atlas shrugged updated


Dagny and Hank searched through the ruins of the 21st Century Investment Bank. As they stepped through the crumbling cubicles, a trampled legal pad with a complex column of computations captured Dagny’s attention. She fell to her hands and knees and raced through the pages and pages of complex math written in a steady hand. Her fingers bled from the paper cuts, and she did not care. “What is it, Dagny?” “Read this.” “Good God!” “Yes, it’s an experimental formula for a financial strategy that could convert static securities into kinetic profits that would increase at an almost exponential rate.”

more from McSweeney’s here.

Frozen Scandal

Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books:

Scandal is our growth industry. Revelation of wrongdoing leads not to definitive investigation, punishment, and expiation but to more scandal. Permanent scandal. Frozen scandal. The weapons of mass destruction that turned out not to exist. The torture of detainees who remain forever detained. The firing of prosecutors which is forever investigated. These and other frozen scandals metastasize, ramify, self-replicate, clogging the cable news shows and the blogosphere and the bookstores. The titillating story that never ends, the pundit gabfest that never ceases, the gift that never stops giving: what is indestructible, irresolvable, unexpiatable is too valuable not to be made into a source of profit. Scandal, unpurged and unresolved, transcends political reality to become commercial fact.

We remember, many of us, a different time. However cynically we look to our political past, it is there that we find our political Eden: Vietnam and its domestic denouement, Watergate—the climax of a different time of scandal that ended a war and brought down a president.

More here.

giving money to the bozos


I am ambivalent about whether the auto industry should receive the 25 billion dollars that they are begging and pleading for from the U.S. taxpayers. On the one hand, I realize that millions of jobs depend on the industry and that saving these jobs is not only a humane thing — it also may help the country(and even the rest of the world) from sliding into a deeper recession in the long-term. On the other hand, I worry that it will be a waste because the industry has lost so much money and so many jobs in recent years that these firms are in a death spiral that is impossible to stop (GM alone lost 39 billion last quarter). I also believe it will be a waste because the leaders of these firms (at least GM, which I know best) are so backward and misguided that the thought of giving these bozos any of my tax money turns my stomach – which is pretty much the same point made by observers ranging from ultra-capitalist Mitt Romney to near-socialist documentary filmmaker Michael Moore. Recall that Moore made the famous film that attacked GM, Roger and Me.

more from Bob Sutton here.

Somali Pirates in Discussions to Acquire Citigroup

Andrew Willis quotes Andreas Hippin in the Globe and Mail:

ScreenHunter_01 Nov. 23 14.59 The Somali pirates, renegade Somalis known for hijacking ships for ransom in the Gulf of Aden, are negotiating a purchase of Citigroup.

The pirates would buy Citigroup with new debt and their existing cash stockpiles, earned most recently from hijacking numerous ships, including most recently a $200 million Saudi Arabian oil tanker. The Somali pirates are offering up to $0.10 per share for Citigroup, pirate spokesman Sugule Ali said earlier today. The negotiations have entered the final stage, Ali said.

“You may not like our price, but we are not in the business of paying for things. Be happy we are in the mood to offer the shareholders anything,” said Ali.

The pirates will finance part of the purchase by selling new Pirate Ransom Backed Securities. The PRBS's are backed by the cash flows from future ransom payments from hijackings in the Gulf of Aden. Moody's and S&P have already issued their top investment grade ratings for the PRBS's.

More here.

The Pakistan Test

Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times:

Ts-kristof-190 Barack Obama’s most difficult international test in the next year will very likely be here in Pakistan. A country with 170 million people and up to 60 nuclear weapons may be collapsing.

Reporting in Pakistan is scarier than it has ever been. The major city of Peshawar is now controlled in part by the Taliban, and this month alone in the area an American aid worker was shot dead, an Iranian diplomat kidnapped, a Japanese journalist shot and American humvees stolen from a NATO convoy to Afghanistan.

I’ve been coming to Pakistan for 26 years, ever since I hid on the tops of buses to sneak into tribal areas as a backpacking university student, and I’ve never found Pakistanis so gloomy. Some worry that militants, nurtured by illiteracy and a failed education system, will overrun the country or that the nation will break apart. I’m not quite that pessimistic, but it’s very likely that the next major terror attack in the West is being planned by extremists here in Pakistan.

More here.

You Can’t Mate with Heavy Artillery

Doug Brown in Powells Book Review:

ImageDB Several years ago Lloyd and Mitchinson entertained readers with The Book of General Ignorance. Now they are back with this fun overview of the animal world. Unlike many factoid-ish general overviews, The Book of Animal Ignorance isn't dumbed down for beginners. Scientific names are almost always given in addition to common names, and interesting etymologies are commonly provided. I have a master's degree in zoology, and I learned quite a few new things.

