Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Ernest Hemingway, FBI Victim, Spy Wannabe, Both or Neither?

I recently came across, via a blog comment, an old New York Times story about Hemingway. The author, A. E. Hotchner, reported that in his final years Hemingway was believed by his friends to be paranoid because he thought the FBI was spying on him—but that the FBI really had been spying on him, as revealed much later by documents turned up under the Freedom of Information Act. There was some suggestion that the FBI had driven him to his eventual suicide.

I went looking for more information and discovered an FBI file on Hemingway, released under the FOIA and webbed. It is an interesting document, but it provides very little support for Hotchner's claims.

Most of the file deals with events in Cuba during WWII. Hemingway, who was friends with people in the U.S. Embassy, had offered to use his contacts among Spanish Republican exiles to get intelligence information about activities in Cuba by the Franco government. The relevant FBI agent thought such information would be useful.

Hemingway ended up, at least by his own account (reported by the FBI agent, presumably from his contacts in the Embassy) setting up his own spy network. The FBI concluded, however, that the information being produced was worthless, "that it is completely unreliable, that the time taken to investigate it and check on it is purely wasted time and wasted effort, ... ."  

My favorite sample of Hemingway's work, from one of the FBI reports:
He enjoys the complete personal confidence of the American Ambassador and the Legal Attache has witnessed conferences where the Ambassador observed Hemingway's opinions as gospel and followed enthusiastically Hemingway's warning of the probable seizure of Cuba by a force of 30,000 Germans transported to the island in 1,000 submarines.
Hotchner writes about the FBI file that "It revealed that beginning in the 1940s J. Edgar Hoover had placed Ernest under surveillance because he was suspicious of Ernest’s activities in Cuba." That's an odd way of describing what is actually there.

There is very little in the file from the post WWII period. The most nearly relevant bit is a report about Hemingway as a patient at Mayo:
 “(something whited out) Mayo Clinic, advised to eliminate publicity and contacts by newsmen, the Clinic had suggested that Mr. Hemingway register under the alias GEORGE SEVIER. (something whited out) stated that Mr. HEMINGWAY is now worried about his registering under an assumed name, and is concerned about an FBI investigation. (something whited out) stated that inasmuch as this worry was interfering with the treatment of Mr. HEMINGWAY, he desired authorization to tell HEMINGWAY that the FBI was not concerned with his registering under an assumed name. (something whited out) was advised that there was no objection.”
That tells us that Hemingway thought the FBI was watching him, not that they were.

Hotchner writes:
Over the following years, agents filed reports on him and tapped his phones. The surveillance continued all through his confinement at St. Mary’s Hospital. It is likely that the phone outside his room was tapped after all.
Looking through the webbed file, I could find no evidence that the FBI ever tapped Hemingway's phone or that he was under surveillance at any time. The "reports on him" after the Cuban episode consist of:

Reports summarizing information about Hemingway from FBI files, sent in response to queries from elsewhere in the government.

Two pieces apparently dealing with a dispute between Hemingway and Ted Scott, a New Zealand columnist, which had led to Scott challenging Hemingway to a duel, a challenge Hemingway declined.

A description of an interview in which Hemingway, returning to Cuba from Spain in 1959, said positive things about the Castro government.

It is possible that there is some other collection of FBI files on Hemingway released under FOIA, but it does not seem likely. If the collection I found and read is Hotchner's source,  he is badly misstating what is in it. Presumably, since he was telling a story people, including his editors at the Times, wanted to believe,  they made no effort to check whether it was true.

I found, from another source, a report of Hemingway being at some point a spy for the KGB:
However, he failed to “give us any political information” and was never “verified in practical work”, so contacts with Argo [Hemingway] had ceased by the end of the decade.”
That fits the same pattern. Hemingway pretended to do important things along secret agent/spymaster lines both for the U.S. government and for the Soviets. Both found him useless.

[I have been unable to find an email address for Hotchner, so couldn't ask him where in the FBI file he found evidence of phone taps or continued surveillance. With luck someone will point him at this post, in which case he is more than welcome to defend what he wrote.]

