Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ivan Unmans the Bull

My friend Ivan down in Alabama, warming his New Years' Eve with memories of  his youth in the newspaper business, recalls the infamous "Bull" Connor, the (elected) public safety chief who earned his 15 minutes of fame by toppling school schoolchildren with high-powered fire hoses.

During one of his campaigns for governor when I was political reporter on the Bham News.  I “castrated” Bull. His campaign giveaways were metal bulls about four inches long by three inches high on a bar with”Connor” on one side and “for governor” on the other. I had one on my desk in the Bham news newsroom but I’d taken it to the composing room, borrowed a file, and turned bull into a steer. Another reporter told bull about it and he was incensed and got the other reporter to steal it. I got hold of about a dozen of them, and replaced it, made into a steer with a handy rasp file. After a while it disappeared too, but I replaced it. I’ve got two of them on my desk right now. I left bull intact on those two.
 Always compassionate, that's Ivan.  I first thought "Bham" was "Alabama," but no, it's "Birmingham."    Ivan also remembers and endorses Diane McWhorter's superb Carry Me Home : Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution. one of the best books I ever read about the civil rights movement of the 60s.  

Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

I think it was Peter Drucker who said one of the toughest things about being in business is knowing what business you're in.  He seems to echo the--largely folkloric, but still instructive--story of how Western Union took a bye on the telephone business because they were in telegraph, not telephone.  Readers of Connie Bruck's superb When Hollywood Had a King--about Lew Wasserman, the entertainment bigfoot--will relate.  Bruck's is one of my all-time favorite business books and no small part of its appeal is that it shows how Wasserman woke up every day wondering whether he was in the same business he had been in the day before, and how to respond to any changes he encountered.

With the benefit of hindsight, I'm wondering if Jeff Bezos  ever met Lew Wasserman.  It's  becoming clearer every day that (a) what Amazon is selling is not machine, but content; and (b) that Amazon blew it by failing to grasp the point. As my bud Larry (who watches this stuff more closely than I) said this monring: "the surprise is it took them a while to learn it.  Otherwise they'd have brought out the Kindle originally for $50 instead of close to $400. And they'd totally own the market."  Indeed.  Or just fired them down Main Street out of a cannon.  

Friday, December 30, 2011

No Wonder Willard M. Romney

...does not like to use his first name:
A young man with an unusual connection with rats, uses them at his own sociopathic will.
 The IMDb pitch-line for Willard, the movie (2003).

Two Things I Never Knew Before: Eldercare, and New York Water

Both old news, but not to me:

  • A number of states--maybe thirty?--have laws that oblige children in one way or another to pay for the care of their aged or infirm parents.  Google "filial responsibility laws."   I had thought the number was like, you know, maybe zero.

    From what I read, it looks to me like a lot of these have been on the books for a long time, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's more action in the arena as public agencies look harder for new ways to stick someone with the bill.

    Came to my attention concerning the status of this sort of claim in bankruptcy.  As you may know, debts for spousal and child support are not dischaegeable in bankruptcy.  But there doesn't seem to  be any provision for thesse "filial obligations." So the past debt might go away in a bankruptcy case.  Of course, the post-bankruptcy "continuing obligation" would continue in any case.  Make me remember the old days when I taught the law school's Contracts class, including those cases that explore the responsibility (if any) of parents to take care of their adult children, or vice versa.  As I recall, the notion that they might actually bear an obligation, legal  or otherwise, to support their parents, was enough to snap their suspenders (private note to my kids and grandkids: not to worry, things are just fine--for now).

  • New York City has its famously clean water because it bought off the competition.  Specifically, they paid (or pay) upstream communities not to build in ways that would taint the water, and they're happy to do so because it is cheaper than building a purification plant.

    So for once we fined a win-win, positive-some,  Pareto-enhancing deal of a sort that you're supposed to find just everywhere, but which so often seem just to disappear around the corner.  Apparently New Yorkers can thank a dispossessed Georgian nobleman, described in his New York Times obit today as a "supercitizen.

    In the same vein, I've always indulged an impulse to wry amusement from the notion that I discovered bottled water in Rome, home of the Trevi fountain and the city where the water system may be the one public service that actually works.  

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Most Remarkable Story I Read All Day

Is this account of  Lou Henry Hoover, wife of the 31st President, who collaborated with (sic, not "assisted") him in the translation of Agricola's De re Metallica, which in 1914 won the first Gold Medal for Distinguished Service from Mining and Metallurgical Society of America. (bet you're glad that wasn't the Daily Double question on Jeopardy!).

Lou was clearly the equal of and companion to the president, not  mere helpmeet or camp follower.  Among other achievements, she gets the credit for determining that the guest list for the Congressional wive's party should include Jessie De Priest.  And she is?  Go here, and read the caption at right.

We've had some formidable first ladies, but how many can match Lou Henry Hoover for disciplined intellect?  I suppose you can make a case for Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt.  But before the Lou Henry Hoover, I suspect the only real competitor is Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams (but the Wiki does not do her justice, IMO). 

Where Good Champagnes Go when they Die

We polished off the lasr bottle of 1990 Acacia Champagne on Christmas day and acquired a bit of an education in the process.  Mrs. B. and her buddy Marian had split a case of it a few years back and one of the bottles had wandered off into a far corner where it surfaced only this month--too late, in other words, for any likelihood of decent drinkability. Champagnes, like their owners, do not live forever and there comes  time when the only decent course is a kind of champagne euthanasia.

So we popped the cork and got our first surprise: it had changed color.  A purist would say it had "discolored," but that's too judgement.  We did have, in lieu of the familiar light yellow, a faint auburn or bronzy hue--in short, a lot like sherry.  Or rather, essentially like sherry: what we had here was a kind of bubbly champagne/sherry, with a bit of the taste and the charm of each of it ancestors.

The secret (per Marian, who speaks with more authority than we do): oxygen.  Apparently lots of sherries retain oxygen which, given time and quantity, promote a kind of aging--just as it does, dear reader, with you.  Usually it's a mistake, something fit to be dumped down the drain. But there are a number of sherries  in which the producer actually encourages the process, so as to give the product a tang all its own.  With just a hint of Yule log.  So, skoal!  No, wait, Hа здоровье!  Ah, well, you get the idea... 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Truism and some Implications

A truism came home to me with force over the holidays, along with some implications that are obvious enough if (but only if?) you stop to think about them.    The truism is: the mark of a mature society is that it's progressively harder to scratch a place in the elite.

I started with lawyers, and the long bacchanal of prestige, decent pay and interesting work that began, oh, just about the time I started law school and extended to, oh, more or less the time when I retired.  And the corollary: maybe we just have enough lawyers.  Maybe it really is not worth while to pile--what?  40k?  50k More? every year to become overtrained in a field where you don't offer anything anybody much wants.

But on a bit of reflection, I recognized that lawyers aren't the only example and in many ways aren't a very good one.  For so many other trades/professions, the party may have ended earlier, but it started earlier as well.  Focus on California.  Go back to the 20s, or if that is too far, come forward to post WWII, specifically from the time of the second atomic bomb to the time of the first OPEC oil shock--1945 to 1973.  During all those years, if you were even moderately well put together-matched set of eyes and ears, pleasant smile (oh, and if you were a white male), why then you had it pretty much made in the shade.  You finished school (or you did not) and a good job was waiting for you, perhaps building airplanes, or highways, or water transfer systems or highways.

 If you were a tad better scrubbed, you drifted into "the University"--in those days, you didn't even need to call it "Berkeley," there really wasn't any other.  You'd spend a good part of the next four years rooting for the home team or trying (admittedly without great success) to put the make on sorority girls.  You'd drift out of school into a job managing those guys who built all the stuff, or perhaps if you were really ambitious, into a profession--medicine perhaps or (uh oh) law.  Anyway the wheel kept turning and the next thing you knew there you were in Marin.

Short point: I think we sometimes forget how good those good times were, at least for the luckily positioned. Granted, I remember the 50s and I hated them, for all the usual reasons.  But life was forgiving.  You could make mistakes (don't get me started).  You could let your mind wander.  Things were going to work out.

So what the lawyers are waking up to now is, in a sense, the kind of reality therapy that has brutalized--well, virtually everyone else in their social niche--over the past 38 years or so.  The well-paid work where you didn't have to be overbright: gone.  The easy places are gone. The "build stuff" phase is over, and for all our talk,it ain't never comin' back. It may (just may) be replaced by something equally attractive whose name and shape we can't begin to conjure up yet.  But that's a topic for fantasy and faith and I confess I've never been much good at either one.

