September 30, 2008
James Galbraith on the Financial Crisis
First in Harper's:
5. The Democrats say they are not going to give the administration a blank check, but there’s a lot of pressure to do something. What sort of conditions should be attached to a bailout?
The Democrats have a strong hand. The voters weren’t born yesterday; they understand that it’s a Republican administration in power. Some of the problems are difficult to solve. Executive compensation is clearly a legitimate concern; it’s incredible that Lehman Brothers set aside a $2.5 billion bonus pool as it was going into bankruptcy. On the other hand, what do you do about it? If you tell these people they have to work for $400,000 a year–that’s a lot of money to you and me, but a lot of them are going to say, “See you on the ski slopes, pal.” But what Congress can do is make sure the companies have to turn over any information that the Treasury wants from the companies, including the computer code. If the government is going to buy assets of dubious value, it needs to know that the companies aren’t selling it the worst of the worst, just as you have the right to inspect a used car before buying it.
6. How long is it going to take to fix the situation? And what about the bigger financial crisis?
There’s nothing that can put this right in six months. No bailout can achieve that, but the difference between three years and ten years is important. The Treasury is going to end up with a large portfolio of properties. The government needs to set up the equivalent of draft boards in communities to make a review of properties and see how to keep people in their homes: offering them sustainable payments or converting mortgages into rental contracts, or simply demolishing homes that have been wrecked or that have fallen into irreparable disrepair.
Also in The American Prospect:
Many are concerned with the fiscal implications of this bill, so let me turn to that question. Despite the common use of language, the capital cost of this bill does not involve "taxpayer dollars." It authorizes a financial transaction, exchanging good debt (U.S. Treasury bills and bonds) for bad debt (the "troubled assets"). Many of those troubled assets will continue to earn income for some time, perhaps a long time. The U.S. Treasury commits itself to paying the interest on the debts it issues. The net fiscal cost -- which is also the net fiscal stimulus -- of this bill is the difference between those two revenue streams. Given the very low rate of interest presently prevailing on Treasury bills, this is likely to be somewhere between $20 billion per year and zero from the beginning, even if the Treasury were to issue all $700 billion in new debt at once. It is a mistake, in short, to count the capital cost as a "cost to the taxpayer." This is not the war in Iraq. In the longer run, of course the Treasury will incur capital losses on the assets it acquires. The entire purpose of the bill is to overpay for bad assets, so as to give financial institutions a chance to recapitalize themselves.
The rai boys
Robin Yassin-Kassab in The National:
Disturbing a sleeping box of old cassettes the other day, my hand brushed an album by Chab Hasni, and memories rushed in, fluent as music, of the Algerians I’d known in Paris in the early 1990s – particularly my friends Qader and Kamel.
In Algeria these two had been hittistes. That’s a real Algerian word: a French ending tacked onto the Arabic hayit, meaning wall. The hittistes were the youths who spent their time leaning against walls, bored, angry and stoned. They had no jobs and no housing – those who were employed often slept in their workplaces. Otherwise, they spent their time dodging the fearsome police force.
Life as clandestin illegal immigrants in France was not much easier. There too they had to negotiate checkpoints. I remember Kamel spending a fortnight in prison for being stopped “without papers”. When at liberty, they peddled hashish in Pigalle and sold the cassettes they stole from shops. (Still, there was honour among thieves. Qader once knocked down a fellow Algerian for stealing from an old man on the metro. “So what if he’s French?” he growled. “He could be your grandfather!”)
Let me explain now in more detail why we are now back to the risk of a total systemic financial meltdown…
It is no surprise as financial institutions in the US and around advanced economies are going bust: in the US the latest victims were WaMu (the largest US S&L) and today Wachovia (the sixth largest US bank); in the UK after Northern Rock and the acquisition of HBOS by Lloyds TSB you now have the bust and rescue of B&B; in Belgium you had Fortis going bust and being rescued over the weekend; in German HRE, a major financial institution is also near bust and in need of a government rescue. So this is not just a US financial crisis; it is a global financial crisis hitting institutions in the US, UK, Eurozone and other advanced economies (Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada etc.).
And the strains in financial markets – especially short term interbank markets - are becoming more severe in spite of the Fed and other central banks having literally injected about $300 billion of liquidity in the financial system last week alone including massive liquidity lending to Morgan and Goldman. In a solvency crisis and credit crisis that goes well beyond illiquidity no one is lending to counterparties as no one trusts any counterparty (even the safest ones) and everyone is hoarding the liquidity that is injected by central banks. And since this liquidity goes only to banks and major broker dealers the rest of the shadow banking system has not access to this liquidity as the credit transmission mechanisms is blocked.
more from RGE here.
homer as history
NEARLY 3,000 YEARS after the death of the Greek poet Homer, his epic tales of the war for Troy and its aftermath remain deeply woven into the fabric of our culture. These stories of pride and rage, massacre and homecoming have been translated and republished over millennia. Even people who have never read a word of "The Iliad" or "The Odyssey" know the phrases they have bequeathed to us - the Trojan horse, the Achilles heel, the face that launched a thousand ships.
Today we still turn to Homer's epics not only as sources of ancient wisdom and wrenchingly powerful poetry, but also as genuinely popular entertainments. Recent translations of "The Iliad" and "Odyssey" have shared the best-seller lists with Grisham and King. "The Odyssey" has inspired works from James Joyce's "Ulysses" to a George Clooney movie, and an adaptation of "The Iliad" recently earned more than $100 million in the form of Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy" - a summer blockbuster starring Brad Pitt as an improbable Achilles.
The ancient Greeks, however, believed that Homer's epics were something more than fiction: They thought the poems chronicled a real war, and reflected the authentic struggles of their ancestors.
more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
Shifty eye movements behind famous optical illusion
David Robson in New Scientist:
Neuroscientists have shown that the way our eyes constantly make tiny movements is responsible for the way concentric circles in Isia Leviant's painting 'Enigma' (see image, right) seem to flow before onlookers' eyes.
Susana Martinez-Conde and her team from the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, tested whether the effect was down to tiny, involuntary jerks of the eyes, known as microsaccades. Their purpose is not fully understood, but the rate of these movements is known to vary naturally.
In the team's experiment, while three subjects viewed Enigma, cameras recorded their eye movements 500 times every second. The subjects were asked to press a button when the speed of the optical "trickle" of the illusion appeared to slow down or stop, and release it when the trickle seemed faster.
Accounting for the reaction time required to press the button, the results showed that the illusion became more pronounced when microsaccades were happening at a faster rate. When the rate slowed to a stop, the illusion vanished.
Those results go against earlier findings that suggested eye movements were not responsible for the effect.
How the financial crisis affects the oldest profession
Sudhir Venkatesh in Slate:
In the late 1990s, New York and other large American cities witnessed the rise of a so-called indoor sex-work trade. Women either left the streets for strip clubs and escort services, or they started their own businesses by advertising on the Internet or cruising hotels and corporate centers to find clients. You may recall "Kristen" (aka Ashley Dupré), the young woman whose tryst with Eliot Spitzer helped bring down the New York governor. "Kristens" might earn $1,000 per evening, which places them toward the higher end of the indoor sex market.
I came across these women when I began studying New York's sex industry at the end of the 1990s. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in an effort to clean up Manhattan's neighborhoods, forced sex off the streets of Times Square and other Midtown neighborhoods. In the process, his administration created a new economic sector. I've been following the lives of more than 300 sex workers—in New York and Chicago, in high and low ends of the income spectrum since 1999.
The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes
From The Telegraph:
Romantic science? Did not William Blake fulminate against 'Bacon and Newton sheathed in dismal steel, their terrors hanging like iron scourges over Albion'? Didn't John Keats say that Newtonian optics had unwoven the magic of the rainbow? Isn't the great Romantic-Gothic novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, an indictment of science's hubristic capacity to destroy us all, a prophecy of the time we are now nearing, when a human clone fashioned in the laboratory will turn against its creator?
It is this story of the opposition between the Romantic poets and the science of their time that Richard Holmes sets out to undo. No one could be better qualified for the task than the biographer of the two Romantics who showed most interest in science, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Building on a generation of revisionist scholarship that has been barely visible beyond the groves of academe, Holmes triumphantly shows that the Romantic age was one of symbiosis rather than opposition, in which scientists such as Sir Humphry Davy were also poets and poets such as Coleridge had a shaping influence on scientists - we discover indeed that it was Coleridge who was responsible for the early 19th-century invention of the term 'scientist' as an alternative to the older nomenclature 'natural philosopher'.
There is the sudden silence of the crowd
above a player not moving on the field,
and the silence of the orchid.
The silence of the falling vase
before it strikes the ﬂoor,
the silence of the belt when it is not striking the child.
The stillness of the cup and the water in it,
the silence of the moon
and the quiet of the day far from the roar of the sun.
The silence when I hold you to my chest,
the silence of the window above us,
and the silence when you rise and turn away.
And there is the silence of this morning
which I have broken with my pen,
a silence that had piled up all night
like snow falling in the darkness of the house—
the silence before I wrote a word
and the poorer silence now.
You’re Sick. Now What? Knowledge Is Power
From The New York Times:
Whether you are trying to make sense of the latest health news or you have a diagnosis of a serious illness, the basic rules of health research are the same. From interviews with doctors and patients, here are the most important steps to take in a search for medical answers.
