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Showing posts from December, 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 Greece might have withdrawn and started printing drachmas.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…