30 September 2010
About three years ago I wrote a post about a passage of John Milton's concerning sex in Paradise.
I was delighted yesterday to discover that this post has been the portal through which someone calling himself Drummoyne Tram discovered that Miltonic answer to a question that seems to have bugged him, too.
Welcome, Mr. Tram. Drop in any time.
26 September 2010
"Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes . Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.
Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy. Every man's condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?"
You can read the whole text here.
There is a paradox in quoting those famous words at this distance. If I take them to heart, if I ask you to take them to heart, then I am violating the counsel they offer. For why is Emerson not to be regarded by now as one of those sepulchred fathers he was telling us to ignore?
Still, the flow of thought is lovely, and the confidence is inspiring. "Undoubtedly, we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable." Who is it who does not at times doubt that undoubtable point?
The passage reminds me that Emerson was a frequent guest in the James home when William and Henry were boys there. Indeed, Emerson was William James' godfather. If we are going to see that connection as philosophically significant, we might look to these words: The everyman "acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth."
25 September 2010
It all began in February 2007 with a "seemingly innocuous opinion" by Judge Gropper of the Manhattan bankruptcy court in the Northwest Airlines case.
Gropper held that under rule 2019, hedge funds that were a member of one of the ad hoc groups that form for the purposes of negotiating/arguing out the terms of a debtor company's reorganization have to turn over to their court information that hedge funds as such like to keep close to their vests -- information amount about interest held and the price at which that interest was purchased.
The funds tried to mitigate the harm to their traditional trading strategies that this threatened, by asking for permission to provide this information under seal. But Gropper, a few days later, shot that down, too.
Several other bankruptcy courts have considered the matter since then. No consensus has developed among them as to what 2019 means.
In August 2009, the Advisory Committee on the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure (Advisory Committee) proposed a significant revision of the rule In part, this came about because of the need for legal certainty. As important, though, it came about because many well-placed people think Gropper was right on policy grounds, and that it would be good to have a rule that is very clear about that.
The proposed rule revision would change the bankruptcy investing game in three principal ways: (1) it would widen the scope of who must disclose under Rule 2019; (2) it would widen the scope of what must be disclosed; and (3) it would give bankruptcy courts wider discretion to relieve or abridge disclosure obligations, especially disclosure regarding the prices of assets purchased in secondary market trading. This article discusses the proposed revision in depth, focusing on the potential consequences for hedge funds that invest in and around bankruptcies.
There is now a widespread expectation that there will be reform, that it will be in place by the end of 2011, and that the results will demand more transparency than anyone would have expected before Gropper put this ball in play.
For the possible significance of this, I refer you back to my explanation at the time of Gropper's stance.
24 September 2010
In October, you'll be able to see Charles Ferguson's film, "Inside Job," which purports to "expose the shocking truth behind the economic crisis of 2008." Matt Damon, no one lesser, narrates!
There's also a forthcoming documentary on US public education Waiting for Superman, which (according to the Daily Beast), "tracks the desperate efforts of five families around the country to save their kids from bad public schools, which will ill-equip them for successful lives and careers, and instead enroll them in excellent charter and magnet schools that will give them a fighting chance. In the end they are at the mercy of a lottery that parcels out precious places according to the cruel impartiality of the casino."
I'm still here," the documentary, or spoof documentary, or something, about the re-invention efforts of Joaquin Phoenix, seems to have run its course and served whatever purpose was intended.
And for those who love NASCAR, "Petty Blue" is now available as a DVD.
Is this all a Michael Moore inspired fad?
23 September 2010
This is an annual event, organized by these people on behalf of a town best known as the birthplace of the Hollywood legend, Cecil B. DeMille. (The trophy lent to the Grand Prize winner for the year is a playfully conceived bust of "baby Cecil.")
The deadline for submission of your masterpiece was August 23 -- the gala screening is September 25, i.e. Saturday, in Ashfield, Massachusetts.
So where the heck is Ashfield? Jeez, don't you people have google earth? Ashfield is in northwestern Massachusetts, a little to the south and west of Greenfield, a little to the north and west of Deerfield.
Directions? See tags below.
19 September 2010
Last year at this time The New Yorker ran a tick-tock piece by James Stewart, called simply "Eight Days," with reference to the period from September 12 to and including September 19th of 2008. So we are now at the two year anniversary of the final of those days.
As my own way, then, of commemorating the insanity of another September, allow me simply to repost something I wrote at the time.
