28 June 2009

William James on the soul as a hypothesis

"Souls have worn out both themselves and their welcome, that is the plain truth. Philosophy ought to get the manifolds of experience unified on principles less empty. Like the word 'cause,' the word 'soul' is but a theoretic stop-gap -- it marks a place and claims it for a future explanation to occupy.

"This being our post-humian and post-kantian state of mind, I will ask your permission to leave the soul wholly out of the present discussion and to consider only the residual dilemma. Some day, indeed, souls may get their innings again in philosophy -- I am quite ready to admit that possibility -- they form a category of thought too natural to the human mind to expire without prolonged resistance. But if the belief in the soul ever does come to life after the many funeral-discourses which humian and kantian criticism have preached over it, I am sure it will be only when some one has found in the term a pragmatic significance that has hitherto eluded observation. When that champion speaks, as he may well speak some day, it will be time to consider souls more seriously."

William James, A PLURALISTIC UNIVERSE, Lecture V, The Compounding of Consciousness

27 June 2009


With Independence Day nearing, I've watched the movie 1776 a couple of times in recent days.

The everlasting problem with musical comedy as a form is the moment of transition, when people stop conversing with each other and start singing to and about each other, or break into dance.

Some musicals, like Once or back-in-the-day, Showboat, or about musicals and performances, so the transition is easy to handle. The great song "Bill" in Showboat is sung by a performer offering an audition. Onc a showbiz milieu is established, even transitions that might be trickier seem natural too.

But 1776 doesn't have that crutch. It is about statesmen deliberating on politics, not musicians and stage performers. So an audience not determined to suspend disbelief might be tempted to ask they act so ... stagy?

For the most part, the transitions are handled with great skill. John and Abigauil Adams sing their love duets within what are fantasy sequences taking place, given the logic of the story, only in John's head. That works splendidly. In another scene, Martha Jefferson, who is in Philadelphia in the flesh, explains her husband's romantic appeal to a crusty Puritan and a randy old man alike. "He Plays the Violin," is her tune. You can see a YouTube of a stage performance of the moment here.

But some of the other transitions in this play/movie, alas, don't quite work. In "But Mister Adams," where the members of the committee that i supposed to be drafting a Declaration eachs begs off, the staginess of it just ends up being borderline silly. The ending of the clip, around 6:13, walks boldly past that border.

Here is the relevant clip from the movie. Jefferson has been singled out by process of elimination at about 3:42 in that clip and the really still stuff begins there, with Franklin, Sherman, and Livingstone doing the La-La-La chorus line thing for the Adams/Jefferson exchange.

26 June 2009

Perseverance and Jersey Joe

Jersey Joe Walcott had to fight for boxing's heavyweight championship five times before winning it at last on that fifth try. His life is a testament to the fact that perseverance is all but sovereign in human affairs.

Walcott's first two title fights came against Joe Louis, in the final stage of Luis' career. The first of these was on December 5, 1947. The fight went all 15 rounds, and was settled by a decision -- in favor of the champ. This was surprising. Walcott had knocked Louis down twice in that fight. Louis did nothing of the sort to Walcott. All he could do with Walcott was survive his onslaughts. And yet by a split decision the judges still gave him that fight.

This is a prime example of a boxing axiom: You order to take a championship away, you have to do so decisively.

Anyway, the widespread opinion that Walcott had been robbed in that December fight forced Louis' camp to schedule another one. I'm thinking about this all today because today is the anniversary of their second match-up, June 25th, 1948.

This one appears to have been unimpressve to spedctators, who had expected a spirited grudge re-match. They jeered the listlessness of it, and though getting his unequivocal victory this time, with a knock-out in the 11th round, Joe Louis too had decided that this was the time to call it a career.

He announced his retirement in the dressing room thereafter.

Louis' retirement left the championship open, and Ezzard Charles enters out story here. Charles and Jersey Joe fought for the championship nearly a year after the second Louis/Walcott match. Charles won. So Joe had had "three strikes" in efforts to make himself champion. But he kept up.

He fought Charles a second time for the crown in March 1951. He lost again. Apparently, though, there weren't a lot of other worthy challengers for Charles to face, because he gave Walcott another shot on July 18 of that year.

