Mar 232004


d00d. Do not run kiddie scripts that generate buffer overflows against my web server. They will avail you nothing but a 414. This is especially unwise if you happen to subscribe to the same cable company, in the same area, as I do, because then I will inform them, and they will find out who you are. And when Mommy hears from Time-Warner, as she shortly will, she will ground you for a month and take your Internet away.


Mar 202004

For once I’m with Teachout; Chaplin gets on my nerves too. For reasons I will defer to the 20th century’s best hater, the old Enemy, Wyndham Lewis:

The childish, puny stature of Chaplin — enabling him always to be the little David to the Goliath of some man chosen for his statuesque proportions — served him well. He was always the little-fellow-put-upon — the naif, child-like individual, bullied by the massive brutes by whom he was surrounded, yet whom he invariably vanquished. The fact that the giants were always vanquished; that, like the heroes of Ossian, they rode forth to battle (against the Chaplins of this world), but that, like those distant celtic heroes, they always fell, never, of course, struck the Public as pathetic, too. For the pathos of the Public is of a sentimental and naively selfish order. It is its own pathos and triumphs that it wishes to hear about. It seldom rises to an understanding of other forms of pathos than that of the kind represented by Chaplin, and the indirect reference to “greatness” in a more general sense, conveyed by mere physical size, repels it.

In this pathos of the small — so magnificently exploited by Charlie Chaplin — the ordinary “revolutionary” motif for crowd-consumption is not far to seek. The Keystone giants by whom, in his early films, he was always confronted, who oppressed, misunderstood and hunted him, but whom he invariably overcame, were the symbols of authority and power. Chaplin is a great revolutionary propagandist. On the political side, the pity he awakens, and his peculiar appeal to the public, is that reserved for the small man.

But no one can have seen a Chaplin film without being conscious also of something else, quite different from mere smallness. There was something much more positive than scale alone, or absence of scale, being put across, you would feel. First, of course, was the feeling that you were in the presence of an unbounded optimism (for one so small, poor and lonely). The combination of light-heartedness and a sort of scurrilous cunning, that his irresponsible epileptic shuffle gives, is overpowering. It is Pippa that is passing. God’s in His Heaven; all’s well with the world (of Chaplins at all events). And, secondly, you would experience the utmost confidence in your little hero’s winning all his battles. The happy-ending (for the militant child-man) was foreshadowed in the awkward and stupid, lurching bulk of the Keystone giants; in the flea-like adroitness of their terrible little antagonist. It was the little skiff of Drake against the Armada over again. In brief, your hero was not only small, but very capable and very confident. Throughout he bore a charmed life.

To the smallness, and to the charmed life, you now have to add the child-factor… His little doll-like face, his stuck-on toy moustache, his tiny wrists, his small body, are those of a child as much as is the “four-foot something” body of Miss [Anita] Loos. And without the public being conscious of it, no doubt, it was as a child that he went to its heart, which, as far as the popular audience is concerned, is maternal.

Besides, he isn’t funny.

(Update: Colby Cosh, Rick Coencas, and David Fiore agree with me. George Hunka and Ed Kemmick don’t.)

Mar 182004

My father asked me write about dollar-cost averaging, which is strange, since his own financial career is epitomized by refusing to buy an apartment in New York in the wake of Manhattan’s last great real estate crash in 1973, shrewdly choosing instead to commute two hours a day to his job in the city. Or maybe that’s exactly why he does want me to write about it. In any case, I take requests.

If you don’t know what dollar-cost averaging is, Ameritrade, Pax World Funds, American Century, or your local broker will happily inform you. It boils down to a syllogism:

Major Premise: You liked the stock at price x.
Minor Premise: Nothing has changed about the stock.
Conclusion: You should like the stock even more at price x – y. Buy more!

Perhaps the best example of the dollar-cost averaging pitch is from the eerily accurate movie Boiler Room, about penny stock hustlers, in which Seth Davis, crouching under his desk, cajoles a worried investor in a collapsing stock (propped up entirely by the schlockhouse in the first place) into buying more with a big pitch for dollar-cost averaging. E.F. Moody takes care to point out that “the price of the shares average [sic] out over time and can still produce an acceptable profit — assuming that the ending value of the shares is higher than the dollar cost average of monthly investing — not an absolute guarantee.” Which is right neighborly and responsible of them.

As to the merits of dollar-cost averaging, let me put this as tactfully as possible: there are none whatsoever. Either the stock is a good or bad buy now. Your previous purchases have as much bearing on your present purchase as previous rolls at the craps table have on whether to bet the line. To put it in terms of our syllogism, the minor premise is false. Something has changed about the stock: its price has gone down. As my father points out, if the price goes up, and you want to buy more, does your broker tell you discouragingly that you will raise your average price per share? I thought not.

The syllogism, however, is almost true. Stock represents something real, a percentage of ownership in a company that presumably, though not necessarily, has real assets and real value. If the customer had researched the company exhaustively, had kept his knowledge up-to-date, and had assured himself that the value of the company was higher than the stock price, then the syllogism would be valid. In truth, of course, the customer bought the stock because his broker or tennis partner advised him to. Such “knowledge” as he has is usually confined to the belief that Acme Industries is going through the roof. When Acme goes through the floor instead, not only has something he knows about the stock changed; everything he knows about the stock has changed. Since the customer never sees it this way, dollar-cost averaging can be expected to work forever. As an investment strategy dollar-cost averaging is absurd; only as a psychological strategy does its brilliance become manifest.

Besides being irrationally self-regarding, most people are irrationally risk-averse. They will sacrifice an excellent prospect of a large gain to avoid the possibility of a large loss. This, oddly, mitigates in favor of dollar-cost averaging, when you might think the opposite would be true. As long as the customer’s money is in stock, he can imagine it to be worth whatever he pleases, like a lottery ticket. Fantasy becomes reality when he converts it to cash. It is excruciating for most people to sell at a loss; when they call their broker they’re dying to be talked out of it. And so they are.

