Thursday, October 08, 2015
Michael Lind in The Smart Set:
Can world literature exist? It depends on what is meant by world literature.
The phrase Weltliteratur was coined by Goethe. The German polymath told his disciple Johann Peter Eckermann in 1827: “I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at times to hundreds and hundreds of men…. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term, the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.”
But what is world literature? World literature comes in two alternate, conceivable versions: contemporary world literature and global classicism. Contemporary world literature is the literature of contemporary societies — particularly works of literature that obtain an international reputation. Global classicism might be described as contemporary literature inspired by the multiple traditions of the premodern regional literate civilizations of Eurasia, including the Chinese, Indian, Greco-Roman, Euro-Christian, and Muslim.
Goethe contributed to both kinds of world literature. He owed his early fame to The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a novel for a bourgeois readership that was strikingly modern for its time and translated into many languages. But in his subsequent literary career, after repudiating romanticism for classicism, the Sage of Weimar experimented with premodern and foreign models, adapting genres and forms from ancient Greece and Rome as well as medieval European balladry. Among the recondite late works of his old age are poems inspired by the medieval Persian poet Hafez, the West-Eastern Diwan (1819), the very name of which evokes cross-cultural exchange.
The two versions of world literature follow these two trails blazed by Goethe. There is the contemporary world literature of Werther and there is also the self-consciously classicist world literature symbolized by the West-Eastern Diwan. The one has a vast potential audience, the other a small but sophisticated audience.
David Adler in Jacobin:
"The right to the city is like a cry and a demand,” Henri Lefebvre wrote in 1967. “A transformed and renewed right to urban life.”
This is a cry and demand today heard worldwide. From a slogan among Situationists in 1968 to the central theme of the United Nations Habitat II conference three decades later, the “right to the city” has grown into a global catchphrase, tossed around by activists and policymakers alike. Its appeal is intuitive, its meaning elastic. “A dignified and secure existence in cities,” according to the UN. “A right to change ourselves by changing the city,” according to David Harvey.
Mexico City is one of the only places in the world where the effort to implement the right to the city is underway. In 2010, the Mexico City government passed the Right to the City charter, an ostensibly radical vision for the city’s future.
Building on the UN World Charter on the Right to the City, the legislation sets out core principles of urban governance — sustainability, democracy, equity, and social justice — and enshrines a diverse set of rights for urban residents. As former Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard described back in 2010, the charter is “the document with the most ambitious goals of what the city should be.”
Yet the charter remains a wish list. The housing market continues to marginalize low-income residents, pushed toward the periphery of the city. In that vast peripheral zone, informal settlements continue to proliferate, now housing over 50 percent of the city’s population and lacking access to key municipal services like water and electricity. Against the charter’s radical vision of a just and equitable city, Mexico City is still defined by segregation and inequality.
Ruthless self-excoriation, dramatic acts of abandonment, intractable confidence mixed with frightening displays of vulnerability: there’s something unhinged about the line of conversion literature that began with Paul and came to include figures as diverse as Bunyan, the nineteenth-century transcendentalist Orestes Brownson, and the twentieth-century militant activist Eldridge Cleaver. That three of those four figures did much of their most influential writing from prison goes some way toward proving a fact Bunyan identified in his treatise The Acceptable Sacrifice. Converts, Bunyan argued, are threats to the state precisely because of their melancholy, their extreme dissatisfaction, and their reckless lack of care for their earthly lot:
A man, a woman, that is blessed with a broken heart, is so far from getting by that esteem with the world, that they are but burdens … such people carry with them molestation and disquietment; they are in carnal families, as David was to the king of Garth, “troublers of the house.”
As the snippets above suggest, Bunyan’s prose is too ruminative and too dense with scripture to relate events reliably. Reading Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, the feverish spiritual autobiography he wrote during his twelve years in jail for preaching to “unlawful assemblies,” you get only the dimmest sense of the man’s unfortunate, eventful life. A prolific, well-known contemporary of Milton, Hobbes, and Thomas Browne, he was born to a struggling brass worker near the end of 1628.
