31 May 2009
He heard a young British physicist, Neil Turok, talking to David Schramm, of Fermilab and the University of Chicago.
"Turok confided to Schramm that he was so concerned about the intractibility of questions related to dark matter and the distribution of galaxies that he was thinking of quitting cosmology and entering another field. 'Who says we have any right to understand the universe, anyway?' Turok asked plaintively."
Twelve years after Horgan told the world about his question, last year, Turok was one of three winners of the annual TED Prize.
TED stands for "Technology, Entertainment, Design," (though the range has broadened even beyond those three fields since) and the award appears to be given in recognition of one's ability to "emerge from the trenches we dig for a living, and ascend to a 30,000-foot view, where we see, to our astonishment, an intricately interconnected whole."
A TED Prize winner gets to make a wish at the awards ceremony, and the TED Prize website tells me that the "wishes have led to collaborative initiatives with far-reaching impact."
All of which is preface to this: Turok seems to have found a way to resolve his ennui about dark matter and related puzzles. He has turned much of his attention to more earthbound and human oriented matters, though he has kept using his distinctive skill set, the one that presumably led to his presence at that conference and his conversation with Schramm in the first place.
Turok's TED wish? He told the awards ceremony attendees, "My wish is that you help us unlock and nurture scientific talent across Africa, so that within our lifetimes we are celebrating an African Einstein."
30 May 2009
The book, published by the University Press of Kansas in 1998, makes a number of intriguing points about the period it covers. I'll just quote a bit that fills me with a nothing-ever-changes sort of feeling given recent news from Detroit.
"If the economy really was tottering, the Penn Central Company just might bring it down. In February 1969, the mighty Pennsylvania Railroad had merged with the reluctant New York Central to form the seventh largest corporation in America. It was a bad marriage from the start. By the end of 1969, in a soft economy, the company's railroad operations were losing money, while its real estate subsidiary could not generate nearly enough cash to cover its losses. In 1970, to service its exploding debt, the company intended to roll over $200 million in commercial paper and float a $100 million bond issue. After the company reported big first-quarter losses, the bond issue was doomed. By mid-May, creditors had called in $50 million of the company's commercial paper, with $75 million due on June 30. Because the company did not have the cash, bankruptcy loomed, and the feared chain reaction in the commercial paper market might finally commence."
There's a lot of food for thought there, such as in the quick allusion to the Penn Central's real estate subsidiary. In more recent times, too, there have been many examples of corporations that found that their "operational" lines weren't pulling the load, that their real estate holdings were (and are) the engine of whatever progress they're actually making. (See what I did there? Cute RR metaphor.)
One example of this played out in the lead-up to the K-Mart/Sears merger. It was generally understood both that K-Mart's real estate holdings were the key to its abiluity to drive for such a merger and that Sear's real estate holdings were the main attraction.
But one also has to reflect, in thinking about the Penn Central debacle of 1969-70, on the real problem the railroad (as an operational entity) faced: the post-Eisenhower highway system had made it largely obsolete in the northeast of the country. Railroads in the rest of the country had long-haul commodity delivery as a bread-and-butter business. But the railroads in the northeast were largely a commuter-and-passenger business, and that ceased to be economical with the shift to federally subsidized highways.
I think in this context of Ford Motor Co., which has (commendably IMHO) declined public assistance and which is not facing bankruptcy. That means that it will still bear the sort of burdens that the bankruptcy process will allow a revived Fiat-dominated Chrysler, and a new General Motors, to shed. I hope Ford does well in years to come, but it faces competitors doubly subsidized: directly and indirectly through the bankruptcy process.
29 May 2009
The contestant who won second prize -- Tim Ruiter of Centreville, Va. -- was finally eliminated by the word "Maecenas," meaning "a generous patron, especially of literature or art."
Maecenas doesn't have a very helpful etymology. It comes from a proper name -- in this case, from the name of Gaius Maecenas, a Roman statesman of the first century BC. With many words, a speller who knows etymology, definition, etc. (the points spellers are allowed and encouraged to ask about in these contests) can infer the right spelling. But in the case of a proper name, poor Tim would have to have seen it -- or guessed it rightly.
His guess began with My ... and he was done.
Well, not entirely. For the remaining speller in such circumstances is not allowed to win by elimination. She had to get her word right. If Kavya Shivashankar had gotten her next word (Laodicean) wrong, Tim would have been asked back on stage, and the contest would have continued.
Kavya did know Laodicean, and took the title. I confess I not only would not have been able to spell the word, I had no idea what it meant until the ABC commentators on the spelling-bee program explained it to me. The term means indifference or lukewarmth in matters of religion.