The University places--well for the old timers, or the children of the old timers with long cultural memories, there is just a whole hell of a lot more competition: all those "other people" of whose existence we were only dimly aware one day, all trying to scratch their own way to the head of the same queue, thankyouverymuch.   And when you get to the front of the queue, you can be excused for thinking that someone put up the velvet rope just before you made it.  Sure, they talk about how desperate we are for high tech this and that,  but the task of responding to that kind of desperation seems far trickier from the outside than it sounds from the in.  You do the tech program.  You do the PhD.  You do a postdoc.  You do another postdoc.  Then maybe you get lucky, although the chances that you get to be the famous professor are only a little better than your chances of batting cleanup for the Yankees.  Your chances of teaching eighth-grade science in a decent private junior high school--well, perhaps a little better.

I should make it clear that I really don't that my thoughts go rancid here.  For one thing, I'm a natural pessimist; I have lived through nine of the last four recessions and at least I am never surprised when the wheels come off.  For another, I don't think I ever had the sense of natural entitlement that makes it easy to accept all the goodies.  I always loved the joke about Brezhnev's mother as she viewed his panoply of blessings: Leonid, this is wonderful, but what if the Reds get back in?  I am always wondering, what if the Reds get back in?

But I do think this long view helps to explain a lot of otta-be-obvious basics about our current political imbroglio.  Put it this way: (so called) "conservative" politics in this country are really best understood as "reactionary"--but "reactionary" in a narrow and technical sense.    Not dispossessed monarchists with Jesuits in the hidey

Except of course people--that would be me, your honor--never really do deal with it in the stance of rough realism that I commend upon them.  They don't take downward mobility well.  Every man lives, says Chateaubriand (yes?)  for a hypothetical country to which he always yearns to return, whether he ever lived there or not.    I think it was Benjamin Friedman who observed that there never was a society anywhere in the galaxy that went through a severe economic contraction without poisonous political consequences.  "Fully mature" might not be quite the same as ""economic contraction" but it might be close enough.  Put them together and you've probably got something explosive.  So try to be patient, and to keep your nerve. And congratulate that post-doc on his new job as a teaching aide.  And say a silent prayer that he keeps it until the end of the academic year.  

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Language and Context

Communication, argues Michael Tomasello (channeling Wittgenstein), requires a shared context.  So:

[E]veryday conversation is full of communicative exchanges such as, Ernie: "Wanna go to the movie?," Bert: "I've got a test in the morning"-in which Ernie can only understand Bert's response given much shared background knowledge and inferences from facts outside of any code (e.g., knowing that having a test in the morning means studying the night before, which precludes going to a movie). 
The insight applies not just to the language of abstract sounds but to the more primordial language of gesture (which, not incidentally, Tomasello understands to be the real root of communication).  So:

A man in a bar wants another drink; he waits until the bartender looks at him and then points to his empty shotglass. Gloss: Attend to the emptiness of the glass; please fill it up with liquor.
 Which is to say:
  Even the very simple first example requires a common understanding that customers are at the bar because they want to drink, that an empty drink if the customer can pay, that a shotglass usually holds liquor and not beer or wine, and so forth.
Michael Tomasello. Origins of Human Communication (Bradford Books) (pp. 58, 63, 65). Kindle Edition.

So far, the best thing I've ever read on the topic.  I hear tell that the French Academy once suspended its prize for the best paper on the origins of language because there were so many theories all so completely unprovable.  I wonder what they would have done with Tomasello.   

The Ritholtz League

You know about fantasy football and fantasy Supreme Court.   Barry Ritholtz takes it to a whole new level:

Chris Whalen and Josh Rosner have suggested putting together a causes of the crisis debate (I sarcastically described it as flat earth loons versus a data driven analysis), but there is merit in that idea. 
On my squad I select Bill Black and Mike Konczal, with a research team of Yves Smith, David Min, William Cohan and Janet Tavakoli. I am sure there are more folks to add to this, but that’s the debate squad I would go with.
Great, but I shouldn't think it would be that hard to become up with a fascinating team for the flat earth loons opposing squad. You'd start off with Peter "the poor people did it" Wallison, whose argument about the role of Fanny/Freddy looks sillier the further he digs himself in. Batting cleanup you would want John Taylor, whose book on his years as a China hand assured us that President W was a thoughtful and involved leader, the master of his brief. You'd certainly want Glenn Hubbard, who sometimes seems to forget that he was ever in the Bush administration. Although beyond that, I'm a little shaky on exactly who would be the best choice. Not Tyler Cowen who for all his free market pretensions seems more interested in being surprising than he is an being an ideological partisan. One is tempted to say Greg Mankiw although he too (though in a different way) always seems a bit too coy about his support for his own (apparent) principles. I'm tempted to throw in a less obvious choice--Mark Perry of Carpe Diem who may not have the star power of the others, but who has a turkey buzzard's eye for the offbeat or inconvenient datum.

Somehow I can't seem to resist being snide about my choices. I guess I'll have to accept that insight as a fault, but I think maybe this is the point: like it or not, I'd have to concede that these guys are heavyweights. But I do think almost all of them have a maddening knack for smoothing off the corners, for making their own work easier for themselves than it should be. Which is perhaps precisely why it would be fun to watch them go toe to toe with people who call them to account, who can make them face up to the difficulties of their case. Of course, perhaps the same can be said for team Ritholtz but that's fine; it could only make the encounter more interesting.

Which brings me back to the likes of fantasy Supreme Court. Law professors from time to time have directed their students to prepare a draft opinion in imitation of one or another high court judge. Of course this version cuts close to the bone because if you pick a pending case you can get some bracing feedback if and when the real judge comes out with his real opinion.

Lacking that directness, I'm still kind of wishing I were teaching a seminar in The Crisis right now, so I could make my students run a mock version of Ritholtz' hot stove league.  

Monday, December 26, 2011

Is the Ipad War Over Yet?

Mrs. Buce has her Christmas Ipad.  They're still getting acquainted but I predict a long and fruitful relationship.  Which leaves me as the last person on the planet who does not (a) have nor (b) want an Ipad.  Honest.  I have an I phone, which I love, although not as a phone: I think I receive/make about a dozen calls a year.  Phonewise, I am a natural candidate for just buying a handful of minutes at Walgreen's.  I came by the Iphone almost by accident (long story) but what I find, to my stunned surprise, is that it is my e-reader of choice: the poor 2G Kindle languishes unloved on the night table.   I certainly didn't plan it and I'm not even sure why but I know (a) that the type faces are sensational; and (b) it's backlit, so no grumpy complaints about turning on the bedside light in the middle of the night.  Oh, and my Google Reader.  Oh, and Flipboard, which I've had for about a week.  Oh, and the Ipod link.  Oh, oh, oh.

I've also got a fairly large laptop which has morphed into a desktop (what I'm using at the moment), but then the clincher is that dorky little Gateway netbook which I bought almost on impulse a couple of years back because it promised a  nine-hour battery: I knew that number was a lie when I bought it and of course it is a lie but the battery is pretty long, and here's the surprise: it has a keyboard that I can actually use.  With a usuable keyboard and a sorta kinda tablet screen, who needs a tablet?  So here I am, like the last Japanese soldier on Guam, still wondering if the war is over.

I admit I am kind of intrigued by those recycled/remaindered HP Touchpads.  I could  Velcro it to the refrigerator, for service as a cookbook.  Equipment junkie, moi?  Oh, bite your tongue.  

Pasquale, Rao, Pérez-Peña

Somehow I am just not getting my mind round this blogging thing today.  Instead, go read Frank Pasquale on how the rich get a gazillion strikes and the poor get only one.  Or Venkat Rao's waky but wonderful history of the corporation (six months old, but just up as a best-of-the-year at Best of the Moment).  Or Richard Pérez-Peña's Times tictoc on how Cornell and Technion Israel hustled themselves to the Roosevelt Island deal (fun fact: Cornell tuition, $52k; Technion, under $6k--and which has more Nobel Laureates?).