In the spring of 1915, Henry James, “sick beyond cure” that he had lived long enough to witness it, gave an interview about the First World War to the New York Times. “One finds it in the midst of all this as hard to apply one’s words as to endure one’s thoughts”, James told the young journalist sent to interview him, Preston Lockwood. “The war has used up words”, he continued, “they have weakened, they have deteriorated like motor car tires . . . and we are now confronted with a depreciation of all our terms, or, otherwise speaking, with a loss of expression through increase of limpness, that may well make us wonder what ghosts will be left to walk.”
James seems to disprove his thesis in the act of uttering it: the two synonyms for “used up” and the reformulation of the notion of depreciation – “otherwise speaking” – suggest the war spawned, rather than exhausted, language. But the famously wordy author had nonetheless pinpointed something important early. A mere seven months into this mass, industrialized, globalized armed conflict, it was already clear to James that the power of writing both to communicate what was happening and to do something about it was alarmingly limited.
In her thoughtful and thought-provoking new study of American First World War literature, The War That Used Up Words, Hazel Hutchison makes James’s anxious observation the basis of two important and related arguments.
Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich has been awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. The selection of a non-fiction writer is a rare development for the Nobel, which has overwhelmingly favored fiction writers over the years.
Alexievich is known in the U.S. pretty much exclusively for her powerful book of non-fiction, Voices from Chernobyl, which was translated by Keith Gessenand initially published in hardcover by Dalkey Archive Press. The book relies on the testimony of survivors, in the vein of John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Dan Wickett wrote about the book in these pages in 2005:
I don’t think I set this 300-plus page book down once after I started reading it. Alexievich, at danger to her own self, visited the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and interviewed anybody she could find who would talk – people who had been firefighters, or relatives of residents who evacuated, those who didn’t, hunters of animals left behind, etc. It’s absolutely fascinating to read what happened, how people found out, and the various reactions to the news.
Alexievich’s book on the Soviet war in Afghanistan, Zinky Boys, takes a similar approach, as do several other volumes which have as yet not been published in English translations.
Kelly Rae Chi in Nature:
Historically, women have been the focus of body-image studies. But as men pay more attention to their appearance, researchers are forming a clearer picture of male self-image.
Insecurities about body shape and size are a frustratingly common topic of conversation among groups of women and girls. Body-image research has shown that participating in, or even just hearing, such 'fat talk' fuels appearance dissatisfaction in women. For the past few years, whenever Northwestern University psychologist Renee Engeln presented these results, audience members would ask, 'What about men? Do men do this too?' she recalls. Intrigued by this question, she and her colleagues, based in Evanston, Illinois, designed a fat-talk scale for men. They found that men do it, too, but only in specific contexts1. “Men talk about body dissatisfaction when they're eating and when they're at the gym,” says Engeln. “Women talk about body dissatisfaction when they're talking.”
Feeling bad about one's body is among the strongest predictors for developing an eating disorder, and one of the most modifiable. Interventions aimed at addressing such concerns are better studied in women, who are more likely than men to have a recognizable eating disorder and who have been subject to more of the superhuman beauty ideals that pervade the media. Over the past decade, however, boys and men have been exposed to similarly unattainable standards. The evidence is in the aisles. Superhero costumes for boys feature chiselled abs, and health and beauty products for men line shop shelves. Sales of men's grooming products have skyrocketed across the globe over the past few years. “Men are being addressed as consumers of health and beauty products and services in a very targeted way, in ways they haven't been historically,” says Brendan Gough who studies men's body-image issues and masculinity at Leeds Beckett University, UK. According to Gough, some young men are thought to be injecting the oil synthol into their muscles to make them look larger or taking diet pills that contain the appetite suppressant ephedrine to lose weight. Body dissatisfaction can become an obsession and can lead to clinical disorders (see page S14). These negative feelings can also trigger symptoms of depression.
Herb Brody in Nature:
This Outlook is different from most. Instead of focusing on a disease, we move up the hierarchy of human needs above survival, or even health, into the realm of aesthetics. Although beauty could include sunsets and scientific theories, our focus here is on the attraction between humans, and that between other animals that helps to fuel the engine of natural selection.
