Friday, October 31, 2014

My father smoked a pipe

To my great delight, Penguin is rereleasing all the Georges Simenon Maigret mysteries, some 75 in number. Simenon was extraordinarily prolific, having written some 400 books in his lifetime, of which the Maigret series were but a subset. Jake Kerridge discusses the series in In praise of Georges Simenon's French detective.

I came across Simenon in a used bookstore some time in the past five years and have read perhaps a dozen since my first discovery. My enjoyment has been, I think, primarily due to Simenon's beautifully effective descriptions of ephemera; the rain on a particular Parisian autumn day, something about someone's clothing, a smell in a restaurant. I also enjoy the little insights to how things used to be back in 1930's France.

I have so far purchased the first two books in the series, Pietr the Latvian and The Late Monsieur Gallet, the first and third in the series.

In the first, Pietr the Latvian, the writing is a little rougher than it will become and there is more focus on Maigret and his physical attributes than will be the case later. By the third book, The Late Monsieur Gallet, Simenon has hit the stride and style that will be familiar through the rest of the series.

Here are some passages that caught my attention from Pietr the Latvian. First an example of Simenon's eye for the ephemeral detail.
The gurgle from Maigret's pipe was getting so annoying that the inspector took a swatch of chicken feathers from another drawer, cleaned the shaft, then opened the stove door and flung the soiled feathers in the fire.
My father smoked a pipe. It was occasionally my job to clean the stems/shafts of his pipe collection. It was fascinating. The dark, sticky tar residue in the stem, the acrid odor. I used a pipe cleaner for the task. My father always had packs of pipe cleaners, perhaps eight inches long, a soft fuzzy clothlike substance covering a bendy wire. On rainy days we occasionally took out a pack and made wire animal forms, planes, cars or whatever else caught our imagination, bending them in to shape, twisting them together to make longer lengths.

It never occurred to me to wonder what pipe smokers used to clean pipes before there were pipe cleaners. Chicken feathers make perfect sense.

And then there's this complex description with details not normally noticed or recorded but also delivered in a fashion that wouldn't pass muster today.
Maigret was looking without thinking at Anna Gorskin's ankles and noticed that, as her mother feared, the young woman already had dropsy. He scalp was visible through her thinning hair, which was in a mess. Her black dress was dirty. And there was a distinct shadow on her upper lip.

All the same she was a good-looking woman, in a common, feral way.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Painting is silent poetry, and poetry painting that speaks

Simonides of Ceos, quoted by Plutarch, De gloria Atheniensium 3.346f.
Painting is silent poetry, and poetry painting that speaks.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Not so many critical theorists and moral relativists back then

From The River War by Winston Churchill. First published in 1899 (his second book), this is an account of the reconquest of Sudan during the Mahdi War. As usual, Churchill's language and rendering are muscular and kinetic. Agree or not, he forces you to engage with his argument. Despite being more than a century old, his argument echoes today though in more circumloquacious fashion, with greater delicacy, and greater obfuscation. The facts have not changed all that much but the interpretation remains contested. Perhaps there are fewer willing to take on faith that which Churchill clearly does - that on balance the gift of the mindset of the Enlightenment has been beneficial over time and worldwide. Not so many critical theorists and moral relativists back then.
How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property - either as a child, a wife, or a concubine - must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen; all know how to die; but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science - the science against which it had vainly struggled - the civilization of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilization of ancient Rome.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Ms. Boxill is now director of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics

From Did Wainstein Report Whitewash High-Level Culprits In UNC Cheating Scandal? by James Marshall Crotty.

The article is about the horrible scandal at UNC Chapel Hill documented in a recent report covering the University's pervasive and sustained cheating in order to maintain academically failing athletes in sports teams generating revenue for the University. This is one of those scandals where everyone up the chain ought to be resigning, but because it is academia, and just as in government, a few local cronies will be thrown under the bus and all the rest remain in their sinecures.

It is hard to even begin to comprehend the ethical depravity of those leading our premier universities but this particular example provides some sense of how deep is the rot.
However, one group did know plenty about the scheme and actively tried to protect and preserve it. Paid counselors in the school’s Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes (ASPSA) were tasked with doing whatever it took to keep Tar Heel athletes eligible, especially those in “revenue” sports like football and basketball. To that end, these counselors not only “steered” athletes to the AFAM department and did homework for them, but they regularly alerted Crowder and Nyang’oro about the grades that each student-athlete required in order to “remain academically or athletically eligible.”

In one galling email exchange from September 23, 2008 — reported in the New York Times – Jeanette Boxill, then academic counselor for the UNC women’s basketball team, wrote the following to Crowder:

“Hi Debby,

Yes, a D will be fine; that’s all she needs. I didn’t look at the paper but figured it was a recycled one as well, but I couldn’t figure from where!

