Archive for June 2011

Napoleon Bonaparte: England’s Prisoner, by Frank Giles

June 26, 2011

The sun comes up like news from Africa.
–Stevens, “A Word with José Rodríguez-Feo”

There was the germ of a conspiracy to hide Napoleon in a barrel and get him to America, but he had a family and a suite of sixty hangers-on to look out for. An attempt by a constitutional lawyer named Capel Lofft to serve a writ of habeas corpus on the theory that the Emperor’s presence on the Bellerophon made him subject to English legal protection met bad luck, so Napoleon never had the benefit of English law, but only English custom and the respect of one military man for another.

St. Helena is 700 miles southeast of Ascension (the nearest land), 1,695 miles northwest of Cape Town, and 4,477 miles from Southampton. It lies within the tropics, but its climate is temperate.

He was housed at Longwood, a converted farmhouse set on a high plateau. Napoleon suggested that he move into Plantation House, the governor’s residence, but Major-General Hudson Lowe would not move out to suit his prisoner’s sense of decorum.

There lasted a period of stubbornness. Napoleon refused to meet with his jailer, who refused to modify what he saw as his duties. There were strict orders never to address the prisoner as “Emperor.” This went so far that a gift of books inscribed by the author to “Imperatori Napoleon” was confiscated. The book considers from all sides the performance of Lowe, much vilified for his maltreatment of the great man, but defended by the Duke of Wellington.

The prisoner’s death came under some suspicion. The official verdict was stomach cancer; conspiracy theories abounded. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the island; unmarked, because of a dispute between Lowe and Napoleon’s aides.

By 1840, memories had softened enough to allow his disinterment and reburial in the Invalides, “near the bank of the Seine,” as he had wished. Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort paid their respects in 1855. A witness recalled that the Queen whispered to the thirteen-year-old Prince of Wales to “kneel down before the tomb of the great Napoleon.”

Looking back at St. Helena

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The Big Short, by Michael Lewis

June 19, 2011

When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse . . . .
–Auden, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”

This is is not a book to learn the details of credit-default swaps and collateral debt obligations (“CDOs”). There are no tables in the book, and no footnotes. The Lewis style is to tell about financial dealings through the traders involved. The financial products are described in metaphors:

In a mortgage bond, you gathered thousands of loans and, assuming that it was extremely unlikely that they would all go bad together, created a tower of bonds, in which both risk and return diminished as you rose. In a CDO you gathered one hundred different mortgage bonds–usually, the riskiest, lower floors of the original tower–and used them to erect an entirely new tower of bonds. The innocent observer might reasonably ask, What’s the point of using floors from one tower of debt simply to create another tower of debt? The short answer is, They are too near the ground. More prone to flooding–the first to take losses–they bear a lower credit rating: triple-B. Triple-B-rated bonds were harder to sell than the triple-A-rated ones, on the safe, upper floors of the building.

  The long answer was that there were huge sums of money to be made, if you could somehow get them re-rated as triple-A, thereby lowering their perceived risk, however dishonestly and artificially. This is what Goldman Sachs had cleverly done. Their–soon to be everyone’s–nifty solution to the problem of selling the lower floors appears, in retrospect, almost magical. Having gathered 100 ground floors from 100 different subprime mortgage buildings (100 different triple-B-rated bonds), they persuaded the rating agencies that these weren’t, as they might appear, all exactly the same things. They were another diversified portfolio of assets! This was absurd. The 100 buildings occupied the same floodplain; in the event of flood, the ground floors of all of them were equally exposed. But never mind: The rating agencies, who were paid fat fees by Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms for each deal they rated, pronounced 80 percent of the new tower of debt triple-A.

  The CDO was, in effect, a credit laundering service for the residents of Lower Middle Class America. For Wall Street it was a machine that turned lead into gold.

One of the major characters is Steve Eisman, who bought loads of credit-default swaps on CDOs. Eisman had a nose for hooey; he was the boy willing to say that the Emperor had no clothes. Eventually, as we all know, he made a packet.

One odd item–a quote at the head of one of the final chapters from a Bloomberg News story cites a Milanese professor as saying, “The prediction that an undisciplined economy would collapse by its own rules can be found in an article written by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 1985.” Lewis does not offer an explict comment on this item.

The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, by Kevin D. Williamson

June 12, 2011

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
–Auden, “Epitaph on a Tyrant”

Having heard an interview with the author, I expected this book to be a basic economics lesson for the general reader, along the lines of Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. The first three chapters are in that vein and good reading. Here’s his explanation of why central planning of prices is impossible, using milk as an example:

Some people, such as vegans or the lactose intolerant, consume no milk. But some households consume large quantities of the drink: those with many kids, those who use lots of milk products in their cooking, etc. Others may consume varying amounts; in July, when it’s hot and humid, a family might prefer lemonade, but it might consume a lot of milk in August if it’s whipping up a bunch of home-made ice cream for a big family reunion.

