30 March 2009

It was Mexico that kept me out of the Draft

And that was during the Vietnam War. Ingrate that I am, I have never even written to thank them.

The Mexican drug lords are more gracious (in fact, Mexicans are generally more gracious about most things than Yankees). Here's one thanking our lawmakers:
"Joaquin 'El Chapo' Guzman Loera reported head of the Sinaloa cartel in Mexico, ranked 701st on Forbes' yearly report of the wealthiest men alive, and worth an estimated $1 billion, today officially thanked United States politicians for making sure that drugs remain illegal. According to one of his closest confidants, he said, 'I couldn't have gotten so stinking rich without George Bush, George Bush Jr., Ronald Reagan, even El Presidente Obama, none of them have the cajones to stand up to all the big money that wants to keep this stuff illegal. From the bottom of my heart, I want to say, Gracias amigos, I owe my whole empire to you.'"

You're welcome.

we'll, for a ruthless murderer and pusher, you can't say he isn't honest. Once.


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No one expects the Holy Hand Grenade!

At least British police at a London pub didn't.

what's next? The knights who say ... well, you know.


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29 March 2009

Rotting fish innards ...

Garum. That wonderful concoction of rotting fish guts that ancient Romans of all social ranks loved. Sounds awful, but basically it was Vietnamese fish sauce, Nucmam, which is actually quite tastey.

There is a TV show in Britain that attempts to recreate ancient and medieval foods. Here is the Times Online's review of it, and here is what the review has to say about nucmam, er, garum.
He did rather well with the Roman staple of garum -- their favourite sauce made out of rotten fish which, Hestons_roman_feast_gallery_08gt_fu
as Heston pointed out, they seem to have smeared over most things. It is this that usually defeats undergraduate Roman dinner parties (anchovy paste doesn't quite get it). But even if Heston didnt have the patience to rot his fish for the three months that the Romans did, he did manage to heat up and blend together a load of mackerel intestines, so that they ended looking rather like a Thai sauce and was (so Heston insisted) really 'delicious'.

And then there is the roast pig with the faux guts falling out of it to disgust the guests - funny people those Romani.

in at least one brach of the Clemens clan nucmam is a staple.

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27 March 2009

A Congressman discovers the Medieval Warming Period!!

There, when you least expect it, medieval history rears its ugly head, right here in a speech by a Republican congressman. He is confident that humans will adapt to what he sees as natural global warming without too much difficulty.

I almost hate to tell him about the millions who died due to that medieval warming period but why let a reassuring theory be destroyed by an ugly fact. Besides, we will adapt. The survivors, anyway.


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26 March 2009

William Shatner in Esperanto!

As I said in the comments to a post below, he handles Esperanto as well as he does English.

If you want to know more about the movie, check here. And don't blame me if you can't sleep later tonight.

you can find ANYTHING on youtube.

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Vikings v. the Slavs

Guess who wins? I'll give you a hint: it is a Polish movie. But doesn't the big nasty Viking leader look like ... an early medieval version of Darth Vadar?

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Why we are in so much trouble


They impress us and we listen to them because ... well... because they are experts. It's called "The Dr Fox Effect," named for an experiment where a man introduced as "an expert" and carrying the title of Dr Fox gave an entertaining, humorous discourse on an obscure math question. The only problem was that the entire talk was absolute nonsense. Needless to say the listeners ate it up and raved about how good the talk was. (btw, did I tell you that I am a Dr? In Medieval History? An expert).

I read that in a column by Nicholas Kristoff in today's NYT that derides "experts" in general and media pundits in particular. Here is my favorite part:
Other studies have confirmed the general sense that expertise is overrated. In one experiment, clinical psychologists did no better than their secretaries in their diagnoses. In another, a white rat in a maze repeatedly beat groups of Yale undergraduates in understanding the optimal way to get food dropped in the maze. The students overanalyzed and saw patterns that didn’t exist, so they were beaten by the rodent.

Well, they were from Yale.

I'd make more of this, but then I would have to analyze it to establish some patterns. Did I tell you I was an expert? With a PhD?


