Friday, December 31, 2010
Televising The Drug War
Lilia M. Schwarcz over at the NYRB blog:
[T]he drug war in Rio does not explain the rapid spread of the public fear that has become a central theme in national and international depictions of the country. Movies such as News from a Personal War (João Salles, 1999), Central Station (Walter Salles, 1998), City of God (Fernando Meirelles’s 2002 movie based on Paulo Lins’s 1997 book), and the recent Elite Squad 1 and 2 (José Padilha, 2007 and 2010)—the latter, by the way, has become the biggest box-office success in the history of Brazilian cinema—have had an impact both at home and abroad, and have ensured that the subject of violence is never far from the lips of Brazilians. The more recent movies, in particular, which seem to be produced as quickly as TV series, seek to shock audiences with their graphic depictions of turf wars between drug gangs in the favelas, places ordinary Brazilians would not imagine visiting.
These movies, each with their own aesthetic of violence, are immediately exported, disseminating a feeling of fear and terror that fires the foreign imagination and troubles the local population. For those wishing to get a bit closer to the ground, there is a growing industry of “favela tours” that promise visitors the “thrill” of going into a real favela and finding out what life is like there and experiencing the danger first-hand—all in precise, measured doses, of course.
There is also the endless TV coverage of the chaos in the favelas. In recent days, we have been confronted with a veritable avalanche of images of the anti-drug offensive, a 24/7 reality show, with audiences glued to their front-row seats in their living-rooms, ignoring the evidence of the relatively peaceful streets outside. While Rio’s northern zone was experiencing something like a military invasion, in the south, life went on as normal, apart from hotels and restaurants, whose doors remained cautiously shut—just in case.
Most of this reality show leaves no room for nuance or interpretation: the good guys are on one side and the bandits on the other. I’m not defending drug-trafficking or the violence practiced by its participants—it is certainly true that gang warfare and the wars between the police and the traffickers have become an increasingly worrying and invasive part of everyday life in our major cities. But the prevailing black-and-white logic—according to which the drug trade is exclusive to favela life and doesn’t have implications for the police, politicians, or the population as a whole—is nonsense. It is now clear that drug-trafficking has been as omnipresent among certain corrupt police squads as it has in the favelas.
The trouble is that the ugly reality lives right next door; this is particularly ironic given a long history in Rio of attempts to segregate the poor from the rich.
Redoing Student-Teacher Evaluations with Teacher-Student Evaluations, A Modest Proposal
Rob Weir in Inside Higher Ed [for Maeve Adams and Kara Wittman]:
I've just had one of those semesters in which one of my classes had just enough rotten eggs to jeopardize the barrel. You probably know the eggs in question, the ones suffering from SBS (Spoiled Brat Syndrome). Love that term. It was given to me by one of my students who got tired of hearing from peer whiners. SBS students are those who occasionally come to class, voice a few complaints about how (they’ve heard) you conduct it, insist that you personally take responsibility for improving their grades, register moral outrage when told that you intend to hold them to the same standards as lesser-deserving students, and then disappear for several more weeks.
I get through this kind of class because I’ve learned not to waste my time on SBS sufferers. (Seriously, there’s little you can do to please them, so don’t bother trying.) The end-of-semester problem is that our campuses practice the same one-person/one-vote democratic practices that muddy our civic lives. Everyone gets to fill out a class evaluation, whether they're Einstein or the campus idiot, a perfect attendee or a ghost, a hard worker or an SB. Alas, it only takes a few SBs to pull down your class evaluation scores. I’ve written before about what you should and should not take away from student evaluations. My relaxed views on these notwithstanding, this semester’s brush with SBS students aroused my sense of justice. It's just not fair that students get to evaluate us, but we don’t get to say our piece about them. In theory, of course, our grades are their evaluations, but as many on this site have noted, professors who break the institutional curve do so at their own peril. Let’s just say that C has become the new F and B is now the new C. I say it’s time to give profs parallel rights and allow them to evaluate their students. Distribute machine-scored bubble sheets and make the results on each student available campus wide. Heck, let’s even set up a Rate My Students website.
