31 December 2011

Top Financial Stories 2011

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 "Digital Revolution" 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, and in the list below (an innovation this year) I'll spell out and italicize the theme. Yet the theme itself isn't the story.

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

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

January: Isolating Iran. After the Central Bank of India, under pressure, withdraws from the Asian Clearing Union (which had been a crucial conduit for payments to Iran for petroleum), Indian companies that import oil from Iran scramble to find another way to send their payments and keep the flow going. Their substitute arrangement involved payments through the Hamburg, Germany based EIH Bank. The isolation of Iran would become a bigger theme for many industrialized nations later in the year, but we may as well use this as the kick-off.  

February:  food versus fuel. The US Department of Agriculture announces deregulation of one strain of genetically modified corn -- a strain designed for use as ethanol, the gasoline substitute. This announcement feeds into several ongoing stories -- one of them is the widening perception of the failure of ethanol (at least the traditional "first generation" sort) as an instrument of policy.

March: Banking for the poor. The central bank in Bengaldesh dials up the conflict over microfinance, ordering that the Grameen Bank cut its ties with its founder, Yunus. Arguments in that country's high court Monday, March 7.

April: Nuclear power. Continuing crisis at Japan's Fukushima I nuclear power plant forces advocates of nuclear power generation world-wide onto the defensive. On April 11, Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency rated the disaster as a "major accident" or a level 7 event on an internationally recognized scale.

May:  Exchange consolidation. Nymex OMX Group and the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE)  withdraw their hostile bid for NYSE Euronext, apparently leaving a clear path for NYSE's friendly merger with Deutsche Boerse. 

June:  Political scandal. Oops. Time reporter Michael Grunwald writes this month, "reports of Solyndra's death have been greatly exaggerated." But they weren't. The company, an Obama administrration  favorite, would file for bankruptcy two months later.

July:  Digital revolution.   Bankruptcy of famed bookstore chain Borders turns into a liquidation proceeding as re-org plans fall apart.  Bricks-and-mortars retailing takes another in a series of hits.

August.  Fiscal policy. US Congress and President seek to resolve long-running debt-ceiling soap opera.  S&P downgrade of US Treasury debt. End up just perpetuating the soap opera.

September:  Banking. UBS Rogue trader Kweku Adoboli arrested, September 15, 3:30 AM London time.

October: Allegations of naked-shorting conspiracy and pushback.  Ali Nazerali brings a libel suit in Canada against Deep Capture and affiliated entities.

November.  Retailing turmoil. Releases by Amazon and Barnes & Noble unleash the dogs of war, against each other and Apple, in the retail market for tablet computers.

December. Fiscal policy.  France and Germany develop an ambitious joint plan to turn the eurozone -- or perhaps the whole of the EU -- into a fiscal union. Cameron, for the Brits, keeps his distance.

Yes, there is a hometown bias to this compilation. Seven of the twelve top stories are North American in character, six of those are US based. The five that one might attribute to the rest of the world are divided among western Asia (two), eastern Asia (one), and Europe (two).

I have no proposals as to what you might make of that.

Happy new year, everyone.

30 December 2011

Cycles of American Politics

The presidential election circus upon which we are well launched strikes me -- solipsistically -- as a contest not among individuals, not between parties, but between two theories I've long carried about in my head about how US politics works.

I've written of these theories before.  Here is one example. What I think of as the "short cycle" theory postulates cycles that are roughly 30 years long -- so either 32 or 28 years, since 30 itself is not divisible by 4. Obama's election in 2008 can be compared to the election of other relatively obscure figures who carried on the impetus of a reform movement past its prime. A haberdasher in 1948 elected as a last hurrah for the New Deal. Four years later he bowed out, letting Adlai Stevenson take the fall for Eisenhower's victory. Twenty-eight years after 1948 brings us to 1976, when a peanut farner was elected as a final upsurge of New Frontier/Great Society sentiment. Four years later he was mugged by a Kennedy on the way to a re-nomination that proved worthless.

