Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Reading List: The Forgotten Man
- Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man. New York: Harper Perennial,  2008. ISBN 978-0-06-093642-6.
- The conventional narrative of the Great Depression and New Deal is well-defined, and generations have been taught the story of how financial hysteria and lack of regulation led to the stock market crash of October 1929, which tipped the world economy into depression. The do-nothing policies of Herbert Hoover and his Republican majority in Congress allowed the situation to deteriorate until thousands of banks had failed, unemployment rose to around a quarter of the work force, collapsing commodity prices bankrupted millions of farmers, and world trade and credit markets froze, exporting the Depression from the U.S. to developed countries around the world. Upon taking office in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt embarked on an aggressive program of government intervention in the economy, going off the gold standard, devaluing the dollar, increasing government spending and tax rates on corporations and the wealthy by breathtaking amounts, imposing comprehensive regulation on every aspect of the economy, promoting trade unions, and launching public works and job creation programs on a massive scale. Although neither financial markets nor unemployment recovered to pre-crash levels, and full recovery did not occur until war production created demand for all industry could produce, at least FDR's New Deal kept things from getting much worse, kept millions from privation and starvation, and just possibly, by interfering with the free market in ways never before imagined in America, preserved it, and democracy, from the kind of revolutionary upheaval seen in the Soviet Union, Italy, Japan, and Germany. The New Deal pitted plutocrats, big business, and Wall Street speculators against the “forgotten man”—the people who farmed their land, toiled in the factories, and strove to pay their bills and support their families and, for once, allied with the Federal Government, the little guys won. This is a story of which almost any student having completed an introductory course in American history can recount the key points. It is a tidy story, an inspiring one, and both a justification for an activist government and demonstration that such intervention can work, even in the most dire of economic situations. But is it accurate? In this masterful book, based largely on primary and often contemporary sources, the author makes a forceful argument that is is not—she does not dispute the historical events, most of which did indeed occur as described above, but rather the causal narrative which has been erected, largely after the fact, to explain them. Looking at what actually happened and when, the tidily wrapped up package begins to unravel and discordant pieces fall out. For example, consider the crash of 1929. Prior to the crash, unemployment was around three percent (the Federal Government did not compile unemployment figures at the time, and available sources differ in methodology and hence in the precise figures). Following the crash, unemployment began to rise steeply and had reached around 9% by the end of 1929. But then the economy began to recover and unemployment fell. President Hoover was anything but passive: the Great Engineer launched a flurry of initiatives, almost all disastrously misguided. He signed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff (over the objection of an open letter signed by 1,028 economists and published in the New York Times). He raised taxes and, diagnosing the ills of the economy as due to inflation, encouraged the Federal Reserve to contract the money supply. To counter falling wages, he jawboned industry leaders to maintain wage levels which predictably resulted in layoffs instead of reduced wages. It was only after these measures took hold that the economy, which before seemed to be headed into a 1921-like recession, nosed over and began to collapse toward the depths of the Depression. There was a great deal of continuity between the Hoover and early Roosevelt administrations. Roosevelt did not rescind Hoover's disastrous policies, but rather piled on intrusive regulation of agriculture and industry, vastly increased Federal spending (he almost doubled the Federal budget in his first term), increased taxes to levels before unimaginable in peacetime, and directly attacked private enterprise in sectors such as electrical power generation and distribution, which he felt should be government enterprises. Investment, the author contends, is the engine of economic recovery, and Roosevelt's policies resulted in a “capital strike” (a phrase used at the time), as investors weighed their options and decided to sit on their money. Look at this way: suppose you're a plutocrat and have millions at your disposal. You can invest them in a business, knowing that if the business fails you're out your investment, but that if it generates a profit the government will tax away more than 75% of your gains. Or, you can put your money in risk- and tax-free government bonds and be guaranteed a return. Which would you choose? The story of the Great Depression is told largely by following a group of individuals through the era. Many of the bizarre aspects of the time appear here: Father Divine; businesses and towns printing their own scrip currency; the Schechter Brothers kosher poultry butchers taking on FDR's NRA and utterly defeating it in the Supreme Court; the prosecution of Andrew Mellon, Treasury Secretary to three Presidents, for availing himself of tax deductions the government admitted were legal; and utopian “planned communities” such as Casa Grande in Arizona, where displaced farmers found themselves little more than tenants in a government operation resembling Stalin's collective farms. From the tone of some of the reaction to the original publication of this book, you might think it a hard-line polemic longing to return to the golden days of the Coolidge administration. It is nothing of the sort. This is a fact-based re-examination of the Great Depression and the New Deal which, better than any other book I've read, re-creates the sense of those living through it, when nobody really understood what was happening and people acting with the best of intentions (and the author imputes nothing else to either Hoover or Roosevelt) could not see what the consequences of their actions would be. In fact, Roosevelt changed course so many times that it is difficult to discern a unifying philosophy from his actions—sadly, this very pragmatism created an uncertainty in the economy which quite likely lengthened and deepened the Depression. This paperback edition contains an afterword in which the author responds to the principal criticisms of the original work. It is hard to imagine a more timely book. Since this book was published, the U.S. have experienced a debt crisis, real estate bubble collapse, sharp stock market correction, rapidly rising unemployment and economic contraction, with an activist Republican administration taking all kinds of unprecedented actions to try to avert calamity. A Democratic administration, radiating confidence in itself and the power of government to make things better, is poised to take office, having promised programs in its electoral campaign which are in many ways reminiscent of those enacted in FDR's “hundred days”. Apart from the relevance of the story to contemporary events, this book is a pure delight to read.