This time Walcott achieved his life's ambition. Knocking Charles out in the seventh round.

Great story eh? Oops, there goes a million killowatt dam.

25 June 2009

Adventures in Causality

Econoblogger Felix Salmon, or a sharp-eyed reader of Felix', found two headlines on the WSJ home page on the morning of June 23d that made an odd pairing.

On the one hand "Euro Climbs as Oil Prices Recover." Think about that for a minute. In the world since the demonetization of gold, when one writes of the rise and fall of a currency, one means: RELATIVE TO other currencies. When one writes about the rise of the euro, one is saying chiefly RELATIVE TO the dollar. The headline and the arrticle that folows it maintain in essence that the rise of the price of oil is driving down the value of the dollar, relative to the Euro -- i.e. increasing the value of the Euro.

Right next to it, another headline, another story: "Crude Rallies on Dollar Weakness."

This headline and article suggest that the weakness of the dollar is the cause, and crude's rally is the effect.

Can they both be true? Do we have a chicken and egg scenario? Is the dollar declining because oil prices are heading up AND vice versa?

I think not. If people and institutions have more dollars because the US Treasury under Obama and Geithner (and under their predecessors in the last few months of the prior administration) has been foolishly determined to pump dollars into the economy then the price of EVERYTHING will go up, and oil may simply be an early beneficiary of this process. That's called inflation, folks.

So my view, humbly though I offer it, is that the second of these headlines has a hold of the truth of the matter. The first of them is daft.

That's our adventure in causality for today.

21 June 2009

Spite fences and Oliver Wendell Holmes

Allow me a walk down memory lane. When I was in law school (late 1970s into the early 1980s) I was fascinated by the issue of "spite fences" at common law.

The bottom line is that in general there is no common law principle that would give you a case against me for blocking out the sun, so long as I do so without any physical touching of your property. This is different from a situation in which a poorly maintained car on my property, or on the street, leaks oil onto your driveway. It is also different from a habit I might have of setting bonfires on my property, which would involve the movement of smoke and fumes into yours.

There are at least two possible reasons why I might build a fence in a way that leads to the death of your grass. Maybe it has nothing to do with you. I just built the tall fence because I wanted to keep my dog in my yard, and my dog happens to be a good jumper so I built a high one. Your grass, in any such case, is collateral damage. The second possibility is that I'm a spiteful jackass who doesn't like you so I build the fence or put the truck there to irritate you. Question: should it matter?

No less of an august authority that Oliver Wendell Holmes addressed this point, when he was a judge on the Massachusetts Spreme Court in the 1880s. In that case, the state legislature had passed a statute prohibiting "spite fences" and a property owner objected, saying that it violated his constitutional property right to build his own fence as high as he damn well wanted for any damn reason at all.

RIDEOUT v. KNOX, 148 Mass. 368.

Holmes wrote, "It has been thought by respectable authorities, that even at common law the extent of a man's rights in cases like the present might depend upon the motive with which he acted....We do not so understand the common law, and we concede further that to a large extent the power to use one's property malevolently, in any case which maybe lawful for other ends, is an incident of property which cannot be taken away by legislation."

But Holmes did think that some existing rights may be modified by a legislature for the good fo the commonwealth, so the spiteful homeowner lost.

States and municipalities sometimes gave laws and ordinances changing this, though, and nowadays constitutional challenges on the basis of property rights rarely prevail, so the answer to the question nowadays is very location specific.

Ah, for the good old days.

20 June 2009

Other elements weaved in

My "Stalin diaries" story, discussed yesterday, will have other elements. The "girl who didn't dream," for example.

This one involves a circle of friends at a fictional college in the early 1970s (twenty years or perhaps a bit more before the main events of the story line) who would ask each other "have you have any dreams lately?"

It becomes faddish among them to invent wild stories about one's dreams. But one figure in the group stands ou for her unwillingness to 'play.' All she will say when asked such a question is "I never dream."

A couple of neat twists are possible taking off from that. It would be in accord with literary convention -- and for all I know Freudian theory -- to hold that she is suppressing something horrible. And this can link in naturally enough with the nightmare situation in which my lead characetr finds himself when the diaries he has been provided as a "hot lead" turn out to be bogus.