Neuroscience grants an insight into the traits that have maintained their appeal over the centuries and provides an understanding of how the brain responds to a desirable face (see page S2). In pursuit of beauty, many turn to the products and services peddled by a robust cosmetics industry. A number of these products make scientific claims — some of which are more valid than others (S4). At the more extreme end of the industry, we examine the steady growth of cosmetic surgery. The rising demand for procedures from a more diverse mix of people is leading aesthetic surgeons to rethink facial ideals in a more inclusive way (S6). Men — often neglected participants in the pursuit of beauty — are also starting to get their due (S12). Some people, however, can become obsessed with their appearance, which can lead to a preoccupation with imagined flaws.
Michal Simecka and Benjamin Tallis in Eurozine:
When the European Commission unveiled its plan for binding refugee resettlement quotas in April 2015, few had expected the governments of ex-communist Member States – which have no Middle Eastern or African immigrant communities to speak of – to warmly embrace the scheme. However, the intensity, hysteria and hypocrisy of the anti-migrant backlash shocked many, including some in the Visegrad countries themselves. Political cowardice and popular mistrust of supposedly liberal elites has allowed poisonous rhetoric directed at migrants to dominate, which risks political isolation and hinders common European action to address the crisis.
Encouragingly, counter-currents of resistance to the xenophobic rhetoric and callous political expediency are starting to emerge in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Meanwhile, pressure is mounting on the Visegrad governments, meeting in Prague for an emergency summit on Friday, as it becomes increasingly clear that their approach is not only out of line with Europe's moral responsibilities, but also out of line with key European states such as Germany and France.
However, these belated, weak and ineffective responses are symptomatic of deeper social and political problems in the Visegrad countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary). The migration crisis has exposed another crisis – of liberal democracy in post-communist societies.
t is regrettable – indeed "scandalous", as French foreign minister Laurent Fabius put it – that on one of the few issues on which the Visegrad countries have made their collective voice heard, it contradicts European values and the ethos of the European Union. Given the region's history, it is particularly concerning that Central Europeans are currently part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
With the Commission now pushing for an expanded relocation scheme – and Visegrad policymakers struggling to respond to the hundreds of refugees arriving via the western Balkan route – the stage is set for a deepening rupture along the East-West axis, pitting new member states against Berlin, Paris and Brussels.
Adam Kucharski in Nautilus:
To say that Thomas Robert Malthus was unpopular would be putting it mildly. His 19th-century contemporary Percy Shelley, the revered poet, called him a eunuch and a tyrant. The philosopher William Godwin dubbed him “a dark and terrible genius that is ever at hand to blast all the hopes of all mankind.” As Malthus’ biographer later put it, he was the most abused man of his age. And that was the age of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The catalyst for this vilification was the 1798 book An Essay on the Principle of Population. In it, Malthus—a curly haired, 32-year-old curate of a small English chapel—attacked the claims of utopian thinkers like Godwin, who believed that reason and scientific progress would ultimately create a perfect society, free of inequality and suffering. Malthus took a more pessimistic view. Using United States census data compiled by Benjamin Franklin, he predicted that the “passion of the sexes” would soon cause human populations to outstrip their resources, leading to poverty and hardship. If unchecked, people would continue to multiply exponentially, doubling every 25 years. Agricultural yields, however, would at best increase linearly, by a similar amount each year. In 100 years, Great Britain would have 16 times as many mouths to feed (112 million), but less than half enough food.
That didn’t happen, of course. By 1900, the British population had swelled only fivefold, to 35 million citizens, most of them well fed. But Malthus foresaw the possibility of this slowdown in growth, too. To prevent populations from booming and busting—the infamous “Malthusian catastrophe”—he said that Nature imposed two types of checks. “Preventive” checks reduced the birth rate: When times were hard, and food scarce, men—particularly poor men—would foresee the troubles ahead and delay getting married and starting families. “Positive” checks—famine, disease, murder, war—increased the death rate. Once food production caught up with demand, however, strife would lessen and families would grow. Thus the “grinding law of necessity, misery, and the fear of misery” kept the size of a population oscillating in sync with supply. To his critics’ disgust, Malthus used this theory to argue against England’s Poor Laws, which provided welfare to needy families according to the number of children they had. Why encourage the poor to procreate, he argued, when Nature will turn around and trample them?
