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Showing posts from 2012

Top Financial Stories 2012

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

Of course, I choose the ones I do largely because they illustrate an important theme, and in the list below 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: Continuing Recession. Iconic chemicals-and-photography company Kodak files for bankruptcy.

February:  Eurozone tensions. Europe manages a restructuring of Greek debt -- private bondholders take a deep haircut. [Speaking more broadly, there has been a change in tone over the course of 2012. The year began with a lot of talk about the breakup of the common currency zone. Greece might have withdrawn and started printing drachmas. For better or worse, there is much less of such talk now.]

March: IP Law.

Interviewing Hemingway

One of my Facebook friends posted this exchange recently.

I like it so I'll simply repeat it, with thanks to Leon Gettler and, behind him, to the Paris Review.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Ernest Hemingway: I rewrote the ending of "Farewell to Arms", the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that stumped you?

Ernest Hemingway: Getting the words right.

John Dewey and Fragility

Last week I quoted the philosopher John Dewey on the difference between life and non-living matter.

 "The most notable distinction between living and inanimate things is that the former maintain themselves by renewal. A stone when struck resists. If its resistance is greater than the force of the blow struck, it remains outwardly unchanged. Otherwise, it is shattered. While the living thing may easily be crushed by a superior force, it none the less tries to turn the energies which act upon it into means of its own further existence."

A friend asked why I considered that profound. I'll reproduce here my response, with some very slight re-working.


One obvious example of what Dewey has in mind is the immune system in humans and in just about all other creatures with blood coursing through veins.
There is a wide range of infections which cause various nasty diseases in humans, whence most of those struck can and do recover, and whi…

Global Warming

Simple fact: the maximal extent of the Arctic ice pack is mid-March, and the minimum is in mid-September.

Until recent years, the maximum has been about 15 million square miles, the minimum about half of that, that is, between 7 and 8 million SQ M.

In September 2007 the usual time for the annual minimum, the ice pack shrank to only 4.3 million SQ. M., or about half of the usual minimum. This was a record for recorded history.

In recent Septembers it has been somewhat larger, that is, 2007 retains that record. But these last few years have included the second third and fourth lowest extents. in other words, the lowest four coverages ever recorded have all been notched within the last six years.

Don't want to believe that? It's from The New Yorker, and for all I know you might consider that a dubious source. Still, nations and commercial interests are both acting as if a critical change is underway, and it would be churlish to act as if they're all crazy.

Also, since a…

From John Milton's Nativity Ode

Importing a Christmas tradition from my former blog into this one. A fine statement from John Milton of the eschatological hope bound up with Christianity, and for that matter with the Jewish messianic tradition.


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.

Robert Bork, RIP

The Hon. Robert Bork (1927 - 2010) passed away on December 19. He had been a Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit from 1982 to 1988.

Bork had been put on the DC Circuit largely as a stepping-stone, but he never got to take the next intended step. The Reagan administration thought of him from the start as a Supreme Court candidate. And it is as such that he achieved his most intense moment in the spotlight, during the confirmation fight of 1987.

I have written of that fight, and of Bork, at some length, specifically in chapter 9 of my book, THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE SUPREME COURT.

I won't repeat myself unduly here.

I'll simply say that among the various obituaries, paying tribute or otherwise, that I have read in recent days I have to give pride of place to one by Jeff Greenfield.

Who is Greenfield? He has been an [at least somewhat] left-of-center political commentator for decades. He was a speechwriter for Senator Robert Kennedy during that Kennedy'…

John Dewey on Living v. Non-Living Things

"The most notable distinction between living and inanimate things is that the former maintain themselves by renewal. A stone when struck resists. If its resistance is greater than the force of the blow struck, it remains outwardly unchanged. Otherwise, it is shattered. While the living thing may easily be crushed by a superior force, it none the less tries to turn the energies which act upon it into means of its own further existence."


Morgan Freeman II

As I noted in yesterday's entry in this blog, Morgan Freeman wasn't the author of the essay that circulated madly about in Facebook last week after the Newtown shootings.

Here is the essay that was attributed to Freeman:

"You want to know why. This may sound cynical, but here's why.