Sunday, December 25, 2011

David Tells Me What I Say Too Much

Here's my Christmas present from David: he went through and did a month-by-month cloudscan of Underbelly, generating images like this, from which he fashioned a calendar:

One virtue, perhaps unintended, is that it shows me where I overdo it, which words I use too much. Reading all 12, albeit not counting too closely, the villain seems to be "one" and "just" and "think," as in "one might just think."   I suppose the best I can do with this stuff, besides merely admiring, is to use it as a discipline and guide--who was the French writer who constructed a novel excluding the letter "s?"

Update:  It was Earnst Wincent Wright. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011


But Don't Say "The King is a Fruitcake"

Zamorin of Calicut
So I'm still with Vasco da Gama and I'm out here in Kerala where he encounters the Zamorin of Calicut. 

The who?   The ruler, the superchief, the top dog, the big cajuna.  But I needed to be told:  although I've actually set foot in Calicut I'm still a little shaky on the political history of early Kerala and I could easily have surmised that the Zamorin was not a person but a physical thingy--a cistern, maybe, or an retaining wall.

Ziggurat of Ur

But I know why my thoughts went that way: the Ziggurat of Ur.  Now it happens the ziggurat of Ur is a physical thing, but for a long time I thought "ziggurat" was some sort of monarchic title--as in "the ziggurat is enthroned on his ziggurat."  Hey, anybody could make that mistake.

Gran Panettone of Maina

Mulling all this over, I idled my way into the kitchen and there laid on a sort of a trapezoidal box with the picture of a fruity cake on the cover.  In script it said "Il Gran Panettone," and in caps "MAINA." Right, I thought, the Gran Panettone--fit companion for the Zamorin and the Zigguraut.   I can picture the three of them in royal commerce together over tea and fruitcake, or bashing each other's brains out as the circumstances might require.  Right, I thought, the three k---

Yep, I've got it.  The Zamorin, the Ziggurat and the Gran Panettone.  Take it away boys:

Friday, December 23, 2011

For God and Gold with Vasco da Gama

Holy War, Nigel Cliff's biography of Vasco da Gama, is not an easy read although in a sense it is a tale of triumph: the heroic Vasco opens up the sea route around Africa to India while poor Columbus persist in fumbling away unknowingly at what his successors finally figured out was the new world.  But Vasco, for all his courage and persistence, was an angry and violent man.  And sailing in any event was a dreadful business--"being in a jail," as Samuel Johnson said, "with the chance of being drowned."

More than a chance, it appears by the report of one Tomé Lopes, traveling along with Vasco in 1503 on the return from Vasco's second voyage.  Lopes' party leaves Mozambique...

All had gone well until they were eight days out. Then, without warning, a tempest had whipped up the sea like a bubbling cauldron. Night had fallen and ardent prayers had been said when the Lionarda crashed straight into Lopes’s ship. The collision sheared away part of its forecastle and splintered the topsides. The shrouds became entangled, and the waves were so high that the men swung wildly in the rigging as they tried to disengage them. When Lopes’s ship finally broke free, the Lionarda came straight at it again and smashed into the side near the bow. A huge gash opened up, and shrouds, planks, chains, and sails went crashing around. 
 The  sailors were convinced they were doomed, and every new crack and bang made their hearts jump. Most gave up, kneeled down, and prayed. Eventually a few stouter men managed to cut the rigging, and the two ships sheered apart. Relays of sailors bailed out the rising water, some with the pumps and others with any container to hand. Another party waded into the hold carrying lanterns and found the bottom of the hull still watertight. Even so, many were convinced the vessel was about to founder, and thirteen deserters jumped ship to the Lionarda.
Can you guess where this is going? These sailors are hard and violent men with an instinct for survival, but there is yet one more factor driving their efforts: there absolute certainty that they were favored by the Almighty:
Lopes and the rest who stayed on board were sure their lives had been spared by an act of God. It was impossible to be saved from such calamity by natural forces, the clerk recorded, and they all vowed to go on a pilgrimage when they reached home. Miracle or not, they were not safe yet. As soon as they tried to come around to the heading set by the admiral, the water rushed in again and the ship listed dangerously toward the holed side. With the waves still rearing high, the officers decided to risk lighting bonfires on thedecks as a signal to the rest of the fleet. Gama’s vessel was the first to arrive on the scene, and he shouted to the men to ask if they wanted to abandon ship. With God’s help, they cried back, they could last until morning. The Flor de la Mar appeared next and offered to send out its boat. Its crew tried to persuade their comrades that they were bound to sink in such furious seas, but Lopes and his men were convinced they were under supernatural protection.
And of course, nothing in their later experience disabused them of their conviction: they did in fact survive the tempest, and did indeed return home to Lisbon.  

Cliff, Nigel (2011-09-13). Holy War: How Vasco da Gama's Epic Voyages Turned the Tide in a Centuries-Old Clash of Civilizations (p. 348-9). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.  

More Sex Work

I just got my contract for some part-time teaching down at the University this spring--the 42d year since I started, though I have taken a number of breaks.  I see, inter alia, that as a condition of my employment I must "complete two hour of sexual harassment prevention training within three months ... ."  My first thought was to be irked; if I not housebroken after 42 years, what are the chances I will learn good habits  in the style of traffic school now? Sober reflection directs me to recognize, however, that this has very little to me.  Indeed, I can think of two motivations for the requirement, for both of which my presence is more ore less incidental.  One: I suspect the primary purpose of the rule is to rob me of the defense of ignorance in litigation: I'll never be able to defend by saying "nobody ever told me."  As a sometimes litigator I guess I can follow the thinking here but from the standpoint of the University, wouldn't it be cheaper and  more convenient just to get me to sign a nice boilerplate contract-of-adhesion waiver of rights, promising never to introduce the defense of ignorance in any relevant proceeding.'

Which brings me to the secondary motivation, which would be to make sure we find work for the battery of sexual harassment trainers on the University payroll.   Given the parlous nature of the job market for former bureaucrats, I suppose I can hardly blame them for hanging on in a death grip.   And I admit the exercise itself shouldn't be that onerous.   I haven't actually taken the training before but I have peeked over the shoulder of assorted colleagues in the thrall of the exercise and I think I know the answer to any doubtful situation.  That is: when in doubt or perplexity or otherwise in need, the prudent path seems to be to consult a qualified sexual harassment professional.

Copy that.  I wonder if s/he can teach me how to spell harrassment harasment harrasment harassment?  

The Holiday Season

I really like holidays where you get to run around naked in the woods although I grant that for this month's solstice you might best try it in, say Patagonia.  We did the best thing, holing up with Itzakh Perlman and Kathleen Battle, and Andreas Scholl.  And the hawks, did I forget to mention the hawks?  Or hawk-like critters: they swooped, they soared, they made lazy circles in the sky and they sat on the rail fence out by the cliff edge, as if in wait for their prey.  Three, no six, no eleven, no fourteen counting three in the air.

Or were they hawks?  About the size of  pheasant and, as I say, hawlike maneuvers.  Heads partly red, but not entirely.  Bits of yellow on the beak.  Some seemed to have white under the wings, but not all.  Maybe condors?

--Those hawks out on the fence, the ones with the red heads.  What kind do you think they are?
--Red?  Red tails?  We have a beer called Red Tail!
--Uh, if they  are red tail, then they have their tails where their heads should be...
--Red Tail Beer!  Red Tail Beer!
[Actually, I think they may have been turkey buzzards.]  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Why Can't You Just Say "Sunnyside?"

--Let me have two eggs up.
--I don't know what that means?  You mean over?
--No, not over, up.
--Over easy?
--Okay, over easy.

[Amazingly, the eggs arrived "up."]

Venice after Venice: the first Disneyland

  When the news reached Venice in 1497 that Vasco da Gama had doubled the Cape and sailed to Calicut, the Venetian stock market collapsed: the Venetians understood that their monopoly on the spice trade was broken, and that their world would never be the same. Or so I heard somewhere, sometime. True? Actually, after a desultory review of some standard sources, I can't pin it down, at least not in its dramatic form. I gather the Venetians did understand that Gama's achievement was molto bad news for them, and they did undertake various devices to cope with it. They sent out a highly skilled diplomat as ambassador to Lisbon. They suggested to the Muslims at Cairo that they might want to cut the customs duties on Venetian shipments (heh, and good luck with that).

But two things. One, Gama's achievement can hardly have come as a shock, in 1497. The Venetians had already taken a huge body blow when the Turks, after centuries of struggle, finally conquered Constantinople in 1453. And Gama's voyage was only the capstone of a long process: the Portuguese had been scratching their way down the West African coast already for at least a generation. So a good guess would be that the Venetians had already discounted their misfortune into the market price.