Wednesday, October 07, 2015
Joe Linker in Befrois (Photograph by Tony Fischer):
Florence showed me what she called the most famous of Chinese poems. She had made her own translation from a Chinese language newspaper clipping. The poem was accompanied by a cartoon-like drawing of a man lifting up from a cot, the moon in his face and eyes, the moonlight coming through an open window and shining on the cot and a bedroom floor. Florence explained the poem to me, and wanted me to help her work on her translation of the poem into English, and we enjoyed sharing language lessons. For some time after I left the school, I kept in touch with Florence, but it’s been many years now. I used to hear from her every Christmas; she would send me a long, handwritten letter in impeccable penmanship and flawless English grammar, and usage and sentence structure, and ask me to “correct” the writing for her.
I knew the Chinese poet, Li Po, who wrote the original poem. The poem has been variously translated to describe the speaker awake at night, or awakening, thinking, far from home, or perhaps far from the past, thus perhaps rethinking the past, or what we call remembering, or reflecting. The poem might suggest a bittersweet homesickness; a longing. Usually, in translations, there’s moonlight and frost, one mistaken for the other in the night, and a mountain and a moon, a confused awakening at night with thoughts of home. Just as the moonlight is mistaken for frost, the setting is mistaken for home. Or perhaps there is no mistake. The speaker awakes, and then drops back to sleep and dreams of home. Florence said that most Chinese of her generation would recognize the poem. She invited me over to her place. She wanted to present me with a few books. The books were old and travelled. One was titled Chinese Phrase Book, published by the War Department and dated “December 10, 1943.” Another was titled Chinese Military Dictionary, also published by the War Department and dated “26 May 1944.” They were military vocabulary manuals, small enough for a foot soldier to carry in a pocket. The word poem was not included in either one.
I first met Li Po in a Chinese literature in translation class at Cal State Dominguez Hills. One of our texts was the first Evergreen edition (1967) of the 1965 Grove Press Anthology of Chinese Literature: from early times to the fourteenth century, edited by Cyril Birch. I still have this book, but Li Po’s poem about the moonlight and frost and thoughts of home is not included. It is included in Robert Payne’s The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry From the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Newly Translated (1947). The translation Payne includes of the Li Po poem is the only one I’m aware of that mentions a “couch,” and the speaker’s thoughts are of the “earth,” not explicitly of home. It’s possible to read that the speaker is sleeping outdoors.
Brían Hanrahan in The LA Review of Books:
A FEW YEARS AGO the BBC’s flagship domestic station, BBC Radio 4 (imagine a better-funded NPR, with a more central place in national life), canceled its main children’s show Go4It. Audience research had revealed — perhaps belatedly — that the average age of the listenership was well over 50. Maybe it was chastening for the program makers, maybe they knew it all along. Seen in longer historical perspective, however, the disjuncture is not so unusual. Of all mass media, radio has always had the least developed relation to children. The history of film or photography, of TV or the internet, could hardly be written without reference to the child: images of children, children as audience and market, children’s actual or hysterically invoked vulnerability. But radio has always been an overwhelmingly adult phenomenon.
Of course, there has long been broadcast radio aimed at children. There were kids’ serials in the American network golden age, cozy British stuff like Listen with Mother in the 1960s, various kinds of educational radio. There are Sirius satellite channels, and Radio TEDDY, a German children’s broadcaster, still transmits on the airwaves. But all this — and even radio hardware marketed to children — is a small and relatively unimportant part of radio as a historical phenomenon. Moreover, radio’s relation to children is indirect, even uncanny: for children, radio is above all something addressed to grown-ups, but they can overhear it, or listen in on it. Radio, in this way, becomes a channel to a world beyond the home. Voices and sounds from the radio bring traces of a different life into the cloistered spaces of childhood and family.
Any serious history of children and radio — any history going beyond a chronicle of program offerings — must include the German writer Walter Benjamin. Benjamin wrote extensively for the radio, and most of those broadcast writings — now newly translated and collected — were written for children, at least at first glance. More than that, something quintessentially Benjaminian happens in that uncanny encounter of radio and child: the hint of an unsettling remainder in the everyday, in the dislocation of sent message and received meaning, in the figure of the child who knows something his parents do not.