Information gives some people a sense of control. For others, it’s overwhelming. An acquaintance of this reporter, a New York father coping with his infant son’s heart problem, knew he would be paralyzed with indecision if his research led to too many choices. So he focused on finding the area’s best pediatric cardiologist and left the decisions to the experts. Others, like Amy Haberland, 50, a breast cancer patient in Arlington, Mass., pore through medical journals, looking not just for answers but also for better questions to ask their doctors. “Knowledge is power,” Ms. Haberland said. “I think knowing the reality of the risks of my cancer makes me more comfortable undergoing my treatment.”
The goal is to find an M.D., not become one.
Often patients begin a medical search hoping to discover a breakthrough medical study or a cure buried on the Internet. But even the best medical searches don’t always give you the answers. Instead, they lead you to doctors who can provide you with even more information.
Palin Is Ready? Please.
Fareed Zakarya of Newsweek:
Couric asked her a smart question about the proposed $700 billion bailout of the American financial sector. It was designed to see if Palin understood that the problem in this crisis is that credit and liquidity in the financial system has dried up, and that that's why, in the estimation of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, the government needs to step in to buy up Wall Street's most toxic liabilities. Here's the entire exchange:
COURIC: Why isn't it better, Governor Palin, to spend $700 billion helping middle-class families who are struggling with health care, housing, gas and groceries; allow them to spend more and put more money into the economy instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess?
PALIN: That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, were ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the--it's got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.
This is nonsense--a vapid emptying out of every catchphrase about economics that came into her head. Some commentators, like CNN's Campbell Brown, have argued that it's sexist to keep Sarah Palin under wraps, as if she were a delicate flower who might wilt under the bright lights of the modern media. But the more Palin talks, the more we see that it may not be sexism but common sense that's causing the McCain campaign to treat her like a time bomb.
More here. [Thanks to Tasnim Raza.] I thought the Tina Fey parody of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live was unbelievably brilliantly performed and written. What I didn't realize was that the writers didn't really do much, and most of the parody was just actual transcripts of Palin's interview with Katie Couric! It is truly astounding. Check out the SNL skit if you haven't seen it yet:
And here's part of the real interview with Couric:
September 29, 2008
Faust and the Physicists
By P D Smith
“the point is…this is exactly what happened in Vietnam…a technological solution to a human problem…”
- Joe Penhall, Landscape with Weapon (2007)
If you were a physicist in the 1920s and 30s, all roads led to Copenhagen’s Blegdamsvej 15. This was where Niels Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics was located. The Ukrainian-born physicist George Gamow recalled that “the Institute buzzed with young theoretical physicists and new ideas about atoms, atomic nuclei, and the quantum theory in general”. 
He was a superb footballer and had played to near professional level as a young man. But in physics the tall, softly-spoken Niels Bohr was in a league of his own. German physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker said after meeting Bohr: “I have seen a physicist for the first time. He suffers as he thinks.”  Together with Ernest Rutherford, Bohr had mapped the structure of the atom, and later, in the 1920s, he helped shape the quantum revolution, despite strong resistance from its founder, the former patent officer from Bern – Albert Einstein. Einstein’s debates in the late 1920s with Bohr on quantum theory were like a scientific clash of the Titans. Einstein could never accept the indeterministic quantum mechanics that grew out of his own 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect.
Bohr’s annual conference, to which he invited about thirty physicists, was the highlight of the physics’ year. From the 3rd to 13th April 1932, the brightest minds in physics gathered together in Copenhagen. In a few years’ time, many of these same physicists would be working on the atomic bomb. But for now, they still had time for a little light-hearted play acting.
Each year the conference ended with what George Gamow called a “stunt pertaining to recent developments in physics”.  The year before, Gamow had rounded up proceedings with a cartoon history of quantum mechanics, starring Mickey Mouse in the lead role.  In 1932, as it was the centenary of Goethe’s death, they decided to stage a version of the German writer’s greatest play, Faust.
Written when the industrial revolution was transforming Germany, Goethe’s Faust raises key questions regarding science and technology, questions such as what is the purpose of knowledge, and how can we have progress without increasing human suffering?
Goethe’s Faust is a proto-scientist (the word ‘scientist’ was not coined until 1834), whose desire to know nature’s deepest secrets, leads him to strike a fateful bargain with Mephistopheles. In the sixteenth century, the story of Faust had been used by the Church to frighten people about the dangers of forbidden (i.e. non-Christian) knowledge. Goethe’s play re-works the classic theme for the modern age. His Faust celebrates the spirit of inquiry, while highlighting the dangers of misapplied knowledge. True scientific understanding, Goethe suggests, is life-affirming and creative, not destructive and exploitative.
The 1932 Faust was re-written and, of course, greatly abridged by the younger scientists at Bohr’s conference. Their literary skills were no doubt boosted by the products of Copenhagen’s other claim to fame – the Carlsberg Brewery, which also happened to be one of Danish science’s most generous benefactors. Max Delbrück, who would later become a central figure in the post-war revolution in molecular biology, did most of the writing.
The play is re-worked into what is essentially a humorous skit at the expense of the leading physicists of the day. Goethe’s characters were replaced with contemporary physicists, their younger colleagues donning masks to play them on stage. Mephistopheles became the irascible Austrian Wolfgang Pauli, while Faust became Paul Ehrenfest, a close friend of Einstein. The role of God was reserved, appropriately enough, for their host, Niels Bohr.
Wolfgang Pauli’s rudeness was legendary. In the play he bluntly tells the painfully polite Niels Bohr (aka God) that his latest theory is “Crap”.  But their gentlemanly host, Niels Bohr, is also gently mocked. His almost pathological fear of being too critical becomes the motto of the play, emblazoned on the text’s cover: “Nicht um zu kritisieren” (Not to criticize). Even Einstein doesn’t escape unscathed. His flawed unified field theory, which had created a media storm of interest when it was published in 1929, is lampooned by his young colleagues as the son of a flea.
Faust is depicted as a proud, even vain, figure, one who is deeply dissatisfied by what he has learnt and what physics can offer. Mephistopheles tries to tempt Faust by convincing him to accept one of the more outlandish theories in quantum physics – Pauli’s own idea of the neutrino, a particle without mass or charge. If once he can make Faust say to such a theory “Verweile doch! Du bis so schön!” (Stay! You are so beautiful!) then he has won his wager with God.
At times the play is anarchic, even Dadaist, in its celebration of the bizarre world of quantum theory. But in the 1930s the new physics was itself full of weird and wonderful notions. Niels Bohr once greeted one of Pauli’s theories with the comment: “We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question, which divides us, is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough.” 
The physicists transform Faust’s death scene at the end of Goethe’s play into a moment of supreme bathos. Mephistopheles ushers a press photographer on stage and it is this that is Faust’s undoing. Paul Ehrenfest utters Faust’s famous dying words, just as he is about to be immortalized by the photographer:
“Faust (highly excited, he takes a pose for the press photographer)
To this fair moment let me say:
‘You are so beautiful – Oh, stay!’
A trace of me will linger ’mongst the Great,
Within the annals of The Fourth Estate.
Anticipating fortune so benign,
I now enjoy the moment that is mine!” 
Although humour was the last thing in Goethe’s mind as he penned this poignant scene, in the physicists’ version of Faust it becomes a wonderfully witty moment, albeit with serious undertones. The younger physicists are making fun of their colleagues’ vanity and self-importance. Indeed, by highlighting the theme of fame, they were making an important point: in the coming years nuclear physicists would indeed enter the public eye and feature ever more frequently in the media.
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by the new scientific superweapon, the public would come to view scientists such as Einstein and Oppenheimer with both respect and fear. Eventually, as they were drawn ever closer to the government and the military, the price physicists would pay for their Faustian bargain was to be immortalized as Dr Strangelove, the ultimate doomsday man.
At the end of the play, a physicist who had entered the media spotlight in 1932 made a brief appearance as Faust’s over-ambitious famulus, Wagner. James Chadwick is portrayed by his fellow physicists as “a personification of the ideal experimentalist”. He walks on stage after Faust’s death scene wearing the scientist’s trade-mark lab coat and balancing a black ball on one finger.
This rather sinister looking figure announces an extraordinary discovery, one of which Faust himself would have been proud. James Chadwick had found one of the basic constituents of matter: the third elementary particle after protons and electrons, the neutron.
The discovery of the neutron, just before the Copenhagen conference, was a seminal achievement for modern nuclear physics. Its discovery made possible Leo Szilard’s idea in the following year of a self-sustaining chain reaction. Indeed there are Faustian echoes here too. For in 1932 Szilard read HG Wells’s novel The World Set Free about a Faustian scientist discovering how to release the energy locked in the heart of the atom.  Szilard’s discovery helped open the door to the atomic bomb.
1932 was an important year as regards the science of the superweapon. Wernher von Braun was hired by the German army to design rocket engines, the first step on the path towards ICBMs. In the same year Harold Urey announced the discovery of a new hydrogen isotope known as deuterium. This would become the fuel for the hydrogen bomb. These are powerful reminders that the tragedy of Goethe’s Faust was about to be played out on a world stage. Clearly, the lessons of the play and of Goethe’s science were still profoundly relevant.
