31 December 2009

Top Financial Stories 2009

I generally ask myself at this time of year what were the biggest stories of the past twelve months, in business/financial news.

By "stories," I don't mean themes, such as "Doubts about efficacy of SEC regulation" or "US/EU relations." I mean stories, such as one might have seen in a particular newspaper on some specific day. Of course, I choose the ones I do largely because they illustrate an important theme. But the theme itself isn't the story.

Further, I don't rank them, as in a top ten list. For the first couple of years that I did this I simply gave one "top" story from each of the twelve months of the year now ending. Last year was so wild, especially in its second half that I couldn't stick to the one-a-month presentation. I ended up with a list of 18 big stories, two per month starting with July.

This year, for the sake of balance I suppose, I have produced another list of 18 stories, twice a month this time for the first six months, then just one a month from July.

All that understood: Here we go! The list is dominated this year by a meta-theme. We might call it: the triumph of experience over hope.

January. (a) The inauguration of a new President of the United States, and Barack Obama's choice of Timothy Geithner to head Treasury. Geithner's presence in the new administration is not a sign of change, but one of continuity. During most of the Bush years, Geithner was the very visible President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

(b) Financial crisis in Iceland brings street protests, shake-up in government there. Iceland, on the one hand, has long been a free market economy, with taxes lower than those of most other OECD countries. On the other hand, it has maintained a Nordic welfare system, including universal health care and post-secondary education. Whatever may be true of Las Vegas: what happens in Iceland, is widely watched elsewhere.

February. (a) Obama signs the stimulus act, a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The full title seems better to convey the almost cartoonish Keynesianism involved: "An act making supplemental appropriations for job preservation and creation, infrastructure investment, energy efficiency and science, assistance to the unemployed, and State and local fiscal stabilization, for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2009, and for other purposes."

(b) Zimbabwe asks African states for $2 billion in aid -- Mugabe vows to continue brilliant policies. I'll simply offer a link here.

March. (a) Bernie Madoff pleads guilty without a plea deal, claims to have acted alone. Of course, he did not act alone, but by taking the fall and keeping mum on confederates, he appears to have earned some necessary prison cred.

(b) UK Financial Services Authority adopts new rules on derivatives. In London as in Washington, complicated and insufficiently regulated derivatives are widely blamed for the crisis of 2008. That diagnosis is jejune, but is to be expected. The particular derivatives that draw fire in the UK are known as "contracts for difference."

April. (a) Dow Chemical finally closes on its Rohm & Haas deal. The idea of this merger was to craete a "leading specialty chemicals and advanced materials company." Its logic would have been more powerful, and the deal would have gone through smoothly, had the timing been a bit better.

(b) Chrysler files for bankruptcy This is the first of three headline events on our list of 18 that may stand in for a single momentous theme -- the frog-marched restructuring of the US automotive industry in general. And we won't bother listing separately that GM too passed through a bankruptcy court proceeding.

May. (a) China-Brazil oil/loan deal The Brazilian oil company Petrobras finalized a deal with the People's Republic of China. Petrobras got a (US)$10 billion loan and PRC got a long-term supply of 'black gold.' This is a straw in a lot of different winds -- the rise of China to global prominence on the back of its huge dollar reserves is one of them.

(b) Obama announces new CAFE/ emissions standards. This is our second auto industry headline of the year. The program is projected to reduce oil consumption over the period from the 2012 to the 2016 model years by approximately 1.8 billion barrels. (As you probably would expect, dear reader, I think such projections warrant skepticism.)

June. (a)US Supreme Court decides Traveler's Indemnity v. Bailey. Asbestos is one of the big "mass tort" issues that have rocked our civil legal system in recent decades. Travelers thought it had a deal that limited its exposure via a settlement trust established by order of the federal district court in Manhattan back in 1986. Unfortunately for them, state law claims and "collateral attacks" made that trickier than they had expected.

(b) Elections to Euro parliament strengthen the center-right parties. For purposes of the italicized statement, anyway, we may understand the term "right" to mean the group of parties or factions that are suspicious about the role of the Parliament they are joining, either on behalf of separate sovereign nationalisms or on behalf of EU-regulated global commercial concerns or both. The "left," which lost this round, consists of those that see a need for a more activist EU.