But there is also a "long cycle" theory. According to this, there have been three great periods of constitutional equilibria in US history, separated by chaotic periods of tumult. (There were also two distinct imperial periods in American colonial history, separated by a period of tumult in the 1680s.)

It certainly appears as if the Third Republic ran aground in 2007-08 in much the same way that the Second Republic ran aground in 1929. If that is so, then we are in the midst of a period of turmoil or chaos, and when the dust settles we shall find ourselves with a new equilibrium, a Fourth Republic. If this cyclical theory is right, then Obama is a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt, and 2012 is not 1952 or 1980 all over again.  It is 1936.

I enjoy the contemplation of both theories, and I have carried them both around in my head. Now I find that they are in stark conflict, and that one of them seems about to receive its falsification.  My only regret is that I have but two theories to give for my country.

29 December 2011

The Mereological Fallacy

Philosopher Anderson Brown contends that much of our confusion about the mind-body problem is a "mereological fallacy," a confusion about parts and wholes.

The stomach doesn't "have lunch." The stomach digests, which is part of the process, but we don't accordingly say that the stomach has lunch, and we don't think of the activity of having lunch as internal. It is a fact about our behavior.

Likewise, the brain doesn't think. Brown doesn't give a name to exactly what the brain does -- what is the equivalent of digestion here? "impulse processing"? -- but it isn't "thinking," anyway. A person thinks and, as with lunch, there is nothing internal about it.

I'll reproduce here in italics the comment I made on his site, except that I'll clean it up a bit for this blog.  I was a more-than-usually sloppy typist in the comment section of his.

I'm reminded of one aspect of Julian Jaynes' theories, in his book on the breakdown of the bicameral mind.

I don't have the book with me so I'll work from memory, and more than usually subject to correction. But Jaynes said that the "bicameral mind" was not "conscious" in the way in which we are, NOT just for reasons of neurology, but because certain metaphors hadn't come into use yet. The idea of a sort of theatre "inside" the human body -- chest or head, depending on who is writing -- started as a highly literary metaphor, and gradually became an essential part of how people saw themselves. THAT was the "breakdown" of Jaynes' title, when the metaphor became generally accepted as a literal fact. Thus, "consciousness" pulled itself into existence by imagining itself, if you will.

This seems akin to your point, except for chronology.

Yet implicit in Jaynes' account is the point that we don't really have a choice. Going back to the bicameral mind is not an option. Or, in your terminology, thinking of thought as a fact about behavior, like lunch, isn't really an option either. The notion of an inner space where we deliberate is something more than a useful fiction, it is a constitutive fiction.

Perhaps rather like the fiction that the elite group of white men that gathered in Philadelphia in 1787 had any business speaking for "We, the people" of the United States.

25 December 2011

From JM's Nativity Ode

This blog has its seasonal traditions.  Enjoy!

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.

John Milton, Nativity Ode (1629)
[lines 135-148].

Read the whole here.

And Merry Christmas.

24 December 2011

The Rabbit books

Reading one of Updike's Rabbit books.  So that it will be listed once in this blog, here is the publishing chronology:

Rabbit, Run (1960)
Rabbit Redux (1971)
Rabbit is Rich (1981)
Rabbit at Rest (1990)
And a short story, portraying the lives of some of the series' characters after Harry Angstrom's death,  Rabbit Remembered (2001)

I've often said (in this blog and elsewhere) that the Rabbit series does not contain Updike's best work. The Updike I admire writes novels of ideas, where vivid characters debate theology or other weighty matters in terms often academically informed but never dry.

Roger's Version fits that description, as does Memories of the Ford Administration, the Bech series, and In the Beauty of the Lilies.

The Rabbit series, though, is the story of an uninteresting ex-jock growing up and growing old, having what we are to take as paradigmatic crises -- paradigmatic for working-class white American men of the second half of the 20th century. Not my cup of tea, though not without some of the characteristic Updike flair.

And today is a lazy Christmas eve day, so I won't try to think of something clever to write about instead. .

