31 July 2009

Block Island

I was on Block Island, Rhode Island, for most of Wednesday of this week and the start of Thursday.

I have through most of my life been utterly defiant of the sun and its skin-ravaging powers. Bring it on! Accordingly, I have gotten sunburnt a lot.

Yet advancing age brings caution. I actually bought sunscreen in advance of this trip. SPF 50. Or is it PDF 50? No, that has to do with computer files. I was right the first time. Anyway, with the help of SPF 50 I braved the sun, did a good bit of walking about in the daylight, and had a little beach time, without untoward incident.

You don't care? Well ... I don't say that you should. I suppose that I could come up with a profound lesson. Something about how the harmful effects of UV radiation are an example of he more general fact of our human vulnerability to the elements, and about how although technology (easy travel to beach sites, the formulation of sun screen itself) changes the terms of the vulnerability, nothing really changes the fact.

But you still likely wouldn't care. So I'll just remind you that this is a blog. Moreover, it is my blog. I don't care that you don't care. Try back tomorrow and maybe, just maybe, there will be something you might care a smidge about.

30 July 2009

Ben Stein Watch: No More Pirates

In my last BSW blog entry, two weeks ago here, I noted with some amusement that Ben is now doing ads for Free Score which has something to do with credit reports.

I update this just to note that others of Ben's fans, critics, and "watchers" noticed this too, and had many more insightful things to say about it than I. Felix Salmon for example didn't find it at all amusing. Here is his recent post on the subject.

Likewise for The Columbia Journalism Review, which weighed in after Felix.

There are worse ways to advertise such an operation than to put Ben Stein out there with a cartoony squirrel, though. You could have three guys in pirate suits in a seafood restaurant bemoaning their fate. Or have them show up at a Renaissance fair, still with pirate suits. Is Stein replacing those losers?

The worst one is the bit where the guy is married and complaining that he should have run a credit report on his wife first, or he would ... what? have dumped her? And they say chivalry is dead. Its all far worse than that. Chivalry is decomposing.

26 July 2009

William James' diary entry, April 29, 1870

Inserting only translations of German, French, Latin as needed.

"I think that yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of Renouvier's second "Essais" and see no reason why his definition of Free Will -- 'the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts' -- need be the definition of an illusion. At any rate, I will assume for the present -- until next year -- that it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will. For the remainder of the year, I will abstain from the mere speculation and contemplative Grübelei [scratching around] in which my nature takes most delight, and voluntarily cultivate the feeling of moral freedom, by reading books favorable to it, as well as by acting. After the first of January, my callow skin being somewhat fledged, I may perhaps return to metaphysical study and skepticism without danger to my powers of action. For the present then remember: care little about speculation; much for the form of my action, recollect that only when habits of order are formed can we advance to really interesting fields of action -- and consequently accumulate grain on grain of willful choice like a very miser; never forgetting how one link dropped undoes an indefinite number. Pricipiis obsta [Resist from the beginning]-- To-day has furnished the exceptionally passionate initiative which Bain posits as needful for the acquisition of habits. I will see to the sequel, not in maxims. Not in Anschauungen [viewings], but in accumulated acts of thought lies salvation. Passer outre. [Bypass.] Hitherto, when I have felt like taking a free initiative, like daring to act originally, without carefully waiting for contemplation of the external world to determnine all for me, suicide seemed the most manly form to put my daring into; now, I will go a step further with my will, not only to act with it, but believe as well; believe in my individual reality and creative power. My belief, to be sure, can't be optimistic -- but I will posit life (the real, the good) in the self-governing resistance of the ego to the world. Life shall be doing and suffering and creating."

25 July 2009

Is Your BlackBerry Spying on You?

Here's a story that is bound to unleash your inner conspiracy theorist.

The largest telecomm service provider in the United Arab Emirates', Etisalat, a month ago instructed its BlackBerry-wielding customers that they could upgrade their software with a patch it had developed that would improve performance.

Users started to install the patch, but they didn't discover any improvement. They did find, though, that their power was being drained more rapidly. So something new was happening. What could it be? The so-called patch was actually a file that lets Etisalat capture, read, and store the e-mails of the customers who have taken the bait.

The manufacturer of BlackBerry, Research in Motion, has confirmed thi, and has provided its customers in the UAE with instructions on how to remove the "Interceptor." I guess the world is saved.

24 July 2009

Great Expectations

A bit of Dickens today, if I may.