From here on we are presenting just one headline per month.

July. Cash-for-clunkers program in the US. This is our final US-auto-industry headline. There was always an ambiguity to the plan. Was it designed chiefly to stimulate the auto industry, or to improve fuel efficiency? The goals aren't obviously in harmony. Still, any critique of its efficacy in one respect could be deflected by pointing to the other.

August. Settlement of US/Swiss Dispute over UBS Confidential Client Information. The relationship between Switzerland and the US seems to have grown closer in a number of respects over the last year.

September. Target Corp. declassifies its board Reform has come to the field of corporate governance, though what over-all impact such reforms may end up having it is hard to say.

October. Ireland votes in favor of Lisbon Treaty, effectively secures the new continent-wide government It is difficult to tell where Europe is headed. The Lisbon Treaty would certainly seem to be a step toward closer political integration. But the European Parliamentary elections, as noted above, were won by parties skeptical thereof, and there are a lot of centrifugal forces at work.

November. What is patentable? SCOTUS hears arguments. My own expectation is as follows: (a) the Justices will uphold the court below in its finding that Bilski's 'process' is really an abstract idea and thus not patentable; and (b) they will work harder than the court did below in order to define what is or isn't an abstract idea.

December. Two crucial bills advance through the Houses of the US Congress -- the health care reforms and the financial-regulatory system overhaul.
It seems very likely that something will be enacted into law in both of these areas sometime early next year. But I could be wrong even about that.

27 December 2009

My three calenders

For my week-by-week desk calender through 2010, I will be relying on a beauty with a Stephen King theme. Among its attractions, there is a #3D cover image of a lengthy passage between two lines of hedges. Wholesome enough: unless you tilt the calender a bit, at which point you can see a bloody croquet mallet on the ground at the front of the path. Inside, you can find such tidbits as this: Feb. 9, 1985, was the day the Bangor (Maine) Daily News printed a story revealing that King was the real author behind the pseudonym "Richard Bachman."

My month-by-month wall calender for the coming year, from "Silver Lining," has a World War II history theme. You have to love Silver Lining, if only for their boast that they have "the best selection of calenders in the known universe". On the page for January, we learn for example that it was on January 2, 1940, that Red Army forces launched a major offensive against Finnish positions on the Karelian Isthmus.

Finally, for the day-by-day calender on top of my dresser, I will this coming year be relying on: "Latin: 365 Phrases with Phonetics and English Translations" to get me through MMX.

I thought you'd want to know. You're welcome.

26 December 2009

Links about health care reform

The subject of the day. I don't have a lot to say about it, so I'll simply offer links.

1. What I said 2 and a half years ago still reads well to my own biased eyes.

2. Here is something along analogous lines, that Ronald Bailey wrote back in 2003.

3. But let's be more up-to-date for a moment. Here is something from the folks at Cato, who are watching all this with some more particularity than I am.

4. Julian Sanchez reminds us that insurance is about managing risks. If health insurers aren't allowed to manage risks (by for example protecting themselves against liability for pre-existing conditions) then whatever exactly it is that they are doing, it is no longer insurance as that term has always been understood.

5. It does seem to be an odd but empirically observable fact that in some fields low-risk people purchase more insurance than do high-risk people.

6. Virginia Postrel tells us about her life, her breast cancer diagnosis of 2007, and what she makes of it in terms of health insurance as an industry.

7. On the intra-party split the Democrats now face? This may be important. The bill is hardly home-free given the huge differences betwen the two sausages that have come out of the two chambers of our sausage making apparatus. Here is a columnist in The New York Times on the intra-party split.

8. And here is ABC News.

9. Forty-five years ago, Kenneth Arrow wrote a "seminal paper" about the economics of health care. Krugman cites it as gospel, others aren't so worshipful.

25 December 2009

From John Milton's Nativity Ode

Time will run back, and fetch the age of gold,
And spekl'd vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous sin will melt from earthly mould,
And Hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.

Yea Truth, and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Th'enamelled Arras of the Rainbow wearing,
And Mercy set between,
Thron'd in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering,
And Heav'n as at some festival,
Will open wide the Gates of her high Palace Hall.

[lines 135-148].

I love these lines, and post them here each year due to the vividness with which they display hope, the most forward-looking of the virtues.

