27 September 2009

David Ramsey

David Ramsey is the "Christian money guru." What do my readers think?

The floor is open.

It is easy to get indignant about the very idea of a Christian financial advisor. After all, we sing a carol that describes the first recipients of the good news of salvation as "certain poor shepherds," and we remember the warning about the eye of the camel.

But please let your own thoughts go a bit further than the first associations, and let me know the results. Thanks.

26 September 2009

Water on the Moon

One of the remarkable things about science fiction is that it forms the template through which subsequent generations see advancements in real science.

So, when we hear, as we recently have, that the moon may have a good deal of water bound up in its dirt, the folks at NASA may be thinking: colonization is possible after all. The moon could end up being the low-gravity, and so extremely convenient, launching pad for human explorations of distant space.

What is the first thing that people outside NASA and conversant with as much science fiction as actual science think, though?

They are reminded that Heinlein predicted the discovery of ice on the moon in his 1966 novel, "the Moon is a Harsh Mistress." Unsurprisingly, then, Heinlein references on the web have abounded in tne days since this discovery.

Actually, water was at the center of RH's plot. The moon's water supplies are crucial butlimited. Earth is using the moon colony as a food source, but this in turn represents the continual drainage of that water supply. This is a death sentence to the residents of the moon, because they couldn't survive on earth (their bodies have become adapted to low-grav consitions) so they have no choice but to rebel.

25 September 2009

William Faulkner

It was on this day, September 25, in 1897 that William Faulkner was born.

One of the greatest of US born novelists, Faulkner's most characteristic trope was the simple doggedness of so many of his central characters.

"The jury said 'Guilty' and the judge said 'Life' but he didn't hear them. He wasn't listening." So begins one of Faulkner's greatest novels, The Mansion, the third part of the Snopes trilogy. Although Faulkner is renowned, and oft ridiculed, for byzantine sentences, those two are strikingly simple, and place us directly into a situation we can understand without having read either of the two earlier novels of the trilogy.

The protagonist who has just received a life sentence was thinking about something else? What? or who?

The character, Mink Snopes, is in this fix, has just been sentenced, due to the machinations of Flem Snopes, and he was convinced up to the moment of sentencing, the moment when the novel begins, that the aforesaid Flem would arrive in court at the last minute to save the day.

Of course, Flem has no intention of saving Mink, and Mink's distracted focus on the courtroom door during that hearing at last allows this fact to sink in, and trust turns into a desire for vengeance, a desire that continues to burn and deepen through the coming four decades of imprisonment.

24 September 2009

Pragmatism Refreshed: Freedom Pursued

Is pragmatism an adequate and indeed an essential foundation for the advocates of liberty? I have long contended that this question needs a strong "yes" answer. As I explained in my September 12 blog entry, though, I am delighted that Frank van Dun has set forth his reasons for believing that I am wrong.

This is my reply to the case he has made, which was in turn a response to an editorial I wrote years ago for a now-defunct magazine called The Pragmatist.


I am an anarcho-capitalist. I am no longer active within the Libertarian Party, but I wish the LP well, and I speak not merely of the anarcho-caps therein but of the minarchists as well. The advance of their ideas is infinitely to be preferred over the continued dominance of the "liberals" and "conservatives" in public debate.

My earlier essay on "The Necessity of Pragmatism," moved as concisely as I could manage through a theory of meaning, to the nature of truth and knowledge, and then on to ethics. I also said a few words at that time about restitution as the central principle of Justice. I will leave restitution out of this essay, but otherwise I will retrace and elaborate my steps, taking account as I go of van Dun's critique.

Van Dun agrees with me largely on meaning, so I will be very brief here. Pragmatists ask "what difference would it make" were one hypothesis rather than another true. If there is no practical difference, then pragmatists write off the dispute as an idle one. There is no difference anywhere that does not make a difference somewhere else. I will not press that point except to provide the curious with this link for the story of James' squirrel, a bit of philosophical exposition that van Dun and I both admire.

Van Dun disagrees with me about truth, but I think that this is largely because he conflates the old correspondence theory of truth with a more new-fangled thing called the disquotational (or deflationary) theory of truth. The two are not at all the same, as we can see from works in which advocates of the real correspondence view argue against deflation, and even from efforts to reconcile the two.

I think James' arguments retain their old force against the genuine correspondence theory. Jamesians can probably consent to the deflationary theory without loss of anything James wanted to save, though, because if "truth" is the uninteresting tautological property that deflationists say that it is, then the notion doesn't really do any work in epistemology or anywhere else. I'm happy to concede that the statement "snow is white" is true if and only if snow is white. If we say that this is a full account of truth, though, then we abstract from a lot of other considerations that show up in all of the older theories.