Based on my university's instructor evaluation form, here is a working draft of what one might look like.
Not Exactly Rocket Science's 11 Lists of Top 10 Science Stories
This is the final part of my review of the year, with a more light-hearted look at the past 12 months. But first, here are parts 1-10.
- Part 1 – “They did what now?”
- Part 2 – Animals bring the awe
- Part 3 – Science and society
- Part 4 – New species
- Part 5 – Best mind hacks
- Part 6 – Early dawns
- Part 7 – Cool videos
- Part 8 – Frenetic genetics
- Part 9 – Twists and lessons
- Part 10 – The future is now
IgNobel tribute awards
First up, a selection of posts that, in the words of the award creators, first make people laugh, and then make them think.
The good news: beer makes some people much more attractive. The bad news: it makes them more attractive to mosquitoes. Anopheles gambiae (the mosquito that transmits malaria) finds the body odour of beer drinkers to be quite tantalising. The authors even suggest (very speculatively and with tongue somewhat planted in cheek) that mosquitoes might have evolved a preference for the smell of beer-drinkers, “possibly due to reduced host defensive behaviours”.
Why is Rape Different?
Naomi Wolf's round II, in Project Syndicate:
As Swedish prosecutors’ sex-crime allegations against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange play out in the international media, one convention of the coverage merits serious scrutiny. We know Assange by name. But his accusers – the two Swedish women who have brought the complaints against him – are consistently identified only as “Miss A” and “Miss W,” and their images are blurred.
News organizations argue that the policy is motivated by respect for the alleged victims. But the same organizations would never report charges of, say, fraud – or, indeed, non-sexual assault – against a suspect who has been named on the basis on anonymous accusations. In fact, despite its good intentions, providing anonymity in sex-crime cases is extremely harmful to women.
The convention of not naming rape accusers is a relic of the Victorian period, when rape and other sex crimes were being codified and reported in ways that prefigure our own era. Rape was seen as “the fate worse than death,” rendering women – who were supposed to be virgins until marriage – “damaged goods.”
Virginia Woolf called the ideal of womanhood in this period “The Angel in the House”: a retiring, fragile creature who could not withstand the rigors of the public arena. Of course, this ideal was a double-edged sword: their ostensible fragility – and their assigned role as icons of sexual purity and ignorance – was used to exclude women from influencing outcomes that affected their own destinies. For example, women could not fully participate under their own names in legal proceedings.
Indeed, one of the rights for which suffragists fought was the right to be convicted of one’s own crimes.
Every technology is a metaphor. That much is clear. The difficult matter is to sort out whether this is a primary or secondary function. Which is to say, did we initially make this universe of instruments, machines, tools, and devices as a way of talking about our condition, only then to discover, post hoc, that all the amassed hardware also proved useful for solving various practical problems (washing dishes, killing neighbors, etc.)? Or did it work the other way around? Did we set out to kill our neighbors, say, and then notice that the sword was a lovely way to say “violence”? At first glance, the latter may seem much more likely. But presumably the sword said “violence” before it was swung. If the question feels abstruse, remember that the stakes are high: Are we apes who learned to talk, or angels who learned to kill?more from Yara Flores at Cabinet here.