And it too is a proper name in origin, though the name of a place rather than a person.
28 May 2009
24 May 2009
James has just said that there are different cycles in nature and in the human world that operate in relative independence, even if cheek-by-jowl. It is a point that requires specific illustration. So he writes"
"The mould on the biscuit in the store-room of a man-of-war vegetates in absolute indifference to the nationality of the flag, the direction of the voyage, the weather, and the human dramas that may go on on board; and a mycologist may study it in complete abstraction from all these larger details. Only by so studying it, in fact, is there any chance of the mental concentration by which alone he may hope to learn something of its natre. On the other hand, the captain who in maneuvering his vessel through a naval fight should think it necessary to bring the mouldy biscuit into his calculations would very likely lose the battle by reason of the excessive 'thoroughness' of his mind."
I love that analogy. It helps me understand the appearance of randomness in history, and to abstract from the issue of whether there really is 'randomness' in any deep metaphysical sense. Once in awhile, after all, the mouldy biscuit does somehow intervene in the sea-fight. A gunner, having grabbed the biscuit and bitten into it without thinking, may become ill and miss a target. When this happens, it introduces a note of randomness into the action of the battle and the "human dramas" in general.
Yesterday I wrote of the Mossad operation that captured Eichmann and brought him to Israel for trial. The team was deligtyed to realize that their operation was to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the independence of Argentina, a fact that made their planning of a cover story for getting Eichmann out of the country easier.
Obviously, there is nothing indeterminate in any metaphysical sense about the calender. The 150th anniversary of an event always happens one year after the 149th anniversary. But in this case it looked like a stroke of luck, because the other elements with which these captains and gunners had been operating -- their leads on this suspicious 'Ricardo Clement,' the accumulation of evidence that he was in fact Eichmann, the tracking of his movements -- all that had taken place in absolute indifference to the issue of when Argentina won it independence from Spain.
The mouldy biscuit sometimes does affect the battle after all.
23 May 2009
But I'm doing so now because I happen to be reading a newly published book on the subject, HUNTING EICHMANN, by Neal Bascomb.
One intriguing fact emphasized in this book involves the mechanics of flying Eichmann out of the country. The national airline, El Al, had no regular flights to and from Argentina at that time. (It didn't even have its own maps of South America yet.) And the Mossad could hardly grab Eichmann off the street and hustle him onto, say, some airliner belonging to a US based company. There was consideration of telling the Argentine authorities that El Al would like to make a "test run" of one of its planes into and out of Buenos Aires. But that seemed like a very thin cover for a highly secret operation.
Fortunately, the calender came to the aid of the Mossad. May 1960 was the 150th anniversary of Argentina's independence from Spain. The country had invited many other countries around the world to send official delegations to attend the festivities. It seemed unremarkable, them, that Israel asked for permission to bring its delegation into Buenos Aires on May 19th on a special El Al flight. (Eichmann had already been captured days before that plane left Israel -- he had been held in a safe house since May 11.)
Even the members of the official anniversary-celebrating delegation, officials of Israel's foreign ministry, were unaware of the fact that another purpose was to be served by that airplane. They were told, though, that El Al needed the plane back quickly to keep up its regularly scheduled flights, so they would have to fly home later in the month through other commercial airlines.
As a result, on the trip back to Israel on May 21, that plane carried only Eichmann, the operatives who had captured him, and the flight crew.
Even through meticulously planned operations, though, it is very difficult to keep a secret. The flight crew knew something was going on, and since Argentina's significance as a refuge for leaders of the 3d Reich was hardly a secret, some of them had a pretty good idea what it was. Bascomb has interviewed members of that flight crew and tells the story of that flight from the inside.
When the plane cleared Argentine airspace, there was a spontaneous outburst of delight. The leader of the Mossad operation decided that further efforts at in-cabin secrecy were pointless and gave the El Al security chief, Adi Peleg, the honor of making the announcement. "You've been accorded a great privilege," Peleg told the El Al crew, "You are taking part in an operation of supreme importance to the Jewish people. The man with us on the plane is Adolf Eichmann."
It was soon after touchdown on the morning of Sunday May 22, Israel time, that Ben Gurion learned of the success of the operation and of Eichmann's presence in the country. He asked his Mossad chief how many people knew. Isser Harel replied that already more than fifty knew. Thus, Ben-Gurion decided that an announcement was necessary -- news like this has to be framed by a head of state in a manner other than nodding "yes" when a reporter eventually hears about it and asks a question.