19 September 2008
The relevant regulators in the US and the UK have both now indulged themselves in the ultimate in knee-jerk reactions.
They've banned short selling in a wide range of stocks. Just to be clear: they haven't banned "naked" short selling, or "abusive" short selling, or closed any loopholes on the existing regulations that govern the practive.
They've banned short selling. Full stop. This is the logical equivalent of prohibiting pessimism.
Here's the SEC's press release.
And here's the counterpart from the other side of the Pond.
I have long believed that the history of the United States breaks down into a series of distinct equilibria. Leaving the colonial and revolutionary eras out of account, there have been three republics.
The first began in 1787 and lasted a little more than 70 years, then collapsed into a period of turmoil and civil war.
The second began in 1868, with the enactment of sweeping new amendments that made in effect for a new Constitution. This second republic lasted about 60 years. It, too, collapsed dramatically.
The third republic was up and running as of 1937, when Roosevelt's court-packing plan induced the Justices to acknowledge sweeping new interpretations for the Constitution. It is this third republic that is now crashing in upon us, and the ban on short selling is a sign of that.
You WILL BE CHEERFUL about stock prices. Washington (and London) command it!
The next logical step is a ban on any trade whatsoever at a price lower than the preceding trade on that asset. Unless, maybe, the asset in question is made out of hydrocarbons, in which case that might be reversed.
A hypothetical television commercial comes to mind.
"Crazy country. We'll sell you appliances. We'll make up prices. We'll order ourselves about like we're in a Three Stooges short. Crazy country. Our rules are ... INSAAAAANE!"
18 September 2010
The key, say the scientists involved in the latest push, is a new "photonic chip" that works on light instead of electricity.
This plays out in compare-contrast mode with views expressed by the physicist/mathematician Roger Penrose years ago, in books like this and this.
Penrose's point was that the human mind is itself a quantum computer. He was saying that the ideas of "strong AI" proponents like Alan Turing are wrong, because strong AI advocates believe you can produce consciousness and intelligence with digital computers, which work through a lot of on/off switches.
You need to harnass quantum indeterminacy to get to consciousness, said Penrose, which is what the human brain uniquely does.
It would be a hoot if he turns out to be right vis-a-vis the digital computer, but to be proved right by the creation of a new kind of computer, and AI, to which his objection did not apply.
Penrose is a great mathematicians and physicist, a former close collaborator of Stephen Hawking who fell out with SH over, so far as an idiot like yours truly can understand ... the nature of reality. Heck of a thing to ruin a friendship over.
17 September 2010
As to the public sector, each state has gone its own way in giving or withholding from its own employees, or those of its subdivisions, organizational imperatives.
Which leaves us with the federal gov.: JFK issued an Executive Order in 1962 providing for labor union recognition to a limited extent. The situation remains convoluted and becomes more so each decade, but there would seem to be an inherent probem in both organizing and threatening a strike if your employer is also the sovereign.
While I was in law school, Ronald Reagan fired the federal professional air traffic controllers (PATCO) when they walked out in 1981.
I've been thinking of such matters of late. It may have made more sense in terms of the calender if I had written something of such issues on the 6th of this month, which is known after all as Labor Day. Still, my thoughts come when they wish.
The fact is, love them or leave them, unions represent a shrinking portion of the labor market pie. Despite (or because of?) the protection of union activity in the private sector, the role of unions there has been in decline for decades. In the 1950s one in every three private sector employees was a member of a union. By 2004, only 7.9%, somewhat less than one in twelve were union members.
This all reminds me of a story I once heard about the origin of the television show I Love Lucy. When a certain CBS bigwig saw the pilot, his first reaction was: "Keep the redhead, ditch the Cuban."
When told they were a married couple and CBS had to take or leave them as a package, he said that they should stick with the in-home comedy, but cut way back on the nightclub scenes where Desi sang. Which was done.
The married couple itself, in that story, functioned as a labor union, offering its services collectively, as a take-it-or-leave-it package. It was successful, not just in getting Desi Arnaz a job, but in producing a wildly successful product. CBS was hardly the loser in this negotiation, after all. It was win-win: CBS did rather well off the show, even though they had to keep that Cuban.
And, for the record, I think Desi did a fine job as Ricky. It is hard to imagine anyone else having pulled it off as well. Maybe the CBS exec was worried about the public acceptance of some televised "miscegenation," as they called such things back then.
