27 February 2011

Rambling Thoughts for a Sunday

Seth Mnookin has written The Panic Virus, a study of broad public acceptance of a vaccine-autism link.

Here is the Amazon page for the book.
I've written on this and related subjects before in this blog, the first time almost four years ago now, when I was as I said at the time only vaguely aware that there was a controversy underway.

When I first heard about this, though, my thoughts focused on the name "Seth Mnookin." Who the heck is he? It took some wracking of the brain but I eventually realized where I had first encountered that name. He wrote a (fascinating) account of the Jayson Blair scandal back in 2004. Here's a review of that book, by Michael Getler.

Getler called Mnookin's book "a must-read for anyone interested in this episode and what it says about the larger issues of journalism today."

Going back a bit further, Mnookin is a former heroin addict. Not long after the Jayson Blair book had made Mnookin famous he recounted his experiences along that line in SLATE.

He tells in that article for example about the time he was thrown out of the "hard-core treatment center in Boca Raton" for having sex with one of the other patients there (that's a no-no? even though she was 18?) and tells of being "given two black Hefty bags filled with my clothes and told I had 10 minutes to get off that property." Fortunately, things headed up for him from there.

So, what does Slate have to say about Mnookin's latest? You can find out here.

Even before all of that, Mnookin was a writer for Addicted to Noise, an online music magazine. You can read about A to N here.

I was planning to bring all this back to the issue of an alleged vaccine/autism link. Really I was. But now I'm thinkiing ... to heck with that. Enjoy your Sunday, everyone.

26 February 2011

Plagiarism and Politics in Germany

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the defense minister of the Federal Republic of Germany, is caught up in a plagiarism scandal involving his doctoral thesis.

So serious an affair has it become that he has abandoned the use of the term "Dr" in front of his name. As Spiegal Online puts it (see the link above) he has dropped "doctor" in an effort to save "minister."

It appears to have been a law professor at the University of Bremen who kicked off this fuss , on Saturday, February 12, although the dissertation in question had been published back in 2009, and it had been submitted to the University of Bayreuth three years before that. The law professor, Andreas Fischer-Lescano, set out to write a review of it on Feb. 12, a Saturday, and he started plugging passages into google. Apparently, this is for him a routine practice.

Personally, this whole situation makes me wonder: what do they call the sports teams at the University of Bayreuth? Do they play up the Wagner connection? Are the teams the "Bayreuth Composers" or the "U of B Twilighters" or ... what?

Anyway: the thesis in question is titled "Constitution and Constitutional Treaty: Constitutional Developments in the USA and EU."

So Guttenberg has an interest in the comparative study of political developments. I wonder if there is some intra-EU comparative significance in this: Italian politics has come to turn on issues of statutory rape; the UK and Sweden are enmeshed in a dispute over the extradition of the Wikileaker on charges of a sexual offense that seems unique to Swedish law; and German politics erupts over something as staid as a plagiarism charge.

I do think plagiarism is important, as my repeated discussions of related points on this blog no doubt makes clear. But as a cabinet-determining issue? it seems both bizaare and very German.

25 February 2011

Hardball Negotiating

Prank phone-calling aside: the unions engaged in this high-profile confrontation with Governor Walker have agreed to the financial concessions involved. According to their offer now on the table, if I understand it, the union members will begin contributing 5.8% of their salaries toward their pensions (versus what the WSJ imprecisely calls "little or nothing" until now).

Also, members will begin paying a minimum of 12.6% of the health care premiums, up from the current average of 6%. Note that wording carefully, for the increase is greater than the numbers alone make it seem -- that is a current "average" on the one hand matched against a minimum on the other.

If Governor Walker's hardball politics, his existential threat to the unions themselves, has been necessary to get that concession, then it has served its purpose. If so, maybe he should withdraw the existential threat and lock in the concession. Then he may go down in the history as the Governor who ensured the solvency of that pension and health-care system.

As this intelligent commentary explains, the bill of which this is a part would "restructure the state's pension model to a more sustainable system."

Fromn that POV, this isn't all that new a development. Its old-fashioned hardball negotiating. Demand ten of something if you want 5. The demand for ten makes sense not on its face but because if you had only demanded 5, the other side would have thought you only really wanted 2.5.