Ratik Asokan in The New Republic:
In 2008, a British clinical psychologist, Arabella Kurtz, invited Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee to participate in a public discussion about literature and psychoanalysis. The notoriously publicity-averse Coetzee, who hardly ever gives interviews, predictably refused. “I suspect I am not the right person for the job,” he wrote to her. “I am not a fluent speaker and don't easily see the point of questions. I am also dubious of the worth of opinions that are expressed by my public persona." His past interviewers, to whom Coetzee inevitably gives a difficult time, would likely agree. Yet Coetzee overcame his reservations and eventually agreed to exchange letters with Kurtz, producing a five-year correspondence that has now been published in book form as The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy.
For any admirer of Coetzee, the collection is a rare opportunity to understand the mind of a writer who almost never speaks at length in his own voice. For many years, when called up to deliver lectures, he would instead read out a story about a writer invited to deliver a lecture. (Some of these stories made their way into his 2003 novel Elizabeth Costello.) Indeed, for a while, it seemed that fiction was the only medium through which Coetzee would engage with the world. Made-up characters narrate sections of his autobiography. Even his Nobel Lecture took the the form of a story, a cryptic one that.
“What relationship do I have with my life history,” Coetzee asks in his first letter. “Am I its conscious author, or should I think of myself as simply a voice uttering with as little interference as possible a stream of words welling up from my interior?” As its subtitle suggests, The Good Story is interested in the relationship between storytelling and truth, a subject that is as relevant to Kurtz’s profession as it is to Coetzee’s. We tell ourselves a narrative about our life, and this account is always subjective. When patients visit therapists with the hope of feeling better, they are, in a sense, searching for a story that casts their lives in a kinder light.
Kurtz had reached out to Coetzee because of his fiction’s unconventional depiction of interiority, his particular focus on the inner mind and its thought processes. His novels operate in those deep, Dostoyevskian realms of introspection from where people seldom emerge enthused about life. He asks questions about existence that people don’t ask, and should not ask, if they want to simply live a comfortable life. His books are not therapeutic; they are written to discomfit.
James Thompson in Psychological Comments:
I have admired Philip Tetlock since, almost 30 years ago, he reviewed a book I had just written which contained one big and so far untested prediction, and gave it by far the most detailed, insightful and helpful assessment it had received among many warm but perfunctory reviews, mildly adding references to a few papers which, when I followed them up, showed me exactly how much I had missed out. His kindness made his critical points far more effective. (In a subsequent lecture tour I met up with one of the international affairs experts he had mentioned, who offered to work with me, though in the end I went on to other things, and consequently made no revision of the book).
Now the Press are picking up his work on super-forecasting, which has major implications for how we go about anticipating and planning for future events, supposedly one of the features of high intelligence. Bright people should be particularly good at forecasting, shouldn’t they?
What has Tetlock found? First, that most pundit forecasts are unfalsifiable. Even time travel would not help you know if the predictions of these commentators had been met. They are at the low level of Nostradamus and contemporary journalism. Second, if you run a proper forecasting contest (not “will there be a stock market correction sometime soon” but “what will the Standard and Poor index stand at on 31 December 2015”) most commentators are “too busy” to participate. They do the broad brush stuff which gets well paid, not the nitty-gritty testable stuff that nerds do for fun.
Ken Roth in Foreign Policy:
Vladimir Putin’s rescue plan for Bashar al-Assad provides plenty of cause for alarm. Russia is reinforcing a man — and a regime — whose forces have indiscriminately and deliberately attacked civilians in opposition-held areas. Airstrikes alone have killed an estimated 20,000 civilians and are a major reason why 4 million Syrians have fled their country.
There are undoubtedly complicated reasons behind Putin’s move. He may be acting in part so his home audience — and the West — sees Russia as an important global player. Complicating life for Washington probably has its appeal for him, as well. But above all, Putin seems actually to believe that his support for Assad is the best way to curb the self-proclaimed Islamic State and other extremist groups. Yet now that Russian troops are operating in Syria, Putin has some important incentives to recognize that reining in the Syrian military’s attacks on civilians is essential to his goals.
The Kremlin has been disturbingly indifferent to that slaughter.
