31 December 2010

Top Financial Stories 2010

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

By "stories," I don't mean themes, such as "China Rising" or "EU unraveling." I mean stories, such as one might have seen in a particular newspaper on some specific day. Of course, I choose the ones I do largely because they illustrate an important theme. But the theme itself isn't the story.

Further, I don't rank them, as in a top ten list. I generally assign one top story to each of the twelve months.

All that said, here is this year's list.

January. Google announcement. Google said that it was no longer willing to censor its searches in the People's Republic of China in accord with the desires of the authorities there. This was part of an escalating dispute that would lead to Google pulling out of China altogether in March.

February. Two competing biotech companies in Denmark claimed a break through in the production of commercially viable cellulosic ethanol.

March. U.S. health care reform bill finally passed -- though the actual changes are to be phased in over a period of years. Judicial challenges to the new law are an ongoing story as the year ends.

April. Greek bonds. The S&P rating for these bonds was lowered to junk level. The unfortunate acronym "PIIGS" for the 'periphery' countries of the EU receives some currency. (For the record, that's Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain.)

May. The EU Finance Ministers. The Finance Ministers over-rode the strong objections of both the outgoing and the incoming UK government, approving the Alternative Investment Fund Manager (AIFM) Directive.

June. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill. This spill had begun with an explosion on the Deep Horizon platform in April, but it grew as a story week after week, and only this month did it attain totemic full-sh!t-storm significance, even at the level of diplomacy between US and UK.

July. The Dodd-Frank bill reforming the way the financial services industry in the U.S. is regulated, passed. Obama signed it. Much of it kicks the can forward, authorizing reports and possible new regs by a variety of agencies. Some obvious reforms, like the consolidation of CFTC with SEC, go still unmade.

August. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority. The HKMA announced the tightening of its rules on mortgage lending. This reflected its concerns about a developing real estate bubble in the Special Administrative Region.

September. Muncipal bonds in the U.S. Meredith Whitney put out a 600 page report predicting big trouble ahead for the municipal bond market in the US. By serendipity, she released this just as Harrisburg, PA was getting into big fiscal trouble.

October. Sarkozy, President of France. This month, the President pushed pension reforms through the French legislature despite crippling nationwide strikes. (And since we're talking about France, this was also the month that Kerviel was sentenced.)

November. Midterm elections in the US. The most remarkable development here, from the point of view of this list, was the defeat of a proposition designed to suspend AB32, in California, and the election of a Governor committed to enforcing same. AB32 is California's cap-and-trade bill regarding carbon emissions. This development has kept cap-and-trade alive, despite its political failure at the federal level.

December. Ireland. In crisis, and after cutting a deeply unpopular deal with the IMF, Ireland enacts legislation that readies a sweeping re-organization of the banking sector there. Memories of the "Celtic tiger" are just that.

A quick perusal of this list shows that it is much less of a US-centric compilation than most of its precursors in this blog. I have a hometown bias. In this case, though, only five of the stores that strike me as the biggest in their respective months are US-oriented. Five are European, and the other two are Chinese. What does that mean? Nothing much, I suppose.

Happy new year everyone.

30 December 2010

Mad Men Thoughts: Part II

Cicily and I continue our viewing of episodes of the television show Mad Men. We aren't viewing them in "real time," but in our own time, and we've only recently moved from the later episodes of the second season into the earlier episodes of the third.

The second season covers the period from Valentine's Day 1962 until the Cuban Missile Crisis that October.

The Missile Crisis provides an obvious way to have the various characters contemplate their own mortality. Specifically, it leads to a conversation between Peggy and Father Gill that, I imagine, is meant to signify the state of the pre-Vatican-II-Council Catholic Church: just why it needed the reforms that Council brought.

Peggy is an ambitious career woman who arrived at Sterling Cooper in the first episode, and who has since become a copywriter. She had a brief fling with accounts manager Pete early on, became pregnant as a result, and gave up the child, so that her sister could raise him as her child. If I understand correctly, Father Gill has gotten wind of this and wants to get Peggy to confess it.

During the Cuba crisis, Gill makes an impassioned pitch that Peggy should confess her sins in order to save herself from hell -- to which she might be consigned rather quickly if the missiles start flying.