Thanks for whatever you can do.”

Ms. Boxill is now director of UNC’s Parr Center for Ethics.
Truly astounding.

Authors and publishers are much less diversified in their interests than are readers

An interesting comment on the war between Amazon and Hachette from Tyler Cowen in What is the welfare cost of Amazon supply restrictions on books?

Cowen is approaching this from an economic theory perspective and trying to reconcile empirical evidence with economic theory. Does it matter to the consumer that a major, but dominant, retailer is boycotting a particular publisher, particularly when the switching costs are close to zero?

The answer is unclear but this conclusion was attention getting.
It is fine to argue that Amazon is being unfair to some authors and to object on ethical grounds. The economist also should add that readers don’t seem to mind very much. Most of the objections I am seeing are coming from authors and publishers, who of course in this sector are much less diversified in their interests than are readers.
Most of the forums to which I belong related to children's books are dominated by critics, authors, publishers and social justice advocates. It has long struck me how divergent are their interests to the interests of parents seeking good books for their children.

But Cowen's observation is an interesting additional insight. Publishers and authors have interests that are not only different from parents but also, in certain respects, interests which are much less diverse.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Atlantic City as a warning to all those who still refuse to learn

When I returned from overseas as a teenager, to get back into the American education system, I attended a prep school in New Jersey in the late 1970's. There was some ballot measure being put before the electorate at that time related to gambling in Atlantic City. I recall a conversation with a Professor Jackson in which he identified the benefits of such an action. These included an influx of investment, the rehabilitation of existing urban infrastructure, a catalyst for sustained economic growth and other blandishments.

But Professor Jackson was an honest man and he was more concerned about the downside than the possible, but not guaranteed, upsides: corruption, regulatory capture, escalating demands for additional subsidies, throwing good money after bad, failure once the subsidies went away, probability of not delivering on the commitments being made by developers, etc.

It looks like Professor Jackson was prescient those nearly forty years ago according to this sad post mortem, Detroit With a Boardwalk: Why Atlantic City is dying by George Anastasia.
Today, the city itself is in critical condition and the words of the former mayor could serve as its obituary. Greed has done Atlantic City in.

Four of its 12 casinos have closed in the last year, including the Revel, the newest and glitziest, despite a $260 million, taxpayer-funded gift courtesy of Gov. Chris Christie. A fifth, the Trump Taj Mahal, is on the brink. The gaming industry—proponents never call it gambling—has lost nearly 8,000 jobs since the beginning of the year and its revenue, which hit a high of $5.2 billion in 2006, is down nearly 50 percent. Add to that the city’s $65 million budget shortfall, pending layoffs of as many as 300 city workers and a tax base in free fall.

Sure, the still-sluggish U.S. economy is a factor. The loss of the East Coast gambling monopoly that Atlantic City enjoyed for nearly 20 years is another. Poor planning, lack of foresight and the failure to expand the city’s attractions beyond casinos are part of the mix. Even acts of God played a role: Though the city wasn’t devastated in 2012 by Hurricane Sandy the way other Jersey Shore towns were, tourism plunged in the immediate aftermath at a time when the city could least afford it.

But there is something else at play, something in the city’s DNA that is painfully obvious to anyone who’s lived or worked there.

Even during its halcyon days, Atlantic City was an enterprise built around blue smoke and mirrors.
Read the whole thing. All the ills Professor Jackson forecast are on display: corruption, regulatory capture, escalating special pleading, etc.

But it is not just Atlantic City, though they are probably one of the type specimens. Everyone, including voters, wants something for nothing. Politicians are there to figure out how to appear to provide something for nothing and how to hide the real costs. It is always about stealing from the future (bonds that won't be easily repaid), stealing from the present (displacing some residents to benefit others), regulatory capture and rent seeking and just plain old fashioned fraud and corruption.

The history of such projects is almost uniformly dismal with just enough occasional successes to keep politicians coming back for more. Hope springs eternal for those seeking to relieve the productive citizenry of their earnings through coercive confiscation and taxation.

The city in which I live is rife with significant municipal projects characterized by shaky finances and dubious prospects: hundreds of millions being spent on a rails-to-trails conversion that is already coming apart at the financial seams, a wasteful downtown streetcar of some hundreds of millions for a 1.8 mile run in an area where few people visit, and a football stadium subsidized by citizens taxes, being built at the same time that the baseball franchise has fled the city owing to financial exploitation by the city.

We keep proving that these white elephant projects don't deliver on their promises, but putting all that taxpayer money in a municipal "development fund" bucket is just too tempting to stop.

Every successful system accumulates parasites.

