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Showing posts from April, 2014

Canon Formation II

I'm continuing my discussion of Satlow's book, from yesterday's blog entry.

"The father of Hellenistic ethnography was Hecataeus of Abdera. A Greek working for Alexander's general and successor, Ptolemy I Soter (367-283 BCE), Hecataeus wrote a comprehensive account of the Egyptians....Hecataeus's Aegyptiaca influenced generations of later Greek ethnographers. Aegyptiaca contains an excursus on the Judeans, whom he identified as a distinct polity centered in Jerusalem ("Hieroslyma") and ruled primarily by priests."

Hecataeus was interested in the "politeia" of the Judeans. This Greek word, sometimes transliterated "politics" or translated "constitution" is wider than either of those terms. It means, "the social system" or "the laws" if that term is quite broadly understood.

A little later, Satlow tells us that Hecataeus was "aware of, and maybe consulted, a written source that he believed …

Canon Formation I

My recent reading includes HOW THE BIBLE BECAME HOLY by Michael L. Satlow.

Satlow is a professor at Brown University (portrayed above) and according to a Guggenheim Fellowship awarded him in 2007 his work focuses on "Jewish piety in late antiquity."

In his introduction to this book he says that he first tried to read the bible (or what Christians would call the Old Testament) when he was 13, soon after receiving a 2-volume translation for his bar mitzvah. He had trouble getting very far beyond the early account of creation, sin, sex, and murder. Beyond that, there are lists of who begat whom, detailed descriptions of buildings, and the repetition of stories with odd variations. It can all become "boring and weird."
Yet it did get the young Satlow's mind started on the issue of canon formation: how did these books become "the bible," included as parts in one divinely inspired whole.
Much in his account turns on the struggle between Pharisees and Sa…

Unhelpful Information

Streetwise Professor, the blogging persona of Craig Pirrong, recently jumped into the fray regarding  high frequency trading. Find his comments here.

Unless you've been following the HFT debates carefully already, the opening grafs there might put you off. Pirrong is positioning himself relative to a range of other commenters, Stiglitz, Salmon, DeLong especially.

I'll cut to the chase for you. One of the issues created by the existence of HFT --and by the related fact that it is impossible for everybody to be equally fast or equally sophisticated in their algorithms, so there is an arm's race and a have/havenot split -- one of the issues is whether this circumstance discourages the gathering of information.

Joe Trader might well believe in making decisions the old-fashioned way -- studying up on the corporation issuing certain stocks and bonds, looking at such factors as the competitive pressure in that corporation's product lines, considering the ratio of book valu…

Apocalyptic Speculation

My cheery thought for the day: what is the most likely civilization-ending disaster?

Something that one can with some plausibility imagine as taking place over the next, say, 50 years.

My own guess (and I eagerly await yours, dear equally-cheerful readership):

Something akin to the German hyperinflation of 1923 gone worldwide., Money -- ANY money, becomes useless and the only real way to do business left is through barter. But money is a very useful thing, and without it, the resources of the earth cannot accommodate the human population on face of same.

Urbanized people don't have anything much to barter once they run out of the family silver, they can only bargain their labor power. With money and so with payrolls gone this means that most of those who don't starve barter themselves into serfdom for shelter and food. 

Scary enough for the day?

After Earth

I only recently saw AFTER EARTH, a big-budget movie from last year that went nowhere at the box office.

Rotten Tomatoes called it "a dull, ploddingly paced exercise in sci-fi."

It had some heavy-duty talent: Will Smith both produced and starred, Night Shyamalan directed. And it had an engaging premise: in some distant future the human race has abandoned Earth and the various creatures of the planet are now intensely hostile to humans, two of whom (father and son) nonetheless survive a crash-landing there and must somehow manage to get a distress beacon working while evading various monsters.

Will Smith is credited with the story idea. Shyamalan and Gary Whitta then apparently co-wrote a screenplay from that idea. Anna Rane and Hilary Momberger get credit as "script supervisors."

Personally I enjoyed it. But I'll only comment today on the Moby Dick theme. This ran throughout the movie. Almost the first words spoken are a father/son exchange on that novel.


Insider Trading: The Early Years

From a recent book by Howard Blum: Dark Invasion (2014).

Ever since the 1880s, when Kansas City undertaker Almon Strowger invented what became known as the Strowger switch, it had become easy to listen in on a telephone call. Strowger's circuit-switched system, an ingenious electromagnetic contraption that clicked and clacked noisily like a telegraph key, did the operator's work. The Strowger switch automatically connected the relays and slides at the central telephone offices, completing the circuit that allowed people to talk to each other. Twist another wire around the right switch at the central office and a party line was created: you could hear someone's conversation and he'd never know it....It didn't take long for Wall Street speculators to realize fortunes could be made with the sort of inside information collected by eavesdropping on telephone conversations....

The Interest of History

A neat quote form Hugh Trevor-Roper,  author of THE LAST DAYS OF HITLER (1947):

"The interest of history lies not in its periods but in its problems."

Connecticut's casinos

Indian tribes have a monopoly on running casinos in the State of Connecticut.

The following comes from memory: I'm way too lazy to look it up.

Anyway, the monopoly came about several years ago [;ate 1980s?], and almost accidentally. The state legislature passed a bill that was designed to give non-profit organizations the opportunity to use "Vegas nights" as a fund-raising ploy. The bill was universally understood as referring to transitory activities, not a permanent year-round activity.

