Archive for May, 2009

A scrap of irony

Posted in General on May 25, 2009 by jkiparsky

Bill Joy, quoted in “UNIX Today” magazine, August, 1984.

The trouble is that UNIX is not accessible, not transparent in the way that Interleaf is, where you sit down and start poking around in the menu and explore the whole system. Someone I know sat down with a Macintosh and a Lisa and was disappointed because, in a half hour, he explored the whole system and there wasn’t as much as he thought. That’s true, but the point is in half an hour, almost without a manual you can know which button to push and you can find nearly everything. Things don’t get lost. I think that’s the key.

Systems are going to get a lot more sophisticated. Things will tend to get lost unless the interfaces are done in the Macintosh style. People who use these machines may run applications but won’t necessarily be skilled at putting applications together. A lot of these people won’t even have access to the underlying UNIX system.

The Ascent Of Money (Niall Ferguson)

Posted in Books on May 25, 2009 by jkiparsky

Subtitled “The Financial History of the World”, this book is more a brief treatise on some issues in finance, with examples from history. The book is organized in topical chapters, which (for obvious reasons of popular history writing) draw as much as possible from an ancient example and a modern one – using those terms in their contemporary and popular senses, of course, in which “ancient” is that which precedes the first World War of the last century, and the “modern” is what happened yesterday. This topical organization prevents Ferguson from really living up to his subtitle, for which some mild disapproval.
However, the book that was actually written is reasonably engaging, and in its somewhat scattered way shed light on both the interplay of finance and history and the recent history leading roughly from the depression of the 1930s to the current one. There’s still room for some good books to be written with this subtitle, but this one is worth a look. The afterword, as it turns out, is worth a read while you’re standing in the bookstore aisle, if nothing else. It’s essentially a 20-page think piece on finance, and as it lacks any trace of data or evidence or even serious argument, it’s quite readable.

Some thoughts on market failures and society

Posted in General on May 21, 2009 by jkiparsky

Reading a recent column by Joe Nocera, (read it here) it struck me that while he’s right as far as he goes, he fails to take an important next step in his logic. I wrote this after reading the column, and when I came across it, I thought it was actually worth reading again, so here it is.

Roughly speaking, Nocera draws on the classic principle that markets are driven by risk, and attempting to eliminate the risk from markets will eliminate the virtues that markets bring – economic activity, jobs, houses, and iPhones, to name a few. So far, so good. And in this case, he observes that the impulse to rescue the victims of a Bernard Madoff from the results of his actions, while a fine and virtuous impulse, will only have the effect of encouraging poor investment decisions in the future. If you know that someone will bail you out if you lose it all, you don’t necessarily worry so much about losing it all. (If you’re smart, you’ll be more worried about losing a little or breaking even than losing big, because nobody will bail you out for breaking even.) So giving in to that impulse, laudable as it may be is ultimately a bad move for society as a whole, meaning for the people in that society. So far, I’m in agreement, but there is a further thought to think.

While risk is important in a market, and insulating investors from specific risk is a bad idea, a market in which the penalty for failure is destitution is a market which will also be insulated from risk. Just as there is no risk in a market where your losses are made good, nobody will take a risk in a market where failure has you selling pencils on the street. One must be able to take reasonable risks and survive a reasonable failure in order to have a climate where investment will flourish. (Other things are also necesary: for example, if a worker’s pay goes entirely towards their bills, they will invest nothing because there is nothing to invest)

This is to say that while a strictly market-based understanding of the current situation argues against a specific bailout of the Madoff investors (I’ll avoid the word victims- perhaps “survivors” would be better?) it also argues against the rigid individualist “I’ve got mine, Jack” capitalism of the Anarchist Republican Club, and for a safety-net capitalism of the New Deal style.