The Vatican II Council convened, as it happened, in October 1962, though unless I missed something the fact went unmentioned in the episode. Still, it is hard to believe the screenwriters were unaware of that fact, when seeing the Gill-Peggy interaction.

By the time of the opening episode of the third season, Sterling Cooper has become a subsidiary of a London-based ad company. The Londoners are laying off Americans, making everyone remaining quite nervous. Also, Don Draper and a closeted-guy member of his creative team, Sal, go to Baltimore to meet with the bosses of London Fog, a company with no actual London connection but which has had success branding its raincoats. (Also, as one of the actual Londoners explains, there's no such thing. The so-called "fog" of Dickens novels and other literature of the period was industrial soot -- London, as it happens, was the first industrialized metropolis in history.)

Draper catches sight (I won't try to explain how -- but Don was not playing the sneak -- the sight was an innocent accident) of an encounter that establishes for him that Sal is in fact gay. On the airplane flight back to NYC, Don tells Sal that he has an idea for a new ad campaign for London Fog. The tagline would be "Limit Your Exposure." At that moment, the significance of this phase is ambiguous. Are we really supposed to take this as an idea for a campaign, or is Don sending a message to Sal: "I don't care about your sexuality, but since others might I hope you'll keep it better hidden hereafter than you did last night."

It later turns out that Don and Sal are intent on putting together a "Limit Your Exposure" campaign. That doesn't change the obvious fact that Don was sending a message on the plane. Perhaps what was originally intended as a discreet message to Sal (to be discreet) got away from them both and became their actual campaign.

26 December 2010

Snoopy's Christmas

Am I violating someone's copyright? Heck, I'll live dangerously.

The news it came out in the First World War
The bloody Red Baron was flying once more
The Allied Command ignored all of its men
And called on Snoopy to do it again

The Allied Command has a rather low opinion of its own men. Snoopy's flying-ace fantasy on top opf his doghouse was firmly established in the pop-cultural consciousness well before The Royal Guardsmen did this in 1967. But Snoopy always seemed to lose his imagined battles with the Red Baron. He'd go down in flames, shouting "Curse you!" That was the running gag. So how had the Allied Command developed its confidence in his ability to do "it again" -- if "it" means anything they should want done?

Was the night before Christmas and forty below
When Snoopy went up in search of his foe
He spied the Red Baron and fiercely they fought
With ice on his wings, Snoopy knew he was caught

Wasn't it just as cold for the Red Baron? Why wasn't there ice on his wings too?


Christmas bells those Christmas bells
Ring out from the land
Asking peace of all the world
And good will to man

The Baron had Snoopy dead in his sights
He reached for the trigger to pull it up tight
Why he didn't shoot, well, we'll never know
Or was it the bells from the village below

There's a wikipedia article on this song. Oddly, that article (as of the time of this writing anyway!) says that the Baron doesn't fire "possibly due to his respect for Snoopy's prowess at flying." I don't see any basis for that supposition. The suggestion is that he didn't fire out of a Christmas-eve act of compassion.


The Baron made Snoopy fly to the Rhine
And forced him to land behind the enemy lines
Snoopy was certain that this was the end
When the Baron cried out "Merry Christmas, mein friend!"

How far, I wonder, was the trip from the site of initial contact to this Rhine-bank place where they finally landed. Snoopy was apparently doomed, earlier in the song, because he had ice on his wings. Are we supposed to conclude that the ice harmed his ability to maneuver sufficiently for a dogfight, but not his ability to fly in a straight line to the Rhine?

The Baron then offered a holiday toast
And Snoopy our hero saluted his host
And then with a roar they were both on their way
Each knowing they'd meet on some other day


We again here a few bars of O Tannenbaum after the final two refrains of the tune proper -- this time it is being played by a piano, not sung as in the intro.

I trust all my readers have had a wonderful Christmas and will enjoy the remainder of this holiday season.

25 December 2010

From John Milton's Nativity Ode

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

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

[lines 135-148].

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

Merry Christmas

24 December 2010

Fannie, Freddie, Joey and Petey

A controversy involving Joe Nocera and Peter Wallison draws my attention, because it has a good deal to do with how we understand the crisis of 2007-08.

