He became the first athlete not of African descent to complete that event in less than 13 seconds. The stereotype of Asian men, of course, is "brainy, not athletic."

Liu has expressed himself in terms that acknowledge the stereotypes. "I want to prove to the world that Asians can run very fast."

Consider it proven. Indeed, in 2006, at an event in Lausanne, Liu set a new world's record in this event at 12.88 seconds.

But while his home country is hosting the Olympic games, the reigning king of the sport has withdrawn! And the gold went this week to a Cuban athlete who -- if I may say so without giving offense -- does look like the stereotypical track-and-field star. That winner, Dayron Robles by name, ran the course in 12.93 seconds. Intriguingly, then, Robles ran slower than Liu's best (but a bit more quickly than Liu had run when winning in Athens).

Why did Liu pull out? There seems to be some confusion about that point. The Epoch Times, claims there's a cover up.

Epoch Times has its own political agenda here. It's a China-themed periodical printed in New York City, in both Chinese and English editions, specifically for the purpose of tracking human rights violations by the PRC, and it is sometimes seen as a mouthpiece for the Falun Gong. Some scholars have reportedly been impressed by the network of sources the paper appears to have cultivated within the country.

So coverage of an injury to an Achilles tendon would seem rather trivial for The Epoch Times, wouldn't it? Ah, but they've run an article suggesting that Liu had some sort of "leg injury" even before the games, and that authorities knew that he wouldn't repeat at the gold, but hid this from the public until the last possible moment, staging the pull-out to minimize the popular discontent it was expected to create.

Do I care when precisely Liu was injured? No, but if the paper is at all right, then it is on to a broader point: the kind of extensive information control the State there seeks to exercise over everything does seem chilling.

Personally, I'd just like some day to see Liu and his very best and Robles at his very best running down the same track at the same time, taking the hurdles. With the same wind at their backs.

21 August 2008

Bigfoot and the true believers

There are true believers in Sasquatch. Steve Kulls may be among them.

If so, it would explain the money he invested in purchasing the alleged body from two fraudsters. And I imagine he is distraight for reasons that go further than the loss of cash, for what must have seemed to him a vindication has clearly turned into a fiasco.

Two Georgians [not the former Soviet sort of Georgians -- they have other things with which to concern themselves these days] exhibited photos last week of what looked like a mass of hair, and some sort of face emerging from all that hair. I've posted an example.

The two fraudsters (a police officer and -- intriguingly -- a car salesman) handed over to Kulls and his associates a block of ice, with the decedent creature's remains on the inside.

This is how Mr. Kulls has told the rest if the story, in a statement. His words have the officious sound of someone who would rather desperately not have to hear the phrase "I told you so!" from the world's many bigfoot skeptics over this.

On August 17th, 2008 Searching for Bigfoot Team Director of Field Operations, TJ Biscardi and myself, were up early to discover that some hair was now exposed. I extracted some from the alleged corpse and examined it and had some concerns. Bob Schmalzbach arrived and concurred. We burned said sample and said hair sample melted into a ball uncharacteristic of hair.

At that time we contacted Mr. Biscardi who gave us permission to begin an expedited melting process. We set up a salamander heater to heat the freezer. Within one hour we were able to see the partially exposed head, as I was now able to touch it, I was able to feel that it seemed mostly firm, but unusually hollow in one small section. This was yet another ominous sign. Within the next hour of thaw, a break appeared up near the feet area. As the team and I began examining this area near the feet, I observed the foot which looked unnatural, reached in and confirmed it was a rubber foot.

At that point we immediately contacted, Tom Biscardi and advised him of the situation and he began to take action on his end. Later that day, Tom Biscardi informed us that both Matthew Whitton and Ricky Dyer admitted it was a costume. They reportedly agreed to sign a promissory note and admission of what they had done, and set a meeting in their hotel room in California for 8AM on August 17th, 2008.

Yup, that's right. They put a rubber ape costume into a fridge and sold it.

Matthew Whitton's superiors at the Clayton County Police Department say they've fired him, but they haven't been able to find him to deliver the termination papers.

His buddy and co-conspirator, Ricky Dyer, is probably going to get a pat on the back from his colleagues in auto sales.

I guess the true believers can always go back to watching that grainy footage from the 'sixties. That's always fun.

Or, you know ... get a life.

17 August 2008

Torture and a photograph

Lest we forget, in the fall of 2003, prisoners were systematically tortured at Abu Ghraib. In the summer of 2004, a certain photo acquired worldwide infamy as the symbol of those ugly goings-on.