SPOILER ALERT: I'm not shy about giving away plot twists in what follows.

Angstrom got the nickname "Rabbit," a reference to his small nose, and to his leaping agility,  during his basketball-star days in high school, in the late 1940s. When we first meet him in Rabbit Run, those days are already a memory -- it is the mid 1950s and Rabbit is selling kitchen gadgets. He is married, has a two year old son, and his wife (Janice) is heavily pregnant with their second. In the course of that novel, the baby is born, and later dies, drowned in the bathtub in a way that implicates both Harry and Janice, though they escape from legal consequences.

Rabbit Redux  begins in 1969: indeed, it begins on the day that Apollo 11 takes off for the moon.  The town where these novels are set, Brewer, PA., is an old-line industrial sort of place, and one of its businesses made one of the electronic components crucial to the success of Neil Armstrong et al. The local paper runs a story beginning:

"When Brewerites this Sunday gaze up at the moon, it may look a little bit different to them.
"Because there's going to be a little bit of Brewer on it."

Angstrom is the one to set those words in type, because he is employed at a print shop, while Janice works at an auto dealership her father owns.

Janice and Harry go their separate ways in the course of this novel. Janice saves her lover while he is suffering a heart attack and Harry lives for a time with a young woman named Jill, who is closer in age to his and Janice's son (Nelson) than to Harry. The plot eventually kills off Jill in a house fire -- Harry and Janice reconcile.

By the time we reach Rabbit is Rich, the year is 1979. Janice's father is deceased, and the Angstroms have inherited the above mentioned dealership (selling Toyotas). As the title of the novel indicates, that vastly improves their material circumstances, though they still live in Brewer,which by this point represents the decline of US industrial might -- no more bits of Brewer are heading to the moon, because America has closed down the Apollo program.

In Rabbit at Rest, Harry is in retirement in Florida the late 1980s, and the news is full of the destruction of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Nelson Angstrom now runs the Toyota dealership -- and is running it either incompetently or crookedly. During a sunfishing expedition, Rabbit rescues his visiting granddaughter, Rebecca, (Nelson's girl) from drowning. This gives him a sense of redemption from his guilt over the death of his daughter all those decades before, yet the exertion weakens his heart contributing to his own demise.

23 December 2011

The Melodrama of the Rupee

In Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," Miss Prism tells Cecily, "you will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational. Even these metallic problems have their melodramatic side."

Wilde's humorous intentions notwithstanding, the rupee is now providing the world with some melodrama. As Shubha Ganesh of The Economic Times wrote last weekend,  rupee depreciation has become a pressing concern of the government there "as a weak currency is expected to impact the domestic treasury as India meets 80 percent of its energy needs with imports."

Private companies in India, notably Reliance Communications (RCOM) a huge telecomm concern, have a lot of bonds reaching maturity in 2012, many of them foreign currency convertible. As another story this week in The Economic Times noted, "the timing could hardly look any worse."

A company that has issued, say, $1 billion in FCCBs is committed to pay the rupee equivalent of $1 billion US dollars when the bonds reach maturity. That is surely a key reason why the bondholders bought that sort of bond, why they've proven so easily marketable, after all: FCCBs let the buyers hedge themselves against any melodramatic fall of the rupee at the expense of the issuer.

If a major Indian company could find itself incapable of meeting those obligations -- well, we are all familiar with the ways of corporate metaphorical dominoes these days.

Yes, Cecily, this could get a bit too sensational.

22 December 2011

RIP Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens died a week ago. Here's an obit, as it appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
A quick search shows that this blog has made reference to Hitchens' work three times.

The first time was after my Bloomsday trip to Dublin in June 2007, and I reported that I had met him in an elevator in that city:


A year later, I made a rather snide remark about Hitchens and his "village atheist" pose at the end of a post about Scholem:


Again this spring I invoked Hitchens as a token of that type:


Aside from his proselytizing for atheism, though, the other fact about Hitchens worth noting is that  his political journeying replicated that of the neoconserativces of an earlier time. I use the word "neocon" in what I take to be the faily narrow and correct sense, not as a loose term of abuse as it is often used these days.