Duck Dynasty, Medieval Islam, and Moral Philosophy

There was a recent public flap, brought to my attention by a post on my favorite blog, over a speech by Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty. Its claim was that an atheist had no basis for moral judgement, no ground on which to describe horrific acts (described in some detail in the talk) as bad.

It occurred to me that the same claim had played a central role in a somewhat earlier argument, the dispute between two schools of philosophy, Ash'ari and Mu'tazila, in medieval Islam. One of the major points of disagreement between them was the question of whether it was possible to know good and evil, to at least some degree, by human reason or only by revelation. The Mu'tazili position was that it was knowable by reason, the Ash'ari position that it was not.

I see a logical problem with both Robertson's position and the position of his Ash'arite predecessors. You encounter a powerful supernatural being. If you have no ability to distinguish good from evil on your own, how can you tell whether he is God, the Devil, or, like the Greek and Norse gods, a morally ambiguous being, no more consistently good than the rest of us?

I doubt that Robertson has published much on moral philosophy, but does anyone know if this is an issue that has been explored in the literature, ancient or modern, and if so whether anyone has come up with a good rebuttal to my argument, which seems to imply that both believers and nonbelievers need some source of moral knowledge outside of religion?

Age Related Fertility Decline and the Link Between Facts and Policies

I recently heard a talk by a colleague on the issue of age related fertility decline. Her basic claim was that, although most women know it exists, most women badly underestimate how serious the problem is and how limited a solution assisted reproductive technology provides, with the result that many women who want children end up not having them. One policy proposal she offered was that sex education classes ought to include information on fertility decline. 

It struck me, listening to the talk, that in this case as in many others, the same facts can be used to support a wide range of different political conclusions. In this case ...

It sounded as though opposition to the idea of warning women about the risks, including criticism of the data on which the warnings were based, came largely from feminists concerned that such warnings would scare women out of career paths that included delayed motherhood. That is indeed one possible consequence. Pushing the argument further in that direction, one could argue that fertility decline is not only an argument in favor of the traditional family pattern, women marrying reasonably young and putting most of their efforts into the job of wife and mother, it is even an argument in favor of traditional sexual mores. In order for women to marry young there have to be men willing to marry them, and one reason why, in a more traditional society, men were willing to marry was that it was the only reliable way of getting sex. The more common and accepted nomarital sex is, the weaker that argument.

On the other hand ...

Someone with a different political orientation could use  the same facts to argue for a different set of conclusions. If waiting to have children until late in one's thirties or after risks never having them, and if having children earlier than that makes a serious career difficult or impossible under current circumstances, that might be an argument for changing those circumstances. If you take the desirability of career options for women as a given, fertility decline becomes a reason why husbands should do more of the work of taking care of children, employers be more willing to provide on site nurseries, offer extended periods of leave or part time work to new mothers, why social institutions should change to make it easier for women to combine career and motherhood before they get too old to make the latter a reliable option.

Similar considerations apply to the proposal to include information on fertility decline in sex education. As another member of the audience pointed out, that might make sex education more popular with conservatives, since it would be teaching how to have babies as well as how not to have them, the latter being how current sex education is often viewed.

On the other hand, one might argue that fully accurate information about fertility would have a perverse effect. Current campaigns pushing contraception leave the impression that unprotected sex is likely to lead to pregnancy, which is an argument both for contraception and against sex. Accurate information, as best I can tell by a little online search, would tell students that a single act of unprotected intercourse, randomly timed, has only about one chance in forty of resulting in pregnancy—less if the couple make an attempt to avoid the woman's fertile period. To adventurous teenagers, one chance in forty might look pretty safe, especially if they tell themselves that they are only going to try it once. So accurate information, not about fertility decline but about fertility, might easily produce an increase in the teen pregnancy rate.