The gist of the older disputes remains, nonetheless. Giving up "truth" to the deflationists means that the 19th century disputes among coherentists, correspondence theorists and pragmatists will have to rage again over other labels, such as "reference," or "knowledge," or (fittest of all) "warrant." And pragmatism in particular can easily enough refit itself as what is nowadays called a theory of warrant, of when we are warranted in asserting or believing that snow is white or anything else.

I suspect that van Dun's real objection to my old essay, the heart of our quarrel, doesn't really become evident until deep into his essay, when he gets to historical questions. We come to that point when he quotes me thus: “Human history contains plenty of data from which we might draw the conclusion that liberty works and slavery fails.”

Human history

To this he takes exception on a number of grounds. He asks: “[Where] do we draw the line between ‘liberty’ and ‘slavery’?" I might interject: the line is easily drawn, because I mean by slavery here what the history books mean by it -- the ownership or control of a person as a chattel. His questions continue: "What is the point of asking whether it is liberty or slavery that works? Surely, no one holds that the abolition of the institution of slavery brings a libertarian society into existence. A person can be unfree without being a slave (or a prisoner) in the common meaning of the term.”

True enough. Allow me to get this riposte properly underway, then, with two examples of unfreedom that fall far short of slavery, that also conspicuously didn't work. I take examples from my own country's history. In the early 20th century a sophisticated political movement went to a good deal of trouble to secure an amendment to the U.S. Constitution in order to allow Congress to prohibit the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors. Why? The motives were perfectly understandable (it is difficult to deny that the consumption of liquor has been tied up with a good deal of heartbreak and disaster in human life), and these motives seemed to participants in that political movement to justify a constraint upon human liberty, upon individual decisions about the use of their own property and about the contracts into which they would or would not enter.

That unfreedom, imposed on us from 1919 until 1933, quite plainly did not work.
It fell because it failed.

Secondly, let us consider the sort of unfreedom typified by centralized social planning represented by the creation of a Federal Reserve Board, and ultimately by the introduction of fiat money. I think it safe to say that the headlines of the last year and a half especially make it clear that this unfreedom, too, does not work. This example is of a new sort because in each of the preceding two examples -- chattel slavery and alcohol prohibition -- we are discussing an institution that is no more. In the case of the Federal Reserve, we have to deal with an ongoing failure. Nonetheless, that it is a failure -- and that it is an instance of unfreedom -- are both very clear to me, and I hope to Mr. van Dun.

Business cycles preceded fiat money. But such money, and the central bankers whose "fiat" it is, surely worsen these destructive waves, these macrocosmic outbreaks of manic-depressive disorder. By flooding the land with the ever-cheaper legal tender, the central bankers cajole the retail and investment bankers, who in turn cajole men and women of varying degrees of prudence, industry, and business sense to accept their loans, for residences and for businesses; for the execution of good plans or bad plans or no plans at all.

Thus houses are built to be sold to families with fictitious income on the expectation that the houses will keep rising in price and will "flip" so no one will be the wiser; malls are built where there is no reasonable expectation that anyone will shop; deserts are watered and made to bloom at enormous expense in regions few wish to inhabit; dotcoms boast of "new paradigms" when their only real achievement is cluttering up cyberspace with yet more harebrainedness.

We know what comes next. What else can come next? Mises put it well: "There is no means of avoiding the final collapse of a boom brought about by credit expansion. The alternative is only whether the crisis should come sooner as the result of a voluntary abandonment of further credit expansion, or later as a final and total catastrophe of the currency system involved." Either way, it is nasty, and the victims of the collapse are, insofar as they are victims thereof, unfree.

Slavery Fails

So why, if I acknowledge that not all unfreedom involves slavery, is it the case that when I say that freedom works, do I immediately couple that with "slavery fails"? The answer is simple: Slavery provides a neat textbook case, if you will, of the failures of unfreedom. It shows us for example that one important mark of the failure of unfree institutions is that they constrain the possibilities and deform the hopes even of those whom they seem to privilege.

Let us return to the issue of slavery, then. By the 1850s in the southern United states, it was clearly a dysfunctional pillar of a dysfunctional society. What did slavery do for the free laborers of the slave states? Hinton Helper was right about this, in his book on The Impending Crisis of the South (1857). Helper was wrong on much, but he was on firm ground in arguing that slavery undermined the economic development of the south. The great plantations that employed large numbers of slaves to tend usually just one out of just three agricultural staples suited to this arrangement also soaked up the risk capital than might otherwise have gone to entrepreneurs, manufacturers, or even more mixed-use varieties of farmer, thereby making a diversified and balanced economny impossible.