A neocon in the relevant sense is generally a secular intellectual who adopts conservative views on what he takes to be practical grounds, often after a leftwing youth. Historically, many neocons happen to come from a Jewish ethnic background: Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol, Bill Kristol, etc.

The original neocons (the first two of those three among them) adopted conservatism after a disillusionment about communism, and they became identified with the view that the stronger the US in the world, the weaker international communism, the better for humanity.

On October 21, 2002, the Washington Post ran an opinion piece by Hitchens entitled "So Long, Fellow Travelers." It was precisely the sort of piece that could have been written by one of the original neocons in the 1970s. But with an update for the era. The new threat to all Hitchens held dear was Islamofascism (his coinage, I believe), and his disagreement with his former colleagues on the left was that they are soft on it, and he would no longer be.

His journeying is now over, his friends will remember him fondly, and the readers he infuriated might benefit as they recollect that passion in tranquility.

18 December 2011

Caring only about your work

The philosopher Nel Noddings once (in 1984) wrote: "Most of us commonly take as pejorative, 'He cares only about money'; but we have mixed feelings when we hear, 'He cares only about mathematics' or 'She cares only about music.' In part, we react this way because we feel that a person who cares only about money is likely to hurt others in pursuit of it, while one who cares only about mathematics is a harmless and, perhaps, admirable person who is denying himself the pleasures of life in his devotion to an esoteric object."

I do think this is a fair general statement of the usual connotations of such sentences. In the spirit of expanding Noddings' comment, we might observe: Someone who cares only about mathematics may be a harmless drudge, or may end up discovering a mathematical anomaly in radio waves that in turn improves worldwide communications for the good of us all. Someone who cares only about money may obtain it by violence or fraud, doing active harm to others.

More generally, we often extend respect, even if it is a grudging respect, to anyone who is "married to" his occupation, especially if it is an occupation which may derive some of its appeal from the intellectually challenging nature of the work.  "He cares only about his work" said of a lawyer or an engineer, is no bad thing.

Still, I think Noddings goes a bit too far when she writes about how such a person is "denying himself" pleasures of life outside the job: suggesting that this is a praise-worthy sacrifice. If our mathematician prefers the blackboard and the computer lab to the pleasures of, say, sexual relations, child-rearing, neighborly comaraderie, adopting the former over all of the latter is no sacrifice.

OTOH, if a mathematician believes that he has a duty to stay at the blackboard hour after hour, because the human race needs better exploitation of radio frequencies, then I can imagine that his doing so would be a praise-worthy sacrifice. But in such a case, we would not in any case express the situation by saying that he "cares only for" the mathematics.  

17 December 2011

William James Quote of the Day

"[A]lmost all the retinal shapes that objects throw are perspective 'distortions.' Square table-tops constantly present two acute and two obtuse angles; circles drawn on our wallpapers, our carpets, or on sheets of paper, usually show like ellipses; parallels approach as they recede; human bodies are foreshortened; and the transitions from one to another of these altering forms are infinite and continual.  Out of the flux, however, one phase always stands prominent.,  It is the form the object has when we see it easiest and best: and that is when our eyes and the object both are in what may be called the normal position. "

Principles of Psychology, Chapter 20, "The Perception of Space."

16 December 2011

This Day in Cosmological History

December 16, 1915 was the publication date for Albert Einstein's GENERAL THEORY OF RELATIVITY.

He had published the "special theory" of relativity (SR) ten years before. It is SR that incorporates the principle that the speed of light is the same for all observers, and this led in turn to the intriuguing idea of time dilation. This is sometimes explained in terms of a thought experiment.  Imagine you are travelling at the speed of light -- riding on a photon, so to speak. You are getting farther and farther away from a clock which, in your 'inertial framework,' is stationary. You won't see any movement of the hands of that clock because no new information from that clock can reach you -- you're going as fast as the fastest speed at which information can travel, by hypothesis. So the clock is frozen.

