30 April 2010

Crazy Eddie's: The Movie

Sam Antar has a fascinating post up on his White Collar Fraud website about Danny DeVito, and the recent demise of DeVito's efforts to create a movie on the rise and fall of the Crazy Eddie's electronics retailing chain. Here's a link to Sam Antar's take. Here, while I'm at it, is a link to the news story that instigated it. And here is a link to something I wrote in this blog on that subject almost three years ago. How time flies, eh?

The big question for me: who gets to play Jerry Carroll?

Anyway, it appears that Danny DeVito is trying to envision Eddie Antar as a Icarus-type protagonist, who flies too close to the sun and falls, but who should be the recipient of our sympathy. There are lots of such entrepreneurial rise-and-fall movies on that pattern. Consider The Aviator, where we see Howard Hughes' early years painted in glowing colors but we also see the creeping pathology that ends with Hughes a gloomy recluse in a hotel room. Or consider There Will Be Blood, for a more completely fictional rise-and-fall.

It does not appear that Eddie can be made to fit that mold without so much fictionalization that one is better off using new names. If DeVito wants to make a movie about an electronics retailing mogul who (to use DeVito's words) "started as a guy who loved making deals more than money" but who got carried away, cut some corners, was victimized by a "family dynamic" and suffered an "outrageously spectacular fall," ... well, go to it. Call the main character "Crazy Edwardo Antoine" or something though.

After all, Orson Welles never made a movie about anyone he called "Hearst." His movie was about some fellow named "Kane."

29 April 2010

The biotech crop case

One of the ongoing concerns of this blog is the question of intellectual property.

I have learned that those disputants who believe in the vigorous enforcement of patent rights, and who believe that the courts and legislators are overly soft on encroachers, are sometimes known as "patent hawks."

On the implicit analogy, I expect that I'm a patent dove. The courts err far too much at present on the side of enforcement, and the preservation of privilege it implies. Beyond a certain point -- hard to identify, but surely behind us -- the act of rewarding the previous generations' innovations becomes an impediment to the innovative work of the present and future, because innovators always have to build upon what has gone before.

It is wrong to stigmatize education as theft.

All this comes to mind today because on Tuesday of this week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on a groundbreaking biotech crop case. It isn't being litigated as a patent case at all, but as an application of the National Environmental Policy Act. Still, it does seem to show what we have gotten ourselves into as a country by allowing companies to patent living things.

Monsanto sells weed killer, Accordingly,. Monsanto now wants to sell a brand of alfafa seeds genetically designed to resist its own weed killer. Monsanto wants to be on both sides of an arms spiral of offense and defense.

Maybe this situation will compel the court to go back and revisit the IP issues.

You splice to-may-toes and I splice to-mah-toes.

Let's call the whole thing off.

25 April 2010

New Voltaire biography

Ian Davidson has written a biography of Voltaire, published by Profile.

The desire to be candid(e) requires me to report that none of the reviews of this book that I have thus far encountered leave me wanting to to buy or read the thing. Here are three examples:

Susan Elkin, in The Independent, makes it seem as if the book is about celebrity gossip -- with whom was Voltaire sleeping when.

Andrew Hussey, in the Financial Times, says that Ian Davidson "makes the point that much of Voltaire's massive literary output is now out-of-date when it is not simply tedious."

Sam Leith, in The Spectator, tells me that Davidson makes Voltaire seem like "a starlet perpetually leaving sex tapes out where the builders can find them."

I wish Davidson good luck with this book, but I personally will sit this one out.

24 April 2010

Horizontal merger guidelines

The Antitrust Division of the US Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have recently released their proposed revisions to merger guidelines.

This seems to be an acknowledgement of the Whole Foods fiasco.

Briefly: these guidelines involve what are known as "horizontal mergers," i.e. mergers between two participants in the same market, dealing with the same suppliers and offering their product to the same customers. One of the common questions of controversy is: what does it mean to be in the "same" market exactly? Two gasoline retailers could argue that they are not in the same market for geographical reasons -- their service stations aren't directly across the street from one another. Or, two grocery stores that are across the street from one another could argue that they aren't in the same market for product reasons. One sells organic groceries, the other sells food processed and reinforced and otherwise chemically re-jiggered. Does that break the horizontal relationship? In either case, one has a "market definition" dispute.

Through the new rules, the agencies involved want to create a way of calculating the competitive effect of a merger without first defining the market involved. It wants to be able to skip that step.

