29 November 2009

"Bread, Please" as Conditioned Response

I'd like to pursue the ideas to which I alluded here a week ago.

B.F. Skinner's book, Verbal Behavior (1957), grew out of a series of lectures he gave at Harvard in 1947-48. It naturally draws my attention that these were the William James Lectures, sponsored jointly by Harvard's Departments of Psychology and Philosophy. This is a series of lectures that began in 1930 and continued until the 1980s, and that hosted some of the most illustrious thinkers of that period within the interchange of those two disciplines. Just for example, not to elevate those above the others: Arthur Lovejoy gave the WJ lectures in 1932-33; Karl Popper in 1949-50; Gabriel Marcel in 1961-62.

The fact that Skinner gave his lectures on "verbal behavior" ten years before the publication of the book of that name would seem to suggest a considerable modification between the one format and the other.

Anyway, the book may be found here.

He defines "verbal behavior" in the first instance as "behavior shaped and maintained by mediated consequences," i.e. that has its desired effect through the actions of a listener. The desired effect of "bread please" is to persuade someone else at the table to move an object around, where physical constraints or social convention prevent the speaker from obtaining the bread for himself. Skinner later refines that definition a bit, but that remains a key to his approach.

"Bread please" seems a behavior generated by operant conditioning in a rather straightforward way. For a youngter, saying "bread" will suffice to get the bread. Indeed, one's parents (the conditioners) will likely be delighted that their child can form the word, so they will happily reinforce that speech by handing over a piece of bread. Later, though, "bread" earns only frowns unless modified by "please," so the growing child is brought within the scope of social convention.
More elaborate usages of language are only very complicated instances of the operation of much the same mechanism whence comes the phrase "bread please." That, at any rate, is Skinner's view. One of its advantages in his eyes is that it gets rid of the idea that words have meaning in the sense in which "meaning" might be something inside the brain and hidden from science. Words only "mean," for Skinner, because they get listeners to do things, and the doing is "as observable as any part of physics."

That is enough for today. I will say more soon about why Chomsky objected to the study of language in these terms, how later Skinnerians reacted to Chomsky, and how the dispute feeds into the question of the differentia of the human species.

28 November 2009

A Story and a Joke

Thursday night, I mentioned the gist of the following story to one of my companions at the feast. I've fleshed it out a bit since.

Many years ago, my best beloved, a brave group of harried and godly folk became tired of the game known in the old world as "football."

William Bradford said, "This is a stupid game. Let us travel to a distant place, where we can invent a better game and call IT 'football' instead."

And Captain Standish said, "I will lead the way."

Then said John Alden. "When we get there, we can assign a new lame-sounding name to the game we have rejected -- but I fear I am not the right person to invent the adequate nomenclature."

Priscilla. "Don't be so timid John. I'm sure you can come up with a good idea. Speak for yourself!"

John, emboldened, said: "Ah, then, let us call it 'soccer'! And let us never play it again!"

And they all said "Amen" as they walked aboard the Mayflower.


And as the holiday drew to a close, I watched a DVD of one of Jerry Seinfeld's old standup routines.

In the funniest bit, he talked about how sky-divers wear helmets. This seems odd to him, since in the event the 'chute doesn't open, the helmet won't save you.

"If the chute doesn't open, you're there as a cushion for the helmet. Later, all the helmets will get together and this one will tell his buddies the story. 'Yes, it was a close call. I would have been smashed up pretty awful if I hadn't had a human strapped beneath me.'"

27 November 2009

Egypt: A random bit of history

From an article entitled "Arab Government Responses to Islamic Finance: The Cases of Egypt and Saudi Arabia," by Rodney Wilson, published in Autumn 2002 in the journal Mediterranean Politics.

Ali Sabri became Vice President of Egypt under Sadat, but he was dismissed from his post in May 1971, as Sadat alleged that he had been planning a coup. With the demise of Ali Sabri, al Najjar wasted no time in making a second attempt to start an Islamic bank in Egypt. This time the government was more receptive to his ideas, and the Nasser Social Bank was established under a special statute, Law 66 of 1971, which meant that it did not have to register with the Central Bank or be regulated by it....The first general manager of the bank was Dr Abd al-Aziz Hijazi, a former Egyptian Prime Minister who knew little about Islamic banking, but who was a trusted establishment figure.

Question: why was the government, prior to Ali Sabri's dismissal, hostile to the idea of an Islamic Bank?