From Thomas Ray
Every successful system accumulates parasites.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Lucas's Critique as an appeal to authority

Interesting: The Lucas critique from Wikipedia.
Robert Lucas' work on macroeconomic policymaking, argues that it is naive to try to predict the effects of a change in economic policy entirely on the basis of relationships observed in historical data, especially highly aggregated historical data.

The basic idea pre-dates Lucas' contribution (related ideas are expressed as Campbell's Law and Goodhart's Law), but in a 1976 paper, Lucas drove to the point that this simple notion invalidated policy advice based on conclusions drawn from large-scale macroeconometric models. Because the parameters of those models were not structural, i.e. not policy-invariant, they would necessarily change whenever policy (the rules of the game) was changed. Policy conclusions based on those models would therefore potentially be misleading. This argument called into question the prevailing large-scale econometric models that lacked foundations in dynamic economic theory. Lucas summarized his critique:
"Given that the structure of an econometric model consists of optimal decision rules of economic agents, and that optimal decision rules vary systematically with changes in the structure of series relevant to the decision maker, it follows that any change in policy will systematically alter the structure of econometric models."
The Lucas critique is, in essence, a negative result. It tells economists, primarily, how not to do economic analysis. The Lucas critique suggests that if we want to predict the effect of a policy experiment, we should model the "deep parameters" (relating to preferences, technology, and resource constraints) that are assumed to govern individual behavior: so-called "microfoundations." If these models can account for observed empirical regularities, we can then predict what individuals will do, taking into account the change in policy, and then aggregate the individual decisions to calculate the macroeconomic effects of the policy change.
Somewhat similar to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle - You want to know two things accurately but have to choose between them.

Lucas' Critique also highlights a related issue. Or rather, there is a logical argument that describes this model of forecasting - the appeal to authority (example - Einstein said XYZ therefore it must be true). How often are forecasts essentially an appeal to historical authority. It's as if we were saying: I don't know why this happened in the past but it happened under these circumstances and I think it will happen again. That forecast may end up being accidentally true but it has no modelling integrity. If you don't understand root causes and causal relationships, your forecast is predicated on a lucky repetition of history.

The downside of the free market? It gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want.

Danger, Danger! Wikiquote patch ahead. I needed to check a quote of Milton Friedman's which took me to the Wikiquote page. Friedman is particularly dangerous because he was such a wonderful wordsmith with such a knack for translating complex ideas into accessible statements of eminent common sense. The quote I was seeking was:
A major source of objection to a free economy is precisely that it ... gives people what they want instead of what a particular group thinks they ought to want. Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.
- Ch. 1 "The Relation Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom", 2002 edition, page 15 in Capitalism and Freedom
But you can't stop there. Or at least I can't. Here are some other selections.
The existence of a free market does not of course eliminate the need for government. On the contrary, government is essential both as a forum for determining the "rule of the game" and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on.
- Ch. 1 "The Relation Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom", 2002 edition, page 15 in Capitalism and Freedom


Fundamentally, there are only two ways of coordinating the economic activities of millions. One is central direction involving the use of coercion—the technique of the army and of the modern totalitarian state. The other is voluntary co-operation of individuals—the technique of the market place.
- Ch. 1 "The Relation Between Economic Freedom and Political Freedom" in Capitalism and Freedom


The key insight of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations is misleadingly simple: if an exchange between two parties is voluntary, it will not take place unless both believe they will benefit from it. Most economic fallacies derive from the neglect of this simple insight, from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.
- Ch. 1 "The Power of the Market", page 13 of Free to Choose


The proper role of government is exactly what John Stuart Mill said in the middle of the 19th century in On Liberty. The proper role of government is to prevent other people from harming an individual. Government, he said, never has any right to interfere with an individual for that individual's own good.
- America's Drug Forum Interview


The way you solve things is by making it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing.


The problem in this world is to avoid concentration of power - we must have a dispersion of power.


One of the great mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.


Society doesn't have values. People have values.


The society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither. The society that puts freedom before equality will end up with a great measure of both.


There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government. And that’s close to 40% of our national income.


Keynes was a great economist. In every discipline, progress comes from people who make hypotheses, most of which turn out to be wrong, but all of which ultimately point to the right answer. Now Keynes, in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, set forth a hypothesis which was a beautiful one, and it really altered the shape of economics. But it turned out that it was a wrong hypothesis. That doesn't mean that he wasn't a great man!


There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.


Political freedom means the absence of coercion of a man by his fellow men. The fundamental threat to freedom is power to coerce, be it in the hands of a monarch, a dictator, an oligarchy, or a momentary majority. The preservation of freedom requires the elimination of such concentration of power to the fullest possible extent and the dispersal and distribution of whatever power cannot be eliminated — a system of checks and balances.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

From criticism to censorship is a dangerously short road

Clickbaiting has gone mainstream in the vanishing mainstream media. The Washington Post has a relatively dense but narcoleptic piece from Alyssa Rosenberg, The culture wars are back, and this time, everyone can win. It is so substance free it is hardly worth commenting on, though the commenters themselves actually add some substance and humor.