In Part II, Act 2 of Goethe’s Faust, Wagner (Chadwick in the 1932 performance) uses alchemy to create not a neutron but a homunculus, a miniature man. In this scene Goethe criticizes what he considered to be a misguided approach to science. Wagner’s alchemistic attempt to create the homunculus combines allusions to both Paracelsian recipes and contemporary advances in chemistry, such as Friedrich Wöhler’s synthesising of urea in 1828.  But significantly Wagner only succeeds because Mephistopheles is present. Goethe highlights the fact that Wagner’s approach to science is flawed and supernatural intervention is required to make it work.
Faust has turned his back on alchemy and the knowledge of books at the beginning of the play. As Faust discovers, neither words, books nor instruments alone lead to true knowledge. His passionate desire to grasp ‘the inmost force / That bonds the very universe’ (ll.382-3, “was die Welt / Im Innersten zusammenhält”) is a scientific and philosophical goal Faust pursues tirelessly throughout his life, regardless of the cost to himself or others around him.  But he too has much to learn about science and knowledge. For Goethe, one of the most important lessons was that the route to scientific knowledge and self-knowledge was a parallel process. As he wrote in 1823: “The human being knows himself only insofar as he knows the world; he perceives the world only in himself, and himself only in the world.” 
At the end of the play Goethe highlights the dangers of the misapplication of scientific knowledge. Thanks to the temptations of Mephistopheles, Faust has lost touch with the insights he has gained into both nature and himself. His overambitious attempt to reclaim land from the sea, a hasty and hubristic act which results in the deaths of the old couple, Baucis and Philemon, represents Goethe’s fears about the misuse of science and technology. It is one thing to understand the laws of nature – the forces that bind the universe – and to be able to control these laws. It is something else entirely to be able to use this power wisely.
By performing Faust in 1932, the physicists created some intriguing parallels between Wagner and Chadwick, as well as the neutron and the homunculus. Goethe used the scene in Wagner’s laboratory both to belittle alchemy’s supposed achievements and to criticize mechanistic science for its hubristic attempts to play god. What, one wonders, would Goethe have made of Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron?
Goethe’s notion that scientific knowledge and self-knowledge should evolve hand-in-hand, is a deeply suggestive theme when one looks at the history of twentieth-century science. What is the point of knowing nature’s deepest secrets, Goethe asks, if humankind never attains self-knowledge? The Faustian physicist might control the forces of nature but he does not understand, let alone control, himself.
It is fascinating that the atomic physicists gathered at Bohr’s Institute in spring 1932 chose to perform Goethe’s play at this pivotal moment in the history of science. Six years later, one of the twentieth century’s greatest playwrights began a work that would raise profound questions about the purpose of science in the atomic age. After many revisions, the final version of Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo was first performed in 1955. By then, as Oppenheimer said, the scientists had known sin and the world was living in fear of an imminent nuclear holocaust. This hugely influential play reflected the widely-held view that twentieth-century science was in crisis.
Brecht’s Galileo is a Faustian character, who initially boasts that he would happily live out his life in a dark, windowless prison if he could but discover the secret of light. But at the end of his life, under house arrest and – like the aged Faust – nearly blind, Galileo has realised that science is about more than describing the laws of nature.
Brecht believed that, as a human activity, science had a moral dimension that was increasingly ignored. In the midst of the cold war, as the superpowers and their scientists transformed the laws of nature into ever more terrible weapons of mass destruction, Brecht called for a more human-centred science, a point he makes by paraphrasing Galileo’s contemporary Francis Bacon: “I believe that the sole objective of science consists in reducing the drudgery of human existence.” According to Brecht, the alternative is that each advance in scientific knowledge results in “progress away from humanity”. The scientists’ shrieks of Eureka! will one day be greeted by “a universal cry of horror” because of the ever more lethal technologies their discoveries make possible. 
Goethe would no doubt have been flattered that a century after his death some of the world’s most gifted physicists performed a version of his greatest play. He would, however, have been appalled to discover that soon scientists such as these would create weapons that could incinerate tens of thousands of people in an instant. Would he have been surprised though? I doubt it.
Today, despite the myriad distractions of an increasingly technologized culture, the lessons of Goethe’s Faust remain profoundly relevant to us all. As Brecht so eloquently put it in the final scene of Galileo:
"May you now guard science’s light
Kindle it and use it right
Lest it be a flame to fall
Downward to consume us all.
Yes, us all." 
The issues surrounding the physicists’ Faust are discussed at greater length in my book, Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon, and in an article for the current issue of the Publications of the English Goethe Society, available to download on my website, Kafka’s mouse.
1. George Gamow, Thirty Years That Shook Physics, 1966; repr Mineola, N.Y., 1985, 51.
2. Cited in Richard P. Feynman, Don’t You Have time to Think?, London, 2005, xii.
3. Gamow, 167.
4. John Canaday, The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics and the First Atomic Bombs, Madison, 2000, 268, n.
5. The Blegdamsvej Faust is on microfilm 66 of the Archive for the History of Quantum Physics (American Philosophical Society). An English version, together with the illustrations, is in Gamow, 165-218.
6. Bohr cited in Robert Ehrlich, Eight Preposterous Propositions, Princeton, 2005, 5.
7. Gamow, 210.
8. H.G. Wells, The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind, 1914; repr. as The Last War, Lincoln, 2001.
9. P.D. Smith, ‘Scientific Themes in Goethe’s Faust’, in Paul Bishop, ed., A Companion to Goethe’s Faust, Rochester, N.Y., 2001, 198-99.
10. See ibid., 194–220.
11. “Der Mensch kennt nur sich selbst, insofern er die Welt kennt, die er nur in sich und sich nur in ihr gewahr wird. Jeder neue Gegenstand, wohl beschaut, schließt ein neues Organ in uns auf.” Goethe, “Bedeutende Fördernis durch ein einziges Geistreiches Wort” (1823), Werke, Hamburger Ausgabe, 1981, vol 13, 38; tr. Douglas Miller: Goethe, Scientific Studies, Princeton, 1995, 39.
12. On Brecht and Bacon see P.D. Smith, Metaphor & Materiality: German Literature and the World-View of Science 1780-1955 (Oxford, 2000), 304; all quotes in this paragraph from Brecht, Life of Galileo, scene 14.
13. Life of Galileo, Scene 15; tr. Charles Laughton (Penguin, 2008).
“Hütet nun ihr der Wissenschaften Licht
Nutzt es und mißbraucht es nicht
Daß es nicht, ein Feuerfall
Einst verzehre noch uns all
Ja, uns all.”
Andy Goldsworthy. Rain Shadow, St Abbs, Wales. June 1984.
September 28, 2008
Tuberculosis or Hair Loss? A Plan to Refocus Medical Research
Also in Project Syndicate, Peter Singer:
At a meeting in Oslo in August, Incentives for Global Health, a nonprofit organization directed by Aidan Hollis, professor of economics at the University of Calgary, and Thomas Pogge, professor of philosophy and international affairs at Yale, launched a radical new proposal to change the incentives under which corporations are rewarded for developing new medicines. They suggest that governments contribute to a Health Impact Fund that would pay pharmaceutical companies in proportion to the extent to which their products reduce the global burden of disease.
The fund would not replace existing patent laws, but would offer an alternative to them. Pharmaceutical companies could continue to patent and sell their products as they do now. Alternatively, they could register a new drug with the Heath Impact Fund, which would set a low price based on the drug’s manufacturing cost.
Instead of profiting from sales at high prices, the corporation would become eligible for a share of all payments made by the fund over the next ten years. The size of the share would be calculated by assessing the contribution the drug has made to reducing death and disability.
The beauty of the scheme is that it gives economic support to the idea that all human lives are of equal value. For products that drug companies register with the Health Impact Fund, corporations would get the same reward for saving the lives of Africans living in extreme poverty as they would get for saving the lives of wealthy citizens of affluent nations.
The most potentially lucrative targets would become the diseases that kill the most people, because that is where a breakthrough drug would have the biggest impact on global health.
The End of Neo-Liberalism?
Robert Skidelsky in Project Syndicate:
At issue here is the oldest unresolved dilemma in economics: are market economies “naturally” stable or do they need to be stabilized by policy? Keynes emphasized the flimsiness of the expectations on which economic activity in decentralized markets is based. The future is inherently uncertain, and therefore investor psychology is fickle.
“The practice of calmness, of immobility, of certainty and security, suddenly breaks down,” Keynes wrote. “New fears and hopes will, without warning, take charge of human conduct.” This is a classic description of the “herd behavior” that George Soros has identified as financial markets’ dominant feature. It is the government’s job to stabilize expectations.
The neo-classical revolution believed that markets were much more cyclically stable than Keynes believed, that the risks in all market transactions can be known in advance, and that prices will therefore always reflect objective probabilities.
Such market optimism led to de-regulation of financial markets in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and the subsequent explosion of financial innovation which made it “safe” to borrow larger and larger sums of money on the back of predictably rising assets. The just-collapsed credit bubble, fueled by so-called special investment vehicles, derivatives, collateralized debt obligations, and phony triple-A ratings, was built on the illusions of mathematical modeling.
Liberal cycles, the historian Arthur Schlesinger thought, succumb to the corruption of power, conservative cycles to the corruption of money. Both have their characteristic benefits and costs.