Oh, and by the way, HAPPY BIRTHDAY LIONEL. Famed singer Lionel Ritchie is 60 yeas old today.

19 June 2009

Story idea

I'm working on a story that will be loosely based on the Hitler-diaries incident of the early 1980s.

As you may remember, a collector of World War II memorabilia named Konrad Kujau received 2.5 million Deutschemanks for more than 60 volumes worth of Hitler's supposed diaries, which were shown to be fraudulent soon after publication in 1983. The key evidence concerned the age of the paper on which they were written.

The scandal resulted in a memorable series of "Bloom County" comic strips. A character on that strip "discovered" the diaries of Margaret Mead, which included such idol-shaking comments as "Gee, these Samoans are really a surly bunch."
Those diaries, too, were shown to be frauds -- when someone noticed they were written on Dukes of Hazzard stationary. But stop me before I float away on my associative stream!

The 1980s scandal over the Hitler diaries has inspired me to begin work on a story. In my story the alleged diarist was Josef Stalin (which allows for a linguistic twist -- would Stalin have kept diaries in Russian? or in Georgian?) and they are 'rediscovered' in the 1990s, but with a fair amount of retrospection into the 1970s, when the key characters attended college together.

Now you know.

Oh, another sort-of personal item that may interest someone: the dahlias I thought I had planted earlier this year aren't dahlias at all. They're daffodils.

18 June 2009

Ben Stein Watch: Quiet, Too Quiet

Gone (for now at least) from the limelight, yet Ben Stein is unforgotten.

I am sure, dear reader, that you are familiar with the Apple ads for their Macs that contrast the Macs with "PCs" (actually, with Windows software and the hardware that is generally used for it).

The Mac is played by a hip young fellow, who is always getting the last word in his exchanges with the stuffy and dim older fellow, the PC.

There have been a variety of parodies of these adds, and the use of them as a template for parodies with other targets entirely. Consider the Marvel/DC YouTube face-offs when Batman and Ironman were in theatres simultaneously, a situation that was made for such treatment. Here is just one example of the results.

Anyway, another line of parodies brings open-source software into the Mac/PC dispute as here.

The term "open source" can mean many things, among them BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) open source. And all of that brings us back at last to Ben Stein, who plays the PC in one author's three-way fantasia about how such commercials might work. Yoko Ono would play the Mac, and Vin Diesel would get to be the hero of the piece, BSD Open Source.

Read about it because nobody has made it so you can't actually watch it: here. And with luck, the Ben Stein Watch will be able to get back to real Ben Stein shenanigans in the near future.

14 June 2009

The annexation of Hawaii

The United States annexed the Republic of Hawaii in 1898, and soon thereafter appropriately re-named it the Territory of Hawaii.

Why? Well ... my vague impression until recently was that like much that has happened since, this was about energy and oil. Specifically, Hawaii had become the crucial mid-Pacific stop for whaling ships.

But I've had to revise that. The whaling voyages made Hawaii of strategic interest, but they don't really explain the need for annexation. After all, the ships had been stopping there for decades. If Hawaii had remained an independent republic, would there have been a threat to whaling?

Hawaii hadn't been a republic for very long. It had been a monarchy until 1893. It was only a republic, then, for a brief period prior to its annexation -- a path similar to that of the Lone Star Republic/State.

And the dramatic events all had more to do with sugar than with oil. Energy yes, oil no.

13 June 2009

Who Were the Real Hit Men?

Liz Moyer, of Forbes, began an article about a certain wireless equipment manufacturer in October 2006 with these words, "There's a hit out on Pegasus Wireless."

The rest of the story consisted mostly of a re-hashing of the complaints of Pegasus' chief executive that a dramatic fall-off in the price of the company's stock that summer and fall was the result of a cabal of naked short sellers spreading vicious rumors rather than from any defect of management.

Buried deep into Moyer's story (paragraph fourteen) is the possibility that "Pegasus is just a poor investment" creating the appearance of growth through acquisitions rather than through sales, because the touted new products, Moyer acknowledged, "haven't hit the shelves yet."

Moyer was aptly admonished by Seth Jayson of Motley Fool at the time. His bottom line: "There are plenty of good reasons for Pegasus' huge fall, and unless Knabb can deliver something other than gimmicks and PR, Pegasus will be no phoenix."