In a wonderful passage in Great Expectations, a character named Herbert Pocket is filling in Pip (and of course the reader) on Miss Havisham's life. This is crucial exposition, but so as to not have it SOUND like a block of exposition, Dickens has hit upon the device of having Herbert teach Pip table manners. Herbert, accordingly, keeps interrupting his story to tell Pip that it is "not the custom in London" to do this or that.

We get the idea that Pip looks like a terrible yokel, and of course since he meekly submits to Herbert's corrections we also get a sense of the strength of his desire to make a gentleman of himself. All those elements in the scene allow the crucial material on Havisham's past to pass into our consciousness unobtrusively.

[Herbert also has just given Pip a private nickname, Handel.]

"Miss Havisham was now an heiress, and you may suppose was looked after as a great match. Her half-brother had now ample means again, but what with debts and what with new madness wasted them and most fearfully again. There were stronger differences between him and her, than there had been between him and his father, and it is suspected that he cherished a deep and mortal grudge against her as having influenced the father's anger. Now I come to the cruel part of the story -- merely breaking off, my dear Handel, to remark that a dinner napkin will not go into a tumbler."

Why I was trying to pack mine into my tumbler, I am wholly unable to say. I only know that I found myself, with a perseverance worthy of a much better cause, making the most strenuous exertions to compress it within those limits. Again I thanked him and apologized, and again he said in the cheerfullest manner, "Not at all, I am sure!" and resumed.

23 July 2009

Ugly Americans, the timing

I've written before in this blog about Ben Mezrich's 2004 book, UGLY AMERICANS. In fact, I see from sitemeter that I get a lot of hits as a result of those posts.

So here is another one in that line. To review, Mezrich's story concerns two Americans in Japan. One, known in the pages of this book as "Dean Carney" (probably based on Richard Tavoso) became a mentor for the other, "John Malcolm" (probably Michael Lerch).

The focus of Mezrich's story, though he takes some time getting around to it, is "index arbitrage," the trading tactic of playing the value of the underlying stocks against the movements of an index composed thereof -- like the Nikkei or the Hang Seng.

But what I've only just noticed is a discrepancy in Mezrich's story, before he gets us to that point. In early 1995, Malcolm/Lerch is working for Barings in Osaka, and he chief duty is to take orders from Nick Leeson in Singapore. Nick Leeson, now infamous as the "Rogue Trader," was laying the groundwork for that infamy at the time. His scams unravelled largely due to a big bet on the Nikkei on the one hand and the Kobe earthquake on the other.

What bothers me is this. Mezrich gives us a detailed account of "Malcolm's" day on January 17, 1995, because Osaka was part of the area devastated by the Kobe earthquake. He has Malcolm and a friend wandering through the glass-strewn streets to get to the business district only to find that the phones were dead, and so forth.

When the phones are working again, later that day, Malcolm talks to Leeson about the danger that Leeson's, and presumably Barings', mysterious client, Mr. X, was going to take a huge loss on that Nikkei position.

Then, THE NEXT SENTENCE after the description of that conversation, we get the following: "It wasn't until a week later that Malcolm found out the truth." The truth is that there was no Mr. X, that Leeson had been making those bets with Barings' own money -- and making them at a level that Barings could not cover.

My problem? It actually wasn't until more than FIVE weeks later that they could have learned the truth. Mezrich is here condensing into a single week the whole period from Jan. 17 (the earthquake) to Feb. 25 (discovery of Leeson's losses.)

I accept the introduction of a certain amount of literary technique into non-fiction narratives. But if the result itself is fiction, that's how the book should be labelled, by whatever real-world events it may have been inspired. Changing names -- apparently at the request of one's sources -- is one thing. Changing the dates of well-documented events? Lame.

19 July 2009

John Dickinson

I've been reading recently THE FOUNDERS ON THE FOUNDERS which, as the title suggests, is a collection of the sometimes snippy (though sometimes admiring) things the founders of the United States had to say about each other before the writers of pious histories got a hold of them.

The editor of this book is John P. Kaminski, the founder and director of the Center for the Study of the American Constitution, the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It was published by the University of Virginia, 2008.

I was reminded by this book of one of my long-standing objections to the stage musical, and the movie, 1776.

That drama gives John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania, all the dramatic Tory speeches about how wonderful it is to be a subject to the Crown. He is the foil of Adams, etc. You would never guess it, from any production thereof, that Dickinson had been a firebrand of anti-tax agitation in the earlier stages of the disputes that led to their being such a thing as a Continental Congress, that led to their being a revolution.