The money quote may be found on p. 7: "Some of the analytical tools used by the Agencies to assess competitive effects do not rely on market definition, although evaluation of competitive alternatives available to customers is always necessary at some point in the analysis."

I have a personal fondness for antitrust, dating to my teenage years, so I won't give you the benefit of an Austrian/anarchistic deconstruction thereof now. I will say, though, that some of the comments that agencies are about to receive on these proposed revisions may make fascinating (though of course wonkish) reading.

Not the type of reading that they do at, say, the SEC of course. Nothing wonkish about those wild and crazy guys. I suppose all the porn they've reportedly been viewing leaves them incapable of understanding the economists' sense of the term "horizontal relationship."

23 April 2010

Four funny videos

I'd like to share with you the following.

1. Re-interpreting music videos, part one.

2. Re-interpreting music videos, part two.

3. Re-interpreting the movie trailer in a meta way.

4. And now for something completely different.

22 April 2010

The Sirius arrives in New York

It was on April 22, 1838, that the Sirius arrived in New York City, after a journey of 18 days and 10 hours, making it the first vessel ever to cross the Atlantic ocean using only steam power.

She had riggings ready, just in case she needed them, since the new technology was not considered reliable. If you follow that link you'll see what she looked like.

This is a bittersweet day, then, because that completed voyage meant that the age of tall wooden ships with great sails was coming to end. Those old tall ships weren't merely a technology for crossing the ocean, thet were an aesthetic, and they remain a touchstone.

The philosopher David Hume once said that beauty arises from utility: we prize in a horse for example those anatomical features that make it swift, and we come to regard them as beautiful. There is truth in this, but it is very incomplete. Beauty may arise from, but long survive, its utility. A horse is still beautiful to us, though none of us any longer relies upon its features for transportation.

The marks of verse, for example -- metre and rhyme -- may once have been quite useful. In a pre-literate age they may have been the reason a poem survived, passed along from the memory of one teller of the tale to that of another, while many a prosaic story, never put into this form, was lost forever. We have writing implements now, though, and many who know how to use them. If we still consider verse a thing of beauty, the reason is that beauty can outlive utility.

Speaking of both poems and ships then: the poem "Sea-Fever" first appeared in print in 1902. This lovely expression of longing for the "windy day with the white clouds flying/ And the flung spray...." was the result of the passage of more than 60 years since the voyage of the Sirius, the voyage that made the windiness of the day an irrelevance to sea travel.

18 April 2010

Not all redundancy theory is alike

Deflationism as to truth is a major trend in epistemology, at least in English speaking countries, one that has lasted throughout much of the 20th century into the 21st. But let us back up a bit: century ago, a triangular debate was underway as to the Meaning of Truth. The correspondence theory, affiliated with various forms of realism about the external world, represented one corner of this triangle. The coherence theory, affiliated generally with idealism, represented another, and pragmatism the third. But the deflationists sought to ring the bell and end the fight, declaring that "truth" doesn't mean anything interesting, i.e. that the grand metaphysical puzzle of its significance is actually a hot air balloon.

Personally, my view is that deflationism is well and good, but if the air is let out of this balloon it will go somewhere else. The matters that Russell, Royce, and James debated back in the old days under the label "truth" will still have to be thrashed out under other labels.

Today, I wish simply to observe that not all deflationism is alike. One variant of deflation is the "redundancy theory of truth." According to this view, to say "it is true that the grass is green" is the same thing as to say "the grass is green," so the extra words are redundant. One of those extra redundant words, of course, is the word "true," no matter how attached to that one we tend to be. Other forms of deflationism give the concept of "truth" some minimalist function. It is not just redundancy. It is, for example, a type of performance. Or a way of creating emphasis (like using italics in the way I just did.) Still, the hot-air of metaphysics is to be deflated.

Now comes a further revelation. File this under the heading "philosophy is fractal." For it appears that not all redundancy theories of truth are alike, either. According to Pierre le Morvan here, there are at least three distinct redundancy theories: a "robust" redundancy that Morvan associates with W.E. Johnson; a skinnier redundancy that Morvan calls the "received interpretation," and an intermediate view he associates with Frank Ramsey.

His explanation of the differences among these, though, makes my brain hurt, so further into the exploration of this Mandelbrot set I will not press.

17 April 2010

Hoofy and Boo

What happened to minyanville's two mascots, the bull and the bear, hoofy and boo?

They were featured in recent years in a stream of amusing and award-winning short films on the minyanville site like, just for random example this one.