The LONDON DAILY NEWS, in its review of Hinton's book, described it as advocating "a thorough reform in the labor system and renovation of the capitalists." Alas, it was too late for the old South to renovate itself in this way. The region was straped into a kamikaze plane, about to dive bomb the aircraft carrier of the North.

Slavery, in short, fell not because of accidents of history, and not because it was inhumane toward its intended victims (though it surely was). It fell because it failed, even on its own terms.

Hinton's arguments against the slave system may be taken, then, as a paradigm of pragmatic arguments for liberty in general. Liberty works in directing capital toward a variety of fruitful products, and co-ordinating the activities of innumerable individuals pursuing innumerable courses of life. The slave system confused the movement of capital, and made such co-ordination impossible.

An Industrial Society

The economics of antebellum slavery in the US is a huge subject, but I will take it as established for my purposes here that slavery, as represented specifically by the slave states within the United States in the 1850s, did not work. This leaves us with another important question of van Dun: Where is the evidence that the experience of an industrial society with rapidly changing technologies, extended markets and a highly developed division of labour can be extrapolated to other types of societies?

First, I do happen to live in an industrial society with rapidly changing technologies, so I think it worth remarking that slavery failed here, and that other forms of unfreedom regularly fail to an extent that suggests the obvious generalization. They represent the problems that freedom does and will solve.

But, second: are there really any other types of "society" on this planet now? There is only the one, so far as I know. There are different governments, who strive to keep up the illusion that sovereignty is a valuable thing, and so pretend to represent not just arbitrary chunks of land and the people there but so many distinct "societies" or "nations." I don't buy it. Still, it all seems to be just the one, this industrial one with its rapidly changing technologies, where slavery as a central part of a society's structure is a thing of the past. And that one emphatically does not need an earthly sovereign.

Globalization is nothing new. It was well-established when Leonard Read wrote his classic exposition of the information value of prices, "I, Pencil." What did the pencil have to say for itself? My core, it said, comes from graphite mined in Ceylon mixed with clay from Mississippi to produce the mixture inaccurately called "lead." This lead is then treated with a hot mixture that includes candle wax from Mexico.
The rubber-like product that tops off the pencil so we users thereof can correct our mistakes is made by combining rape seed oil from the Dutch East Indies (this was published in 1958) with sulfur chloride. And so forth.

I submit that all these contributions to the existence of that single pencil are themselves drawn from a single society incorporating both Indonesia and the US State of Mississippi. What has changed since 1958 is not this singleness but our awareness thereof.

A couple of digressions

By way of digression, let us acknowledge the final point of Read's essay. His point was not so much geographic spread as overwhelming complexity. No person, no central planning commission -- and we might easily add on his behalf, no bank of computers -- could anticipate or ordain everything that goes into putting together a pencil, which on its face seems such a simple implement. Only the whole of society consisting of innumerable individuals whose activities are co-ordinated by prices can accomplish this in the efficient way that pencil users take for granted.

There is only one society and within this one, slavery is wrong. Does slavery no longer exist, then? Alas, we can not say that. A second and much more solemn digression is appropriate here. According to a study by the U.S. State Department, 600,000 to 800,000 men, women, and children are trafficked across international borders each year. Eighty percent of these are women, and about half are minors. Although most of the traffic is commercial sexual exploitation, manual labor is exacted from some such objects of traffic, too. There are likely millions of other victims who are trafficked within the borders of a single nation and thus don't show up in such statistics.

Everybody except the immediate beneficiaries (and they remain silent on their practices) has little trouble recognizing this as an evil and an atavistic practice. It is not something that works, nor anything that promises to work. It is simply on a continuum with the acts of battery and abduction with which it generally begins -- violent crime surviving because of the darker traits of human nature. Note indeed, that trafficking in human beings takes place largely for the benefit of a market, prostitution, that itself has been driven underground by misguided criminalization. Despite that, we have shaking ourselves into a better equilibrium than that in which such bondage was any essential part.

James' Moral Vision

Allow me now to move on to the most daunting portion of my exposition. I will try to convey the essence of William James' (and incidentally my own) moral vision. Not all value is moral value but moral value is the type on which van Dun and I seem to occupy distinct stands. I would ask him to try to grasp the Jamesian vision, and to note in doing so that it has both a conservative and a rebellious side -- the conservative respects and defends the social equilibrium that has developed, against the savage or the fraudulent and the threats each presents. But the rebellious side tells us that no equilibrium is final, and pushes forward toward something more inclusive, more tolerant...higher.

