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Showing posts from January, 2013

Annual Dilbert Post

Scott Adams, the cartoonist who created Dilbert, likes to say that there are only nine news stories, constantly re-written.

Every year at this time I check recent stories with his list in mind to see if he is right. I'll start with his wording unmodified by examples.










I did the research for what follows a couple of weeks ago, in mid-January. I'm too lazy to do the updating -- feel free to play along yourself if you like. But the point stands, these stories are the same ones that are in all the papers all the time. I'll try for some geographical diversity as we go along.

1. Extreme weather?

Cold weather snap in S…

The Establishment Clause: One Simple Point

The first amendment to the US Constitution begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...."

Notice that it does not say "Congress shall not establish a religion." It says "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." I make this observation because in my experience people defending, say, laws that put a depiction of two tablets with ten commandments on them in public places are apt to ask, "What religion does it establish?'

Their point apparently is that the event to which such art makes allusion is important to at least three world religions, thus the depiction thereof in a courtroom is not an "establishment" of any of those religions, thus it is not a violation of the establishment clause.

I attempt to point out, when I encounter such a feint, that the language quoted above doesn't merely prohibit Congress from establishing a religion. It prohibits laws respecting an establishment…

Early Modern Europe and Disreputable Numbers

From yesterday's ancients we skip forward quickly (due to my ignorance and subjectivity, as well as the demands of my broader points) to the early modern era in Europe, specifically to a publication by a fellow named Rafael Bombelli, (pictured above) of the city-state of Bologna, in AD 1572.

Negative numbers were still new in Europe then, but the more advanced thinkers, including Bombelli, had a handle on that. By way of review: multiplying two negative numbers yields a positive. Multiplying a negative and a positive yields a negative, multiplying two positives yields a positive.
One consequence of these rules is that there are no square roots of negative numbers. No rational square roots and no irrational square roots either. No square roots of any level of rationality for negative numbers. Why? Because if you had a square root for a negative number then, by definition, you would have a situation in which the multiplication of that number by itself would yield that negative numbe…

Still Thinking About Numbers

As I mentioned in a blog entry last week, the value of pi slips away from you if you try to state it as a simple fraction, even in a good try such as 22/7.  If we represent numbers in decimal rather than fractional form we can express the strangeness of pi, its irrationality, in a different way. We can turn any simple fraction into one of three sorts of number: a simple integer, an integer followed by a string of decimals that comes to a definite end, or an integer followed by the string of decimals that doesn’t come to an end but that settles down into satisfyingly dull repetition.

Here are some simple fractions: 9/3, 11/4, and the aforementioned 22/7.
The first, 9/3, resolves itself into the integer 3.
11/4 is 2 ¾, or in decimal form 2.75. That is where it terminates.
22/7 is 3 1/7 or in decimal form 3.142857142857.... It is a repeating decimal. That is: the sequence "142857" will continue repeating for as long as you have the patience to continue the long division. Simple …

Don Dwyer and Child Endangerment

Really, dude?  Your dismay over the victory of the gay lobby in the marriage equality bill is what made you get drunk and pilot a boat so distractedly that you fractured the skull of a five year old girl?

That's your excuse and you're sticking to it.

Oh, well then, consider this unpleasantness forgiven.

After all, surely any ordinary person (whatever his sexual orientation or opinions thereon) whose carelessness under the influence caused a fracture in a child's skull would be treated quite leniently by our court system.


Thinking about numbers

What are numbers? Are some numbers more real than others? More rational? Just … better?
No, of course not! You reply. It is absurd to make a moral or quasi-moral judgment about or classification of numbers. Numbers are just … numbers.Numbers are simply sums or aggregates. Each is a very short way of saying something about a collection of things, events, or people, as in the perfectly comprehensible sentence, "a number of people were hurt in the accident." There is no need to make heavy water out of this.
But then, why do categories of numbers have the strange and sometimes stigmatizing names they do? Some numbers are called “irrational,” in contrast to the “rational.” Others are called “imaginary,” in contrast to the “real.” What is irrational about the former or unreal about the latter?
It is a tricky question. But it is worth unravelling this knot. It is worth so even if you took no pleasure in mathematics at school, or since, and even if you are content in an occupation th…

Obama is not Carter. Understood.

