31 January 2010

The Invention of Lying

I finally saw the recent Rick Gervais movie, "The Invention of Lying," on Friday evening.

Here's a link to the wikipedia article, though let this be a 'spoiler' warning before you click it.

Anyway, the movie is very funny. It is also gutsy, because it is an implicit philosophical argument of a sort that would be extremely unpopular in the U.S. were it a tad more explicit. The movie protrays a society much like the contemporary northeastern US within an alternative universe in which humans have never lied, never created any fiction for that matter, and don't even have words to explain the possibility of doing so. Their movies are filmed lectures about dramatic events from the past, and indeed we catch a quick reference to an upcoming film that will be called "The Invention of the Fork."

The protagonist of "The Invention of Lying" evidently has some neurological quirk that makes him different from everybody else, in that he can "say something that isn't," as he puts it at one point, trying to explain it to a friend.

That protagonist, Mark Bellison, played by Gervais, is surprised to discover this difference about himself, and for the most part he uses it benignly. He does con a bank out of some money -- but that is presented as due to desperate circumstances. Later he helps a homeless man, and offers his mother consolation on her deathbed.

Here we get to the crux of the matter. There is no evidence in this film that any sort of religion existed prior to the "invention of lying." His dying mother is expressing the predominant view of this alternate world's human species when she tells him how frightened she is at the imminent prospect of entering "a giant everything of nothingness." Gervais makes her final moments comfortable by telling her that she is going to a wonderful place where all the people she has loved and lost over her lifetime are waiting for her -- a place without pain or want.

It is important to the philosophical weight of this movie that the reason that he starts telling stories about the nice place we all go to after death is a benevolent one, told by a guy with whom we can't help but sympathize. Yet it is still a lie. And one with unexpected consequences.

Unbeknownst to Mark Bellison, the doctor and a handful of hospital staffers are behind him, listening to this conversation. They hear all these things about the life after this one, and since there is no concept of "saying what isn't" in their world, they believe it. They want to tell people this wonderful news. Word spreads, and soon the protagonist is a prophet. Everybody wants to know more.

One incidental oddity that struck me is that their world has a history to it very much like our own. From various references one gathers that there was a "black plague" that took place in the 14th century, and that the use of terms such as "14th century" or "1st century" for that matter, mean pretty much to them what they mean to us. But why, in a world without religion, would the "1st century" be called that? Why would a count have begun then?

Another less-incidental oddity (it may be considered part of the film's message) is that the ability to lie is connected to an ability to consider the subjective aspect of other people. Mark and his love interest (Anna, played by Jennifer Garner) have an idyllic moment in a public park, which turns into his effort to explain to her that people are not solely what they seem -- that, for example, the overweight fellow lying on the grass to their left may not be the lazy loser he seems, but may be "the world's greatest poet," who gets his inspiration in this way.

Over time, Anna grasps the seeing-beyond-the-surface part of Marks' message, although she never does really grasp the 'lying' thing. So: are those two memes closely connected, or not?

There's something else that sticks with me. At some point soon after his first lie, Mark decides to help a homeless man -- a guy who has been sitting on the street with a sign that says, "I don't understand why I'm in the street and you have homes." This fellow is played by Michael Patrick Gough according to imdb. Mark takes him into the bank, says something to the clerk (we can't overhear this bit) and the clerk hands the homeless guy a large chunk of money.

Leter, we see a homeless man again. The shot comes and goes so quickly that I'm not sure whether it was the same guy, and/or the same sign (though another wordy sign was involved). What is the message there? That lying doesn't realy solve social problems? Or does this imply also that money doesn't really solve social probelms, and that even if the money had been given honestly the original homeless guy may have difficulties, such as an expensive addiction, that would have put him back on the street anyway?

30 January 2010

Annual Dilbert post

Scott Adams, the cartoonist who created Dilbert, likes to say that there are only nine news stories, constantly re-written.

Every once in awhile I like to check the newspaper with his list in mind, to see if he is right. I'll start with his wording unmodified by examples.










Does that break-down hold up for the news of the past week or so?