A thoroughly secular view can grasp both halves of this vision, as a logical matter. But depth in contemplation of the human predicament, James says, will lead an ethical philosopher to wonder what motivates and what sustains the rebels who challenge the existing order and upon whose efforts the pattern of moral progress depends. In one passage in The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, (MPML) James said that every one of "hundreds of ideals has its special champion already provided in the shape of some genius expressly born to feel it, and to fight to death in its behalf".

Expressly born? A champion already provided? Provided by whom? The most natural hypothesis is that champions -- saints, we may call them, to recall the lectures on sainthood and its uses in Varieties of Religious Experience -- they come to us and are sustained by what James near the end of MPML calls "a divine thinker with all-enveloping demands."

There are innumerable situations in which both sides are right. The conservative is right, as is the rebel. Mr. van Dun glances at this situation when he asks, "Does the fact that my liberty stands in the way of another's plans or hopes, provide him or any other with a sufficient reason to disregard it?" That is indeed a very good question. Given the adjective "sufficient" before the word "reason" in that question I can confidently offer an unequivocal answer: No. But this requires some explanation, and that in turn requires that we make the question a bit more concrete.

It is quite commonly the case that one person's liberty is in accord with the established systems of his day (in the 1850s, an Alabama white man may well have had plans or hopes that involved ownership of a slave) and the sort of conflict the question suggests comes about because other person's liberty will involve defiance of that order. A slave may plan his escape just as an aspiring owner approaches the site of the auction. With whose hopes and plans should the pragmatist side?

Victory and Defeat There Must Be

So we meet the conservative and the rebel in a rather stark form. There are reasons to lock out some interests and disdain some passions. The reasons always come down to this: those interests and passions are (a) inconsistent with the existing social equilibrium, and (b) we can not now see our way clear to a better one. But each passion has its champion, and the collective pressure of them helps make way (whether they as individuals wanted this or not is irrelevant) to a broader, more tolerant, equilibrium later. Here I quote James's MPML again. "Since victory and defeat there must be, the victory to be philosophically prayed for is that of the more inclusive side -- of the side which even in the hour of triumph will to some degree do justice to the ideals in which the vanquished party's interests lay."

Later, and adopting I would say a somewhat more Olympian tone, James writes, "The pure philosopher can only follow the windings of the spectacle, confident that the line of least resistance will always be towards the richer and the more inclusive arrangement, and that by one tack after another some approach to the kingdom of heaven is incessantly made."

James epistemology, then, leads to an ethic that has to unfold in history, and it conceives of history as progressive.

Let us move a bit further back to get a sense of how messy a process history is, even if conceived of as a moral progress. Consider the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay colony. They certainly felt locked out by the High Churchmen running the established religion in the mother country in the early 17th century. Some of their colleagues would in time rebel and help put a king to death. But the Puritans who show up in US history books are the ones who braved the ocean to create a "shining city on a hill."

Did their own rebelliousness entail tolerant attitudes on their part. Heck no! Neither Anne Hutchison nor Roger Williams thought so, at any rate. But the rebellions of the Puritans -- both the at-home King-killing ones and the emigrants -- helped contribute over time to greater tolerance in the English-speaking world. This business of rebellion and the emergence of ever more inclusive equilibria is a costly one, to be sure.

Every equilibrium has discontents, out of whose ranks come rebels. Every equilibrium also has its defenders, some of whom think that the status quo is wonderful; others of whom simply think that it is better than any of the other options on the table. So with this backdrop, we can confidently answer van Dun's question.

"Does the fact that my liberty stands in the way of another's plans or hopes, provide him or any other with a sufficient reason to disregard it?"

Remember that I said that "sufficient" is the crucial word there. If the question were whether it provides the "other" with a genuine reason to disregard it, I would have had to say "Yes." But that genuine reason is not a sufficient reason. There is history to consider. There is the question of which of our freedoms represents the more inclusive order. If he is the one proposing to break with an established equilibrium, there is the question whether his actions will help replace it with a better. The answer, then, is "No."

Infinite Regression

One of the classical arguments against pragmatism, either epistemological or ethical, is the claim of an infinite regression.

Truth, (or knowledge, or warrant, or successful reference) is understood by pragmatists to be that which works.

Works toward what end or by what standard? ask the critics. And if any end or standard is specified, they pounce. Does that end or standard work? If not, it is neither true nor good, according to pragmatism itself. Yet if the end or standard does work, it must do so according to some yet further end or standard, and so on forever. Surely nothing that requires such an endless loop can be an accurate account of how we do or should make our here and now decisions. So pragmatism stands defeated!

Although Van Dun makes no such argument explicit, I believe that some such notion operates between the lines of his essay, so I give it answer here.