My own conclusion from such considerations is that the best rule is to try to tell the truth. Whatever information you provide people, you cannot predict how they will use it, so trying to bias the facts to produce the result you want is quite likely not to work, might even have the opposite of the intended result. At least if you tell people the truth, you reduce one source of incorrect decisions.

Which is part of why I try, in my own writing, to give the arguments against my position as well as the arguments for. In support of which immodest claim I offer Chapter 55 from part V of the new third edition of my first book, which presents and discusses an argument against the stability of the set of institutions that I spent part III of the book describing and defending.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Ideas for a Cover for Another Book?

After the spectacular success of my project to use this blog to get a cover for the new edition of The Machinery of Freedom, I thought I might see if I could use it for a second project. My book Law's Order has been translated into Spanish and the people responsible asked me for ideas for a cover. My guess is that considerably fewer of the readers of the blog have read the latter book, so I may not be able to get an actual cover, although I would be happy to look at any if people want to submit them. But perhaps I can at least get ideas for a cover to send them.

For those not familiar with the book, it's on the economic analysis of law, not on libertarianism. The central idea is making sense of legal rules considered as a system of incentives, asking what their consequences will be on how rational individuals act. For a simple example, from the first chapter:
You live in a state where the most severe criminal punishment is life imprisonment. Someone proposes that since armed robbery is a very serious crime, armed robbers should get a life sentence. A constitutional lawyer asks whether that is consistent with the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. A legal philosopher asks whether it is just.
An economist points out that if the punishments for armed robbery and for armed robbery plus murder are the same, the additional punishment for the murder is zero—and asks whether you really want to make it in the interest of robbers to murder their victims.
That is what economics has to do with law. Economics, whose subject, at the most fundamental level, is not money or the economy but the implications of rational choice, is an essential tool for figuring out the effects of legal rules. Knowing what effects rules will have is central both to understanding the rules we have and to deciding what rules we should have.
The whole book can be read free online, either as a late draft in HTML or as page images of the final draft, including links to the virtual footnotes.

Baker's Borax—An Experiment

As some of you know, I have a long term interest in medieval cooking. One feature of that cooking is the absence of chemical leavening, our familiar baking powder and baking soda.

Or so I would have said a year ago. It turns out that al-Warraq's 10th century cookbook contains references to something he calls "Baker's Borax" which pretty clearly is not borax and apparently was a chemical leavening. I have been trying for some time to figure out what it was.

 Relevant facts:

1. In a recipe for a leavened fritter, al-Warraq writes:
"If there was not enough yeast in the batter, wait until it ferments well. If the yeast was bad, add some more borax (būraq) to the batter."
Which seems to imply that it functions as a chemical leavening.

2. Baker's borax was used by bakers to make bread shiny.

3. Another form of "borax" was natrum. Natrum is still used under that name for various purposes. It's a naturally occurring mix of sodium carbonates found in dry lake beds in Egypt.

Point 3 suggested that baker's borax might be, or contain, Sodium Bicarbonate--baking soda. That works in the al-Warraq recipes I've tried it in as a leavening.  When I tried  brushing the top of a loaf of bread with a baking soda solution before putting it in the oven, however, the result was brown, not shiny.

Various things, including comments on the SCA Cooks email list, suggested an alternative possibility, Potassium Carbonate, one of several things called "Potash." That also seemed to work, at least in the recipe I tried it in, but also did not make a loaf of bread shiny.

Today, for other reasons, I was planning to make some al-Warraq flatbreads. It occurred to me that although loaves of bread baked in an oven existed in al-Warraq's time, a lot of the bread consisted of flatbreads cooked much more rapidly by sticking them to the inside wall of a tannur, an effect I try to get by using a baking stone in a hot oven. There is no particular reason why the effect of baker's borax, whatever it was, would be the same for both kinds of bread.

So when I made my flat breads, I brushed part of some of them with a solution of Sodium Bicarbonate, part of some with a solution of Potassium Carbonate, before putting them on the baking stone. The result was pretty clear. Sodium Bicarbonate produced a dull surface, Potassium Carbonate a shiny surface. I took some pictures, and here is one. The loaf on the right has had all of it brushed with Potassium Carbonate. The loaf on the left has had the lower half brushed with Sodium Bicarbonate, the top half with nothing.