Dickinson was best known before independence as the author of LETTERS FROM A PENNSYLVANIA FARMER (1768). It may have been Dickinson who coined the phrase "no taxation without representation" as the summation of American colonial grievances.

Dickinson had in mind something like the British Commonwealth that later developed. The colonials should be able to tax themselves, and in general govern themselves, he thought, through their own representative assemblies, although some empire-wide regulatory powers should be left to the Parliament in London, and all colonists should remain subjects of the same King.

Dickinson had been raised a Quaker, and knowing that, one is perhaps not surprised that once the fighting began at Lexington, he was no longer a firebrand, but rather a voice within the Congress for keeping lines of communication with the monarchy open, keeping alive the change for a peaceful resolution.

THE FOUNDERS ON THE FOUNDERS has a fascinating section on Dickinson. On June 20, 1779, John Adams, who was then in Paris as an ambassador to the new nation's great ally, wrote in a diary entry that a Chevalier had asked him about Dickinson.

"I explained, as well as I could in French, the Inconsistency of the Farmers Letters and his perseverance in that Inconsistency in Congress. Mr Dickinson's Opposition to the declaration of Independency, I ventured as modestly as I could to let him know that I had the Honor to be the Principal Disputant in Congress upon that Great Question."

In 1808, though, after receiving news of Dickinson's death, Thomas Jefferson was quite sentimental. "Among the first of the advocates for the rights of his country when assailed by Great Britain ... his name will be consecrated in history as one of the great worthies of the Revolution."

18 July 2009

RIP Walter Cronkite

For those who would like to see him at work, this is how Cronkite reported the murder of Martin Luther King.

I love the anachronisms of old footage. The phrase "in color" in the introduction, as the fact that a broadcast was in color could not yet be taken for granted in April 1968. It was the HDTV of the time.

And the expression "Negro leader" for King. When exactly did network anchors and their ilk stop using "Negro"?

17 July 2009

Perry Mason and Sotomayor

As anyone even half-following the Sotomayor confirmation process has realized by now, the nominee credits the old Perry Mason books and television show with inspiringher to get into law -- and, more oddly, to become a prosecutor -- apparently because the prosecutor in the Mason TV show (Hamilton Burger, played by William Talman) was such a good sport about losing nearly every case.

He said he was happy to lose when it meant an innocent man was cleared because "my job is to do justice."

Anyway, many of you have probably also seen the clip of the new (very new) senator from Minnesota, Al Franken, bonding with Judge Sotomayor over this. He asked her if she could name the episode in which Mason lost a case. She couldn't. A varety of bloggers have now picked up the slack, informing the world that there were actually two such episodes.

There's The Case of the Terrified Typist and The Case of the Deadly Verdict.

Which leads me to wonder this: How important would that be for a real Perry Mason fan? Has Sotomayor come up with the whole "I used to watch Perry Mason" meme because she or somebody else advising her thought it would show she has the common touch, she's not an Ivory Tower type ... or is this a genuine fan?

After all, suppose some judicial nominee had talked about the formative influence upon his life of the Beatles' music, but was then tripped up by the question, "which Beatle was widely rumored to be dead in late 1969?"?

Would we conclude that the Beatles-fandom thing was part of the spin machine?

I'm not at all naive about the machinations of judicial noninations and confirmations, by the way. (I'm the author of a book on the subject.) I wouldn't especially blame Sotomayor for this sort of spinning. But I do like to know what is spin and what isn't.

16 July 2009

Ben Stein Watch: And Filbert Too

Our boy Ben has a new sidekick. Newer even than Shaquille O'Neal.

I refer of course to a squirrel namedFilbert.

At least I'm reliably informed that Filbert is his name although this particular clip doesn't use it.

What kind of accent would you say this squirrel has?

Anyway, the name "Rocky" was already taken, but it is a reasonable inference this is meant to be part of a series, and we'll learn more about Filbert over time.

A spokesman for the folks behind this ad say: “Ben Stein is the consummate professional and consumer advocate. Throughout his career, Ben has helped ordinary citizens better understand the personal effects of various consumer issues. Ben Stein is the right spokesperson to highlight the importance of a consumer’s credit scores as Americans search for ways to take greater control of their personal finances.”

Keep telling yourselves that.