Given that most people who have some money to invest don’t have degrees in economics or finance or the time, inclination, and skills required for careful analysis of a particular investment vehicle, we can assume that people like Madoff will always exist, and that they will always be geniuses on the up side and caught out in the downturn. (Anyone reading the Times’ business section recently will note that there are a number of smaller cases very similar to Madoff’s turning up recently, like fish flopping in a drying tidepool as the tide recedes) Nocera is right: the suckers who put their money in the hands of the wrong slick-talking capitalist should not be “made whole” any more than the sucker who loses fifty bucks to a three card monte artist. But what he doesn’t say is this: there is a role for society as a whole in cushioning each of us from financial disaster. That role serves all of us, particularly those who will never rely on it directly, in that it frees up capital for investment and thus gives the people with bigger boats a deeper sea to fish in. Just as it is criminally insane to leave health care as an optional expense, impoverishing people, destroying their lives, and wrecking the economy (yes, folks, let’s say it together: stop the anarchist republicans before they destroy America!) it is also gross foolishness at best to allow the economy to be dragged down by the inevitable failures of some investors. Not just the failures that happen, and make for good photographs, but the ones that don’t happen, because the people who would have invested their money fail to do so, out of fear of becoming a good photograph of a real failure.


Posted in From Saramago's Notebooks on May 16, 2009 by jkiparsky

The original of which the following text is a translation was posted, in Portuguese, to José Saramago’s “journal”, O Caderno de Saramago, on 22 September 2008.

The original text may be found at


I believe that all the words that we say, all the movements and gestures, finished or only sketched out, that we make, each of them and all together, can be understood as loose pieces of an unintentional autobiography that, although involuntary, or because of this, are no less sincere and true than the most detailed of the stories of a life transferred to writing and to the page. This conviction that everything we say and do in the length of time, even seeming bereft of significance and importance is, and it cannot be prevented from being, biographical expression, made me suggest one day, more seriously than it might seem at first, that all human beings should leave their lives told in writing, and that these thousands of millions of volumes, when they began to overflow the earth, should be brought to the moon. This would mean that the great, the enormous, the gigantic, the unmeasurable, the immense library of human existence would have to be divided, first, in two parts, and then, in time, into three, into four, or even into nine, supposing that on the eight remaining planets of the solar system, there would be ambient conditions so kind as to respect the fragility of paper. I imagine that the relations of those many lives that, being so simple and modest, could be acheived in only a half dozen pages, or even less, would be dispatched to Pluto, the most distant of the Sun’s children, where certainly researchers would rarely want to go.

Of course problems and doubts would arise when it was time to establish and define the criteria of the composition of these “libraries”. It would be incontestable, for example, that works like the diaries of Amiel, of Kafka, or Virginia Woolf, the biography of Samuel Johnson, the autobiography of Cellini, the memoirs of Casanova or the confessions of Rousseau, the equal of so many of equally human and literary importance, must remain on the planet where they were written, so they can be witness to the passage through this world of men and women who, for good or bad reasons that have lived, to leave a sign, a presence, an influence that, having lasted until today, would continue to leave the coming generations marked. The problems would arise when, in choosing what should remain or go into outer space one began to consider the inevitable subjective praising, the prejudices, fear, old or recent animosities, impossible pardons, delayed justifications, all that is terrible in life, despair and agony, in the end, human nature. I think that, in the end, it is best to leave things as they are. Like most of the best ideas, mine is also impractical. Patience.

Link: A profile of Saramago

Posted in From Saramago's Notebooks, General on May 15, 2009 by jkiparsky

The nift-o-licious* WordPress feature which generates links between entries on this site has finally got one right. Behind this door, you will find an article by a Massachusetts journalist of Portuguese descent who conducted an interview with José Saramago some time back. This is much better than the time it linked from this to this.

In any case, anyone interested in reading amateur translations of Saramago’s journal is at least potentially interested in reading Senhor Cunha’s piece, to which I commend your attention.

*Ahem. Please notice hip, with-it coinage of stupid phrase for generic, unspecified, lazy approval.