And two, the Venetians were already at work shifting their focus of action: from the East to Europe, from invasion and trade to passive investment=-notably, land rents. From 100 percent returns, one might say to two percent--but two percent steady is better than two percent of 100 percent with a 98+ percent chance of total washout. Oh, and the museum thing. Venice had already begun to establish itself as the world's first great modern cultural Disneyland. So Venice after Venice could look forward to a long and bright future; Venice the undead continues to stalk the earth.

That's an interesting enough story but where have I heard it before lately? Oh, right: the Dutch. The great age of Dutch shipping/trading/buccaneering ended in--oh, say 1700, at a stretch 1800. After that? After that, Amsterdam did not exactly go poor. Well: there was a core of poor Amsterdamers, but a lot of them had been poor all along and would simply remain in their familiar misery. A small tranche, left behind with the money, became rentiers, passive investors, coupon clippers, living comfortable, if boring, lives long after anybody remembered the reason why.

Is there a pattern here? Is it characteristic of societies to grow and flourish, to mature and loose their oompah--but then to continue more or less indefinitely, under inertial force? Remind you of anyone you know?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Let 'er Rip

Parking lot sign:
If you are backing up, please use caution.

Unspoken corollary:

If you are going out head first, let 'er rip.

Candidates for Export

So I'm tucked up in Mendocino with some good company and some swell champagne and just naturally I can't think of anything better to do with my time than to stew about the Republican primary.  In particular I'm reading  Tod Kelly saying that he thinks Ron Paul would make a swell third-party candidate.

It's actually not a half bad idea and it would be a shame to trivialize it but here goes: I think Paul--and indeed, half a dozen of the Republican candidates--would make awful Presidents, but several of them sure would be interesting Presidents.  Wouldn't it be fun to watch Paul, or for that matter Gingrich, maybe even Bachmann, as President of somebody else's country, preferably a small one, without nuclear weapons.  That's the ticket, Gingrich for President.  Of Luxembourg.  No,  Lichtenstein.    Okay, San Marino.  I guess the Vatican is taken.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mirowski and the Servant Problem and What to Read Next

A pair of readings, not obviously linked, and a suggestion for a new direction.  First reading: Philip Mirowski (I think) on behaviorial economics.  Second, a piece in The Economist Christmas issue about (ambivalent quasi-irony alert) "The Servant Problem."

First Mirowski.  Mirowski probably qualifies as the most sophisticated (if not always the most deft or readable) critic of  "the standard model" in economic thought--I mean the schizoid mathematicizing, the stylized assumptions, and the artful suppression of all interesting anomalies that have come to dominate the profession since the coming of Paul Samuelson.   Here (via an intermediary) he weighs in on the new behaviorism but wait, it's not what think.  Very far from seeing the behavioral turn as a refinement in or advance on the traditional model, he treats it as almost unreservedly retrograde--a running dog of the neo-liberal consensus, serving only to distract attention from its tattered and threadbare apparel.  So presumptive good guys like George Akerlof, Robert Schiller and Robert Frank wind up as, at best, useful idiots in prorecting a maleficent status quo.

It's an interesting read at least, but its core principle seems to be that the new critique is far too tentative and feeble to put anything more ambitious than llipstick on this particular pig; In this respect it strikes me as ironically similar to the standard response of the old guard: that the new critics may be tinkering with the flanges on the exhaust pipe, but they haven't yet got anyplace close to the carburator.  Either way, the standard model stays in place; the only question is whether you like it that way.

Now turn for a moment to The Economist's take on servants.  The immediate question is: servants, why have them?  To do the dirty work obviously, but the E, channeling Veblen, makes the point that it's far more complicated than that.  Having a servant may or may not be a "convenience"--part of the point of the essay is that servants can be a damn nuisance.  But they are also marvelous as a prestige good.  They show that you've got money enough to set fire to.  They show that you can buy occasions public humiliation (the other guys'; not your own) and for pointless display ("pointlessness" being precisely the point).  

I suppose an imaginative defender of the economic status quo could squeeze all this into a utility function, but there's really no suggestion that any of them ever does it.  And without quite yielding to the point about running dogs, I'd have to say that Mirowski (and the mainstream defenders) here are onto something here: "behavioral economics" may offer some fragments of entertainment, but for good or ill there is nothing much here that lays a glove on the mainstream behemoth.  So the sanding-over of difficulties continues and we wind up with an "economics" which is, apart of from the equations, bloodless and content-free.  I'm speaking now on analogy to Goethe's critique of Newton's theory of color--a theory which, as Goethe put it, contains everything except color itself.

I suppose Mirowski would say "that's the point, their job is not to disturb anything."  And the defenders would say--oh, it's early yet, it's only a matter of time.

So I'm on board with the idea that behavioral economics hasn't offered much yet.  I'm agnostic on the question of how much more than I can do.  And I'm a bit shaky on where to go next.  I admit I am uncomfortable with the apocalyptic tone of the Mirowski critique, at least insofar as it begins to sound like standard leftism.  I'll confess it here:  in the current mode I think I hate bankers as much as the best of them but at the end of the day, I'm an unreconstructed neoliberal.  I can't imagine any world at once attractive and plausible other than a world with public structures and private purposes, in which we see "creatures going about their business among the equally/Earnest elements of nature."  I could be a crank (perhaps am already) but could never be a very good rebel.

Which brings me back to Veblen again.  Does anybody read him any more, except perhaps the odd young striver at the E?  He was still in fashion when I first started college nearly 60 years ago.  Moreover, he even counted as economics--at least as part of economics, a part you were permitted not to minimize or ignore.  And so I'm wondering if it isn't time for a Veblen revival: for  fresh reading of a guy who understood that economics was not (just) about LaGrange multipliers and Edgeworth boxes: it was about power and status and victimhood and the contest for domination in an unruly world.  

Monday, December 19, 2011

Italiana, She's-a No Easy Language

--Let me have a doppio, please.
--A what?
--A double espresso.
--Oh.  Sure.

--Let me have a double espresso, please.
--A what?
--A doppio.
--Oh.  Sure.

--Let me have a doppio, please.
--You want one shot or two?

The Bologna I Puritani and the New Met

Il Teatro Buce featured a showing of Bellini's I Puritani this week, an opera hitherto unknown to either of us.   In general, we endorse what the blurbs say: lovely music, as listenable as anything Bellini did (in a short life), constrained by a galumphy libretto whose chief virtue is that it reminds you how much a good libretto--a da Ponte, or a Boito, or a von Hoffmansthall, say, can contribute to make a composer look good. Nino Machaidze, also previously unknown to me, seemed perfectly cast in the lead. Juan Diego Flórez produced what you'd expect of him (lots of tough notes), except that his role really didn't give any scope for the kind of comedy charm he has been able to deploy lately. Ildebrando d'Arcangelo also earned his keep although he of the three may have been most constrained by the limitations of the text.

But I want to talk about the staging. It wasn't bad--in a lot of ways, it was perfectly satisfying (I like those muted greys). But after the invasion of Peter Gelb, the new Napoleon of 66th Street, a production this unobjectionable can seem quaint, almost perfunctory, so much is it dominated by inevitable and invidious comparisons with What They Can Do at the Met.

For me, this kind of perception is unavoidable, but I find that unfortunate in at least two respects. One, it's unfair to Bologna: small house with necessarily a limited budget. As the great armchair general might say, you go to opera with the resources they have (and by the way, did I forget to mention Michele Mariotti? He did a lovely job in the pit and I gather he is becoming the man of the hour).

It's unfortunate also in that Met performances, for all their heart-stopping bling, may not be all that wonderful. I don't want to sound too much like a fogy her. I'm actually delighted that the Met is pushing beyond the Fellini. But several of the new Gelb-era productions--including several I've enjoyed--leave you with gnawing dissatisfaction. The problem is not the novelty per se but the nagging sense that the new auteur may have forgotten that at the end of the day, he's got to be in touch with the score. And if he's not going to relate to the score, he might as well take his block and tackle and head back to Broadway.

Any number of people have said this sort of thing about Bartlett Sher's production of Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffmann. I certainly felt it watching the William Kentridge production of Shostakovich's Nose. The fancy productions--even the good ones, the ones with something to offer--can blind you to their own shortcomings and may make it harder to appreciate a simpler, smaller, less ambitious, but highly satisfying show like the Bologna Puritani.  

