31 January 2009
I refer to events in recent days in the Republic of Iceland, where crowds have gathered in front of the parliament building to protest their government's prominent part in the global financial crisis -- by banging on pots and pans.
On January 20, banners included one that said, "The USA is getting rid of Bush today, we want to get rid of you" and another with a slightly less direct reference to the inauguration, saying simply: "Yes, we can."
I don't know how easy these signs were to read. After all, isn't it dark in Iceand pretty much around-the-clock this time of year? That's where the audio equivalent of pan-banging comes into play, though. And it has had an effect.
Don't take your cue from us, guys. Your ancestors had it right. When they fled from the monarchies of Scandanavia, including presumably the one headquartered in Elsinor where all sorts of unsavory goings-on were underway ... what were they fleeing toward? What were they looking for in Iceland?
The government they were protesting with those signs and saucepans has duly resigned, and a new interim government has taken office, intended only to guide the country through elections in the spring.
30 January 2009
Every once in awhile I like to check the newspaper with his list in mind, to see if he is right. I'll start withhis wording unmodified by examples.
1. EXTREME WEATHER BATTERS SOMEPLACE
2. IDIOTS KILL INNOCENT PEOPLE
3. POLITICIAN DOES SOMETHING ILLEGAL
4. PRIMATE ATTEMPTS INAPPROPRIATE SEX
5. EXPERTS WARN OF FINANCIAL CALAMITY
6. BIG COMPANY BUYS ANOTHER BIG COMPANY
7. FAMOUS PERSON DOES SOMETHING INTERESTING
8. A SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY MIGHT BE USEFUL IN TEN YEARS
9. GOVERNMENT FAILS TO ACHIEVE A GOAL
This week, selecting nine actual headlines to fill this template is almost too easy.
1. Winter storms have covered (or "battered") most of the eastern US, the President has joked about his daughters' school closing, his family's Chicago toughness, etc.
2. Idiots kill the innocent? ALWAYS too easy. Phil Spector is the idiot in question this time, his (second) murder trial in the death of Lana Clarkson is underway. Then there is Casey Anthony, the darling mother of Caylee, who is still apparently blaming Caylee's disappearance on a mystery babysitter.
3. Political corruption? The Illinois Senate just voted to remove that state's Governor from office for trying to sell a seat in the US Senate, apparently to the highest bidder.
4. Inappropriate sex? Ted Haggard is back in the news all of a sudden.
5. Financial calamity? Since calamities continue to unfold around us, no one needs to "warn" us about them. But the grave experts gather in Switzerland this week, the annual Davos conference, again to confer, converse, and hobnob like wizards.
6. Even in the present credit-starved climate, some big companies are still busily engaged buying other big companies, so there is this headline with Pfizer buying Wyeth.
7. The seventh headline is the excuse for the mandatory specimen of celebrity news.
8. Scientific discoveries of dubious practical significance are always fun -- we may take as example a story about a new (purely theoretical) design for a nuclear reactor that would combine fusion with fission somewhere someday.
9. Government "fails to achieve a goal"? Heck, according to today's newspapers you can't even rely on government as a tester of peanuts.
29 January 2009
For a man so wonderfully prolific, it is astonishingly difficult to find a sloppy sentence from any keyboard of his.
In TOWARD THE END OF TIME, he writes a sentence that plays with the "first robin of spring" cliche in a manner I find ... well ... intrepid.
"Yesterday," he writes, in the voice of his protagonist, "I spotted my first robin, strutting along the driveway's gravel shoulder in his familiar dusky uniform, gawkily startled into flight by my approach: a stuffy bird, faintly pompous in its portly movements, spoiled by too many songs and poems unaccountably devoted to him."
Now THERE's a man with a way with a cliche! At first you think, "oooh no, first robin of spring! This is going to be like one of those posed pictures of some grinning tourist pretending to hold up the leaning tower of Pisa."