The book is laid out as an alphabetic bestiary, from aardvarks to worms. Each critter gets a couple of pages, allowing more than just a cursory glance. Lloyd and Mitchinson have good eyes for entertaining tidbits and present them with dry British humor. For instance, we learn that Adelie penguins excrete with a rectal pressure about four times that of humans, or looked at another way, “the same as a keg of lager.” We also learn that a quarter pound of bat guano “contains more proteins and minerals than a Big Mac.” One of my favorite bits of wry humor, from the cat entry:

Right up until the seventeenth century it amused people to stuff wicker effigies of the pope with live cats and then burn the lot. This produced sound effects that pleased Puritans but not cats; they have exceptionally sensitive hearing and can even hear bats.

Or this one about cicadas:

The nineteenth–century French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre tried to demonstrate that cicadas were deaf by firing a cannon toward a tree full of them. The songs didn't change, but not because they were deaf. The sound of the cannon was meaningless to them: you can't mate with heavy artillery.

More here.

Strange Fruits: Rethinking the gay twenties

Mason Stokes in Transition Magazine:

I woke up this morning with my business in my hand.
If you can’t bring me a woman, bring me a sissy man.

—Kokomo Arnold, “Sissy Man Blues,” circa 1927

TR92 The historian David Levering Lewis once described Alain Locke’s 1925 essay “The New Negro”—arguably the Magna Carta of the Harlem Renaissance—as “seminal.” As it turns out, Locke was more “seminal” than Lewis may have known. There’s a story that has been making the rounds among Locke scholars in recent years. Apparently Dorothy Porter Wesley, the longtime curator of the Locke papers at Howard University, once confided to a friend that she had thrown something of Locke’s away. The friend was shocked, since Wesley was known to be an unusually scrupulous curator; destroying a piece of evidence would be a serious violation of whatever oath curators swear to uphold. Wesley was disinclined to reveal what, precisely, she had tossed, but her friend was persistent, and eventually she confessed. The item in question was Alain Locke’s semen collection.

This is all we have: a rumor that such a collection existed, and was discharged into the dustbin of history. But what kind of collection was it? Were the samples drawn from Locke himself, collected over time as a kind of autobiography—a time-lapse portrait of the great man’s virility? It seems like a redundant enterprise, archiving one’s seed, given that a fresh supply is always near to hand. But perhaps the collection was more diverse, comprising donations from friends, acquaintances, or passersby. If this is the case, then who were the donors? Might Locke’s viscous archive have been—to take just one example—another place to go “looking for Langston”?

Langston Hughes was, after all, of more than literary interest to Locke. If you look Locke up in the index to Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Hughes, you’ll find an entry called, “seduction campaign on L. H.” As Rampersad tells the story, Countee Cullen, the unofficial poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, had introduced the two men. “Write to him,” Cullen advised Locke, “and arrange to meet him. You will like him; I love him.” When Locke finally put pen to paper, he composed an extraordinary letter written largely in a sort of gay code. He valued “friendship,” he wrote, “which cult I confess is my only religion, and has been ever since my early infatuation with Greek ideals of life…You see, I was caught up early in the coils of classicism.” Knowing Hughes was then living on the West Hassayampa, a ship docked at Jones Point, Locke casually noted that he was a great enthusiast of sailors. Hughes’s response was even more coy: he asked Locke if he liked Walt Whitman and confessed that he himself loved the Calarnus poems Whitman’s poem cycle on the subject of manly attachment. But if Hughes shared Locke’s general interests, he was not, it appears, inclined to Locke’s particulars. Matters never went beyond this exchange of letters, and the failure proved a bitter disappointment for Locke, who had clearly hoped to catch Hughes in the coil of classicism he so artfully dangled in his letter.

More here.

The Ayatollah Begs to Differ


Not long ago, while visiting family in Tehran, I found myself in an elevator with an elderly Iranian man. When the doors opened at our floor, we both instinctively took a step back and beckoned the other forward. Thus was launched that uniquely Iranian social ritual of exaggerated politesse called ta’arouf — a self-deprecation contest to see who can subordinate himself more. “After you,” the man said, gesturing toward the open door. “No,” I said, stepping farther back into the elevator. “After you.” “I insist,” the man replied. “I cannot,” I responded. “I am your servant,” he said. “I am your slave,” I answered, my back now pressed against the elevator wall.

more from the LA Times here.