But if we look at the historical record, the liberal regime of the 1950’s and 1960’s was more successful than the conservative regime that followed. Outside China and India, whose economic potential was unleashed by market economics, economic growth was faster and much more stable in the Keynesian golden age than in the age of Friedman; its fruits were more equitably distributed; social cohesion and moral habits better maintained. These are serious benefits to weigh against some business sluggishness.
Has McCain Really Gotten More Negative Media Attention Than Obama?
Vivian B. Martin in Scientific American:
Groeling’s work is one of the few studies to quantify partisan bias in the media, a subject notoriously difficult for social scientists to research and discuss. These scientists work with theories such as the socalled hostile media effect to predict that ardent supporters of a cause will view media as slanted for the other side, and they have conducted hundreds of studies that have revealed imbalances in the ways journalists frame news on topics ranging from AIDS to the war in Iraq. But there is not a cohesive literature on media bias. Maxwell McCombs of the University of Texas at Austin, who pioneered agenda-setting theory, one of the leading paradigms on news media, says that a researcher would need a few years to make sense of existing data and develop an approach to study media bias. Like many scholars, McCombs sees “bias” as a loaded term, preferring to speak of journalists’ “predilections.”
“Scholars hate the word ‘bias’ because they feel like they’re entering the ideological fray,” says S. Robert Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) at George Mason University, who prefers the term “tone.” Despite his efforts, Lichter himself got sucked into that fray. His content analysis of the transcripts of TV news broadcasts at the statement level is a respected and widely adopted methodology. This past summer, just as the view that journalists were going softer on Barack Obama than on John McCain was becoming widely accepted, CMPA issued a report showing that 72 percent of the statements in TV news reports about Obama in late spring and early summer were negative, whereas 57 percent of the statements about McCain were negative. When Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly attacked Lichter’s method during a radio interview, saying it would embolden liberal bias, Lichter responded, “You can take all my studies or none of my studies”—an allusion to past uses of his work to support conservative views.
Rothko's Late Paintings
Laura Cumming in The Guardian:
At their best, the late paintings can give a pure optical hit. There is a black on black work where the graduations of tone are so subtle that the eye, adjusting to the darkness, sees it deepen and fade inexplicably. But that painting, No 1, is scaled to the proportions of the human body, like the best of the earlier work. The bigger Rothko gets - and some of the murals are as big as billboards and pitched as high on the wall - the more diluted their strength.
People often speak of the turbulent emotion of the late works, associating their darkness with Rothko's future suicide. But how can they possibly tell? Whatever emotion the paintings may have absorbed from his anguished inner life is subsumed in their gloomy permutations, one after another, narrow to wide, darker to lighter, vivid to blunt, just going through the weary motions.
Strength sapped, inspiration drained: that is the feeling that comes off the walls. Even in the paint itself, the cracks are beginning to show. Rothko drives on and on, prolific to the end, but compared to the riches of the previous decade, when the paintings could still sing, the interpenetration of colours remained mysterious, the stained and glazed and scumbled surfaces could still entrance the eye, these works are dispiritingly ordinary.
Charting the Polls
Via Andrew Gelman, Max Blumenthal on Pollster.com's interactive poll tracking tools:
A little over two years ago, we launched Pollster.com with a mission of providing a complete compilation of poll results, expert analysis and graphical tools to help readers make sense of polling data. Today, after two long years of development, our commitment to interactive graphical tools takes a quantum leap...
At a moment when the political world is swimming in a flood of polling data, we are pleased to announce a new, fully interactive Flash chart application that will plot all of the poll charts here on Pollster.com. The new charts allow you to:
- Select or limit the polls used to draw trend lines and calculate polling estimates with the "filter" tool. If you don't like a particular pollster, just un-click and take them out (yes...really).
- Toggle between the display of the default trend line and alternatives that are more or less sensitive using the "smoothing" tool -- these are essentially the same as the "steady blue" and "ready red" trend lines often used by Charles Franklin.
A Better Bailout
Joseph Stiglitz in The Nation:
The administration is once again holding a gun at our head, saying, "My way or the highway." We have been bamboozled before by this tactic. We should not let it happen to us again. There are alternatives. Warren Buffet showed the way, in providing equity to Goldman Sachs. The Scandinavian countries showed the way, almost two decades ago. By issuing preferred shares with warrants (options), one reduces the public's downside risk and insures that they participate in some of the upside potential. This approach is not only proven, it provides both incentives and wherewithal to resume lending. It furthermore avoids the hopeless task of trying to value millions of complex mortgages and even more complex products in which they are embedded, and it deals with the "lemons" problem--the government getting stuck with the worst or most overpriced assets.
Finally, we need to impose a special financial sector tax to pay for the bailouts conducted so far. We also need to create a reserve fund so that poor taxpayers won't have to be called upon again to finance Wall Street's foolishness.
If we design the right bailout, it won't lead to an increase in our long-term debt--we might even make a profit. But if we implement the wrong strategy, there is a serious risk that our national debt--already overburdened from a failed war and eight years of fiscal profligacy--will soar, and future living standards will be compromised.
Cloud 9 at 70 plus
Cloud 9" takes 30 to 40-year-olds into their parents' bedrooms and confronts them with scenes that sons and daughters would never want to think about in too much detail. Is this supposed to be enlightening in some way?
Yes, but that's not my main concern. After all it's a film about love, not sex. But the main character has no idea about this at the beginning. She is just wandering the streets in a daze when suddenly she finds herself on the rug of a man she barely knows. Then she tries to run away from these newly awakened feelings. At some point she gives in, realises she has to live this new love somehow. Even when none of this should be happening, after 30 years of marriage. If you think of the cinema as a strange dark box from which to examine the world and the human soul, then this subject should be in there too.
Allotments by the railway, choir practice, German folk-pop. Your earlier film "Halbe Treppe" was set in similar surroundings. Why are you so set on staying with the "common people".
Most old people live like this and not upper middle class lives. We wanted to talk about normal people. Inge, Werner and Karl are not badly off, their lives are not beset by social crisis, and they are more or less contented. The fridge is full, the coffee percolator is gurgling away. Things could just go on as they are. And then catastrophe strikes, bang smack in the centre of this middle class, petty bourgeois world.
Flowing Toward Oblivion?
Along with dark matter and dark energy, astronomers can now add dark flow to the lexicon of cosmic mysteries. Researchers have discovered that 700 distant clusters of galaxies, gas, and dust are all being pulled in the same direction, apparently toward something invisible and possibly very large, confounding current cosmological models. So far, what that "something" is remains speculative, but it could turn out to be a vestige of the universe's earliest days.
Shortly after the big bang occurred some 13.7 billion years ago, cosmologists think, the universe underwent a brief period that defied current physical laws. The theory goes that during this time, called inflation, space itself expanded at a rate much, much faster than the speed of light. As a result, some of the matter formed with the big bang was pulled more than 13.7 billion light-years away--so far that its light hasn't reached us yet. As a result, that matter can't be observed--or at least, so cosmologists thought.
But now a team led by astrophysicist Alexander Kashlinsky of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has unearthed what could be indirect evidence of inflation. The researchers had been surveying the motion of 700 clusters of galaxies to test an unrelated astronomical phenomenon when they made a startling discovery: All 700 clusters are flowing basically in the same direction and at speeds of as much as 1000 kilometers per second--or more than 30 times faster than Earth revolves around the sun. As the team reports in this week's online edition of Astrophysical Journal Letters, the clusters, which appear headed toward a region of the sky where the constellation Centaurus resides, are moving faster than they should be if their acceleration were due only to dark energy, the mysterious force discovered a decade ago that is slowly ripping the cosmos apart.
Songs of Herself
From The Washington Post:
Maya Angelou published her blockbuster memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1969, when she was in her early 40s and I was a 17-year-old white Southerner trying my luck in New York City. Catching her on late night television, I fell utterly under her spell. I loved her delighted laugh, the studied cadences of her rich voice, her graciousness -- especially to white interviewers who couldn't get enough of her stories about growing up black in the Jim Crow South. In that time before everybody and his uncle wrote memoirs, I felt I must read her story. She was willing to speak plainly about race and to describe how she was raped as an 8-year-old. If that violation left her mute for several years, she vindicated her silence by trying her luck as a performer and then a writer, and it appeared she could hold rapt any audience she chose to entertain.
Nearly 40 years, six (six!) autobiographies, a dozen collections of poetry, a sprinkling of essays, children's books and a cookbook later, Angelou -- who turned 80 this spring -- has written another book, this one an odd little hodgepodge of sound advice, vivid memory and strong opinion. Despite the slimness of the volume and the randomness of its offerings, I still find myself charmed by her plain talk.
I am, after all, her intended audience. Though she is the mother of one son, to whom she gave birth when she was just 16, Angelou has dedicated these musings to her "thousands of daughters . . . Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut . . . pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered."
September 27, 2008
Paul Newman (1925-2008)
WESTPORT, Conn. (AP) -- Paul Newman, the Academy-Award winning superstar who personified cool as an activist, race car driver, popcorn impresario and the anti-hero of such films as "Hud," "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Color of Money," has died. He was 83.