1. The extreme weather story check.

2. Idiots kill innocent people? Always too easy.

But to give this category some variety, let us mention that such an idiot -- of the cult-member genre of idiocy -- has just been recommended for parole, after a long and well-deserved imprisonment.

3. Politician does something illegal.

Let's give a shout-out to the far East this time for this one.

4. Primate attempts inappropriate sex.

Scott Ritter is one of the primates in question, thereby he gets a recycling of those fifteen minutes of fame he must have thought had passed already.

5. Experts warn of financial calamity.

Weimare-Republic or Zimbabwe-style Hyperinflation is the subject of some of the more recent warnings with some spinning a theory that a bad case of same will breakout in Japan and spread to the US.

6. Big Company Buys Another Big Company

Even those who never visit the business section of the paper know that Kraft has reached agreement with an at-first coy Cadbury, and that not everyone is happy about this.

7. Famous Person Does Something Interesting.

J.D. Salinger has passed away, which is not "interesting" as a fresh disclosure of the fact of human mortality, but is of some interest as the possible signal for the release of writings that the famously reclusive Salinger may have been socking away in a safe over the last few decades.

8. A scientific discovery might be useful in ten years.

Here's the latest gee-whiz stuff about controlled fusion research.

9. Government fails to achieve a goal.

Like the goal of ... oh ... capturing Bin Laden? could that be an example of an unachieved goal?

Yes, Scott, I see your point.

29 January 2010

Ellie Light: Who Cares?

There seems to be a new meme in the blogosphere. The search for Ellie Light. No, I'm not going to link you to examples because I don't want to encourage them.

But just so you know, "Ellie Light" is a name or pseudonym, under which a lot of pro-Obama letters-to-the-editor have run in newspapers around the country. Some folks with nothing better to do are in an uproar, and interogating the name "Ellie Light" for clues as to whom this person really is.

Ellie could stand for Helen? But, wait ... it could also stand for Eleanor! "Light" suggests that the real surname might be "Power" or "Powers" since you need the power to keep your lights on.

And if you play the record backwards, it says, "I buried Paul." Okay, I'm old. I actually remember those theories.


28 January 2010


I'm thinking of buying an eBook reader. This would be my latest step into the 21st century.

What do you think, dear blog readers? Should I do it? Are the devices easy to read and use? Are there really enough books available in these formats to make the investment worthwhile? Should I wait until the technology develops further, to avoid buyers' remorse?

I'm thinking especially of Amazon's Kindle on the one hand and Barnes & Noble's nook, on the other. Yes, I understand that Apple has come out with something too, but from what I've heard the iPad is higher-priced and more complicated than what I have in mind. Besides, I don'tlike that snarky guy who plays "the Mac" in all those ads, poking fun at dorky PC. SO let's stick with the narrowly-targeted eBook devices for now.

I'm a bibliophile. And, yes, I love the feel and smell of the real thing. But keeping a lot of them takes up a good deal of shelf space. I'm always picking out the ones to which I feel least attached and donating them to a library, school, or other good home. And then regretting the fact, when I say, "Hmmmm, didn't I have a copy of Lawrence Kaplan's biography of Alexander Hamilton around here somewhere? There was a great passage in there about the old Dutch families in the Hudson Valley in revolutionary times. I'm sure I could find the page if only I could find that book." At around that point in my musings I slap my forehead with my hand and realize that this was one of those books I had given away so generously.

So on behalf of preserving space, I might have to sacrifice the physical aspect of bibliphilia, and advance the easy-reference aspect thereof.

A quick and uncritical check of the relevant webpages shows that B&N claims more than 1 million titles available through its nook. Amazon claims 'only' 400,000 through the Kindle. That may mean greater variety through the nook: or it may mean that B&N is hyping its numbers through the inclusion of various non-book titles.

Amazon says the single Kindle can hold a virtual librray of up to 1,500 books. B&N says its nook can hold ... the same number, 1,500.

Anybody know of any other comparative factors I might weigh? What about the frequency with which these things have to be re-charged.

24 January 2010

Contango: Another Year

Last year at around this time I wrote a fairly extensive blog entry about crude oil and contango.