If Walker backs off from his ten and accepts his 5 graciously in the next few days: good for him.

Here's a link to an intriguing book on labor negotiations as dramatic performances.

24 February 2011

Thirty Years Ago This Week

My American Express sponsored appointment book reminds me that on this week in 1980 the top pop song was "9 to 5" by Dolly Parton.

I'm reminded thereby of an appearance on the Today Show that Dolly Parton made not too long after that sing hit its peak.

Jane Pauley (remember her?) did the interview. Pauley and her guest discussed, mostly, Dollywood, the singer's Tennessee theme park. Pauley asked, among other scintillating questions: "Do people know who you are in that park or do you try to mingle incognito?"

It is not important, best beloved, how Miss Dolly answered that question. What is important -- or at any rate amusing -- is that later in the show, Bryant Gumbel picked up on that.

Gumbel: Jane, you know that you're my partner and I would never second-guess your interviewing, but....

Pauley: But what?

Gumbel: But how, even if she wanted to, would Dolly Parton walk about incognito?

In those innocent days (okay, not so innocent, but silicone or saline insertions weren't at all as common then as they have become) Miss Dolly's profile was very rare.

What struck me was that Pauley acted as if she had never thought of that point. A light dawned in her eyes, and she and Gumbel shared a laugh.

Ah ... memories. And that word has a near-homophone that comes to mind.

20 February 2011

Airgas/Air Products

Back when I was writing another blog, "Proxy Partisans," I chronicled among other continuing stories of corporate skullduggery the relationship between two Pennsylvania-based suppliers of industrial gas: Air Products (APD), of Allentown, and Airgas (ARG) of Radnor.

I suspended work on "Proxy Partisans" in October, but now it is necessary to continue that particular storyline here, because this rivalry has produced what may be a very important decision by the Delaware Chancery Court. Indeed, Deal Journal is calling it "one of the most significant legal decisions in a generation."

From the introductory portion of the decision: "This now very public saga began quietly in mid-October 2009 when John McGlad, President and CEO of Air Products, privately approached Peter McCausalnd, founder and CEO of Airgas, about a potential acquisition or combination. After McGlade's private advances were rebuffed, Air Products went hostile in February 2010, launching a public tender offer for all outstanding Airgas shares."

The offer was extended, and the price bumped up, throughout the subsequent year, so that at the time of the Chancery Court's decision the offer stood at $70 a share. It was fully financed and all cash.

The decision lays some stress on the all cash nature of the offer. Why? Presumably because an all-cash offer is less suspect in some sense than a share-swap, so that if the poison pill is not subject to judicial review even when its an all-cash offer, readers can infer that it will be likewise immune from such review when a stock swap is involved.

Another noteworthy fact: the court seems to sympathize with Air Products on policy grounds, but it says it is "constrained by Delaware Supreme Court precedents." So even in the absence of questions about financing or valuation, a board's judgment that the price offered is simply too low, and its concern that its shareholders will foolishly disagree with that, is reason enough to allow the poison pill effectively blocking the acquisition.

The inventor of the poison-pill-based takeover defense, Martin Lipton, ispredictably happy.

I am not. And I think that in his elation, Lipton rather mis-states the gist of the decision, which contained its own notes of regret about what the Chancellor felt he had to do.

19 February 2011

Aaron Burr arrested

It was on this day, February 19, in 1807, that a former vice president was arrested for treason.

He was arrested, to be specific, at Wakefield, now part of Alabama. This came about because a one-time associate of Burr, General James Wilkinson, Governor of the Louisiana Territory, betrayed him.

It remains unclear just what Burr had been up to in the period between the end of his term as VP and his arrest almost two years later. Did Wilkinson betray him with the truth, or with lies?

From what historians tell us of Wilkinson's character, it could have been either.

At any rate, the arrest led to a spectacular trial presided over by the Chief Justice, John Marshall. Burr was acquitted, though he was never a figure of political importance again -- so in that sense much of Jefferson's purpose in pressing for his arrest and trial had been accomplished.

