Monday, May 29, 2006

a global monetary storm triggered by the Bank of Japan?

The IMF remains sanguine about current imbalances in the global economy and worried about the inevitable unwinding that eventually must occur. With just about every other observor, IMF experts tell us that the strength of the US economy -- driven largely by low interest rates and rampant consumerism -- insures that the fantastically large debts that the US and its citizens owe other nations and theirs are not (yet) disrupting world markets. The IMF managing director said the usual things about this situation as recently as last Wednesday.

Cite: The IMF in Asia and the World Economy. Speech by Rodrigo de Rato, Managing Director
International Monetary Fund at the Economic Society of Singapore, May 24, 2006.

He said:
Global imbalances must eventually unwind. The risk is that they will be unwound in an abrupt and disorderly way. For example, there could be an abrupt fall in the rate of consumption growth in the United States, perhaps triggered by a slowing housing market. Or a disorderly adjustment might be triggered by developments in financial markets. Trends in exchange rates in recent months are in the right direction to help aid the adjustment process and, so far, have been orderly. But if investors become suddenly unwilling to hold U.S. financial assets at prevailing exchange rates and interest rates, this could lead to an abrupt depreciation of the U.S. dollar and increases in U.S. interest rates. This could cause global financial market disruptions as well as a downturn, and both could affect the open, trading economies of Asia seriously.

There is a broad consensus among policy makers on the measures that are needed to reduce global imbalances. Most policy makers around the world agree that what is needed is fiscal adjustment and measures to stimulate private saving in the United States, further exchange rate appreciation and measures to stimulate domestic demand in some countries in emerging Asia, and structural reforms to stimulate demand and improve productivity in the non-tradeables sector in Europe and Japan. But this consensus has so far been translated into only limited action.
He said nothing about a change in policy at the Bank of Japan which began last month and about which the financial press has headlines today. A search of the IMF web site indicates that none of the IMF specialists, including their man in Japan, said anything about this. Maybe they know, but are unwilling to say, fearing that they'll make a bad situation worse by calling attention to it.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing in the Telegraph, has the clearest explanation of what's going on.

{Cite: Ignore the world's biggest central banks at your peril. (Filed: 29/05/2006) Ambrose Evans-Pritchard.}

It's worthwhile reading the whole article. Evans-Pritchard says Japan has stopped battling it's long-term deflation and the Bank of Japan has been, since early this year, reducing its cash holdings. It's purchasing fewer US securities and allowing the Yen to increase its value, particularly against the dollar. Its action is causing an increase in interest rates across the world, particularly bond interest rates and in that sector particularly US Treasuries.

The fallout from this event is a slump in global stock markets, particularly markets in emerging-market countries, as investment capital becomes more expensive and thus more scarce.

The housing market may be the first economic sector to unwind (or burst, since most think of it as a bubble). Evans-Pritchard writes:
"Housing mayhem seems unavoidable. The US hard landing begins now," said Charles Dumas, global strategist at Lombard Street Research.

Mortgage applications are down 17pc in a year. House sales are down 5.7pc, and inventories of unsold new houses are at their highest since 1996. The central prop holding up the US consumer boom is crumbling, leaving behind record household debts equal to 127pc of disposable income.

He concludes:
Teun Draaisma, Morgan Stanley's chief European equity strategist, had a warning for bargain hunters, even after the 8pc fall in European stocks and 15pc fall in the MSCI emerging markets index. "Do not be tempted to buy. The first violent part of this correction took nine trading days: the second part may well take several months," he said.

The world has enjoyed a magnificent boom for 24 years, punctuated only by light downturns along the way. The cycle has been kept alive beyond its natural life by ever-laxer monetary policy, feeding ever bigger asset bubbles and encouraging ever-higher levels of debt.

Central banks can draw down prosperity from the future for a while. In the end - now? - the future arrives.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

is this an inevitable downside of prosperity?

Back in the sixties I studied British imprisonment for debt. I labored to find useful statistics but found the going hard. It was clear that many adult males would find themselves in debtors' prison at some point in their lives. With diligence I thought I might be able to show that most families had one or more members behind bars for this reason at some time or another.

Since then I've become interested in the proportion of black males that are in jail, in prison, or being "supervised" by the prison system. The Bureau of Justice reports these things. Current stats show 12% of black males to be incarcerated. This proportion has remained fairly constant over recent years. Maybe it's more interesting that the current BOJ report says "one in every 136 U.S. residents were in prison or jail" a year ago. Also it says 60% of inmates are racial or ethnic minorities. And: the number of people committed to do time is increasing faster than the number of people being released back to civilized society.

The BOJ doesn't point out, as others have, that the US imprisons far more of its citizens than do other nations. Kieran Healy, a favorite Crooked Timber author, has noticed the BOJ stats and done the following graph.