But he is soon taking the picture from an unexpected angle. The robin is in a very particular place, the driveway's gravel shoulder. This isn't nature description, it is a sample of one of the pieces of natue that make it into the regulated spaces of suburbia. Nothing about the "redness" (which never seemed to me properly red) of the robin's breast. Rather, we're reminded of the duskiness of the overall uniform, the creature's propensity for startled gawkiness, etc.
Then we're given some gently unstressed alliteration with the letter "p": "pompous ... portly ... spoiled ... poems" on the way of a shocking bit of anthropomorphism.
Of course we don't believe that the robin is aware of his fame in the cliched songs and poems, but we see the free associations going on in the head of the protagonist to that effect, and to some extent we are drawn to share in them.
Cheers, then, to Updike. I'll miss him.
25 January 2009
What's so funny about that? There is no such person as Masal Bugduv. And Slate's Brian Phillips turns his non-existence into a wonderful expose of how hoaxes work.
Way to make something out of nothing, Brian!
24 January 2009
On Friday, a barrel for March delivery sold at the close for $46.47.
Could it be that the cold winter is pushing up demand? No. Markets look ahead. We're at the worst of the winter in the northern hemisphere, so you would have expected that meteorology would be fully discounted by now. Indeed, you might see the markets looking ahead to spring, which would indicate a lowering of demand for crude.
The market could be looking ahead in another sense, to the greater quantity of driving that generally comes with spring. But that would seem to be countervailed by the recession.
Or ... the market could be telling us that things are turning up. The optimistic reading of the price increase is that it results from speculative demand increase which in turn results from signs (seen by the speculators, if not by you and me) that the economy is about to turn around.
But let's not rush to that conclusion. Think first about contango, a word that appears to have nothing to do with Argentine dancing. [Yes, I had to get that one out of the way].
Contango, the word seems to be derived from "contingent," is the discount you can often get on a commodity by virtue of your willingness to accept delivery at once. Suppose I have a barrel of oil and I want to sell it. You want to buy ... but you want me to deliver it to your place of business six months from now. Why would you have to pay more?
Because the oil isn't doing me any good in the meantime! It is taking up space and there are maintenance costs associated with storage. So I make you pay for that. What you pay for my storage (or, looking at it the other way around, the discount you get for accepting the oil immediately) is your contango. This elemental reason for contango is called "cost of carry."
I've heard from no place worth mentioning that a good guess for costs-of-carry historically is about 14% a year. So if contango is greater or less than 14% there should be explanations other than "where the heck do I put the stuff."
The above barrel price, $46.47, is as I said for March delivery. That is as immediate a delivery as Nymex listings will get you. Going out further, a barrel for August 2009 delivery goes for $53.81.The present difference in price between March delivery and August delivery then is $7.34. That would work out to $17.64 annual. As a percentage of $46.47? About 38%. That's one mean contango.
I might like to suggest that this confirms our earlier suggestion: that the market is signalling a recovery soon. There is such high contango NOT because the costs of carry have gone up dramatically but because speculators would rather have crude oil six months from now than now. And they'd rather have in six months from now because they are getting signals that people are going to be driving more, the wheels of industry are going to be turning ... good times are back.
But then ... I'm still uncomfortable. After all, forgetting speculation, the simple cost-of-carry sort of contango might have increased to 38% annually. Why not? Maybe all the easy storage spaces are all used up, and it takes extra expense to bring new storage space on line (marginalism, anyone?) and THAT is leading to a sizeable discount for anyone who will take the stuff out of the marketers' hands quickly.
All this is making my head hurt. Enough!
23 January 2009
When Markets Collide is the title of a quite well-written book by Mohamed el-Erian, an economist who worked at the International Monetary Fund for 15 years, and has since worked at Salomon Smith Barney, the Harvard Management Company, and PIMCO.
(Gee, he can't keep a job, can he?)
I read large chunks of it during my train rides Wednesday, from Stratford CT to Manhattan in the morning and back the other way in the evening.
Love that spinning top cover art. The "equator" of the globe presented as a top is considerably to the north of the actual equator, though. the pseudo-equator seems to pass through the Yucatan peninsula.