Newman died Friday after a long battle with cancer at his farmhouse near Westport, publicist Jeff Sanderson said. He was surrounded by his family and close friends.
more from the NY Times here.
hitchens on brideshead
As I drove away from a California screening of the new film version of Brideshead Revisited, I was amused to overhear the comments of my companions from the back seat. "I thought the one who played Jeremy Irons was a bit thin ..." "I liked the Anthony Andrews character better ... " It is more than a quarter of a century since the late William F Buckley introduced the Granada TV series to the American viewers of the Public Broadcasting System, and the residual effect is one of what Harold Isaacs once called "scratches on the mind": a very durable if sometimes vague cultural impression. (My son was born in 1984 and as I was carrying a teddy bear home, and happening that day to be wearing a white linen suit, I was astonished by the number of passers-by in Washington DC who shouted "Hi Sebastian!" at me as I tooled along.) The directors Charles Sturridge and Michael Lindsay-Hogg achieved their 1981 success by gorgeous photography, of course, and also by generally inspired casting. The locations, plainly, required little or no embellishment. And the music was suitably ... well, evocative. But most of all, they were faithful to Evelyn Waugh's beautiful dialogue and cadence, both in set-piece scenes and in sequences of languorous voice-over in Oxford and Venice and - perhaps decisively - in the opening passage, where the melancholic Captain Charles Ryder hears the almost healing word "Brideshead" spoken again: "a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror's name of such magic power, that, at its ancient sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight".
more from The Guardian here.
The book of my enemy has been remaindered And I am pleased.
Over the past 50 years, Clive James has worked as a British television personality; a radio broadcaster; a travel writer; a trainee bus conductor; a book reviewer for major publications in the United States, Britain and his native Australia; a flunky in a machine shop; a recording artist (the six albums he wrote in the 1970s with the singer-songwriter Pete Atkin are cult classics); a sportswriter; a book shelver; an art critic; a prose elegist for Diana, Princess of Wales (“I am appearing ridiculous now, but it is part of the ceremony, is it not?”); and, naturally, a circus roustabout. He has also, all along and not entirely coincidentally, been a poet. While that last fact is well known in Britain and Australia, James’s new book, Opal Sunset: Selected Poems, 1958-2008 (Norton, $25.95), is the first volume of his poetry to be published in the United States.
It isn’t necessarily an advantage in the poetry world, especially the American poetry world, to be known for writing things that aren’t poetry. We’re suspicious of dabblers; we’d prefer for the poet to have, as Emerson put it, “only this one dream, which holds him like an insanity,” and we sometimes view single-minded devotion to poetry’s institutions as evidence of that larger dedication.
more from the NY Times Book Review here.
The Tao Te Ching
Change the world? It's a fool's errand.
What is, is. What is, is Tao.
Seers agree you can't squeeze
blood from a stone.
Sometimes you're in the lead,
at other times you're pulling up the rear.
Sometimes you're like a whirlwind
—a tornado that must eventually unwind.
Even great nations decline.
You're weak, you're strong.
You're down, you're up.
Your still center is the hub
of all motion at its rim,
when turmoil rules, go in.
Can you see the isness of things
and take it well?
Stay simply aware. What need have you
for whistles and bells?
Interp: R. Bob
The X Chromosome and the Case against Monogamy
From Scientific American:
Researchers report genetic evidence bolstering the socially contentious idea that polygyny—the mating practice where some males dominate reproduction by fathering children with several women—was the norm for sexual behavior throughout human history and prehistory. Because polygyny means other men father few or no children, the study, published today in PloS Genetics, also shows that, on average, women bequeath more genes to their offspring than men do.
The proportion of female to male genes passed on is not yet known. "Our follow-up work is to get a better estimate, but we believe it's at least two to one, if not more," says senior study author Michael Hammer, a geneticist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "This is good science, and even more notable is the increasing light it sheds on our own human nature," says David Barash, evolutionary psychologist, University of Washington in Seattle.
The study, which examined genetic material (DNA) from six geographically diverse populations—Biaka from Central African Republic, Mandenka from Senegal, San from Namibia, French Basque, Han Chinese and Melanesians from Papua New Guinea—provides independent corroboration of what many animal studies have shown and evolutionary biologists have long claimed: basic human biology is polygynous, Barash notes. "Monogamy is a recently inspired cultural add-on."
The Final Days
From The New York Times:
The War Within: A Secret Whitehouse History 2006-2008 by Bob Woodword.
In contrast to his other Bush volumes, “The War Within” does provide interstitial analysis and judgments throughout. It also renders an extremely harsh final appraisal of President Bush. In a stinging epilogue, Woodward concludes: “For years, time and again, President Bush has displayed impatience, bravado and unsettling personal certainty about his decisions. The result has too often been impulsiveness and carelessness and, perhaps most troubling, a delayed reaction to realities and advice that run counter to his gut.”
SOME will deem this judgment obvious and long overdue. They will also come away hungry if they expect Woodward to grapple with the central question surrounding the Iraq war: whether it was launched and fought with just cause. Still, Woodward has traveled far since the publication of his first two volumes; in both he viewed events through an overly heroic prism in the aftermath of 9/11. In his third volume, “State of Denial,” the author took a mulligan. Writing as the insurgency in Iraq was spinning out of control, he rewound the story back to the beginning and offered a much tougher account of Bush’s war policies and their executors.
In “The War Within,” more judgmental still, President Bush shrinks in stature as the narrator’s presence grows. Cynics will say that Woodward waited until the last book to fully criticize the president and his closest advisers because he no longer needs access to them.
September 26, 2008
what, again, is beauty?
Why is something beautiful? David Hume argued that beauty exists not in things but "in the mind that contemplates them." And everyone has at some point heard the old saw that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But Plato had a fanciful answer made to argue for a universal truth: In his world of forms, he claimed there existed a perfect Form of Beauty, which was imperfectly manifested in what we call beautiful. Despite the allure of Plato's metaphorical claim, students of aesthetics have struggled to substantiate it. Evolutionary psychologists have argued that there exist quantifiable, describable, universal aspects to the human capacity for appreciating beautiful forms, perhaps originating in our ancestors' experience on African savannas or in the need to find suitable mates. They have not solved the problem. However, recent work by several researchers at University College London — including the establishment of the first major grant-driven research program for the neurobiological investigation of aesthetics, or neuroaesthetics — has made the first steps toward a unified biocultural theory of art. An object's beauty may not be universal, but the neural basis for appreciating beauty probably is. The researchers' initial discoveries and the increasing formalization of the field promise to open the way for the first time to an understanding of beauty based on something other than speculation.
more from Seed here.
god is boring
We live in an age of autobiography, one in which young writers cannot even bother to change people’s names to create a novel, in which a story being true is a greater virtue than being well written, or insightful, or interesting.
I have a few unyielding standards for a memoir: Either your book must be exceptionally written (a trait hard to find in memoirs these days) or you must have done something exceptional. You must have traveled to the underground or the heavens and come back with fire or golden apples or at least a little wisdom. It can’t just be, “Daddy hit me, mommy got cancer” — everyone has a sad story, and it is possible to go through a trauma or experience something significant without gaining any insight.
You would think that the spiritual memoir would be a stand out division — after all, if the writer has seen the face of God, he or she should probably get a good story out of that.
more from The Smart Set here.
The $22 million memorial commemorating the 184 people who perished in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon was dedicated two weeks ago. A memorial may be beautiful or homely, sophisticated or crude, monumental or unassuming: That's not really the point. A rough stone stele can be as effective as an intricately carved marble catafalque. But, as Andrew Butterfield wrote in the New Republic a few years ago in the context of a 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, a memorial does need to do three things: It marks a spot, it says who, and it says so forever. How does the Pentagon Memorial fulfill these requirements?
The Pentagon is a surprisingly low building whose immense bulk only becomes apparent as you walk around it, which you must do to get from the nearest Metro stop to the memorial. The two-acre site is immediately adjacent to the place where American Airlines Flight 77 struck. Hence, much of the power of this particular memorial derives from the simple fact that it marks the actual place where the event occurred.
more from Slate here.
A Bailout We Don't Need?
Is this bailout still necessary?
The point of the bailout is to buy assets that are illiquid but not worthless. But regular banks hold assets like that all the time. They're called "loans."
With banks, runs occur only when depositors panic, because they fear the loan book is bad. Deposit insurance takes care of that. So why not eliminate the pointless $100,000 cap on federal deposit insurance and go take inventory? If a bank is solvent, money market funds would flow in, eliminating the need to insure those separately. If it isn't, the FDIC has the bridge bank facility to take care of that.
Next, put half a trillion dollars into the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. fund -- a cosmetic gesture -- and as much money into that agency and the FBI as is needed for examiners, auditors and investigators. Keep $200 billion or more in reserve, so the Treasury can recapitalize banks by buying preferred shares if necessary -- as Warren Buffett did this week with Goldman Sachs. Review the situation in three months, when Congress comes back. Hedge funds should be left on their own. You can't save everyone, and those investors aren't poor.
With this solution, the systemic financial threat should go away. Does that mean the economy would quickly recover? No. Sadly, it does not. Two vast economic problems will confront the next president immediately. First, the underlying housing crisis: There are too many houses out there, too many vacant or unsold, too many homeowners underwater. Credit will not start to flow, as some suggest, simply because the crisis is contained. There have to be borrowers, and there has to be collateral. There won't be enough.
