29 March 2009

From the Warsaw Ghetto

Emmanuel Ringelman archived life and death in the Warsaw ghetto, and then buried the archives in milk containers that were unearthed after the war. The documents from the milk cans have been resources for historians on the Continent for some time, but as of yet seem to have been little known in the English-speaking world.

Samuel Kassow has set out to correct that. Kassow, a professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., is the author of WHO WILL WRITE OUR HISTORY: REDISCOVERING A HIDDEN ARCHIVE FROM THE WARSAW GHETTO. The clothbound volume came out in 2007. It is just now available in paperback.

I've learned of it -- indeed, frankly I learned of the name Ringelblum for the first time -- through a brief review in the weekend edition of the Financial Times, by Eva Hoffman.

So I won't bother with my usual pose as a know-it-all. As a know-nothing, I'll just pass on the link. Here it is: Hoffman's review.

28 March 2009

Rest in Peace

Irvine R. Levine, who covered economics for NBC News for 24 years, passed away of prostate cancer yesterday: a member of what is nowadays called the "Greatest Generation," leaving us as mortality requires.

His career had its adventurous episodes. He was an officer in the Army Signal Corps in World War II, and after VJ Day he landed with the early occupation forces in Japan.

He was working as a freelance reporter during the Korean War, and began getting gigs from NBC in that context.

He was on their payroll by 1960, when he covered the uprising in the Belgian Congo.

But he really made his mark starting in 1971. That was the year Nixon brought an end to what remained of gold convertibility and introduced wage-price controls. NBC decided they needed a regular economics correspondent in their news department, so Levine got the job. He was the first correspondent for any of the network news departments with that particular responsibility, and he kept at it until 1995. His bow tie, the rather slow pace of his delivery, and even his insistence upon the "R" (no, I don't know what it stands for) became famous. Legend has it that an editor once suggested that he sign off as "Irvine Levine" to save a second of tape. He allegedly replied, "I could sign off as 'Irvine Levine of NC News' and save two seconds."

The middle initial stayed.

Rest in peace, Irving R. Levine. Go meet the Final Editor at the big Citydesk in the sky and submit your copy.

27 March 2009

Listen to the Web, Mr. President

The White House made a big deal out of its "virtual townhall" format yesterday, then President Obama laughed off the results.

The top four questions received under the heading of "financial security" concerned marijuana.

When the POTUS acknowledged this, he joked, “I don't know what that says about the online audience." That got a laugh from the real-space audience in front of him. Then he said, "The answer is no, I don't think that is a good strategy to grow our economy."

Props to Freddie, the "ordinary gentleman," for calling the President out on this little moment of forced levity.

As for the underlying question: why should that not be a component of a decent recovery program? First, the decriminalization (or even the legalization) of marijuana will get people with entrepreneurial instincts and skills out of the prisons and back into our cities where such instincts and skills are needed. Second, it will be an immediate savings at both the federal and state level not having to spend so much money keeping people locked up. Third, the prevalence of black market sales is the cause of violent crime, which in turn places burdens upon our health care system every time the victims of those crimes are wheeled into an ER. Fourth, I don't know if the POTUS notices the movements of his Secretary of State, but she just travelled to Mexico to assure its leaders of assistance in resolving an upward spiral of well-armed violence there -- help that will hardly be costless, and help that is necessitated in part by bonehead prohibitionist policies. Those are four reasons to start why the better answer to such questions might have been a more serious one. I could come up with a longer list if I thought it would matter.

But forget all that. Assume the implications of POTUS' levity. Maybe all those questions were submitted by stoners who just want to be left alone. Is that so bad?

This was the point the "ordinary gentleman" was making. The desire to be left alone to smoke is a perfectly legitimate and principled stand. Not too long ago, that would have been thought of as a quintessentially American stand. It now appears to be the quintessential cyberspatial stand.

So ... listen to the web, Mr. President.

26 March 2009

The Hale-Bopp suicides

Today is the 12th anniversary of the 1997 discovery by authorities in a suburb of San Diego, California, of thirty-nine dead bodies representing the collective suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult.