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

One would naturally expect this discount to be closely related to the costs of storage space. After all, if I buy crude today and tell you to deliver it six months from now, you have to keep it somewhere during the interval, and pay the maintenance on the storage facilities. If I take delivery now but I don't use it over the six months, then the cost of storage falls on me.

So: a year ago I simply measured the per-barrel price for March delivery (which was $46.47) against that for August delivery ($53.81) and extrapolated that into an annual rate. The five month delay in delivery cost the buyer $7.34 at that time, which extrapolated into an annual figure would have been $17.64, or about 38% of the price of the barrel.

Checking the figures a year later ... the price of a barrel is now $74.14 for March delivery, and $77.08 for August. That's a difference of $2.94 for storage. This annualizes to $7.06. That's roughly 9.5% of the price of the barrel.

Why has contango fallen so drastically over the course of the year? People were noticing the drop as early as May. But I can find very little blogospheric commentary that addresses the reason for the drop. Could storage space have gotten less expensive?

Let us go back to basics. Supply and demand. There could be more supply (available space) if the owners of storage facilities haven't been re-filling them as rapidly as they've been pumping the oil out toward the refineries and its trip toward retail use. Or perhaps the large contango of a year ago inspired entrepreneurs to invest in the creation of new storage facilities. Those facilities have since been coming on line, and that has driven the contango down, just as it should according to the textbooks.

Or it could be a demand issue. Anyone who wants to join in with some helping hypothesis ... I'm all ears.

23 January 2010

Boyd story and the fall-out

Roddy Boyd has a neat story about Overstock.com in The Big Money.

I'm rather late to the buzz about this piece, so I'll only make the observation that Boyd buried his lede. The story isn't really about Byrne's "nasty" streak, as the headline suggests. Nor does it use Overstock in any very helpful way as a microcosm of how and why the financial press fell down on the job of reporting the roots of our financial troubles before the big blow-up, despite the opening paragraph.

No ... what the story turns out to be about once it settles down is the fall-out from the Gradient/Rocker lawsuit. That lawsuit has been settled, and arguments over that settlement have occupied familiar positions.

Overstock: We were right, which is why they gave us money. We are vindicated!
Skeptics: They gave you money because you are a nuisance, trials are expensive, and they just wanted you to go away.

But Boyd's story tells us that the reason Overstock had for settling the lawsuit exceeded the money received. It may have settled because it was concerned about certain materials that would have come out had there been a trial. Did Boyd meet Mark Felt in a garage to get this stuff? I don't know. But ... Boyd does seem to be familiar with evidence that may well have accumulated during discovery proceedings.

One of the defendants in the lawsuit, Gradient, had issued a research note in May 2005 offering a detailed criticism of certain diamond/jewelry wheelings and dealings going on at the time. Gradient wondered whether the structuring of the deal was intended to allow the company to report top-line benefits without reporting losses.

But, Boyd now tells us, Gradient was over-analyzing. It wasn't accounting trickery. It was apparently a tax dodge, known within the company by the lovely name, "Operation Heist and Freeze."

Here, by the way, is Byrne's initial response to Boyd's questions. In response to a question about the avoidance of sales taxes, Byrne says he is giving the "same answer" as he had to the earlier questions (that the issue didn't require disclosure because it was immaterial): "plus tax is discussed in the due course of the
conduct of any business plus have you ever considered trying the fact-fact-logical-inference thing instead of the stuck-on-stupid-reporter thing?"

Notice the difference between Byrne's initial response, to which I've just linked you, and his later reconsidered response. With regard to the bit near the end that I just quoted, there is no difference. The difference you may want to notice, though, is at the start. Byrne decided to dial back the oral-sex-obsessed insult with which his initial riposte had begun. Good move, but on the internet, all is forever.

So even though the story doesn't turn out to be about Byrne's "nasty" streak especially, Byrne's responses surely reveal one.

22 January 2010

SCOTUS first amendment ruling

Every since Buckley v. Valeo , (1976), the US Supreme Court has gotten progressively more intrusive in the area of campaign finance law. Frankly, I'm quite happy with this. Congress' efforts to regulate how campaigns are conducted are almost by definition pro-incumbent, and this is the sort of thing for which we need judicial review.