In addition to quantity calculations, there are various questions to answer, too: whole milk or skim, 1 percent or 2 percent? Do you prefer more expensive organic milk or cheaper factory-farmed milk? And if you prefer the pricier organic stuff, how much more are you willing to pay for it? What about soy milk? Chocolate milk? The delicious Pennsylvania Dutch treat known as vanilla milk?

There are 115 million households in the United States. If we imagine a weekly milk-consumption budget for each of them, that’s 5.98 billion household-weeks to plan for. Adding in a fairly restrictive list of variables–call it zero to twenty quarts a week, four levels of fat content, organic/nonorganic, soy/dairy, and three flavor options–you end up with around 6 trillion options to choose from.

No wonder the East Germans just stuck to one model of car–the Trabant–and so eliminated the problem of forecasting consumer choice.

The bulk of the book reviews various socialist or part-socialist regimes around the world–Sweden, North Korea, Venezuela, as well as the socialist aspects of American society, such as the public schools, public highways, and of course, in the last chapter, last year’s health care initiative. Public schools fit the definition of socialism from Williamson’s first chapter: “the public provision of non-public goods.” (“Public goods” are defined as those goods that by their nature cannot be easily provided by the free market, such as national defense and law enforcement.)

“Socialism” can be a fighting word, so the reader may disagree on whether something is socialism (such as public schools). Really, the question is whether the practice is a kind of socialism that can’t be lived with. Public schools certainly look socialist–the government decides where you’re going to school and how you’ll be taught. If you want a choice in the matter, you can move (maybe), or you can try to live outside the system entirely.

Williamson’s own views are clear–he doesn’t think that socialism works, and he doesn’t want to live under it. With the resignation of the clear-eyed man in the land of the blind, he knows, though, that socialism has its attractions for the masses, no matter how thoroughly he shows its errors.

Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku

June 5, 2011

(Singing) It’s impossible . . . to stick a Cadillac up your nose–it’s just impossible . . .
–Steve Martin

I think we’ll all agree that we’re in the second decade of the 21st century by now, no matter how you count, but I still can’t take the teleporter to work or put on the invisibility cloak when the JWs come calling.

Kaku takes a serious look at the hopes of technology, especially as we’ve seen it in science fiction and explains the limits of (1) what we can do now and (2) what we expect or hope to be able to do someday. He classifies technologies in “Class I” (impossible today, but not in violation of the known laws of physics, and achievable within the next century); “Class II” (almost beyond our understanding of the physical world, so that they would require millenia if not more to achieve); and “Class III” (in violation of the known laws of physics–there are few of these, including perpetual motion machines and precognition).

Teleporting of living beings doesn’t seem likely, even in the far future; that is, if you want to stay living when you get where you’re going. There’s already some work on invisibility by bending of light waves around an object, but for now researchers are stuck on how to make an object invisible at all angles.

He looks at the alternatives available for interstellar travel–but even the best theories will probably require generations of travelers to make the trip. Would you set out for a new world in the knowledge that the traveling will be your whole life and that even your children will never get there? UFOs as described in popular reports come into the discussion, and Kaku tries to analyze what types of technology could allow the movements of the UFOs as described. I had never considered this:

[A]ll known rockets depend on Newton’s third law of motion (for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction); yet the UFOs cited do not seem to have any exhaust whatsoever. And the g-forces created by zigzagging flying saucers would exceed one hundred times the gravitational force on Earth–the g-forces would be enough to flatten any creature on Earth.

He probably thinks that Peter Parker couldn’t survive a fall from the top of a ten-story building onto the roof of a car when his spidey webs give out–skeptic!

Wormholes have some conceptual support and could be a way of making interstellar travel possible, but as much as Kaku explains things, it becomes clear that the Icarus is not going to fly across the galaxy with Charlton Heston and crew–even the concept is only of small particles making the trip.

The discussion of perpetual motion machines contains a great restatement of the three laws of thermodynamics:

First Law: You can’t get something for nothing (conservation of matter and energy).
Second Law: You can’t break even (entropy always increases).
Third Law: You can’t even get out of the game (it’s impossible to reach absolute zero).

Also interesting is this tidbit: The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will not consider an application for a perpetual motion machine unless the inventor submits a working model–the only type of device for which there is such a requirement.

The book takes science fiction seriously enough to compare its visions to what we know now. There’s an example of a researcher getting his inspiration from Star Trek to solve Einstein’s theory of gravity (the Alcubierre drive, inspired by the gravity propulsion device).

Can I at least have Rosie the robot to get me my pipe and slippers at the end of the day, like Mr. Jetson?