The 39 were dressed in identical outfits: black shirts, sweat pants, Nike shoes. Each decedent had a five dollar bill and three quarters in his pocket -- presumably that was the fare they'd be charged as the entered their new lifeon the UFO behind the Hale-Bopp comet.

The comet was crucial to the group's belief system. Indeed, if I were Alan Hale, or Thomas Bopp, either of the two astronomers who independently discovered the comet in July 1995, I'd be rather ticked off at having had my achievement associated with such goings-on.

By the way (just following the chain of associations from one link to the next): Alan Hale? Any relation to the actor who played The Skipper on Gilligan's Island? Probably not.

Actually, there were two actors named Alan Hale, father and son. The older Alan Hale was a frequent sidekick of Errol Flynn in swash-bucklers in the 1930s and 40s. His son became immortal by way of the Minnow and a three hour tour. The astronomer, who was actually born in Japan in 1958 though he grew up in New Mexico, had nothing to do with the acting family.

Spare a moment of thought today to the 39 deluded decedents who thought they'd pass through Heaven's Gate. They were tempted by one of the constant temptations of the human condition -- the desire to understand a complicated world simply -- and to demonstrate one's faith in one's simplicity dramatically. They were tempted and they fell.

And, to recycle a joke from that time: one of the bodies was found beneath the sink. Yes, right behind the "Comet."

22 March 2009

Religion in America

In a newly released study, a group based at Trinity College, Hartford, CT surveyed 54,461 American adults on the subject of their religious views, and found a significant growth (since a similar survey done in 1990) in the number of respondents who call themselves "non-denominational Christian." The number self-described that was was just 0.1% in 1990. It was 3.5% in 2008.

The ranks of non-denom Christians are growing at the expense of the traditional denoms, especially what were once called the "mainline Protestant" denoms: Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians.

The percentage of Pentecostals has remained stead -- it was 3.5% in 1990, and is 3.5% still.

The number of survey participants who identify themselves as being of no religion increased from 8.2% to 14.2%. Intriguingly, that group grew in EVERY state. The pace of growth differed, but there was no state out of the fifty in which fewer people said "no religion" in 2008 than had in 1990.

Mormon numbers have remained steady at 1.4%.

The number of religiously observant Jews has declined.

I'm not drawing any conclusions, I'm just putting some numbers out there.

21 March 2009

Truth and knowledge

Recalling the title of this blog, let us do some old-school philosophizing.

By the late 19th century, philosophers had formulated three theories about the nature of truth.

Before I should say any more, I should add: they were all using the word "truth" in a way that contemporary philosophers would not. They all meant, not "truth" specifically, as a property of belief -- but KNOWLEDGE of truth, as the reason why we know truths, when we do.

The three classical theories were these: correspondence, coherence, pragmatism.

According to the correspondence theory, a belief is true when it accurately copies a fact in the world. As Wittgenstein said, in his usual straightforward style, "In order to tell whether a picture is true or false we must compare it with reality."

The correspondence theory carried with it some pretty heavy metaphysical baggage. Suppose I'm looking at a painted portrait of John Smith. If I want to decide whether that's a "true" portrait of John Smith, I can go up to John himself, get a good like at him, then decide whether the likeness is an accurate one.

But even then, we should say that the portrait is either realistic or not. A surrealistic portrait of John Smith, painted say by Salvador Dali, might be as "true" in its own way as anything that can come out of a camera in the noontime sun, but it would be true in a non-copyist way.

Furthermore, that is a very bad metaphor for my efforts to know the world. After all, both the portrait and the man who sat for it are facts outside of my skull -- I have the same kind of access to the one as to the other. An analogy to that sort of comparison gets us nowhere if what is in question is the nature of truth/knowledge about people and paintings both.

The coherence and pragmatic theories of knowledge were both efforts to get rid of the metaphysical baggage of correspondence, or the copy theory. They both said that there is something about some of my experiences, my ideas, my beliefs, etc. that makes them true -- and that something isn't a transcendence of the whole body of my
experience by the way that it relates to itself, the way the parts of it relate to one another.