Monday, December 29, 2008
Installing the Perl Image::Magick module on CentOS 5.2As part of migrating the Fourmilab server farm to CentOS 5.2, I am also updating the Movable Type installation used to maintain this chronicle from version 3.34 to the current 4.23 release. Movable Type uses the Image Magick package, through its Perl bindings, to produce thumbnail images for images uploaded for inclusion in pages. While many Linux distributions, including CentOS, provide ready-to-install packages for Image Magick, it's usually up to you to install the Perl module which provides access to the Image Magick library from Perl programs. There are some subtleties in getting this to work, which occasioned some hair pulling on my part. As I have little hair to spare, I thought I'd share my notes for others confronted with the same task, and as a memo to my future self the next time an update comes around. First of all, before undertaking a task, the sage and wily programmer first verifies whether it's necessary at all. Run the Movable Type installation check program, mt-check.cgi in your Movable Type CGI directory, and see whether the Image::Magick module is already installed. If it reports something like, “Your server has Image::Magick installed (version 6.2.8)” you're in business and, as long as image thumbnail generation works, you need do nothing more. If Image::Magick is highlighted as absent, read on. Next, see if the Image Magick binary and library packages are installed on your system. For systems like CentOS which use the RPM package manager, you can do this with the command:
rpm -aq | grep ImageMagickTo install the Perl module, you need three packages:
ImageMagick ImageMagick-devel ImageMagick-perlNote that “ImageMagick-perl” provides the prerequisites for the Perl module, but not the module itself. If one or more packages are missing, install them. On CentOS and like systems, you can do this with, for example:
su yum install ImageMagick-devel(If your system uses a different package manager, you will have to use its equivalent tools, graphical or command line, to check whether the packages are present and install them if not.) After you have installed the three required packages, make a note of the version reported by the “rpm -aq” command. For the current release of CentOS 5.2, the ImageMagick package is reported as “ImageMagick-188.8.131.52-4.el5_1.1” in which the version is 6.2.8. People familiar with installing Perl packages would usually, at this point, go off to CPAN to search for and download the Image::Magick Perl module. But be very careful before you do this, as it may end badly. The Image Magick Perl bindings include C code which is sensitively dependent upon the version of the Image Magick library installed on your machine. In general, you must use a version of the Perl module which was specifically built for use with the corresponding version of Image Magick. The module posted on CPAN is usually one for the most recent general release of Image Magick, but many Linux distributions, especially those focused on stability such as CentOS, follow several versions behind in order to let problems be discovered and corrected before software is deployed in a server environment. For example, at this writing, the current public release of Image Magick is 6.4.8 while CentOS ships with version 6.2.8. If you attempt to build a Perl module intended for a 6.4 release with the libraries from 6.2, you will get hundreds of compilation errors in the C binding code and utterly fail in the installation process. What you need to do instead (unless you're lucky and your Linux distribution does provide the same version of the libraries as the module on CPAN expects) is to go to the Image Magick archives on SourceForge and download the complete source code distribution for the version which corresponds to that installed on your system. Extract the downloaded source code archive into a directory, but do not proceed to build the application and libraries. Instead, simply enter the PerlMagick subdirectory and build and install the Perl module manually with:
cd PerlMagick perl Makefile.PL make su make installAs noted, only the last step must be performed as super-user. (Obviously, only proceed with the installation if the make was successful.) It is not unusual to get some compiler warnings when building this package, but there should be no errors. After installing the Image::Magick module, re-run the Movable Type installation check program (mt-check.cgi) to confirm that it is able to locate it. Then you should try uploading an image to Movable Type with a thumbnail to verify that the process is working properly. If so, you're done.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Shadow Server Enters the 21st CenturyIt's funny how things have a way of coming around. When I originally implemented Shadow Server more than eleven years ago (it was originally posted in August 1997), some people thought it perfectly absurd to use a Perl-based CGI application to create drop-shadow images on demand for users. “Certainly, any sane user will just run an image editing program on their own computer!”, they exclaimed. Others mocked CGI applications as passé—why not use a Java applet or something equally trendy? (Answer: because you can't—Java applets run in a “sandbox” and, for security reasons, cannot access files on the local computer's file system.) But that was last century, and now it's all Web 2.0, and the concept of a “Web application” which provides “cloud-hosted generation of corporate identity graphics” with a “browser-neutral