The regression is not infinite because one can in principle imagine a world in which all desires are harmonized each with the others. That is not the world in which we live, but we may well see both history and ethics as a process of working toward that summit, and we may see freedom as the crucial means to that end -- the metabolism by which we can keep putting one foot in front of the other toward that eschatology.


But then there is the argument from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or from contemporary cosmological theory, that the world will not end happily -- that it will all end in a heat death, as detached particles move endlessly far away from each other and all meaning is lost. Won't that make a mockery out of the goals humans had pursued so assiduously during our span in this cosmos?

Not at all. All such scientific premises represent the latest word, hardly the last word. A century from now, some revived form of the old Steady State cosmology may be regnant and the second law may itself have been defeated by some real-life version of Maxwell's demon, brought us by nanotechnology. Indeed, who knows but that in some Big Picture the destiny of the human race is to reverse the flow of energy into heat and save the cosmos from the contemplated death? All the better, then, do we have a good reason to set each other free from one another's tampering.

And with that stunningly speculative flourish I had better conclude, for fear that anything else I might say in this post will be an anti-climax.

20 September 2009

John T. Elson is dead.

Elson, a journalist who was for many years the Religion editor for Time, passed away quietly at the age of 78, on September 7th. He had been ill for two years.

Elson made his big splash in April 1966, when Time ran a cover story he had written. The question on the cover of that issue -- in big red letters against stark black background -- was: "Is God dead?"

Those who got beyond the provocative title read an essay that was rueful and scholarly. Read the obit here.

19 September 2009

The Last of the "Eight Days"

As I'm sure my readers are aware, because one would have to have spent the past few days in a cave not to be aware of it -- this month marks the one-year anniversary of the most dramatic financial crisis in a couple of generations.

The New Yorker has a tick-tock piece by James Stewart, called simply "Eight Days," with reference to the period from September 12 to and including September 19th of 2008. So we are now at the one year anniversary of the final of those days.

As my own way, then, of commemorating the insanity of last September, allow me simply to repost something I wrote a year ago today.


19 September 2008
The relevant regulators in the US and the UK have both now indulged themselves in the ultimate in knee-jerk reactions.

They've banned short selling in a wide range of stocks. Just to be clear: they haven't banned "naked" short selling, or "abusive" short selling, or closed any loopholes on the existing regulations that govern the practive.

They've banned short selling. Full stop. This is the logical equivalent of prohibiting pessimism.

Here's the SEC's press release.

And here's the counterpart from the other side of the Pond.

I have long believed that the history of the United States breaks down into a series of distinct equilibria. Leaving the colonial and revolutionary eras out of account, there have been three republics.

The first began in 1787 and lasted a little more than 70 years, then collapsed into a period of turmoil and civil war.

The second began in 1868, with the enactment of sweeping new amendments that made in effect for a new Constitution. This second republic lasted about 60 years. It, too, collapsed dramatically.

The third republic was up and running as of 1937, when Roosevelt's court-packing plan induced the Justices to acknowledge sweeping new interpretations for the Constitution. It is this third republic that is now crashing in upon us, and the ban on short selling is a sign of that.

You WILL BE CHEERFUL about stock prices. Washington (and London) command it!

The next logical step is a ban on any trade whatsoever at a price lower than the preceding trade on that asset. Unless, maybe, the asset in question is made out of hydrocarbons, in which case that might be reversed.

A hypothetical television commercial comes to mind.

"Crazy country. We'll sell you appliances. We'll make up prices. We'll order ourselves about like we're in a Three Stooges short. Crazy country. Our rules are ... INSAAAAANE!"

18 September 2009

Niall Ferguson: Astute and Absurd

This Tuesday, the Financial Times ran a fascinating opinion piece by one of its opinion editors, Niall Ferguson.

The headline was, "Why a rescue of Lehman would not have saved us." Pause on that headline for a bit. Who is "us"? I believe that Ferguson's answer (or the headline writer's answer) would be that the whole western industrialized world was affected to various degrees by the credit crunch epitomized by Lehman's bankruptcy filing a year ago, so that everybody living in that world is to some degree part of the "us" that needed saving.

Anyway, a Lehman bail-out would not have done it.

Ferguson's treatment of the theme does what his work often does -- maddeningly mixing up the astute with the absurd. But, quickly, here are two quotations that reflect the strength of the piece. Ferguson writes that in some "possible worlds" Lehman might have sold itself to a buyer in the months before it had to declare bankruptcy. But in this world, "[There] was a reason why no buyer could be found [over the preceding six months]. Lehman was a firm in its death throes....Even when a deal with Barclays seemed within reach, the British Financial Services Authority vetoed it. Alistair Darling, the chancellor of the exchequer, made it clear, 'we are not going to import your cancer.'"