More seriously: I don't agree with the author's Keynesianism in macro-economics but ... disagreement is why they run the horse races.
I appreciated his summary of theories about the "market for lemons."
Used cars are a product with non-obvious defects. Consumers are aware of this, of the danger that they'll end up with a lemon, but they sometimes do have to enter this market anyway. With what result?
With the result, as el-Erian tells it, that perfectly fine non-lemons end up selling for a price less than they would were accurate information more generally available and appreciated. The fear of a lemon forces a discount on the whole second-hand jalopy markets, and some people get non-lemons cheap.
I suppose something like that was the theory behind early versions of the TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program]. The troubled assets on banks' books include, to simplify considerably, the rights to the flow of money from mortgaged homeowners. Some of these homeowners are "lemons." They'll likely default. Others won't default, though, and the troubled banks might under ideal circumstances sell the rights to the good mortgages for significant chunks of needed cash. But as with cars, the taste of the lemons infects the non-lemons.
But this still leaves us with the age-old question durected by citizens to those who would govern them: "Why do you think you're smarter than us?"
Why are the administrators of the TARP presumed to be better at deciding what is or isn't a lemon than the private sector?
I'll say no more, but parts of this book do help frame the discussion nicely.
22 January 2009
Specifically, I attended an open house that an accounting firm held for discussion of some of the issues created by Bernard Madoff's giant ponzi scheme and its legal/accounting aftermath.
I walked to the Essex House, where the meeting was held, from Grand Central Station. It was very cold, and I could have gotten a cab, but I felt both cheap and adventurous. Had I been cheap but not so adventurous, after all, I could have taken the subway.
I started walking, said "brrrr" under my breath a few times, looked around at the cabs whizzing by, but didn't hail any. I have a stubborn streak and I had started walking so I was going to finish the walk AS a walk, by god!
Anyway I got there. The meeting was actually more interesting than I had expected it might be. Unfortunately, I don't yet have a set of business cards that identify me in connection with my present employer. This is a severe hindrance at such events. The ritual exchange-of-cards is a necessity if one is going to introduce one's self.
On the way home after the meeting it was dark as well as cold. And I was still feeling cheap, though no longer so adventurous. So I took the subway.
18 January 2009
I tried to think that through, and had trouble wrapping my mind around it. Important from what perspective?
So I just arbitrarily focused on one issue, one that occupies my mind a good deal, the mind-body problem. From this point of view, I gave the question the following answer.
Descartes, for bringing clarity to (certainly not for solving!) the question of how interaction between things and thoughts, between body and mind, is even possible.
William James, for stressing the true nature of the mind as a continuous unitary stream-of-consciousness in which each babble of the ongoing brook appropriates the babbles behind it.
And John Searle, for showing how the arrival of digital computers hasn't really solved or change the nature of the problem -- we are NOT a conjunction of software with hardware, whatever else we are.
17 January 2009
Given them to their top executives? Good idea. "Job well done guys, you led your company into so much trouble that the feds had to give you money. Here's your personal chunk!"
Let's assume, just for giggles, that some of it won't simply be divvied up among the honchos in charge as takehome. What should they do with the rest? Lend it out to the buyers of homes or of cars and large appliances? lend it out to businesses and entrepreneurs for start-up ventures or expansions?
Or just sit on it and call it a capital reserve? There has been some sentiment that larger capital reserves are good. If the balance sheet looks better, that fact might increase the confidence of bank counter-parties, hastening a return to normalcy.
Frankly, it seems to me that the argument gives much too much importance to cosmetics.
Banks can only be self-sustaining private corporations, then can only cease to be wards of the state, if they get themselves back in the loan-extending business.
Does this mean government should use its new leverage as the provider of the capital infusion to order them to make loans? Heaven forbid! Japan's policy of directed credit, once seen as part of the "Japan Inc." juggarnaut, is now regarded by almost all who've studied it as a colossal failure. South Korea's efforts at directing credit have likewise amounted to waste and the promotion of stagnation.
So, you might ask: what should be done? If banks aren't lending out the money, and should be lending out the money, then how can they be induced to do so?