The photo I have in mind showed a man standing on a cardboard box, wearing a hood. Wires were attached to his outstretched arms.

In the late winter days of 2006, a dispute broke out in certain circles over the question: who was that man? That dispute is in some respects an evasion: torture is torture, whatever the name of its victim.

Still, there is a natural impulse to want to give a specific name and history to the victims of such an event. And a fellow named Ali Shalal Qaissi stepped into the breach, going on speaking tours on the basis of his claim to be that man. The New York Times did a profile on him that ran March 11, 2006, taking that claim at face value.

The politics/commentary site Salon did an expose three days later here indicating that the real man in that photo was Abdou Hussain Saad Faleh, known to the American GIs at the prison by the rather jocular nickname "Gilligan."

So: what happened to Mr. Faleh? He was released from custody in January 2004. He seems to have remained silent about his experiences (surely an understandable choice!), and that silence created the vacuum into which Mr. Qaissi stepped.

All of this is too old to be journalism now, and too new to be history yet. I bring it up here simply to add a brick to the bridge between the former and the latter,in hopes that the incident of the wrong-man-on-box shall make the passage safely.

It has its own philosophical lessons, about perception, the need for ocular evidence, etc.

16 August 2008

"May you live in interesting times"

The title of this entry is a line often described in popcult contexts as an "ancient Chinese curse."

The actual history of the expression is tangled -- it MAY have Chinese antecedents, although nobody has been able to trace it authoritatively earlier than the 1930s, when officials in the UK, some of them indeed with Chinese connections, began to use the phrase as a way of expressing their anxiety about the darkening of the diplomatic climate in Europe.

Reporters want interesting times, of course. The curse is a "slow news day," whatever the ancient Chinese or Chamberlain-era Brits might have thought.

I thought of the expression when I read this morning a story in The New York Times by David Kocieniewski lamenting the fact that the summer of 2008 seems especially unremarkable -- uninteresting: one might even say -- uncursed.

Mr. Kocieniewski longs for days when every summer in that city had its signature story. The son of Sam, the West Nile virus, black outs, or even a rash of pit bull attacks.

Chill out, Mr. Kocieniewski.

Or, in the words of another purportedly Chinese curse, you may get what you wish for.

15 August 2008

Four months ago ... a death

The photo is of Fadel Shana, a photographer working for Reuters who died four months ago in the Gaza strip.

Israeli authorities have decided that the tank crew that killed him was acting properly, because they couldn't tell whether what he was holding was a camera or a weapon.

I'm not bringing this up in order to complain about that decision or criticize the tank crew. They did as they deemed they had to do, and war is a nasty business. I doubt Mr. Shana was unaware of that.

Still, I regret his passing, and hope that there will always be others like him, willing to risk the fate he met, in order to bring the rest of us the news about such places as the Gaza Strip.

Peace, Fadel.

14 August 2008

John Lindsay

Some recent reading of mine on the history of the city of New York gives the impression that man who was its mayor from 1966 to 1973, John Lindsay was -- how shall one put it? -- a clueless twit.

If any of my readers with a long memory or who have done reading that leads to another conclusion wants to make a pro-Lindsay case, please feel free to use the comment option here.

I'll just give two brief quotations supporting the clueless-twit image.

Roger Lowenstein, in his recent book about America's ongoing pension crises, talks of how in the Lindsay period the public-employee unions "leapfrogged" one another with ever higher pension demands, and Lindsay was all too eager to comply, at the expense of the city's future solvency.

"The response of a Lindsay aide to one such pension demand [by parks workers in 1970] was memorable: 'When would we have to start paying for it?' Told that, due to the peculiarities of the pension calender, an increase would not affect the budget until three years later, by which time Lindsay would be serving out his final year, the aide breezily approved it."

Okay, that's the aide's cluelessness, but presumably it was the result of a climate the boss encouraged.

But let's go back a bit. This spring I read for the first time a classic work on New York City, written in the 1970s, Robert Caro's biography of Robert Moses, that "master builder" of highways, bridges, parks, etc. Lindsay came into office aspiring to take Moses down a peg. As it turned out, Lindsay had no idea what that would entail, or how to go about it. Gov. Rockefeller did have some valuable ideas in that area, which in time would yield fruit, but that's another story.