My personal view is that Sadat was at first riding the post-Nasser wave of Arab nationalism. Arab nationalist ideology is a very different thing from Islamicist ideology, of course (as the generally secular orientation of leaders such as Nasser and Sadat serves to illustrate. The creation of a bank with specifically Islamic features may have seemed a dangerous concession to Sadat in his first year in office. After the abortive coup (real or imagined) of Ali Sabri, though, Sadat may have been more interested in finding domestic allies, and might have thought this a necessary concession, after all.

Notice that the creation of an institutioin for Islamic finance came with a symbolically important caveat -- a name that included Nassar's, and that gave no indication that there was anything specifically Islamic about this institution. That, and the leadership of Abd al-Aziz Hijazi, whom Sadat clearly considered safe.

I'm just guessing, though. If you know beter, feel free to correct me.

26 November 2009

Thanksgiving Day

With all due respect to the Pilgrims, to the traditional sentiments of harvest time, and to expressions of gratitude, both cosmic and local, Thanksgiving Day is among its other functions the day that traditional rivalries play out on football fields -- the fields of both high schools and colleges.

I can't speak to today's games because I'm not writing this today. I wrote this last weekend for posting today. (Ain't I clever? Ain't technology wonderful?) But I will take this opportunity to express my regret at the end of the old Fermi-Enfield rivalry. This year's game between the two public schools of the town of Enfield, Conecticut will be the last in a string that goes back to 1972. Enfield will join the Pequot Conference as a full member next season, and the rules of that conference prohibit games outside said conference.

While I'm in this mood of nostalgia and regret, allow me to note (not that you have any choice) that there were several traditional Thanksgiving Day rivalries of recent decades in northcentral Connecticut that are no more, mostly because one of the other of the high schools involved has disappeared. New Britain would play Pulaski; Penney would play East Hartford; Middletown would play Woodrow Wilson High. But one of the schools in each of those pairings is no more.

Ah, but now I need to cheer myself up. What about that UConn/Notre Dame double-overtime game this past weekend? Was that amazing? Congrats to coach Edsall. This was the best possible recruiting poster for him as he builds a program fit for the national stage, doing what Calhoun managed to do for the same school's basketball program years ago.

Yeaaaah Huskies.

22 November 2009

Animal language

If language is just "verbal behavior," as Skinner said (1957), then there is nothing special about human language to separate itself from the singing of birds or the barking of dogs. It is on exactly this point that Chomsky (1959) picked his famous fight with Skinner, and insisted that human language is something special.

Although Skinner himself never responded to Chomsky's critique, others have done so on his behalf in the intervening half century. Here is an example from

Personally, I have long been fascinated by experiments into "animal language" in a rather specialized sense of the term -- not "animal verbal behavior" in a sense that would involve barks or tweets especially. The implicit, and often the explicit, view of many who study the language of whales, or who teach sign language to primates, is that language in a specifically human sense has non-human application. Maybe language in the narrower sense of the term, though rare, is not entirely unique to our species.

Just some plankton for thought.

21 November 2009

In the House of Representatives

The House Financial Services Committee voted 43 to 26 Thursday in favor of a measure sponsored by Ron Paul (R-TX) that would expand Congressional oversight authority vis-a-vis the Federal Reserve.

As the Wall Street Journal rightly noted yesterday in a front page story, this vote was part of a general backlash of "populist anger that Wall Street was bailed out while the public was not." Actually, I think (and hope) that there was more to it than that, but I approve of the backlash, however defined, and so I'm inclined to be happy about this vote.

The problem with central banking isn't the opacity of the bank's operations vis-a-vis politicians or their constituents. The problem with central banking is ... central banking. As an institution, it is inherently misguided. Even if Paul's bill should pass, it will amount to little more than some additional work for the GAO in auditing the Fed. Still, one has to approve of the sentiment.

Greed is not always good, greed does not always work. And the way to limit the dysfunctional consequences of greed is through keeping money real.

Separately, the House this week has amended a bill under consideration designed to reduce the systemic risk that accompanies the failure of large financial institutions. Like, just for instance, Lehman Brothers. The bill at issue is the Financial Stability Improvement Act (FSIA or HR 3996). One of the themes of the bill is the creation of a sort of polluter-pays system for the unwinding of large banks. The cost of the orderly unwind is supposed to fall upon the shareholders and unsecured creditors of the bank, not the taxpayers.

The amendment adopted Wednesday, sponsored by Representatives Miller and Moore (Democrats from North Carolina and Kansas, respectively) is designed to ensure that even the secured creditors of such institutions take a hit. If you follow that link you'll find that this amendment takes up only a page and a half, so it would be easy enough to read through if it were not written in legalistic jargon. The gist of it is that secured creditors of a bank that fails and ends up in receivership will take a haircut, in that in the discretion of the Receiver up to 20% of the secureds claim could be turned into an unsecured claim "as necessary to satisfy any amounts owed to the United States or to the [polluter-pays Fund]."