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23 March 2009

History and current events: the economy, part 2

This is a coincidence. As I finish my morning coffee, waiting for the construction workers to start demolishing our fireplace (long story-check Not Mayberry) I read in the Washington Post an article by Robert J. Samuelson germane to our discussion of the state of the stock market, 401(b)s, and history. Here's one part of it:
But Schumpeter's question remains. Will capitalism lose its vitality? Successful capitalism presupposes three conditions: first, the legitimacy of the profit motive -- the ability to do well, even fabulously; second, widespread markets that mediate success and failure; and finally, a legal and political system that, aside from establishing property and contractual rights, also creates public acceptance. [my emphasis] Note that the last condition modifies the first two, because government can -- through taxes, laws and regulations -- weaken the profit motive and interfere with markets.

It is that public acceptance that is the problem - it plays hob with theory, expectations, and hope for those rationally inclined. It makes it a political problem. Yes, I do not doubt that one can prove on paper that investing Social Security funds into the stock market ought to work out best. But the required public acceptance brings in all kinds of unmathmatical and irrational considerations. Not to mention the fact that most people have no idea how investment works (see Madoff, Bernie).

That's all I have time for this morning.

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22 March 2009

History and current events: the economy

Jack took me to task for ignoring history. I, on the other hand, think that if people are still alive who can remember hearing about it firsthand from their parents it is not history, had a reply. It was about the Social Security privatization plans in light of recent developments. You can check it here if you are interested.

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Without Comment [parady alert]

Well, I am afraid I have to end my fun and add a comment. The above coloring book sample is a parody. Dang. I should have known. As Maire pointed out, all the true dinosaurs died in the great flood because they were too dumb to get on the ark.

but I knda liked the macho Jesus image

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16 March 2009

And now, business journalists

As you may have seen me mention, since I repeat it at every chance, no one's reputation survived the first decade of the new century. Here, from today's WaPo, is the Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual report overall assessment of the business media's role in reporting the recent unpleasant news:
"By and large the press as an institution failed to function as an early warning system for what is now being called the biggest economic disaster since the Great Depression."

So, who do you trust? Other than tarot cards and tea leaves.

which are just as accurate as the pundits. But then, so are you. So am I. So is my dog Leo.

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Short videos - a new art?

Now there are thousands of little short videos on the internet, some clever, some dumb, and some brilliant. It seems to be that it is a new art form, different even from the short films sometimes shown before feature films at the cinema. Here is a site with 20 of the best. If you watch any of them, let us know what you think of them, and which is your favorite.

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Barbara Tuchman and the craft of an historian

When I was much younger I read almost everything Barbara Tuchman wrote, from her biography of Stillman in China to The Guns of August. The one that in some ways has stuck with me the most, however, was The Proud Tower, an examination of the fondly remembered (by some) decades right before World War I. She examined the Belle Epoque dispassionately and showed that it was merely a time like any other time, except that this one was marching remorselessly towards its own destruction.

Today's Washington Post has a retrospective review of The Proud Tower. It includes some discussion of the craft of being an historian, which she clearly was. Well worth reading, just as the book is well worth rereading.

though I still must admit, even after having assigned it to classes, I have never managed to read all the way through A Distant Mirror: The Calmatous 14th Century.


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15 March 2009

WW I and the Canadians

A rare color photo of Canadian troops, of the 19th Winnipeg Rifles. (et al.)

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13 March 2009

Schadenfreude alert!

Ann Coulter edition.

ever wonder why Philip Pullman's baby killing villain was named Mrs. Coulter?


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An Economist who got it right!

And one who now looks like a drooling idiot.

Peter Schiff looks eerily prescient back in 2006. Laffer, on the other hand, is the idiot (some of us already knew this - he grades the economy on a curve). What is so striking about this clip, aside for the fact that it is on YouTube and thus can be consulted by anyone, is how Schiff is using simple common sense. "Common" in the sense that anyone should posses it.

[sidebar: check out the discussion on whether or not women like to work, the "privilege" men have long had. The upper middle class, in the person of the pretty TV hostess, has no smallest idea of what the average person goes through to earn a paycheck - another whiff of '89.]

god, I love YouTube.

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Why yes, I am on vacation

Why do you ask?



And something about the Vikings

They might have made nice neighbors, if you are into that sort of thing.

and for more on the Vikings.

you knew that was coming, didn't you.

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One more word about history

It isn't bunk.


And a further word about Economics

"Years ago, I noticed one thing about economics and that is that economists didn't get anything right. I wanted to find out the reason. They would say their models are not perfect. But data show that you do much worse using their models than you would without them. It's a bull [expletive] science."