Merry Christmas

24 December 2009

Longfellow, on the Bells of Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

20 December 2009

Dead-Tree Books

I had hoped to write something about animal language again here, and about how a certain philosophical way of thinking about animal language can help us negotiate our way, in the contemplation of our own verbal behavior, between the upper dogmatism of a Chomskyan rationalism and the lower dogmatism of a Skinnerian positivism. But anything worthwhile along those lines would take more time and effort than I'm prepared to put into it right now, so I'll beg off with a simple observation about the (not entirely unrelated) question of the publication of books.

How long will the dead-tree book publishing industry last, in the face of Amazon's Kindle and other forms of digital competition?

For a sober discussion of the issue go here. But for a more amusing take, I prefer blogger Jeff Matthews.

His point? Try to think of it as if it were a new idea and consider how insane it would sound. If everyone was using digital screens to read, and accustomed to it, then the idea of creating tree farms (or deforesting continents so we need to rely on tree farms) so that we can produce pulp with expensive machinery so that we can spray ink onto tiny slices of pulp known as "paper" so that we can then market ideas and stories years after they were first conceived, hoping that they have remained topical in the interim ... all this would seem insane.

Yet it doesn't seem insane, because human beings are creatures of habit. We love our dead-tree books like some of us love our old vinyl records, and the transition to the newer ways of reading will take some time.

Ah, and that new book smell. Like the new-car smell, it has its addicts. And the flying buttresses of Gothic architecture offer a ready example of how an arrangement at first adopted for reasons of utility can come to seem valuable in itself, to be beautiful, even when there are other ways of keeping the walls up.

19 December 2009

2010: A Year of Living Dangerously

The Federal Open Market Committee, a body of the Federal Reserve, voted this week to keep the federal funds rate in the range betwen 0% and 0.25%.

Frankly, I believe this to be irresponsible. It is part of the bad old tradition of using the money supply to stimulate an economy by cheapening the currency. They also retained the "extended period" language. You can see the whole statement by clicking that link.

The first two sentences of the 3d graph are crucial: "The Committee will maintain the target range for the federal funds rate at 0 to 1/4 percent and continues to anticipate that economic conditions, including low rates of resource utilization, subdued inflation trends, and stable inflation expectations, are likely to warrant exceptionally low levels of the federal funds rate for an extended period. To provide support to mortgage lending and housing markets and to improve overall conditions in private credit markets, the Federal Reserve is in the process of purchasing $1.25 trillion of agency mortgage-backed securities and about $175 billion of agency debt."

This means full speed ahead for a policy of "quantitative easing," or the cheapening of the US dollar, and this in turn means increasing prices across the board are inevitable.

In the very short term, this is good news for some people. It is good news for businesses that have gone too far into debt, but whose debt is measured in nominal (non-inflation-adjusted) terms, because they'll be paying back that debt now in cheapened dollars, so in effect their debt is being reduced. It is good news, too, for some of hte unemployed. Some of those businesses, relieved of that debt, will be in a position to hire new employees. In simple terms, then, this policy will have and is having a stimulative effect, but it is like getting one's energy from a drug. The drug has effects on the body that go far deeper than the immediate rush, and even the rush won't be as great as some hope, because a body builds up tolerance over time, requiring ever-greater doses for the same effect.

Neal Lipschutz, managing editor of Dow Jones Newswires, expressed his disappointment immediately. "I continued to hope for the merest hint that zero rates can't go on forever. That would have been achieved by altering or eliminating the 'extended period' modifier for how long current policy would hold. But it stood unmolested."
Though Lipschutz didn't put it this bluntly, it does now appear that we are headed for 1970s-style stagflation.

The price of crude oil (which is globally set in terms of the US dollar) has been declining for the last month, from $80 to $70. Yet it began a climb immediately when markets learned that the FOMC was sticking with the near-zero rates and with the "extended period" description of their tenure.

18 December 2009


This entry was pre-packaged. Tomorrow's will be as well. By Sunday I might be writing my blogs in something like real time again, although I have a pre-packaged one lined up, just in case.

On Saturday, I'll be on Broadway, watching a performance of Finian's Rainbow.

I understand that there will be a cast album available in February.