The most recent new Hoofy and Boo production was their use of the old Dickens Christmas-Carol template. Since the start of 2010, two re-treads have been re-posted, but even the latest of those postings has some hair on it.

So tell me, anyone who knows: Are Hoofy and Boo ever coming back to us?

16 April 2010

Pulitzer Prize

One of the Pulitzer Prizes given out earlier this week went to what I consider a very deserving recipient -- that Pro Publica piece on the life-or-death choices that had to be made at a New Orleans hospital in the post-Katrina environment.

Just contemplating the situation makes me sick, and I have nothing but respect for the professionals who had to live through it and deal with it. Prosecutors sought to criminalize their decisions, but a grand jury refused to indict. That is a remarkable story in itself, given the old rule about the indictment of a ham sandwich.

On some of the political sites in this internet thingy, though, there seems to be some unhappiness that the National Enquirer didn't get that award, especially for the investigation that led to the disclosure of John Edwards' dalliance with his campaign videographer, and the child that resulted from same.

One columnist has proposed a special new prize for such stories. Inquiring minds want to know about future prizes!

Anyway: congrats to Sheri Fink and the others involved for their story reviewing the whole matter carefully. Even if it does allow some to yell, "The Pulitzer is for Finks!"

15 April 2010

J.S. Bach

I'm favorably impressed with the story in yesterday's Wall Street Journal (D7) about the expanded/renovated Bach Museum in Leipzig, Germany. Reading it, I almost feel as if I've been there myself.

Bach was born on March 21, 1685, so we've just passed the 325th anniversary of that event.

To celebrate, I played my Buxtehude CD in my car while driving about a bit yesterday afternoon. Buxtehude -- a Swede or a Dane depending on who is counting -- was probably the greatest composer of the generation before Bach's, and an important influence on him.

Anyway, the WSJ reports that the Bach museum in Leipzig includes materials on how Bach scholars conduct their research. "Visitors learn about Bach's penmanship, as well as the paper and ink he used. The display even explains how to date a Bach manuscript."

Near its end the story notes that Bach's music was not universally adored during his own lifetime. It quotes one music critic from the day, J.A. Scheibe, who complain of JSB's "bombastic and intricate procedures [that] obscure beauty by an excess of art."

Philistine. Jeesh.

Just on a lark, I went to a translation website to find out if the proper name "Scheibe" translates into any German word. It does. Intriguingly, "scheibe" means "disk." The association of music with certain "disks" lay far in the future ... but there you go. The philistine caught a break with his name.

11 April 2010

Confessions at Law

I quoted Jeremy Bentham on this point Friday. Of course, he wasn't the last to discuss the issue of what is or ought to be the status of priest-penitent confessions to crimes in common law countries.

In the US, Rule 505 of the Uniform Rules of Evidence sets out the privilege in this way:

(a) Definitions. As used in this rule:
(1) A “clergyman” is a minister, priest, rabbi, accredited Christian Science Practitioner, or other similar functionary of a religious organization, or an individual reasonably believed so to be by the person consulting him.
(2) A communication is “confidential” if made privately and not intended for further disclosure except to other persons present in furtherance of the purpose of the communication.
(b) General Rule of Privilege. A person has a privilege to refuse to disclose and to prevent another from disclosing a confidential communication by the person to the clergyman in his professional character as a spiritual adviser.
(c) Who May Claim the Privilege. The privilege may be claimed by the person, by his guardian or conservator, or by his personal representative if he is deceased. The person who was the clergyman at the time of the communication is presumed to have authority to claim the privilege but only on behalf of the communicant.

Prior to the adoption of any specific codes by any of the states of the United States in this matter, the case for the privilege had to be made on constitutional grounds. In 1813, in PEOPLE v. PHILLIPS, a New York State Court said:

It is essential to the free exercise of a religion, that its ordinances should be administered-that its ceremonies as well as its essentials should be protected. Secrecy is of the essence of penance. The sinner will not confess, nor will the priest receive his confession, if the veil of secrecy is removed: To decide that the minister shall promulgate what he receives in confession, is to declare that there shall be no penance.

Since there was no "doctrine of incorporation" at the time -- and no 14th amendment on which to hang it -- the "free exercise of religion" language there refers to the state constitution.

In 1956, in a paper in the Tulane Law Review, David Louisell said that such rules should not be thought of as in the first instance exclusionary rules.