‘Now we will live!’... the hungry little boy liked to say ... but the food that he saw was only in his imagination.” So the little boy died, together with three million fellow Ukrainians, in the mass starvation that Stalin created in 1933. “I will meet her ... under the ground,” a young Soviet man said about his wife. Both were shot in the course of Stalin’s Great Terror of 1937 and 1938, which claimed 700,000 victims. “Two hundred thousand Polish citizens were shot by the Soviets or the Germans at the beginning of World War II.” “Only Tania is left,” a little Russian girl wrote in her diary in besieged Leningrad, where the rest of her family and nearly one million other Leningraders starved to death. “I am saying good-bye to you before I die. I am so afraid of this death because they throw small children into the mass graves alive,” a twelve-year-old Jewish girl in Belarus wrote to her father. “She was among the more than five million Jews gassed or shot by the Germans.” So begins Bloodlands, a genuinely shattering report on the ideology, the political strategy, and the daily horror of Soviet and Nazi rule in the region that Timothy Snyder calls the bloodlands. In 1933, when the murderous madness began, the bloodlands were made up of independent Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as (within the Soviet Union) Belarus, Ukraine, and some of Soviet Russia’s western provinces. A glance at a map of the same area in 1941 shows that in the intervening years the bloodlands had become two countries: the German Reich and the Soviet Union. Acting in harmony, these two countries swallowed the region’s other countries.more from Istvan Deak at TNR here.
the bellovian mind
In 1961, Saul Bellow wrote to Susan Glassman, who would become his third wife: “Have you ever visited a clothing factory, heard the sewing machines rrrrhhhahhrrr with the loudness in the middle of the phrase? I feel like that myself, like the operator sliding in the cloth. Only the machinery is internal and the seams never end”. If you had to pick a single passage from Saul Bellow: Letters, so richly characteristic on every page, to capture the writer’s essence, this would be it. That roar is the key signature of his inner life, which he bestows on every one of his fictional surrogates. The first step in creating a character, for Bellow, is not to imagine what he looks like or what will happen to him, but to set moving the vibration, the agitation, the turbulence (there is no more Bellovian word than “turbulent”) that constitutes consciousness. It is audible in Joseph, from Dangling Man: “if I had as many mouths as Siva has arms and kept them going all the time, I still could not do myself justice”. In Henderson of Henderson the Rain King: “Now I have already mentioned that there was a disturbance in my heart, a voice that spoke there and said, I want, I want, I want! It happened every afternoon, and when I tried to suppress it it got even stronger”. In Ravelstein: “one of those large men . . . whose hands shake when there are small chores to perform. The cause was not weakness but a tremendous eager energy that shook him when it was discharged”.more from Adam Kirsch at the TLS here.
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne
We twa hae run aboot the braes
And pou'd the gowans fine;
we've wander'd mony a weary foot
Sin' auld lang syne
We two hae paidled i' the burn,
Frae mornin' sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin' auld lang syne
And here's a hand, my trusty friend,
And gie's a hand o' thine;
We'll take a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and days of auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We'll take a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne
by Robert Burns
Old long since
Old Lang Syne
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind ?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne ?
For old lang syne, my dear,
for old lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for old lang syne.
We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine ;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since old lang syne.
We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine† ;
But seas between us broad have roared
since old lang syne.
And there’s a hand my trusty friend !
And give us a hand o’ thine !
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for old lang syne
And surely you’ll buy your pint cup !
and surely I’ll buy mine !
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for old lang syne.
Gaming the Emotions
From Harvard Magazine:
Video games may have a reputation for being violent and overly stimulating, but in a new study led by Harvard psychiatry professors, one video game appears to help kids with severe anger problems gain control of their emotions. The pilot study at Children’s Hospital Boston tests an intervention that features a video game based on the 1980s arcade favorite Space Invaders. Players shoot down space aliens, but with an important modification: they wear a monitor on one pinkie that tracks heart rate as they play. If that indicator rises above resting levels—signaling that they’re overexcited—players lose the ability to shoot.
The truth about tolerance
Tariq Ramadan’s The Quest for Meaning is very much a ‘spirit of the age’ book. One of the most influential intellectual trends today is to seek refuge in nature, to search for meaning not in the human-made world but in the natural or biological world. This can be seen in the current fashion for evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, behavioural economics and environmentalism. Another powerful intellectual trend is what we might call a twenty-first-century version of perspectivism, which one-sidedly emphasises the intuitive and contingent aspects of human experience. And The Quest for Meaning tightly embraces both of these fashionable approaches to the world.