Options trader and scholar, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, as quoted in today's Washington Post.

spoken like a true historian.

did I ever tell you about the 6 hrs credit in economics I took in Mexico? It was a real education. I figured out the model the professor used, made my data fit it, and earned an A. The next semester my paper was used as the examplar for the new class.

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And now, a word about History

"I saw that history was crazier than anything you could imagine"

Options trader and scholar, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, as quoted concerning his experience growing up during the Lebanese civil war in today's Washington Post.

which, of course, is one good reason to pay attention to it.


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Now that everyone's rep has been destroyed

For some time I have been harping on the idea that no one's reputation has survived the Bush Years, or the Double 'Aughts, so much so that I have become a broken record. But it reflects a bitter truth that I think we should be aware of. Now this loss of reputation, indeed of basic trust and respect, has spread throughout the entire system of our society.

Here is Peggy Noonan in today's Wall Street Journal:
I spoke to a Manhattan-based psychiatrist who said there is an uptick in the number of his patients reporting depression and anxiety. He believes part of the reason is that we're in a new place, that "When people move into a new home they increasingly recognize the importance of their previous environment." Our new home is postprosperity America; the old one was the abundance; we miss it. But he also detected a political dimension to his patients' anguish. He felt that many see our leaders as "selfish and dishonest," that "our institutions have been revealed as incompetent and undependable." People feel "unled, overwhelmed," the situation "seemingly unsalvageable." The net result? He thinks what he is seeing, within and without his practice, is a "psychological pandemic of fear" as to the future of things—of our country, and even of mankind.

This morning, as I drank the first cup of coffee, I read on the front page of the paper the bitter fulminations of a selection of Bernie Madoff's victims - they want his head on a platter.

So who's next?

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12 March 2009

Is Western Civilization Different?

For years now I have had the notion that Western Civilization is different from every other civilization I am aware of because of the fundamental split right through the middle of its soul between secular and spiritual power. I have never worked out the details, but anyone who studies medieval history must be struck by this fact. Most, however, don't realize that it is unique.

I have found a good expression of it by Dan Diner in Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still. In discussing the critique of Western society by Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian scholar who laid out the intellectual foundations for the jihadists (or whatever they should be called). It is, in fact, the reason Qutb thought Christianity had gone wrong right from the "render unto Caesar" incident:
Sayyid Qutb is not wrong here: a fundamental institutional tension does in fact run through Western culture, whether in the various interpretations of the "two swords" theory in the high Middle Ages or in the earlier distinction between imperium and sacerdotium inherent in the fabric of the Holy Roman Empire. The individuality and freedom so important to the West can be traced back to a basic question in medieval Christianity: who should be obeyed -- the emperor or the pope? These two authorities struggle for supremacy in the heart of the perplexed, who can choose only one of them. Thus the birth of freedom in the expression of a deep internal rift. It stems from the individual's doubt and despair. Freedom springs from conflict and the discord associated with it. And in this conflict the individual is left all alone. Only conscience born of this discord can provide a sense of direction -- but conscience is not infallible.

So far it is a good book, one that looks at Islam by taking its spiritual coherence and unity as a serious attribute of Islamic society.

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Without Comment

11 March 2009

A new conservative voice at the NYT

Having finally gotten rid of Billy Kristol, who managed to be both a hack and a twit, The New York Times goes for Ross Douthat to fill the void on the conservative side - unless you think David Brooks already does that! Douthat though is a good choice: smart, engaged and articulate, which will be nice for a change.

if you click on the article, be sure to read the comments.


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The Market: At last, some clarity

Jim Cramer, who is in the news a lot lately for becoming Jon Stewart's latest punching bag, has an epiphany:
"My job is not just to entertain you but to educate you," he says. "You know what drives market pros and grizzled veterans crazy about this particular market? It's that no pattern that we've had before, ever, nothing that worked before, is working now."

"We're like navigators operating without a map or compass." Now, with the Dow below 7,000, he tells us.

as described on Salon.com

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Financial Crisis News from the Tar Heel State!