XML compliant interface” sounds so with it that you're inclined to look up to be sure you're not about to be buried under a pile of venture capital raining from the sky. Since Shadow Server is (without the slightest change in design) now so deliciously buzzword resonant, I thought it time to update the “user experience”, while retaining the retro-look of the original Web service. All documents, request forms, and results returned by the server are now XHTML 1.0 Strict DTD documents, with Unicode text elements for special characters. PNG files are accepted as input in addition to JPEG, GIF, and the other previously-supported formats, and PNG is now the default result format (JPEG and GIF remain as options). Given the increase in speed of the Web over the last decade, I selected non-interlaced mode for all result images: this yields a smaller file size, which loads more quickly on today's faster typical Internet service. Shadow Server is built upon the pnmshadow program also available from Fourmilab. I updated all the on-line documentation for this program to XHTML 1.0 Strict as well.
Thursday, December 25, 2008
Safetyland: Little Red Concept Vehicle
Sunday, December 21, 2008
Reading List: Come Nineveh, Come Tyre
- Drury, Allen. Come Nineveh, Come Tyre. New York: Avon, 1973. ISBN 978-0-380-00126-2.
- This novel is one of the two alternative conclusions the author wrote for the series which began with his Pulitzer Prize winning Advise and Consent. As the series progressed, Drury became increasingly over the top (some would say around the bend) in skewering the media, academia, and the Washington liberal establishment of the 1960s and 1970 with wickedly ironic satire apt to make the skulls of contemporary bien pensants explode. The story is set in a time in which the U.S. is involved in two protracted and broadly unpopular foreign wars, one seemingly winding down, the other an ongoing quagmire, both launched by a deeply despised president derided by the media and opposition as a warmonger. Due to a set of unexpected twists and turns in an electoral campaign like no other, a peace candidate emerges as the nominee of his party—a candidate with no foreign policy experience but supreme self-confidence, committed to engaging America's adversaries directly in one-on-one diplomacy, certain the outstanding conflicts can be thus resolved and, with multilateral good will, world peace finally achieved. This eloquent, charismatic, almost messianic candidate mobilises the support of a new generation, previously disengaged from politics, who not only throw their youthful vigour behind his campaign but enter the political arena themselves and support candidates aligned with the presidential standard bearer. Around the world, the candidate is praised as heralding a new era in America. The media enlist themselves on his side in an unprecedented manner, passing, not just on editorial pages but in supposedly objective news coverage, from artful bias to open partisanship. Worrisome connections between the candidate and radicals unwilling to renounce past violent acts, anti-American demagogues, and groups which resort to thuggish tactics against opponents and critics do not figure in the media's adulatory coverage of their chosen one. The media find themselves easily intimidated by even veiled threats of violence, and quietly self-censor criticism of those who oppose liberty for fear of “offending.” The candidate, inspiring the nation with hope for peace and change for the better, wins a decisive victory, sweeping in strong majorities in both the House and Senate, including many liberal freshmen aligned with the president-elect and owing their seats to the coattails of his victory. Bear in mind that this novel was published in 1973! This is the story of what happens after the candidate of peace, change, and hope takes office, gives a stunningly eloquent, visionary, and bold inaugural address, and basks in worldwide adulation while everything goes swimmingly—for about twelve hours. Afterward, well, things don't, and a cataclysmic set of events are set into motion which threaten to change the U.S. in ways other than were hoped by those who elected the new man. Now, this book was published three and a half decades ago, and much has changed in the intervening time, which doubtless explains why all of the books in the series are now long out of print. But considering the précis above, and how prophetic many of its elements were of the present situation in the U.S., maybe there's some wisdom here relevant to the changes underway there. Certainly one hopes that used booksellers aren't getting a lot of orders for this volume from buyers in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran. I had not read this book since its initial publication (when, despite almost universal disdain from the liberal media, it sold almost 200,000 copies in hardcover), and found in re-reading it that the story, while obviously outdated in some regards (the enemy of yore, the Soviet Bear, is no more, but who knows where Russia's headed?), especially as regards the now-legacy media, stands up better than I remembered it from the first reading. The embrace of media content regulation by a “liberal” administration is especially chilling at a time when talk of re-imposing the “Fairness Doctrine” and enforcing “network neutrality” is afoot in Washington. All editions of this book are out of print, but used copies of the mass-market paperback are presently available for little more than the shipping cost. Get yours before the bad guys clean out the shelves!