This is where we came in, the statement in the Knesset, May 23: "Adolf Eichmann is already under arrest in Israel and will shortly be placed on trial in Israel under the terms of the law for the trial of Nazis and their helpers."
22 May 2009
Here is the amazon entry for the book.
From what I understand -- and I admit upfront I haven't read the book, so of course I stand open to correction -- Andrews treats his and his wife's experiences as a homeowning couple as a microcosm of the broader meltdown, and although he acknowledges that they were imprudent in some financial decisions, the general premise of the book is that this is anyone's story -- it could have been you, etc.
Commendable research by Megan McArdle at The Atlantic indicates that they aren't a very good microcosm for everyone. She could have done a routine review, but chose instead to do some digging. Nothing dramatic -- no meetings in a dark garage -- just some study of publicly available records of bankruptcy filings and the like. But very revealing.
The serial bankruptcies of an individual making six-figure incomes -- with the second bankruptcy coming almost as soon as lawfully possible -- is hardly an "everyman" type of situation. And treating it as a microcosm of our broader economic difficulties is not the path to clarity on the subject of the latter.
21 May 2009
Stein appears first, and says, "I know about being smart with my money." Then Shaq walks in and says, "and I know about being the best." So they are handcuffed together, which is supposed to represent the wonderful service and low cost of Comcast.
It seems an odd way to advertise, as if Comcast wants to emphasize the fact that their contract locks you into a deal for a full year. I suspect most marketers would prefer to de-emphasize that point.
While I was surfing about, trying to think of something clever to say about that ad, I discovered this. Another YouTube video, this one also including (though not featuring) Shaq's new best friend.
It is a clip from a show hosted by Neil Cavuto on a television network named after a furry woodland creature. It opens with some pessimistic comments from Peter Schiff -- this was August 2007, the Dow was at record levels, and Schiff had just come out with a contrarian book entitled CRASH PROOF: HOW TO PROFIT FROM THE COMING ECONOMIC COLLAPSE. On Schiff's part, this was part of a promotional tour, on Cavuto's part, it was apparently a good time for a telegenic ambush. He assembled a panel of real or alleged experts to tell Schiff how wrong he is.
One panelist says, "Peter's rant is anti-Americanism disguised as financial advice."
Ben Stein doesn't get into the picture until about 3 minutes in. Ben said that the problem was in subprime, and subprime is only "a tiny blip." That was known at the time as the "containment" theory. The credit crunch could be limited to subprime, would right itself in time, and all would proceed happily.
Peter Schiff comes out of it looking pretty good. Remember, this discussion was taking place in August 2007.
The fellow who placed this on YouTube obviously thought Schiff was "beaten down" by the superior logic of Stein and the rest. Why?
17 May 2009
Unfortunately, that google-books' site only gives you the preface and the first few pages of the theistic argument. Even if they were going to excerpt it drastically to induce you to buy it, it would have been nice for them to include a bit of each side in the excerpt.
Anyway, in that book, William Lane Craig takes the affirmative position, that God does exist.
Craig received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Birmingham (UK) in 1977, and another, in theology, from the University of Munich (Germany) in 1984. He is best known as the defender of a version of the cosmological argument that focuses on the alleged impossibility of an "actual infinite."
His opponent, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, takes the atheistic side, both arguing that Craig's proofs fail and that there are good reasons to believe there is no God.
They co-authored the preface and there explained the origin of the book in live debates, and its format as due to their shared belief in fairness.
Amen, then, to their shared commitment.
16 May 2009
Michaels is a professor of American Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Illinois, in Chicago. It isn't unusual for a literary scholar to turn his hermeneutical attention to the reading of legal texts -- Stanley Fish more famously followed the same career path -- and the results here are intriguing. A good "get" for WNELR.
As the title of Benn's article indicates, he distinguishes between two ideas in the law -- U.S. constitutional law especially -- which he calls "old" and "new" originalism.
Justice Scalia advocates what Benn calls the "new" originalism, which Benn means to criticize (he also means to criticize, though only implicitly in this article, the wide range of non-originalist theories). Scalia says that he is not interested in what the framers of a statute, or constitutional provision, meant. He is unconcerned, that is, with private significance inside their skull. He concerned with what they said, and with what was the public significance at the time they said it of the words they used.
We divine the meaning of the term "cruel" in the prohibition against cruel and unusual tortures, then, not so much from anything the wielders of the relevant quills may have said they meant but from the dictionaries of the era, the "public and objective rules of the language."