Meanwhile, on another Ben Stein related front, I've found this piece of "danged-dignified" amusement, which involves PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins.

12 July 2009

On Eternity

This quotation has recently become popular in the blogosphere, or that portion of it intrerested in religious/areligious argumentation.

It has been posted recently by the blogger poor taste for example, and by the estimable Epicurean Dealmaker, and by Aaron Kinney of Kill the Afterlife!.

Why should I buck a trend? Especially a wholesome one?

The passage going the rounds comes from A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN by James Joyce, in which he grapples with the notion of forever.

"For ever! For all eternity! Not for a year or for an age but for ever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun."

11 July 2009

Is Charles Hood Still Alive?

The last time I wrote in this blog about Charles Hood, a convicted murderer on death row in Texas, he has just received a reprieve. This was a little more than a year ago, in June 2008, and controversy swirled over whether the district attorney who had prosecuted his case had been having an affair with the judge who presided over that trial.

I confessed that the controversy was rather playing with my head.

Hood survived his June 2008 execution date, which ended up being re-set to September amid a flurry of legal manuveuring.

He seems to have survived the September execution date, as well, because an appellate court decided the jury instructions at his trial had been flawed. At about the same time, the judge who had delivered those instructions and the prosecutor admitted that, yes, they had been lovers.

That was the last I've heard of the case. I have to imagine that he is still alive, because I think my google search would have turned up news of his execution if it had happened. Is he still on death row? Awaiting what? a new trial? hearings on a new trial?

Googling, by the way, is somewhat complicated by the face that there is a literary character named Charles Hood (a James Bond clone is a series of spy novels by Stephen Coulter), and there was a lyricist of some repute named Basil Charles Hood in the early years of the 20th century writing for the London stage. Indeed, Arthur Sullivan composed music for Hood's words after Sullivan decided he was through with Gilbert.

If you can filter past those other Charles Hoods, you might find out something about the Texas convict and his appeals.

10 July 2009

Chuck Berry

Today is the anniversary of a memorable day in the history both of pop culture and of law enforcement.

It was thirty years ago, on July 10, 1979, that legendary guitarist Chuck Berry was sentenced to four months in prison for tax evasion.

Berry was travelling the oldies circuit at the time, and it was customary for promoters on that circuit to pay the performers in cash, a custom that for obvious reasons irked the IRS. He may have been simply a collateral victim of their crackdown on that practice.

Not long before that, though, in the middle of the 1970s, astronomer Carl Sagan had composed an anthology of the planet's music to be set into space with the Voyager I and II probes. If some outer space DJ ever figures out how to play it, this collection of our planet's greatest hits will provide the aliens with bits of the western orchestral canon -- Bach, Mozart, Beethoven,and Stravinsky are all there. So are Peruvian pipes and Navajo chants, and a Pygmy girls' initiation song from Zaire.

Jazz is represented by Louis Armstrong and his "Melancholy Blues."

Rock and Roll is represented by ... Chuck Berry, "Johnny B. Goode."

This situation gave rise to a great Saturday Night Live skit. A panel of psychics were announcing the following week's headlines, concluding with the coming Time magazine cover. That cover was going to herald the first human contact with extraterrestrials. And those first words to us were going to be: "Send More Chuck Berry."

We haven't actually received that message.


09 July 2009

Wikipedia news

I came across a fascinating "conflict of interest" tidbit in some recent browsing in wikipedia.

I wanted a quick background briefing on Lord Myners, who is the City Minister in Her Majesty's Treasury. That makes him a central figure on financial-system regulatory issues.

Anyway, I found a brief bio article on Lord Myners, only to also find a box at the top informing me, "A major contributor to this article appears to have a conflict of interest with its subject." The box, whichs seems to be two months old, directs a reader to the article's Talk page for more.

Curious, I followed that direction. On the Talk Page one discovers only a brief notice to the effect that Lord Myners himself may have edited the article. Editing an article about one's self is a wiki no-no.

The content guideline titled "Autobiography" puts it this way: Writing an autobiography on Wikipedia is strongly discouraged, unless your writing has been approved by other editors in the community. Editing a biography about yourself should only be done in clear-cut cases.

The guideline would seem to express the ancient principle that "no one can be a judge in his own case," -- or in this case a "neutral editor" about himself.

I personally find it hard to believe that any net-savvy individual who becomes aware of an article about himself on wikipedia would not be tempted to edit it. Nor do I think that should necessarily be frowned upon, since one is usually better informed about one's own life than the average wiki editor!, although thoroughly re-writing one's biography, or creating an autobiography in the social media context, should be frowned upon.