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Gnome-o-gram: Are the U.S. bankrupt?This article argues that that the United States are bankrupt because obligations of the Federal government now exceed the collective net worth of all of the citizens of that profligate polity. Well, maybe, but it depends upon how you crunch the numbers. One of the great lacunæ in accounting for Federal finances in the U.S. is that they have no concept of a capital budget: everything is treated as expensed in the current fiscal year. Consequently, the vast capital assets held by the Federal government are not offset against current and future liabilities. Assets? Well, consider the 432 million acres of land, mostly in the Western U.S., held as “federal land” under the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. This does not include National Parks—we aren't talking about turning them over to Disney here, although as a flaming libertarian I'd expect such a move to eventually render them less expensive, cleaner, safer, and more satisfying to the majority of visitors. I crunched the numbers for BLM and Forest Service land and it came up—hopeless. If we take the total out-year obligations of the Federal government (US$56.4 trillion) and divide them by the acres held by the Forest Service and the BLM, you'd have to realise US$130,000 per acre to pay off all current obligations. I think that even if you threw in the national parks and all of the District of Columbia, you'd come up laughably short. This does not bode well for the dollar. “How much are we bid for this aircraft carrier group?”
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Not so great moments in address processingWith the ongoing collapse of financial institutions in the United States, some folks have consoled themselves by saying, “Well, granted the idiots on the trading side have lost a few terabucks, but at least our transaction processing, internal controls, and backroom data processing remain the envy of the world.” Or, maybe not. I have had an American Express Card for about 20 years. I had no problems transferring the account when I moved from California to Switzerland in 1991, and the account has been billed to me here ever since. Then, today, a statement came to hand which was mailed on November 25th, 2008, which is kind of tardy since air mail usually takes about four days between the U.S. and Switzerland. Then I looked at the address. My proper address is as follows, which was used (with a single character typo in the street address) by all previous American Express mailings:
John WalkerThe address on this poorly-guided missive was as follows:
Street address redacted
JOHN WALKERI can see why this letter occasioned a bit of head scratching among the sorting staff of the Swiss post office who, with their accustomed frightening efficiency, eventually got it to my mailbox. It would appear American Express have implemented an “address rewriter” which decided to clarify my exotic address by expanding the country code “CH” for Switzerland into an abbreviation for “County Highway”, necessitating the abbreviation of the name of the town since it didn't then fit on the line. I guess it isn't just the trading departments that are hiring ever-so-clever string theorists these days. Hey, it's a lot better than the transfer agent who, in 2004, sent stock certificates to me at an address in Swaziland!
CNTY HWY 2523 LIGNRS
STREET ADDRESS REDACTED
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Ephemera: Fourmilab Twitter Feed AvailableNever one to avoid jumping on a faddish bandwagon after it's already up to speed, Fourmilab now has a Twitter feed available. If you prefer to follow such things with a feed reader, here's the RSS feed URL. I'm not sure how I'm going to use this, precisely. For the moment it will probably be focused on site administrative ephemera (such as updates to server software, etc.) which don't justify a full-fledged posting on this chronicle.
Reading List: Patriots
- Rawles, James Wesley. Patriots. Philadelphia: Clearwater Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4257-3407-7.
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
Friday, December 5, 2008
Reading List: The People Trap and Mindswap
- Sheckley, Robert. The People Trap and Mindswap. New York: Ace Books, [1952–1966, 1968] 1981. ISBN 978-0-441-65874-9.