In the coherence view, error is inconsistency. If I could only get all my beliefs into a single coherent whole, I would know them as true -- or, strictly, I would know them as the whole single shining body of Truth itself.

In the pragmatic view, error is failure. Beliefs guide me through experiences well or poorly, they are valuable when they lead me where I want to go, harmful when they get me lost. Truth, then, is success.

The tendency in Anglo-American philosophy since about the 1930s has been to distinguish sharply between the issue of truth and the issue of knowledge, then to render the notion of truth impoverished. To say "it is true that this computer is working" is just to say, with a little extra emphasis perhaps, that "this computer is working" -- the word "true" provides emphasis, but in terms of strict meaning it's

It isn't only pragmatism that needs restatement in order to become comprehensible within contemporary philosophical jargon. It is each of the original three positions. They all turn out, in 21st century terms, to have been more about knowledge -- and even more specifically one's WARRANT for a true belief -- than about truth as such.

The correspondence theory looks backward for warrant, for evidence that the copy derives casually from the thing copied.

The coherence theory looks inward for warrant, and worries whether all parts of a world view cohere.

The pragmatic view would LIKE to look forward -- but since the success or failure of this moment's forward looks is necessarily still unsettled, it adapts by looking backward at earlier instances of successful forward looks, and imitating whatever made them succeed.

20 March 2009

Fourth Estate

One sometimes hears the phrase "Fourth Estate" employed casually as a synonym for "the press."

Or,sometimes not. In one of the bulletin boards where I go to vent, a conservative fellow expressed his unhappiness that the "Third Estate" had sided with Obama. Evidently he, too, meant "the press," tried to seem elegant, and ended up saying something very much at odds with what he meant.

Both terms derive their continued significance from 18th century French history. When Louis XVI called the "Estates General" together to address the budget crisis in May 1789, his expectation was that they would meet and deliberate separately. The first estate was the clergy, the second the nobility, the third the lower classes (in practice, the most well-off of the non-nobles, the bourgeoisie).

Once convened, though, things went badly awry for Louis, within two months the Third Estate was calling itself the Constituent Assembly and deliberately ignoring the other two -- and a mob supportive of that revolutionary decision was heading for the Bastille.

Presumably he didn't mean to concede that the "3d estate" is on Obama's side. But that would mean that Obama is playing the part of who ... Marat? Who is Louis XVI this time around?

As to the 4th estate, the usual story is that years after the French Revolution, British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, giving a speech in the House of Commons, looked up at the gallery and saw reporters busy scribbling down his words. he said: "Yonder sits the Fourth Estate, and they are more important than the other three."

In our own day of blogger and citizen journalist, the "Fourth," to the extent it ever had a distinctive social/institutional identity, may be sinking back into the generality of the 3d. We can say "yippee!" or we can say "alas," since the two reactions are equally futile given the fact.

19 March 2009

Dodd goes back and forth

Our chattering and governing classes are working themselves into a mutual lather over a matter that is at best of tangential significance to the present world financial crisis: the $165 million in bonuses that AIG appears to owe to some of its employees and former employees.

On Monday, Senator Grassley suggested the US import the Japanese tradition of hari-kari in reaction to this outrage. Most of the press reported on this remark in a jolly spirit -- oh what a state of jesters is Iowa!

It is in this climate that Senator Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Banking Committee, has just executed a rapid flip-flop on the question of how language that seems rather receptive toward the payment of those bonuses found its way into the stimulus legislation enacted last month.

Here's the key language: "The prohibition required under clause (i) shall not be construed to prohibit any bonus payment required to be paid pursuant to a written employment contract executed on or before February 11, 2009, as such valid employment contracts are determined by the Secretary or the designee of the Secretary."

Even without knowing what clause (i) says, you can see that this is a grandfather clause, protecting certain bonus payments from a prohibition that might otherwise have applied.