That is how governments and central banks often go about "bailouts," by the way. Shotgun marriages. That's what happened with Bear Stearns and with WaMu. Should the respective governments have worked harder to secure such a marriage of Lehman with the most plausible suitor, Barclay's?

No. Ferguson quite rightly raises the possibility that the drowning man would have taken the lifeguard down with him. "Bob Diamond must thank his maker every day that the FSA did not approve a deal that might have destroyed Barclays; instead, he got what he wanted -- Lehman's core investment banking business -- dirt cheap from the bankruptcy court."

Having made those good points, Ferguson goes on seamlessly to make what seems to me a very bad one.

"Like the executed British admiral in Voltaire's famous phrase, Lehman had to die pour encourager les autres -- to convince the other banks that they needed injections of public capital, and to convince the legislature to approve them."

Lehman dies for TARP? It was good that Lehman not be bailed out because this made politically possible the bailing out of "the others"? That's just bizaare.

Let's think about this fearlessly. What would have been the result had neither Lehman nor anybody else been bailed out? "OOOH, the humanity!"

IMHO, we would have seen a very sharp descent of all economic indexes, then the economy, including but not centrally its financial portion, would have found its bottom and the way for a genuine non-inflationary recovery would have paved itself. Instead, we rescue ourselves from the very bottom by inviting stagnation, (afraid of the letter "V" we came up with the letter "L") and we hide this choice from ourselves while inducing a new round of 1970s-style inflation.

That's what Ferguson should have written. Not "Why a rescue of Lehman would not have saved us," but "why the kind of salvation implied in big bank rescues is not worth having." Capitalism is about risk, and to work toward a genuine capitalism we needed the "V." All of it, including that nasty point at the bottom.

17 September 2009

Dr House and the Bread

I am not a frequent TV viewer these days. I have, however, seen a handful of episodes of "House," the show about a cranky and drug-addicted Doctor who is such a good diagnostician he can't be fired, however many people -- patients, their family members, co-workers, bosses, you name it -- he might offend. Or at least, that seems to be the theme of the show: You, too, can afford to be obnoxious and even law-breaking so long as you are really good at something.

That is no doubt a wholesome message. But based on the samples of it I've seen, the show works best when that is put off to the side, and the plot moves along in Sherlock Holmes type fashion. For there is always a detective show buried in there. But Vicodin is the new cocaine.

For example, in one episode a man -- a police officer -- comes into the hospital with a condition that, among its other symptoms, has him in inexplicable euphoria. Nobody, not even House, knows what's wrong with him. So they go out to the police officer's home to look around (yes, House makes house calls. Of the investigative sort, anyway.)

The officer's house is a mess. He is an utter slob who seems to live on pizza deliveries. So?

So ... by itself, not very much. But House notices several loaves of bread in amongst the mess. Still, his colleague wonders -- So?

So, House instructs her (rather in the tone that Sherlock presumably used with Watson) a man this messy, living from one delivery to another, doesn't plan meals ahead. Why does he have a lot of bread in the place? One plausible hypothesis is that he uses bread to attract birds to his terrace. Why does he want to do that?

It turns out there is a reason why he wants to use bread to attract birds, and it relates to his illness.

Implausible as it all is as the story of a diagnostician's activities, it is a detective story, playing by the rules according to Hoyle. Or, rather, Doyle. Nice one, Doctor.

13 September 2009

Good luck to the other CF, and to SL

Apparently, I'm about to be married.

Well, seriously now ... that isn't me. The things you find if you're vain enough to google your own name now and then.

Good luck to the happy couple, the other Christopher Faille and the bride, Samantha Lang, both.

I spent last night at the "burning woman" festival in Goshen, Massachusetts. Here's a YouTube video from the same event last year, which will give you an idea of the proceedings, which are of course inspired by the better known Burning Man festival in Nevada each year.

12 September 2009

Antwerp, Belgium

Something I wrote long ago seems to have found a reader in Antwerp.

I don't see any date on this document, but I'm delighted by it.

The writer is obviously an admirer of the anarcho-capitalist intellectual Murray Rothbard, writing on behalf of something called the "Rothbard Instituut," which was apparently founded (according to their "about us" or "over ons" page) in November 2007. So sometime in the last two years, someone in Antwerp discovered and sought to reply at length to an unsigned editorial I wrote in the 1990s when I was managing editor of a very niche-publishing mag called The Pragmatist. That editorial was headlines "The Necessity of Pragmatism."