Pegasus filed for chapter 11 protection in January 2008. That petition was dismissed in October. Pegasus then re-filed for bankruptcy protection in November, and the court againt dismissed the filing in April 2009. The court also barred any further chapter 11 filings for two years.

Late last month the SEC filed a lawsuit against Pegasus, Knapp, and an associate, Stephen Durland, the company CFO. Its complaint alleges in essence that the company was not the victim of incompetence. Nor was it the victim of (external) hit. The stock price plummeted as a result of fraud. As to hitmen, those were the silhouettes of Knapp and Durland in the Book Depository window.

Unbeknowst to investors, at the very time Moyer was writing sympathetically about the company, Knapp and Durland secretly controlled hundreds of millions of the company shares, falsely claiming they owned only minimal amounts. They dumped these shares into the market, making millions for themselves and of course driving down the price.

And Moyer gets to eat some crow. Hmmmm Yummy.

12 June 2009

A refresher on contango

Contango is the discount you can get on a non-perishable commodity by virtue of your willingness to accept delivery at once, or (stated inversely) the extra payment you make if you want the seller to hold it for you for some interim.

As I noted in a post on the subject I wrote here in January, the per barrel price of oil at that time was $46.47 for March delivery. That is as immediate a delivery as Nymex listings will get you. Going out further, a barrel for August 2009 delivery went for $53.81. So the contango for that five-month period was $7.34, or $17.64 annualized, or 38% annualized and stated as a percentage of the value of the barrel. That seemed historically very high and I wondered about the reasons in that January post.

Six months later, the price is up, however one measures it. But let's maintain our focus on contango. Crude oil for July delivery (essentialy the spot price) is at $72.68 a gallon, looking at the "most recent settle" at Nymex. Going out five months, a barrel to be delivered in December costs $76.12. This is a contango of a modest $3.44, or $8.26 (11.4%) annualized.

Why has the contango dropped so drastically?

Presumably this means that in January oil was being held offshore in tankers, and now it is being released into the market. That would make the on-tanker storage space less valuable and bring down its price.

That's the theme of the Izabella Kaminski blog entry to which I've linked you, and she has further facts and numbers.

It doesn't sound as if the recent price incraeses are the result of price machinations. It seems as if the refineries ran through their backlog and are now closer to being current than they were in January, yet demand or anticipated demand is great enough to move prices up even while crude is moving onshore.

That would be good news in terms of a recovery, although as I've indicated before the recovery in question is the inflation-stoked and inflation-soaked sort that will bring more than its own share of problems.

11 June 2009

A Song for Mellencamp

From the Office of the Inspector General’s semiannual report to Congress:

Beginning on October 20, 2008, the OIG conducted an investigation into information showing a Los Angeles Regional Office SK-17 supervisor had been using his SEC-assigned computer to access Internet pornography. The investigation revealed that while using his SEC computer during 17 working days, the employee received approximately 1,880 access denials for Internet websites classified by the SEC’s Internet filter as pornography. The images on these websites included graphic depictions of sexual acts.

Let's spell that out. One thousand, eight hundred and eighty denials of access over 17 working days. He tried to reach prohibitesd porn sites more than 110 times a day. And was continually blocked. After the first 500 blocks or so, might you not have expected him to get the idea?

The IG report also says: The supervisor also admitted that he saved numerous pornographic and sexually-explicit images to his SEC computer hard drive and that he viewed those saved images during work hours.

So the internet access wasn't necessary for his urgent porn-consuming needs,. Yet still he kept trying. 110 times a day. More than 13 times an hour, presuming an 8 hour shift. And surely there would be no reason for this fellow to stay overtime. He must have been eager to get to some more permissive computer terminal when the 8 hour day was done!

You'll be happy to know that he hasn't been terminated. There seems to have been nothing more than a reprimand.

Well ... he's obviously devoted to the service of the public.

And the song for Mellencamp?

P*O*R*N in the S*E*C.

You saw that coming.