An intense quarrel has broken out over this amendment in the financial blogosphere. Felix Salmon, for example, weighs in here.

20 November 2009

A Point of Etymology

I have concerned myself in earlier blog entries here with various plagiarism scandals. Here for example.

There now appears to be a plagiarism scandal underway in the southern hemisphere. Isn't the web wonderful? How else would I ever have encountered a New Zealand newspaper story? Anyway, it appears that a novel written by Witi Ihimaera, an English Professor at Auckland University, is replete with stolen goods. So much so that he is buying back copies of his book, presumably to re-write those passages and issue a theft-free edition.

The simple and obvious question is: does Ihimaera flunk out those of his students who do stuff like this? Thank God for hypocrisy. Or, at least, for the sake of the education of the affected youngsters, I HOPE he's a hypocrite.

So let us take this occasion to be explicit about the etymology of the word "plagiarism." It comes from the Latin word plagiarius, which means: kidnapper. That seems a straightforward adaptation of meaning.

Plagiarus in turn came ultimately from the root PLAK, meaning "to weave." As one would weave a net as a snare or a trap. For kidnapping.

None of this tells us anything new about the offense, but then etymology like philosophy leaves the world as they each find it.

19 November 2009

Nine subjects at random, with links

1. Today, November 19, is the 90th anniversary of the day the U.S. Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, due to widespread opposition to -- or in some instances just unmollified reservations about -- US membership in the League of Nations.

2. It is also the 146th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's delivery of the Gettysburg Address.

3. And a happy birthday to Calvin Klein (b. 1942), Meg Ryan (1961), and Jodie Foster 1962.

4. Ever wonder if there is a secret to winning stock car races? Yes. Drive fast. The Onion, as always, has the scoop.

5. But seriously (sort of): if you do care about NASCAR, you can catch up on this year's resulls here.

6. If you don't think NASCAR is a real sport, well ... you may be more interested in the ongoing debate over Bil Belichek and the punt that didn't happen. That link will take you to a column criticizing the decision to go for a first down.

7. And this link will take you to a column by one of Belichek's defenders.

8. Maybe you don't like sports. If you're up for a light-hearted look at finance news (yes, such a thing is possible), you might start with Jeff Matthews here. And then of course move on to Dealbreaker.

9. You think central bankers are a bunch of fun loving guys? You think that when they and their finance-ministry regulators from around the world get together, they do it in someplace warm, with a beach? Bermuda, maybe? You think wrong. The central bankers and finance ministers of the G7 will meet this coming February (FEBRUARY!) in Nunavut, Canada.

15 November 2009

Dickens and Bohemia

I'm looking again through Barzun's book, FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE.

Today's index-driven idleness takes us to a discussion of the sexual mores of Victorian England (pp. 575 - 577.)

While certain strata of society sought to retain "respectability," -- those in business, politics, the professions -- other strata, specifically artists and literary folk, created Bohemia in the middle of the 19th century. "It afforded cheap living, enforced no moral code, allowed modes of dress as singular as desired, and required no sustained solvency." Though first established in the Latin Quarter in Paris -- as two operas tell us -- Bohemia spontaneously developed branches.

Yet when a man of letters becomes as prominent as Dickens, he is by definition not a Bohemian, and the Victorians' attitudes toward his personal life, his "indiscretions," were ambiguous.

In 1857, after all, Dickens was much smitten by the actress Ellen Ternan. Rumors of adultery began to circulate. Dickens was sufficiently concerned with respectability that he felt it necessary to deny this emphatically, and against advice he put out a press release and published a statement in his own paper doing so. Later, as Barzun phrases it, "the young woman did become his mistress -- without his advertising the news -- but both felt guilty ever after."

These matters, scandalous though they were, did nothing to reduce the admiration in which Dickens was held by his public. Barzun cites them -- and other incidents in high-profile sexual mores in what he calls a "motley of arrangements and outcomes," as evidence of the waning of Romanticism, and the approach of "the low spirits, a resigned acceptance of the second best, that belong to the mood of Realism."

14 November 2009

Moon Water Results?


The widely publicized experiment last month produced evidence of "significant quantities of ice on the lunar surface," NASA now says, making this convenient orbital body look good as a site for colonization, a stepping stone for the human race on the way to really distant destinations.

The director of the Lunar University Network for Astrophysics Research put things into perspective. "It is a big Wow," he said.

Gotta love that techno-scientific jargon.

13 November 2009

Bear Stearns: Venue???