"It's because of the way the media reports it. Flip on the news and watch how we treat the Batman theater shooter and the Oregon mall shooter like celebrities. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris are household names, but do you know the name of a single *victim* of Columbine?

"Disturbed people who would otherwise just off themselves in their basements see the news and want to top it by doing something worse, and going out in a memorable way. Why a grade school? Why children? Because he'll be remembered as a horrible monster, instead of a sad nobody.

"CNN's article says that if the body count 'holds up', this will rank as the second deadliest shooting be…

Morgan Freeman I

I'm thinking about the actor Morgan Freeman these days.

It isn't that I've ever been a big fan,but he has crossed my radar lately in two ways that may be related. So let's talk about Freeman, in this post and in the next.

Regular readers of my blogs know that I'm a devotee of the animated show South Park, the wisdom of which I have cited on issues like literary fraud and Ritalin.

Anyway, the day after out recent presidential election South Park ran an episode called "Obama Wins!"

Despite the simplicity of that title, the episode was a complicated one, involving stolen ballot boxes, a Chinese General, and Disney's recent purchase of the intellectual property of Star Wars.

At a couple of points in the convoluted plot, an animated version of Morgan Freeman shows up to explain things to the regular characters in the series. Indeed, one of the regular characters comments on how Freeman does exactly this in his movie roles.

Does he? Maybe some reader o…

Should I Read On?

I bought a memoir by Joyce Carol Oates not long ago.

Why? Well ... I knew her name. She has a considerable reputation as a novelist. I had never read any of her novels, and thought this might be a way to sample her abilities.

It was a mistake. As noted in the first sentence above, the book I bought, A Widow's Story is not a novel. It is a memoir. And it is a thoroughly depressing memoir about her husband's death and the early months of life alone after a happy marriage of decades.

This passage, from early on in the book, represents about as far as I managed to get before giving up.


Your husband's heartbeat has accelerated -- we haven't been able to stabilize it -- in the event that his heart stops do you want extraordinary measures to be used to keep him alive?

I am so stunned that I can't reply, the stranger at the other end of the line repeats his astonishing words -- I hear myself stammering Yes! Yes of course -- gripped by di…

From Nagel's book

From the much-discussed new book by the distinguished philosopher Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos.

"The great advances in the physical and biological sciences were made possible by excluding the mind from the physical world. This has permitted a quantitative understanding of that world, expressed in timeless, mathematically formulated physical laws. Biut at some point it will be necessary to make a new start on a more comprehensive understanding that includes the mind. It seems inevitable that such an understanding will have a historical dimension as well as a timeless one. The idea that historical understanding is part of science has become familiar through the transformation of biology by evolutionary theory. but more recently, with the acceptance of the big bang, cosmology has also become a historical science."

So the key distinction here is not so much between the mindful and the mindless elements in the cosmos, or between subjective and objective perspectives, but betw…

New Books on Mao Zedong, Maoism, and Consequences

Two new books I'll simply note here quickly. I haven't read either and am simply passing along recommendations from others.

Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine, Mao: the Real Story

Yang Jisheng, Tombstone.

Yang's title sounds, to an American, like it might consist of a study of a notorious Wild-West venue. Apparently not, though. That subtitle does a better job of clueing us in.

I flipped through the pages of Tombstone on a trip to the bookstore recently and encountered the following passage:

"As famine intensified in 1960 and the number of deaths rose, Mao Zedong finlly began to revise his policy in the second half of the year....In effect, local officials were scapegoated in a way that consolidated the government's power and intensified its extralegal behavior."

Extralegal. That's a neat word in the context.

Weird Bit of Plagiarism and Cover-Up

I don't know what lessons to draw from this. But there are some wrecks on the street that I simply must inspect.

Since I am scrupulous about revealing my own sources, I will start with that. I learned of the below weird bit of plagiarism only quite recently, from Felix Salmon's column at Reuters.  (Yes, that entry is actually by Ben Walsh, but the column as a whole has Felix' name on it.)

It appears that an columnist, Lynn Hoppes, has been engaging in blatant plagiarism. From wikipedia no less.  (Gee, that's such an obscure site! who would ever know???)