Buy more! Buy now! Buy more now!

Mar 122004

All rock critics like Elvis Costello because all rock critics look like Elvis Costello.
–David Lee Roth

Were you a grade-school liberal like me? Anyone who isn’t a socialist at 10 has no heart, anyone who still is at 20 has no brains. I grew up in New York’s legendarily Republican Dutchess County, of which Gore Vidal remarked, after a losing run for assemblyman, “Every four years the natives crawl out of their holes and vote for William McKinley.” Maybe so; what they don’t crawl out of their holes to do is vote for Gore Vidal. Dutchess was FDR’s home county, and he never came close to carrying it in four tries. A straw poll of my 6th grade class revealed that I was the only kid who supported McGovern. What I lacked in numbers I made up in energy, plastering McGovern posters all over the walls of the elementary school. My Nixon hatred confirmed, by junior high I knew all the Watergate players, not just the big boys like Haldeman and Ehrlichman but the whole supporting cast — McCord, Segretti, Egil Krogh, right down to Frank Wills, the security guard at the Watergate Hotel who blew the whole thing open. My chess club adjourned early one sultry night in July 1974 to tune in Nixon’s resignation speech, which I watched with undisguised, not to say lip-smacking, relish.

I understood no more of politics than my Nixonite classmates did. I hated Nixon because my parents hated Nixon and I was too young to have learned to hate my parents; I liked my parents. But I was plenty old enough to hate my classmates, and took a none-too-secret pleasure in the fact that my politics differed from theirs. They were nothing more than a way to be superior.

In high school I refused to listen to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd: that shit was for the heads who wore cutoff jean jackets and smoked in the parking lot. I went in instead for Devo, Talking Heads, Sex Pistols, Clash, a few deservedly forgotten groups like the Fabulous Poodles (“Mirror Star” anyone?), and of course, as Professor Lee Roth would have predicted, Elvis Costello. Later on, when my ex-stoner buddies sat me down with the headphones and forced me to listen carefully to Zep and Floyd, I was astonished to discover that it was good, really good, and that my own tastes at the time had held up spottily by comparison. The jean jacket boys were right, and I was wrong. It bothered me, as it would bother anyone. Only after several years of conscientious deprogramming could I listen to these bands without prejudice.

When I started to read poetry I stayed away from Keats and Shelley and Christina Rossetti: that shit was for the girls who liked rainbows and ponies, not that I had anything against rainbows or ponies, just the girls who liked them, who wouldn’t go out with me anyway. Even now I can’t read any Keats besides the Grecian Urn, am notoriously unfair to Shelley, and can admire one or two poems by Rossetti only from a discreet distance.

I have spilled my share of pixels here defending objective values in art. Some art is good, some bad, and confusing them is like thinking that the earth is flat or that there’s a fortune to be made in buying real estate with no money down. I am very far from recanting but I have nagging doubts. Elsewhere, discussing public and private reading, I instanced someone whose favorite song is “Desperado” because it happened to playing when he kissed a girl at the junior high school dance. The example is tendentious; in truth most “private readings” are far more subtle and insidious. You admire someone, and he plays you music, and shows you pictures, and lends you books. You admire the exhibits, but to what extent can that be disentangled from your admiration of the exhibitor, if at all? I have a taste for poems about the relationship between the abstract and the particular; on what grounds can I claim it is any more universal or important a theme than the tribulations of love or the inevitability of the grave?

I exhibit certain poems here, and convince certain readers who might not see them otherwise that they are good. But you will never share my tastes exactly unless you’re exactly like me, and God forbid. Yvor Winters, as any steady reader here knows, is my favorite critic. Do I like him on the merits, such as they are, or do I like him because, of all poetry critics, he’s most like me? David Lee Roth might know. I don’t.

(Update: Rick Coencas comments. George Wallace points out that it was Egil Krogh, not Emil as I originally had it; I would have known that in 8th grade. Eddie Thomas has some especially interesting remarks. Eloise of Spit Bull comments. Jeff Ward comments.)

Mar 072004

You don’t want to know. Or maybe you do. I’ve spent 14 to 16 hours a day programming — rearchitecting, in the argot, a project I’m working on. The application tracks resources, for construction companies, in real time, and there were quite a few things to fix. (Note to Cosh: this is what I do for a living.)

Don’t misunderstand: I’m as lazy as the next man, probably lazier. My exertions were mostly geared toward maximum future leisure. The application is in beta now, and very soon it will go into production. The beta users want new features, and the production users will want more new features. Your choice is, fix the server design now to make these features relatively easy to implement, or do ten times as much work down the road. As the FRAM oil filter guy used to say, you can pay me now, or pay me later.

I’m also one of those guys who will work forever if something interests him and idle for weeks otherwise, which makes me, as you might imagine, a less than satisfactory employee. In this case we decided on more or less the server design that I wanted in the first place, so I was forced to work around the clock to prove that I was right. Which I was. And isn’t that what life is really all about?

Microsoft, about which I rarely have a good word to say, certainly earned its keep this week. It turns out that C#, unlike Java, can transparently proxy objects over machine boundaries. This means you can create complex objects on the server with references to their subobjects, pass in a proxy that knows how to construct the subobjects, and then fetch the subobjects dynamically, without the callers having to know a thing about it. The nasty synchronization issues associated with client-side caching disappear, turning event-handling from a nightmare into a breeze. If you understood this, what a thrill, right? If you didn’t, I’ll write about poetry again soon.

I shall return later tonight with an explanation of why David Lee Roth is the world’s most eminent living sociologist. If by some chance I don’t, see above.