Of Lindsay, Caro writes: "It wasn't polemics that was going to count in any confrontation; it was power. John Lindsay and his glib young aides had the polemics; the grim old ruler of Randall's Island had the power. More, he knew how to use power. There was a phrase he employed in discussing Lindsay's merger proposal that had a certain signifdicance. It was, he said 'ripper legislation.' 'Ripper legislation' -- a phrase denoting legislation passed to remove an official from power indiredctly when it was impossible to do so directly -- was a phrase out of another age; it had not been in general use since the 1920s. The significance lay not in the phrase but in the fact that the man using it was still around....These men with their first taste of power laughed athim; he had not only tasted power but held it longer than many of these men had been alive."

The floor is open.

10 August 2008

More from Hume, Historian

Here's another passage, following up on last week's entry on David Hume's history of England. A little further on than the description of Luther I've already quoted, Hume discusses the fact that Henry VIII wrote a book defending Roman Catholic orthodoxy against Lutheran critiques.

"But Henry had been educated in strict attachment to the church of Rome, and he bore a particular prejudice against Luther, who in his writings spoke with contempt of Thomas Aquinas, the King's favorite author: He opposed himself, therefore, to the progress of the Lutheran tenets by all the influence which his extensive and almost absolute authority conferred upon him: he even undertook to combat them with weapons not usually employed by monarchs ... He wrote a book in Latin against the principles of Luther; a performance which, if allowance be made for the subject and age, does no discredit to his capacity."

Where do you think is the balance of sympathies here? My own take on it is that despite the enormous gulf that separates Hume from, say, Thomas Aquinas -- Hume thinks of Aquinas as a fellow philosopher, a man of learning, and thinks the less of Luther for having spoken of Aquinas with contempt. So Hume sympathizes with Henry VIII's original stance, as the defender of the Roman faith, and implicitly as the defender of his "favorite author," Aquinas.

Hume also seems to pat Henry on the back figuratively for using reason and the Latin language, rather than edicts and armies, as his chosen "weapons" in the fight against the Lutherans.

I think the freshness of that prose speaks to us across the centuries and retains the power to challenge.

09 August 2008

Be Sure You Guess Right

At a message board where I regulartly go to vent, one of the other venters asked us all the question: "Do you wish you were an oil speculator right now?"

I do. Oil's gone from the mid-high 140's to 115. Someone's getting really rich off of this.

The big swings is always where the biggest money is made.

I think this thread has the potential to be a lot of fun. How many of you reading this thread right now didn't know that commodities speculators make money when the price goes down?

This shows a wonderful naivete that thinks of itself as sophistication. Speculators make money when the price goes down? Wow, man, you're blowing my head.

I had to reply. And I enjoyed my reply so much that, in lieu of other inspiration, I'll reproduce it here.

Oil speculators make money when the price goes down only if they knew in advance that it would, or just guessed well.

Personally, I don't believe that the average oil speculator right now knew anything in advance. It seems to have been a paradigm 'random walk' of late, both up and down. So the successful ones have been guessing right.

No ... I wouldn't want to be a speculator right now for the same reason that I don't spend a lot of time in casinos.

People who DO spend time in casinos are performing a socially useful function (somebody else will probably make better use of their money than they know how to do). Likewise, people who speculate on commodity prices are performing a socially useful function. They create a market in which other parties, commercial entities, can hedge against risks.

But I wouldn't want to be the one performing that function, no. When oil was above $140, the general guess was that it would keep going up, maybe to $200, before heading down in a big way. What [do you] believe has happened to any speculator who acted on that bit of wisdom?

08 August 2008

Nixon's resignation

It was thirty-four years ago today that Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th president of the United States, spoke to the nation and explained that he was resigning that office effective noon the following day.

It is sometimes said, vacuously, that there are no second acts in American lives. That is nonsense. The example of Richard Nixon shows that American lives can and do have a multiplicity of acts. Ineed, the "first act" might well be said to have been over by 1962, when he lost his campaign to become Governor of California and angrily told the press that it wouldn't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.

But of course he couldn't stay out of the limelight, and made a comeback within a party that was shellshocked by finding itself on the losing side of a landslide just two years after that outburst. Nixon became President -- a heck of a second Act.

The Watergate scandal, the Judiciary Committee vote, the decision by a Supreme Court largely consisting of his own appointees yet unanimous against him -- all these facts brought down the curtain on that second act.

Yet there was a third. Nixon returned to public life, and was playing the traditional elder statesman by 1981, when he attended Anwar Sadat's funeral.

Reagan had just survived an assassination attempt when Sadat was killed. So Reagan understandably didn't go on that trip himself. He sent all the living ex-Presidents inhis stead.

Nixon was very much in the public eye, usually in terms he was able to structure himself, from that time until his death in 1994.

Lesson: only death determines when there will be no additional "acts" in an American life.