This comes from his second post on the topic. He explains: "The comments in my recent post about U.S. incarceration rates got a little bad tempered.... The point of the figure was to bring home that the U.S. has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, bar none. To illustrate this is not to explain it." The graph included with his first post showed many authoritarian states with lower incarceration rates than the US. The graph given above doesn't include places where "the whole country be a kind of prison." It compares the US with its peers and he points out the obvious: "By the standards of comparable countries, the U.S.’s rate of incarceration is frankly astonishing."

A footnote:
Healy addresses another objection and gives yet another graph:
A second objection was, this only tells a little bit of the story, to which we can say, of course. Jet asks, “Yeah, and where would the US fall in a graph showing percentage of the population victimized by crime?” Cross-national comparisons of crime statistics are hard, because of reporting and definitional issues. (This is true in the U.S. between states, too, or even between different cities and neighborhoods.) Your best bet is crimes involving a dead victim, because that’s most often reported. So here is the same list of countries ordered this time by the rate of deaths due to assault in 1999, the most recent year I have available.

Addendum: I have this print on my wall in my office. When I put it up, I thought maybe people would ask about it so I could tell them it shows the Marshalsea Prison and explain its interesting history. No one has.

Marshalsea Prison
{click to enlarge}

Sunday, May 21, 2006

reaching across a collision of cultures

Rosemary SutcliffSomewhere along my path from green to grey I got over my absurd preference for writings by men written for grownups. Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea series made a memorable milestone along the way, read aloud to my chicks for the music it made in my telling more than the wonderful pull of its coming-of-age plot lines. The historical fictions of Rosemary Sutcliff came later, a by-product of my connection to a team of children's literature catalogers.

She wrote of the warrior where Le Guin wrote of the mage and she re-created an actual past for her readers where Le Guin re-created an eternal present that never did or would exist. They both drew upon archeological and anthropological research, both made hauntingly beautiful stories, both were penetrating observers of people, places, and events. Of the school of Baron Secondat de Montesquieu and Sir Isaiah Berlin, they both showed little interest in deep probes of their characters' psyches, but rather celebrated cultural polarities and interconnections. LeGuin still does these things. Sutcliff died long ago.

Disabled, under-educated, often left to herself while young, she made herself into the author she became through an affection for Kipling and a passion, all her own, for research and writing.

I re-read her books: particularly the Eagle of the Ninth series about late-Roman Britain, but they are (almost) all equally good.

It's Eagle of the Ninth itself that I'm reading now. I picked it up again because my main (academic) reading now mostly requires a notebook, pencil, writing surface, and a fairly high level of alertness -- I'm reading about and trying to master 17th-century mathematics (such as quartic equations and other algebraic complexities) and need something else to read when without notebook, pencil, writing surface, or alertness.

Eagle of the Ninth is an adventure story set in Roman Britain and the Britain that was beyond Roman control. Like most of Sutcliff's heroes, its main character is a warrior among warrior/hunters and among the dogs and horses that accompany them.

The narrative is engaging, rapid, with compelling twists and turns. Sutcliff, like Kipling, takes delight in the telling of a good story. But the book is also artful. Its observations are poetic and its imagery gives a hefty infrastructure to the plot. Sutcliff lets us see -- she's a marvelous observer -- but also hear, smell, and roundly experience the environments through which her characters pass.

Blossoms abound: a "little round stiff flower" on a knife sheaf, "garlands of late summer flowers" on womenfolk, a pot-bound rose-bush in a frontier fort, "the summer scent of thyme and rosemary;" as well as the trees and bushes of North Britain, particularly thorn: harsh and gently flowered, a barrier and a refuge. A knife has an "iron blade perfect in shape as a laurel leaf."

Birds soar; disturbed, they announce one's presence; their feathers adorn, but also symbolize flight and victory in war. The eagle of the book's title is its strongest symbol of the power that enables one culture to dominate another, of a personal continuity between father and son, and of the intangible bonds that link men who both oppose and respect one another.

Water flows, shimmers, forms barriers, enables connections. At one point her hero and his companion find themselves "on the crest of a steep ridge above the Western Ocean. It was an evening coloured like a dove's breast; a little wind feathered the shining water, and far out on the dreaming brightness many scattered islands seemed to float lightly as sleeping sea-birds. In the safe harbourage inshore, a few trading-vessels lay at anchor, the blue sails that had brought them from Hibernia furled as though they, too, were asleep. And to the north, brooding over the whole scene, rose [mount] Cruachan, sombre, cloaked in shadows, crested with mist - Cruachan, the shield-boss of the world."