After all the storm-and-stress of the last two years, the criminal trial of Tannin and Cioffi may all have come down to the discomfort the jury felt over the inappropriate venue.

Venue, by standard legal definition, is "the county (or geographical division) in which an action or prosecution is brought for trial, and which is to furnish the panel of jurors."

The Bear Stearns sponsored funds managed by Cioffi and Tannin dissolved in the spring and summer of 2007, an early sign of the severity of the subprime crisis. The two men were indicted in June 2008, in the federal district court for the eastern district of New York. Here we see the venue question.

Why were they indicted and later tried in the eastern district of New York? That district consists of Long Island, Staten Island, the Queens, and Brooklyn. Didn't Tannin and Cioffi work in Manhattan? Manhattan, along with the Bronx, constitutes the SOUTHERN DISTRICT of New York. Yes, they did. And there have been times when the US Attorney for the southern district was the big cheese in such matters, the sheriff of Wall Street (that's how Rudi Giuliani first became a national figure after all, back in the 1980s).

It appears that the prosecutors in Brooklyn wanted one of the sexy insider-trading cases for themselves. Here's a story about that general subject written with reference to cases you won't recognize, but which made quite a splash at the time the summer of 2000.

But back to the Tannin/Cioffi matter. Soon after retiring to deliberate, the jury sent the judge a brief note: "Please explain venue further." This kind of trans-district poaching it seems has costs.

12 November 2009

A Bit On the History of Architecture

A random quote from Tom Wolfe's 1981 book, FROM BAUHAUS TO OUR HOUSE.

"The battle to be the least bourgeois of all became somewhat loony. For example, early in the game, in 1919, Gropius had been in favor of bringing simple craftsmen into the Bauhaus, yeomen, honest toilers, people with knit brows and broad fingernails who would make things by hand for architectural interiors, simple wooden furniture, simple pots and glassware, simple this and simple that. This seemed very working class, very nonbourgeois....Theo van Doesburg, the fiercest of the Dutch manifesto writers, took one look at Gropius' Honest Toilers ... and sneered and said: How very bourgeois. Only the rich could afford handmade objects, as the experience of the Arts and Crafts movement in England had demonstrated. To be nonbourgeois, art must be machine-made."

08 November 2009

Dickens chronology

I've been wondering. How do we fit Charles Dickens into Barzun's over-arching theory about the 19th century in European cultural history? My continued readings in and musings about Barzun's book, DARWIN, MARX, WAGNER, combined with the release of yet another Hollywood version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, have together brought me to this curiosity.

Dickens' career straddles the great divide between the romanticism of the early part of the century and the materialistic turn of the latter part. Barzun, remember, assigns great importance to the year 1859 in connection with that turn. So where do Dickens' works stand, on either side of that line.

Here are some of the most influential of his works, and their date of publication, with italics for the one of his great works that came out within the fateful year itself.


Dickens was a world-famous author long before 1859, and his habits of mind were settled before what Barzun saw as the turn toward mechanism. I expect that if I asked him, Barzun would likely include Dickens with the High Romantic movement. I'd rather not bother a 101 year old man with a question on such a point, though.

I've looked into his magnum opus, FROM DAWN TO DECADENCE (2000) for Dickens mentions. I have found only one -- a brief discussion of a couple of the female characters, in connection with the Victorian notion of an idealized wife as "the angel in the house." Nothing there seems to shed any light on Dickens himself.

07 November 2009

New Jersey's pension situation

Orin Kramer and William G. Clark are between them responsible for managing the state pension funds in New Jersey.

Kramer is the Chair of the State Investment Council, and Clark is Director of the Division of Investment.

Daniel Strachman, in a guest opinion column published Friday by The Alternative Press, urges the state (which, due to Tuesday's election, has a new Governor) should fire them both.

So what is the pension situation in New Jersey, that would incite such a call? Here is a primer, more than a month old but serviceable.

Paragraphs 8 and 9 of that story are key:

The latest available figures from the state, released in spring, showed state pension funds were worth $77.7 billion as of June 30, 2008, about $34.4 billion short of obligations. Similarly, the state is obligated for $50.6 billion in future post-retirement medical benefits that it annually funds out of the budget.

Following last year's economic turmoil, the latest available figures from the state Division of Investments show the state's pension funds were worth $66.7 billion Aug. 31, 2009.

Corzine' administration made some changes aimed at slowing the expenditure of pension funds, such as an increase in retirement age. But the problems have been developing through at least a couple of turns of the boom/bust cycle. In July 1997, New Jersey sold $2.75 billion of pension bonds in July 1997. Then-Governor
Christine Todd Whitman said at the time that it would be crazy "not to do this." She said the bonds, which paid a fixed interest rate of 7.64%, would keep the system fully funded and save the taxpayers money.