Joe Nocera is a long-time business journalist, the co-author with Bethany McLean of a newly published book, "All the Devils are Here." As the Shakespearean title suggests, McLean/Nocera's theory is that the crisis had a lot of causes, plenty of "devils." The government sponsored enterprises (GSEs), Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, play a role in their story, but only a supporting role. They are not leading the devilish pack.

Peter Wallison is a member of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the bipartisan panel that is supposed to issue a report soon explaining what did happen in 2007-08 and why. Wallison, it is fair to say, wants to give Fannie and Freddie a larger share of the blame than Nocera does. Okay --everybody agrees the GSEs get some blame, and how much sounds like an appropriate subject for debate. So ... have at it, guys!

The problem, though, is that this is the US in the early 21st century and it is amongst us always easier to tell someone to shut up than it is to discuss substantive differences. Besides, "shut up" is so much snappier a thing to say. THAT is probably the worst of our devils. But I digress....

On December 17, Nocera wrote in his column that he had spoken to Wallison about their differences and that Wallison claimed to have seen still-secret papers. (What? not on Wikileaks yet?) here.

"Mr. Wallison said he had seen documents, not yet made public, as part of his work with the financial crisis commission that would prove that he’s right and I’m wrong. Well, we’ll see," writes Nocera.

Nocera makes his point without reference to anything secret. The GSEs, in his view, struggled to keep up with the private market operations like Ameriquest and Countrywide, fearing that they would become irrelevant, and politically vulnerable, if they didn't act in line with those practices.

Wallison has replied. He confirms here the sentiments that Nocera attributed to him about those secret documents.

"I told him this was wrong—that as part of the Commission’s work I have seen internal documents from Fannie and Freddie that show this particular mantra of the left to be a myth. For a reporter, that would have been a signal to hold his fire—a warning that there were facts out there of which he was unaware. I was telling him he should wait and see what I might write in connection with the Commission’s report. But he repeated his own dogma immediately thereafter."

This strikes me as fundamentally the wrong attitude to take. Wallison is saying that Nocera should "hold his fire" until he becomes aware of facts that will sooner or later become available. Well ... no. Every rational human being is entitled to form an opinion based on such facts as are available to that person. One should hold and express one's opinions with a consciousness of fallibility, but the idea that one should "hold one's fire" because there might yet be other facts is a demand for a lifetime of silence. It will always be the case that there might yet be more facts out there! So what?? If Nocera were writing about the causes of the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775 it might be the case that there are still as yet unknown documents somewhere. That is not a signal to "hold one's fire." Indeed, it should be an incentive to fire away -- it may help in smoking out the new stuff.

Nocera should keep expressing the views that he forms on the basis of facts known to him, and if and when Wallison feels free to make further facts known, he should do so.

In the meantime, the rest of us are entitled to suspect that this talk about "internal documents" about which Wallison will write in the future is a tad too convenient. Felix Salmon puts it well.

So much for the ethos of debate.

On the underlying dispute, I would say (subject to being disproven by any "internal documents" that become external down the road) that the real cause of the bubble was monetary policy, not micro-economic factors, not regulatory shenanigans, and not the GSEs. Greenspan created the Housing bubble in order to get us out of the recession of 2000-02, which was caused by the busting of the previous (dotcom) bubble, which was also largely caused by monetary policy. In order to get off this merry-go-round, we need sound money.

Given all that, though, I am inclined to think that the Republicans do overstate the GSE role. It gives them a government target to shoot at, and a target that seems smaller and safer than shooting at the Federal Reserve. Ron Paul, of course, is the honorable exception. He targets the elephant.

23 December 2010

From Florence to Houston

Below is an outline for the second chapter as represented in the table of contents for my projected book.

I've already done the same for the first chapter. We will focus here on the institution of lending money for a fixed rate of interest: this is "usury" or "riba" to its foes.

I. Renaissance Florence
A. Theology, Damnation, and Evasion
B. The Rise of the Medici

II. The North of Europe
A. Luther on usury
B. Calvin
C. Calvinism in the Lowlands
D. London and the Classical Economists

III. Colonies and States
A. Debt in the Colonies
B. Debt and the Founders
C. The Post-Classical Economics of Henry George

Here I will make in essence the points I sought to make in this blog on November 19, 2010.