Isaac Rauch, of DeadSpin, called out Hoppes on this back in July. In case you don't want to follow that link, here are a couple of Rauch's examples:

Wikipedia on boxing great and rape ex-con Mike Tyson: "Tyson is a former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and holds the record as the youngest boxer to win the WBC, WBA, and IBF heavyweight titles at 20 years, 4 months and 22 days old.&qu…

State Street litigation II

As I noted in yesterday's entry, the U.S. Supreme Court this week declined to hear an appeal from State Street Bank & Trust after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals gave the go-ahead to litigation against it brought by former (pre-bankruptcy) employees of General Motors.

State Street had tried to get this case squashed on a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted (the old-fashioned term for that was a demurrer).  SCOTUS' non-decision decision means that it has failed in that effort.

State Street's claim had been that ERISA shielded it from immunity. Other fiduciaries in similar situations may continue to make such claims (outside of the 6th Circuit), because SCOTUS' s refusal to take an appeal has no precedential significance.  Still, the 6th Circuit, which consists of the federal districts within Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, ain't peanuts, and the 6th Circuits decision is sure to be cited elsewhere.

This mean…

State Street litigation I

A bit of fascinating news this week was mostly overlooked.

The U.S. Supreme Court, on Monday, December 3, declined to hear an appeal from State Street Bank & Trust after the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals had given the go-ahead to litigation against it. So, without having to do the work of listening to arguments or  reading briefs and writing an opinion -- all that tiresome stuff -- the high court has determined this lawsuit will proceed.

The underlying lawsuit is a big enough deal to make that nod a big deal as well.

Here's a link to the 6th Circuit decision which, we now know, stands.

Before the fateful year 2008, auto giant General Motors offered its employees 401(k) plans with a variety of investment options, including mutual funds, non-mutual fund investments, and the General Motors Common Stock Fund itself. The later option was intended to enable both salaried and hourly employees to acquire an equity interest in their employer.

Defendant State Street was a fiduciary i…

Funny Stuff

Felix Salmon plays with toys in order to explain the status of the holdout bondholder's litigation against Argentina. This is about as funny as a discussion of sovereign bond defaults can get.

How could I add anything?

Travel Notes

I've learned a few things as a consequence of my recent trip to London.

1. It is possible to book quick inexpensive flights to London with a modest stop-over to Dublin, through the Irish airline, Aer Lingus.

2. There are PCs with internet access available to the public in the airport in Dublin, but they aren't very reliable. I used one on my way outbound to get a brief message out, but even then there were huge time-and-money-wasting waits from one screen to the next, and my effort to do the same on my way westbound proved futile.

3. A taxicab ride from Heathrow Airport to downtown London is absurdly expensive (more than 60 GBP each way) and unnecessary to boot. The shuttle train between Heathrow and Paddington Station is much less expensive, comfortable, and quick.

4.  It is called "Paddington" Station. Calling it "Pinkerton" Station just confuses people. Pinkerton is the name of a detective agency. Paddington is a toy bear (as above). Try not to think …

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Below I'll provide a link to a well-written blast at the expense of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's latest book, Anti-Fragile.

The thesis of the book is that there are three different states-of-being for institutions, individuals, even academic theories: fragility, robustness, and anti-fragility. These are also, in order: really bad, not so bad, good. [I've written about one aspect of this book in this blog quite recently -- Taleb figures in my series of posts about  Krugman and Gould. ]

A brief illustration of the thesis might run this way: a nation that has built its whole economy around the production and sale of wine would be fragile. It would depend for its livelihood on the international market for wine, and, (even if demand for wine holds up forever) it could be devastated by climate changes that make its own terrain less hospitable to grapes.

A nation that was less dependent on any single market or product would be robust.

But better than robustness is anti-fragility. Th…

From the late Robert Nozick


"In what other way, if not simulation by a Turing machine, can we understand the process of making free choices? By making them, perhaps. We might interpret those theorists who pointed to our choices not as trying to prove that we made free choices but as ostensively explaining the notion, showing its intelligibility. Were they saying that we understand free choice and agency by virtue of making free choices as agents? To accept a (restricted) form of knowledge by acquaintance, encompassing knowledge of a mode of action and of ourselves, runs afoul of views that we know something only when (and to the extent that) we know the laws it obeys. However, even if such views are rejected the nature of this other mode of knowledge, by self-acquaintance, is unclear."