The weather is eternally present in all its variability. To give one example: "Here in Britain the wind moaned through the desolate woods, the skies wept, and wet, gale-blown leaves pattered against the windows and stuck there, making little pathetic shadows against the steamy glass. There had been wild weather often enough in his own country, but that had been the wild weather of home: here was the wind and rain and wet leaves of exile."

Light and dark are as characters in the story, signifying gods and the faith of their worshipers -- people of the light and people of the dark, each with their own special value -- as in this description of a holy place: "They climbed steadily to the mountain saddle, and came dropping down on the seaward side. They traversed a steep glen and swung out along a ridge. Down again, and another steep climb, and suddenly they were on the lip of a wide upland valley running at an angle to the sea. It lay at their feet, already brimmed with shadows under a sky still webbed and washed with light that seemed to burst upward from the hidden sun; but at its head a great turf mound rose steeply, catching still a faint glow from the sunset on its thorn-crowned crest and the tips of the great standing stones that ringed it round like a bodyguard. Marcus had seen the long barrows of the Ancient People often enough before, but none had caught and held his awareness as this one did, at the head of its lonely valley, between the gold of the sunset and the silver of the new moon."

As Cruachan is "the shield-boss of the world," the shield-boss is itself the symbol of the ancient peoples of Britain whom Sutcliff's hero, Marcus, goes among and comes to understand in the fullness of their own way of life. Though they are his antagonists -- his quest is to take back from them a treasure they have captured in battle -- and though they pursue him to kill and re-capture, they are also his brothers.

Sutcliff repeats this theme of contrast and inter-connectedness repeatedly, often using the shield-boss as motif.

Here's the first use of the symbol, one of my favorite sections in all her books:
Marcus [Roman Centurion] leaned back, his hands behind his neck, ... 'Esca [a Briton, his companion], why do all the frontier tribes resent our coming so bitterly?' he asked on a sudden impulse. 'The tribes of the South have taken to our ways easily enough.'

'We have ways of our own,' said Esca. He squatted on one heel beside the bench. 'The tribes of the South had lost their birthright before ever the Eagles came in war. They sold it for the things that Rome could give. They were fat with Roman merchandise and their souls had grown lazy within them.'

'But these things that Rome had to give, are they not good things?' Marcus demanded. 'Justice, and order, and good roads; worth having, surely?'

'These be all good things,' Esca agreed. 'But the price is too high.'

'The price? Freedom?'

'Yes - and other things than freedom.'

'What other things? Tell me, Esca; I want to know. I want to understand.'

Esca thought for a while, staring straight before him. 'Look at the pattern embossed here on your dagger-sheath,' he said at last. 'See, here is a tight curve, and here is another facing the other way to balance it, and here between them is a little round stiff flower; and then it is all repeated here, and here, and here again. It is beautiful, yes, but to me it is as meaningless as an unlit lamp.' Marcus nodded as the other glanced up at him. 'Go on.'

Esca took up the shield which had been laid aside at Cottia's coming. 'Look now at this shield-boss. See the bulging curves that flow from each other as water flows from water and wind from wind, as the stars turn in the heavens and blown sand drifts into dunes. These are the curves of life; and the man who traced them had in him knowledge of things that your people have lost the key to - if they ever had it.' He looked up at Marcus again very earnestly. 'You cannot expect the man who made his shield to live easily under the rule of the man who worked the sheath of this dagger.'

'The sheath was made by a British craftsman,' Marcus said stubbornly. 'I bought it at Anderida when I first landed.'

'By a British craftsman, yes, making a Roman pattern. One who had lived so long under the wings of Rome - he and his fathers before him - that he had forgotten the ways and the spirit of his own people.' He laid the shield down again. 'You are the builders of coursed stone walls, the makers of straight roads and ordered justice and disciplined troops. We know that, we know it all too well. We know that your justice is more sure than ours, and when we rise against you, we see our hosts break against the discipline of your troops, as the sea breaks against a rock. And we do not understand, because all these things are of the ordered pattern, and only the free curves of the shield-boss are real to us. We do not understand. And when the time comes that we begin to understand your world, too often we lose the understanding of our own.'

For a while they were silent, ... then Marcus said, 'When I came out from home,. A year and a half ago, it all seemed so simple.' His gaze dropped again to the buckler on the bench beside him, seeing the strange, swelling curves of the boss with new eyes. Esca had chosen his symbol well, he thought: between the formal pattern on his dagger-sheath and the formless yet potent beauty of the shield-boss lay all the distance that could lie between two worlds. And yet between individual people, people like Esca and Marcus and Cottia, the distance narrowed so that you could reach across it, one to another, so that it ceased to matter.

Addendum: My copy of Eagle of the Ninth is a student edition with historical introduction and study material published for use in schools in the provinces of Quebec and Saskatchewan.