D. Leverage, the Business Cycle, and Enron

The difficulties that arise when finance becomes too disconnected from the physical world, when an excess of liquidity gives rise to dreams of infinite leverage, are well illustrated in the rise and fall of the now infamous energy-trading firm, and it is a cautionary tale we should heed even this early in our study.

We have addressed thus far the fundamental ideas of speculation and leverage (i.e. debt). We need to introduce the final key idea from our subtitle, regulation: and we will do that in the next chapter.

19 December 2010

More on Phaedo

As faithful readers may remember, on December 12th I commented on an argument in Plato's Phaedo, under the more contemporary inspiration of Anderson Brown.

Now I think I may have grasped a point that puzzled me then. For when Socrates is challenged with the idea that the soul may be a sort of harmony, and thus dependent upon the physical instrument that plays it, his response is to contend that this can't be a good analogy. Why not? Because having a soul is a binary choice: you either have one or you don't. Being harmonious, or melodic, though, is a matter of degree. Some tunes are more tuneful than others.

Setting aside Brown's exegesis of the passage, I found the argument weak. It appeared to be a mere playing with words. Surely, a defender of the soul-as-harmony theory could say that we sometimes use "harmony" in a binary sense, while at other times using it as a matter of degree. Indeed, as a music critic might use the word "soul" in writing of R&B musicians, it is susceptible to a matter-of-degree interpretation too.

But perhaps Plato's point is two-fold. First: if we think of the tune Mary-had-a-little-lamb as a Platonic Idea (as Plato presumably would have), then we will think of the first musician ever to have played that tune on whatever instrument -- or the first composer ever to put it to paper -- not as its creator but as the discoverer of that bit of imaginative space.

Second, though, there is a sharp distinction. The soul is that which does the discovering. A particular tune is that which is discovered. They are as different as subject and object.

Plato is then saying that (a) both tune and appreciative soul can exist in some sense without embodiment, but (b) the soul exists in a fuller, more active, sense than the tune. The soul is that which rejects one tune for another, deciding that one is more "tuneful" than the other.

I'm reminded a bit of something Wittgenstein said about the self. My self would not be part of the contents of a book called "The world as I found it." The self is the finder.

18 December 2010

The Nature of Evil

In Yahoo!Answers, a college student called Tolly117 asked about Thomas Aquinas and the nature of evil. Homework is kind of fun for those of us for whom it is voluntary, so I gave her a hand with the following.


In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas begins by asking whether God exists. He starts by proving that the existence of God is not self-evident: proving that we need a proof. Next step? He advances the arguments an atheist might use for the contrary conclusion, in order to rebut them. One of those arguments is this: "It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the name God means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist."

So: how does Thomas answer that argument? "This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good."

That's an important contention. It suggests that the nature of evil is that of a challenge, and God's goodness is demonstrated through His ability to master such challenges. If there were no such challenges, then, the world would not be as good as it can be -- and is.


I just include that here because I'm too lazy to think of something more fresh just now.

17 December 2010

Microfinance II

If all you knew of them was what I described in the preceding post, you'd think Yunus and his Grameen Bank universally beloved.

But of course, on this conflict-ridden planet, nobody is universally beloved.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni spoke on December 7th of how "famous Yunus" can not be considered above the law, and a certain charge must be investigated "for the sake of the truth".

Those comments came about because a reporter asked the Foreign Minister about a documentary that aired on Norwegian television, November 30, entitled "Caught in Micro Debt." Why Norwegian television? Apparently because the Grameen bank has become a 'cause' in northern Europe. People from Norway, as well as Sweden and Germany, impressed by Yunus' work, have donated money to assist the bank in its micro-lending.

The most explosive allegations in the piece involved a transfer of funds from Grameen Bank to Grameen Kalyan, a sister organization that offers health "microinsurance".

Authorities in Norway say that they find it "totally unacceptable that aid is used for other purposes than intended no matter how praiseworthy the causes might be."