My point? the whole incident served the young nation well. For Marshall insisted on the significance of the phrase "overt acts" in the constitutional discussion of treason. No one becomes a traitor by virtue of what he says -- there must be some conduct beyond speech -- somnbody has to pick up or load a gun, for example. Treason charges have never subsequently served, in the US, as a way of punishing or limiting dissent. That fact has less to do with the first amendment than we might imagine, and more to do with the "overt act" language in the original constitution, and with Marshall's application of it in this matter.

Just something to remember with some gratitude on this day.

18 February 2011


Without ever actually using the word "plagiarism," Michael Moynihan in last weekend's Wall Street Journal makes the case that Dominic Sandbrook engaged in a good deal of it in Sandbrook's new book, MAD AS HELL: THE CRISIS OF THE 1970s AND THE RISE OF THE POPULIST RIGHT.

Moynihan, the senior editor of libertarianism's flagship magazine, REASON, says that Sandbrook "shamelessly and repeatedly cannibalizes the work of others...." such as Mark Bowden's book about the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1981, GUEST OF THE AYATOLLAH (2007).

Such a charge requires putting passages side by side. Sandbrook writes thus:

"At Washington's National Cathedral, bells tolled every day at noon, once for each day of their captivity, while in Lawrence, Massachusetts, churches rang their bells fifty times a day in sympathy."

Bowden had put it thus: "At the National Cathedral in Washington, bells tolled every day at noon, once for each day of the lengthening captivity. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, all of the churches around its city hall sounded their bells fifty times each day at noon to remember the American captives."

To be fair: Sandbrook did a little re-writing of Bowden. He shortened Bowden's sentences in that passage, as a copy-editor might, deleting the arguably unnecessary word "lengthening" in the first of those sentences for example. Still, the similarity is rather too great for comfort. It would have been better to use quotation marks and credit Bowden in the text even if it did mean using that adjective.

Another example? Any book about the politics of the 1970s will have to describe the bicentennial celebrations of 1976. In that context, Sandbrook writes specifically of the Boston fireworks:

"On television, pictures showed girls applauding on their boyfriends' shoulders, fathers lifting their children in the air, a South Boston priest waving an enormous American flag."

J. Anthony Lukacs had described those fireworks in his 1986 book, COMMON GROUND. Thus: "Long-haired girls perched on their boyfriends' shoulders, fathers held children aloft, a priest from South Boston waved a huge American flag."

One gets the feeling, from such examples (Moynihan provides others) that Sandbrook did just enough copy editing to avoid the p word. In that Bostonian scene, this chiefly involved changing the tense from past to present. Also, Sandbrook might say in his own defense that Bowden, Lukacs, and the other sources to which Moynihan refers were all explicitly cited in his footnotes.

The problem remains, though. The borrowing isn't of the usual scholarly sort, but goes to the choice of anecdotes, the physical details thereof, and the adjectives. In order to write a book about the 1970s, it is necessary but not sufficient to read a lot of the stuff that has been written about the seventies. One must think about the subject sufficiently to make it one's own.

17 February 2011

Barnes & Noble

A personal announcement: I know I've been stringing my faithful readers along for more than a year on this point, but I should at last announce that I am the proud owner of an eReader.

Which one?

The Barnes & Noble Nook.

The reason? Nothing brilliant involving my efforts at comparison shopping. My aunt and uncle, bless them, gave me a $50 gift certificate to Barnes & Noble for Christmas this year, and I could not let the opportuinity go to waste. I used that money as part of the necessary payment for my Nook.

I'm still familiarizing myself with how to use it.

Thank you, Jean & Bob.

13 February 2011

Aristotle: Some Thoughts

The combination of Aristotle’s ethics with those of Christianity is a very awkward fit. Aristotle’s ethics was all about becoming the “great-souled man.” His audience consisted of those who had the necessary preconditions for his description of the great-souled: free born, for example, and at least comfortable in material things – enough so that crass matters of trade would not concern them. If this is so for you, then you can concern yourself with the greatness of your soul in Aristotle’s sense.

“He [the great-souled man] is one who will possess beautiful and profitless things rather than profitable and useful ones,” says Aristotle.