16 September 2010
12 September 2010
11 September 2010
The banking crisis of 2008 gave several of the central bankers involved the idea that there was more work for them to do.
The core of it is deciding how much "Tier 1 Capital" (which, roughly speaking, means what accountants mean by the word "equity") that a bank should have, in order to ensure that it will not require a public bail-out.
Instead of saying anything substantive about Basel III now, I'll just offer some links. Sometimes I'm lazy that way.
Felix Salmon has had a lot to say on the subject, as for example or again here.
My understanding is that the gist of a Basel III Accord has been developed, and this weekend the world's banking mandarins are sweating the fine print so they can announce a done deal.
Under Basel II, the existing system, a bank must have "capital" equal to 8% of the weighted at-risk value of its assets. Never mind for now how the risk weighting is done. The point here is that under Basel II, the capital necessary to reach that 8% figure can be both Tier I and Tier II capital, though at least 50% of that must be Tier I.
Tier II Includes things like hybrid debt-equity instruments and subordinated long-term debt. In other words, it is not obvious that Tier II capital is available to address the sorts of emergency that banks faced in 2008. Since the idea is to ensure that banks can face and overcome such emergencies without taxpayer bail-outs, the natural impulse is to re-write the rules to put more emphasis on Tier I.
Not all Tier I capital is alike, though. There is a "core" of Tier I, and more peripheral components thereof. The new accord seems likely to say that banks will have to maintain a capital ratio of 8% in Tier I, effectively rendering Tier II irelevant. Futhermore, most of that capital a (7% ratio to at-risk assets) will
have to be from the core.
What is more confusing still is that the Basel system works not only through distinct Tiers, but through distinct "Pillars". The whole issue of regulatory capital as discussed above is only "Pillar 1". Pillar 2 deals with how risks are weighted and Pillar 3 with disclosure matters. Here's one final link just for fun.
10 September 2010
Gould was both a paleontologist and a popularizer of science, who died of lung cancer in May 2002.
Above all, IMHO, Gould was a fine writer, and he had the good fortune of leaving a Magnum Opus behind -- The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (2002)-- its publication date preceding his death by only two months.
In this work, Gould described evolutionary theory as a tripod. One leg is the agency of the individual organism. The second leg is the efficacy of natural selection in bringing about changes in form. The final leg is the full sufficiency of the first two legs, as a mode of explanation.
That third leg, Gould calls "scope." For critics of Darwin often make some concession to the effect that his theory has some value, but only if its scope is confined to "microevolution." Darwin's view, and Gould's, was that "extended through the immensity of geological time," natural selection and the agency of individuals make up a mechanism "fully capable of generating the entire pageant of life's history."
What is that "agency of the individual" thing, though? It is only worth listing this as a "leg" if there are other possible units of selection that might do some or all of the work. For example, Dawkins looks inside the individual, and speaks of individual genes are agents. The whole biological organism is too large a proposed "agent" on that view. Another point of view might be that the individual is too small an entity -- one ought to think of flocks or herds, social units, as the relevant agent.
Finally, let us note that Gould himself had a fairly complicated attitude toward both of those proposed agents -- the social unit and the gene. But as a historian of science, insisting on what Darwin thought, Gould wrote this: "Darwin insisted upon a virtually exceptionless, single-level theory, with organisms acting as the locus of selection."
09 September 2010
Hauser is a big name in the field of evolutionary psychology. He's the co-director of the Mind, Brain, and Behavior Program at Harvard University, Director of its Cognitive Evolution Lab, and adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of Education and the Program in Neurosciences.
In 2002 his paper, “Rule learning by cotton-top tamarins,” was published by the journal Cognition. Of course he has written much else, but I mention that paper because it is at the heart of the still developing scandal. Here's some info about the cotton-top tamarin. It's a small monkey, the sort of animal one would want to study if one were trying to prove, say, that humans are distinctive vis-a-vis moral/cognitive development even compared to other primates. Or that humans aren't that distinctive.
Hauser's experiments appear to have involved hidden loudspeakers within the living environment of these monkeys. The monkeys would, not surprisingly, sometimes turn about to look toward the loudspeakers when they started talking. But how frequently they turned around was used as a measure of whether they thought the loudspeakers were saying something interesting. After all, if the same-pld-stuff kept coming from the loudspeakers, then over time it would just become ambiant noise, and the monkeys would learn to ignore it.