If you have already had your morning coffee and crumpets, pour yourself another shot, curl up on a comfy chair and read this little story from Charlotte, NC. It will set you up nicely for having a warm fuzzy day:
CHARLOTTE, North Carolina: A handful of top executives from American International Group Inc. spent thousands of dollars during a recent English hunting trip, even as the New York-based insurer asked for an additional $37.8 billion loan from the Federal Reserve.
***** ******
Last month, and just days after the U.S. government stepped in to save AIG with a $85 billion taxpayer-funded loan, the company picked up a $440,000 tab for a week-long retreat at a posh California resort for top-performing insurance agents.

I'd get mad, but that might be class warfare and I am sure that these business geniuses are worth every penny.

do I catch a whiff of '89?

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Social Security might have been.

Since I met Carmen decades ago (she was practically a child) while working briefly for Social Security I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the middle classes favorite Federal Agency. Which leads me to ask: do you remember the Bush plan to privatize Social Security so that your money would be invested in the stock market?

We don't hear so much talk of that anymore. I myself was always stunned by how many soi-disant conservatives wanted this program. They wanted the Federal government to become the biggest single investor in the market with all the resulting distortion, corruption, and old fashioned stupidity (of which we have seen much of late) that would go with it.

Here is one sane conservative's view on it, the Cunning Realist (thanks to Andrew Sullivan):
The stock market crash has shown how catastrophic private accounts would have been, and who would have really benefited from them. Would the government have allowed the Bear Stearns and Lehman outcomes had the Social Security system been chock full of those stocks? Remember, both were former blue chips, the sort of companies that proponents of private accounts insisted any new system would be limited to. The same for Citi, AIG, Fannie Mae, and others. How much pressure would the Fed and Treasury have felt -- and what more would have been done -- to keep those afloat and/or out of penny stock land?

Well, dodged that bullet.

thanks to the socialists, uh, I mean liberals. Oh well.

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10 March 2009

Bankers: A Modest Proposal

Matt Yglesias quotes a US Embassy spokesperson with a brilliant solution to the banking problem, which seems to have been caused by too many bankers who were neither wise nor honest:

“Beyond education and culture, in the field of economy and services, it’s worth noting that representatives of U.S. banks, JP Morgan and Citibank and others came to Baghdad on January 28th, participated in an international banking conference that explored correspondent banking relations that would deepen commercial ties between Iraq and the international community, business community.”

Yes. Downtown Baghdad. Seems about perfect to me.

Maire, please note: this proposal has nothing to do with Ireland

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Without Comment


06 March 2009

The Mortgage Crisis, a view from the trenches

At least supposedly. It is a comment from a reader of AOL.com who is responding to Jon Stewart's rant against John Santelli and CNBC. Here it is in its entirely:

I worked as a mortgage underwriter for over a decade. I can assure you that in the best of companies, fewer than 5 and often as few as Zero people ever "look over" a loan for credit worthiness. A reputable loan officer might pay attention to these details, a processor should and the underwriter specializes in it. Unfortunately there is no required training or educational level required for any of these positions. With a bachelors degree from an Ivy League University I was grossly overqualified. I was the sole signature required to lend approximately a quarter billion dollars annually on behalf of a major US Bank. Most in my position had no more than a high school education. Even that level of education and human review was removed as more and more loans were approved not by humans, but by automated underwriting systems. As an underwriter I watched the computer approve hundreds of loans whose credit or income were beyond what any human would even consider approving. Perhaps you will have some luck in collecting the lost funds from a computer. I doubt it. I firmly believe that the crisis, in large part, was caused by this abandoning of human review in favor of flawed computer models.

There you have it. What really caused the mortgage crisis.

It was a computer error.

what worries me is this actually makes some sense.


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05 March 2009

CNBC and the Economic Crisis

John Stewart with a review of CNBC, financial pundits (see last post), and Rick Santelli.


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Pundits: the blind leading the slightly less blind

How bad are journalistic pundits at predicting the future course of events? Worse than the average person apparently.
He took 284 pundits and asked them questions about the future. Their performance was worse than chance. With three possible answers, they were right less than 33 per cent of the time. A monkey chucking darts would have done better. This is consoling. More consoling still is Tetlock's further finding that the more certain a pundit was, the more likely he was to be wrong.

This would, of course, explain a lot.

I fearlessly predict that this will have no effect whatsoever on pundit self-confidence.

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03 March 2009

Yet another attempt to explain the Economic meltdow

Since my last link to a clever explanation of the current economic fiasco seems to have had a few deficiencies (at least according to Jack), I have now found the perfect, lucidly clear explanation for your education.