50 greatest villains in literature
From The Telegraph:
Compiling a list of the 50 Greatest Villains in Literature, without too much recourse to comics and children's books, proved trickier than we'd imagined - but gosh it was fun. It's perhaps the nature of grown-up literature that it doesn't all that often have villains, in the sense of coal-black embodiments of the principle of evil. And even when it does, it's not always so easy to tell who they are. Is God the baddie, or Satan? Ahab, or the white whale? Yet even writers as subtle as Vladimir Nabokov have spiced their work with a fiend or two. And here they are. We hope you'll furnish a few more we missed. These are the best of the worst: bloodsuckers, pederasts, cannibals, Old Etonians...the dastardliest dastards ever to have lashed damsel to track and waited for a through train.
"Who's bad?" Michael Jackson asked. "They are," we can at last, with confidence, reply. SL
48 Shere Khan from The Jungle Book stories, by Rudyard Kipling
His name and character, if not his physical appearance or his species, are based on a Pashtun prince. And there is something refreshingly simple about his aims: to eat Mowgli. To this end he sows dissent among wolf pack (enough alone to get him down to the eighth circle of Dante's hell) and causes Mowgli all sorts of trouble. TC
47 Long John Silver from Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson
The former sidekick of the pirate Captain Flint (for whom his parrot is named) may have one leg, but he is physically brave, likeable and a natural leader of men, especially after he kills one who won't join his mutiny. Switches sides whenever he can, and gets away in the end. AMcK
46 Moriarty from The Final Problem, by Arthur Conan Doyle
Got a chair at one of our smaller universities after his work on the Binomial Theorem, but the criminal strain in his blood won out. The "Napoleon of Crime", motionless "like a spider at the centre of his web", until his fall in Switzerland, may be called James. Or that may be his brother. AMcK
A Switch to Turn Off Autism?
From Scientific American:
Scientists say they have pinpointed a gene in the brain that can calm nerve cells that become too jumpy, potentially paving the way for new therapies to treat autism and other neurological disorders. "It's exciting because it opens the field up," says Michael Greenberg, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School. "Nobody has [found] a gene that controls the process in quite that way before."
The brain is continually trying to strike a balance between too much and too little nerve cell activity. Neurologists believe that when the balance tips, disorders such as autism and shizophrenia may occur. They are not sure why neurons (nerve cells) go berserk. But Greenberg says he and his colleagues located a gene in mice and rats that helps keep neural activity in check—and may one day be manipulated to prevent or reverse neurological problems.
Researchers report in Nature that they discovered a gene called Npas4 churns out a protein that keeps neurons from becoming overexcited when they fire (communicate with one another through connections known as synapses).
September 25, 2008
Baader Meinhof Film Splits Germany
Kate Connolly in the Guardian:
The bloody legacy of the Baader Meinhof Gang which caused mayhem across West Germany with its politically-motivated assassinations, bombings and kidnappings is to be portrayed on cinema screens this week in a new film which claims to debunk the myth of 1970s terrorist chic.
Just how raw the darkest chapter in Germany's postwar history remains has been demonstrated by the angry reaction that the Baader Meinhof Komplex has prompted from victims' families, the children of gang members and historians.
Some have accused the film - which boasts a cast of top German actors - of being too violent, or of reinforcing the image of gang members as Bonnie and Clyde-style heroes.
Bettina Roehl, the journalist daughter of the gang's co-leader, Ulrike Meinhof, wrote in a blog: "The Baader Meinhof Komplex is the worst-case scenario - it would not be possible to top its hero worship."
The Berliner Zeitung critic said the film had given Andreas Baader, the other gang leader and son of a history professor, the stuntman status he had always craved. "Finally [he] has got what he always wanted. Posthumously he has become the hero of a real action film," the critic said.
It was Baader's escape from prison for the fire bombing of two Frankfurt department stores that marked the birth of the Baader Meinhof Gang, otherwise known as the Red Army Faction (RAF). Its members' campaigning zeal was triggered by their anger at their parents' perceived failure to confront Germany's Nazi past.
The Porsche-driving Baader modelled himself on the Hollywood actor Marlon Brando, and he and Meinhof, a successful journalist, epitomised the glamour that gave the gang its appeal - a status it enjoys in popular culture even today.
Fashion Week, The Cheap Seats
Molly Young reports...for n+1:
I. Round one: Z Zegna
Like ants in a colony, the men and women in town for Fashion Week have thin black exoskeletons, specialized social functions and valuable cargo to transport. A swarm of these people has formed on a September afternoon in front of the West Village showroom where Z Zegna will exhibit its Spring-Summer 2009 collection. I don't know what Z Zegna is, apart from an Italian menswear line whose website has an alphabet theme. Words that begin with "S" scoot across the introduction page and fade into a photograph of a guy on a motorcycle—Seduction. Sporty. Style. A press release I downloaded opened with a paean to the expected letter Z: "The ultimate letter, the most distinguished of the alphabet." An invitation to the show is sandwiched between two candy bars in my purse, like a boarding pass. In terms of Fashion Week hierarchies, I get the feeling that Z Zegna is Greyhound to Zac Posen's Amtrak and Marc Jacobs's Concorde.
But an invitation is an invitation. From what I can tell by eavesdropping, the people mingling outside the showroom are representatives from department stores, boutiques, online retailers, and press, all smoking and speaking different languages. An abandoned kombucha bottle is wedged in a decorative shrub. Malcolm Gladwell walks past on his way somewhere else and looks inquisitively at the gathering. Ah! My totem! I see Mr. Gladwell frequently in the West Village and consider him, like a shooting star or a rainbow, to be a sign of good luck.
Ten minutes after the show is scheduled to begin people wrap up their conversations and move inside, flashing invites to a team of assistants in black outfits. Stiffly upright men posted by the door hold trays of water bottles that have had the Z Zegna label glued to their midsections. A concrete ramp leads into a bright cavern with seats set up like bleachers alongside a white runway, which is arranged in a complicated Tetris shape. (This is not what I was led to expect by Project Runway.) There is tuneless thumping music beneath the sound of "darling" pronounced in a dozen accents. The smack of kisses landing on cheeks reminds me of asterisks.
Influence and Liberal Internationalism
Michael Walzer in Dissent:
[I]nfluence is a normal feature of political life. We all try to be as influential as possible. So how should influence work? When is it legitimate? There is a Marxist argument about this in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which starts from everyday social life. Assume, Marx writes, that our relation to the world is a “human” relation: “Then love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust...If you wish to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you wish to influence other people, you must be a person who really has a stimulating and encouraging effect upon others.” I suggest that the case is the same with political parties, social movements, all sorts of NGOs, and with states, too. If they want to influence people in other countries, they must be stimulating and encouraging, which means materially helpful, politically supportive, ideologically persuasive. What is ruled out by the idea of “human” relations is military force, coercion, manipulation, and subversion. Barring those four, influence isn’t limited to a regional sphere—any person, any party or movement, any state can be influential anywhere.
So if democratic states in western Europe, say, provide ideological support, political encouragement, and material assistance first to new democrats and then to new democracies in eastern Europe, this isn’t imperial politics. It is an attempt at influence, indeed, but it isn’t the creation of an old-fashioned sphere of influence. The expansion of NATO is a harder question, and I am not going to address it here. But support and encouragement for the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine fit Marx’s account of how influence ought to work—while the U.S. instigation of a Guatemalan coup obviously doesn’t.
nascar cancels season for dfw
"I'm flooded with feelings of—for lack of a better concept—incongruity," said Jimmie Johnson, the driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet who is known throughout racing for his habit of handing out copies of Wallace's novels to his fans. "David Foster Wallace could comprehend and articulate the sadness in a luxury cruise, a state fair, a presidential campaign, anything. But empathy, humanity, and compassion so strong as to be almost incoherent ran through that same sadness like connective tissue through muscle, affirming the value of the everyday, championing the banal yet true, acknowledging the ironic as it refused to give in to irony."
"And now he's gone," Johnson added. "He's taken himself away. We can't possibly race now."
David Foster Wallace's work came to stock car racing in the mid-1990s, just as the sport began experiencing almost geometric yearly growth. But the literary atmosphere of the sport was moribund, mired in the once-flamboyant but decidedly aging mid-1960s stylings of Tom Wolfe, whose bombastic essays—notably "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!"—served as the romantic, quasi-elegiac be-all and end-all for NASCAR fans and series participants alike. Racing was ready for new ideas, and when a new generation of young drivers like Jeff Gordon arrived on the scene, sporting new sponsorship deals on their fireproof coveralls and dog-eared copies of Broom Of The System under their arms, an intellectual seed crystal was dropped into the supersaturated solution of American motorsports.
more from The Onion here.
roubini getting it right
Even if the Treasury TARP plan is implemented fairly and efficiently the US will not avoid a severe U-shaped18-month recession and a severe financial and banking crisis: the recession train has already left the station in Q1 and the financial/banking crisis will be severe regardless of what the Treasury and the Fed do from now on. What a proper rescue plan can do is to avoid having the US experience a multi-year L-shaped recession and extreme financial crisis like the one that led to a decade long stagnation in Japan in the 1990s after the bursting of their real estate and equity bubbles.
Roubini at the RGE website here.
Bernard-Henri Levy's Left in Dark Times
Scott McLemee in The Nation:
We witness a historical re-enactment of the New Philosophical argument that Pol Pot's regime was the logical culmination of the Marxist revolutionary vision at its purest. Here, the benighted American leftist reader may want to interrupt--to ask if, say, the destabilization of Cambodia by years of carpet bombing during the Vietnam War might be just as germane to understanding the Khmer Rouge's rise to power as even the most nuanced appreciation of Louis Althusser's structuralism. (Ideas have consequences, but so do B-52s.)