I don't always agree with Nozick. Indeed, I have been saying so since the late 1980s at latest.

But he often seems to me to write in the way that a philosopher shou…


Villamaino's pre-trial hearing date, last I knew, was set for December 3. Whether it will actually generate any news, I have no idea.

Unless you keep up with the news of certain suburbs of Springfield, MA, you likely have no idea who Enrico ("Jack") Villamaino is. The chap pictured above. Splashy voter fraud case, though., With an odd twist -- but we'll get to that.

Villamaino was a Selectman in East Longmeadow, Mass. He wanted to move up the political ladder and become a state representative (as a Republican.)

The state alleges that he sought to do this through an elaborate scheme for tampering with ballots. He had help from a town employee, Courtney Llewellyn.

In a Hollywoodish touch, Villamaino was actually arrested on October 16th with a passport and a bag with personal effects. He had apparently told witnesses his planned destination was Switzerland. Dude! That sort of thing makes it tough for your lawyer to argue for low bail.

Here's the neat twist. Vil…

In London

If all has gone well, I am in London as you read these words, at the 5th Annual conference on TradeTech Liquidity.

This and the following two posts are pre-posted with more than the usual lead time.

The agenda at todays event.

9 AM: Markets structure/execution landscape panel discussion

10:15 Networking Break in the Exhibition Area

10:50 Regulatory Keynote presentation

11:20 Panel discussion on whether regulators have acheived their goal of fair markets

1:40 PM Dark Pools in the new execution landscape

2:40 High frequency trading and its impact on the execution landscape

3:40 Afternoon networking break

4:10 Panel Discussion on liquidity and uncertainty

5:40 Closing remarks from the chair

Speculation on Oil

Thoughts in the manner of Hazlitt:

Any commodity market is of necessity about hedging from more than one side, as well as about speculating.

An industry that consumes a lot of energy (say, an electric utility) wants to hedge against the price of its supplies spiking up, just as the suppliers, in Texas or Saudi Arabia, want to hedge against the possibility of a sharp downward move. So the markets can serve both hedges.

No: there is no reason why this should artificially drive prices up. Anymore than it artificially forces them down.

The risks of fluctuating crude oil prices will be borne by somebody. The risk exists, nobody other than an advocate of central planning believes that it can be ordered to go away. Somebody will bear it. Utility company, oil producer, speculators, or some combination.

Under normal conditions, then, by letting speculators come in to play a role between the two hedging operational parties I have mentioned, commodity markets perform the valuabl…

Great Barrier Reef: Three Facts

These come from my Amex desk calender, which gives tidbits on Australia's Great Barrier Reef in its November pages.

Three such:

1) "The indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people of coastal Queensland are the Traditional Owners of the Great Barrier Reef."

2) Its waters "support some 1,500 fish species ranging in size from the 1/4 inch long stout infantfish, the world's tiniest fish, to the whale shark, the biggest fish in the sea, which can reach lengths of 40 to 50 feet or more."

3) HMS Endeavour, captained by British navigator James Cook, ran aground on the reef in 1770.

This will be my final use of that desk calender as grist for blog posts.

Music Stories

In another month or so, I'll be composing (for another blog) a list of the top five big Music-related stories of 2012. Five is a good number for this, because my entries for JustSheetMusic tend to be around 1,000 words each, and it is difficult to say anything worthwhile about any one such story in less than 200 words.

Perhaps I will get out of the way, through some sort of unlisted mention, the fact that the BBC has been torn by a sex scandal around the activities of the late TV host Jimmy Savile. This is a "music" story only because of the nature of the program that made Savile famous, Top of the Pops.  That isn't enough for my list.

The actual stories may be listed from fun to somber, thus:

1. The Ravinia Festival this year teamed up Patti LuPone with Patricia Racette.

2. Rihannas new album, Unapologetic, which seems to have incited polarized reactions.
Legends, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Bruce Sp., also gave us new albums.