The latest decision in this line is a lot to wrap one's mind around, all 183 pages of it. Weren't we just going through a collective national paroxysm about how many pages there are in some of the health care bills and nobdoy can be expected to read these things? Its easier to read through such legislation than these opinions, IMHO.

Here's the gist of it if you're impatient.

Here's a set of reactions. They react, so you don't have to.

The President is unhappy.

So, as it happens, is his erstwhile opponent, Senator John McCain, whose name is on the law under evisceration here.

One more link, because I'm on a link-farming roll: what will it all do to the midterm election campaign? Click there for some informed guessing.

And here, in a spirit of nostalgia, is a link to what I said about a June 2008 decision by SCOTUS in the same line of post-Buckley cases.

21 January 2010

Random bit of history

"During the course of the 1790s the earlier enthusiasm of those in the Upper South to liberalize their society and to create a looser slave regime began to dissipate. Probably nothing did more to diminish the initial optimism of many whites in Virginia about the end of slavery than the black rebellion in the French colony of Saint-Domingue [Haiti] on the island of Hispaniola. The rebellion began in 1790 with an uprising of free coloreds, a diverse group who numbered about thirty thousand and included French-educated planters, tradesmen, artisans, and small landowners. The insurgents had been infected with French revolutionary principles and now demanded equality with whites. The whites numbered about forty thousand, but they were bitterly divided between the grand blancs and the disorderly and marginalized petits blancs. Beneath the whites and the free coloreds were five hundred thousand African slaves."

- Empire of Liberty, by Gordon S. Wood, p. 533.

17 January 2010

Calvin & Hobbes

Presumably the names of the little boy and his stuffed tiger in the classic comic strip by Bill Watterson, come from the fiery Reformer on the one hand, and the gloomy philosopher of the Leviathan state on the other.

Aside from the background they provide for Watterson's imagination, though, do John Calvin and Thomas Hobbes have much in common? I suspect that they do, in that Calvin's notion of predestination on a spiritual level did help set the stage for the Hobbesian materialistic notion of determinism.

Calvin maintained, after all, that the damned can not really be said to be damned by any free act of their own, because God must have known forever that Hell would be their fate. He wrote, "Predestination we call the eternal decree of God, by which He hath determined in Himself what He would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others."

Hobbes also rejected the notion of free will. Freedom to him is simply the ability to do whatever you want. But your own will, or wants, are themselves determined by material/biological facts. Furthermore, freedom generally leads to trouble, the war of all against all, and is best abandoned.

So perhaps Calvin did help set the preconditions philosophically for Hobbes, though whether the creator of the cartoon had that in mind ... I have no idea.

16 January 2010

The idiocy of Pat Robertson

The video of Pat Robertson's comments on Haiti is no longer available on YouTube.

There's an insightful take, though: here.

One odd thing about the now infamous comment is that Robertson has his Napoleons confused. He said the Haitians were in rebellion against "Napoleon III or whatever." Maybe he has Haitian history and Mexican history confused.

"Ah, but I admitted the possibility that it was really Emperor Whatever!"

Yeah, those fifth of May celebrations are fun, Pat. But put down the Corona and listen for a sec.

I suspect there is something more than ignorance at work in getting the Napoleons mixed up. Robertsonian history would locate the rebellion in the 1850s or 1860s, the period of the nephew's imperium. That moves it out of its true context. The French Revolutionary government promised the slaves of the French empire their freedom, and all the subjects of the empire full citizenship.

After Napoleon (the first!) overthrew the late-revolutionary Directorate, (after he took its bones apart) he was determined to ignore this decree, and carry on business as a proper monarch should.

If Robertson had recognized this much, he might have had to ask himself: Should the Haitians have passively accepted their continued subjugation? should the slaves among them have accepted the hell-on-earth that their lives had become? Would that have been godly of them? His implication is that if you believe in a supernatural Being who helps the slaves and oppressed of this world -- who ensures that over time (though the periods involved can be fristratingly long from a human POV) the slave-master fails and freedopm prevails -- then the Being you recognize is the devil. It seems to me that a much more appropriate name for that Being is: God.