Paul Halpern in Starts With A Bang!:
On June 15, 1967, the National Accelerator Laboratory — which would be renamed seven years later after Enrico Fermi and is now known colloquially as Fermilab — began operations. At first, its operations were situated in Oak Brook, Illinois until its sprawling main campus in Batavia, Illinois could be designed and constructed. This is the story of the planning and development of that remarkable site: an extraordinary mix of state-of-the-art technology, striking modern art and architecture, and a dab of frontier wilderness, complete with stagecoach canopies and roaming bison.
Fermilab’s first director Robert Rathbun “Bob” Wilson was a true Renaissance man. Born in Frontier, Wyoming, he had begun his career working under the great cyclotron designer Ernest Lawrence at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory (later renamed for Lawrence), associated with the University of California. He acquired from Lawrence a drive and passion for pushing the energies of particle accelerators to their very limits.
While working at Cornell in experimental high energy physics, Wilson was an efficient leader. Yet he also had an artistic side, bursting to break through. In a virtually unheard of move, in 1961 he took time off from his rising scientific career to enroll at the Academia di Belle Arti in Rome and pursue a passion for creating modern sculpture. He also studied architecture and contemporary design.
Mary Paterson in The F Word:
Louise Orwin’s A Girl and a Gun takes a long, hard look at looking in cinema. It is a two-person show – with highly stereotyped roles named simply Him and Her – presented in a cinematic experience on stage. Multiple cameras feed three screens, which show different angles of the live event. These projections perform the alchemy of the lens, heightening the difference between the sweaty, fulsome bodies onstage and their cropped, glistening images on screen.
There is also an autocue screen embedded in the middle of the audience seating area, from which the actors read their lines and stage instructions. Sometimes the words they read are also projected behind them, at the back of the stage; sometimes audience members crane our necks to see what the actors are reading. Either way, in the small space of Camden People’s Theatre, this live reading gives the actors’ eyes a glazed-over look and mediates the live experience, creating a distance between us and them that makes me realize, with a jolt, how much of the pleasure of cinema lies in watching people who can’t watch you back.
From Kurzweil AI:
Deep (slow-wave*) sleep, which helps retain memories in the brain, may also strengthen immunological memories of encountered pathogens, German and Dutch neuroscientists propose in an Opinion article published September 29 in Trends in Neurosciences. The immune system “remembers” an encounter with a bacteria or virus by collecting fragments from the microbe to create memory T cells, which last for months or years and help the body recognize a previous infection and quickly respond. These memory T cells appear to abstract “gist information” about the pathogens, allowing memory T cells to detect new pathogens that are similar, but not identical, to previously encountered bacteria or viruses. Studies in humans have shown that long-term increases in memory T cells are associated with deep slow-wave sleep on the nights after vaccination. Taken together, the findings support the view that slow-wave sleep contributes to the formation of long-term memories of abstract, generalized information, which leads to adaptive behavioral and immunological responses.
How lack of sleep puts your body at risk
The obvious implication is that sleep deprivation could put your body at risk. “If we didn’t sleep, then the immune system might focus on the wrong parts of the pathogen,” says senior author Jan Born of the University of Tuebingen. “For example, many viruses can easily mutate some parts of their proteins to escape from immune responses. If too few antigen-recognizing cells [the cells that present the fragments to T cells] are available, then they might all be needed to fight off the pathogen. In addition to this, there is evidence that the hormones released during sleep benefit the crosstalk between antigen-presenting and antigen-recognizing cells, and some of these important hormones could be lacking without sleep.” Born says that future research should examine what information is selected during sleep for storage in long-term memory, and how this selection is achieved. This research could have important clinical implications.
Yet Another Scandal
It’s all corrupt, of course it is.
The camouflage just confirms the immutable pattern.
The boy from the outskirts,
caressed for his plasticity and powers of abstraction,
is drawn in deeper and deeper, either on Wall Street,
buffered by tall buildings, or in
the sleepy state capitols—
Dover, Tallahassee, Pierre.
Even he is dazzled by miraculous returns on the money.
What he does, though, he does not for money
(which would be sane) but
of course, of course, of course, of course
for love, for the love
his prestidigitations engender
(which is not sane).