Friday, May 19, 2006

keeping up

I do a Quote of the Week on my work blog. Here's this week's:

"Myspace has become the new 'home base' for internet users."
{Source: Bill Tancer on Hitwise}

We're told that libraries need to adapt to the new internet environment if they are to survive. It's interesting how rapidly that environment can change. Everyone says it's dominated by Google now, that emulating the Google experience is our goal. But one wonders, will that domination last?

Take, for example, MySpace. How do we respond to its rapidly increasing popularity? As I'm sure you must already know, MySpace is the wild and unruly home to millions (and millions) of (mostly) teenagers. Try a Google search on MySpace and one in Google News to get a sense of its power, even to the extent of provoking blocking attempts in Congress.

About this, John Battelle says: "I've had MySpace again on my mind after talking Weds with Jon Miller, CEO of AOL ... [T]he thing that struck me was how Miller mentioned MySpace in the same breath as Google, AOL, Yahoo, eBay, and Amazon. It had made it into the majors as far as he was concerned, because it owned the social networking space."

So it's no surprise that MySpace has risen to the sixth most popular site -- worldwide -- on the web, as measured by Alexa and that it's the third most popular site in the US (look what sites it outranks):

Alexa top sites in the US:
1. Yahoo!
2. Google
3. Myspace
4. Microsoft Network (MSN)
5. EBay

Good thing that among all the other social networking services (Blogs, Chat Rooms, Comedy, Classifieds, Games, Horoscopes, Music Videos, ... ) there's a MySpace Books?

Thursday, May 18, 2006

coping with the little things that go wrong

Three flat tires on my way to work. Actually the third occurred as I was trying to get back home. I failed to find the source of puncture the first two times. Didn't tempt fate. Took the car to work today. Take pride in having lost only 45 minutes of work time. (Ok, maybe 50 or 55.) The photo is not me, but shows what I probably look like in the same situation. I can remember when, years ago, I'd quickly fall into despair when things went wrong -- that or a helpless raging against fate. I'm more methodical and less emotional in my advanced maturity. But still, I have to guard against the mental blur that seems always to accompany adversity -- it's hard, for example, to allow enough time for the glue to dry. Putting the patch on the tube before the glue is set just causes more agony and delay, but it's difficult to keep a level of rationality that provides that patience. And difficult to keep sufficiently focused so that you don't leave stuff behind when you're ready to roll again (how awful to be without a pump, e.g.).

I've been getting flats lately, not all from the same causes (puncture in this case, faulty tubes in other recent instances). Passers by are generally sympathetic. A few weeks ago, in the city, while changing a tube, a guy came out and offered me a chair to sit in.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

consumer frenzy

Every think about how is wealth created? I mean how it comes about that the overall stock of wealth is increased. A lot depends on what you mean by "wealth" of course. To me, it seems there's no wealth created when one entity -- a person, city, country, group of countries, etc. -- sees its measure of wealth increase at the expense of another (that's just a transfer). Similarly, there's no wealth created when I receive an increase in salary and the amount of that increase is offset by a decline in the purchasing power of the money I'm given (i.e., an inflationary offset).

If you think back, you may recall history texts telling you of Mercantilism, supplanted by Laissez Faire, supplanted by other theories up to the Keynesian era and today's mixed bag. Mercantilists were political economists. They saw the nations of their day competing something as businesses compete. Their policies fostered national strength as best they could given the limited data they could obtain and the limited ability of governments to enforce the laws and regulations they passed. (They also had to contend with competing political objectives -- meaning occasions when economic were at odds with other political objectives -- and corruption within government.) As everyone knows, they tended to associate wealth with accumulation of money and the gold and silver from which money was minted.

The next generation of economists, led by Adam Smith, saw that much of mercantilist regulation was self-defeating. They agreed that the state needed to make itself strong, but -- to be overly simplistic -- said also that states didn't compete with each other the way mercantilists thought. Where mercantilists said states competed the way businesses do -- each using the same raw materials and producing the same end products -- the laissez faire group said nations were blessed with different stocks of raw materials, different cultural strengths and weaknesses, different means of transportation and communication (etc.). These differences meant to them that states could, if they wished, mutually benefit from the trade that passed between them.

As is well known, the mercantilists tended to see the world as having a fixed amount of wealth, and to see it in the interests of nations to get as much of it as they could.

The laissez faire group said there was the potential for trade to create new wealth. A bold insight. This is generally what has been believed ever since. Though you must recall that the laissez faire group stressed the potential of wealth creation, but did not say that states should not regulate trade (or industry, or protect access to raw materials, etc). They recognized that state economies could rise and fall -- as they saw the Dutch economy fall and the British rise. They recognized that state intervention would be needed to prevent this occurring, if possible.