15 January 2010

Getting even with New Jersey

In the middle of his new piece in The Observer, Max Abelson throws in a quote from Patrick Byrne about the Sith Lord.

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, the Sith Lord is a figure in the trio of Star Wars prequels. He is also a figure in Byrne's imagination -- an important fact chiefly because Byrne is the CEO of Overstock.com. If you still don't know what I'm talking about and don't care, you are of course free to hit that little "x" on the top of your browser now. If you don't know what I'm talking about and do care, here is some background.

Anyway, Abelson has a profile in The New York Observer about Judd Bagley, who is working as Byrne's lieutenant on a cause dear to them both, the crusade against naked short selling -- well explained in the following 2006 column by a writer for the grey lady. Abelson seems to think that the crusaders have a point in a general sort of way, but are off-base in some important particulars.

Here's the bit, though, that caught my attention, and that seems to represent some score settling involving the state of New Jersey and its judicial system. Actually, I owe a tug of the forelock here to uberblogger Felix Salmon for noticing this passage before I did: But the juiciest part of the lore is that there’s a “Sith Lord,” like in Star Wars, at the center of the evil. The Sith Lord turns out to be Sith Lords. “It’s Steven Cohen and Mike Milken, though I’ve never said that to a reporter,” says Patrick Byrne, Overstock’s CEO.

Milken was an easy pick. Cohen is the unexpected name here. The speculation for 4 years now has been that Byrne meant Milken, hence the use of expressions like 'The Miscreant's Ball'. In the grand old days of HedgeWorld, my colleague Chris Clair wrote a column soon after Byrne's news conference discussing the speculation about who the Sith Lord was supposed to be, and Clair focused on Milken. Besides, the Milken/Byrne thing is an old family quarrel.

But why now make the Sith Lord a two-headed beast? And why Cohen? My first guess was that Cohen was just thrown in there to make this seem less anti-climactic than it would have been. Cohen's life is certainly not without ongoing drama.

But after thinking it over for a couple of days I developed a new hunch. I think Cohen became part of the Sithness because his corporate alter ego, SAC, in Byrne's eyes, beat the rap. And the New Jersey court system is the forum wherein SAC beat said rap.

In August 2009 the New Jersey Superior Court threw out claims that S.A.C. Capital Advisors (SAC) conspired with other firms, including the independent research firm Gradient Analytics, Inc. (formerly known as Camelback Research Alliance, Inc.) (Gradient) to drive down the stock price of Canada’s largest publicly-traded pharmaceutical company, Biovail Corporation (Biovail). The court dismissed the suit after it determined that Biovail failed to prove it was entitled to damages and that, in any event, the court lacked jurisdiction over all but one of the defendants. Most notably, the court stated that it did not evaluate the merits of Biovail’s claims against SAC or Gradient.

The Gradient case had significance beyond its particularity. Sixty Minutes, in a broadcast segment in March 2006, elevated Biovail into the single highest-profile case of the theory that short sellers conspire with Beg Media (like CBS News, for example?) and with allegedly independent researchers to bring down otherwise impeccable companies. That program didn't focus on the "nakedness" of the shorting involved, but the anti-nakedness crusaders seemed to be very happy about Leslie Stahl's work.

The New Jersey decision effectively debunked that story. The beneficiary of the New Jersey decision -- SAC, the hedge fund run by Steve Cohen. Who now turns out to be half of the Sith Lord. Take THAT, Garden State!

14 January 2010

Random William James Quotation

"'Will you or won't you have it so?' is the most probing question we are ever asked; we are asked it every hour of the day, and about the largest as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical, things. We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words. What wonder that these dumb responses should seem our deepest organs of communication with the nature of things!"

From The Principles of Psychology (1890).

10 January 2010

An exchange on a libertarian listserve

On September 12, 2004, a poster calling himself FondueUSA asked some questions of his fellow libertarians, here.

"What about the issue of cosmetic testing, endangered species, and hunting seasons? Should the goverment oversea those subjects? I would like to know what other libertarians think about what role should goverment should have with animals, or that there is no role at all. Thanks for your input."