If there are any particles that can travel faster than protons, as scientists at CERN now seem to be saying, then Einstein's view on time dilation needs revision. For if so, then (to revert to our thought experiment) you might be able to receive information about subsequent movements of the clock's hands while riding on a photon -- if the new information is conveyed by a stream of neutrinos rather than by other photons.

Anyway: ten years later, on this date, Einstein published a follow up work, on general relativity, which explained gravity as a consequence of the curvature of space-time. This GR centers on the following equation:

 Ruv - (1/2) guv R = (8 Pi G/c4) Tuv .

I won't pretend to 'get it,' but I'm told that if Ruv    is taken as equaling 0 you have flat space-time, roughly the sort of thing you learned about in high school geometry. The  Tuv represents the distribution of matter and energy, so the equation as a whole shows the relationship between matter-energy on the one hand and space-time on the other. A theory can't get much more "general" than that!

15 December 2011

Frivolous Walk-Out: Classy Response

Early this month, Harvard students staged a walk-out in a class taught by professor Greg Mankiw. You can read their explanation here.

It takes a lot of scrolling down through the comments to get to what I had to say about that, so I'll save you the work, dear blog reader.

They’re students at Harvard, yet they can’t express themselves better than this? I’m dismayed. Here’s a simple stylistic point: “basic” and “fundamental,” in the sense in which those terms are both used in the final sentence of the third graph, are synonyms. To use both with a disjunctive, “more fundamental or basic,” is just bizaare or eerie. [See what I did there?]

Far more important, there IS of course a reason why Adam Smith’s work should be taken as more “fundamental or basic” than Keynes’. It is in point of historical fact more basic. Keynes, whether you agree with him or not, was building on a century and a half of prior work. Keynes and Smith are not competitors any more than Einstein and Newton are competitors. In each pairing, the work of the former would simply have been inconceivable without the prior contributions of the latter.

If you think you have mastered Newton, then you can go on to the study Einstein, and perhaps some day to have an intelligent opinion about Higgs’ boson. Otherwise, you’re likely to end up confusing a boson with a North American bison.

Indeed, this is what Mankiw himself has said about the situation. I confess I hadn't checked out his response before writing the above, but I've seen it now, and he has sensibly risen above the rancor directed his way. He has posted on his blog a video of a recent half-hour talk on 'heterodox' economics, and   he has suggested in a single well-wrought paragraph that his main disagreement with the "Occupy Harvard" group is pedagogical.

11 December 2011

Line of Best Fit

Some thoughts about philosophy and the special sciences. I put these thoughts together recently in an email to a friend, and liked the result so much I will reproduce it here.

In the task of building an over-all view of the world (which we might call, using the word loosely, the task of philosophy) one is perhaps drawing a line of best fit through points represented by all the fields of special study, including those of the sciences.
The expression "line of best fit" comes from statistics. Think of just two variables, to make things easy to plot on a piece of paper. Say, the relationship between grams of fat and total calories in an item of fast food. You could make fat grams the X axis and total calories the Y axis. Then represent each examined sort of fast food as a point on that graph defined by the two axes. a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a box of french fries, an ice cream cone without sprinkles, an ice cream cone with sprinkles, etc. Each gets just one point, defined by specialists.

Odds are good your graph won't result in any neat line. This is a "scattershot graph." But there will likely be a general common trend, that the points move diagonally upward and ouward -- i.e. fat correlates roughly with calories. So you produce a straight line summing up the data as best you can, keeping the variance between your line and the data points as small as possible.

That is the relation between philosophy and special studies of all sorts I have in mind. Of courtse, the results of the special sciences keep changing, as you may have noticed in terms of the news from CERN for example. So we might think of subatomic physics as it exists circa 2011 as one of the data points in our scattershot graph. If my philosophy is sound, over time the dots that are furthest out from my line of best fit will move toward it, not away. I need not pretend that all known points fit perfectly along my line -- if I make that claim, I'm surely delusional.