Now that we are coming up on the second inauguration of Barack Obama I might as well say this: I'm still trying to get a fix on why I was wrong about the last election.

I have long harbored two (strictly inconsistent) theories about the cycles in American politics. One was the Schlesinger theory, according to which politics in the US, especially at the Presidential level, works in roughly 30 year cycles. Since 30 is not divisible by four this, as observed in Presidential election results, required a periodicity of either 28 or 32 years.

At any rate, according to the theory of Schlesinger cycles, Obama had to be another Jimmy Carter. After all: 1976 + 32 = 2008.

Carter himself on this view was Harry Truman. 1948 + 28 = 1976.

Truman only served one term (in his own right) and Carter only served one term (without qualification). So, if Schlesinger cycles were in operation, Obama would only serve one term.

During this election cycle, when the opportunity to predict the outcome c…

Not a Discussion of Gun Control

The gun control argument has heated up again, and this time a certain quote said to be from Thomas Jefferson is in wide circulation. This gives me another chance for pedantic digressiveness, my default mode of evasion these days.

The quote getting wide circulation is this: "When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government."

Now: did Jefferson actually say that? One can't prove a negative, but it surely smells like a misattribution. It also sounds like a rip-off of the movie V for Vendetta, but let's leave that aside and stick with the founders.

The Monticello website checked into this, here.

Part of the confusion (as appears in the footnotes to the Monticello-site essay) may be that, especially overseas, there is no clarity about Jefferson's role in our foun…

First jazz concert at a certain locale

The first jazz concert ever performed at Carnegie Hall in New York took place 75 years ago today.

Jazz had become sufficiently mainstream -- at least in its big band form -- by January 17, 1938 to make this possible.

A moment of silence, then, for Benny Goodman and his orchestra.

As for the best way to get to Carnegie Hall, it is what it has always been.

Practice, practice, practice.

David Denby

Here's a quote from film critic David Denby, writing recently in The New Yorker about the movie Zero Dark Thirty:

"The raid begins with beautiful shots of Black Hawk helicopters taking off at night, silhouetted against a few brilliant lights. The journey across the mountains from the base in Afghanistan to western Pakistan is conducted in darkness and quiet, like a sacred ritual. The SEALs are older and beefier than you expect -- bigmen in their late thirties who nonetheless move smoothly, as if their legs were on finely calibrated springs."

Aestheticizing violence -- especially mechanized, contemporary, violence in this way makes me quite uncomfortable. I suppose Hollywood might next do a movie about the 'Batman' movie-theater kills and we might be told how the gunman silhouetted against the light from the screen in front of the room made for a striking visual.

A bit later, Denby is calling the movie "an example of radical realism [with] its mysteries as…

Litigation and the Pareto principle

A little more than a century ago, Italian social scientist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 80 percent of the land in Italy was the property of 20 percent of the population. Furthermore, this 80/20 relationship works fractally: that is, 80 percent of the land within that 80 percent (64 percent of the land in Italy) was the property of 20 percent of that 20 percent (4 percent).

It was a Romanian-American business consultant, Joseph Juran, pictured to the left, who generalized this to the principle of "the vital few." Twenty percent of the causes are generally responsible for 80 percent of the effects; your 20 percent most enthusiastic or wealthiest customers will buy 80 percent of your product, and so forth, he wrote in the middle of the last century.

The Pareto principle, in its post-Juran form, has obvious affinities with fractal geometry. The 80/20 pattern keeps recurring the further down you dig.

I'm beginning to suspect the principle applies in the world of litigation…

Sybil Exposed II

Continuing my discussion of Debbie Nathan's book....

As I wrote in yesterday's entry, the book chronicles the lives and interaction of three women -- a patient, a psychiatrist, and a journalist -- together responsible for the Sybil phenomenon and the resulting wave of interest in multiple personalities.

I'll write today mostly about the journalist, Flora Schreiber.