3. Fiona Apple is back in the aren…


With all due respect to the Pilgrims, to the traditional sentiments of harvest time, and to expressions of gratitude, both cosmic and local, Thanksgiving Day for some of us constitutes chiefly the center of the football season -- its culmination for high schools, and a good time for the college games that serve as the natural lead-in to the wonders of the bowl-game season. Have you ever noticed, after all, how much a turkey looks like a football?

My personal thoughts in this regard this year turn to my alma mater, Marist College, home of the Red Foxes.

They creamed  the Valparaiso Crusaders on October 30 with the impressive score of 44 to 7, and with stand-out performances from safety Zach Adler (a sophomore) and Michael Rios (a senior). [Well, it was the day before Halloween, so it was kind of a holiday game.]  Adler comes from Walden, NY and Rios from Miami, Florida.  Of course, the natural rivalry for a team that calls itself the Crusaders would be one calling itself the Jihadis…

Rodgers and Hammerstein

If I should ever be asked whether I could name off the top of my head twenty R&H tunes, I should hope I will come up with the following, arranged below by chronological order of show debut:
The songs themselves aren't listed in any particular order, by appearance in the musical or otherwise, just that in which they occur to me, which presumably would be consistent with the terms of the hypothetical dare/bet.

Oklahoma! (1943)

1) the title song
2) O What a Beautiful Morning
3) Surrey with the Fringe on Top
4) The Farmer and the Cowman
5) I Cain't Say No

Carousel (1945)

6) You'll Never walk Alone
7) Soliloquy (My Boy Bill)
8) This was a real nice clambake
9) If I Loved You
10) When I Marry Mr. Snow

South Pacific (1949)

11) Bala Hai
12) You've Got to be Carefully Taght
13) Wash that Man Right Outa My Hair
14) Nothin' Like a Dame
15) One Enchanted Evening

The King and I (1951)

16) Shall we Dance
17) Getting to Know You
18) Whistle a Happy Tune
19) March of the Roy…

The Secret Race

The Secret Race is the new book by Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle about the Tour de France and doping.

Even if, like me, you aren't much of a cycling fan and are prepared to take a no-first-stone-from-us-sinners attitude toward whatever exactly Lance Armstrong might have done, this may be a compelling sociological study about a particular and very competitive subculture.

I say "may be" because I'm not prepared to pretend to having read it.  A couple of quick points from the publicity though: the first named author, Tyler Hamilton, is the former denizen of that subculture. He rode with Armstrong on 3 of those Tour de France races. He teamed up with Coyle (whose photo I have installed above)  to borrow some writing chops for this project.  

Last weekend's New York Times Review  of Books contained a piece on this result by Geoffrey Wheatcroft, who turns a nice analogy.

"We are left with Armstrong, who  increasingly looks like the sporting answer to Alger His…


I'm sorry, but I don't understand intelligence-agency type controversies unless they are put into terms any moviegoer can grasp.

Petraeus wasn't Bond, James Bond. He was M, the boss of this country's answers to Bond.  M, if married, obviously can't mess around on the side, since that would give Goldfinger a really good tool for blackmail.

Of course, if everybody knows about something, it is no longer material for blackmail. David Letterman told the world about the indiscretions he had committed, disarming his blackmailer in one televised blow. Likewise, I don't see how anyone could blackmail Bill Clinton with the news about Monica Lewinsky, since we have already all been thoroughly sated with that.

So the problem with Petraeus wasn't just that he couldn't keep a secret, but that he could neither keep his affair a secret nor effectively be open about it. That is the zone of blackmail-ability.

Am I getting this so far?

Anyway, you can watch some relev…

Cumulative Recorders

What is a cumulative recorder? Apparently, it is an important term in behavioral psychology in the tradition of B.F. Skinner.

The idea is that a cumulative recorder is a device that creates a graph over time on the paper turning on a rotating drum, as abve. The graph would in turn display the responses of the rat or pigeon or whatever to the experimental stimulus.

The functions of a cumulative recorder in the old mechanical sense have been supplanted in our age of digital computers, but one still finds references to these machines in the periodicals of this branch of psychology.

This little vocabulary lesson has been brought to you by trhe letters "C" and "R."