"They are, or rather by the chance of litigation may become, exclusionary rules; but
this is incidental and secondary. Primarily they are a right to be let alone, a right to unfettered freedom, in certain narrowly prescribed relationships, from the state’s coercive or supervisory powers and from the nuisance of its eavesdropping."

All in all, I find I've stumbled upon a fascinating subject. Its fascination depends, though, upon the myth of sovereignty. In an anarcho-capitalist system, where law enforcement and judicial systems were themselves plural and market-based, that system of confidences and exemptions would prevail which best satisfied over-all demand, given all the different factors that bear upon the demand for justice -- or (to make it sound less abstract) the demand for the services of adjudicators.

10 April 2010

A Few Words About Hegel

Sense at Hegel's expense from William James, because "dialectical" nonsense haunts the world still.

"Now Hegel himself, in building up his method of double negation, offers the vividest possible example of this vice of intellectualism. Every idea of a finite thing is of course a concept of that thing and not a concept of anything else. But Hegel treats this not being a concept of anything else as if it were equivalent to the concept of anything else not being, or in other words as if it were a denial or negation of everything else. Then, as the other things, thus implicitly contradicted by the first thing conceived, also by the same law contradict it, the pulse of dialectic commences to beat and the famous triads begin to grind out the cosmos. If any one finds the process here to be a luminous one, he must be left to the illumination, he must remain an undisturbed hegelian. What others feel as the intolerable ambiguity, verbosity, and unscrupulousness of the master's way of deducing things, he will probably ascribe -- since divine oracles are notoriously hard to interpret -- to the 'difficulty' that habitually accompanies profundity."

09 April 2010

The confidentiality of a confession

The confidentiality of a confession requires that the confessing party keep his voice down. The priest won't rat you out, but anyone else passing by is free to do as they please with what they hear!

As a matter of history, even Jeremy Bentham believed the law ought to recognize priest-penitent privilege. He had no sympathy for the Catholic Church, and he was generally against privileges. Nonetheless: Bentham wrote, in "View of the Rationale of Evidence," that though the government of a rational society will be happy to see Catholicism fade away, it will not use coercion against it, and that the imprisonment of priests for refusing to share confessions would be precisely that.

He also said that the presence of a "spiritual guide and comforter" for persons who are so misguided as to go to a Roman Catholic priest to confess, is a good thing, tending to the prevention of future crimes, and to "the disposing of the penitent to make reparations for mischief done by misdeeds already perpetrated." This benefit would be lost were the evidentiary privilege not extended.

Bentham, interestingly, had no use for the institution of a lawyer-client privilege, which has no such positives in the utilitarian balance.

08 April 2010

Metropolitan Opera

I've been looking over what the Metropolitan Opera is offering for the 2010-2011 season.

Most of the offerings will sound quite familiar even to those of us who haven't spent a lot of time in opera houses:

Mussorgsky, BORIS GODUNOV (this opera was apparently the inspiration for the family name of Boris and Natasha in the old Bullwinkle cartoons -- enough reason to love it), and
Bizet, CARMEN.

There are other performances scheduled that aren't quite so renowned, at least to an ignoramus such as myself. There is:


Let us pause on that last one. Alan Berg was, it appears, both the librettist and the composer of WOZZECK, an opera first performed in 1925 in Berlin, and first performed in the United States in Philadelphia in 1931. The opera was based on a play by Georg Buchner, illustrating the hopelessness of the lives of the poor.

I don't think I'll go see that one.

04 April 2010

Links for Easter

I'll make this easy on myself. If you wish proper seasonal meditations, you can go to any of these seven destinations.

1. From the Belfast Telegraph, a meditation on Pope Benedict XVI, an announcement he made last fall concerning Anglicans, and Benedict's more recent troubles.

2. For those who want an appropriate reflection in verse.

3. For those who want to contemplate not just the histiory of the early Church, but how that history has been transmitted down through the ages, you might start here ...

4. Or here, if you wish to take Albert Schweitzer as your guide.

5. If, on the other hand, you want something to laugh at -- click there.

6. Why are there seven items on this list?

7. Including a random invitation.

03 April 2010

Dumbledore watches mumblecore

Mumblecore. That's a new word for me. I'm told (in the course of a movie review in SLATE yesterday) that mumblecore is a filmic style or genre or something. Jessica Grose, reviewing Greenberg, defines it as "ultra-low budget, often-improvised movies about lost twentysomethings."

You live and learn. Here's the piece in question.