Although Ramadan’s book is presented as a spiritual meditation on the problems of existence, it is actually an eclectic mixture of current intellectual prejudices and old-fashioned appeals to revelation and dogma. What is fascinating about the book is the manner in which it leaps from discussing clusters of neurons to issuing poetic homilies about the nature of meaning. Statements such as ‘We are heading for the realm of consciousness and mind where all wisdoms remind us that it is shores that make the ocean one, and that it is the plurality of human journeys that shapes the common humanity of men’ sound like first drafts of the script for Lost. However, while Ramadan’s musings are elliptical, they nonetheless convey a clear message: that truth is very relative, or, as he puts it, ‘we have to begin humbly, by admitting that we have nothing more than points of view’. The only thing we share, he says, is our difference and diversity.
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Forget a Theory of Everything; The New Game in Town, A Simulation of Everything
Gareth Morgan in the BBC:
An international group of scientists are aiming to create a simulator that can replicate everything happening on Earth - from global weather patterns and the spread of diseases to international financial transactions or congestion on Milton Keynes' roads.
Nicknamed the Living Earth Simulator (LES), the project aims to advance the scientific understanding of what is taking place on the planet, encapsulating the human actions that shape societies and the environmental forces that define the physical world.
"Many problems we have today - including social and economic instabilities, wars, disease spreading - are related to human behaviour, but there is apparently a serious lack of understanding regarding how society and the economy work," says Dr Helbing, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, who chairs the FuturICT project which aims to create the simulator.
Thanks to projects such as the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator built by Cern, scientists know more about the early universe than they do about our own planet, claims Dr Helbing.
What is needed is a knowledge accelerator, to collide different branches of knowledge, he says.
"Revealing the hidden laws and processes underlying societies constitutes the most pressing scientific grand challenge of our century."
The result would be the LES. It would be able to predict the spread of infectious diseases, such as Swine Flu, identify methods for tackling climate change or even spot the inklings of an impending financial crisis, he says.
But how would such colossal system work?
See also this discussion on "Why Do We Need Predictions?" in the NYT.
Political Views 'Hard-Wired' Into Your Brain
Richard Alleyne in The Telegraph:
Scientists have found that people with conservative views have brains with larger amygdalas, almond shaped areas in the centre of the brain often associated with anxiety and emotions.
On the otherhand, they have a smaller anterior cingulate, an area at the front of the brain associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life.
The "exciting" correlation was found by scientists at University College London who scanned the brains of two members of parliament and a number of students.
They found that the size of the two areas of the brain directly related to the political views of the volunteers.
However as they were all adults it was hard to say whether their brains had been born that way or had developed through experience.
Prof Geraint Rees, who led the research, said: "We were very surprised to find that there was an area of the brain that we could predict political attitude.
Making sense of Modernism
Tim Black reviews Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?, in Spiked:
Despite his gain in knowledge and power, Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth-century Doctor Faustus strikes an increasingly saturnine pose. His freedom from Christian authority, bought at such great cost from Mephistopheles, comes to be experienced as loss: not just loss of grace, but loss of meaning and of purpose, too. At the last, as we hear him here, he strives once more for the re-enchantment of the world. He can even see that symbol of the sacramental universe, ‘Christ’s blood’, ‘stream[ing] in the firmament’. But it’s too late; God has departed. In his wake, modern Faustian man is free, but rootless, liberated but cut adrift from the resources that had once furnished his life with meaning.
Such is the similarly plaintive refrain that runs through Professor Gabriel Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?. Not that you would know this, given the silly-season furore that greeted the author’s much-publicised criticism of the greats of contemporary Anglo-American literature. Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, even Philip Roth – all are, admittedly, the recipients of Josopivici’s critical sting. ‘Reading Barnes’, Jospovici writes – and the Guardian gleefully quoted – ‘like reading so many of the other English writers of his generation, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Blake Morrison, or a critic from an older generation who belongs with them, John Carey, leaves me feeling that I and the world have been made smaller and meaner’. If these ‘precise’, ‘cynical’, and unrelentingly ‘ironical’ writers, having snuck out from under ‘Philip Larkin’s overcoat’, clearly annoy Josopivici, then at least he finds Philip Roth, a man frequently and perhaps unthinkingly hailed as ‘our greatest living writer’, funny and thought-provoking. ‘[B]ut only as good journalism can be funny and thought-provoking’, Jospivici adds, just in case his personal enjoyment be mistaken for objective literary praise.