Fortunately, I don't know 250 People

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Hey, Wait a Minute

Did Newt just say we can dump Citizens United?

Engineering Theory and Practice: What are we Missing?

I've been trying to bone up a bit on the development of engineering in the "why buildings fall down" sense.  I've come up with an insight, new to me at least, about the relation of theory and practice in, I guess, the development of any science.  Not sure how well I can articulate this, but bear with me here...

Start with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which collapsed just four months after it was opened in 1940, perhaps the nation's most spectacular bridge failure ever.  Apparently we know (now!) what did it in--"torsional vibration," i.e., "twisting," from uneven loads in a steady wind.

But here is where it gets interesting.  Evidently engineers had known for a long time that suspension bridges go bollywackers from uneven loads.   Eighty-six years  before, a bridge over the Monongahela River at Wheeling West Virginia, had fallen down for the same reason.  The question then arises: okay, so why not put up some kind of stiffener to keep the bridge from doing its little dance?  The answer is, we had done that too: when they rebuilt the Wheeling bridge, they included stiffeners, on a system already developed by the great John Roebling, who himself went on to build (and stiffen) the Brooklyn Bridge?

So why did we ignore Roebling and make the old mistake all over again?  Ah, here is where it gets interesting. Evidently engineering, at least in modern times, has involved a constant interplay between "theory" and "practice."  No question that modern analytical techniques (than you, Newton and Euler), have helped us to make strides in the attempt to solve engineering problems.  But it remains a marvel how much of engineering, even modern engineering, is the work of "empiricists"--self-taught or untaught builders, unencumbered by--often even contemptuous of--theoretical knowledge.

I know what you're thinking but here's the thing. Roebling who got it right was the empiricist.  Evidently it was after Roebling that the "theorists" took over, and brushed empiricism aside.  The trouble was, their theory wasn't up to it.  They didn't have the conceptual apparatus to explain why Roebling's solution worked and so they went ahead and ignored it.  Except actually, it's worse than that.  They didn't just ignore empiricism: they developed some wrong theory (about the relation of mass and inertia) that powered them straight into disaster.

As I read about the Tacoma Narrows bridge, it sank into me that I'd heard a version of this story before.  Years ago, my friend Paul told me the sad tale of Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul, perhaps the world's greatest dome (or compare the Pantheon in Rome and the Cathedral in Florence).  The way Paul told me, they built Hagia Sophia on the instructions of the greatest mathematicians of their time.   And it fell down.  They rebuilt it on the instructions of a team of master builders, and it has lasted for 900-plus years.

So it looks like it has happened more than once.   Now honest, I don't mean to get too anti-intellectual here: I love theory.  But it does  make you wonder: what kind of  mistake are we making today, with all good intentions but simply because we lack the conceptual apparatus to get it right?

Biblio:  For an introduction to the  theory-practice issue (and a discussion of Tacoma Narrows) go here.

Another kind of engineering problem:  Not really the same thing, but I'm remembering the story of the building of the B-2 stealth bomber.  Way I got it, they set out to determine how to proportion the volume between wing and fuselage so as to maximize range.  They took a derivative of range with respect to volume.  But on second look, they chose the wrong derivative and so picked the design that would minimize range.  So W. Biddle, "Skeleton Alleged in the Stealth Bomber's Closet," Science, May 12, 1989; link (paywall).  

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Wonderful Interview

...with Max Hastings about his new WWII book: link.  Sounds like an enormously decent and likeable man.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Here, Take My Money, Spare Me Your Problems

Mark Perry, channeling Steve Landsberg, channeling Joel Waldfogel, channeling Seinfeld, can't understand gifts; why don't we all just give cash?

Dear God, does this need explaining again?  The cute point--the point only an economist could love--is that the donee, almost by definition, knows his own wants better than anyone else, and so the best the donor can hope for is to get the ball back to the line of scrimmage.*  True, true, true.  But the point of the gift is not to accomplish the donee's wants.  Rather the focus is on the donor.  The gift tests the empathy, attentiveness, general acuity, not to say commitment, of the donor.  So this is one contest where "close" really does win the  cigar.   If the donee dreamt of taable mats and the donor gives her doilees, the donee may be a little crestfallen, but she can say, "how thoughtful of him to try."  If he gives 12-guage shotgun shells, she is bound to conclude "I really don't think he was listening."  If he gives cash, the donee can infer that he is saying: "I really don't give a rat's ass what you do with your life; here, solve your own problem."

Sheesh, is that so hard to understand?  So give it a try.  You'll get it wrong but you may get an A for effort.  Unless you are an economist.

Updatae: Ignoto recalls to mind Woody Allen on mastrubation: hey, it's sex with someone you love. 

*It is suggested to me that once in a while the donor gives the donee something he didn't know he wanted until he got it.  Point taken, although I suspect it's pretty rate and in any event it doesn't deflect the thrust of the argument. 

I Mean, It's Not as if he was Mother Teresa

Excepting only the Cuban Missile Crisis, I  wonder if there was a time when Western Christendom felt itself more surely on the precipice of extinction than it did in the autumn/winter of 1241 when the Mongol horde stood "at the gates of Vienna" (as the saying goes)--scouting, skirmishing and otherwise scaring the bejabbers out of a populace that  feared it might prove itself powerless against a force that had swept so much before it.

And then as if by a miracle, the Mongols vanished--as another saying goes, "folded their tents and slipped away"  (although it appears they took some Hungarian tents with them).  It was some time before the locals grasped what had saved them, but we know now: Ogodei, third son, favorite and successor to the great Genghis Khan, had died.  From every corner of the Eurasian land mass, the troops raced home for the funeral.

I thought of the Mongol horde this morning as my Google Reader overflowed with tributes and remembrances to the great panjandrum of the feuilliton circuit, Christopher Hitchens, dead at 62.   Grant that the comparison is not exact. The  Mongols race home not just for the ceremony but to contend for the successorship (it took them 10 years, during which time their once-and-future victims enjoyed an uneasy surcease).   In the case of Hitchens, I don't suppose there will be a succession battle precisely--the intertubes are clogged with voices will tell you that he broke the mold.    But as an instance of tribal solidarity, I should say the analogy is compelling. Think of it: forget Lady Gaga, forget Vladimir Putin, forget Ron Paul. If ever you wanted to commit a great public crime or folly, today would be the day to do it.  You are Vienna;  the chatterati are the Mongol horde.  Today every laptop is clicking in memory of the ghost of the departed Christopher. Indeed I can't think of anything that could demonstrate more clearly (as if the point needed demonstration) that we have a chatterati elite in the Anglosphere, as self-protecting and self-admiring as in any phenom since Baby Jessica fell down a well.

Which is not to say that everyone loved Hitchens--"love"  is a bit of a stretch with reference to a man who, among his other virtues, was after all a mean old drunk.. Many professed to admire his style, his fecundity, his (I really think this is a closer issue--see infr) his courage/independence/integrity.  Some of his admirers  also betray   more than a glint of fear, as if they'd forgotten he was dead and so unable to take vengeance on them.     Whatever: it is hard to name a journo-celebrity of greater than B-minus status who hasn't in the last 24 hours gone to lengths to prove that s/he and Hitchens were smoking and drinking buds who'd spend every Hallowe'en out soaping windows together.  This is the moment, guys; this is the time I get to prove that I am in the club, or as Judge Harry used to say, "my name was on the list."

I'd have to admit that the outpouring is not entirely without intrinsic justification.   Hitchens' chops as a feuilletonist  were pretty well honed, though hardly, I think,  much better than (say) Christopher Buckley or P. J. O'Rourke or perhaps even Joe Queenan.  Hitchens could be acerb, witty, sometimes surprising--all estimable qualities in his trade, even rare, albeit not unique.

Which brings me back to the issue of his integrity/independence/courage. I'll grant that he did die well, which takes courage of a high order.  And I woudn't go so far as to say he was a trimmer of Mitt Romney proportions.  But I think a lot of the aura of of gritty independence was illusory. Example, seeking to document his courage, his defenders will naturally leap to his slasher-attack on Mother Teresa.  Sure, fine.  But consider: one way to make your reputation in any field of inquiry is to take an idea that "everybody" knows it is true, and show that it is false.  If you were trying to think of an icon that needed taking down in just that way, I suspect that Mother Teresa might well be your first choice--or at any rate, would have been before Hitchens did it.