Therefore is he choked in the coils
of his being’s enormous Ponzi scheme,
and, also, his children turn away
in shock and disrepair.
Which makes me glad
that I let the investigation proceed in a timely fashion.
I opened my offshore accounts to scrutiny.
I turned my wife in.
When the lawyers from Treasury came to my house
to pore over my dictionaries,
I made them coffee and listened to their troubles.
by Vijay Seshadri
from 3 Sections
Graywolf Press, 2013
Tuesday, October 06, 2015
Cass R. Sunstein in the New York Review of Books:
Very few economists foresaw the great recession of 2008–2009. Why not? Economists have long assumed that human beings are “rational,” but behavioral findings about human fallibility have put a lot of pressure on that assumption. People tend to be overconfident; they display unrealistic optimism; they often deal poorly with risks; they neglect the long term (“present bias”); and they dislike losses a lot more than they like equivalent gains (“loss aversion”). And until recent years, most economists have not had much to say about the problem of inequality, which seems to be getting worse.
There is a strong argument that within the economics profession, these problems are closely linked, and that they have had unfortunate effects on public policy. Most economists celebrate free markets, invoking the appealing idea of consumer sovereignty. If people are buying potato chips, candy, and beer, or making risky investments, that’s their business; they know their own values and tastes. Outsiders, and especially those who work for the government, have no right to intervene. To be sure, things are different if someone is inflicting harms on third parties. If a company is emitting air pollution, the government can legitimately respond. But otherwise, many economists tend to believe that people should fend for themselves.
It is true that companies might try to take advantage of consumers and investors, perhaps with outright lies, perhaps with subtler forms of deception, perhaps by manipulating their emotions. But from the standpoint of standard economic thinking, that’s nothing to panic about. The first line of defense is competition itself—and the market’s invisible hand.
Jonah Galeota-Sprung in The Point:
About a year ago, a strange thing happened to my roommate and me. The two of us were sharing one small room in a sort of boarding house in Harlem, full otherwise of French exchange students and travelers. We’d arranged the space symmetrically, with two beds pointing out of the left wall, a channel of dirty clothes running between them, a few steps of open space, and then two desks, both facing the right wall. Sitting at our laptops together, we felt like copilots of a comfortably junky spaceship. On the century-old fireplace between us teetered our commingled stacks of too-proudly displayed books. “It looks like a startup in here,” a housemate’s girlfriend once quipped, leaning through the door to ask for a lighter. We both cringed, but it was true, and partly my fault: I had bought a whiteboard and hung it up, though I had yet to write anything on it besides one large ellipsis: …
In most ways we were a typical pair. Him, a recent Georgia transplant, who’d come to the old cold city to write; me, a product of the green and liberal Jersey suburbs, in New York because that’s where those people go. He had a publishing internship; I had one at a health clinic. Our OkCupid profiles matched 96 percent. And, typically, we spent most of our time being confused and anxious about how we should be spending most of our time. Alone and together we fingered timeless worry-stones: What kind of job? Whence comes this surplus value? Why’s everything bad?
Erica Klarreich in Quanta:
The mathematician Terence Tao, of the University of California, Los Angeles, has presented a solution to an 80-year-old number theory problem posed by the legendary Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős. Erdős was famous for the thousands of puzzles he came up with, many of which have led to surprisingly deep mathematical discoveries. This particular problem, which came to be known as the Erdős discrepancy problem, was one of his favorites, said Ben Green, a mathematician at the University of Oxford. “He mentioned it many times over the years, particularly towards the end of his life.”
A simplified version of the problem goes like this: Imagine that you are imprisoned in a tunnel that opens out onto a precipice two paces to your left, and a pit of vipers two paces to your right. To torment you, your evil captor forces you to take a series of steps to the left and right. You need to devise a series that will allow you to avoid the hazards — if you take a step to the right, for example, you’ll want your second step to be to the left, to avoid falling off the cliff. You might try alternating right and left steps, but here’s the catch: You have to list your planned steps ahead of time, and your captor might have you take every second step on your list (starting at the second step), or every third step (starting at the third), or some other skip-counting sequence. Is there a list of steps that will keep you alive, no matter what sequence your captor chooses?