The fund has earned 4.8% annualized return since the bond sale. So it paid 7.64% to acquire the capital with which it has been earning 4.8%? Does that sound like a bad plan to you? Me, too.

06 November 2009

More on Roman Polanski

The emerging Swiss/US relationship is intriguing.

Somebody has apparently decided, for example, that an isolated spot in the Alps might be ideal for some of the prisoners now kept at Gitmo. Thus we get news stories like this.

There's also the taxation issue. Perhaps Switzerland wants to earn back the prerogative of being a tax-evasion haven by making clear that it is not a sex-crimes haven. There surely is more to the timing of Polanski's arrest than some Javert-like perseverance on the part of Californian investigators.

Switzerland's reputation as a tax haven has taken some hits lately. Or (to put the point positively) its repute as a member of the family of nations willing to co-operate with other nations in going after tax cheats has improved.

Indeed, it was only Friday, September 25, that the OECD promoted Switzerland from the gray to the "white list" of mutually co-operative countries. See here.

Intriguingly, it was only one day later that Roman Polanski tried to enter the country of Switzerland to accept an award and found himself under arrest on sex crime charges dating back to the 1970s.

Is there a connection between the two events other than geography? Consider, whilst pondering this, that the government of the US has a good reason to want to be friends with Switzerland, quite aside from tax revenue. Those Guantanamo prisoners have to go somewhere.

In a related development, the largest Swiss bank, UBS, especially wants to get back into the good graces of the United States after a run-in with the IRS: here.

Could UBS have been part of a back channel deal for Polanski?

None of this makes Polanski any less of a criminal sleazebag than he would be anyway. But it does add another dimension to the proceedings.

05 November 2009

Roman Polanski

I'm rather late to the fair on the Roman Polanski story. Let me, though, say this: Polanski should do some time. Behind the reluctance to agree with that in some quarters is an abominable quasi Nietzschean bunch of crap about how great artists are Ubermensch so they don't have to obey the rules of the rest of society, and that needs a rebuke.

Look at it another way. Polanski could have lived out his whole life in France, dying some day of natural causes free from any US/Californian prosecution. Is France itself a prison cell??? Hardly! It has lots of room, it has Paris, plus skier friendly mountains, some of the world's most beautiful beaches, and should he get tired of all of that ... its own Disneyland even! Not much like where he is going to be living.

So why did he not stay in France? Because he doesn't really think of himself as a fugutive, so he sees no reason why he shouldn't travel freely to accept prizes. In that sense, he is being punished not only for a long-ago horrid crime but for a very recent instance of reality-denial.

The only thing sad here is that his arrest wasn't captured on video by Dateline. This would be a great episode of Chris Hanson's "To Catch a Predator."

"Can I come in, Swiss Miss?"

[Female voice from inside] ; "Oh yes, pour yourself a lemonade, I'll be out in a minute."

01 November 2009

Wagner? A Materialist?

Continuing the line of thought I was following last Sunday, let us speak some more about Richard Wagner.

Some of my readers might have been surprised at Barzun's thesis, since it involves the inclusion of Richard Wagner, whose music dramas have a mystical, otherworldly cast to them, as part of a troika whose work led to the ubiquity of mechanistic materialism. How does Wagner belong on that short list?

As I understand Barzun's position here, there are three key points. The first involves the method of composition. The so-called "unending melody" of a Wagnerian opera is mechanically created, through an array of leitmotif, each expressing a definite character, idea, or object, so that when that character or object is on stage, or the libretto makes allusion to that idea, the musical development re-introduces the demanded motif, as an aural identification tag. It all strikes Barzun as materialistic, as if aural atoms are bumping into one another and randomly forming musical molecules.

The second key point involves the role of music itself within the larger theatrical context. His music, Barzun tells us, has no inherent appeal. Nobody would listen to the music itself for pleasure, in isolation from the story for which it provides accompaniment. The music is materialistic in that it does not stand on itself, as music of earlier eras had, but is a "program visibly objectified on the stage ... and the full dramatic program embodied in the philosophical commentary, and not simply in the libretto."

And, thirdly, that philosophical commentary to which would-be appreciators of Wagner's music are eventually directed is itself materialistic. Wagner resurrects the Norse gods in order to kill them all off, all in service of the Feuerbachian point that no God or gods created man -- men, as artists and as audiences, both create gods and dispose of them.

In his understanding of Wagner, Barzun has been seconded of late by Bryan Magee, author of The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (2000).

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.