But there is far more to Whatever Happened to Modernism? than a desire to right wrongful veneration. For a start, his barbs towards Amis and friends come in the penultimate chapter of 15. They are the result of a grand historico-philosophical perspective, not its starting point. And it is in this perspective, in this attempt to convey what modernism was and is, that this little book’s ambiguous value lies - ambiguous because its tremendous insight into the nature of Modernism reveals, and revels in, the most reactionary of sentiments: a disillusionment with Enlightenment, with reason, in short with the whole human-centricity of Western civilisation since Luther pinned up his 95 theses in Wittemburg in 1517.
WikiLeaks and Condom Slips
Paul Collins in Lapham's Quarterly:
In a New Hampshire apartment during the winter of 1923, this typewritten notice was fastened squarely against a closed door:
NOBODY MAY COME INTO THIS ROOM IF THE DOOR IS SHUT TIGHT (IF IT IS SHUT NOT QUITE LATCHED IT IS ALL RIGHT) WITHOUT KNOCKING. THE PERSON IN THIS ROOM IF HE AGREES THAT ONE SHALL COME IN WILL SAY “COME IN,” OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT AND IF HE DOES NOT AGREE TO IT HE WILL SAY “NOT YET, PLEASE,” OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT. THE DOOR MAY BE SHUT IF NOBODY IS IN THE ROOM BUT IF A PERSON WANTS TO COME IN, KNOCKS AND HEARS NO ANSWER THAT MEANS THERE IS NO ONE IN THE ROOM AND HE MUST NOT GO IN.
REASON. IF THE DOOR IS SHUT TIGHT AND A PERSON IS IN THE ROOM THE SHUT DOOR MEANS THAT THE PERSON IN THE ROOM WISHES TO BE LEFT ALONE.
Through the door could be heard furious clacking and carriage returns: the sound, in fact, of an eight-year-old girl writing her first novel.
In 1923, typewriters were hardly a child’s plaything, but to those following the family of critic and editor Wilson Follett, it was a grand educational experiment. He’d already written of his daughter Barbara in Harper’s, describing a girl who by the age of three was consumed with letters and words. “She was always seeing A’s in the gables of houses and H’s in football goalposts,” he recalled. One day she’d wandered into Wilson’s office and discovered his typewriter.
“Tell me a story about it,” she demanded.
This was Barbara’s way of asking for any explanation, and after he demonstrated the wondrous machine, she took to it fiercely. A typewriter, her parents realized, could unleash a torrential flow of thoughts from a gifted child who still lacked the coordination to write in pencil.
“In a multitude of ways,” Wilson Follett reported, “we become more and more convinced of the expediency of letting the typewriter be, so far as a machine can, the center and genesis of the first processes.”
By five, Barbara was being homeschooled by her mother, and writing a tale titled The Life of the Spinning Wheel, the Rocking-Horse, and the Rabbit. Her fascination with flowers and butterflies bloomed from her typewriter into wild and exuberant poems and fairy tales. By 1922, at the age of seven, she was versifying upon music...
[H/t: Jennifer Ouellette]
Vijay Iyer in Jazz Times:
Lately I’ve been pulled into discussions about three disparate issues, each with its own frame of reference: the dire economic climate and its effect on the arts, the abundance of jazz education programs, and the obvious significance of social networking sites in our lives. On the surface they don’t really have much to do with each other, but if we consider them together we might better understand America’s current jazz climate.