07 August 2008

The Beijing Olympics

Opening ceremonies take place tomorrow.

Since the number 8 itself is considered lucky in China, the idea of opening their games on 8/8/08 especially appealed to the hosts.

Just free-associating here, but hey, it's my blog: the comic strip Doonesbury has used the Olympics as a way of re-uniting Duke with "Honey," the woman who served as his aide and gal-Friday when Duke was ambassador to China in the 1970s.

Duke is now a public-relations consultant for tyrants. In particular, he is trying to refurbish the image of a dictator from a central Asian country with a name that ends in "-stan," trying to make the world forget some nasty bit of ethnic cleansing there.

In the service of that goal, Duke has built up the -Stan country's Olympic team with some ringers, and accompanied the lot of them to China. That of course is where he re-encounters Honey, who is in charge of Olympic credentialing.

Of course, they've run into each other repeatedly since the 1970s. I believe their most recent encounters involved post-hurricane Katrina recovery efforts on the Gulf of Mexico three years ago. That is what honey refers to in yesterday's strip.

Now she's a "powerful sports bureaucrat" who feels no "sexual tension" while in the room with Duke. I love it.

Let the games begin.

03 August 2008

Hume's History of England

"Luther, a man naturally inflexible, vehement, opinionative, was become incapable, either from promises of advancement or terrors of severity, to relinquish a sect of which he was himself the founder, and which brought him a glory superior to all others, the glory of dictating the religious faith and principles of multitudes."

Those are the words of David Hume, best known these days as a hyper-skeptical philosopher, was more successful in his own time (1711-1776) as a historian.

Hume was the author of a six volume work called, revealingly enough, "The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution of 1688." One measure of the success of these volumes is that despite his subsequent renown as one of the triumvirate of "great British empiricists," as the man who woke Kant from his "dogmatic slumber" and all that, the British Library, and the Cambridge University Library both still list Hume's works under the heading, "David Hume, historian."

I'm delighted to discover that "Project Gutenberg" has put the whole thing on line. It is now freely available to all the curious. And though I would imagine few of my readers will be able to invest the time necessary to read through the whole of it, the format makes it easy to take a dip here and there -- reading the table of contents of a volume, then going to the page or pages that interest you.

You'll find yourself addressed by a distinctive voice. At the beginning of Vol. III, for example, he introduces the subject of the Protestabt Reformation by discussing the clerical profession, and the reason any wise state must keep an eye on them.

"Each ghostly practitioner, in order to render himself more precious and sacred in the eyes of his retainers, will inspire them with the most violent abhorrence of all other sects, and continually endeavor, by some novelty, to excite the languid devotion of his audience. No regard will be paid to truth, morals, or decency, in the doctrines inculcated."

The creation of a state-supported Church helps the magistrates keep order, Hume continues. Without it there would be continual warring amongst the sects inspired by such "ghostly practitioners." But with state support for one Church, the clergy of that one lose the incentive to excite the devotion of their audience in such ways. Their audience is guaranteed them, and their salaries assigned.

"And in this manner ecclesiastical establishments, though commonly they arose at first from religious views, prove in the end advantageous to the political interests of society."

These general views being first clearly stated, we are unsurprised when we come to read what Hume has to say specifically -- in the passage I quoted above -- about the disturber of the official Church of all of western Europe to whom he soon turns his attention -- Martin Luther.

02 August 2008

Changes and Valedictions

I'm facing some changes in my life just now. The vinyard in which I have toiled professionally is closing. Or, strictly speaking, it will hereafter be a place for the display of grapes, not for their actual growth.

This is a corporate decision made by the sort of high muckety-mucks whose work consists of re-writing organizational charts when two large corporations merge. I, as a long-time proponent of capitalism in all of its glory, am happy to accede to such consequences, even if it should create a valedictory mood.

Perhaps the old vinyard had become too comfortable and it is time to try to find something else.

In the meantime, I'll continue my usual practice in this blog, which is with rare exceptions not to talk about myself but to talk about the rest of the world, in the expectations that our interests are more likely to coincide there than in acts of solipsism.

Hale and farewell, then, old vinyard.

01 August 2008

Always be closing

I just thought I'd slide by today with a link to a famous rant. The one delivered by Alec Baldwin in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross.

Here's the YouTube let's talk about something important.

He did a North Pole version of this character in a Yuletime Saturday Night Live skit once.

Instead of "put that coffee down" it was "put that cocoa down" and so forth.

If you have the time watch them both.

Gotta love the motivational use of the alphabet. ABC = Always be closin'.

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.