IMHO, the down side of the housing cycle simply has to play itself out. There won't be any lending activity in that particular field for awhile. A burnt cat doesn't get right back on the stove.
The automobile market is a different matter. If banks were convinced that there was once again a basis for a sound US auto industry, they would resume lending both to that industry, to its accessories (auto parts and the like), AND to their customers for the purpose of buying their products. So the solution to the question: what to do about the banks? depends in large part upon the answer to the question: what to do about automobiles?
And the answer to that is: consolidation. It appears that in the world market and given locked-in cost considerations such as pension commitments, there is only room for one domestic US automobile manufacturer. The government may have a positive role to play (I seldom type those nine words): enter into negotiations and facilitate a merger of the three battered and torn-up US auto makers. They can, together, constitute ONE decent productive auto maker.
That one in turn will enliven the ancillary industries, and together they'll give the banks some one to whom to make loans again.
16 January 2009
Rowan Atkinson is playing the part of Fagin. This is what the reviewer, Sarah Hemming, says of Atkinson: "Eyes glinting like the jewels he stashes, he is as quick, crafty and supple as a fox. He can be both funny and darkly sinister: this is an outsider, who has had to learn how to survive." She praises his performance of the song "Reviewing the Situation" for its "delightful, sinuous wit."
Of course, some of us still associate Atkinson with the various "Blackadders" of historical comedy. The earliest, medieval Blackadder was perhaps the best of the lot -- though he was too much of a bumbler, on would have thought, to ever become a Fagin.
Still, in the successive series', Atkinson's Blackadder did become an ever more crafty character, perhaps evolving toward Faginhood generation by generation.
By the way, Hemming thinks well of the production in general, though she's unhappy with the lightheartedness of it. It misses "Dickens' wrath and the desperation he exposes."
Yes, and I recall that was the criticism most often made when Oliver! (music and lyrics by Lionel Bart) was on movie screens, too, back in 1968. The shortcomings of this incarnation of the tale are Bart's fault, then, not peculiar to the production underway on Drury Lane in 2009.
Consider yourself ... informed.
15 January 2009
Recent reading includes Solving Stonehenge, by Anthony Johnson.
Near as I can understand it, Mr. Johnson's point is that there is no single Stonehedge riddle or enigma to solve - no key that would make all the archeologists and anthropologists smack their foreheads and say, "Ah! So THAT's it."
The subtitle refers to "the key," and what he has in mind there is simply the development of early geometry. But that "key" isn't very key-like, mostly its a research program.
In particular, Johnson thinks the astronomical connection is oversold. Yes, the axis of Stonehenge is aligned with the solstices, but this shouldn't lead us to talk as if "prehistoric spirituality focused entirely on the theatre of the celestial dome."
Rather, prehistoric spirituality as Johnson understands it turns out to have had a lot to do with the geometry of circles and squares.
"Establishing right angles, squares, and triangles, striking perpendicular lines from a baseline, fixing regular points on the circumference of a circle and subdividing angles are all practical procedures which readily translate into cord-and-peg survey methods. Certain formulae would have been committed to memory as part of the skill set of the prehistoric surveyor, and it is not difficult to imagine that this esoteric knowledge would have been handed down from generation to generation."
Unfortunately, some of the pieces of the puzzle are lost forever, due to centuries of opportunistic looting. The architect Inigo Jones wrote in the 17th century about how stones had disappeared in the intervals between his visits at various times in his lifetime.
As late as 1871, The Times of London ran a letter from a fellow calling himself "Vacation Rambler" who said that when he was there "a constant chipping of stone broke the solitude of the place."
The greater the miracle, then, that so much of it still stands.
11 January 2009
The US Attorney's office for the southern district, NY, filed a request for a "nolle prosequi" with the court Friday.
I may as well say, then, that I regret my own previous comment on the case in this blog, which now seems to have been guilty of ... what's that German word?. Schadenfreude.
The prosecutors say that they have reassessed the evidence, concerning Stockman's time at the helm of Collins & Aikman, "including evidence and information acquired after the filing of the Indictment, [and] concluded that further prosecution ... would not be in the interests of justice."