So what are the means by which the overall stock of wealth gets increased? Looking around the net, I'm surprised that I can't easily find an academic site that gives a checklist of the ways real wealth gets created. So Wikipedia to the rescue once again. The article on Wealth says that it's created by these means:
* Natural resources can be harvested and sold to those who want them.
* Material can be changed into something more valuable through proper application of knowledge, skill, labor and equipment.
* Better/smarter production methods also create additional wealth by allowing faster creation of wealth.
* Ideas create additional wealth by allowing it to be created faster or with new methods.

For example, consider our early ancestors. Building a house from trees created something of greater value for the builder. Hunting and firewood created food and fed a growing family. Agriculture converted labor into more food and resources. Continuing use of resources and effort has allowed many descendants to own much more than that first house.

This is still true today. It is more obvious to those working with physical material than to a service worker or knowledge worker. A cubicle worker may not be aware in how many ways their work is creating something which is of more value to their employer than the amount that employer paid to produce it. This profit creates wealth for the owners of the organization. The process also provides income for employees, and suppliers, and it makes the continued existence of the organization possible.
What strikes me as odd is that this little discussion does not mention the role of money and credit in wealth creation. Not just money and credit, but the system of trust, optimism, and greed that leverages money and credit into wealth. Not seeing this anywhere, I'm worried that my ideas on this subject are haywire. But it seems to me that wealth is created when people borrow money in order -- so they hope -- to make more money with it. When banks lend money, they make available funds -- as credit -- far in excess of the amounts they have received as deposits. If all goes well, they receive in interest payments far more than they pay out in interest to depositors. They're banking (forgive the pun) on the trust, optimism, and greed of their depositors. Most of the time the system works and both lenders and depositors are rewarded.

Borrowers, likewise, benefit. They pay a premium -- interest -- for the money and quite often hedge their bets by buying some kind of insurance to protect themselves against failure. These actions involve trust, optimism, and greed (along with knowledge, skill, and good ideas as mentioned in the Wikipedia article). The classic example out of history would be the merchant who undertakes the risky venture of importing luxury goods from the far east, or an industrialist who borrows to expand his manufacturing plant.

Quite often, it seems, these clusters of knowledge, skills, and ideas together with trust, optimism, and greed serve the end of supplying people with material goods that they want but don't really need. (I think of Imelda Marcos and all her shoes, but it goes back to the luxury goods imported for royals and aristocrats -- silks probably being the classic example.)

For a long time I've felt that the economy (and to some extent also the creation of wealth) is founded on people buying what they don't need -- what we used to call the disposable economy and now are more prone to think of as a system where we tend to give away or sell the things we no longer want so we can fill our lives with new ones. In many places, particularly the US, people trade up their possessions using credit. This doesn't automatically generate new wealth, but it can go hand in hand with wealth creation. (The consumers are in effect saying that they believe they will have greater wealth in the future than they have now.)

Also, it's the situation in the US that people are borrowing more than they're saving. This imbalance contributes to the status of the US as a debtor nation, but that's a topic for another post.

Earlier this week I posted an entry about how to buy nothing. At his wonderful 43 Folders, Merlin Mann has shared his technique for fending off mindless purchases.

I have a […] “buy me stuff” capture device, but more for the purpose of outgassing my brain’s frequently mindless consumer pollution. My file is called “crap I just don’t need.txt,” and I have fended off many ridiculous purchases just by parking the desired item there. Just viewing the long list of previous entries is an embarrassing exercise in aversion therapy. Not to say this always ensures a non-purchase — consumer lust has a permanent apartment in my heart — but at least it provides a satisfying speed bump on the race to the checkout screen.
We live in a consumer culture. We’re constantly bombarded by advertising, advertising that is cleverly designed to get us to buy the latest Thneed (or Zizzer-Zoof Seeds). It’s easy to become swept away by desire. We’re manipulated into desire by marketing. It’s not something to feel guilty about, but it is something to strive to overcome.

I have a long Amazon wishlist, but I rarely use it. In fact, several times a year I take great delight in purging the list of all of those items I once thought I must have, but which now seem like so much junk.

Do what works for you.

tulip mania in Rockefeller Plaza

Warhol Campbell'sNews accounts say the art market has blossomed as has the real estate market and the market for gold and other precious metals. Well, he said cynically, the Bush administration is obviously putting so much money into the pockets of the rich that they're falling over each other to spend it. Art, real estate, and gold are all investments, of course. But it's arguable that In the case of the art market, buyers are competing not just to increase the amount of their absurd wealth, but also to own and enjoy the beautiful, powerful, emotionally rewarding works they acquire. Or maybe not.