- This “Ace Double” (albeit not in the classic dos-à-dos format, but simply concatenated) contains a collection of mostly unrelated short stories by Robert Sheckley, and the short novel Mindswap, which is an extraordinarily zany story even by the standards of the year in which it was written, 1966, which was a pretty zany year—perhaps Sheckley foresaw just how weird the next few years would get. I bought this book because it contained a story I've remembered ever since I first read it four decades ago (and, even then, a decade after it was first published in Galaxy in 1953), “The Laxian Key”. In a century and a half of science fiction, this is the only exemplar of which I'm aware of a story based upon economics which is also riotously funny. I won't give away the plot, but just imagine the ultimate implications of “it's free!”. These stories are gems from the era in which science fiction was truly the “literature of ideas”—it's the ideas that matter; don't look for character development or introspection: the characters are props for the idea that underlies each story. If you like this kind of thing, which I do enormously, here is a master at work at the apogee of the genre, when you could pick up any one of the science fiction magazines and find several stories that made you look at the world through glasses which presented reality in a very different light. This book is long out of print, but used copies are readily available, often for less than the 1981 reprint cover price.
Monday, December 1, 2008
Gnome-o-gram: Mortgage Bailout, Roman StyleThere is but scant innovation in human folly. Every generation convinces itself that it's living in a “new era”, where “all the rules have changed”, and consequently stumbles into the same potholes which swallowed countless ancestors. Knowing some history (rare today) and paying serious attention to its lessons (rare in any age) is an excellent way to avoid all-too-predictable calamities. Take the current woes in the credit markets, triggered in part by government meddling in the mortgage market. Certainly, this must be an unforeseen consequence of our twenty-first century fibre-optic globally connected financial system, with computer-modeled financial derivatives, risk management strategies, and all the rest of the hooey cooked up by all those bright fellows on Wall Street—how could they have possibly anticipated the mess they were getting us into? Well, by reading Tacitus, for one thing. In Book VI of The Annals, Tacitus describes how runaway mortgage lending, combined with government meddling with interest rates and loan terms resulted in a credit crunch and an eventual collapse in real estate prices. All of this happened in A.D. 32 during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius.
Note that even “evasions” and “strange artifices” (credit default swaps, anybody?) played their part when this whole sordid mess blew up more than twenty centuries ago, and also that the form of the “bailout”—injecting liquidity into the banking system—employed by Emperor Tiberius was precisely the same as that cobbled together by the geniuses in charge of things today.
Meanwhile a powerful host of accusers fell with sudden fury on the class which systematically increased its wealth by usury in defiance of a law passed by Caesar the Dictator defining the terms of lending money and of holding estates in Italy, a law long obsolete because the public good is sacrificed to private interest. The curse of usury was indeed of old standing in Rome and a most frequent cause of sedition and discord, and it was therefore repressed even in the early days of a less corrupt morality. First, the Twelve Tables prohibited any one from exacting more than 10 per cent., when, previously, the rate had depended on the caprice of the wealthy. Subsequently, by a bill brought in by the tribunes, interest was reduced to half that amount, and finally compound interest was wholly forbidden. A check too was put by several enactments of the people on evasions which, though continually put down, still, through strange artifices, reappeared. On this occasion, however, Gracchus, the praetor, to whose jurisdiction the inquiry had fallen, felt himself compelled by the number of persons endangered to refer the matter to the Senate. In their dismay the senators, not one of whom was free from similar guilt, threw themselves on the emperor's indulgence. He yielded, and a year and six months were granted, within which every one was to settle his private accounts conformably to the requirements of the law.
Hence followed a scarcity of money, a great shock being given to all credit, the current coin too, in consequence of the conviction of so many persons and the sale of their property, being locked up in the imperial treasury or the public exchequer. To meet this, the Senate had directed that every creditor should have two-thirds his capital secured on estates in Italy. Creditors however were suing for payment in full, and it was not respectable for persons when sued to break faith. So, at first, there were clamorous meetings and importunate entreaties; then noisy applications to the praetor's court. And the very device intended as a remedy, the sale and purchase of estates, proved the contrary, as the usurers had hoarded up all their money for buying land. The facilities for selling were followed by a fall of prices, and the deeper a man was in debt, the more reluctantly did he part with his property, and many were utterly ruined. The destruction of private wealth precipitated the fall of rank and reputation, till at last the emperor interposed his aid by distributing throughout the banks a hundred million sesterces, and allowing freedom to borrow without interest for three years, provided the borrower gave security to the State in land to double the amount. Credit was thus restored, and gradually private lenders were found. The purchase too of estates was not carried out according to the letter of the Senate's decree, rigour at the outset, as usual with such matters, becoming negligence in the end.
Translated from the Latin by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.