His defense of the Iraq War stands on a slightly different footing.  I suspect that his animus against Islamic illiberalism was probably sincere (and not without some merit, let us agree).    But I suspect he may have come to regret his decision as the absurdity of it all became increasingly apparent.  Yet even so, by the time of Iraq, Hitchens was well enough established as a brand that he could afford to experiment with it without serious risk of impairing it.

His other instances of supposed "courage" seem to me far more trifling.  Lately he wrote a book called Why Orwell Matters.  Oh, give me a break.  In the first place, everybody already knows why Orwell matters--everybody in Hitchens' circle, certainly.  Defending  Orwell for this crowd would be a lot like a good Catholic defending--well, like defending mother Teresa.  Quite the contrary: I think the Orwell brand offered much more to the Hitchens brand than vice versa (idle thought: a slasher-attack on George Orwell--now that would dtake courage). Moreover, if ever there was a writer who displayed courage--along with modesty, compassion, and a gritty indifference to what powerful people thought of him--Orwell was, of course, the ticket (I probably digress here; I suspect I am ticked off at the NYT for invoking an Orwell comparison in its Hitchens obit).

No: where Hitchens really added the oak leaf clusters to a merit badge was under the one for his skill at self-promotion, at networking, at making sure he had a good death.    Whatever else he did with his life, he made sure that he was in everybody's Rolodex and they his.  And tonight we see where that-all gets you.  Read the obits if you like: some of them are touching and affectionate, many witty, or in the way of being witty, a very few even arresting.   If you want just one, I'd strongly recommend the memorial from his brother, who shows the candor and integrity not to gloss over the difficulties of their own, shall we say, complicated, relationship.  The brother is one guy who has something to say beyond the ordinary pieties and wit of Christopher's homies in the chattering class.  

Update:  I see that Mother Teresa's order is praying for him.  Heh.

He'd Walk through Fields of 'em, Barefooted

 “Good bosom men were considered experts and I got lots of work. I could hold up a sagging bust line with the best of them.”
Joe Simon, the creator of  Captain America, on his early career as a retoucher of celebrity cleavage.  Quoted in his obit in the NYT.  And while you are at the Times obit page, encounter the equally wonderful career of Stephen Schlossberg, a top adviser to Walter Reuther who became a deputy secretary of labor under Ronald Reagan.

The Higgins Boatswain

UB's Wichita Bureau (an old sea dog) knows exactly where to find it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Corzine Comes Clean

My pal Michael serves up the shorter John Corzine:

Q. (By the chairman): Mr. Corzine, you understand that you have the right to remain silent and refuse to testify before this committee?

A. (Mr. Corzine): Mr. Chairman, I do not choose to hide behind the Fifth Amendment. I want to give this committee a complete account of the situation, and I am ready to answer any and all of your questions.

Q. We appreciate your forthrightness and candor. In that connection it appears that $1.2 billion of your clients' money has gone missing. Can you tell the committee what happened to it?

A. I am sorry, Mr. Chairman, but I don't have the faintest idea.
Reading William Cohan's Money and Power  last Spring--i.e., long before the current uproar went viral--I got the distinct sensation that Corzine was an accidental man, a loose cannon, an empty suit.  There has to be a reason why he was whisked ouf ot Goldman so briskly and efficiently.   

Good News aboutThe Simpsons You Don't Have to Watch them All?

Well, that's a relief.  I mean, you know, it's not as if I always watch time this way, but I stumbled on a a piece about "favorite" or "best ever" Simpsons episodes.   And here's the thing: the comments--they were virtually unanimous that the good ones were the early ones.  That would be, maybe seasons 4-8, maybe 1-3, possibly nine, but nobody votes for the later stuff. 

Now, I always pretend to be, even believe I am a Simpsons fan but I have to admit I haven't watched it on anything like a regular basis for years.  I have been a little surprised, given the ordinary life cycle of TV shows, to find that it has lasted so long. And lo, it has not lasted so long: it just keeps running on batteries.

Fn.: for my mostly-under-25 students, it has struck me lately that references to The Simpsons are about as dated as references to Adlai Stevenson.

Undocumented Bonus:  Somehow I had never before heard: "Are you tired of always chopping off your hands in the snow blower?"   

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Skull Behind the Libertarian Mask

So, you're tucked up nicely in your gated bedroom community with your security guard and your private fire department, all supported by your Cayman Islands investment fund and your Cook Islands asset protection trust?  Feeling pretty good about yourself, right?

Yeah, right.  Piker.  You kick the whole thing up a notch if you moved off to Paul Romer's new charter city,   arising, if not exactly ex nihilo, then pretty much ex deserto as a free-market paradise along the north coast of Honduras. It'll all be on offer soon for "a core of people who share certain new norms" which seem to include low taxes and, uh, we'll get back to you on that. Or if this sounds just a bit too Jim Jones, you might want to join Buck Rogers on the proposed "seastead," a wholly manufactured floating city (don't call it an oil platform) a-gleam in the developers' eye for the Northern Pacific, where it ought to be able to enjoy all the blessings of freedom as long as the landlubbers keep sending the food and water.

Maybe the easiest way to get a grip on this new model is to remember what life was like when you demanded that your mom give you total control over your Own Room, complete with surround sound and 3-D gaming system, but not without access to communal breakfast cereal and air conditioning--"you" being perhaps the 15-year-old you, if not the 32-year-old who figured that after all the vicissitudes of life, still the bedroom at mom's looked like the best deal of all.

One thing you won't have to worry too much about, at least until you master the "new norms" part is anything as messy as democracy.  Indeed, one of the more refreshing wrinkles in the "new communities" movement is the degree to which it has given "libertarians" the comfort zone to rip off the mask and acknowledge that yes, well, this democracy stuff never really did make a lot of sense anyway.

I feel their pain.  It certainly is of the frustrations about living in, say, New York or San Francisco or London or--hell, even of Hong Kong or Singapore--that you have to put up with all of those refractory people who keep having ideas and intentions and purposes of their own.    How nice if you could just put all that behind you and settle down among your own (reserving,  of course, visiting privileges with the shoreside universities, restaurants, theatre strips and all else that makes life bearable between transactions).

But coming closer to home--maybe I just haven't been paying attention, but does anyone ever ask Ron Paul about this kind of thing?  It has always seemed to me that inside any good libertarian there is an authoritarian smiling out.  Would Paul agree with the more advanced proponents of the new utopianism that democracy is, after all, some kind of transitional necessity, best left behind at the earliest convenient opportunity?  If so, just exactly how does he hope to realize his vision, and on what terms, and when?   

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Narcissism Watch: Alec Baldwin's Tantrum
And The Economist's Weird Response

Non-news of the day: celebrity throws a tantrum on a commercial airliner.  Somewhat greater news: The Economist reports it.  Odd twist: The Economist winds up defending the self-absorbed weasel.

The weasel in question is Alec Baldwin, evidently the star of somethingorother who said NO I WON'T turn off my Ipad on takeoff because I WANT TO PLAY MY VIDEO GAME--whereupon the airliner had to taxi back to the gate, so as to kick him off   Really no news here folks, except perhaps that it is a confirmatory instance of Jonathan Winters' theory of first-class air-travel: the kind where they ring a bell and you  get to go back and do anything you want  to the passengers in coach.  At least he's a step up from Gérard Depardieu ("a French actor," the E explains) who pissed in the aisle and then fobbed it off as a prostate problem. No quarrel with the E then for dismissing it all with the observation that

perhaps ... commercial planes are nowadays the only place left (outside of jail) where these mollycoddled superstars are ever told to do anything they do not want to do.
But then about midway through the article the right hand, obviously not knowing what the left hand was up to, turned Baldwin's infantile snit into some sort of attack on American, and defense of passenger freedom.  For at the end of the day, the writer observers,  don't we all know that the turn-off-your electronics rule is just a piece of bureaucratic silliness that nobody ought to have to live with?

Well, yes, of course it is a piece of bureaucratic silliness.  But Baldwin wasn't demanding that You or I be permitted to use our Ipads; he was just demanding that he be permitted to use his Ipad, and abusing the poor flight attendant who said he couldn't.  My guess is that if I sat next to Alex and showed the effrontery to whip out my own Ipad, the chances are he'd punch me out for clicking too loud.   Passenger rights, my Aunt Maude.  Meanwhile, the E notes that Southwest Airlines apologized to yet another rules-are-for-little-people celebrity, while American "responded with some harsh comments about Mr Baldwin," adding "which may reflect why Southwest has the better reputation for customer service."  Actually, no.  I'm entertaining the possibility that getting its back up about Baldwin might be the first really customer-friendly gesture AA has made in years.  Were it I, I would have been tempted to deploy the heavy artillery: I would have called for Gérard Depardieu.   