Take, for example, this week's auction of contempory artists at Christie's. One of the priciest items sold was this one -- Warhol's Small Torn Campbell’s Soup Can (Pepper Pot). Produced in 1962, it's historically important, but I don't think most of us would say it has twelve million dollars worth of beauty, power, and emotional rewards.

I don't mean that Warhol's work isn't good. As everyone says, it's iconographic. I mean that it's interesting for its bold embrace of a world driven mad by consumerism and adoration of celebrities (to indulge in a little hyperbole).

Bennett Lorber 2005Though both have geometric elements and both place value on surface. My friend Bennett paints circles around Warhol. His work is much more than surface event. It's richly textured and deeply rewards concentrated observation. A measure of the difference, for me, is the ability of reproductions to convey. A Warhol reproduction isn't the real thing, you can tell that pretty well, but it isnt' that far removed from the real thing. In contrast, reproductions of Bennett's works give you only a general idea of their richness.

On the right is a Bennett Lorber work from his most recent show. You can click to enlarge this and the other images in this post. Viewed full-size, you can see brush strokes, interplay of colors, and foreground/background layering. You may have to click twice for greatest detail (depends on your browser settings).

Says Art Market Watch:


Tulipmania! That one-word definition of irrational market exuberance came to mind during Christie’s New York sale of post-war and contemporary art on the evening of May 9, 2006, as lot 25 came to the block. A galvanized metal box, roughly two feet square and six inches deep, covered with a blue plastic lid -- an untitled Donald Judd sculpture from 1985 -- the work carried a presale estimate of $300,000-$400,000, and followed the sale of two dozen similar boxes for similarly high prices. $300,000 for a shallow metal box? The mind reeled. But then auctioneer Christopher Burge knocked it down to a phone bidder for $450,000 ($531,200 with the auction-house premium), and the art world snapped back into focus.

Christie’s unusually long sale of 91 lots -- 60 lots is a more typical number these days -- totaled $143,187,200, with 83 of 91 items finding buyers, or 88 percent.

The sale set new auction highs for ten artists: David Hockney ($3,600,000), Damien Hirst ($3,376,000), Brice Marden ($2,984,000), Lucio Fontana ($2,704,000), Eva Hesse ($2,256,000), Piero Manzoni ($1,920,000), Morris Louis ($1,808,000), Richard Prince ($1,360,000), Mike Kelley ($688,000) and Dirk Skreber ($496,600). New records for work on paper were set for Robert Rauschenberg ($1,360,000) and Alberto Giacometti ($1,584,000).

Elements VIn this list of auction highs, Marden's name was the one that caught my eye. Reproductions of his paintings, such as this one, are useful for identification, but, as with Bennett's, for little else. He grew up in the same town as I and our families were close. His older brother baby sat me and my sibs when we were that young. It was Bennett who taught me to love Marden's paintings and I'm happy that his (Marden's) one painting in the sale fetched a record amount. Here are the details:
lot# 71
Artist Brice Marden
Title Elements V
Year 1984 -
Medium oil on linen
Size 47.5 x 36 in. / 120.7 x 91.5 cm.
Misc. Signed, Inscribed
Estimate 1,500,000 - 2,000,000 US$
Sold For 2,984,000 US$ PREMIUM

Read Wikipedia on tulip mania.
overpriced tulip

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

tax cuts and global prosperity

I've written often enough about the risks associated with the growing deficit in the U.S., enough I'm sure to have become tedious on the subject. And so I take no delight in the announcement of extended tax cuts. The Washington Post article on the subject points out that -- once again -- lots of money will go to the wealthy and regressively little to people in the middle and lower brackets. It also deals with a question that is for me very important: What effect, if any, does this outrageous give-away have on the economy? It's an important question because the U.S. economy is the strongest in the world. It's because of this strength that foreigners are willing to purchase our debt, finance our deficit, and invest in our securities markets. We know this relative strength is partly based on the weakness of other industrial economies (Europe and Japan) and on the high levels of productivity achieved by U.S. businesses.

Is any of this strength dependent on the radically imbalanced U.S. tax policy?

The article says Republicans claim this is so. Others, and not just their opponents, say otherwise. Here are extracts on this topic:
Republicans say .. tax cuts were crucial to spurring economic growth over the past three years, by persuading more corporations to offer larger dividends and by sparking new business investment. ... Some economists say the timing of those gains was coincidental. "You might credit the cuts with providing a little bit of a jump-start. But I think the main reason the economy has done so well the last couple of years has nothing to do with tax policy, and more to do with the corporate sector starting to spend some of their record profits," said Ethan Harris, chief U.S. economist of the Lehman Brothers investment bank. "We had very good markets in the '90s, before all these tax cuts went into effect," said former Treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin.

Here's a citation for the article and two useful tables.

