Saturday, April 09, 2011

Good Stuff in Today's Wall Street Journal

Today's weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal shows that newspapers aren't dead. At the national level newspapers are still publishing some interesting and thought-provoking writing. Several items in today's paper stood out.

What if the South Won the Civil War. The WSJ contains an essay by historian Fergus Bordewich titled "How America's Civil War changed the World". April 12th marks that 150th anniversary of the start of the War Between the States. Writer Bordewhich posits what would have happened if the South would have won the war (or not lost it, which essentially would have been the same thing.) This essay is strong from the opening paragraph which succinctly summarizes the war itself:

On April 12, 1861, a shell fired from a rebel battery on Johnson's Island in Charleston harbor burst over Fort Sumter, touching off the Civil War. Answering the South Carolina secession convention's call to join it in "a great Slaveholding Confederacy, stretching its arms over a territory larger than any power in Europe possesses," 11 slave-holding states soon withdrew from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. Armies fought over now-famous battlefields from Bull Run to Petersburg in a seesaw contest that would ultimately claim 620,000 American lives before coming to an end at Appomattox, Va., in 1865.
The rest of the essay postulates "what if" the South won the war. including this excerpt:

But it is safe to say that there would have been no American colossus to assert its military power and political will, and to intervene on behalf of democracy around the world. Would a diminished United States have entered World War I alongside Britain and France? What might Confederate affinity for German racial policies have meant for the Third Reich? Would either the United States or the Confederacy have dared to confront an expansionist and militarist Japan? If the West Coast states had formed a new nation, neither the U.S. nor the Confederacy would even be a Pacific power.

In a compltely different vein: there's a column by financial writer, Karen Blumenthal titled "How to Wreck Your Credit Score" contains some useful information. Fair Issac, the company that compiles the FICO credit score has released more specific information about the effect of certain mortgage-related negative items on your credit score. According to Blumenthal, a tradeline listing a mortgage as 30 days late can reduce an excellent 780 credit score by 100 points, down to the bottom of prime classification. If you have a lower credit score (and most people do), then a 30 day late listing is likely to knock you out of prime completely, at least for a while. A foreclosure or short sale can knock 150 points off a good or excellent credit score. According to the article, a "deed in lieu" has less effect, but it doesn't say by how much. What strikes me about this is that there is such little difference between being merely 30 days late and a complete foreclosure. Granted, the foreclosure takes longer to amortize off your credit, but it seems to me there should be a bigger difference. What Blumenthal doesn't say is that even though a deed in lieu is often the best outcome for a borrower who is upside down and can't afford his or her mortgage. In the real world, it isn't easy to arrange for a deed in lieu; certainly not before the borrower is many months behind in the mortgage, and often not until foreclosure proceedings have been started.

Finally, I want to comment on Dan Neil's review of the 2012 Fiat 500. This review is Dan Neil at his danneiliest. Neil won a Pulitzer price for an auto review a few years ago when he was writing for the Los Angeles Times. To say that he has a distinctive style would be an understatement, and there's no better example than this review. For Many writers would call the Fiat 500 a "women's car" or a "girl's car", or maybe even a "chick car". That's not Dan Neil. Here's how he addresses the subject:

So let's address the elephant in the room. This car is massively, comprehensively, ne-plus-ultra-with-a-sparkly-phone…cute. I know that we just went through all this with the Mercedes-Benz SLK, which I suggested was a chick car, but the 500 makes the SLK look like Brock Lesnar.

Why? Well, it's biological. Cars are inherently anthropomorphic, with a mouth (grille and bumper), eyes (headlamps) and nose (hood). Humans' facial-recognition software cannot help but impose features on inanimate objects with the approximate geometry of a face. Humans, especially females, are likewise evolutionarily wired to respond in a nurturing way to faces
Linkthat have a quality of neoteny, which is to say, the retention of infantile characteristics: large head, wide and prominent eyes, slightly helpless and winsome. This is the scientific basis for cute. Examples include Hello Kitty, harp seals and Justin Bieber, though I'm more likely to club the latter than the former.
Now I know who writes the verbal questions for the SAT Test.

The WSJ isn't perfect though. In one article I saw the iPhone referred to as the "iPhoe". Anyway, now it's time for the marginally relevant video of the day. Confession time: I didn't know who Brock Lesnar was. If you haven't kept up with the WWF, or if you are just a connoisseur of highbrow entertainment, here's a video for you.

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