Such an objection would not be welcome, for one of the two very worst forces in the world, by Lévy's account, is anti-Americanism. The other is anti-Semitism, which, it seems to BHL, is well on the way to becoming the ideological core of a new, global totalitarian movement. Sooner or later all those kids with Che T-shirts and Noam Chomsky lectures on their iPods are going to discover the Protocols of Zion--and then what happens? Nothing good.
To swim against this sinister tide, it is necessary to insist upon "the correct notion of Islamofascism, or, better, of Fascislamism" (why the latter should be preferable is not clear) and revitalize old leftist commitments to secular society. The good, true, BHLian left will be generously cosmopolitan. "You won't find me denying that non-European civilizations have produced wonders, and whole worlds, that it would be disastrous to ignore, and even more disastrous to crush beneath the wheel of a lazy, brutal, eradicating Universal," proclaims Lévy.
That last part is a relief, to be sure. But it places us right back in front of certain problems that are not so readily solved--not in theory and certainly not in practice. For there is a long history of particular societies coming to regard themselves as "concrete Universals" (to borrow from a certain idiom apropos here)--in short, as the fullest possible manifestation of the proper essence of humanity, given the world's conditions. People in other societies tend not to take this well, at least not when it becomes a foreign policy enforced by B-52s. It makes them resentful, and worse than resentful, and being patted on the head for their colorful history and folkways may not soothe them.
Lionel Trilling was not completely happy about being Lionel Trilling. “I have one of the great reputations in the academic world,” he wrote in his journal after being promoted to full professor in the Columbia English Department, in 1948. “This thought makes me retch.” Two years later, he published “The Liberal Imagination,” a book that sold more than seventy thousand copies in hardcover and more than a hundred thousand in paperback, and that made Trilling a figure, a model of the intellectual in Cold War America. He represented, for many people, the life of the mind. Trilling was baffled by the attention. “I hear on all sides of the extent of my reputation—which some even call ‘fame,’ ” he wrote in the journal. “It is the thing I have most wanted from childhood—although of course in much greater degree—and now that I seem to have it I have no understanding whatever of its basis—of what it is that makes people respond to what I say, for I think of it as of a simplicity and of a naivety almost extreme.”
He hated being regarded as a paragon of anything.
more from The New Yorker here.
Sherwin B. Nuland in The New Republic:
Lying on a couch in the office of one of the hairdressing salons that she owns in London, Sharyn Hughes perused the advertising brochure she had been sent by Makeover Getaways: "Our Malaysian Makeover Package is a brilliant combination of surgery treatments, sunny beaches and shopping. Offering the latest technological facilities in an exceptionally clean hospital environment, and with guaranteed five star hotel accommodation for postoperative recovery and holiday, you will return home fully revitalized and looking wonderful."
Within minutes, she decided that this opportunity for what she called a "thorough overhaul" was precisely what she and her partner, Grant, had been seeking. They would join the 100,000 other men and women who became surgical tourists to Malaysia in 2006, up from 40,000 only three years earlier. For Sharyn's breast enlargement, liposuction, and cosmetic dentistry and Grant's liposuction and cosmetic dentistry, the total cost would be £9,000 (considerably less than the same surgery in London), with a tour of the country included. She phoned Grant about her discovery, and began making arrangements for both of them to fly off to Asia for their rejuvenation.
In his thought-provoking and disturbing new book, Anthony Elliott describes Asia as having become "the world's hotspot for surgical tourism, particularly Thailand, Singapore and India." Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Latin America, the Caribbean states, and parts of the Middle East have witnessed a similar phenomenon, as cosmetic surgery has become as globalized as any other industry -- not only for patients, but also for the professional personnel who provide it. The demand for such services and the mobility of the providers has magnified in recent years, and by every indication it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Indeed, the entire concept of periodically re-imagining oneself - -more, re-designing oneself -- has taken its place in the culture of Western societies.
Elliott is a professor of sociology, and he has trained his keen sociologist's eye on the astonishing phenomenon that cosmetic surgery has become. Using the methods of his field of study, he now presents us with this small and insightful book that is sure to alter the perspective of everyone who reads it. It is Elliott's contention that there are three cultural forces, acting together and separately, that create the conditions driving the urge for the periodic reinvention of the self. It is an urge that has gripped many members of our society and will affect increasing numbers of those influenced by Elliott's three forces -- numbers that include just about everyone. Those forces are the cult of celebrity, consumerism, and the new economy characterized by globalization.
In sixth grade Mrs. Walker
slapped the back of my head
and made me stand in the corner
for not knowing the difference
between persimmons and precision.
How to choose
persimmons. This is a precision.
Ripe ones are soft and brown-spotted.
Sniff the bottoms. The sweet one
will be fragrant. How to eat:
put the knife away, lay down newspaper.
Peel the skin tenderly, not to tear the meat.
Chew the skin, suck it,
and swallow. Now, eat
the meat of the fruit,
all of it, to the heart.
Donna undresses, her stomach is white.
In the yard, dewy and shivering
with crickets, we lie naked,
I teach her Chinese.
Crickets: chiu-chiu. Dew: I've forgotten.
Naked: I've forgotten.
Ni, wo: you and me.
I part her legs,
remember to tell her
she is beautiful as the moon.
that got me into trouble were
fight and fright, wren and yarn.
Fight was what I did when I was frightened,
fright was what I felt when I was fighting.
Wrens are small, plain birds,
yarn is what one knits with.
Wrens are soft as yarn.
My mother made birds our of yarn.
I loved to watch her tie the stuff;
a bird, a rabbit, a wee man.
Mrs. Walker brought a persimmon to class
and cut it up
so everyone could taste
a Chinese apple. Knowing
it wasn't ripe or sweet, I didn't eat
but watched the other faces.
My mother said every persimmon has a sun
inside, something golden, glowing,
warm as my face.
Once, in the cellar, I found two wrapped in newspaper,
forgotten and not yet ripe.
I took them and set both on my bedroom windowsill,
where each morning a cardinal
sang, The sun, the sun.
he was going blind,
my father sat up all one night
waiting for a song, a ghost.
I gave him the persimmons,
swelled, heavy as sadness,
and sweet as love.
This year, in the muddy lighting
of my parents' cellar, I rummage, looking
for something I lost.
My father sits on the tired wooden stairs,
black cane between his knees,
hand over hand, gripping the handle.
He's so happy that I've come home.
I ask how his eyes are, a stupid question.
All gone, he answers.
Under some blankets, I find a box.
Inside the box I find three scrolls.
I sit beside him and untie
three paintings by my father:
Hibiscus leaf and a white flower.
Two cats preening.
Two persimmons, so full they want to drop from the cloth.
He raises both hands to touch the cloth,
asks, Which is this?
This is persimmons, Father.
Oh, the feel of the wolftail on the silk,
the strength, the tense
precision in the wrist.
I painted them hundreds of times
eyes closed. These I painted blind.
Some things never leave a person:
scent of the hair of the one you love,
the texture of persimmons,
in your palm, the ripe weight.
From Rose BOA Editions, LTD, 1986
The Art of Dying
From Orion Magazine:
I’M LYING ON MY BACK on the concrete in the heart of Chicago. Chaos whirs around me, so I try to focus, to let the warm light streaming down through the geometry of steel and glass become what it is, a prayer of forgiveness. But this only partly works. We need a lot of forgiveness these days. And I’m distracted—by the abrupt carbonic hiss of a bus pulling out into traffic and the sudden rat-a-tat-tat of a jackhammer breaking up a sidewalk somewhere. It sounds close.
My feet are a few inches away from the feet of the Flamingo, a four-story-high Alexander Calder sculpture in the middle of Federal Plaza. It has always looked like a big chicken to me, as if it should be titled Big Red Chicken Stalks Inner City. Since I have covered myself with a white sheet and am pretending to be dead, I can’t see the red chicken. But I imagine it looming over me, coming to life, pecking at my soft flesh and at the other bodies lying around me. Given the tenor of the moment—pretending to be dead and all—I should be more serious, but the chicken keeps scratching around in my brain.
I dream of the president making an emergency announcement on nationwide television that the Calder chicken and the equally worrisome Picasso sculpture in the Daley Plaza are terrorist robots that are electronically connected to a Henry Moore sculpture in the Art Institute of Chicago. Reportedly planted long ago by a sleeper cell of starving artists, they can be simultaneously activated at any moment. “We are all vulnerable to such attacks,” the president might say. “The enemy is everywhere. Even in modern art.”
But here’s the thing: this daydream is no more absurd than the war itself, or than I am, lying here wrapped in a sheet in the middle of a huge city on a busy workday, just a few feet from the honking congestion of Dearborn and Adams streets.
The die-in is an art installation. The organizers are artists.
September 24, 2008
Urgent Request From Republic Of America For Business Relationship (Confidential!)
Kevin Allman posts over at blogofneworleans.com:
Dear American, My Dear Friend:
I am Ministry of the Treasury of the Republic of America.
I need to ask you to support an urgent secret business relationship with a transfer of funds of great magnitude.
My country has had crisis that has caused the need for large transfer of funds of 800 billion dollars US. If you would assist me in this transfer, it would be most profitable to you.