(By the way, in the translation of the relevant passage to which I just linked you, W.D. Ross uses the adjective "proud" where a more literal translation would be "great-souled," and a flat-footed transliteration would be "magnanimous." I know no Greek myself, ancient or modern -- but these alternative renderings of the word are easy enough to find in the literature, even when directed at a popular audience. Bertrand Russell explains, in a footnote to his famous "History of Western Philosophy," that neither "magnanimous" nor "proud" quite captures Aristotle's meaning.)

Well, proud buddy, some of us need those profitable and useful things. In the way that the first disciples of Jesus needed, say, a fishing vessel and a net. These weren’t luxuries. They weren’t beautiful in the luxury-goods sense Aristotle had in mind. So the first disciples of Jesus were not even in Aristotle's chosen audience.

A little later, still describing his protagonist, Ari writes that he will walk in slow steps, with “a deep voice and a level utterance; for the man who takes few things seriously is not likely to be hurried, nor the man who thinks nothing great to be excited, while a shrill voice and a rapid gait are the results of hurry and excitement.”

One wonders how this guy ever got his admission ticket to the Great Philosophers’ Club?

It doesn't seem to me that this guy ended up with a good referential morality for anything but the ruling elite, those who never had to adopt a rapid gait because someone else was doing all the work for them.

Indeed, although Aristotle is sometimes used as a figure of contrast to Plato, the contrast is not really as marked as often thought. Consider politics. Plato famously devised a three-class theory of the City (aka the State). At the top are the rulers, who should also be philosophers. In the middle are administrators and the military, whose guiding virtue must be bravery, and at the bottom are slaves and working free people who must actually ... you know ... do productive stuff. Their passions are dangerous so their guiding virtue must be obediance. Consider Dorothy's three friends on the way to the Emerald City, and you have the gist of this class structure. But Dorothy, with good Kansas/American sentiments, played no favorites among them. (And doesn't she say, in the balloon-launch scene, that she loved the Tinman best? An inversion of Platonism, then.)

Anyway, it seems to me that Aristotle adopted his teacher's politics without much change, except that he shrunk its geographical scale from the city to the estate. Consider a working estate in the countryside outside of Athens. There is the magnanimous man who owns the place, and who is a philosopher who has studied Aristotle and knows that he should walk slowly and buy beautiful trinkets for his home. He is top dog. Beneath him are his wife and children, and perhaps a hired estate manager, who must administer the place on his behalf. Because he's too wrapped up in magnaminity to do such things himself. Beneath them are the manual laborers, whether freeborn or chattel, and beneath them the beasts of the field.

This has nothing to do with Christianity, which was preached first to shepherds tending their beasts in the field. I don't imagine those shepherds had a lot of beautiful and useless things.

That some bright medieval thinkers managed to baptize Aristotle was a striking accident of history, a project that was also one of the borrowings of the west from the Muslim world of that time, but I can not accept what seems to be the presumption on the part of many Christians even today that it was a fortunate move.

12 February 2011

2d-Generation Ethanol: Comments and Reply

I recently submitted to AOL Daily Finance a story about the distinctions between corn-based and cellulose-based ethanol production.

I'm happy to say that the story received a lot of hits and generated a spirited exchange in the comments section.

Instead of wading into said comments section myself, I'll reply here to some of the more persistent themes.

First, a lot of the commentors complain of what I didn't write. There's nothing there about hydrogen, or nuclear power plants, or natural gas, or shuttles to the moon to mine the resources there. The only answer is the obvious one: I did not set out to write a treatise on The Future of Fuel or anything so all-encompassing. I sought to contribute a small piece to a lot of broader puzzles. There exists a circle of investors and entrepreneurs who are confident a cellulosic ethanol breakthrough is near, and I tried to give them a voice, to encapsulate their way of viewing their market and prospects.

Second, some of the commentors were unhappy about the fact that the second-generation ethanol industry, like its precursor, is in search of public subsidies. To the cry, "No subsidies to anybody!" I am entirely in sympathy. Yet in the meantime, we live in the world "that is the case," as a great philosopher put it. My own view is that some subsidies are worse then others. Some are just plain stupid. A public subsidy that encourages some people to burn what might otherwise be other people's food is in the stupid category.