GOP Reaches Deal on Tax Cuts
$70 Billion Measure Would Extend Breaks

By Jonathan Weisman and Paul Blustein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 10, 2006; Page A01

How Much Would You Save Under the Plan? - Average tax saving
in 2005 dollars
tax saving
$500,000-1 million
More than $1 million

Highlights of the Tax Package - House and Senate Republicans finalized a five-year, nearly $70 billion tax package. Some key points:

Reduced rates on capital gains and dividends
(House bill provision)
$20.6 billion over 5 years, $50.8 billion over 10 years. Reduces 15 percent tax rate under current law to zero in 2008 for taxpayers in the 10 and 15 percent tax brackets. The provision extends these reduced rates through 2010.
Individual alternative minimum tax (AMT) exemption amount
(Senate provision)
$31.0 billion over 5 years and 10 years. Extends exemption levels through the end of 2006 at a higher level - $62,550 (married) and $42,500 (other).
AMT relief for personal tax credits
(Senate provision with modifications)
$2.8 billion over 5 years and 10 years. Allows the nonrefundable personal tax credits to the full extent of the individual's regular tax and alternative minimum tax for taxable years beginning in 2006.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

wanderings on a sea of non-identity

One of the books I'm currently reading is A history of mathematics: from Mesopotamia to modernity by Luke Hodgkin (Oxford, 2005). The author includes some startling quotes. Thus at lunch today I encountered: "the soul ... wanders hither and thither on the sea of non-identity ... immersed in the storm of the coming-to-be and the passing-away, where there is no standard of measurement." Kind of poetic, isn't it? The discussion is of "incommensurabilities" or irrational numbers, which were said to trouble Pythagoras greatly. The classic incommensurable and the one which supposedly caused the great mathematician such trouble was the ratio of the sides of a square with its diagonal.

Wikipedia explains:
The discovery of the irrational numbers is usually attributed to the Pythagorean Hippasus of Metapontum, who produced a (most likely geometrical) proof of the irrationality of the square root of 2. The story goes that Hippasus discovered irrational numbers when trying to represent the square root of 2 as a fraction . However Pythagoras believed in the absoluteness of numbers, and could not accept the existence of irrational numbers. He could not disprove their existence through logic, but his beliefs would not accept the existence of irrational numbers and so he sentenced Hippasus to death by drowning.

square root of 2
Here's an explanation, not from Hodgkin, but from this source:
The ratio of the length of the diagonal of a square figure to the length of one of its sides is not “the ratio of a number to a number.” Pappus, in his Commentary on Book X of Euclid’s Elements, says about this pythagorean discovery,
[The pythagoreans] sought to express their conviction that firstly, it is better to conceal (or veil) every surd, or irrational, or inconceivable in the universe, and, secondly, that the soul which by error or heedlessness discovers or reveals anything of this nature which is in it or in this world, wanders [thereafter] hither and thither on the sea of non-identity (i.e., lacking all similarity of quality or accident), immersed in the stream of the coming-to-be and the passing-away, where there is no standard of measurement.

A couple of pages further along, Hodgkin -- still discussing incommensurables -- moves on to Samuel Beckett's masterpiece Murphy:
"But betray me," said Neary, "and you go the way of Hippasos."

"The Akousmatic, I presume," said Wylie. "His retribution slips my mind."

"Drowned in a puddle," said Neary, "for having divulged the incommensurability of side and diagonal."

"So perish all babblers," said Wylie.

"And the construction of the regular dodeca - hic- dodecahedreon," said Neary. "Excuse me."
Hodgkin tells us what this is about, if you care to know; see p. 45.

Here's a partial explanation from another source (citation given below):
One of Samuel Beckett's enduring themes was the search for a suitable language to express that mental, inner realm of experience that lay beyond the rational, a language that did for the written text what irrationals did for mathematics. In Beckett's early novel Murphy (1938), we witness the early stages of his struggle with the problem. ... [T]he narrator tells us that Murphy went to sit at the feet of Neary, "a Pythagorean," who had learned the art of stopping his own heart: "For Murphy had such an irrational heart that no physician could get to the root of it." This is signaled most clearly when we find a direct reference to Hippasos who is drowned in a mud puddle for revealing the incommensurability of side and diagonal. (As usual, Beckett has slightly altered the image to suit his own obsessions--in this case, changing the ocean to the recurrent puddle.)
{Source: Configurations 2.3 (1994) 537-571, via jstor:
Hacking the Brainstem: Postmodern Metaphysics and Stephenson's Snow Crash by David Porush}

Monday, May 08, 2006

Peace Piece

Bill EvansSR Klassiskt just gave me another little lift, this wet and dreary Monday morning. The station just completed a short set of the Bill Evans tune "Peace Piece," starting with the orginal from Everybody Digs Bill Evans and ending with an odd orchestral version. SRK is not a jazz station and never plays jazz (though sometimes show tunes), making the event for me a special pleasure. I love the music and vividly recall how it came into my life via a friend, Elsbeth, in graduate school.