07 June 2009

The knower is not a mirror

A Jamesian passage for us to contemplate today: "The knower is not simply a mirror floating with no foot-hold anywhere,and passively reflecting an order that he comes upon and finds simply existing. The knower is an actor, and co-efficient of the truth on one side, while on the other he registers the truth which he helps to create. Mental interests, hypotheses, postulates, so far as they are bases for human action -- action which to a great extent transforms the world -- help to make the truth which they declare. In other words, there belongs to the mind, from its birth upwards, a spontaneity, a vote."

Review of Spencer's Definition of the Mind

06 June 2009

Ferguson versus Krugman

Two prominent public-policy intellectuals are in the midst of a very public dispute over the threat of higher interest rates.

I refer to Paul Krugman, professor of economics at Princeton University -- and the most recent recipient of the Nobel Prize in that field, who believes the present difficulties can and should be addressed through Keynesian fiscal stimulus, and that the present administration is not doing nearly enough of it, and Niall Ferguson, an Oxford-trained historian, author most recently (and pertinently) of THE ASCENT OF MONEY: A FINANCIAL HISTORY OF THE WORLD, who thinks both that higher rates are a grave threat and that President Obama's massive spending plans are compounding it.

The spat began, as near as I can tell, on April 30, when both men appeared as part of a panel discussion of the ongoing financial crisis hosted by PEN, the writers' association.

Ferguson said, "The running of massive fiscal deficits in excess of 12 percent of gross domestic product this year, and the issuance therefore of vast quantities of freshly-minted bonds," is likely to push interest rates up, although the administration appears to be of the (Keynesian) opinion that such policies will push interest rates down, stimulate borrowing, thereby stimulating the economy.

Krugman defended that Keynesian opinion, and on this point at least the adninistration. Krugman said, "There's a global savings glut ... There is no excess demand to drive up interest rates."

On May 2, in his column in the New York Times, Krugman was much more emphatic at blasting Ferguson. He said that it is "sad" that Ferguson hasn't studied the right textbooks. Indeed, Ferguson's ignorance is so great it is "confirmation that we're living in a Dark Age of macroeconomics." Then he takes us through a condensed lesson on the Keynesian view of how interest rates are formed. Four supply-and-demand charts in the course of a single newspaper column. Surely that counts as what economists and historians both would consider a glut!

The government can and should keep on borrowing the money it needs, however scary the deficit numbers look, because Krugman assures us, this borrowing: [Gives]some of those excess savings a place to go — and in the process expands overall demand, and hence GDP. It does NOT crowd out private spending, at least not until the excess supply of savings has been sopped up, which is the same thing as saying not until the economy has escaped from the liquidity trap.

Over the days and weeks since Krugman made that confident assertion, market interest rates have headed ... up. The economy does not seem to have escaped from the trap it is in just yet, so why are they heading up? It may be too early to declare victory for Ferguson on this point, but it is understandable that he has already declared victory for himself.

Krugman, after all, isn't the only one in this debate though who can argue from out of the pages of a major newspaper. Ferguson is a contributing editor at the Financial Times. And from that post, he has had this to say.

In the event you are too impatient to read that, I'll give you the final graf here:

In the absence of credible commitments to end the chronic US structural deficit, there will be further upward pressure on interest rates, despite the glut of global savings. It was Keynes who noted that “even the most practical man of affairs is usually in the thrall of the ideas of some long-dead economist”. Today the long-dead economist is Keynes, and it is professors of economics, not practical men, who are in thrall to his ideas.

05 June 2009

How long does 'disgrace' last?

Apparently, four months.

According to the Bob Jaffe indicator, anyway.

04 June 2009

Ben Stein Watch: Egocentrism

This is pretty blatant and raw.

Our boy Ben has written one of his yahoo! "personal finance" columns in which he seems to have stolen an idea from Al Franken. Franken famously declared the 1980s the "Al Franken decade." Stein has now declared this downturn the "Ben Stein recession."

This is what I have in mind.

Most people with the responsibility of writing a "personal finance" column would probably construe the adjective "personal" as a reference to the readers thereof. "What can I tell you that will be of some use to you, dear reader, and your financial condition?"

Ben obviously construes the phrase more subjectively. This recession, in particular, is different from other recessions because of the impact it has on me, Ben Stein.

And here's a link to a transcript from back in the day when "Weekend Update" used to carry such analyses.

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.