The Iron Bank

The European Central Bank is failing abjectly in [update: what should be] its core mission to protect the common currency through shared prosperity as well as price stability. It no longer deserves its name and logo.

ECBlogo5So here are my proposals for a new name and logo. Continue Reading…

Courtiers and tweetstorms

We have been here before, Keith: a densely connected and hyper-gossipy society where every word can be used against you, those who speak rashly like Sir Tim Hunt come to a rapid social end, and cruel words are used as deliberately as daggers. It was the courts of Renaissance Europe: those of Henry VIII, Cathérine de Médicis, Philip II, and Alessandro Borgia.

Recently I brought up Holbein’s portrait of the English courtier Richard Southwell, a sidekick of Thomas Cromwell who rose to be Master-General of the Ordnance under both Mary and Elizabeth. The portrait shows exactly the kind of man who thrives in such a régime; a man who gave evidence in a treason trial against a childhood friend, the Earl of Surrey.

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Richard Southwell, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1536

Shakespeare had the number of men like Richard Southwell:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow:
They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others but stewards of their excellence.
The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet
Though to itself it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:
For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Sonnet 94

Tell me: would you want for a colleague, superior, subordinate, friend, or spouse a person who never spontaneously made a stupid and prejudiced remark?

Flea markets

One of the local sports round Perpignan, where we’ve just bought a house, is going to village flea-markets on Sundays. They don’t go in for car boots: trestle stalls are rented cheaply by the organising villages, so the atmosphere is pleasant, even for a reluctant shopper like me. This is Latour-bas-Elne. On a given Sunday, there are half-a-dozen such dos.

IMG_20150412_125937156

How do flea markets by amateurs match up against the idealised markets of Walras and Arrow? Continue Reading…

Quote of the Day

It was strange to Old Robert that he, who knew so much more than his neighbors, who had pondered so endlessly, should be not even a good farmer. Sometimes he imagined he understood too many things ever to do anything well.

– John Steinbeck, “Cup of Gold”

Freud, the !Kung and teddy bears

Acerbic Aussie economist John Quiggin recently had a post up at Crooked Timber on the dependence of property rights on the state. The argument is with the natural property rights crowd. Worth reading, though I can’t get worked up about the issue. Property is a claim recognised by society. Our form of society is the state. Where’s the problem?

The interesting side to me is where the claim comes from. I got thinking about infants and property. Any parent who has tried to deprive a toddler of the favourite teddy bear or rabbit, if only to wash the crust of dried food off it, will have encountered a fierce and absolutist defence. Not everything is property to a toddler, but what there is matters. Toddlers constantly squabble over the use of toys, often based on a claim to ownership. (Nice joke from a CT commenter: of course kindergartens are Hobbesian – the participants are all nasty, brutish, and short.) The idea of natural child communism is wishful thinking. It’s the adult carers who promote sharing, in an uphill struggle.

I commented that toddler property in teddy bears is a difficulty for the statist theory. States do offer their theoretical protection against teddy-nappers on buses, but it is both ineffectual and practically unimportant. States do not intervene to protect such rights against those who really do threaten them, caregivers, siblings and playmates. State judicial systems barely recognize toddlers as individuals, except in custody disputes and cases of abuse. When a young child, perhaps an orphan or grandchild, does legally own substantial property, it is managed by parents, step-parents or guardians. It doesn’t look as if property in teddy bears derives from the state. But it’s clearly of some psychological importance in the genesis of our complex attitude to the institution.

Is Freud any help here? Not much. Continue Reading…

The less-union jack

Inquiring minds want to know, what will the British flag look like if the Scots scoot? Well, it will look like this:

british-flagThe reason involves one of the most famous creative heraldic hacks in history. If you look at paintings of British battles and ships before 1808, you will see that the Union Jack had only a white X, not a red one. More precisely, Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Andrew Argent [the Scottish cross] surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the second. This means, “on a blue field, a white X behind a red cross, the latter edged with white”. The white border on the red cross is required by the rule that metals (white/silver and yellow/gold) may not touch each other, nor may colors (red, blue, purple, orange, black, green).  Most baseball caps obey this rule, but incomprehensibly, the Mets and Giants take the field with non-compliant caps, an enduring scandal.

Upon the Act of Union with Ireland, it was necessary to add St. Patrick’s cross, a red saltire.  If this were centered, St. Andrew’s cross would disappear, becoming a mere fimbriation of the Irish saltire.  Placing the latter off-center as though slightly rotated, making St. Andrew’s cross an element in its own right, (given that the implied mess at the center crossing is hidden by the English cross), was a stroke of near genius and to my knowledge completely original in heraldic gimmickry.

If the white cross is removed, all that is necessary is to recenter the red saltire of (Northern) Ireland in its obligatory white border, hence the figure above: Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Patrick Gules, fimbriated Argent, surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the third.