Saramago: Pure Appearances

Posted in From Saramago's Notebooks on May 13, 2009 by jkiparsky

The following text is a translation from the Portuguese. It was originally published by José Saramago in his online “journal”: O Caderno de Saramago. The original text of this essay may be found under the title of Pura Aparência.

I suppose that in the beginning of beginnings, before we had invented speech, which is, as we know, the supreme creator of uncertainties, we weren’t tormented by any serious doubts about who we were and about our personal and collective relationship to with the place we found ourselves in. The world, obviously, could only be what we saw at each moment, and also, as important supplementary information, that which the remaining senses hearing, touch, smell, and taste – were able to perceive of it. In this initial moment, the world was pure appearance and pure surface. Matter was rough or smooth, bitter or sweet, bitter or tasteless, sonorous or silent, odorous or odorless. All things were what they seemed to be for the simple reason that there was no reason for them to seem to be anything else or to be anything else. In those ancient days, the idea that matter might be “porous” didn’t occur to us. Today, however, although aware that, from the last virus to the universe, we are nothing more than assemblages of atoms, and that inside them, besides the mass that they are and that defines them, there is space left over for nothingness (the absolutely compact does not exist, everything is permeable), we continue, as our ancestors in the caves did, to learn, identify, and recognize the world according to appearance that it presents to us. I imagine that the philosophical and the scientific spirit must have shown themselves one day when someone had the intuition that this appearance, while it is an exterior image the mind can capture and useable by it to map nknowledge, it could be, also, an illusion of the sense. If usually more referred to the moral world than the physical world, the popular expression is well known in which this took shape: “Appearances can be deceiving.” Or deceitful, which means the same thing. There is no lack of examples, if space permitted.

This scribbler has always been concerned with what is hidden behind mere appearances, and now I am not speaking of atoms and subatomic particles, which, as such, are always apprearance of something that is hidden. I speak, indeed, of ordinary, habitual, everyday questions, like, for example, the political system that we call democracy, that even Winston Churchill said was the least bad of the known systems. He didn’t say the best, he said the least bad. By what we are seeing, it will be said that we consider it more than sufficient, and this, I believe, is an error of perception that, without our noticing it, we pay for every day. I will return to this topic.

Saramago: Rosa Parks

Posted in From Saramago's Notebooks on May 13, 2009 by jkiparsky

This text is not written by me, it was posted (in Portuguese) by José Saramago to his blog on 9 November 2008.
( URL: )

The translation is mine, though.

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks, not Rosa Banks. A regrettable failure of the memory, which was not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, made me commit one of the worst slips that can be committed in the complex system of relations among people: to give someone a name which is not theirs. Except for the patient reader of these unambitious lines, I have nobody to ask forgiveness from, but it’s enough, to see myself punished for the mistake, the sense of intense shame that took hold of me when, soon afterward, I realized the gravity of the mistake. Still I thought of letting it go, but I resisted the temptation, and here I am to confess the error and to promise that from now on I will take care to verify everything, even if I think I am certain of the fact.

There are evils that come before the good, says the popular saying, and perhaps it’s true. I have thus the opportunity to return to Rosa Parks, that seamstress of forty-two years who, travelling on a bus in Montgomery, in the state of Alabama, on the first of December, 1955, refused to give up her seat to a person of the white race, as the bus driver ordered her. This offence took her to prison, accused of disturbing the public order. It must be explained that Rosa Parks was seated in the section designated for Negros, but as the section for whites was completely full, the white man wanted her seat.

In response to the jailing of Rosa Parks, Baptist preacher, relatively unknown at the time, Martin Luther King, led the protests against the Montgomery busses, which forced the public transit authorities to end the practice of racial segregation on their vehicles. That was the signal that unleashed other demonstrations against segregation. In 1956 the case of Rosa Parks finally came to the Supreme Court of the United States, which declared the segregation of public transit to be unconstitutional. Rosa Parks, who since 1950 had been a member of the NAACP, saw herself turned into an icon for the civil rights movement, for which she worked all of her life. She died in 2005. Without her, perhaps Barack Obama would not be President of the United States today.