By videotaping the environment, and carefully watching the tape for monkey turn-arounds, and correlating all that to what was coming out of those speakers at diferent times, one can presumably draw some conclusions about the recognition of speech by monkeys, and even (if the data set is large enough) about whether monkeys notice things like grammatical errors.
This is all founded on experiments that Elizabeth Spelke has run with human infants, as David Dobbs has explained in SLATE.
Here's what the Chronicle of Higher Education said on August 13. The findings published in Cognition in 2002 can not be relied upon. The conclusions are not supported by the data. So ... what happened? Did someone else look at the videotape and see monkeying around inconsistent with what the paper reported?
I suspect there are some big issues that are at stake here, and I wish Harvard were more forthcoming about its investigation.
05 September 2010
"See everywhere the struggle and the squeeze; and ever-lastingly the problem of how to make them less. The anarchists, nihilists and free-lovers; the free-silverites, socialists, and single-tax men; the free-traders and civil-service reformers; the prohibitionists and anti-vivisectionists; the radical darwinians with their idea of the suppression of the weak, -- these and all the conservative sentiments of society arrayed against them are simply deciding through actual experiment by what sort of conduct the maximum amount of good can be gained and kept in this world."
This is from The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, an essay in which James anticipated the point of view that later came to be known as "value pluralism," a theory in meta-ethics associated with Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Raz.
Henry responded, in the comments section, that James was too optimistic. Surely the advocates of some of those viewpoints were after things nastier than seeking the maximum amount of good that can be gained and kept in the world?
Yes, I answered, they were. And their counterparts today are. Indeed, James' language about those he here calls "radical darwinians" suggests he thinks of them as rather malevolent. He isn't referring simply to the Spencerian notion of failing to assist "the weak," but to something more active, the "suppression" of the weak, which seems to me a reference to the spread of eugenic ideas in his day.
But still, as Henry notes, James refers to these radical Darwinians as part of the great higgle-haggle with the others, so they must in some sense be part of the Big Experiment. Isn't this too optimistic a view of them?
I think James would say that the functioning of one particular faction within this Big Experiment does not depend upon the motives of anyone involved. Thus, for instance, at least some of those "free lovers" he mentions might be motivated by old-fashioned lust, and an unwillingness to abide by the contraints of monogamy. rather than by a desire to produce the best possible mutual accomodation of conflicting values. Still, if such a movement finds resonance, if it builds a base and becomes politically or demographically significant, it will be because it speaks to some dissatisfaction. It will be because the status quo locks out some sentiments, frustrates some energies, and there will be -- should be -- a constant press to include what is so far excluded.
And, yes, one could say the same about Nazism. Hitler didn't build a popular following because a lot of Germans decided they wanted to kill a lot of people. war. He built a following because life in the Weimar Republic was miserable for many, and he gavwe them a vent for that misery. This qualifies Nazism, too, as part of the Big Experiment deciding through actual experiment by what sort of conduct the maximum amount of good can be gained and kept in this world, even though nobody involved would have described it that way, and even though that particular trial was an enormous failure by that test. The idea of a Big Experiment is a way of understanding history, and thus a history-based way of understanding morality. It is not a hypothesis about the psychology involved among the people 'making' history.
Even the wreckage of Nazism, BTW, left some benefits behind. In the English-speaking countries, especially, the war seems to have thoroughly discredited eugenic ideas, for example, so that have disappeared from the fray.
04 September 2010
Classen involves a patent on methods of determining an immunization schedule.
Prometheus involves a patent on the method of setting the proper dosage of thiopurine to give to patients.
So the action, after KSR and Bilski, is moving to biopharm.
Thiopurine, by the way, is a family of drugs commonly used in the treatment of autoimmune disorders such as Crohn's disease or rheumatoid arthritis.
03 September 2010
My view is that the soundest foundation for political thought is the moral philosophy outlined by the philosopher William James in "The Moral Philosopher and the the Moral Life".
That essay is perhaps best remembered for this sentence.
"Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far‑off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?"
The point is that we ought to respect that specifical and independent emotion and refrain from torturing the lost soul.
But let us continue with James' essay. For his overriding point is that we will always act under conditions of uncertainty, because "there is no such thing possible" James writes, "as an ethical philosophy dogmatically made up in advance."