Dream On, Ruth Rosen

I dunno, it may be spending too much time hangin' with her homies at the Center for Right-Wing Studies at UC Berkeley, but if Ruth Rosen thinks that the occupiers have "changed the national conversation", then she's left her crap detector home in the gun rack.  Rosen says:

[L]arge numbers of Americans no longer seem to fear allegations that they are card-carrying card members of a revolutionary sect. At encampments and during marches, which I saw at the Oakland Occupation, small businesses demonstrate their support with the sign, “We are the 99%.” Unions, nurses and teachers proudly march with banners emblazoned with “We are the 99%.” Local and national websites for the Occupy movements inform activists of approaching marches and rallies. Fueled by social media, visible everywhere--- in physical encampments, marches and rallies--- the Occupy movement is hard to ignore.
You hear that?  Small businesses, we got small businesses--not just the "unions, nurses and teachers" (which I think translates into "public employees").  Well, yes, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the dispossessed  proprietor of a beleaguered medical marijuana clinic has some issues with Obama administration's crackdown on their streetfront marketing (cue chorus of "God bless the grass/That grows through the crack...").    But is is the best she can do?

Actually, yes, it pretty much  is the best she can do.  Just paragraphs later, she is saying:
Politicians cannot ignore so many voices.... The New York Times quoted Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, as saying “We are changing the debate and the public is with us.” ...  Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, aware of the movement’s anger at the failure of Democrats to protect the 99%, nevertheless says that "the movement's key issues like addressing income inequality are still wildly popular and Democrats will benefit from that."
Let's revise that.  Of course they can ignore so many voices.  They've been ignoring them for years.  Schumer (tops among donees of Wall Street campaign funds) is a past master a saying "which way are my people going so I can get out in front and lead them?  Pelosi (ninth wealthiest member of Congress) wants us to believe that "Democrats will benefit from" anger over issues at which (as Rosen says) Democrats have already failed..

I don't mean to trivialize the problem here.   I join the multitude who think were almost totally f%ck$d: I think there are way too many rich in this country, way too many poor.  I think we've got a banking system that has turned into a --what's the phrase?- Oh yes, "giant vampire squid."    I think we're acting more and more like a police state (and yes, I'm talking to you, little Barack Obama)--although ironically for the moment, that seems a bit more like a side issue.

But I think I'm also imbued with at least the rudiments of realism about how hard it is to do anything about it--saying nothing of just figuring out what it is that we want to do (for starters, see, e.g., link).  I don't want to sound despairing (although I suppose I do sound despairing).  I'd like to think I'm just being realistic--recognizing that making progress on this suckah is going to take all the skill and determination and resilience we can muster.  And warmed-over 60s nostalgia will  not help.    

But How Do They Get Them All
Into Those Little Red Kettles?

Asks the Wichita Bureau:

Cargill donates 3,000 turkeys to Salvation Army

Monday, December 12, 2011

There, That About Covers It

Looking for some good non-technical background on engineering, I find:

  • J.E. Gordon, Structures: Or, Why Things Don't Fall Down (1978)

  • Mathys Levy and Mario Salvadori, Why Buildings Fall Down (1992)

  • Mario Salvadori, Why Buildings Stand Up (1980)
Have I missed anything? 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Christopher Logue

A few years back I took a stab at learning some Classical Greek.  I didn't cover myself with glory: my purpose was to read Thucydides and I found out only after I had embarked that Thucydides is hard, some of the toughest Greek going, perhaps deliberately and perversely so.    I never really have conquered him (though I  can put in a good word Blaise Nagy's excellent student reader).  But perhaps unexpectedly, I found that Homer wasn't that-all hard: the vocabulary is huge but the grammar is relatively simple and so much of the presentation is formulaic that once you make yourself at home with the formulae, things begin to go smoothly.

And here is another undocumented feature.  I developed a new ear for translation, particularly the translations of the great age in English literature--North, Chapman, Dryden, Golding and so forth who did so much to discover who we are.   And the moderns: learning to read bits of Homer helped me to see that Lattimore (for example) though perhaps a bit pedestrian as a poet, is actually a pretty conscientious trot.  And Fitzgerald: they say there is too much Fitzgerald in Fitzgerald's Homer.  For the Iliad, this is probably true.  But I'd say that Fitzgerald's slightly off-kilter sensibility catches the slightly off-kilter sensibility of the Odyssey pretty well--but then, for my taste, I'd say the prose translation of Walter  Shewring works even better.   Fact is, I haven't ever read a translation of the Iliad, however rewarding, that catches (what I take to be) the flavor of the original quite so well as Shewring or even Fitzgerald does for the Odyssey.

All of which is a long way to a short point: the extraordinary, unmatchable work of Christopher Logue, the British poet who produced what is to my mind (and I am hardly alone) they most convincing rendition of the Iliad in English.  Logue (who died last week at 85) called his work an "account;" others might call it an "homage," like what Ezra Pound did with the Chinese.  The NYT says that Logue's work "loosed the wrath of scholastic purists and some critics," but I'd take that with a large grain of salt.   In the next breath, the Times says "it was overwhelmingly lauded — even by classicists — for the combined power of its luminous language, cinematic imagery and hurtling pace."

I was going to reprint a sample here.  But I don't think I can improve on the sample provided with the Times obit here.  Go to the left-hand-column; read the comparative samples from Fitzgerald, Fagles and Logue.  I think you'll agree that the Fitzgerald and the Fagles are straightforward, workmanlike exposition, and that the Logue is in a class by itself.  

Oscar Griffin Jr. and the Golden Age of Fraud

Why I left the newspaper business: lotta reasons but one is I knew I could never be as diligent, as patient, as meticulous and as brave as this guy--Oscar Griffin Jr., who blew the lid off the Billy Sol Estes case, one of the most eye-popping, surreal and weirdly funny financial scandals of its era.  

And is it my imagination or--well, heaven knows we are awash in financial fraud these days, but isn't it true that the crooks were more entertaining in the golden age?   Billy Sol would have you stand aside to pray for a few minutes while his flunkies changed the labels on his (otherwise imaginary) fertilizer tanks.   Tino DeAngelis filled his "salad oil" tanks mostly with salt water--somehow, the auditors were slow to figure out that oil floats, and if you stick a dipstick into a tank 90 percent salt water, it still comes up showing oil.  Stanley Goldblum manufactured imaginary bodies for Equity Funding with the brio of Chichicov in Gogol's Dead Souls.    Or perhaps best of all, Barry Minkow, once "the Bill Gates of carpet cleaning," now back in prison after an interim tour as a man of the cloth.

It turns out that Estes is still alive at 86.  "“It’s a good riddance that he left this world,” he said of his adversary's death.  Still all class, eh Billy?   

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Chez Buce Reads Kahneman: I

We really need to talk to each other more here at Chez Buce.  Example: Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow.  A couple of months back we each of us put it on our several e-readers, without coordination and so without the possibility of buying just one copy and lending--but then, I don't think either of us has mastered e-lending yet either.  So we've both been working through it in a kind of parallel play.

A couple of months: yes, it is that kind of book.  And it's not that it's all that abstruse: Kahneman's writing is a model of easy-going clarity, perhaps deceptive in it straightforward application.  And it's not familiarity/unfamiliarity.    Seeing as how I teach in a law school--and considering what I teach--I actually had seen and considered a good many of the examples Kahneman discusses.  Mrs. B less so, but she has had other fish to fry.  Anyway, it didn't matter.  For both of us, it's just the kind of book you want to think about, to roll over in your mind, to set aside for a few days and then come back to later.

For the moment, let me consider just one: Kahneman makes much out of the distinction between what he calls "System 1" and "System 2" as modes of thought. System 1 is intuitive; system 2 is detached and critical. System 1 is fast; system 2 is slow.    Much of the book is devoted to showing the kind of errors that system 1  can lead us to.  System 1, it appears, has a built in vulnerability to distortion.  And System 2 is lazy.