This idea of a line of best fit, though, captures well what Jacques Barzun is doing in Darwin, Marx, Wagner, when he argues with Darwin, and with contemporary biology insofar as it continues to reflect those aspects of Darwinism that stray furthest from the line he draws.

His own special science, the field where Barzun first made his initial scholarly reputation, is the history of music in the 19th century.

In the book I've mentioned, that reputation is of course of value. Barzun starts with the observation that three important events, in three distinct fields, took place in 1859. Darwin completed the ms of The Origin if Species, Marx published Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (something of an early sketch of the as yet unpublished On Capital) and Wagner completed work on Tristan und Isolde.

I would be loath to argue with Barzun about Wagnerian music and its historic significance. He owns that particular point on the graph. As for the other two -- he is doing the best he can to make a line that fits the points, as we all are in our own ways.

His view, in a few words, is that 1859 was a disaster. Wagner moved music away from the wonderful avenues of exploration Beethoven had opened up and that such romantics as Berlioz had further explored. Marx mis-directed social reform into a materialistic/mechanistic direction, subverting the work of Saint-Simon, Proudhon, etc.

And Charles Darwin? Barzun prefers the insights of his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin. As it happens, Erasmus even wrote about the evolutionary significance of the opposable thumb, though he chose to do it in verse:

The hand, first gift of heaven! to man belongs;

Untipt with claws the circling fingers close,

With rival points the bending thunbs oppose...."

10 December 2011

Waters v. Maloney

Fascinating stuff.  I'll just link to it.


I can tell you that from the point of view of an understanding of essential financial realities, Carolyn Maloney is vastly to be preferred to Maxine Waters.

 Indeed, I'm personally delighted that some of the interest groups pressing for more regulation of the financial world (such as New York's Working Families Party) have blasted Maloney for "siding with  Wall Street lobbyists and Tea Party conservatives by co-sponsoring a bill that undermines transparency.”

Transparency sounds like a good thing, but enforced transparency, like the enforced version of anything else, has its own costs. It is well that Maloney understands that, and certain that Waters does not.

09 December 2011

A Simile

Leon Gettler, one of my FB friends, noted on his wall recently that he is compiling a list of his favorite similes. He gave as examples these:

"I lit a cigarette that tasted like a plumber's handkerchef." -- Raymond Chandler

"Let us go then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, Like a patient etherizefd upon a table." -- T.S. Eliot.

I suggest that the following belongs on any such list: "in his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings."

That is F. Scott Fitzgerald writing about Gatsby's parties. He doesn't write, "like moths to a flame," as any hack might. He expects his readers to throw in the flame, and he substitutes the whisperings for it, mingling one simile intimately with one metaphor.

08 December 2011


SUNY at Albany hosts the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, a center, perhaps the center, of nano tech research in the US today. It has collaborative arrangements with 250 companies at work in the field, including IBM, Toshiba, Samsung, Novellus Systems, TI, and DuPont, just for starters.

The October 2011 issue of ENTREPRENEUR MAGAZINE credits Alain Kaloyeras, whose many titles include that of Chief Executive of aforesaid College. The magazine portrays him as the academic entrepreneur who built this program, and tells us a bit about how he has done it, a story that beings in 1988, when he was a "newly minted Ph.D. in condensed matter physics," and had to decide wherther to take a jub with SUNY, at that time not an impressive physics-and-engineering place.

(Jason Daley gets the byline on the story, part of a broader feature called Gurus & Grads. )

Here is Kaloyeras' page, at www.albany.edu

Although I'm hopelessly out of my depth in matters of high science, this has never stopped me from expressing opinions,as you can see here, for example, or here, or here, where I linked nanotechnology to my own personal "cosmological heresy."