In summer 2009 I was enlisted to debate the conservative arts critic Terry Teachout about the supposed problem of declining “participation in the arts” among Americans. Some doomsday figures from the National Endowment for the Arts seemed to show that “jazz audiences” were getting both older and scarcer. Upon examination of the data, which, of course, was collected during a recession, Teachout still concluded that the problem was jazz’s fault. He speculated that we musicians had abandoned our audience in moving the music toward an esoteric art and away from populist entertainment. (I suppose he meant to include Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Anthony Braxton and all those other culprits in his accusations.)
I saw this as a reactionary, blame-the-victim argument. The reality is that public and institutional support for the arts in the U.S. has systematically declined over the last 30 years. Meanwhile, as the top 1 percent of private earners amassed unprecedented amounts of increasingly tax-free wealth, they mostly failed to invest in the production, presentation, preservation and infrastructure of jazz.
Which brings us to today’s America: not enough gigs to go around and almost no jazz on television or radio or even onstage, if you don’t live in a major city.
On Early Warning Signs
George Sugihara in Seed Magazine:
At a closed meeting held in Boston in October 2009, the room was packed with high-flyers in foreign policy and finance: Henry Kissinger, Paul Volcker, Andy Haldane, and Joseph Stiglitz, among others, as well as representatives of sovereign wealth funds, pensions, and endowments worth more than a trillion dollars—a significant slice of the world’s wealth. The session opened with the following telling question: “Have the last couple of years shown that our traditional finance/risk models are irretrievably broken and that models and approaches from other fields (for example, ecology) may offer a better understanding of the interconnectedness and fragility of complex financial systems?”
Science is a creative human enterprise. Discoveries are made in the context of our creations: our models and hypotheses about how the world works. Big failures, however, can be a wake-up call about entrenched views, and nothing produces humility or gains attention faster than an event that blindsides so many so immediately.
Examples of catastrophic and systemic changes have been gathering in a variety of fields, typically in specialized contexts with little cross-connection. Only recently have we begun to look for generic patterns in the web of linked causes and effects that puts disparate events into a common framework—a framework that operates on a sufficiently high level to include geologic climate shifts, epileptic seizures, market and fishery crashes, and rapid shifts from healthy ecosystems to biological deserts.
The main themes of this framework are twofold: First, they are all complex systems of interconnected and interdependent parts. Second, they are nonlinear, non-equilibrium systems that can undergo rapid and drastic state changes.
Nichi Vendola, the Italian Obama
Chase Madar in Le Monde Diplomatique (photo from Wikipedia):
Silvio Berlusconi’s gift for the battuta – wisecrack – has been a great help to his political career. But there are limits. He tried to bounce back from the revelation that he intervened to secure the release from prison of a 17-year old Moroccan bellydancer, “Ruby Heartstealer”, who had been at his private parties, by saying “it’s better to go crazy over beautiful girls than be gay”. This did not go over well and in no way blocked public disgust with his “bunga-bunga” lifestyle. The crack was aimed at the Italian left’s new star, Nichi Vendola.
Nichi Vendola is the governor of Apulia, heel of the peninsular boot, one of Italy’s poorest and most socially conservative regions. That it should elect (and re-elect) a governor with a background in the Rifondazione Comunista (RC, Communist Refoundation party) which he helped found in 1991 (1), but is also openly gay, is counterintuitive, even if Vendola is a professed Catholic. He is now one of Italy’s most popular politicians and may lead a coalition of left and centre-left parties in the national elections of 2013. He is a charismatic scrapper, and has the Italian right worried.
Vendola can use the battuta, too. In November he enraged the rightwing governor of prosperous, northern Lombardy by declaring it the most “mobbed-up” region in Italy. (That a southerner would criticise the north for its failure to control the ’Ndrangheta and Camorra is a novelty.) Reversing decades of anti-communist Stalin-baiting, Vendola condemns Berlusconi for embracing Vladimir Putin and the “business is business” approach to buying energy from authoritarian states like Russia and Libya. When asked if he might become the first gay prime minister, Vendola confides that there has already been one, whose identity he has sworn never to tell. He easily quotes the 19th century poet Giacomo Leopardi, and the poet and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini – another gay Catholic leftist and subject of Vendola’s undergraduate thesis in literature – and also the New Testament and his former bishop, Don Tonino Bello, who in is the process of being beatified.
