by Henry Farrell on March 17, 2008

A request for help from Italian speakers (esp. those familiar with Sicilian dialect). I’m currently finishing writing my book, which has a chapter on the internal norms of the Sicilian mafia (this adds some much needed savour to my copious discussions of the somewhat less colorful norms governing manufacturers of packaging machinery). One of my key sources is a qualitative database that Diego Gambetta has put together of various interesting bits from the confessions of _pentiti_ and other sources. Among which is this very intriguing bit from former senior mafioso Tommaso Buscetta (my translation)

Whatever is recounted by a man of honor in the presence of two other men of honor must always be truthful. He who breaks this rule, given that he has the option of not speaking, is liable to the most serious penalties, and to losing his life. In this case, the man of honor who has broken this rule comes to be referred to as a “trageghiaturi.”

The problem is that I have no idea what a trageghiaturi might be. Nor does my Italian dictionary, or a Google search help (but it’s not inconceivable that this could be a mistranscription). Anyone have any idea what it is? Your reward, should you choose to claim it, will be a grateful acknowledgment in the final product …

The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies

by John Holbo on March 17, 2008


I’ve been making books. I need your help. (Do you like my cover design?)

Allow me to quote editorial matter from my new edition (which you can download for free in a moment, keep your pants on.)

Edward Sylvester Ellis (1840-1916) was an educator and journalist, best known for his prolific authorship of over a hundred ‘dime novels’, under his own and more than a dozen noms de plume. Ellis’ The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) is considered perhaps the first ‘edisonade’ (the term is John Clute’s): tales of young American inventors whose ingenuity gets them into, and out of, adversity. Ellis’ Steam Man was prodigiously knocked-off, first by Harry Enton, author of Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains; which spawned a regular ‘story paper’ series. When Enton gave it up,  Luis Senarens (then aged just 14) took over. The steam man became electric; the youthful protagonist, Frank, acquired an extended family and many new inventions and adventures, populating the weekly Frank Reade Library. Known as ‘the American Jules Verne’, Senarens corresponded with the French Verne, who, inspired by American sources or not, put a ‘steam elephant’ in The Steam House (1880).

This ain’t your grandfather’s steampunk. It’s your great-grandfather’s steampunk. Isn’t that fascinating? Now my trouble starts. First, Senarens, although our focus will be Ellis. A 14-year old Cuban-American wunderkind who, apparently, wrote over 1500 ‘novels’ in his career and was admired by Verne. He’s like a cross between Daisy Ashford and Stephen King, with Latin flair. And what can I learn about him? Damned little. Wikipedia: his dates (1863-1939) and a ‘may not meet the general notability guideline’ note. That’s pitiful. And his stuff is completely unavailable. Oh, you can buy a few old issues of the Frank Reade Library on eBay. Go look. And there’s a bit around the web. But why hasn’t someone made a decent edition of the lot. (Apparently there was one in the recent past. But it’s totally unavailable.) My Frank M. Robinson Science Fiction of the 20th Century, an Illustrated History – nice book: out of print – has a few images, and not a lot of information to go with it. [click to continue…]

White knights

by John Q on March 17, 2008

It’s just been announced that JP Morgan will buy Bear Stearns for $2 a share, implying a value of about $250 million. Given that the company headquarters is said to be worth about $1.2 billion, that gives the BS banking business a value of negative $1 billion. And that’s only after the Fed agreed to take on $30 billion worth of toxic waste from the BS portfolio, politely described as “less-liquid assets.”

Clearly, under any normal circumstances, a company like this would have been left to go bankrupt. The problem is that this would jam up the entire credit market because BS is a counterparty in a vast range of transactions with other banks. (We debated this issue a month ago with a number of commentators arguing that the problem of counterparty risk was not such a big deal).

Some light relief is provided by the announcement by Standard & Poors, the day before Bear imploded, that the worst was over. This will go down with Irving Fisher’s comment in late 1929, that the stock market had reached “what looks like a permanently high plateau”. But at least Fisher wasn’t being paid to judge the stock market. Surely it’s now time to kill off the quasi-official role of the ratings agencies, as Justin Fox has just argued in Time

Looking ahead, the limits of the white knight strategy employed in this case must be approaching. JPM will take a while digesting this mess, and Bank of America has already done its bit when it agreed to rescue Countrywide. The other big banks have their own problems. Any future maidens in distress will have to look directly to Uncle Sam for a rescue.

Update Readers used to the natural order of things might be concerned by the implication that with such a giveaway price, the top brass at BS might be forced to bear the financial consequences of events that were obviously beyond their control. Never fear. According to this Reuters report in the Guardian, while most employees up to junior executive levels will lose both their jobs and the shares they were encouraged to buy, with no “golden parachutes:

JPMorgan Chief Financial Officer Mike Cavanagh late Sunday said taking over Bear would generate about $6 billion in merger-related costs.
JPMorgan has not broken down those figures, but much of that will be earmarked for severance pay and potential exit packages for top executives like Schwartz.
A person familiar with the transaction told Reuters that roughly $1 billion of those costs would be earmarked for severance and retention.