Rosenberg's thesis is something along the lines of:
People believe media (plays, poems, books, songs, newspapers, movies, etc.) have content that affect peoples values and behaviors. Some believe those effects to be positive and some believe them to be negative. With technology and the internet, there is much more media than there ever was before. Lower barriers to entry mean that no-one has to be left out. This is a good thing.
I don't believe this thesis to be wrong, just not particularly useful or meaningful. Rosenberg does have some interesting observations but you have to persevere. Some quotes from the last half of the article give a flavor of the piece.
Just as culture itself is wildly diverse and fragmentary, the drive to examine culture through a political lens comes from a huge number of different constituencies, each with its own set of interests, priorities and internal debates.


Critics who are broadly aligned under political labels may have hugely differing interpretations of the same piece of culture and offer very different solutions to the problems they have identified.


For all these debates can be wearying, the new culture wars have been a tremendously exciting time. And I think it is no mistake that they come at a time of incredible growth and technical and creative innovation in pop culture.


Culture warriors on both sides of the aisle who want to wipe out the things that they find offensive seem poised to be as badly disappointed as the decency crusaders before them.


But for those who are fighting for a culture in which all stories have a chance to be told, though, the prospects are decidedly sweeter.


The present culture war is the rare conflict in which almost everyone has a chance to win.
Rosenberg does a good job of retailing vast tracts of popular culture but not such a good job of hiding her disdain for anyone of the non-progressive tribe. In the few areas of popular culture of which I have a modicum of awareness, I can see where she has made some rather egregious summaries that mischaracterize what is going on. Aware that we are all subjects of Gell-Mann Amnesia, I read the rest of her article with some skepticism.

Rather than engage with the absence of substance in the piece, it is much more fun to see what the commenters do. A few highlights:
Finnegans Father
10/9/2014 10:54 AM EDT
Most of this strikes me as a very good thing.

The gate keepers swept away, and an extremely wide diversity in what is offered, reflecting an extremely wide diversity in views of life.

Room for intellectual and thought-leader types to suggest avenues of criticism... but heartfelt debates among everyday people about what is and is not a reasonable criticism of content.

If you don't like this, I question your ultimate commitment to democratic ideals.

Yet, we know that there will be dirty play around the margins, people who will travel from the reasonable "That's crap and here's why not to watch" to the unacceptable "Here's a plan to forcibly silence what I don't like." The trouble is that the road from the former to the latter is littered with marginal tactics, tying particular societal evils to particular culture. Reasonable cultural criticism, but with the goal of censorship. Both the left and the right have such histories.

10/9/2014 1:13 AM EDT
what a tome of an article. I'm still looking for the part where I learn "how all of us can win" in the culture wars.

10/8/2014 7:18 PM EDT
Not for the first time Ms Rosenberg has described a malignant wasteland and declared it art. At least the column illustrates how deeply the media has become enmeshed in the creation of a truly appalling popular culture throughout the postindustrial world.

10/8/2014 5:11 PM EDT
This lengthy Ph.D dissertation courtesy of The Washington Post.

Readers tip - When the headline and the very last sentence are the same, you can bet there's not much new in between.

10/8/2014 5:02 PM EDT
Now we are in the midst of a new culture war, in which fans and creators battle each other and sometimes themselves. It is being waged over whether or not culture is political, and if so, what its politics ought to be and how they might be expressed. That conflict has also diffused beyond the academic, religious and political institutions who were major players in earlier convulsions. Today it is wildly fragmented in a way that suggests vigorous and ongoing debates rather than an easy resolution.
Holy smokes. I trust Ms Rosenberg took a history class or two to go along with journalism? Every generation has gone through similar "convulsions". the 50s, rock and roll, Lenny Bruce, the 60s (when I was coming of age) was filled with the same arguments and fuss. Not sure we are all that different today.
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10/8/2014 5:29 PM EDT
But it's HER generation, so the others don't matter.
10/8/2014 2:31 PM EDT
This rather tiresome article misses the biggest shift in the culture wars; the rise of victimhood. In the 1970s the boundaries of propriety were pushed because it profited media to titilate; the idea was "We show what sells; if you don't like it, tune out." This worked because no one claimed that offense to their sensibilities was actual harm.

These days though, people claim victimhood--that is, actual injury--if they are not adequately represented, or are unflatteringly represented. You don't here Hollywood saying "we'd make more shows with sympathetic lesbian characters if lesbians bought more of whatever our advertisers are selling." The rush to victimhood, and its accompanying desire to punish or boycott all offenses, is the real injury to our society.