The maker of the documentary said that the transfer was a tax-evasion trick. (Whose taxes does it help evade? Norway's? Bangaldesh's? Both?) At any rate, the govt of Norway has formally dropped the matter, Yunus and Grameen have denied they did anything wrong, and the controversy over this particular transfer is only significant because it is a part of a larger whole: continued confusions over the morality, and practical significance, of lending money for interest at all.

If interest rates are inherently suspect, then lending money to the poor is even more so. If lending for interest is a natural and practical part of a system by which a country can develop and pangs of poverty can be banished -- or at the least lessened -- then what Yunus is doing is right, but one should also re-examine the laws by which people are stigmatized and punished as "sharks" for doing much the same.

A recent FT story on Grameen Bank quoted Mirza Azizul Islam, a former adviser to the finance ministry in Bangladesh, "Microcredit has played an important role in poverty alleviation in Bangladesh. My reservation is that people have gone just above the poverty line, but they have not been able to graduate much further."

Yes, for going "much further" something more than village bike repair shops, and the other microprojects that Grameen finances, would be necessary. Still, that fact hardly allows one to deprive Grameen of the credit for extending those services to those villages.

16 December 2010

Microfinance I

In the mid 1970s, about 80 percent of Bangladesh population was below the poverty line.

In 2010, that number is 38 percent.

I take those statistics from the Financial Times weekend edition, which had a story entitled "Cradle of Microfinance Rocked."

But let's back up a bit. In 2006, the Nobel Peace Prize gave its renowned award jointly to one man and one institution: Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank. The former was the founder of the latter.

More recently, Yunus has received the pop-culture equivalent of the Nobel Prize: an appearance on The Simpsons. In the second episode of 2010-11 season of the Fox network's hit animated program, Lisa sees a video in which Yunus discusses microfinance, and Lisa is inspired to lend her $50 of disposable income to Nelson Muntz. Nelson plans to start a bicycle repair shop with it.

The only thing wrong with the Muntz example is that it is set in the U.S. The typical "microfinance" loan takes place in the developing world, and goes to a prospective entrepreneur in a village. Some have argued that village social constraits are crucial to its success. Microfinance works because institutions like Grameen don't have to use draconian collection means. In a village, everybody knows everybody, and peer pressure sees to it that the borrower makes good use of the money. Perhaps with a profitable bicycle repair shop.

So the idea of "microfinance," the idea that won that Nobel Prize is that institutions can make money by banking people that traditional banks would never touch.

Yunus does in fact have videos on the web through which he promotes the idea. This is one of them.

So ... what went wrong? What is "rocking" this promising system of development? I will hold off on that point until tomorrow.

12 December 2010


At one point in the dialogue Phaedo [pronounced Fay-doe], Socrates has to meet an objection that Simmias poses to the notion of immortality of the soul.

Simmias is at first reluctant to state his doubts. After all, Socrates will take the hemlock soon, and one does not quarrel with the self-consoling thoughts of a man about to die! But Socrates encourages him, and Simmias says that the preceding discussion has proven the duality of body and soul to his (Simmias') satisfaction. But...here comes a big "but".

"One might also make the same case about harmony and a lyre and its strings, that on the one hand, harmony is something invisible and without a body ... whereas the lyre and its strings are physical and corporeal and composite and earthy and are akin to the mortal."

From this duality is does NOT follow, Simmias points out, that the harmony will survive the death of the lyre. If someone cuts the strings, the music ends.

"If then the soul happens to be a particular harmony, it is clear that, when our body is slackened or stretched without measure by diseases and other evils, the soul ... must in fact immediately be destroyed, even if it be most divine...." [Sounds like John Searle's view of the mind-body problem, BTW.]

How does Socrates respond? It takes some time -- the dialogue moves in zig-zags, not straight lines. When we in time we come back to this issue of the lyre and harmony, Socrates says that some harmonies are more harmonious than others. Harmony, then, is a matter of degree. This is not the case with the possession of a soul. If I understand the point here, Socrates/Plato is arguing that "possession of a soul" is a binary matter. No one person is more ensouled than another.

"All the souls of us living are equally good, if indeed, souls are, by nature, the same as this itself: Soul."

Thus, the analogy fails, and Simmias lays aside his own objection to immortality.