Darwin and Gray

Charles Darwin once wrote to Asa Gray, "The eye to this day gives me a cold shudder, but when I think of the fine known gradation my reason tells me I ought to conquer the odd shudder."

This quotation is well known. But Matt Ridley, a columnist for the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, devoted last week's column to Darwin and the eye, and he has me thinking abou the  matter anew, too. The eye was presumably giving Darwin shudders because it is a very complex organ. One has a tough time imagining any single "random variation" that would give a newborn of some mammalian breed a pair of eyes that its parents had not had. THAT would be an implausible jump.

Thus, the eye must have come about through increments. Yet it seems difficult to construct a chain of slow increments from no sight at all to the full carbon-based cameras that mammals suggest.  As Ridley asks rhetorically, "What use is half an eye?" I was going to write something more here …

Final Carson Quotes for 2012

This will be my last use this year of jokes from the Johnny Carson joke-a-day calender.

On February 8, 1977, Johnny was doing some riffs on the silver anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II.

"As a matter of fact, I wired the Queen of England a congratulatory wire and said I thought it was very nice of her, showing up every day for twenty-five years without using a guest Queen."

On November 12, 1980, he said: "It is so dry out there today, I saw a robin rubbing Vasoline Intensive Care on his chapped worm."

Okay, that doesn't make a lot of sense. But I'm sure it was preceded by Ed McMahon asking him dramatically "how dry IS it?"

Finally ...

On March 15, 1990, Johny said: "Anytime four New Yorkers get into a cab together wothout arguing, a bank robbery has just taken place."

(And happy birthday to my kid brother Mark, a youthful 53 on Nov. 10, 2012).

The James-Barzun Connection

One critical fact about the philosophy of William James is that it is a good deal more subtle than many newcomers to philosophy expect it to be.

The crude use of the word "pragmatism" to mean "unprincipled" or "opportunistic" has contributed to the false impression that there isn't a lot of intellectual/philosophical substance to it. Also, the  fact that much of what James wrote on the subject was written with a wider audience in mind than his fellow academics, has had the unfortunate  side effect of giving it a reputation in some quarters as the philosophy for those without the patience, or perhaps the intellectual heft, to read real philosophy.

Barzun, in A Stroll with William James, devoted his own considerable gifts to clearing up such misconceptions.

I won't retread that ground here but will move to a related problem: we associate pragmatism as much with Dewey as with James, and through Dewey it has come to have a close connection with &qu…

A Fake Quotation

Sloppy thinking is still sloppy, even if the sloppy individual's heart is in the right place.

Example: a fake Wilson quote.

By way of introduction, please understand that I have become a more and more committed hard-money guy over the last four years.

I have come to believe that prices are only going to be rational, that economies are only going to work efficiently, if the money supply is disassociated from the decisions of central bankers, such as members of the board of the US Federal Reserve.  I also have come to believe that a link to gold might be one good way of disassociating money from policy, or rather of subordinating policy to money, as is right and proper.

So count me among the world's goldbugs if you like.

I find, nonetheless, that within this company there is a lot of sloppy thinking, and part of that is the profligate use of willful unchecked quotations.

For example, Woodrow Wilson, the president who signed the banking reform act that created the Federal R…

A sentence from SPILLOVER

"The University of Kinshasa sits on a hilltop near the edge of the city, reachable by an hour's taxi ride through the broken streets, the smoggy sprawl, the snarled traffic of vans and busses and pushcarts, past the street-side vendors of funerary wreaths, the cell-phone-recharge kiosks, the fruit markets, the meat markets, the open-air hardware stores, the tire-repair stores and cement brokers, the piles of sand and gravel and garbage, the awesome decrepitude of a postcolonial metropolis shaped by eight decades of Belgian opportunism, three decades of dictatorial misrule and egregious theft, and then a decade of war, but filled with 10 million striving people, some of whom are dangerous thugs (as in all cities) and most of whom are amiable, hopeful, and friendly."

Say that in one breath!

Spillover is a recently published volume by David Quammen, a piece of popularized science quite analogous to Microbe Hunters, the classic history-of-medicine book.

Quammen in interes…

Selections from a Correspondence

On Thursday I wrote here a brief notice of the passing of Jacques Barzun.