Third, some of the commentors quarreled with the idea that the creation of corn ethanol raises the price of corn as food. On this point, let me note that the distinction between corn for direct human consumption and corn for livestock consumption hardly matters. The latter simply throws an extra link into the segment of the food chain under examination. Presumably, unnecessary price increases of corn intended for either purpose is a bad thing for the ultimate consumers.

More importantly, a straightforward understanding of supply and demand would indicate that corn prices should have been rising as the use of corn for the production of ethanol moved, as it has in recent years, to 15 percent of the world's total corn supply. Empirical evidence supports this expectation. Indeed, biofuel subsidies may increase the price even of foods that aren't used to make ethanol. If some consumers switch from corn meal to wheat bread as a result of the increase in the price of the former, this increases demand and thus the price of the latter.

The OECD has estimated that "[C]urrent biofuel support measures alone [would] increase average wheat prices by about 5 percent, maize by around 7 percent and vegetable oil by about 19 percent over the next 10 years."

That's just sad.

Finally, some of the commenters (like bnordq) have understood my article and in fact proven generous in their praise of it. They have my gratitude.

11 February 2011

Cairo and Dow Jones

These propositions seem very plausible to me:

1. If Egypt becomes an Islamic Republic, in the manner of Iran, that fact will be disastrous to world trade, especially disastrous to any industries that rely on getting crude oil from the eastern to the western side of the Suez canal, and this impending disaster would show up in devastated stock prices on, say, the DJIA and the S&P.

2. Highly liquid stock markets tend to discount reasonably foreseeable future events -- so that what is now likely to happen next year should show up in this year's stock prices.

Putting (1) and (2) together, it seems natural to draw the following conclusion:

3. If Egypt's likelihood of turning into an Islamic Republic has markedly increased in recent days, then one should have seen a sharp drop in the DJIA and the S&P.

So, let us add another fact to the mix:

4. The situation in Cairo has been getting, from all appearances at this distance, ever hairier and scarier since at least January 26:

So ... has there been a sharp drop in the indexes in NYC?

If you look at a chart of the DJIA covering the period from then until now, you'll see that there has been only one not-especially-sharp drop since the turmoil began. But that might have been a chartist's drop, caused by the approach of the psychologically important 12,000 number. The market subsequently recovered, broke through 12,000, and then went to 12,100. All as talk of whether Mubarak would leave was turning into talk of how quickly it could be arranged.

If this is a disaster in the making, why hasn't Wall Street reacted accordingly?

Oh, and what can we say of the chart of the S&P for the same period?

Again, there was a gentle swoop early-on in the period of the Cairo demonstrations. Again, this could be interpreted in chartist terms (the S&P fell just as it hit a round number, this time 1300.) Again, even if you don't interpret it in chartist terms, the fall didn't last long, and the rebound has since gotten us well above that 1300.

My only conclusion here is that one of my four propositions above must be incomplete or just wrong, because taken together they would lead to the conclusion that what is happening ... could not be happening.

The most likely conclusion, then, is that "Wall Street" as a collective entity knows something that I don't, and that to this collective entity there is no grave concern about Egypt going the way of 1970s Iran.

What about the market in crude oil? Surely if there were a good chance of a radical Islamicist takeover of Egypt, and speculators had figured this out, there would have been a sharp spike in the price of the stuff: right? Go to the light-crude price link I entered in this blog Thursday. Follow that, and then adjust the chart to show three months. You'll see that the recent high came before there was any trouble in Egypt. Thereafter, crude prices fell to as low as $85 a barrel. At that point, news from Cairo did cause a rise (but a modest one). After those first few days, crude oil prices have headed downward again.

All of which means ... what? Call me a mummy and wrap me in toilet paper if I know.

10 February 2011

LIGHT CRUDE MAR1, CLH11 Future Quote - (NASDAQ) CLH11, LIGHT CRUDE MAR1 Future Price

LIGHT CRUDE MAR1, CLH11 Future Quote - (NASDAQ) CLH11, LIGHT CRUDE MAR1 Future Price

Super Bowl

Everything has been said that needs to be said about this year's Super Bowl. But some pointless and disjointed comments from me can't hurt.

1) I was with a party of six at a restaurant that holds a bit of a S.B. shindig every year. My sister Carolyn and her Significant Other, Peter, were there. I mention this just to make the point that Green Bay Packer domination of the game in its earlier stages was sufficient to have Peter speculate that we might be witnessing a "blow-out." It turned out of course, happily, that we weren't. Steelers came roarin' back to make it a contest.