Contemporary philosopher Anderson Brown translates that argument into 21st century lingo, in a lively way.

Brown sees Plato as saying that we don't simply find material things and discover that you can pluck them and get music. We create material things for that purpose. A manufacturer created the lyre, stringing it together just so, in order to allow it to carry a harmony. Thus: harmony precedes the lyre. Harmony inspired the lyre. So the duality of harmony and lyre is one in which the intangible side of the dualism both precedes and survives the tangible side. It supports Socrates' contention, rather than weakening it.

I don't really see in Phaedo what Brown sees, but he seems to have given a lot more thought to it than I have, so I'll take it for granted this is there somewhere.

11 December 2010

The Old Stigma: Speculators as Parasites

I plan to fill in a bit here the first chapter as represented in the table of contents of my projected book. See yesterday's post for the context.

This chapter will flesh out the claim in the introduction that "a very old stigma of the speculator as an anti-social parasite has re-emerged."

I. Russia

A. Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov and the death of a pawn broker
B. To the 20th century: who were the kulaks?
1. their speculations
2. their stigmatization
3. their deaths.

II. "But that was all so long ago!"

III. The CDS Market as our pawn brokers

A. What is a CDS market?
B. Consider a column Ben Stein wrote in The New York Times back when he was writing for them.
C. Or consider Goldman Sachs as "vampire squid" and the barrage of Congressional investigations.
D. Short course: why CDS' should not be scary.

IV. Transition.

If they are not in fact parasites, what function do they serve? That brings us into the next chapter.

10 December 2010

My Book Proposal

Listen up publishers. Here's a book proposal.

I'd like you to bid on rights to my not-yet-complete manuscript, Gambling With Borrowed Chips: The Role of Leverage, Speculation, and Regulation in a Modern Economy.

I am willing to accept millions, though hundreds of millions would be nice.

When complete, this will be a scholarly ms of approximately 76,000 words, with approx. 30 figures in the text, and extensive endnotes for each chapter, an index, and a bibliography.

As I complete outlines of each chapter in subsequent posts, I'll use the chapter titles here as links, for convenient navigation.


Speculation performs at least three indirect but valuable roles that assist a broader society in the wise allocation of resources: it allows commercial parties to hedge their positions; it uncovers the real value of assets; and it creates accountability for corporate managers, who in the absence of active speculators are better positioned to entrench themselves.

Speculative activity can become excessive and abusive -- the best check upon this, though, is not through regulation, much less criminalization -- the best check is the systemic one of a hard money policy.

The events of recent years -- as they have been popularly misunderstod -- have delegitimized this valuable activity, and that has given rise to a lot of real and threatened policy consequences that have done or would do more harm than good. Or, to be more precise, a very old stigma of the speculator as an anti-social parasite has re-emerged.



Part One: The Value of Speculation
1. The old stigma: speculators as parasites
2. From Florence to Houston
3. Equity and Prop Desks
4. The Crisis of 2008
5. Commodities and Their Derivatives
6. Betting on Foreign Exchange
7. Accounting and Valuation
8. Corporations and Accountability.

Part Two: Important Abstractions
9. Efficient Capital Markets, A Tidy Theory.
10. ECMH, The Much Sloppier Practice.
11. On Greed and Money.
12. A World Without a Monetary Superpower

Part Three: Some Policy Consequences
13. Bankruptcies and Rescues.
14. Public and Private Pensions.
15. Home Ownership.
16. Energy.
17. Conclusion.

09 December 2010

UConn in the Fiesta Bowl!

On the weekend before Thanksgiving, as I have mentioned here before, the University of Connecticut Huskies football team defeated their Big East rival Syracuse putting themselves in position for a bowl game bid.

But at the time I described their bowl eligibility as still a "long shot."

They've pulled it off, though! On Saturday of the long Thanksgiving weekend, they defeated Cincinnati. The week after that, they beat the South Florida Bulls in an exciting game that ended 19-16, after Dave Teggart's 52 yard field goal broke a tie.

As Casey Keefe wrote on the CBS Sports website, "It's unfathomable to think how far Connecticut football has come."

They are the champs of the Big East conference, and headed for the Fiesta Bowl in Arizona on New Year's Day 2011.