Hence my current best guess for baker's borax is Potassium Carbonate.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Hardcopy of the Third Edition is Available on Amazon

With a beautiful cover by David Aiello, based in part on an idea by Anarchei.

And it has just been the subject of two posts by my favorite blogger.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

For Law Schools: A Modest Proposal

American law schools suffer from two serious problems, one old, one new. The old problem is the inconsistency between their practice, driven by institutional self-interest, and the moral beliefs of their faculty. The new problem is how to deal with the sharp decline in law school applications over the past few years.

How many students are willing to come to a law school depends on its reputation. That reputation depends, in part, on the performance of its students, how many pass the state bar and how many get jobs, as reflected in the school's rating in the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings. Nobody in the law school business, at least nobody I have met, regards the ratings as a reliable measure of school quality, but everyone watches them. A further reason to care about the performance of the school's students is that if they perform well enough after graduation, they may make lots of money and donate some of it to the school.

The performance of students depends in part on how good a job the school does, in part on how able the students are. Thus every school has an incentive to try to attract good students in order to raise its ratings in order to get more students to apply in order to get the tuition revenue to pay the cost of operating the school. One way of attracting good students is by offering the best students scholarships that pay part or all of the cost of going to law school, and law schools routinely do so. The result is that the best students, the ones who are smart, hard working, and likely to end up with high paying jobs, are  subsidized at the expense of the students lower down in the class who are paying full tuition.

Most law professors have political views that favor benefiting poor people at the expense of rich people. The actual practice of the schools they teach in and help run has precisely the opposite effect. It subsidizes the future rich at the expense of the future poor, the students who, having spent three years and a lot of money getting a law degree, face very uncertain chances of being offered the sort of job that degree is supposed to qualify them for.

That is the old problem. Everyone in the law business knows it, although not everyone chooses to talk about it. 

The new problem is that law school applications have fallen sharply in the past few years, with the result that many law schools face serious budget problems. The only way they can keep enrollment up is by lowering their standards for admission, but lower standards for admission will eventually result in lower ratings, which will make it even harder to maintain enrollment. Schools can try to cut costs, but a large part of the cost is personnel, and a large and expensive part of that is for professors with tenure. It looks like a downward spiral to bankruptcy, at least until enough schools have shrunk or gone out of business to restore the balance between the number of students who want to enroll and the number of seats  law schools want to fill.

I have at least a partial solution to both problems:

Consider a school with a target enrollment of 200. It currently plans to set the lower limit for accepting applications at a level, defined mainly by LSAT score and undergraduate grade point average, that will result in accepting 400, half of whom it expects to enroll.

It instead lowers the cutoff far enough to get an entering class of 250. Fitting them in is no problem because it has sufficient classroom space and teaching staff for more than that, due to the decline in enrollment over the previous several years.

At the end of the first year it sends a message to the fifty students at the bottom of the first year class, warning them that on the basis of their grades so far they are at serious risk of failing to pass the bar. The school offers to refund their first year tuition in full if they choose to drop out. If only thirty accept the offer, a similar message goes to twenty more students. Once the process has been going for a year or two, the school should be able to make a better estimate of the acceptance rate for their offer and so reduce enrollment to 200 in one step.

What is the result?

1. The school ends up with the same revenue as if it followed its original plan and admitted 200 students. Costs are only increased by a little, because the school has excess resources, physical and human, due to past enrollment decline.

2. Since the students least likely to succeed have been warned and offered their money back, the professors may legitimately feel less guilty about taking the money of students who are ultimately not going to make it.

3. First year grades are a considerably better predictor of bar passage rates than the information available at admission, so the school's bar pass rate goes up.

4. In the long run, more students will be willing to apply, because they know if that if law school turns out to be too hard for them they will have an opportunity to leave and get their money back. 

In an earlier post I offered a different approach to the first problem.