It is possible that sentient beings play a part in the big picture of the cosmos.  Consider these points:

1) the great advantage of the Big Bang theory over any effort to revive the Steady State theory is that the former seems directly consistent with the 2d law of thermodynamics.  Everything has to be running down to a heat death, and the Big Bang and consequent expansion gives us a vivid mechanism for this.

2) Maxwell, in his thought experimemt of a little demon that redirects molecules, was hypothesizing a way to beat the Second Law.

3) Nanotechnology sounds a lot like the creation of Maxwellian demons as a reality.

04 December 2011

Roger's Version

If you have on your personal bucket list the thought that you should read one novel by John Updike before you die, what one should that be?

The Rabbit series is over-rated.

The best single Updike, in my opinion, is Roger's Version.

Amazon's "most helpful" review, by someone calling himself "Outside Looking In," captures a nice moment from the book. The protagonist, Roger Lambert, is thinking about ancient Jews and contemporary Protestants.

"How did those Israelites get their hooks into us so deeply, sticking us with their frightful black Bible and it imprecations while their modern descendants treat the matter as a family joke, filling their own lives with violin music and clear-eyed, Godless science? L'Chaim! Compared with the Jews we protestants do indeed dwell in the valley of death."

In essence, Lambert is a Barthian. His "rascally pet" as he says at one point, is the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). What he most admires in Barth is the utter Otherness of Barth's God, the rejection of even an "analogic" relationship between God's Being and our own being. God is essentially a hidden God.

Updike pits this Barthianism against the seemingly more naive views of a younger man,  Dale, who believes that contemporary physics is making God visible, and who believes he can complete that uncovering of God through computer science.

Lambert helps Dale get the grant for his project, but in subtler ways undermines both that project and Dale's faith.

As to the reviewers, David Wisehart thinks the book "both fascinating and frustrating."

David Lodge, writing in The New York Times, speaks of its "richness and viruosity," and says he finished it with "renewed respect for one of the most intelligent and resourceful of contemporary novelists."

Mark Athitakis, writing for Critical Mass, admires the way Updike "smoothly embeds dense scientific discussion into his narrative, anticipating the controversy over Intelligent Design more than a decade before it became a mainstream issue."

Not everyone liked it, though.  In The New York Review of Books, Frederick Crews spoke of "the growth of a belligerent, almost hysterical callousness" in Updike's career generally, which he sees as epitomized here.

I don't see what Crews thinks he sees.

03 December 2011

Jacques Barzun

A belated happy birthday to Jacques Barzun. He came into this world on November 30, 1907, so on Wednesday of this week he reached the distinguished age of 104.

I was honored to attend his centennial celebrations four years ago, and was never before or since in a room with such distinguished company.

Rafe Champion has written a fitting brief celebration of Barzun's work, here.

I enjoyed especially Champion's quoting from an interview Barzun gave to a reporter from the Austin Chronicle.  The reporter remarked that Barzun had been in close working academic relationships with a lot of Marxists during the 1930s, but had never shown any enthusiasm for Marxism himself, nor had he ever taken up arms against it, identifying himself as an anti-Marxist.  The exchange runs thus:

Barzun: I had no Marxist colouring, such as they had ... I stood aloof, although not hostile, and I take it they weren’t hostile to me. They deplored my blindness.
AC: You started writing about Romanticism when that was not very popular. It’s funny, you were aloof from Marxism, but also from the reaction to it, which was influenced so much by T.S. Eliot.
Barzun: Yes, I was always against the current. Eliot of course got it from Babbitt, who got it from the French eminences of anti-Romanticism. What I read about Romanticism didn’t agree with what was said about it. Everything in the books was contrary to fact and legitimate conclusions of fact. Including all sorts of fabrications, simply lies that had gotten into the critical stream and were reproduced over and over again without being checked.
AC: You seem temperamentally more comfortable being at the limit of the Zeitgeist than being in the center of things.
Barzun: Well, I would call that the historian’s detachment.