I am working with “Mr. Phil Gram,” lobbyist for UBS, who will be my replacement as Ministry of the Treasury in January. As a citizen, you may know him as the leader of the American banking deregulation movement in the 1990s. This transaction is 100% safe.
This is a matter of great urgency. We need a blank check.
We need the funds as quickly as possible. We cannot directly transfer these funds in the names of our close friends because we are constantly under surveillance. My family lawyer advised me that I should look for a reliable and trustworthy person who will act as a next of kin so the funds can be transferred.
Please reply with all of your bank account, IRA and college fund account numbers and those of your children and grandchildren to firstname.lastname@example.org so that we may transfer your commission for this transaction.
After I receive that information, I will respond with detailed information about safeguards that will be used to protect the funds.
Do not discuss this message with anyone! Time is of the essence!
Minister of Treasury Hank Paulson
Socializing Debt, Privatizing Profits & Power
If I had pick one defining feature of the politics of the last 8 years it would be the tendency of the current US government to use any real or debatable or fictitious emergency to accrue greater executive power while curtailing transparency and accountability. Even a financial crisis seems to require Bonapartism. Karyn Strickler in Counterpunch:
“Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.”
-- Language from Section 8 Treasury Financial Bail-out Proposal
Breathtaking in its scope and staggering dollar amount, the Treasury Financial Bail-out Proposal to Congress is a parting power punch from the Bush Administration. Even as the American economy melts down, George W. Bush and his cronies are taking advantage of the emergency situation to turn over $700,000,000,000 of American tax payer’s money to bail out the same greedy, corrupt corporations that got us into this mess; transfer most of the scant remaining congressional power into private hands and eviscerate judicial or administrative review of the process.
“The Secretary is authorized to take such actions as the Secretary deems necessary to carry out the authorities in this Act, including, without limitation,” and so begins the Proposal that is perhaps the biggest peacetime (or anytime) transfers of power from Congress through the Administration to private corporations, in history.
Democrats, the American people and patriots of every partisan position, should not drink the $700,000,000,000 Power Punch. There is no circumstance under which we should tolerate this open theft of public funds, and permanent transfer of Congressional and Judicial power through one man, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, directly to private sector corporations, without oversight, review or accountability.
The upcoming Congressional elections and the fear inspired in the heart of every incumbent politician are certainly no excuse to capitulate to this brazen, corporate power grab. Democrats, true-blooded Republicans and the American people should not be intimidated by the rushed, fear-mongering tactics of King Henry Paulson.
While our economy is in historic trouble, it’s simply impossible that more of the same power without oversight – the same unmitigated, unregulated nonsense that got us into this mess – is the cure to the precipitous plunge the American economy is taking.
Lay of Rome
Oh, the Roman was a rogue,
He erat was, you bettum;
He ran his automobilis
And smoked his cigarettum;
He wore a diamond studibus
And elegant cravattum,
A maxima cum laude shirt,
And a stylish hattum!
He loved the luscious hic-haec-hoc,
And bet on games and equi;
At times he won, at others, though,
He got it in the necqui;
He winked (quo usque tandem?)
At puellas on the Forum,
And sometimes even made
Those goo-goo oculorum!
He frequently was seen
At combats gladiatorial,
And ate enough to feed
Ten boarders at Memorial;
He often went on sprees
And said, on starting homus,
"Hic labor --- opus est,
Oh, where's my hic--hic--domus?"
Although he lived in Rome --
Of all the arts the middle --
He was (excuse the phrase)
A horrid individ'l;
Ah! what a diff'rent thing
Was the homo (dative, hominy)
Of far-away B.C.
From us of Anno Domini.
JEJU-DO—Meat-eating in Korea is very literal. Humanity’s participation in the food chain is much less disguised than it is in North America, where people are happy to pretend their bacon burgers or pork tenderloin medallions are magically synthesized for the express purpose of being delicious. In Korean, the word for pork is dwaeji gogi — “pig meat.” Most other meats work the same way: insert name of animal, followed by the word for “meat” — not much in the way of linguistic frippery to disguise the fact that meat is basically dead flesh and ripped-apart muscle.
In an unsettling twist, restaurant signage follows suit. Many restaurants advertise specialties with pictures of their dishes, displayed right underneath jovial cartoon versions of whichever animal gave their life for the food. This is especially true of restaurants serving galbi, pork or beef rib meat barbecued over flaming charcoals stuck into the centre of your table.
more from The Walrus here.
Rothko was interested in the simplified forms that inhabited his paintings, the spread of pigment across the canvas, and how different coloured areas meet; he was also much concerned with the layering of his paintings, from the bare canvas up. He painted from the inside out. Atmospheric photographs of the artist have him seated before an incomplete canvas, smoking and looking into the painted void. Somewhere in the world, an abstract painter is undoubtedly doing the same thing right now. The difference is that it is impossible to do this today without method-acting Rothko. Even he staged these scenes, for the photographer Hans Namuth.
During the 1960s, Rothko's paintings become poised between the materiality of their surfaces and forms, and the emergence of an image, even if it is an image of nothingness, or an image denied: a blank black screen, or a simple near-horizontal division which we unavoidably see as a horizon, between grey and brown, or black and grey. Rothko cut out the clutter, and in his later work tried to make every single thing count. Someone once said of American abstract painting that Barnett Newman closed the door, Rothko pulled down the blind and Ad Reinhardt turned off the light. Rothko was much vexed by Reinhardt's black-on-black paintings, with their exquisite impenetrability, their cruciform shapes revealed only as one's eyes grow attuned to their close tones. Rothko was undoubtedly jealous of them, and even had an affair with Reinhardt's widow.
more from The Guardian here.
The Pale Cast of Thought
Josh Tyree on David Foster Wallace, also in The Smart Set:
The toxic yet vacuous phrase “self-indulgent” was often used by the detractors of David Foster Wallace (as if it isn’t self-indulgent to write anything at all). Another accusation, that Wallace was overly cerebral, misses the point completely. As a writer, the guy was as large-hearted as he was big-brained. Don Gately, the recovering narcotics addict in Infinite Jest, is one of the most compassionately drawn and convincingly real characters in contemporary fiction, close in intention, conception, and articulation to a latter-day Leopold Bloom.
I don’t think an essay more hilarious than “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” — Wallace’s account of a botched vacation on a cruise ship — has been written. It ranks with Twain and will endure as long as people want to laugh. His essays often brought forth a sense of exuberant joy, with their meanderings and addictive, often imitated footnotes and mock-scholarly sensibility. Yet Wallace’s fiction also portrays terrible mental darkness, especially what doctors call “major depression.” Wallace’s father told The New York Times that his son suffered from this disease for years, leading to two recent hospitalizations before his apparent suicide. A pair of brilliant and courageous Wallace short stories — "The Depressed Person" in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and "Good Old Neon" in Oblivion — similarly focus on profound psychological agony. With excruciatingly painful detail and a humane laughter that is neither cruel nor belittling, both stories relate the involutions of a consciousness at war with itself, in which the maze-like wandering of thought spirals in futility, deepening the distress without offering any way out. Both stories relate facets of broken-down self-consciousness — severe depression in one case, a terrible feeling of hollowness and fraudulence in the other — that generate a bad feedback loop in which thinking does not help the character to think, or to heal. In Wallace’s fiction, self-reflection is often worse than useless.
An Apology to David Foster Wallace
Morgan on David Foster Wallace, in The Smart Set:
Nobody ever really knows why someone else commits suicide — that's what makes it an ultimate act, an unsettling challenge to those of us who keep on. Anyway, it doesn't matter why. The death of David Foster Wallace is simply a fact now and we're the ones who have to deal with it.
I fear that we didn't do very well by David. We didn't listen to him closely enough and we kept making him into something that he wasn't. We called him an ironist. We suggested, often enough, that he was part of The Problem. Or we simply dismissed him as a cute and funny writer with a number of tricks up his sleeve. It was true, of course, that he never came up with a solution — no one has. But he dedicated himself to the problem of America, how to write about it, how to care about it, how to negotiate between loving it and hating it.
Because he was reasonably honest, he ended up taking crap from all sides. To the cultural conservatives he was everything bad about postmodernism. To the postmodernists, he was the wunderkind and court jester who served literary pleasure. But he was neither. He was never willing to fall into either of those camps.
David Foster Wallace has left us with quite a few great essays. Perhaps none is as great as the piece "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. I think of it as an anti-manifesto. It is the painstaking elucidation of a genuine conundrum. I call it a genuine conundrum because there is a difference between simply being confused and having earned your confusion. In "E Unibus Pluram," Wallace lets himself think about literature as a task, literature as something each generation has to try and get right. Bravely, he begins the essay talking about television. He likes television. Goddamit we all like television. He will not join the ranks of those who simply dismiss the boob tube as nothing more than that. Or as Wallace puts it, laconically, "American literary fiction tends to be about U.S. culture and the people who inhabit it." For Wallace, the central problem is not whether television is good or bad. Television, he wants to say, is constitutive of who we are, and that which is constitutive of who we are is beyond simple value judgments — it has become the necessary ground from which we proceed. You can't be a writer, you can't write about how the people around you experience the world, without taking into account that simple but massively important fact. You have to deal with television and other aspects of American popular culture, truly deal with it. And yet, Wallace doesn't want to be reduced to television. He is confused about just how much he should accept it and how much he should reject it. He is trying to find the right balance in the midst of his confusion.