 

Visa security kabuki

Lu had to go to Madrid for her interview on her application for a US visa. As it happened, this was on 9/11, and the embassy Stars and Stripes were at half-mast. Less impressively, the State Department continues the fight against the terrorist threat through searching questions on its visa form:

  • Do you seek to engage in terrorist activities while in the United States or have you ever engaged in terrorist activities?                                YES/NO
  • Have you ever or do you intend to provide financial assistance or other support to terrorists or terrorist organizations?                            YES/NO
  • Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization? YES/NO

I bet that scares off al-Baghdadi! Do they really hope to catch idiots like Reid answering “yes”? I’ve applied for visas from China and Russia, with paranoid and efficient secret police forces, and they didn’t waste my and their time with such questions. The North Koreans don’t ask if you have ever spat on a photo of Kim il Sung. Iran just asks if you are a journalist, have a criminal record or a contagious disease, and where else you have been (read Israel).

The kabuki extends wider than terrorism – but falls well short of a full catalogue of high-profile Dr. Evil crimes. State asks if you are a money launderer, but not a currency forger; a génocidaire or torturer, but not a rapist; a procurer of forced abortions, but not a paedophile; a drug smuggler, but not an illegal arms dealer; a prostitute, but not a political consultant mafioso.

What is the mental process behind this? Is it the Al Capone tactic, of getting the bad guy through a technical offence? I don’t see how this would work. Dr Evil lies on his DS-160, flies to New York, tries to plant sarin in the subway, and is arrested. The prosecutor assembles a list of charges adding up to 2,000 years in jail. Would she weaken the media impact by adding the misdemeanour “lying on his visa application”? A similar argument holds for deportation. The false declaration only stands up if Dr. Evil’s substantive misconduct in the USA justifies deportation, in which case the false-declaration charge adds nothing useful.

The only way I can think of to generate this absurd list is an accumulation of random grandstanding by congresspersons of limited understanding. “What, Mr Under-Secretary, is the State Department doing to stop the entry into this great, pure country of foreigners guilty of the disgusting crime of [insert offence lifted from recent mail from constituent]?”

Better suggestions welcome.

 

Quote of the day

The flame of conception seems to flare and go out, leaving man shaken, and at once happy and afraid. There’s plenty of precedent of course. Everyone knows about Newton’s apple. Charles Darwin said his Origin of Species flashed complete in one second, and he spent the rest of his life backing it up; and the theory of relativity occurred to Einstein in the time it takes to clap your hands. This is the greatest mystery of the human mind — the inductive leap. Everything falls into place, irrelevancies relate, dissonance becomes harmony, and nonsense wears a crown of meaning. But the clarifying leap springs from the rich soil of confusion, and the leaper is not unfamiliar with pain.

– John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday

While the language police are having donuts

As anyone learning it as a second language will tell you, English could use some tidying up. The orthography alone is a mess: a “Spelling Bee” would be completely silly in most other languages, where letters are used with some relationship to phonetics. Never mind Chinese. Then we have all those idiomatic traps (in front of, but behind);  illogicalities, real and seeming: loosen = unloosen, raveled = unraveled, inflammable=flammable; and all the words whose negating barnacles can no longer be pried off:

 It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened….

What we don’t have, and could use, is the wonderful Italian kit of modifying suffixes .  I know, when you have two words for everything from Latin and German, plus colonial uploads like bungalow, yada yada…  But wouldn’t you like to be able to stick -accio/a on something to tersely express disdain in the middle of a noncommittal sentence (Tea Partaccia), or signal affection by just saying “Spotuccio!” when your dog brings your unchewed slippers?

They stack, too: “Spotinuccio” for the little pug. This needs care, however, as they can trip over each others’ feet, so if you try this, heed the following, what happens when rough and untrained hands are allowed to meddle with machinery.

The violin was christened a “small viol” (violino). It isn’t really a viol (square shoulders, tuned in fifths, etc.), but violino/violin it is, OK.  A double bass is a great big one, violone, and it really is exactly that.  The tenor of the violin family was named a “small big viol”, or violoncello (its official name, also in English, and note the second o) even though it’s more properly a violinone (skipping the viola, but see below) and not any kind of viol.  Worse, the pieces got disconnected, and we absurdly call this second-largest of  the strings a cello, literally “a small”. By curdled analogy, the tenor, larger mandolin (mandolino = small mandola, OK so far) is a mandocello.

The Germans got off this derailing train with Geige, Bratsche , and Bass-Geige, but even they passed up Kleine Bass-Geige for violoncello. Bratsche is its own mystery, supposedly an attempt to bring   viola da braccia, “arm viol”, across the Alps. But (i) how can that word not denote a horn? and (ii) how could it not have been called violaccia from the start?