2) I actually enjoyed the advertisement with border guards, who seemed to be dressed for a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, pacing back and forth vigilantly and finally deciding to split a Coke, and working out the mechanics of an ad hoc border crossing. It doesn't seem to have figured in any of the post-game discussions of which ads were good and which were weak. Watch it for yourself and let me know how crazy I am in liking this one.

3) A lot of the other ads I didn't get at all. Why were the cowboys singing "Tiny Dancer"? Can anyone explain that to me?

4) There was a dubious call near the end of the 3d quarter. If it had been ruled an interception followed by a fumble (and a Packers recovery) the Packers would have retained the ball. But it wss held to be an incomplete pass, so they had to punt.

Had the Packers lost the game by a whisker (instead of winning it by one) we'd still be hearing about that call.

That concludes my football commentary for another year. Indeed, it concludes my sports commentary for another month. The next sports-related subject on which I'm at all likely to blog is March Madness.

See you then, fans.

06 February 2011

Ending of Season III of Mad Men

Cicily and I continue to work our leisurely way through Mad Men episodes.

Season III ended not with one but with several "bangs".

Episode 11 takes place in October 1963 and focuses largely on Roger Sterling, one of the name partners of Sterling & Cooper, and the son of one of the founders.

An old flame re-enters Sterling's life, trying to get him to help her sell her dog food, without changing either the product or the name. This is difficult, because the product is made from horse flesh, and that fact has become public knowledge, making the name notorious. (The title of this episode, "The Gypsy and the Hobo" seems to refer to the younger and wilder days of this woman, Annabelle, and her dalliance with Roger.)

But an important sub-plot in this episode, one that I see as the first of the season-ending "bangs," involves Joan, formerly the head secretary at Sterling & Cooper, now the wife of Greg, a medical resident at a New York hospital.

Greg didn't get his coveted job as a surgeon there. His back-up choice was psychiatry, but in this episode he returns from an interview for such a position very ticked off. Greg and Joan argue. She smashes a vase over his head. This induces Greg to a drastic career move -- he's going to join the army, which needs surgeons, won't be picky about him, and will make him a captain. (I can see his demise in Vietnam on the story-arc horizon.)

Episode 12 takes place in November 1963. Roger's daughter's wedding day is rather rudely interrupted by news from Dallas that the President has been shot. We follow the characters through the day and evening and see the breaking news through their eyes, all the way up to the moment Jack Ruby shoots Oswald. Now THAT should logically have been not just the end of the episode but the end of the season, too. What could possibly follow that?

Episode 13 takes place in December. The final go-out-with-a-bang moment. All the principal characters arrange to get themselves fired so they can start a new firm in a hotel room. Pryce, the fellow the Brits who bought Sterling & Cooper had sent to New York to ride herd over the place, learns in a very indirect way that the mother corporation in London is itself on the trading block. He's shocked by how out-of-the-loop he is, and cooperates in the plan.

Pryce fires Sterling, and Cooper, and Don Draper, all at their request, and on a Friday afternoon. He is aware of course that London is five hours later, so nobody there will read his telex informing them he has done so until Monday morning. This gives the coup plotters the weekend to get everything they'll need for the new firm out of the offices of the old one.

In the course of that weekend they inform other members of their inner circle, including Peggy and Pete, mother and father of the unacknowledged child from season one.

They learn, too, that they don't know enough about the mechanics of running an office to pull this off, and they have to bring Joan back. She is thus with them in the hotel suite that constitutes the improvised new offices of "Sterling, Cooper, Draper & Pryce," in the following Monday, and nothing is heard for now about Greg.

Love the corporate intrigue. It all almost made me forget that through all these three episodes Betty was getting closer to Henry -- Governor Rockefeller's aide -- and learning a somewhat sanitized version of the deep dark secret from Don's days
in Korea. Betty and Henry are planning a quickie Reno divorce as season three ends.

05 February 2011

What Was So Great About It?

On January 29, I quoted what I called a "great sentence from Dylan Thomas." I will wait now while you look it over again.