But after that bill became law, a federal judge interpreted it -- apparently in conjunction with a federal statute -- as giving the tribes a right to open year-round casinos, so long as the casinos didn't include slot machines (the one game of chance that hadn't been included in the original state law).

The Mashantucket Pequots (whose tribal symbol is shown above) created their no-slots casino at once. It was Foxwoods, a reference to said tribal iconology: and a big hit: big…

Link Farming on High-Frequency Trading

My erudite readers are surely aware by now that Michael Lewis has a new book out, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. It concerns high-frequency trading (HFT), especially as used as part of a process of scalping, or lawful front-running.

Here's the amazon page.

CNBC has on Lewis, and Brad Katsuyama, a man flatteringly profiled in his book, as well as one of the bad guys in the book's story, William O'Brien of BATS. They looked like they were about to start punching each other now and then. If you haven't seen it: here it is.

Felix Salmon has reviewed the book for Slate,here.

But Salmon was writing about the book before he wrote that piece, even (by his own admission) before he had finished it. Salmon, and many other people at that stage of the brouhaha, were reacting as much or more to the 60 Minutes roll-out of the book as to the book itself.

For the informed reactions of Ginger Szala, a veteran financial markets reporter, go here.

And for my own reaction: here.


The New "Cosmos"

Neil DeGrasse Tyson is the astronomer who is now explaining the "Cosmos" to the lay audience in the revived television series of that name.

Ah, the fond memories that name brings back. Of the original Carl Sagan series, I mean of course, which in 1980 became the most widely watched television series in the history of US public television.

Sagan's Cosmos also coincided with something called Battle of the Network Stars, the sort of thing that today would be called "reality programming." It was a series of sporting or pseudo-sporting events involving established personalities. In the 1980 season, the ABC team included Scott Baio, CBS's team included Gregory Harrison, and NBC's, Pamela Helmsley. If those don't sound like top tier stars to you: the feeling is natural. These were TV personalities who could use the additional exposure that the silly games would get them.

All of this is simply an excuse to go a little further down memory lane and recall …

Shakespeare's Montaigne

The April issue of Harper's includes a review of a book by Stephen Greenblatt and Peter Platt, Shakespeare's Montaigne.

Joshua Cohen, writing the review, calls it "a crash course in Elizabethan lit, a multi-culti study of the development of English and, above all, a revisionist biography of a monumental dramatist who not only cribbed the classical education he lacked but also responded to his sources with a fierce and censorious intelligence."

So the working hypothesis of the study is that Shakespeare got his classical education second-hand, largely by reading Montaigne, and that he was at the same time willing to bite the hand that fed him some good material.

For example, in his essay "Of the Cannibals," Montaigne sentimentalizes the just discovered people of the Americas, seeing them as peaceful anarchists. He writes that they:

hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politic superiority;…

Farage/Clegg Debate

In our Mother Country, Nigel Farage has been debating Nick Clegg of late.

The most recent, the one that has me paying attention now, was the one on Wednesday, April 2, 2014.

For my fellow Americans, who only rarely tune into matters on the other sides of oceans -- it is worth your while paying attention to this.

Talking myself through it now ... Farange (that's his picture above)  is the leader of the UKIP, or the Independence Party, which wants to quit the EU altogether and reduce immigration. Clegg is head of the Liberal Democratic party, which is in coalition with the (larger) Conservative Party in the present government. Clegg also has the title Deputy Prime Minister.

The aforesaid CP hasn't been taking part in these exchanges. Neither has the other Major Party, Labour. Its a little bit as if, in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt had debated Eugene Debs, leaving both the incumbent president (Taft) and the major party challenger (Wilson) out of the exchange. well ... not much li…

Dilbert and Cold Fusion II

Continuing yesterday's thoughts.

Back in 1989, two chemists claimed to have created a simple table top apparatus that would work at room temperatures and that would create excess energy in amounts that, the chemists contended, had no explanation other than the incredible one: atoms were fusing.

The scientists were: Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann. They were both sufficiently distinguished that the claim could not be dismissed lightly. Pons had a Ph.D. from the University of Southampton; Fleischmann from the Imperial College, London. That's Fleischmann in the photo that goes with this text, holding part of the apparatus, which was a little more complicated than Dogbert's.

Their claims set off a frenzy of speculation about what this would mean. Some thought it would be bad news -- that the human race could not be trusted with the prospect of unlimited energy this implied. The more usual view was that this was great good news -- an apparently insatiable hunger would at…

Dilbert and Cold Fusion I

A couple of classic DILBERT strips spoke to the long-ago fuss over cold fusion.

At the center of thee strips is Dilbert's dog, who is a confidence artist, always scheming to separate  dopes, at Dilbert's work place and elsewhere, from their money.

In the first of the two strips I have in mind, Dogbert is showing Dilbert the invention involved in his latest plan, a shining glass jar.

"I'm ready to hold a press conference to introduce my cold fusion breakthrough."

Dilbert responds, "All you did is put a light bulb in a jar. I can see the wires plugged into the outlet."

"I considered using a jar with frosted glass, but it seemed like overkill."

"You have a low opinion of people."

In the second strip, the plan has gotten to the next phase. There is a reporter and a cameraman standing in front of the table where Dogbert's apparatus is set up.

D: "As you clearly see, I have created cold fusion."

C: "That's not …