But the Dodd flip-flop is the neat thing here. He has gone from (Tuesday) adamantly rejecting the notion that he could have drafted such a clause to an explanation that he had to do it because otherwise the section limiting bonuses would have been "lost entirely" and an apology (Wednesday) over "if we had some confusion">.

In that CNN clip to which I've linked you, Wolf has some nice language at about 5:00 and shortly thereafter about the above quoted clause, which he calls a "mysterious loophole that was added at the last minute."

Dodd keeps it mysterious, containing that administration officials asked him to make the modifications, and refusing to name them, "someone at the staff level."

Great material. Leno and Letterman's writers are working on this stuff, I'm sure. But tangential to the real problems. And $165 million? To you and I, reader, that is real money. But on the scale of TARP or of the stimulus bill? Peanuts.

15 March 2009

Don't call them trolls anymore!

The use of the term "patent troll" has become familiar, at least to those who follow intellectual property issues.

Of course, it is a contentious term. Nobody calls his own line of work "patent trolling." It's always the other guy. But the idea behind the term is that there are (natural and legal persons) who collect lots of patents they have no intention of using in any productive way, in the hoope that they'll find somebody doing something similar. Then they can threaten a lawsuit for infringement, collect their check, and think of some more patents to file.

It sounds like an excessively easy way to make a living -- and like a matter of throwing sand in the gears of somebody else's productivity. It sounds like, well ... trolling.

I'm told that there is a new, more neutral term for the trolls. Non-practicing entities, or NPEs.

Anyway, on Tuesday of this week the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on potential patent law reform. I recommend the thoughtful testimony of Mark Lemley, professor at Stanford Law.

Here's a single paragraph from near the start of Lemley's disussion:

"There is nothing inherently wrong with either the growth in patent lawsuits or in patent enforcement by non-practicing entities. But a number of patent rules have given these plaintiffs unfair advantages in litigation, allowing them to enforce dubious patents in favorable jurisdictions, and to use the rules of patent remedies to obtain more money than their inventions are actually worth. Many of those problems resulted from troublesome judicial interpretations of the Patent Act, rather than from the Act itself."

14 March 2009

From The Onion

Today, I'll simply offer a link to an article on a satirical magazine's website.

This link, specifically, is to an article on a theoretical alternative to Newtonian gravity, "intelligent falling."

The object of the satire of course is the notion, devised by lawyers for the benefit of theologians who pretend to be biologists, that "intelligent design" is a serious scientific hypothesis, and thus ought to be taught in science classes as an alternative to the idea of speciation through natural selection.

Without further ado, here is the link.

13 March 2009

Neil Sedaka

Singer Neil Sedaka was born on March 13, 1939. So happy 70th to him.

Sedaka blew himself up on an episode of the "Farm Film Celebrity Blow-Up" on the old variety show SCTV, during its NBC period.

For those who don't know anything about SCTV, shame on you. Go get some DVDs.

The theme of the show was that SCTV, or Second City Television, was a small struggling television station operating out of the town of Melonville. Either in some state of the midwestern US or in Canada, it was never very clear. Some of the comedy came from the backstage goings-on, much came from the "programs" as broadcast.

One recurring program was "Farm Film Celebrity Blow-Up," which would begin as a farm report, with some talk about commodity prices, then progress to movie reviews. The two hosts -- Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok -- only enjoyed movies in which something, well ... blows up.

The show would end with a segment in which a guest celebrity blows up. it was cartoon violence in live action. We'd see a series regular dressed/made-up as a celebrity, hear a loud boom, see smoke, and then sometimes see the celebrity in obvious "doll" form flying offstage. The hosts would chortle their catch phrase, "he blowed up real good."

Neil Sedaka was subjected to that treatment, with the explosion apparently keyed to go off only after he started performing a song and got his voice up to the right note.

Funny stuff. Don't take my word for it -- get the DVD. I already said that, didn't I?

Anyway, I hope the real Neil Sedaka isn't too choked up from the wonderful birthday tribute I've just given him. Dry your tears buddy, and enjoy your 70th.

12 March 2009

A church finance bill?

The very nomenclature sounds archaic. A "church finance bill" in the legislature of one of the states of the United States?