  My own sense of Barzun's politics is that he has a fondness for various pre-Marxist sorts of socialism (what Marxists call the "utopian" sorts) and that he blames Marxism and its materialistic emphasis for having cut short that promising line of thought. Likewise with contemporary biology. He identifies with pre-Darwinian notions of evolution and, here too, sees Darwinian notions as too mechanistic and a threat to more vital conceptions of life.

Anyway, if I'm right to think of Barzun as a sort of Proudhonist politically, it explains how he has admirers of both right and left.  When his writings touch on politics, there is the air of an emigrant's nostalgia that appeals to the right, but the Proudhonist idealism comes through and appeals more to the left.

02 December 2011


I'm getting close to the publication of my book, Gambling with Borrowed Chips.

I recently composed an acknowledgements page.  Since that also makes for sort of a neat little bio, I'll include it here.



I’ve dedicated this book to Hans Schroeder, because it was through my involvement with his baby, The Pragmatist, that I first became part of the discussion of the great public issues of most concern to me. That magazine, the result of collaboration between Schroeder and estimable Jorge Amador, was dedicated to the proposition that liberty works, in concrete and demonstrable ways, and that coercion fails. The way to advance the cause of liberty, then, is to explain how and why it works. That simple insight has carried me forward ever since.

I’d like to thank Lee Miringoff, of Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York, who gave me some practical experience polling, back in the late 1970s, at the start of what has since become the Marist Institute for Public Opinion.

I thank Myrna Gans, Steve Leo, and Susan Glass. I retain my memories of their comradeship in a suite of law offices in Bridgeport, CT in the 1980s as among my few pleasant memories of what was, for me, an unhappy experiment.

I thank Robert Katz, also a friend in that place and time, for doing his best to turn me into a practical politician, hopeless though that cause proved to be.  

I thank Associate Justice Clarence Thomas for citing an article of mine in his concurring opinion in 44 Liquormart v. Rhode Island (1996). It was a signal honor and, as a result, I have since flattered myself that I played a small role expanding the scope of first amendment protections. I also thank whatever clerk drew that article to Justice Thomas’ attention.

I thank Henry Cohen, who encouraged and advised me in the course of writing that article and many others over many years.  

I’d also like to acknowledge Kristin Fox, Johann Wong, and everybody who did the heavy lifting to bring HedgeWorld into existence as the Clinton years came to an end. Because of their efforts, I had the opportunity to cover and learn about the issues that I discuss in this book in greater depth than would have been possible by any other route – and to do so while pulling down a salary and calling my discoveries work.

Thanks are due to the great figures of the econoblogosphere, the loners sitting at their keyboards in their pajamas who have created a cyberspatial haven for intense debate over how markets work. I have in mind especially the late Greg Newton, of “Naked Shorts,” who was able to scan a 280 page court filing on the demise of the Plus Funds and find the one newsy nugget.

Gary Weiss, Roddy Boyd, Tracy Coenen, have all made their marks on my understanding of these issues and on this book, as has that discreditable felon, Sam Antar.  
I thank Christopher Holt for founding AllAboutAlpha, and Kristin Fox – yes, the same one thanked above! – for carrying on as the AlphaFemale there.

I thank Rosalie Schultz for a long and stimulating correspondence. I am sorry that I let it lapse, and hope she forgives me that. 
I thank Cicily for much, but in particular for suffering with me through Oliver Stone’s second “Wall Street” movie, a crucial moment of inspiration.

Other debts will become obvious within the body of the text. Still others probably won’t. But all those to whom I owe debts know who they are, and to all: Thank you.
Oh, and if it isn’t obvious: No one mentioned above should be held responsible in any way for the opinions or the blatant mistakes of what follows. 

01 December 2011


In a recent episode of House, a patient was diagnosed with bradycardia. If you're like me, you suspect that bradycardia is that disease that was first diagnosed in either Marcia or Greg, the older sister and brother respectively of the Brady Bunch.

Apparently, though, bradycardia and the Bradys are unrelated. The medical term refers simply to a too-slow heart rate.

Okay, I just wanted to throw that dumb pun out there.  Other than that, I got nuttin'.

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.