The proper lines are still quite hazy.

05 July 2009

First Sunday after Independence Day

This year, as it happens, the day after America's Independence Day is also the first Sunday after Independence day, and a good time, if I judge rightly, to contemplate the grave danger in confusing religious piety with political/patriotic feelings. I'm not making a constitutional point -- let's not argue about what the phrase "establishment of religion" meant to Madison, Mason, and that old powdered-wig-wearing crowd. (If I die a martyr to the US, will I be greeted in paradise by a crowd of Virginians?)

My point, rather, is theological. I believe whole-heartedly that the universe isn't just a bunch of material/mechanical coming and going. Life is more than matter and mind is more than life and the whole of the cosmos is more than its parts -- that More is what we revere as God. Precisely because I believe this, I find it baffling and disheartening when people try to hijack spirituality for nationalism.

On this first Sunday after Independence Day, let us recall the first book of Samuel, chapter 8, with its stern warning against any earthly claims to sovereignty.


So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day.”

04 July 2009

The 2008-2009 SCOTUS Term

What were the big decisions of the Supreme Court term of 2008-09 just ended?

I would list them as follows, in no particular order:

RICCI v. DeSTEFANO (the New Haven firefighters' affirmative-action case);
CUOMO v. CLEARING HOUSE (upholding state authority vis-a-vis banks against an argument that federal law preempts the field);
ASHCROFT v. IQBAL (limiting the supervisory liability of high government offiials for acts of racial and religious discrimination);
MELENDEZ-DIAZ v. MASS.(securing a defendant's right to cross-examination, or in constitutional terms "confrontation," against the lab techs behind an incriminating forensics report);
FCC v. FOX (reversing a Second Circuit decision in which that circuit had sought to rein in the FCC, re "fleeting expletives.")

From the point of view of this blog, the point of view of anarcho-capitalism, this is a mixed bag of opinions. RICCI and MELENDEZ-DIAZ were both wins for individuals litigating against arbitrary state authority, with the state (or its creature, a municipality) serving in the one case as an employer and in the other as a prosecutor. So those are two "wins."

ASHCROFT and FCC are equally clear "losses." In both cases, an individual or individuals "fought the law and the law won."

CUOMO involves the old federalist dispute between two levels of authoruty. This is the steamship case of John Marshall's day in its latest guise. I don't know how to score it, so I'll call that one a tie.

Accordingly, we can write the whole term down as a deadlock in the ongoing struggle between freedom and sovereignty.

03 July 2009

Henry Adams

Today's reading is from Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, chapter six:

"You must first try to rid your mind of the traditional idea that the Gothic is an intentional expression of religious gloom. The necessity for light was the motive of the Gothic architects. They needed light and always more light, until they sacrificed safety and common sense in trying to get it. They converted their walls into windows, raised their vaults, dimninished their piers, until their churches could no longer stand. You will see the limits at Beauvais; at Chartres we have not got so far, but even here, in places where the Virgin wanted it -- as above the high altar -- the architect has taken all the light there was to take."

My personal experience is only with the great English cathedrals -- I have been privileged to gape at Winchester, Salisbury, and Canterbury. I wonder what kind of illumination (punning slightly there) I might have missed in the books Adams could have written about them.

Light is the material and the obsession not only of architects and physicists but of poets and metaphysicians too, and though my mind is racing in all of those directions now, I think it best to close down here and leave the racing to you.

02 July 2009

Ben Stein Watch: That Gusher of Hope

What he's been hearing is a Niagara gusher of hope. Oh, I feel so relieved. I refer, as it happens, to something our boy Ben wrote for The American Spectator.

And he's got a new commercial with Shaq out, too. With a Western theme. Ah, could lfe be any more magnificent? At least they aren't still literally shackled together. That was creepy.

So why does Stein think good times are back? because he trusts the American people, who "know, even if the newspaper editors don't, that America is not so much a political and geographical state as a state of mind."

Remember Chauncey Gardiner's words of hope in a similar (though fictitious) time of troubles? "In spring, the new growth returns." Of course, he had no clue that his words were being taken as an economic prophecy. He was babbling about the garden, which was all he knew.

I'm beginning to suspect that there is an analogous void in Ben Stein that makes him incapable of knowing or caring how others will take his words. Chauncey, thine hour has 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.