The fascinating thing about this play, for me, is that the lyrics to its songs were written by none other than Yip Harburg, who is best-known as the lyricist for all the songs in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Any man who could write lines like "I'd unravel any riddle for any individle" has a streak of genius in him.

Finian's Rainbow was first on Broadway in 1947, smack in the middle of what we see in hindsight as its golden age, and its songs include "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?," "Old Devil Moon" and "Fiddle Faddle."

17 December 2009

Grover Washington

Grover Washington Jr., a renowned jazz saxophonist, died on this day, twenty years ago.

If you want to know more about GW, you can listen to him on this podcast on the WGBH website, with interviewer Eric Jackson in 1994.

Why is this worth mentioning? Because I've been using a "today in music history" calender all year, and sporadically mining tidbits therefrom for blog entries. I won't have such a calender for 2010, so this will be my last entry with that source of inspiration.

13 December 2009

Stemmer Weighs in on Grammar

The story so far. Skinner advanced a theory (or a research program, or something) about how human language is simply "verbal behavior," a structure of stimulation and response subject to operant conditioning, like the movements of a rodent through a maze.

Chomsky objected, on grounds of method, vocabulary, and grammar.

In 1970, Kenneth MacCorquodale replied on Skinner's behalf, and seems to have done a better job on the issues of method and vocabulary than on the issue of grammar, which many had seen from the start as the heart of Chomsky's critique (and is certainly the heart of his own professional work as a linguist). Grammars consist of very complex structures, and in his view our ability as humans to acquire this structure can not be explained as the result of a process of generalization. For example: Children who already know the sentence "The man who is tall is in the room" easily learn that the way to turn that into a question is this: "Is the man who is tall in the room?"

If behavioralism is right, Chomsky thinks, children would at least sometimes make the mistake of asking, "Is the man who tall is in the room?" It is often the case that when turning a statement into a question, we transfer the occurrence of the word "is" to the start of the corresponding question. "The tall man is here" becomes "Is the tall man here" and so forth. Following that practice mechanically, simply generalizing it, could produce mistakes like the italicized sentence above. "Children make many mistakes in language learning," Chomsky says, but never that one.

So our story comes to 1990, when Nathan Stemmer wrote his own reply to Chomsky.

Stemmer replies that behavioralists don't have to expect children to treat the word "is" in isolation and generalize its moves in such a way. Children, rather, likely learn the active sentence pattern first "X is Y," and latter generalize it over time to learn substructures, so that "X" might include the word "is" internally.

Consider, then, "The man who is tall is in the room." The phrase "The man who is tall" is X in the old "X is Y" pattern. The second appearance of the word "is" then becomes the copula -- the one that connects X with the Y of "in the room." Generalization, then, Stemmer says, "does not simply transform certain word sequences into other word sequences but rather certain structures into other structures," and does so without importing a Chomskian machine-shop into the brain. Is [the man who is tall] in the room. Voila.

So (you might ask after all of this) what is my view? As a curious amateur, on-looker, and stand-up philosopher I have to say I think both sides are wrong. I do think that the Skinnerians are right to distrust the presumption of human uniqueness that runs through Chomsky's work. And I side with them (and the whole empirical tradition) against innate ideas, even grammatical ones. Stemmer's contention that we don't need innate ideas to understand how statements can be transformed into questions within a natural language seems to me sound. On the other hand, the Skinnerians' materialistic, reductive philosophy is repugnant on its own account.

William James used to refer to himself as squeezed between the "upper and the lower dogmatisms," between the positivists and the Hegelians of his day. It is always thus. Closer to our time, Skinner has revived the role of W.K. Clifford and Chomsky is writing like one of those "priggish Hegelians" on the top side of the two dogmatisms.

Next weekend I hope to return to these issues from another angle.

12 December 2009

Dayton Flies Past the Red Foxes.

In college football news, the Dayton Flyers defeated the Marist Red Foxes 27 to 16 on November 21, in what was the season's final game for both teams. This gave the Flyers a share of the championship of the Pioneer Football League, or PFL.

I presume that the Dayton Flyers get their name from the Wright Brothers, who lived and worked in Dayton when they weren't at their testing ground in North Carolina.

Despite the outcome of the game, though, I have to say as a Marist alum that the year has been a good one for the Red Foxes, our boys on the Hudson. They were 7-4 overall, tying a record (this is only the second time in Varsity team history they got 7 wins in a season). They finished at 5-3 within the PFL. After a sloppy start they put together a six game winning streak in midseason.