And my state, at that?

But there it is ... Senate bill 1098. Dropped into the hopper earlier this month.


Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Assembly convened:

Section 1. Section 33-279 of the general statutes is repealed and the following is substituted in lieu thereof (Effective October 1, 2009):

(a) A corporation may be organized in connection with any Roman Catholic Church or congregation in this state, by filing in the office of the Secretary of the State a certificate signed by the archbishop or bishop and the vicar-general of the archdiocese or of the diocese in which such congregation is located and the pastor and two laymen belonging to such congregation, stating that they have so organized for the purposes hereinafter mentioned.

That's how it begins. But of course the point of the bill wasn't to require that certain paperwork be placed in the hands of the Secretary of State. The point was to make sure that the "lay members of the congregation" rather than the clergy have control over finances.

The bill -- now withdrawn after a brief and intense publicity storm -- would have mandated that the "administrative and financial powers" of a diocese be subject to a board of directors, which would have to have a minimum of seven members, more than half of whom lay members.

To be fair, there was also a subsection with this language "Nothing in this section shall be construed to limit, restrict or derogate from any power, right, authority, duty or responsibility of the bishop or pastor in matters pertaining exclusively to religious tenets and practices."

But body and spirit in this life are awfully (awefully) intertwined. This looks like a power grab.

The bill has died a quick death, but that it was even considered in this era leaves me astonished and forces meditation about what kind of era this is.

08 March 2009

The metaphysics of soap suds

Someone in Yahoo!Answers said recently that he/she had heard of some prominent philosopher who described human thoughts as "soap suds in the washbowl of nothingness," and asked if we could come up with a name.

I haven't found that exact quote, or anything with a distiguished pedigree, but I did find the use of the imagery, an invocation of soap bubbles in 'vain casings of nothingness,' and then the use of that image as a descriptor of intellectual constructions. I found this in a book review written for Union Seminary Magazine.

This just shows how neat a project Google Books has become. It is amazing the things you can find, including a bit of perhaps overly elaborate prose styling at the start of a review written in 1890.

The imagery appears as an expression of scepticism about theories of the "Aryan race," a subject that might have seemed harmlessly academic in 1890.

The author of the book review is R.B. Woodworth, and he begins this way: "To blow a bubble requires but a pipe, a basin of soap-suds and a blower. And it is pleasant, too, to watch these vain casings of nothingness as, reflecting in their diaphanous films the varied and beautiful colors of the rainbow, they float away beyond human ken into the azure depths of the heavens.' He goes on like that for awhile before he gets to the point. Adult intellectuals too, he says, "are bubble blowers. Castles in the air delight us children of a larger growth." And so forth.

If you want to read the whole bit, go to page 303 of the volume to which I've just linked you, and partake in Mr. Woodworth's bid for immortality.

This is probably far from what the Yahoo! questioner had in mind, but I ghad fun and, hey, isn't that the point of the existence of the cosmos?

07 March 2009

The Mortgage Interest Deduction

I'm no expert on the history of taxation, just someone who fumbles through his own form every April. But it is my understanding that prior to 1986, an interest payment on ANY personal loan was deductible.

That year there was a desire to raise revenues, in a way that wouldn't raise the marginal tax RATE, because supply-sider doctrine focuses on whether the tax rate is going up or down rather than on the question of whether a given taxpayer owes more to the IRS this year than he did last. So in 1986 Congress passed and Reagan signed a bill that removed the interest deduction from any loan. With the important exception of home mortages.

That exception was preserved on the theory that encouraging home ownership is a good thing. Apparently a non-controversial bipartisan notion in the US.

Obama's new budget limits the range of households that can take such a deduction, cutting it off at $250,000.

There is a lot that might be said about this subject. I saw a very interesting letter in the Wall Street Journal in late February. Richard P. Urfer, a fellow from Morristown NJ, wrote that the elimination of interest deductibility for everything except mortgages encouraged the misllocation of capital into housing. He also writes about a tax change [also in 1986?] that allowed tax free profits up to $500,000 on the sale of a primary residence (every two years).