That has the casualness in terms of spelling, etc., typical of the format. Fondue presumably meant whether the government should "oversee" various subjects concerning animals and nature, not whether it should do something "overseas" about them.

The discussion that followed is intriguing in its way, but I doubt that Fondue was entirely satisfied by any of it.

I suspect what Fondue was looking for was a distinction among animals. Which ones "count" morally and which ones don't? In my experience, most people are more shocked by dog fighting than by cock fighting, though both are criminal activities. Further, I suspect that if Michael Vick had onlybeen convicted of the latter, he would not have done time. Thus, there is some rough-and-ready distinction drawn along the "great chain of being" between cocks and dogs. Is that between birds and mammals?

I will take refuge in the wisdom of The Onion.

09 January 2010


Here's a commendable site with resources on the subject.

Plagiarism strikes album cover art of late, and Microsoft's efforts to compete with Twitter.

Finally, though, I'll mention an instance where an accusation of "plagiarism" seems to have been manufactured out of nothing. A Russian sci-fi novelist, Boris Strugatsky, is rumored to have accused movie director James Cameron of plagiarism on the basis of the movie AVATAR. Much of the action of that movie takes place on a planet called "Pandora," which is also the name of a planet that figures in a Strugatsky novel.

As grounds for an accusation, that is very thin. Obviously, the connotations of the word "Pandora" come to us from Greek mythology, and everyone is entitled to draw on those connotations.

Fortunately, Strugatsky himself has cleared the matter up, telling a news website that he has not made any such allegations.

And that completes our random round-up of plagiarism-related news for today.

08 January 2010

The complicated history of the typewriter

It was on January 7, way back in 1714, that Henry Mill patented a device "for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing." He had invented, one might say, the typewriter, two hundred and ninety-six years ago yesterday.

Or one might not. It is a matter of definition.

Almost nothing else is known of Mill's invention beyond the brief description in his patent petition. Whatever exactly his machine looked like -- it didn't catch on, was over time forgotten, and the essential idea had to be re-invented.

Several such inventions came about in the early 19th century. The idea was "in the air," both because (assuming the letters on keys were raised) it seemed like a natural way to allow the blind to write, and because mechanizing a motor function was as popular a generic idea then as digitizing an analog function would become in the late 20th century.

One early and very influential model was the Sholes & Glidden Type Writer, (yes, "type writer" was a two word phrase then) which began production in late 1873 and appeared on the American market in 1874. It looked like a sewing machine, it produced only capital letters, and (most fatefully) it introduced the QWERTY keyboard. The reason the keys have the peculiar ordering that they still have to this day remains a hotly discussed issue.

My point? Just that it is seldom a straightforward question, "who invented X?" For any X of any degree of complexity, there may have been lots of false starts and re-imaginings, before things came together in now-recognizable form. "Intellectual property" as a field of law is largely devoted to the task of making such matters seem simpler than they can truly be.

Just for today, though (and because I missed it yesterday) : the inventor of the typewriter was Henry Mill.

07 January 2010


The Chairman of the Federal Reserve seems determined to pursue an easy-money policy, one that risks consequences reminiscent of the 1970s.

Ben Bernanke gave a speech in Atlanta over the weekend in which he maintained that monetary policy didn't cause any bubble in housing prices. The financial crisis of 2008, which was precipitated by the subprime crisis of 2008, which on most views was the result of the housing bubble in the years leading up to that ... has "regulatory" causes, says Big Ben. The money supply is an irrelevance.

He showed off various graphs designed to make this point. And I'm sorry if this sounds populist, but this is the sort of non-sense only an academic over-impressed by his graphs can believe.

As Wesbury rightly says, in his column on Bernanke's speech (see the above link) what is "disconcerting" about this is not the revisionist history as such, but the fact that "with interest rates at essentially zero, and with the economy and inflation picking up steam, he makes a speech defending extremely loose money."

On a related point, here is a discussion of the internal politics of the FOMC. However often I see it, the use of "hawks" and "doves" in this context (where "hawks" are for tightening the money supply and "doves" for easing it) always strikes me as odd. Heck, the use of those avian metaphors for issues of war and peace is hard enough to get used to -- but this is a metaphorical stretch too far.