Their offensive star, wide receiver James LaMacchia, became the first player in Marist history to exceed 1,000 yards receiving in a season. He broke through the 1,000 mark in the course of that final game against the Flyers, receiving a pass for a 77 yard TD play in the third quarter.

On to bigger and better things in years to come.

11 December 2009

Sam Cooke

One of the pioneers of soul, Sam Cooke, died forty-five years ago today, on December 11, 1964.

Cooke checked in to the Hacienda Motel that evening. According to the manager of the hotel, Bertha Franklin, he checked in with a woman, who evidently left him at some point thereafter. Cooke, enraged, broke into the manager's office (with a jacket and shoes, but pantsless) and demanded to know where his companion was. Ms Franklin said the woman was not in the office. Cooke didn't believe her and allegedly attacked her. Franklin then shot him in self-defense.

His death has given rise to conspiracy theory. Etta James, in her autobiography, claimed that she observed wounds on Cooke's body, in the funeral home, that went far beyond what Franklin's account would explain. She said Cooke was beaten so badly his head was nearly separated from his shoulders, his hands were brushed and his nose was broken.

Solomon Burke, another soul pioneer, has said: "I still think there was some kind of conspiracy ... I've always felt there was some sort of conspiracy there ... I listened to the reports and I listened to the story of what happened and I can imagine Sam going after his pants. I can imaging Sam going up to the counter and saying 'Hey, somebody just took my pants.' And he's standing there, seeing the woman with his pants. I can imagine him saying "Give me my pants." But I can't imagine him attacking her. He wasn't that type of person to attack somebody. That wasn't his bag. He was a lover, OK. He wasn't a fighter. He wasn't a boxer. You never heard of Sam Cooke beating up his women."

Franklin's word is not utterly uncorroborated though. She was apparently on the telephone at the time with the Motel owner when Cooke broke in to the office, and the owner then heard much of what transpired, up to the gun shots. Her testimony at the inquest backed up Franklin's, which is likely the reason criminal charges were never brought.

The theory, as always, depends on the theorist. Cooke was killed by the mob. Or he was killed by Whitey to take a strong black man down. Or he was killed by a pimp, and the clothes-stealing hooker was part of the set up.

As to the girl (hooker or groupie or whatever) who ran out on Sam Cooke? Lisa Boyer. She had a story to tell, too, and the conspiracy theorists have had much to say about that. But I will go no further. It is easy enough to wallow in such material if you wish.

All I wish to say on this anniversary of his death, however it came about, is that surely what is best about Sam Cooke is what lives on. Click there for an an example.

10 December 2009

The Anniversary of the Madoff Fiasco

It was one year ago today, Dec. 10, 2008, that the two sons of Bernard Lawrence Madoff informed authorities that their father had just admitted to them that his asset management operation was "one big lie." He would be arrested the following day. That makes this an anniversary worthy of some reflection.

Those two sons, Mark and Andrew, worked in the trading operation, not asset management, thus they just might have been innocent of any criminal involvement themselves, though I'm sure investigations are continuing, the books are not closed on that.

This distinction between the trading and the asset management side is crucial to the Madoff saga. Madoff's trading operation, formally known as a "market maker," launched in 1960, was legitimate. It was controversial in some respects (especially among those of us who consider the practice of payment-for-order-flow inherently dubious) but it was legal. It also may have been integral to the success of his ponzi scheme, formally known as an investment advisor (IA), although not integral in the way that was so often suspected.

Madoff was often suspected of attaining the unusually consistent results of the IA operation by "front-running," i.e. by making illegal use of information he acquired as a market maker. The SEC would periodically investigate Madoff, only to find that he wasn't front running, so he must be clean! The truth of course is that he wasn't front running because he wasn't really trading through the IA wing of his company at all. It was all a sham, and those surprisingly consistent results were simply invented. So the possibility of front-runing was serving perhaps two purposes. First, as noted it was a false scent that kept the regulators busy. But, secondly, it may have helped attract investors. "Pssst, this guy is likely front-running the info from his market maker side. We should get us a piece of that action."