Some links:
Everybody Digs Bill Evans (photo credit)

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Pride and Prejudice

We finally saw the new Pride & Prejudice last night and liked it. The cinematography is arresting; romantic landscapes, colorful village bustle, elegant stately homes, all lush, vivid, and artistically framed. There's great depth of focus for most of the scenes, recalling Robert Altman's great, busy shots, fully of genre detail.

This thumbnail photo shows St George's Square, Stamford, Linconshire, which was used as the village of Meryton. There's one "Meryton" scene that gives a quick glimpse in the background of the retreating rump of a huge black workhorse -- I Shire I suspect. Shire.
{As usual, click images to enlarge.}

Temple of Appolo, StourheadThough I thought the directing was imaginative, there are some film clichés that, I suppose, are almost required; for example, it was almost always sunny -- sunrise, midday, and sunset all casting interesting light (even within windowed rooms). Except, of course, when Lizzy and Darcy have their pride and prejudice spat, he showing the latter in his proposal of marriage and her showing the former in her refusal. Then it's raining, a heavy evening rain which drenches them both and out of which they find refuge in a highly romantic Palladian neo-ruin (Stourhead).

Last summer I did a comparison of the Elizabeth Bennet actresses. You can find it here -- it's one of the most popular posts I've written, having been picked up by "Jennite" in a post on the Jennifer Ehle fanblog.

I thought then that Keira Knightley probably wouldn't better Ehle's performance and Knightley's acting ability was thus a bit of a surprise. The camera, costume, settings, and other context do most of the work for her, but she says her lines well and her body language is apt. I expected I'd think her too slender for the part and I still do. Ehle looks more as Lizzy should. All the same, looking at the other actresses who've played the part, Knightley isn't worse than most and better than some.

Matthew McFayden as Mr.Darcy, Judi Dench as his aunt, Brenda Blethyn, as the insufferable mother, and Donald Sutherland as the distracted, loving father are all very good. How can one not like a film that has Dame Judi and Donald S. in it, he asked rhetorically. The Bennet sisters are a suprise: all superbe, particularly Rosamund Pike as Jane. The web pages devoted to Judi Dench's career have extensive coverage of her involvement with the film. It gives some nice anecdotes, such as this one from an invterview: "[Kiera] said that both Judi and Donald S. were just as excited the first day of filming as were the two girls playing her sisters who were in their first film. She thought that was great. She said that with so many young actors in the film that there was a great social life during the shoot, which was entirely on location. Donald Sutherland won't let anyone smoke around him. They finally got him to come to one of the parties, and he showed up in a full gas mask so that everybody else who wanted could smoke!" photo credit

The music is good, both composition by Dario Marianelli and performance (mostly solo piano by Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

The filming locations, all in England, and the reverential treatment they're given are the film's greatest strength. IMDB gives the list of places. There's also a good tour of them at this site and Working Title Films give some stills of the main ones.

Chatsworth House - "Pemberley"

Groombridge Place used as "Longbourn" (notice the magnificent trees)

Of the Longbourne transformation by Production Designer Sarah Greenwood, the Working Titles site says: "[She] and her art department were able to transform the house interior to late 18th Century shabby chic. 'Longbourn' became a house overrun with young women. The home of a genteel family but not a wealthy one, where the only tranquillity is to be found in Mr Bennet's library. On the exterior, Lizzie's duckboard bridge was built across the moat, windows were changed to match the period portrayed, and the tidy courtyard became the manure-rich, animal refuge of the various farmyard creatures kept for the family table."

There's a good set of Longbourne photos at the GroomBridge Place web site.

Monday, May 01, 2006

scraping Amazon's statistically improbable phrases

My favorite sources for finding books include the bibliographies I find in books and journal articles; the Library of Congress catalog; Jstor, DNB, OED, and the other proprietary databases which my library website makes available; Google Book Search; Google Scholar; and just plain Google. Each requires its own little skill set to avoid either an overabundance of results or getting nothing.

I've been intrigued with the bibliographic details that Amazon gives, but haven't found a way to use that information as a means of finding books. William J. Turkel, who writes a blog called Digital History Hacks seems to have accomplished this trick. Take a look at his post called SIP Mapping.

He says: "Amazon keeps track of phrases that are distinctive to a small set of books. These SIPs (statistically improbable phrases) can be used to get some idea of the conceptual landscape in and around particular works, and thus can be used to generate bibliographies." And, having recognized this possibility, he wrote a Perl applet to pull together statistically improbable phrases in books. I haven't had a chance to play with it. Seems to be it could be a valuable tool.