There are a plurality of rights that are, in the context of our limited temporal perspective, in conflict. The only way forward is the meta-right of reconciling the first-order rights. He gives an entertainingly condensed picture of politico-moral conflicts at the end of the 19th century. "See everywhere the struggle and the squeeze; and ever-lastingly the problem of how to make them less. The anarchists, nihilists and free-lovers; the free-silverites, socialists, and single-tax men; the free-traders and civil-service reformers; the prohibitionists and anti-vivisectionists; the radical darwinians with their idea of the suppression of the weak, -- these and all the conservative sentiments of society arrayed against them are simply deciding through actual experiment by what sort of conduct the maximum amount of good can be gained and kept in this world."
In this process, we are all bound to be in the wrong in some sense. Hence the need to pray for forgiveness. But we may also hope that even in our wrongnesses we contribute to the education and development of our species, to the gradual reconciliation of the different rights. To the meta-right.
Thus much, James. I do not claim him as an anarcho-capitalist. Indeed, you'll see that he lists "anarchists" as one of the contending factions in the above exposition, part of the fray. A philosopher will be above the fray. (The "conservative sentiments of society" are part of the fray too, though arrayed against all the others.)
My own view of anarcho-capitalism, though, is that it is actually one with the meta-right. It is what I see when I seek to join James above that fray. It is where we will find ourselves heading as we work to reconcile all of our different impulses.
Josiah Royce expounded on a similar concept when he talked about "loyalty to loyalty." A meta-loyalty. He wrote about how wonderful loyalty to a group larger than one's self is. But then he took note of the obvious objection to any "philosophy of loyalty." A pirate may be loyal to his pirate captain. They may all work together quite well. But they are working to rob the honest folk who have trusted treasure to that merchant vessel so unfortunate as to sail past them! Should we celebrate the loyalty of a pirate?
Well ... yes, in a sense. But we should also note that it fails to be loyal to loyalty itself. The loyalty of the sailor on the merchant vessel to HIS captain doesn't infringe upon anyone else's loyalty. THAT sort of loyalty, then, is also meta-loyal. The pirate's loyalty only works to defeat the loyalty of others, and this is both exemplifies an ideal and undermines it.
Meta-right. Loyalties that include loyalty to loyalty. In such ideas we see the way forward, and I hold that way will turn out to be anarchic. In the meantime, we deal with the specific dilemmas we face as best we can, fumbling, and trying to keep in mind the broader goals beyond the day to day crises.
02 September 2010
So here are some comments about those early episodes.
The very first episode showed our protagonist, Don Drapper, trying to come up with a new advertising slogan for Lucky Stripes, which is under attack (along with the rest of the industry) as consciousness begins to dawn in some quarters that the product might not be entirely healthy.
This episode had some amusing scenes with a severe looking woman whose accent is, I think, supposed to be Viennese. She represents the Research department of the agency, and she believes in Thanatos. The fact that cigarettes could kill you might make them more appealing in a Freudian way, and the ads should play to that, she thinks. Don shoots this down, though an underling pitches it to the clients anyway, and they shoot it down.
Don finally comes up with "It's toasted!" as the slogan. This, in fact, was a historic Lucky Stripe slogan. "It's toasted to taste even better." I think in reality Larry Tate got started that way.
A few episodes later, Don is supposed to come up with a campaign to get American Jews to vacation in Israel. The prospective tour promoters came to him because they understood he had come up with a killer campaign to get tourists to Rio de Janiero. He asks, "Do you have a mountain with a statue of Jesus on top? That helped us with Rio."
Anyway, since there don't seem to be a lot of Jews in Don's social circles, he calls the one Jew he does know and pumps her for ideas. She is understandably put off by being taken as a token of the Chosen here.
All the pitching and strategizing generates dialog that firmly locates us in 1960. This was, after all, the year that Israeli operatives captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina, as Draper's poorly-chosen confidante mentions.
Some of the efforts to allude to 1960 are confusing. Drapper's philandering boss invites his hot secretary to take a Caribbean jaunt with him for the weekend. She turns him down, saying "I don't care if it's Cuba. I can't go." Of course, there had just been a revolution in Cuba, but I'm not sure how that fact fits into this context. And I speak as an expert -- I've seen Godfather II about 20 times.
Some allusions are just plain wrong. One character says to another, "You know what they say? the medium is the message." 'They' weren't saying this yet. That phrase was popularized by Marshall McLuhan in the book Understanding Media, published in 1964. I suppose maybe this is all taking place in an alternative universe where McLuhan wrote that book sooner.
Still: the show is a lot of fun.
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.