As some of you know, I live a stone's throw from the state line and spend a lot of time on the northern side of said line. So it seems only fair to ask: how did the U.Mass Minutemen do this season?

Well ... they sure aren't in a major bowl game! Nah-nah. The Minutemen are part of the Colonial conference. They ended the season this year with a 4-4 record within that conference, a 6-5 record overall.

05 December 2010

Books of the Year

The New York Times has released its list of the top Books of the Year for 2010

Five fiction, five non-fiction. I haven't read any of them. But they make for an intriguing list. In case someome needs ideas on a Christmas gift for me, these are the most tempting three books on that list:

1. Among the fiction entries: A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan. The Times calls it a “virtuosic rock ‘n’ roll novel,” apparently on the grand scale, following 13 characters over four decades, combining their fictional lives into "an artful whole, irradiated by a Proustian feel for loss, regret and the ravages of love.”

2. Non-fiction, APOLLO's ANGELS, by Jennifer Homans. This is a history of ballet. I've never actually sat through a ballet in person. I think I watched all of "The Nutcracker" on television once, but that is the extent of my appreciative history. Still, the history of any art form is bound to prove a microcosm of cultural history in general, and should provide insights from its own particular angle of vision.

3. Memoir, FINISHING THE HAT, the first half of a projected two-volume autobiography by Stephen Sondheim. The strange titular phrase is the name of a song in "Sunday in the Park with George."

04 December 2010

A birthday

Jacques Barzun turned 103 years old a few days ago, on November 30.

Yes, that was not a typo: one hundred and three. He was born in 1907 in Créteil, France, the son of Henri-Martin and Anna-Rose Barzun. His father was well-connected with the modernist artists of that epoch, so Jacques knew as a child Guillaume Apollinaire, Albert Gleizes, Marcel Duchamp, and others of that rank.

I've paid tribute to him before: back when his age could still be stated with only two digits, and I'll just lnk to that now.

One of the better features of Leo Wong's "Barzun 100" website, created for such tributes, is the constant scrolling of Barzun quotes across the top of the home page. Some of these are clerihews, brief poems of four lines, with the AABB rhyme scheme, offering an incident from the life of a famous person. The first line of a clerihew is usually the name of that person.

Barzun is very fond of the form. One of his clerihews, scrolling past regularly, is as follows:

Henry James
Names no names
But Bostonians knew
Who was who.

Adding a link was my idea.

All the best to the birthday celebrant -- may Barzun continue to shatter conventional notions of the human life span!

03 December 2010

New York's Prominence

Years ago, some time in the 1990s, I began a ms on American history, aimed at the high school level, in the hope of selling it to a textbook publisher.

I fished about a bit for publishers, without any luck, then settled into some other project and forgot this one.

I mention this because I've just now rediscovered the long-forgotten partial ms. Leafing through it, my eyes fell upon my brief attempt to acknowledge, and to give some but not too much credence to, geographical explanations of NYC's rise to world prominence.

I observed that the Hudson River gave the holders of its southern extremity, from the era of Dutch dominance to the present, easy access to fertile lands along the long valley. Also, in English colonial times, this was "a highway to the lucrative fur trade and it could carry an intrepid traveller most of the distance to 'New France,' or Quebec. What is more: Hudson's tributary, the Mohawk, offered access to the western frontier."

I also noted, at a remove: "Also customary at this point is the observation that New York was positioned, in colonial times especially, to serve as the intermediary between Massachusetts and Virginia. As a geographical explanation for New York's rise to prominence this is unhelpful. First, it is also true of Baltimore and Philadelphia (which, likewise, possess fine natural harbors.) Second, it is true of virtually any point anywhere that it serves as an 'intermediary' between someone to its north and someone else to its south, so no site derives any especial benefit from that fact."

Okay, not a great piece of writing. But I have retained the ambivalent attitude toward geo-historical explanations that you can hear in my voice there.

02 December 2010

Random Bit of Judicial History

In 1971, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case arising from documents leaked to the press by Daniel Ellsberg, illustrating the history of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

I have a random hankering today to quote from Justice Hugo Black's opinion in that case.

"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do."

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.