Benn considers this position untenable, and wants to return to a more frankly subjectivist notion of originalism. I will leave you to discover the particulars of his case from him.
15 May 2009
14 May 2009
Allow me to indulge my continuing Madoff fascination briefly.
His investors/customers/suckers would periodically receive trading slips, confirming a transaction that was supposed to have occurred two to five days before. They looked like the example above. Five days happens to be the spread between the trading date and the settlement date here.
I have to say that had I been an investor, I would have regarded such paperwork as reassuring. It looks official and proper. But then, I was probably the sucker born in that particular minute.
One oddity about the Madoff situation as late as 2007 was that there was no electronic access. Had Madoff been marketing his services as an investment manager to a young tech-savvy crowd, they would have wanted a website to which they could log in to see their results, or e-mailed updates. But his investors were content to receive old-fashioned dead-tree statements like this through the US postal service.
He was sending out a heck of a lot of these things on a regular basis for a long time. Peter Sander, in his recent book on the case, estimates that there were 184 direct victims, i.e. direct accounts receiving slips like this. That number may be a little high -- Sander's compilation might have resulted in some double counting, and only 125 of his names have dollar numbers attached to them.
Still, let's assume the number was 125. That's a lot of juggling. That means he was keeping 125 different balls in the air, so to speak. And he was doing it all himself? No confederates?
Just some random meditations for this morning. Madoff threw a heckof a boulder into the financial waters at a time when they were already roiled, and the good-sized ripples continue their outward spread.
10 May 2009
Christoph von Sigwart, LOGIC, Vol. 2, p. 238
Okay, its pretty much a random I Ching type thought-of-the-day. You can explore Sigwart yourself if you've a mind to in this or some future present.
09 May 2009
Anyway, one of the more conservative posters on this particular board told me that Obama's incoherence is intentional, because Obama doesn't want us to get back to "where we were in 2007."
There are two distinct implications there: first, that Obama is deliberately sabotaging the economy; second, that we were in some wonderful condition in 2007 which, were he not a saboteur, he would wish us to recover.
Although his policies ARE incoherent, I think both halves of that accusation are wrong. Allow me to focus on the second of them. It does seem to be a widespread attitude that a boom is good, the upward rise of a stock index is good, price increases are not good (unless you're the one charging them) but are tolerable when wages are increasing, and so forth. The upswing of a business cycle represents something desirable, and when you're on the downswing you want to get to the restoration of the upswing. (If you're a Democrat, you'll want us to get back to 1999 -- if you're a Republican, 2007).
The problem, though, is that this is akin to a desire to get right back to drinking because the hangover hurts. The boom and the bust are two aspects of the same fact, and what we should aim at is an escape from the cycle.
The "good cop" and the "bad cop" are both on the same side. If you are ever unfortunate enough to be the suspect under interrogation, it would be well to remember that.
Bubbles burst because they have been blown, and the pain caused by the burst is pain that was made necessary in the supposedly good times, the times when the bubble was being blown.
The next time the Dow gets to 14,000, I like to think it will be the result of a slow and steady rise produced by real growth NOT artificially induced by the sort of stimulus that guarantees a heck of a hangover the next morning. Let's learn better from THIS one.
Yet, alas, recent developments indicate to me that we will not and have not.
By the way, one word about my tags below. I use "Barack Obama" as the tag for discussions of the President. I don't use "President Obama." Why not? Because when I wrote the earlier of my posts about him, he was not President and now that he is, I've decided to keep the old tag for the sake of consistency. Mystery solved.
08 May 2009
I use the word "Summa" with care. Goldthwaite has spent a long and distinguished academic career studying this fascinating subject, so what he says over the course of these 600-plus pages deserves our careful attention.
And his expansive vocabulary is a wonder in itself. But to that I devoted an entry in my other blog at an earlier stage in my reading.
Today I'd like to address your attention to a nugget I found on page 390. It seems that the art critic and biographer Giorgio Vasari was "one of the very first writers in the Italian language to use the word 'competition,' especially in its economic sense."
The Italian for "competition" is concorrenza, and competing is "concorrente."
Vasari used both words repeatedly, notably in his introduction to his life of Perugino.
Why? Because the idea of competition was essential to Vasari's conception of why Florence possessed its eminence as a center of the arts. The artists of Florence are lean and hungry, he said, driven by "the need to be industrious ... to know how to make a living." In this context, he called concorrenza "one of the nourishments that maintain them."
Words to heed, I think.