My critic appears to admire the "delightful story" I passed along from James' writings about the metaphysical debate over a squirrel in the course of a camping trip. The immediate point of that story is about the pragmatic theory of meaning, not of truth: although later in the book, aptly itself called "Pragmatism," James generalizes the method to the meaning of truth. That is where my critic's views and that of my 1990s self part company.

I won't contend with his argument today. I'm too delighted that my own literary/philosophical effort was thought worth of this painstaking a response. It is one of only four English-language articles so far listed on the site which makes my inclusion that much more intriguing.

If my critic, Frank van Dun, reads this: Hi. And thanks for making my day. I'll compose something more substantively responsive in due course.

11 September 2009

Paul Kilduff

Of late I've been reading a novel by Dublin-based author Paul Kilduff, entitled The Dealer (2000).

You can read about him via the above link, and about The Dealer via this one.

What I'd like to mention today is simply the wide disparity between the dust jacket copy, which on its face is designed to tell you something about the contents, and those actual contents. Here's the dust jacket copy:

When the multi-billion-pound takeover of Provident Bank is sensationally announced at a West End press conference, life will never be the same for many influential players in the City of London.

A star equities dealer has just bought a million soaring Provident shares – and others wonder how he does it. A London Stock Exchange investigator begins his work. A leading research analyst speaks her mind to the media. A finance director celebrates with a visit to a discreet Docklands townhouse. A lucrative yet bizarre lifestyle is suddenly in jeopardy.

A Detective Inspector finds a bloated body in the mud of the River Thames and, unaware of the ultimate consequences, explores a complex web of inter-connected lives in his search for a ruthless killer.

Although we do get a brief scene in the novel in which a "leading research analyst" is speaking in an evening newscast, she is not "speaking her mind to the media" about the Provident deal, as this copy suggests. First, she isn't "speaking her mind" at all, she is toeing the company line. She is talking bullish stuff because that is what her brokerage firm bosses want her to do. Second, that interview isn't about the Provident deal, the center of the novel's plot. It is about an earnings report from County Beverages, which is featured in a subplot.

More irritatingly, the finance director who visits the discreet Docklands townhouse in connection with another character's "lucrative yet bizaare lifestyle" isn't doing so in order to "celebrate" the Provident deal. He was the only member of the board of directors of Provident to oppose that deal, and is consoling himself after having lost that vote.

Not important. Just annoying. I know that authors go along with this sort of distortion because they figure the marketing department of the publisher has to do ist thing ... but I really don't see how it would have hurt sales had they troubled to make the copy accurate about the contents.

10 September 2009

Ben Stein Watch: Self Parody

Somebody at The Raw Story has gone back three years on our boy Ben and discovered this screed from a more or less "respectable" publication, The American Spectator.

The point of the babbling seems to be to distract the attention of as many people as possible from the then-current Mark Foley scandal. Foley's interest in the young boys serving as Congressional pages so disconcerts Stein (hiding something, Ben?) that he goes to extravagant lengths to defuse the impact. Gays are the "primary constituency" of the Democratic Party, he tells us, and most gay men are interested in little boys. So Dems shouldn't be allowed to make political hay out of Foley.

The following brief passage gives us a sense of Ben's understanding of what constitutes evidence for a large claim. "I hope it won't come as a surprise to anyone that a big part of male homosexual behavior is interest in young boys. (Take a look at anyone renting Endless Summer next time you are at the video store.)"

Now that he doesn't write for The New York Times anymore, maybe he'll have more time to hang around video stores, testing his gaydar.

06 September 2009

Apocryphal doesn't mean "phony"

In terms of its origin, it just means "hidden." Of course, Protestants in their rebellion against what they saw as the Catholic distortion of Holy Scripture rejected the "Apocryphal" books, and in their polemical rejection they gave the term, with a small "a," the significance of "phony" or "unreliable."

I regret that. I have no interest in participating in post-Reformation apologetics, but it does seem to me that saying a story is "apocryphal" gives a phoney veneer of sophistication to saying, simply, "I don't believe it," or "this can't be trusted."

Just a thought for the day. Loosely inspired by: this.

Enjoy the remains of the Labor Day weekend. In the northeastern United States, it has been a wonderful stretch of days.

05 September 2009

On the SEC, Madoff, etc.

The Inspector General of the Securities and Exchange Commission has this week come out with an elaborate (457 pages) report on the failure of the SEC to uncover what Madoff was up to, especially in the period subsequent to 1992.

Nineteen ninety-two is significant because that was the year the SEC investigated and shut down an investment firm known as Avellino & Bienes, which was actually just a feeder fund for Madoff. A more thorough scrutiny into A&B would have led to Madoff, because what they were (accurately) suspected of doing was just a microcosm of the bigger Madoffian picture.