It's by two Brits, and they are so much cleverer than Yanks so it must be good.

Now I understand it all.

Joe Nocera eat your heart out.


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02 March 2009

A little simian short story

Now that everyone has had a lesson on why chimps are not good house pets, Salon.com brings out a story about primate behavior. Some of the stories are endearing. Some are like this:
A telling anecdote involving Yeroen, the wily old chimp, shows why. When faced with the choice of allying himself with Luit, the strongest, dominant male in his chimp colony, or with Luit's closest rival, Nikkie, Yeroen chose the latter. Yeroen then helped Nikkie displace Luit as alpha male. That left Nikkie heavily indebted to Yeroen, who became the young alpha's puppet master, a far more powerful position than the aged manipulator would have had as Luit's right-hand chimp. The upshot was that Luit had arrogated too much power to himself, for as the colony's sole superpower, he became the leading target for gang-forming alpha wannabes. Coalition-building is everything in the chimp world, where the unilateral exercise of power is insanely dangerous. In the end, the mighty Luit was murdered in the night by Nikkie and Yeroen.

This story, btw, is from Frans de Waal, whose books on primate behavior were consulted to good effect by Newt Gingrich.

the biggest problem is we anthropomorophize them too much, especially the greatest of the great apes.

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Kindle 2: Love and Loathing

Slate.com has a good review of the Kindle 2 by Farhad Manjoo (via Sullivan btw). He loves it.
For starters, it's gorgeous. Unlike its bulky predecessor, the redesigned $359 Kindle, which came out this week, is light, thin, and disappears in your hands. If you think there's no way you could ever get used to curling up with an electronic reader, you haven't given the Kindle a chance. Load up a good book and you'll soon forget you're reading plastic rather than paper. You'll also wonder how you ever did without it.

And he fears it.
Amazon's reader is a brilliant device that shanghais book buyers and the book industry into accepting a radically diminished marketplace for published works. If the Kindle succeeds on its current terms, and all signs suggest it'll be a blockbuster (thanks Oprah!), Amazon will make a bundle. But everyone else with a stake in a vibrant book industry—authors, publishers, libraries, chain bookstores, indie bookstores, and, not least, readers—stands to lose out.

I don't think I've yet seen such a comprehensive take on the Kindle and how it might effect the book industry. Since, dear reader, you are reading Sententiae, it is a foregone conclusion that you are a reader of books, you might want to take a look at this article.

For me, the biggest drawback to the Kindle is that its cheap books are NYTs' best sellers. Anything I really want to read costs 15% less than the cover price, which for academic books can reach well over $100. For an e-book?

but then, I'm still using fountain pens, so you can't accuse me of being technologically "adventuresome."

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01 March 2009

More on the Economy

Still don't understand all the details of the economic collapse we are experiencing, though Jack has explained some of it (I'll get back to that soon). I asked my World Civ class, mostly freshmen, if the recession were effecting them. Interestingly, it was those who work as waiters and waitresses who had the most direct experience with the down side: tips were drying up.

In The New York Times Joe Nocera has an article about the bad, even stupid, business decisions that have crippled AIG and have led to billions of tax money being shoveled its way in order to avoid a melt down of the entire Western banking system. Nocera has done some of the best reporting on the financial collapse and is usually relatively calm and collected. Not this time. He is angry.

Here's a bit of it:

If we let A.I.G. fail, said Seamus P. McMahon, a banking expert at Booz & Company, other institutions, including pension funds and American and European banks “will face their own capital and liquidity crisis, and we could have a domino effect.” A bailout of A.I.G. is really a bailout of its trading partners — which essentially constitutes the entire Western banking system.

I don’t doubt this bit of conventional wisdom; after the calamity that followed the fall of Lehman Brothers, which was far less enmeshed in the global financial system than A.I.G., who would dare allow the world’s biggest insurer to fail? Who would want to take that risk? But that doesn’t mean we should feel resigned about what is happening at A.I.G. In fact, we should be furious. More than even Citi or Merrill, A.I.G. is ground zero for the practices that led the financial system to ruin.

And remember, the fellows who made these decisions were the captains of the universe who deserved to be hugely compensated for all the business they were bringing in. As anyone who as ever trained a puppy ought to know, if you reward bad behavior ....

oh well. I am sure they were worth it. Meanwhile my university has to return millions to the state and soon enough jobs may be at stake.

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