These changes, says Urfer, transformed the home market into "a municipal bond-type investment vehicle." And everybody crowded in, although other sparks were necessary to turn this dry wood into the present conflagration.

Does Urfer's analysis sound plausible to you, dear readers?

At any rate, leaving my own anarchistic views out of account and thinking "within the box" of the current US political system in its broad outlines, I'll say this: there may be a case for abolishing the mortgage interest deduction altogether, completing the work that was begun in 1986. But there is no good case for creating a cut-off line at $250,000.

This is especially obvious if we agree that Urfer is right. If the exception made for mortgage interest in 1986 helped direct speculation into houses, then preserving taht exception but narrowing its scope with an arbitrary income limit won't do anything to prevent another go-round of this sort of boom and bust. All it means is that McMansions won't be part of the next go-round.

It may just mean that the next time there is a housing bubble it will be more intensely focused on middle and lower income housing than the last time. That's an improvement?

What if I were allowed to deduct the interest on payments I made to credit card companies if and only if I had incurred my debts to those companies in order to raise cash to gamble in a casino? The "gaming" industry would love this idea were it politically palatable at all. Would it be a wise policy?

If somehow we found ourselves in that situation and wanted to reform our way out of it, would it make sennse to keep the deduction, but put a household-income ceiling on it?

06 March 2009

"We have the technology"

Rob Spence is a Canadian filmmaker/reporter whose work has appeared on CBC, Vision, and Space TV.

Speaking at a conference in Brussels yesterday, he said that he lost an eye when young, and has long thought about using camera technology to replace it.

The BBC has run a resulting rather cutesy piece about the "bionic reporter." Surely there are likely to be advantages to an implant. It won't simply replicate the work that the second natural eye would have done for him -- restoring the parallax that he has presumably learned to live without. It will record and transmit its images.

Indeed, this is what raises ethical concerns. The "internal camera" will allow him to get into places where anybody holding an "external camera" would have been stopped at the door. But heck, nowadays if you want to be tricky in such situations you can slip a cell phone into your pocket and walk through one of those doors.

Will the camera-eye end up being so advantageous that perfectly healthy reporters with two good eyes will want one of them removed and a techno-substitute installed?

We'll know that world when we see it.

In the meantime, here's the BBC story.

And here is the homepage of the DNA 2009 conference ("Digital News Affairs") at which Spence made this revelation about his plans.

05 March 2009

Handcarts and Mormonism

I'm just thinking this morning about how what looks like heroism and sacrifice from one point of view looks like a terrible misdirection of human energies and a waste of the lives lost, from another.

Few incidents illustrate this bit of perspectivism better than the death of more than 200 of the so-called "handcart pioneers" in the spring and summer of 1856, an odd subplot within the story of Mormon westward migration.

If you don't know the story, here's one account.

Mormons see the handcart pioneers, more even than those who before them had made it out to the Great Salt Lake in covered wagons, as their church's answer to the Pilgrims and the hazardous crossing that ended at Plymouth.

David Roberts looked upon the handcart saga with a jaundiced eye -- jaundiced regarding Brigham Young's leadership in this connection especially -- in his recent book, Devil's Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy.

01 March 2009

Eight theories of religion

The title of this entry is also the title of a book by Daniel Pals, a professor at the University of Miami.

Strictly speaking, the first edition, in 2006, was called "Seven theories of religion." Pals has included an eighth, and thus the new title, for the just-printed second edition.

The eight theories, identified by their most prominent theorists, and by the brief explanatory phrase for each he uses as his table of contents, are:

1. E.B. Tylor and James Frazer (animism and magic)
2. Sigmund Freud (religion and personality)
3. Emile Durkheim (society as sacred)
4. Karl Marx (religion as alienation)
5. Max Weber (A source of social action)
6. Mircea Eliade (The reality of the sacred)
7. E.E. Evans-Pritchard (Societies 'construct of the heart')
8. Clifford Geertz (Religion as cultural system).

The new chapter in that lot is the fifth, on Weber.

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.