The IG found that "the SEC had sufficient information to inquire further and investigate Madoff for a ponzi scheme back in 1992. There was evidence of incredibly conistent returns over a significant period of time without any losses, purportedly achieved by Madoff using a basic trading strategy of buying Fortune 500 stocks and hedging against the S&P index."

So why did the SEC not inquire further? I see no real effort at an answer here other than a lament about the "inexperience" of the examination and inspection staff members involved.

On another point, the IG's office says that it could find no reason to believe that the romantic relationship between Bernie Madoff's niece and an SEC official, Eric Swanson, did Bernie any good in the later years of the ongoing scheme. There is a brief biography of Swanson on page 89 of the report -- which, due to introductory materials, constitute page 109 of this pdf.

Swanson, who graduated from law school in 1993, joined the SEC staff three years later. He worked within the Office of Compliance, Inspections, and Examinations (OCIE), in particular in an SRO Group. The OCIE's SRO groups oversee the self-regulatory activities of industry organizations.

After working in the SRO Group for about two years, Swanson was promoted to Branch Chief. Thereafter, his career reads like that of a successful climber of such ladders. He became Senior Counsel, and soon thereafter Assistant Director of the OCIE.

Indeed, there's a bit of high-school-gossipy stuff in the interior of the report, since the OIG tracked down two of Swanson's former girlfriends, who apparently knew about each other but did not know about Shana Madoff, during the period when he was most involved in various Madoff-investigating capacities. Apparently Swanson and Jane Doe were set to be married on Florida in October 2005, before a hurricane scuttled those plans. Then they broke up in November.

I would suspect, giving those facts, that there was something other than a hurricane involved there. Its easy enough for two people who love each other to get married regardless of meteorology. But I'll make no hypotheses.

04 September 2009

The Hartford Courant

The leading source of dead-tree news in my neck of the woods, the HARTFORD COURANT, has apologized, although in rather lawyerly language rather than in any terms that would be satisfyingly abject, for repeated plagiarism.

[This is not breaking news, BTW. Anyone who wants breaking news should go elsewhere. This is my blog, I'll get around to things when I do.] Anyway, last week the Journal Inquirer's managing editor, Chris Powell, complained in a letter to the publisher of the Courant, that the latter had been "misappropriating on a wholesale basis local stories published in the Journal Inquirer." It appears that this has been going on since July.

Last weekend, Jeffrey S. Levine, the Courant's senior vice president, said in a statement that the paper in the past month has been experimenting with new strategies regarding the "aggregation" of news. They were trying to be hip and google-like. In the process, they forget some rules they should have learned in kindergarten.

"While attribution to the JI of the occasional big story we have broken may be welcome, the Courant's frequent use of the JI's work to report ordinary events in the towns in which our circulation overlaps is not welcome -- it's theft of copyrighted material and costly to us," as Chris Powell put it.

There were five other papers, aside from the JI of Manchester, that have apparently been ripped off in all this aggregation.

That isn't the only pile of crap the Courant has stepped into lately. It has placated Sleepy's, a chain retailer of beds and matresses, and a major advertiser, in a way quite pathetic.

George Gombossy has served as the consumer advocate columnist, under the heading "Watchdog," at the Courant for many years. In that capacity, he wrote a piece about a state investigation that Sleepy's may be selling mattresses with used boxsprings, selling them as new.

That's precisely the sort of thing they were paying him to write. Hence the term "Watchdog."

Apparently, not enough of a lapdog, though. He's been fired.

Here's his final column

and here is his website, where he proposes to carry on with his life's work.

03 September 2009

Cerberus: Woof

I'm thinking about Cerberus this morning, which is what I was also doing back in April when I wrote in an entry to this blog that Cerberus had gotten into the auto industry in a big way apparently "banking on a decoupling of auto companies with finance companies."

It didn't work all that well for them, although such decoupling as there has been, has made it less a disaster than it might have been.

Lots of people are thinking about Cerberus these days given a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, August 29, p. A!. “Investors in hedge funds run by Cerberus Capital management LP, whose audacious multi-million dollar bet on the U.S. auto industry went bust, are bolting for the door, clinching one of the highest-profile falls from grace of a superstar in the investment world.”

In that article, the WSJ said redemption demands had amounted to $5.5 billion, or 71% of assets. [A Sept. 3 correction indicates that the proper amount is $4.77 billion, or 70%. The original figure “incorrectly included additional assets belonging to Cerberus employees."]

Here are a couple of links to stories from happier days for the big multi-headed dog:

One from Paul Kedrosky, and one from TED.

And let's hear it for a guy who just likes an excuse to put up a cool picture of the mythical beast.

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.