Or ... maybe not. But it is an intriguing idea: that the victims were in part victimized by their own desire to get on the winning side of a con game. That con game wasn't happening. So they ended up on the losing side of another one.

06 December 2009

Chomsky versus Skinner

Let's return to the subject of language. Last week we discussed Skinner's view that "bread, please" is a paradigmatic instance of "verbal behavior," learned through behavior modification, in the same way that rats learn the route through the maze that will get them to the corn.

Chomsky's famous 1959 review of the book, Verbal Behavior, is sometimes credited with at least slowing the triumphal march of behavioralism through the social sciences. [By the way, is it "behaviorism" or "behavioralism"? So far as I know, the two labels are interchangeable.] Chomsky focused not on such phrases as "bread please" but upon proper sentences, and accordingly upon grammar. He contended that natural-language sentences have a "deep structure" due to the "internal structure of the organism," -- i.e. to neurology.

As to method, Chomsky objected that Skinner used the prestige of laboratory research for conclusions that go far beyond anything they warrant. He creates "the illusion of a rigorous scientific theory with a very broad scope, although in fact the terms used in the description of real-life and of laboratory behavior may be mere homonyms, with at most a vague similarity of meaning." The word "stimulus," is he says an example. In the case of an actual loaf of bread on the table, that bread might be the stimulus to which one refers in the use of the word "bread." But a lot of proper nouns refer to people the speaker has never met, places to which he has never been, etc. A lot of people who have never been to Moscow use the word "Moscow" in sentences all the time, and use it correctly. Why? On Chomsky's view, this can happen because they are hard wired for language. They have the nerve connections they need for it. On Skinner's view (as Chomsky understands it) the proper use of "Moscow" by someone who has never been there requires a stretching of the simplistic ideas of "stimulus," a stretching perhaps to the point where "stimulus" becomes a homonym of itself.

Skinner was personally unimpressed by this critique. He never answered it formally, and in an interview he gave for the Saturday Review of Books in 1972 he sought to explain why. He said he saw a pre-publication draft, only read the first half-dozen pages, and then decided Chomsky had missed his point. Then he commented somewhat whimsically on the field, and on the rise of Chomskyism. "Linguists have always managed to make their discoveries earthshaking. In one decade everything seems to hinge on semantics, one another decade on analysis of the phoneme. In the Sixties it was grammar and syntax, and Chomsky's review began to be widely cited and reprinted and became, in fact, much better known than my book."

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, other behaviorists have stepped forward to defend Verbal Behavior from Chomsky's attack. One of the best-known examples of this is Kenneth MacCorquodale, who wrote a review of the famous review for the JOURNAL OF THE EXPERIMENTAL ANALYSIS OF BEHAVIOR in 1970.

You can access that here: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1333660/?tool=pmcentrez

MacCorquodale quotes the "mere homonyms" passage, in particular, and expresses surprise at the implicit idea that "real-life" behavior could have different basic principles from laboratory behavior. In MacCorq's eyes, Skinner set out a hypothesis, and a research program, which of course is unproven because any research program deals of necessity with the as-yet unproven.

As to "Moscow," MacCorq tells us that the stimulus-response paradigm of behaviorism does not require that we stick to just one stimulus for every one response. Skinner's book itself "repeatedly and clearly insists that a verbal response may be controlled by different stimuli on different occasions." And one occasion for the response "Moscow" may well be the presence of the city of Moscow. What do the flight attendants say when your plane touches down there?

That is a point about scientific method, and about vocabulary. MacCorq for the most part leaves Chomsky's point about the grammar of the sentences of natural language untouched. Others of his school have addressed that, though, so we will have material for continuing this series.

05 December 2009

Thoughts on Disney's birthday

Walt Disney was born on this day, December 5, in 1901.

It has become fashionable in many quarters to burnish one's intellectual or aesthetic bona fides by sneering at Disney and all his works. But I think that as time passes and we see him in perspective, we can see him as one in a line of chroniclers of the ever-shifting nature of the old folk tales.

The term "Disneyification" is often thrown about on the presumption that Disney corrupted the pure folk intention of the sometimes gruesome older tales by making them sentimental and happily-ever-afterish.