What is a bit more surprising to me than the new word is that these ultra-low budget films are said to have their own "aesthetic." On this point, Grose refers me to an even higher authority, A.O. Scott of The New York Times who in fact says a lot about the lead actress in Greenberg, who comes from a mumblecore background, Greta Gerwig.

Its all too deep for me. But thanks for the new word, folks. "Mumblecore" sounds at first blush like a sort of erotic film -- hard core, soft core, mumblecore. But the two authorities to which I've just linked you both tell us that mumblecore entails a quite casual and de-eroticized nudity.

It also sounds like the sort of film that the head of Hogwarts might enjoy, as the headline of this entry suggests, but I suppose that is a purely fortuitous association.

As they say at an even more august institution of higher learning Faber College, "Knowledge is Good."

Don't you despise bloggers who drop words and phrases like "nudity" and "erotic film" into their posts and then into their labels for the post just to boost hits? Yeah, me too.

02 April 2010

The Alano-Sarmatian Theory

There appears to be a view in Arthurian studies known as the Alano-Sarmatian Theory.

It is an answer to the old question: "What, if anything, is the historical origin of King Arthur?"

Of course, it is perfectly possible to enjoy stories about Arthur without caring about the "what really happened" question. They are literary texts, incitements to one's own imagination, etc. Further, they are always fascinating as reflections of the times in which they were written. T.H. White's THE SWORD IN THE STONE (1938) is worlds away from Tennyson's IDYLLS, and the difference is that between England in high-Victorian confidence and England in between-two-world-wars reflectiveness.

Still, some of us want to know whether there was a historical person behind it all and, if so, who the heck he was. And there are various theoreticians who presume to sort that out for us.

The predominant theory for a long time was that "Arthur" was an ancient Brit thoroughly assimilated to the civilization of the Roman conquerors, who sought to save that civilization on his home island in the chaotic circumstances of the late Empire, after the legions were withdrawn from that distant place to defend Italy. Arthur, then, would have been a leader of the resistance to the barbarian Angles and Saxons, a defender of the fading Roman ways. [Caution, if you use that link, you'll have to scroll down a bit before you find the relevant discussion.] This certainly seems like an appropriately romantic and doomed enterprise for him. And there is a name attached: Ambrosius Aurelianus.

The Alano-Sarmatian view is quite different. It places the original of Arthur a couple of centuries earlier and at the extreme opposite end of the Roman Empire, amidst the steepes of what we would now call the Ukraine, with the nomads then known as Alans or Sarmatians. A figure named Lucius Artorius Castus apparently earned his fame in the fighting in that area, and later was transferred to Roman Briton. He was not alone when he got there -- there were Alans and Sarmatians already in Britain, and he became a rallying figure for them, on this view. The mythologies from the two opposite ends of Europe merged to make the body of Arthurian legend.

At least, that's how I understand it. If I understand it.

Can I solve the question for you and tell you, or tell myself, who was the "real" Arthur, whether he was Aurelianus or Castus or somebody else. No.

Alas, I can not pull that sword out of the stone of complicated distant history.

01 April 2010

From the Meetinghouse

I sporadically attend meetings of the Society of Friends, as I believe I've mentioned here a time or two.

The protocol at these events is that the Friends never address one another directly. A speaker will stand up, launch directly into whatever he/she wishes to say -- is impelled by the Inner Light to say -- and will then sit down. After that, there is customarily a pause (anyone else standing up and speaking immediately would seem too much like he/she was "answering" the previous speaker). Further, even after a decent interval has passed, references to what a previous speaker has said are, at most, elliptical.

This Sunday I witnessed the closest thing to an "argument" I've yet seen at such a gathering. One speaker said that he was concerned about "how we should deal with people who are angry, I might say almost hysterically angry ...." about the enactment of the new health care bill in the US. His implication was that they were clearly wrong but he was uncertain how to gently persuade them of their wrongheadedness.

After the necessary decent interval had passed, a woman rose to say that she was among those who are "angry and fearful about the deficit burden we are placing upon our children," and so forth.

The next person to stand up after that sang a song. I've never heard anybody sing at one of these meetings before. My impression was that she thought the exchange of views on partisan grounds made something extraordinary appropriate. The song was about the suffering of children which, all agree, is a bad thing.

For my own part, I am convinced the health care bill will do more harm than good in the end, but I am not especially exercised by it. There are many worse things our government could be doing, and in fact is doing. The health care system likely to result from this bill is akin to that of Singapore, from what I understand, and whatever its ill-effects may be there, they would seem contained.

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.