The document is not at all forthcoming about what this new evidence is.
My understanding is that the civil litigation, SEC v. Collins & Aikman et al., continues unaffected. Sine I believe in transparency, I expect and hope that the as-yet-unpublicized exonerating evidence to which the prosecutors paid heed will show up in that context.
By the way, I wonder why this blog hosting site doesn't allow an ampersand in the labels. You'll note that in the labels below I've had to write "Collins and Aikman" rather than the actual name of the firm, Collins & Aikman. What gives, blogger???
10 January 2009
The incident seems to me to make the incidental point that all of those cable TV wackos who talk about the "War on Christmas" every 12th month should concern themselves about the moral effects of forced piety on a calender.
Mr. Walsch might for all I know be a genuinely spiritual and otherwise wonderful person. He may have been driven to steal another Christians ideas simply because he had to come up with something Christmasy this year.
He wrote that during a dress rehearsal of his son's kindergarten Christmas play , the children spelled out the Phrase "Christmas Love."
The child holding the sign that said "m" had it upside down. So it read:
Christ was love
Awwwww. Ain't it sweet. Yes, so sweet I'm tempted to steal it myself next year. But only for an audience that isn't aware of the fact that I have no child in kindergarten or otherwise.
09 January 2009
[And when I edit on wikipedia, as I believe I've mentioned, I use Christofurio -- but that's another story].
Why do I use "NotNasser"? Because I once had the onerous duty of reviewing a very silly book by a fellow named Nasser Saber. There was an exchange of e-mails after the appearance of my review in which Saber accused me of misquoting him. The accusation was false. In essence, he had mis-remembered his own punctuation.
Anyway, after I had satisfied him that my quotation had been accurate (and that, if it made him look silly, he might just have deserved to look silly) he told me that his next book in the series would deal with the substance of my critique (not just with punctuation I imagine) at some length.
Fine with me. Years have gone by, and I await in diminishing hope my evisceration in Saber's next display of literary swordplay.
In the meantime, and in his honor, I will make my appearance in other people's blogs as ... NotNasser.
Anyway, having said all that, I'd like to quote myself. In the very amusing blog "Dealbreaker" there is now a debate underway over who should play Bernie Madoff in the inevitable movie. My own proposal, in NotNasser persona, is as follows:
If he has no more anti-Darwin movies on his "to do" list: Ben Stein.
Can't you just hear him calling his sons into his office for that fateful showdown?
"Bueller A? Bueller B?"
08 January 2009
Each year the theme is different. Cartoons from The New Yorker got me through 2008. But I'm all New-Yorkered out.
This year, I'll be tearing off the previous page each day to discover a new ... event in music history. Yes, "This day in music" is the theme.
And I'll share these with you lucky readers now and then, as dictated by my whim.
Today, for example, the calender tells me that it has been 35 years since KISS signed their (its?) first record deal.
Yesterday's landmark was more contemporary. January 7, 2009 marked 15 years since the final onstage performance of Nirvana in the US. So yesterday marked the anniversary of a last, and today marks the anniversary of a first. That's movement in the direction of optimism.
04 January 2009
Not an uncommon personality trait, alas, though sometimes it becomes so severe as to produce grudging admiration in bystanders. Indeed, someone in Lilburne's day wrote a poem about it.
Is John departed? and is Lilburne gone?
Farewell to both -- to Lilburne and to John.
Yet, being gone, take this advice from me:
Let them not both in one grave buried be.
Here lay ye John, lay Lilburne thereabout;
For if they both should meet, they would fall out.
So let's spend a moment or two today holding Lilburne in our thoughts, because with that kind of personality, he should be the patron saint of bloggers everywhere, of every stripe of opinion.
03 January 2009
[And yes, the column was written by someone named Frederick Studeman. Some sort of clever Teutonic fifth-columnist trying to keep his cover? Hmmmm.]