Since then a fellow admirer of JB has asked me about two points: if I would care to comment on the tie between Jacques Barzun's thought and that of William James; and if I would share some selections from my correspondence with the former.

Given the title of this blog, I can hardly reject the first of those invitations ... though I will put it off, perhaps for another week. Today, I will satisfy the second request. Here are four excerpts from Barzun's letters to me, each dated and preceded by some very brief comments by me (in ital) for context only.

I won't even try to defend the views of mine that Barzun is criticizing here.  This is about him, not me.

October 17, 1986.

I had presumptuously made the case for libertarian political philosophy to him, while in the process dissecting what I saw as the faults of other libertarians, especially Robert Nozick. Jacques replied with good humor and thoroug…

Random Book Notes

Every once in awhile I receive in the mail a catalog of "bargain books" from the Edward R. Hamilton Bookseller Company in Falls Village, CT.

If there ever was a time when I knew how I had gotten onto their mailing list, that time has long since gone.

Still, the catalog makes for some downtime browsing. Here are seven randomly chosen entries, by category:


The Mammoth Book of Tattoos. Ed. by Lal Hardy. Brings together 80 leading tattoo artists from the US, UK, and Europe who have made a name in body art. Over 500 photographs of tattoos cover the full range of styles, including new work made possible only by recent advances in the medium. Includes work from George Bone, Tim Kern, Kim Saigh, and others. Full illus in color. 447 pages. Running Press. Paperbound. Pub. at $18., $12.95.

Birds & Butterflies: Painter's Quick Reference.  By the eds. of North Light Books. This easy to use reference features over 40 step by step demonstrations for painting beautiful bu…

R.I.P., Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun died last week, just a month short of his 105th birthday.

I've written of Barzun before: here for example, and here.

I had the honor of a long, though epistolatory, friendship with Prof. Barzun, and it now seems incumbent upon me to donate his letters to some appropriate scholarly repository. I do think that some of this correspondence will help shed some light on his thought, for future researchers.

I'm certain that his reputation is bound to grow over the coming decades. Perhaps the definitive biographer, the one who can do for Barzun what Barzun did for Hector Berlioz, is still 81 years away. Berlioz, after all, died in 1869, and Barzun's two-volume work on his life and times appeared in 1950.

And it did so in no small part because Barzun heard Berlioz's "Ballet of the Sylphs" performed when he was only four or five years, a memory that never left him.

Perhaps we can best pay tribute to Barzun in his passing with some words he wrote of &…

Krugman & Gould, Conclusion

Taleb (above)  also, on October 19th, put his response to Krugman's dissing of Gould in twitter form: "How econ models fragilize (or how Krugman blames others yet does not understand much risk & economics)."

Daniel Davies then took up the twittering cudgels on behalf of Krugman, telling Taleb "your stuff always has one or two things in in that just can't be stood up."

Tweet fight! A wonky tweet fight about economic and evolutionary theory, but a tweet fight still. It came to my attention through Salmon's column, here.

And with that, I have said most of what I want to say on all this, except for three points: who is Daniel Davies?  how much of a Ricardian is Krugman really? and, where do I stand on the underlying Krugman/Taleb debate over trade?

1. Davies? I don't know.  His twitter account has nearly 3,000 followers, though.

2. Krugman and Ricardo. Here I admit my earlier reference was rather slighting. I said Friday that Krugman accepts Ri…

Krugman & Gould, II


How has Taleb made his name?

Look at the above graph. The blue line represents a normal or Gaussian distribution, also known as the "bell curve." Events on the far right or ar left side of that line, where the blue is approaching zero along the X axis, are sometimes call hundred-year storms.

If we think of this in a finance/business context, the blue line may represent what a certain business thinks are its profits for the coming year. The tip of the bell represents the most likely result (a modest profit in line with that of most of its competitors, perhaps.) Toward the right end of the curve you get to ever higher but more unlikely profits, to the left you get losses, and then ever larger losses, though here too the fall-off in the line toward the zerobase of the X axis implies that certain disastrous results are very unlikely.

But what if probabilities in finance don't have a normal outcome distribution? If you draw a flattened curve with "fat ta…