A Demos poll last November found Vendola was the best-liked politician in Italy, more popular than either leader of the largest centre-left parties, the Partito Democratico and Italia dei Valori.
The Real Reason That the Bailouts May Not Work
Mark Blyth in The Huffington Post:
A recent WSJ article on banks in trouble focused on the fact that many of these banks were TARP recipients: QED, TARP was bad and the bailouts didn't work. While state bashing is nothing new in the pages of the WSJ, it's worth remembering what the bailouts were actually designed to do: stop the global payments system freezing up. It was not designed to bailout some community lender in the West who got in over their heads in commercial real estate. It is also worth putting these prospective failures in perspective. The median size of these banks was $439 million. Compare that to the balance sheet of Bank of America and the combined $4.2 billion tied up in these banks is a drop in the bucket. Moreover, while 98 failing banks seem a lot, we should remember that between 1985 and 1992 2109 banks failed, so let's not get too excited about this most recent spate of casualties.
So why the focused attention on these relatively normal events? Perhaps the answer lies in the continuing campaign played so deftly by the banks and their allies to turn the largest ever private sector failure into a public sector failure, thereby getting themselves off the hook for the mess that they made. To take just two examples, the minority report of the Financial Crisis Commission blamed Fannie and Freddie for the crisis, despite the fact that the crisis hit over 20 countries and yet only one of them has Fannie and Freddie. Similarly, the global banking crisis has been turned into a crisis of profligate sovereigns, sidestepping the fact that the debt bloating states' balance sheets are bailout costs and lost revenues, not runaway social programs. Mere facts, it seems, can't compete with a good ideology. However, the WSJ may be more right than they know. The bailouts may not ultimately work, but for an entirely different set of reasons.
Also see Mark's piece in Triple Crisis, here
This giant atlas moth’s broad wings
could be the map of China.
Here are two Great Walls. And there
on the Manchurian tip of each forewing
are dragon heads to scare off predators.
But what are those windows in the map,
where crystal scales let in the light?
As if earth’s skin has windows
and at certain times of the evening
they open. The newly emerged atlas
perches on my hand, and it trembles –
like a new world, warming up for its first flight.
by Pascale Petit
from The Treekeeper’s Tale
publisher: Seren, Bridgend, © 2008
Gathering Storm: Walter Benjamin remains difficult to classify
It’s always been hard to pin Benjamin down. Aberrant Marxist, heretical Jew, maverick social theorist, deconstructive spirit—he has been many things to many people. It is equally hard to describe what he did, in part because Americans don’t really make intellectuals like him. Benjamin, whose most important work was written in Berlin during the ’20s and then in Paris during the ’30s, wasn’t just a book reviewer, although he wanted to be the best one in Germany. He was hardly a journalist, but a good deal of his considerable production was written for newspapers. He was not a philosopher, but he is treated like one. To use a quaint expression, he was a man of letters. Even that does not do him justice.
Lucky Foods for the New Year
My Italian grandfather was known to eat a lot of strange things: pickled eels, tripe and anything slimy that would be considered disgusting to most children. For New Year’s Day his favorite food was a giant gelatinous sausage called cotechino, cut into sections and smeared with mustard. My brother and I joked that the sausage must have been made from the worst of the pig, like the eyes.
As an adult, I developed a taste for cotechino (which contains plenty of pig fat, but no eyeballs), and have learned that this delicacy, and pork in general, is often considered a propitious food to eat at the beginning of the year. Many of our holiday customs go back to when we were an agrarian society. “In many parts of Europe, pigs were easier to grow than cows because they take up less space and eat anything,” says Janet Chrzan, a nutritional anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “And pigs were slaughtered around the time of the winter solstice.” Food has always been a powerful symbol, especially during rites of passage, such as the start of a new year. “It’s hard to know which came first – the belief in the food being lucky, or the tradition of eating it because it was available, and then attaching meaning to it,” says food historian and author Andrew F. Smith.