Her first publishing niche

She had a freelancing niche in the late 1950s and early 1960s writing for women's magazines about the women in the lives of politically powerful men. In June 1960, for example, Good Housekeeping published an article of her's titled, "Richard Nixon: A Mother's Story." The mother of course was Hannah Nixon, and Schreiber had gotten permission from the people around the Vice President, and from Hannah, to follow Hannah around, taking notes on her day and copying down the pearls of wisdom that fell from her mouth.  Such as her boy's favorite dessert -- cherry pie…

Sybil Exposed I

My recent reading includes SYBIL EXPOSED: The Extraordinary Story Behind the Famous Multiple Personality Case (2011) by Debbie Nathan.

The gist of the book is that psychotherapy is the disease it affects to cure.

Here's a key passage, describing the condition of Shirley Mason, the real life analog to the woman we all think we know as 'Sybil,' as of 1958.

 "Almost four years had passed since Shirley first walked into Connie's office as an upbeat graduate student with nagging but bearable emotional problems. Now, after hundreds of hours of therapy and countless pills, shots, and machine-induced convulsions, she was a thirty-five-year-old junkie who spent most of her time in bed and who, when she did get up, checked her mail box for money from her father, or walked the streets muttering to herself."

The Connie in question is Cornelia Wilbur, a psychiatrist whose training was steeped in a very strict Freudian orthodoxy, including a firm belief in "schiz…

Bonds versus Banks

Two stories in the Wall Street Journal on December 27, 2012 reminded me of an issue I had avoided in the course of my last book, an issue I mean to address in my next one.

Near the end of GAMBLING WITH BORROWED CHIPS I wrote, "There are many fascinating and important matters that I have not even had the opportunity to mention....There is, for example, the question of bank financing versus exchange-based financing."

I then mentioned the theory of Joseph Studwell, expressed in his book ASIAN GODFATHERS, that the economies of southeast Asia suffer from an exclusive reliance on bank financing. Corporations report consistently disappointing earnings, due to the "perverse curse of high savings rates and bloated banks."

But then I moved on, to a final "confession of inconclusiveness" and a technical appendix.

In a future book, I will have to address Studwell's point.

Two stories in today's WSJ will help.I'll just give the bibliographic data for e…

My four 2013 calenders

For my week-by-week desk calender through 2013, I will rely on an unflashy but serviceable volume from American Express. As with last year's Amex calender, there are factual tidbits on each page about various destinations where I can presumably enjoy a debt-financed vacation with my Amex card. One of the early pages tells me, for example, with reference to the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, that their "rich diversity" is reflected in several traditional dances, which it proceeds to list (but I won't.)

While the Seychelles get January, the city of Marseille in France gets February, with an early reference to its use in the 1970s as the seedy setting of a great movie, The French Connection. But the city, we are assured, has come a long way since then.

Separately, I have two month-by-month calenders for the coming year, For my office, I have one from Amber Lotus Publishing, providing me with fractal art. Artist Alice Kelley creates these images through a computer p…

Fergus M. Bordewich

Bordewich is the author of AMERICA'S GREAT DEBATE, a book Simon & Schuster brought out last year on the legislative compromise of 1850 that kept the United States together for a final decade.

I enjoyed the following observation, from the preface:

"Something else intrigued me, too, the more I read through the records of the debate itself: never did American politicians speak to the nation more honestly, more persuasively, more provocatively, and more passionately, in language that was often so splendid that it nearly reached the level of poetry. The poll-tested, spin-doctored, shoddily argued, and grammatically challenged 'messaging' that today passes for political communication is pathetic and often incoherent by comparison. It can be no surprise that many Americans have lost interest in politicians who have forgotten how much can be accomplished by the persuasive power of well-crafted English."


I made five Resolutions last year. I have kept, let us say, 2.5.

The resolutions were these:

1. Get my car through December 2012 in good working order. I'm happy to report that the car is doing fine.

2. Make an entrepreneurial investment. Did absolutely nothing in this line. Oops.

3. There was a computer-tech related resolution concerning entry into the 21st century. I'm giving myself half a point for this one. I have gotten Skype and and did get the audio problem resolved, but I'm still not comfortable scanning and can't work the printer due to some software problem.

4. My book did come out early this year, but sales fell far short of where I had resolved they would be, so this one counts as a Fail.

5. Venture outside the borders of the US. Success! I did get to London for the Trading Technology conference.

So, counting (1) and (5) as full successes, and   (3) as a half success, I get my 2.5 score.  Well ... I've had worse years.

For the year 2013, let's t…