But what is sometimes called "Disneyfication," what might more neutrally just be called sentimentalization, is actually a process that set in long before 1901, and of which Disney was only one avatar. Charles Perrault published a collection of folk tales in 1695, most of them already quite old by then, under the title: "Histories or Tales of Times Past, With Morals." But Perrault's collection had a still more intriguing subtitle, by which it is better known: "Tales of my Mother Goose."

Between the 1695 French-language collection and the German-language collection of the Brothers Grimm in 1812 there is some overlap. Both collections contain a Cinderella story. Disney's version entered the motion picture theatres in 1950. The distance between the first and second of those dates is almost as great as the distance between the second and third. We can think, I submit, of sentimentalization as a process underway changing this story consistently throughout the centuries involved, and we can think properly of each of these three dates as representing a different snapshot of that process.

Don't blame the photographer.

Here is the Perrault version of Cinderella.


Notice just a couple of points. In Perrault's version, in the third paragraph, the protagonist's first nickname is the harsher "Cinderwench," though we're told that the youngest of her stepsisters was nicer to her than the older one, and softened that to "Cinderella." Noblesse oblige? Also, Cindy chooses to sit among the cinders, when her household duties are done. She is not forced into that corner by her wicked step-mother. Indeed, the stepmother is more "haughty" than wicked.

Another point from near the end of the story: the Prince never sees her in rags. Perrault's story is, if you will, too class conscious for that. The Prince sends servants about the countryside to test out the glass slipper on maidens, he doesn't engage in such tedious work himself, and so doesn't put himself in the position of kneeling before a servant girl in order to try to get a shoe on her foot.

By the time of the Brothers Grimm, the story has changed. I don't say that they changed it, just that the story as they knew it more than a century later was different, and they recorded that fact for us. There is no use of "Cinderwench," for example. To the Grimms, she is "Ashputtle," which translates well into "Ash-maiden." Or Cinderella. On the other hand, there is no element of choice in her consignment to the cinder-clogged corners of the house. The "haughtiness" of the step-mother has turned to wickedness; the class conflict is sharper, and the disappearance of the harsher nickname confirms our sympathy for the oppressed. Also, the King's son himself gives her the wonderful slipper to try on, and then puts her on his horse and rides away with her.

Here is my point. Suppose the Grimms' version had been the same as Perrault's. Suppose in particular that the Grimms had had the servants of the Prince show up at the home of Cindy's step-mother and ask to try the shoe on all the young women of the house. Suppose then that Disney's version had changed this so the Prince himself comes by and rides off with the protagonist on a horse. Wouldn't that have been denounced as a "Disneyification" of the story by the people who like to denounce such things? It was in fact sentimentalization, but Disney is not guilty of it.

Leave Disney be. And, by the way, Happy birthday, Walt.

04 December 2009

Grammy Nominations are out

The Grammies (or should I write "Grammys") give me yet another opportunity to display my own alienation from pop culture.

Beyonce was nominated for 10 awards. Taylor Swift for 6. Kanye West also for 6. Make your own joke there.

I wonder if Kanye West likes fishsticks?


03 December 2009

The Sense of Beauty (1896)

It comes to mind for no reason except the thought that it has been too long since I've said anything here about either George Santayana or the field of aesthetics. Let us right both wrongs today. Santayana's first book, The Sense of Beauty was also the first major work on aesthetics written in the United States.

What does it tell us? It is remembered chiefly as the source of the definition of beauty as "pleasure objectified," and (although the book says much else of interest) -- let us stay with that. What does that expression mean?

It means, firstly, that "objectified" is not the same as "objective." It is not quite the same as "subjective" either, although "objectified" is a subset of "subjective."

Pleasure, after all, is subjective, and beauty is one specific sort of pleasure. But, secondly, of what sort? Some specific pleasures are called beautiful because they are so closely associated with the external object by which they are caused that, by an act of socially acceptable delusion, we attribute them to that object. "The more remote, interwoven, and inextricable the pleasure is, the more objective it will appear" -- is how Santayana at one point puts it.

A rose scented perfume is not "beautiful," though I may find it pleasant. The perception of the rose itself may give rise to the sense of beauty, because that scent is intermingled with the proximity of flower to thorns, the juxtaposition of red with green, the stubborn particularity of the branching -- all this is interwoven, and no element can be extricated from the whole without loss. So our pleasure in the rose is of the objectified sort. It is ... the sense of beauty.

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.