But here's the thing. Chez Buce is unanimous on the point that, for good or for ill, this is a System 2 household.  This doesn't mean that we are smarter than everybody, or anybody.  It certainly (trust me!) doesn't mean that we always get things right.  It does mean that we are both, in our different ways, compulsive second-guessers.  Did he really mean that?  Why did he say that?  Is there another way of doing that?  We may annoy outsiders, but believe me we drive each other just batty with this kind of sifting and turning, sifting and turning.  Indeed I'd venture that it is precisely the sifting and turning mentality that drove us both to Kahneman (independently but simultneously) in the first place.

If System 2 is all that lazy, can someone point us to a device that will cool it down?  We could use the rest. 

Afterthought: I see that Kahneman is runninjg #16 in the Amazon League tables at this hour, a bit behind P.D. James and just ahead of John Grisham. This surely makes it the hottest social science book of the year. How long before somebody has a run with the big deconstruction.

Who're You Callin' a Myrmidon?

Michael Quinion has a crisp and informative discussion up this morning on the meaning of " Myrmidon" --once just a warlike people of Thessaly, but as Michael says:

The word has existed in English since medieval times but over time has become progressively less reputable. For Shakespeare, myrmidons were faithful followers, the members of a bodyguard or retinue. A century later they had become hired ruffians or mercenaries. By the nineteenth century they had sunk somewhat lower to be opportunistic supporters of some person or organisation. Today a myrmidon is often an unscrupulous subordinate.
I think I can help on that one. I think we muddle "myrmidon" in our mind with "minion," as in "flunky"--perhaps to the cost of both.  Michael quotes a text example about "the myrmidons at the Fed" who could, I suppose, be fierce warrriors, but he also reports a sighting of "the myrmidons" of Rupert Murdoch who are, I suspect, just minions.

I suppose the situation is not simplified by the fact that the Greek myrmidons were (quoting Michael) "renowned for their mindless loyalty to Achilles." Word Detective caught the distinction:

"Minion," meaning an obsequious follower or sycophant (or what used to be called a "yes-man"), was not always a derogatory term. From the Old French word "mignot," meaning "dainty," came the modern French "mignon" ("darling"), which also gave us "filet mignon," an especially tender beefsteak. Translated into English as "minion," the term first meant a hanger-on at a noble's court, but gradually broadened to include nearly anyone in a servile or subordinate position. "Myrmidons" were, in Greek mythology, the Thessalian warriors who, commanded by Achilles, fought in the Trojan War. The term has since come to mean a loyal follower who unquestioningly executes orders. "Myrmidon," which carries fearful overtones of ruthlessness and blind obedience, is a harsher term than "minion," which implies simply gutless servility.
A while back I was doing a book with a my friend Michael, a partner at a white-shoe law firm.  We came up against some tiresome chore that neither of us wanted to carry out.  "Don't you have minions?"  I asked.  "Even our minions," he replied, "have minions."  If and when Michael acts as a loyal hired guy, I wonder what his adversaries would say of him.

Friday, December 09, 2011

New Math

Taxmom advises that math guru John Paulos is Tweeting the new math function:

Corzine: $1.2 billlion=0

Brooks on Gingrich

I'm really not sure what Brad DeLong's problem is with David Brooks this morning--specifically, Brooks' takedown of Newt Gingrich.  Grant that Brooks marked Gingrich as "of all the major Republicans, the one who comes closest to my worldview."  But isn't there any scope for irony here, particularly of the wry, rueful irony of self-deflation?    It strikes me as both wry and rueful to say that Gingrich "Gingrich loves government more than I do."    But Brooks gets a lot more than rueful when he lets it hang out:

[Gingrich] has an unconservative faith in his own innocence. ... Gingrich was perfectly content to belly up to the Freddie Mac trough and then invent a Hamiltonian rational to justify his own greed.

Then there is his rhetorical style. ... Most people just want somebody who can articulate their hatreds, and Gingrich is demagogically happy to play the role.  ... Gingrich has a revolutionary temperament — intensity, energy, disorganization and a tendency to see everything as a cataclysmic clash requiring a radical response. 
And in case you missed the point:
[Gingrich] has every negative character trait that conservatives associate with ’60s excess: narcissism, self-righteousness, self-indulgence and intemperance. He just has those traits in Republican form.
Has DeLong--or, indeed, anybody--ever put it better?    

So Many Kinds of Pension Mess

There's a fascinating, if somewhat indeterminate, thread over at Lawyers, Guns and Money, where all sorts of folks voice their bewilderment, perplexity and dismay over disappointments with the pension system.  Hard to quarrel with the premise here; there is a lot to be disappointed about.  Indeed that may be part of the policy problem: sorting out which kind of problem you're dealing with.  Let me see if I can catalog a few:

  • The promisor may go broke.  Who would have guessed that crown jewel of corporate America--like, say, Studebaker--would just dry up and blow away and leave its retirees (present and potential) holding a bunch of empty IOUs?  
  • Somebody may steal all the money.  As, it appears, the friends of Jimmy Hoffa did with the funds of the Teamsters Union. 
  • The giggle test.  Self-dealing pension schemes may make (and honor) promises that don't pass it. The canonical figure here would be the cop who retires on disability at 45 and goes off to run a gym in Florida (the pension policy equivalent of the welfare queen). This works best in places like, say, The City of Vallejo, or the State of Rhode Island, where the blue-collar voters with a high tolerance for unions let the pension scheme tank up on obligations they never should have taken on in the first place.
  • The market may not behave.  Market misbehavior can take many forms.  Example: inflation can turn gold into base metals, dependable income into paper.  Example:  As more and more money chases fewer and fewer investment opportunities, even diligent managers find that they can't get the returns they are supposed to.   Even conscientious or well-intentioned planners can get in trouble here.  The lazy or the corrupt, oh boyoboy.
  • We promised what?  If the pension fund is a "public obligation" (rather than a "fund"), the voters may just change their mind.  Pensioners and pensioners will howl that they are breaking a promise, nay a sacred trust.  The voters, un- or underemployed and trying to figure out how to deal with their nondischargeable student loans,  aren't paying attention.
  • Mañana.   I suspect maybe "the tomorrow factor" underlies every one of these problems, perhaps others as well.  Freud says it is impossible to imagine our own death.  It is almost as impossible for a 25-year-old to imagine that he'll ever need a pension. Indeed a kid that age who fully funds his IRA--he looks pretty weird.   Or a 30- or a 40-year-old, come to that.    One corollary is that they're not packing away enough.  But a more insidious truth is that nobody is watching: nobody is counting the beans, nobody is making sure the strongbox is locked.   You might say: that's why we have governments.  True; but it is also why we have to watch our governments.  They say that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.  It also helps to promote solvency in the pension pot.
 I don't pretend to have offered any magic beans here, nor indeed any beans at all.  Pensions are another of our many economic train wrecks, and it is a good generalization about train wrecks that people tend to get hurt.  You can feel some of the hurt over at LG&M, and it is real.  

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Viri Galilei, etc.

Reading Galileo in Rome  by Mariano Artigas and William R. Shea, I discover a curious array of verbal curiosities.  One is the story of a young Dominican named Tomasso Cacini who  in 1614 undertook to speak out against Galileo's supposed heresies from the pulpit of Santa Maria Novella in Florence:

 Caccini seems to have chosen as his text the passage in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, in which two men clad in white said to the disciples after Jesus' ascension into heaven: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking at the sky?"  In the Latin version, which Caccini quoted, "Men of Galilee" is "Viri Galilei," which can be rendered as "Men of [Galileo] Galilei." The pun startled the congregation, but there was more to come. Caccini launched into a denunciation of Galileo, the Copernican system, and all mathematicians, whom he branded as enemies of Church and State. He was dead serious.
William R. Shea and Mariano Artigas. Galileo in Rome: 
The Rise and Fall of a Troublesome Genius(Kindle Locations 735-737). 

Two involves a polemical work of Galileo's which he entitled The Assayer--in Italian, Il Saggiatore.  A mischievous Jesuit was able to go him one better by recasting it as Il Asaggiatore, "The Wine-Taster."  "Galileo," the authors dryly remark, "knew and loved his wine."

The third is more incidental, but it caught my fancy anyway.  It's the word "Quarantine," and its etymology.  Evidently it comes from "forty"--"quaranta"--as in 40 days' isolation.  But why 40?  Because  that was the time Jesus spent in the wilderness (as if to cleanse himself) before he undertook his preaching.