Anyway, as his headline implies, Studeman is especially unhappy by the prefatory use of über as a substitute for good old English "super." For this he blames Nietzsche. Nobody wants to translate übermensch as "superman" anymore, Shaw notwithstanding, given the Daily-Planetish connotations of the latter term. So the Nietzschean word has been adopted in its Deutsche wholeness into English, and from there the prefix über has detached itself and shown up everywhere.
Yesterday, Jan. 2, there was a very funny letter in the same newspaper telling Mr. Studeman to redirect his worries.
The writer, Satuko Ishikawa, asks whether the German language is really up to the task "of describing the financial tsunami brought on by the Wall Street kamikaze bankers and their ninja subprime mortgage lenders, as the global economy shrinks to the size of a bonsai despite the kabuki drama being played out by central banks unable to find solutions to financial sudoku?"
Good question. I almost feel I should end this post with a haiku or a koan.
02 January 2009
I commented on that story when it first appeared. I didn't think much of it as campaign reporting, but I didn't comment at that time about the legal issue.
The second graf of that story is presumably what most inspired this lawsuit: "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."
The story doesn't say, there or anywhere else, that the "relationship had become romantic." It says that some of his top advisers became convinced that it had, and took actions as a result.
The lawsuit raises some great law-school-exam type questions. First, is a telecommunications lobbyist, as such, a "public figure" in a sense that would make any libel suit very difficult to maintain?
Difficult, but not impossible. So however that definitional quandry is resolved, one has to move to the issue of whether there was a statement of fact that could be libellous.
A plaintiff is generally expected to contest something the defendant actually SAID, explicitly. Mere "suggestions" don't cut it.
In one well-known case, "60 Minutes" incurred the wrath of apple growers for a program about a widely-used apple crop pesticide, Alar, that was a suspected carcinogen. The apple-growing plaintiffs lost at the trial court level, and the appellate court upheld the summary judgment in CBS' favor. (How ya like THEM apples?)
The 9th Circuit said that the growers had demonstrated an "inability to prove that statements made during the broadcast were false." The growers argued "that summary judgment for CBS was improper because a jury could find that the broadcast contained a provably false message, viewing the broadcast segment in its entirety," in the court's words. But the appellate court would have none of this.
It ought to be fairly easy to establish that she was in fact "turning up at fund raisers," etc. Is she contending that she wasn't turning up at fund raisers? or denying that McCain advisers tried to block her access to McCain? Or (this could be the tricky part) contending that their REASON for trying to deny her access was something other than what the paper said it was?
Is she contending that the story somewhere says that the relationship DID IN FACT "become romantic"? Or that it implies that between the lines? What it says ON the lines is just that some of his top advisers became convinced that it had, and took actions as a result.
01 January 2009
Last year at this time I wrote as follows:
1. Set my feet down in some far Eastern city at some point this year
2. Learn some Cantonese and/or Mandarin
3. Weigh no more than 180 at some point this year
4. Forget about agents, pitch my novel outline directly to book editors
5. The Met. In a Tux.
I can credit myself with success on points 1 and 5 on that list.
As to (2), I bought Cantonese-language tapes and listened to them prior to my travels. But the only but that has stuck in my mind is the word for "thank you," which I used liberally in Hong Kong. But I don't thing "dah-jay" (a more-or-less phonetic rendition of that word) by itself warrants a claim of success for (2)! I'm going to make it a carry-over.
Numbers (3) and (4) are even more abject failures. Further, I went backwards this year in one crucial respect. I've lost the habit of taking daily morning walks. I want to reacquire that one.
Also, I should mention here that I lost my prescriptionglasses well traveling in mid-December. I've been using drugstore glasses since. I've got to re-acquire new proper eyeglasses and resolve to get through a year without losing them.
The new list of resolutions is as follows:
1. Resume my morning walk.
2. Be more frugal in general, this year. Pay down debts.
3. More specifically, don't leave the US this year (travelling is my most expensive indulgence).
4. Forget about the novel. Focus on production/sale of a non-fiction work on the criminal prosecution of insider trading.
5. Learn some Cantonese.
6. Don't lose glasses.
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.