03 January 2010

Top 20 Philosophers???

The history of philosophy is about the long-haul, not this month or next week, so it really doesn't matter that I'm a few months late in learning that in the spring, blogger Brian Leiter has polled his readers and listed what they believed to be the top 20 philosophers of all time.

Follow that link, and I expect many will agree with me that that is an extraordinary list. Blaise Pascal isn't there. Neither is George Berkeley. Neither is William James! The list is entirely western: No Lao-Tzu, no Buddha. And in general it seems to value the more abstract realms of philosophy (metaphysics and epistemology) over those with a more practical bent (political, social, aesthetic).

The middle three on this list -- Frege, Aquinas, and Hegel at positions 9 - 11 -- are all vastly overrated thereby.

At any rate, the test produced an intriguing series of comments, including one who apparently thinks of Socrates as a fictional character invented by Plato. He said that including them both on the list is like including both Nietzsche and Zarathustra. Cute, though I can't really buy it. Like Leiter himself, I find the first six names reasonable enough.

Still, anyone working up such a list, or even voting and thereby contributing to a list in the collectivist methodology used here, ought to confront the basic ambiguity: vote for the twenty who seem to you most nearly right? or for the twenty who seem of most world-historical significance? or some combination of the two standards?

[Edited to correct some misstatements regarding the list.]

02 January 2010

Christmas loot

One of my Christmas gifts this year (thanks Carolyn) was a book consisting of works done in various memorable comic-book styles, mashed-up in each case with the plot of a literary classic. Here is the LA Times review.

But not always comic books. For example, there was a series of "Inferno Joe" comics, in the visual style of "Bazooka Joe." As fans will remember, the comic strip that came with each individually wrapped piece of that famous brand of gum featured the eponymous protagonist, and a sidekick, usually "Mort," who always has a turtleneck pulled up way too high, obscuring most of his face.

A typical comic would consist of three panels of illustrated dialog between Joe and Mort, with the punchline accordingly in the third panel. Where a fourth panel might have been, there would be an ad for some kitchy merchandise (brine shrimp which you can pretend are sea monkeys, or something like that). And beneath all of that ran a fortune, in the manner of the message inside a Chinese cookie.

Anyway, the several "Inferno Joe" strips presented follow exactly that pattern, and provide in the process a decent summary of several of the Cantos of Dante ALighieri's Inferno. The first of them goes thus:

Panel 1, Joe: Help! I'm lost in this dark wood!"

Panel 2, Mort/Virgil appears: "Don't worry Joe! I'll lead you to safety!" Joe replies, "Great! Where are we going?"

Panel 3, Mort/Virgil, "To hell." Then there is a thought balloon over Joe's head consisting of an exclamation point.

The ad space is devoted to a locket with a "B" on it.

The fortune on the bottom is a play on the famous words on the gate the two are about to pass, "abandon hope all ye..."

A very nice balance, and hommage, to both sources.

01 January 2010


My resolutions from last year were as follows:

1. Resume my morning walk.
2. Be more frugal in general, this year. Pay down debts.
3. More specifically, don't leave the US this year (travelling is my most expensive indulgence).
4. Forget about the novel. Focus on production/sale of a non-fiction work on the criminal prosecution of insider trading.
5. Learn some Cantonese.
6. Don't lose glasses.

The results? I did pretty well on (1) -- walking early in most reasonably clement mornings.

I have succeeded with (3), but it is chiefly meaningful as a token of (2), and I can't claim success with (2) in general.

I haven't gotten anywhere with a work on insider trading, so black marks for that.

I didn't learn any Cantonese.

I have hung on to my glasses, but I can't give myself a gold star for that, since one of the two lenses keeps popping out. I need to get a kit and figure out how to fix that for myself when it happens.

It has been my custom at this point to let you in on my resolutions for the coming twelve months. I'm afraid that custom is one I have to bring to an end -- or at least a hiatus -- now. My resolutions for 2010 will have to stay offline. If things do work out, though, I'll tell you about it a year hence.

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.