07 May 2009
Neil Cavuto has just said that the Fed and Treasury would have to commit $2 trillion in order to backstop the financial institutions. He was making a perfectly good point -- that once the government gets into the business of printing money to support institutions it arbitrarily deems "too big to fail," there is no end to it.
Short, of course, of learning to pull the plug and face the consequences.
Ben can't bear to hear that point explained, and his famous monotone voice manages to convey some excitement as he rises to his level best to keep Cavuto from making it.
Along the way. Ben explains as well as anyone yet has why "we need to bail out the auto companies." We need to do so, on his view, because it will be part of a "massive stimulus package." That's it. Amidst all the posturing, that seems to be all of the reasoning here. And it is germane this week, with the latest news of the Chrysler filing.
Neil's only fault here, by the way, is the reference to "Nancy Pelosi" as the one behind the bail-outs. A typical bit of buck passing, as if the guy who was chief executive last autumn had nothing to do with the bill that was drafted in his name largely by the Secretary of the Treasury he had appointed. No, of course, it was all Pelosi's doing.
Neither of the shouters covers himself with glory here. But Ben ... well, this feature of my blog is called the Ben Stein Watch for a reason.
03 May 2009
The case was very flimsy from the first and appeared an effort by the previous administration to make a point at the penal expense of the defendants and at the substantive expense of all of us. The espionage statute involved goes back to 1917 and this was its FIRST use against persons not employed by the US government.
This administration gets some credit for dropping the matter, but not a lot. The new Attorney General reached this decision only after a court decision that said that the prosecutors would have to prove not only that the sopread of this information would harm the interests of the United States but that the leakers acted knowing that it would have that effect.
There simply was no evidence to that effect.
02 May 2009
Paradigm Global, a fund of funds (i.e. a "feeder fund" for first-order hedge funds) is under the ownership and control of two members of the Vice President's family, his son and brother -- Hunter and James Biden.
Paradigm Global shares office space on Fifth Avenue with a hedge fund, Ponta Negra. They also used the same phone number and marketer.
This matters because on April 27, the SEC obtained a court order to freeze the assets of Ponta Negra, alleging that its founder, Franscesco Rusciano, has been misrepresenting his fund's monthly and yearly performance results.
Specifically, the SEC alleges that Rusciano claimed his fund earned total annual returns of 42.99 percent for 2007, 24.85 percent for 2008, and 6.14 percent for the first two months of 2009, whereas in fact the assets of the fund "suffered substantial trading losses in 2007, had modest profits in 2008, and again sustained losses in 2009."
Hempton, who was on the case before the SEC was (or at least before it told the rest of the world about it) has posted on his blog a marketing document for Porta Negra, that identified Citigroup as its prime broker. Hempton says, "I wrote to citigroup several times – and spoke to senior people in their government relations area and told Citigroup the entire story. I believe that Citigroup did not react appropriately to a fraud committed in their name."
A lawyer for Paradigm, Marc LoPresti, has tried to play down any connection between Paradigm (and the Bidens) on the one hand and Ponta Negra on the other, saying simply "they were subtenants." As to the common marketer, Jeff Schneider, he "did some marketing for Paradigm over the last couple of years [and] introduced us to Ponte Negra, and we had some available office space. That's 100% the extent of the relationship."
Felix Salmon was initially rather skeptical about the significance of any Ponta Negra/Biden link, calling the subtenancy a "rather tenuous" connection. But as you can see here, Salmon is no longer so skeptical, and says he is "looking into" it.
A Biden family connection with a crooked hedge fund could, at the least, complicate this administration's efforts to make scape goats out of the supposedly unscrupulous hedge funds who refused to keep Chrysler out of bankruptcy by swallowing its losses as their own. That bit of scapegoating is an absurd policy anyway, and it richly deserves to be complicated.
01 May 2009
On May 1, 1984, Mick Fleetwood, the drummer of "Fleetwood Mac" fame, filed for bankruptcy. How could that have happened? After the huge success of the band's self-titled album in 1975, and of its follow-up Rumors, in 1977? Rumors remains one of the 20 best selling albums of all time. And the drummer filed for bankruptcy court protection seven years later?
Well ... how could one of the famed "Big Three" of Detroit, automaker Chrysler, have been brought to the point of filing for bankruptcy, as happened yesterday? How could General Motors be teetering on that brink? Fame is fleeting, and wealth is more so.
There's the off-the-moment spending to which rock stars feel entitled, of course. Not just entitled ... obligated. There's an entourage to maintain. There were, in Fleetwood's case, impulsive purchases of both real estate and restaurants to disastrous effect.
As for Chrysler and GM, you'll be reading much about them in the days to come.
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.