What, you might ask, was so great about it?

It clocks in at 100 words, by my counts. That by itself doesn't make for a great sentence, but it can certainly be an attention-getting way to start a story or essay.

Length, though, won't do the job if one simply writes a run on. This sentence is not a run-on. It is a perfectly self-contained, well-constructed, unit of thought. There are numerous places where Thomas could have put a period -- where a lesser writer would have put a period -- buit in each case we can see the logic of continuing.

"I was born in a large Welsh industrial town at the beginning of the Great War." That would be almost journalism. Start your story, they say, with a sentence that answers the four Ws: who, what, where, when.

Yet Thomas isn't writing for a newspaper, and he follows that simple statement with a colon and a striking paradox about the "ugly, lovely town." What he means by those apparently contradictory adjectives is what is to become clear as the sentence unfolds.

What are we to make of an adjective like "jerry-villa'd"? Jerry-built is the more common compound. Or jerry-rigged. We recognize that at first read, and we may even think that "jerry-villa'd" is a misprint. But, no ... that is how Thomas wanted it. Andit has an obvious connection with the "ugly, lovely" conjunction.

Not only is this sentence a great work of art in itself, it is endlessly fascinating in its parts.

04 February 2011

Never a Dull Moment

I was in an auto accident on Sunday night of this week.

My car, a wonderful 2006 Toyota Prius that I had taken to calling "Hirohito," is totaled.

My brother was in the passenger's front seat of Hirohito -- I was driving. We were hit on my side of the car (it was the fault of the idiot who ran the red light driving south on Enfield Street -- thanks idiot!), and any chance I might have had to avoid Idiot was eliminated by the huge pile of snow on that corner, cutting off my chance to see anything other than the fact that I had the blooming green light.

Other motorists who saw it stopped to be sure we were okay and stayed to tell the police what they had seen. Which was of course good for me, and good of them. Thanks guys!

If Idiot had been about a half-second slower I could be dead now. He crashed into my car right at the front left side tire, just in front of the driver's-side door and me.

Then idiot pulled to the side of the road, wandered back toward me, and said, "Hey, I had the green light!" On what friggin' planet, Idiot???

Anyway, I'm fine. My brother needed a little medical attention to his knee, but under the circumstances, he's fine too. And what's a car I had owned and made payments on for four and a half years? Only a material thing. Not like I should be resentful or anything.

Such is life on the third rock from the sun.

03 February 2011

Random World War Two Moment

On the eastern front, in 1941, as most literate people even now are aware, the Wehrmacht's progress stopped just short of Moscow. Panzer Lieutenant Gustav Schrodek was keeping a diary, and in early December he wrote, "We are unbelievably close. I saw a sign saying 'Moscow -- 18 kilometres'. The capital is so near we can almost touch it."

At the northern extreme of the line, Leningrad was placed under siege.

Yet forward progress did stop, and on December 6 the Soviets launched a counter-offensive. Even the geopolitically crucial news from warm Hawaii the next day may not have been any more important in the big picture than the struggle of these two armies in front of Moscow.

The Russians threw the Germans back. But there was no headlong retreat -- or the war in Europe might have been a lot shorter than it turned out to be. No ... the Germans retreated in sound order (compared, say, to Napoleon's disastrous retreat over the same terrain more than a century before).

What is more, the Germans won the battle of Rzhev, from January 21 to February 18, 1942, sixty-nine years ago now, the battle that allowed them to establish a new set of defensible lines. Here is historian Michael Jones about General Model, who led the Ninth Army at the time.

"Model won the confidence of the Ninth Army in one highly dramatic incident. As leading elements of the Soviet Thirty-Third Army pushed toward the town of Vyazma -- south of Rzhev astride the vital Moscow-Smolensk motor hioghway -- the Fuhrer intervened, ordering forces Model had earmarked for his counteropffensive to block this threat instead. Mopdel refused to accept these dispositions ....He flew back to the Fuhrer's headquarters and confronted him in person. When Hitler attempted to dismiss his objections, Model said bluntly, 'Mein Fuhrer, who commands the Ninth Army -- you or I?' Taken aback by Model's sheer force of will, Hitler backed down."

I have no point, I'm just thinking wintry thoughts.

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.