Wednesday, December 29, 2010
Hug it out, bitch
The emos who hang out in Mexico City’s Insurgentes Circle, distant relations of our own kohl-eyed musical mopes, face constant harassment from corrupt police and local punks. Some of them have also been forced to contend with the intrusive questions of a handsome, weathered, impeccably dressed gentleman of 82 who occasionally likes to listen, uncomprehending, to their lingo. “They invent language all the time,” says Carlos Fuentes, Mexico’s most prominent author, who still spends hours wandering the vast plazas and narrow alleys of his country’s capital. “It’s a language I, at times, cannot understand.” Destiny and Desire is the 24th novel by Fuentes, one of the architects of the sixties’ “Latin American Boom” in literature (along with friends “Gabo” García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and 2010 Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa). The novel is a tracking shot of modern Mexico City as seen through the eyes of two ambitious frenemies, Josué and Jericó (Cain and Abel is the working archetype), caught in the swirl of dirty politics, narco-trafficking, and a burgeoning telecommunications monopoly. Its more surreal touches—potent symbolism, magic, long polemics, and disorienting leaps in time—bring to mind the best of Latin Boomer lit, including Fuentes’s own classic, The Death of Artemio Cruz, published in English in 1964. It also showcases Fuentes’s need to stay current in his ninth decade—as in the incongruous phrase “Hug it out, bitch,” which telegraphs Jericó’s mysterious international activities.more from Boris Kachka at New York Magazine here.
foucault and W
In the late 1960s, George Bush Jr was at Yale, branding the asses of pledges to the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity with a hot coathanger. Michel Foucault was at the Societé française de philosophie, considering the question, ‘What is an author?’ The two, needless to say, never met. Foucault may have visited Texas on one of his lecture tours, but Junior, as far as it is known, never took his S&M revelry beyond the Ivy League – novelists will have to invent a chance encounter in a basement club in Austin. Moreover, Junior’s general ignorance of all things, except for professional sports, naturally extended to the nation known as France. On his first trip to Paris in 2002, Junior, now president of the United States, stood beside Jacques Chirac at a press conference and said: ‘He’s always saying that the food here is fantastic and I’m going to give him a chance to show me tonight.’ Foucault found his theories embodied, sometimes unconvincingly, in writers such as Proust or Flaubert. He died in 1984, while Junior was still an ageing frat boy, and didn’t live to see this far more applicable text. For the questions that he, even then, declared hopelessly obsolete are the very ones that should not be asked about Decision Points ‘by’ George W. Bush (or by ‘George W. Bush’): ‘Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse?’more from Eliot Weinberger at the LRB here.
undoing the “reign of non-mediation,”
Matthew Engelke is right: religion is about mediation. Ironically so, because it is about the divine; but because the divine is never directly available, religion must instead be about how the divine is indirectly manifest. Thus, as Régis Debray has shown in his God: an Itinerary, monotheism, which is apparently the most other-worldly and non-mediated of creeds, has had to identify itself in concrete terms, which may bizarrely include preference for some landscapes over others, or for association with some animals over others. Because religion is about mediation, it naturally refuses any duality of nature and culture. Reality, as the true nature of things, is sacred, but it must be mediated by particular human relations and practices. Culture, therefore, can be neither merely arbitrary nor totally opposed to nature, since it is what truly discloses the latter. Since all, or nearly all, human cultures have been religious, it is therefore unsurprising that, as Marshall Sahlins has pointed out in The Western Illusion of Human Nature, they do not recognize a nature/culture divide. Instead, they define themselves in groups of kinship with other natural beings and with the gods, animals being typically defined as types of human, not humans as types of animals.more from John Milbank at Immanent Frame here.