A century is a mere blink in the history of mankind, but it’s a long time in the history of show business. Just about a hundred years ago, a Chicago-born talent manager started a franchise called the “Follies” that set New York on its ear. He apotheosized the showgirl and changed the entertainment rulebook by making the revue an ethnic stew. He later went on to produce “Show Boat,” the first great American musical. But who knows much about Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. today? To most New Yorkers he’s just a name on a dinosaurish single-screen movie house in Midtown. Even the stars he showcased — Fanny Brice and Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Miller — are mostly just names in the pages of theater histories. Among Ziegfeld’s long A-list of “Follies” regulars, W. C. Fields alone forged a big-time career in the movies, ensuring the only kind of immortality that seems readily marketable today, the kind that can be uploaded onto YouTube in easily digestible nuggets.

more from the NY Times here.

What if the between-the-lines Republican message is the true illusion?

Zizek Slavoj Zizek frets in In These Times:

To get the true Republican message, one should take into account not only what is said but what is implied.

Where we hear the message of populist frustration over Washington gridlock and corruption, the glasses would show a condoning of the public’s refusal to understand: “We allow you NOT to understand — so have fun, vent your frustration! We will take care of business. We have enough behind-the-scenes experts who can fix things. In a way, it’s better for you not to know.” (Recall Vice President Dick Cheney’s hints at the dark side of power, as he successfully orchestrated an expansion of presidential executive power.)

And where the message is the promise of change, the glasses would show something like this: “Don’t worry, there will be no real change, we just want to change some small things to make sure that nothing will really change.” The rhetoric of change, of troubling Washington’s stagnant waters, is a permanent Republican staple. (Recall former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s populist anti-Washington rise to power in 1994.)

Let us not be naïve here: Republican voters know there will be no real change. They know the same substance will go on with changes in style. This is part of the deal.


Verges In Der Spiegel:

SPIEGEL: You have defended some of the worst mass murderers in recent history, and you have been called the “devil's advocate.” Why do you feel so drawn to clients like Carlos and Klaus Barbie?

Vergès: I believe that everyone, no matter what he may have done, has the right to a fair trial. The public is always quick to assign the label of “monster.” But monsters do not exist, just as there is no such thing as absolute evil. My clients are human beings, people with two eyes, two hands, a gender and emotions. That's what makes them so sinister.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Vergès: What was so shocking about Hitler the “monster” was that he loved his dog so much and kissed the hands of his secretaries — as we know from the literature of the Third Reich and the film “Der Untergang” (“Downfall”). The interesting thing about my clients is discovering what brings them to do these horrific things. My ambition is to illuminate the path that led them to commit these acts. A good trial is like a Shakespeare play, a work of art.

More Physiological Determinants of the Vote

I'd meant to post this piece a while ago. Olivia Judson in the NYT:Judson

Here’s something I’ve found myself speculating about recently: could the obesity epidemic have a political impact? In particular, could obesity in a pregnant woman influence the eventual political outlook of her child? I came to this question after mulling over a number of facts.

First, according to a report published last month in the journal Science, strong political views are correlated with distinct physiological responses to startling noises and threatening images. Specifically, the study found that people who support warrantless searches, wiretapping, military spending and so on were also likely to startle at sudden noises and threatening images. Those who support foreign aid, immigration, gun control and the like tended to have much milder responses to the stimuli. (The study only included people who described themselves as having strong political opinions; the physiology of apathy has not been looked at.)

Second, in other animals, the way an individual responds to threat is part of its personality. If you put a bird like a great tit into a room it’s never seen before, some individuals will be quick to start exploring; others will be slow.

Stars, Stripes and Civil Rights

Thomas Sugrue in the London Review of Books:

Bostonflag Of the various iconic representations of the flag of the last half-century, from Jasper Johns’s series of paintings to the image of construction workers hoisting it above the debris at the collapsed World Trade Center in September 2001, one of the most famous is the subject of Louis Masur’s latest book. On 5 April 1976, the photographer Stanley Forman of the Boston Herald American followed a group of anti-Civil Rights protesters onto the plaza outside Boston’s City Hall. His picture shows Joseph Rakes, a white teenager, wielding Old Glory as a spear, lunging forward as if he were about to impale Theodore Landsmark, a well-dressed black attorney who’d had the misfortune to cross paths with the protesters. As Landsmark tries to dodge his attacker, a heavy-set white man appears to restrain him, readying him for martyrdom.

In the bicentenary year of America’s independence, Forman’s photograph was a reminder that, despite celebrations of its revolutionary glory and proclamations of its national greatness, the country had not overcome its original sin of racism. That Forman shot his photograph in Boston, a city that called itself the Cradle of Liberty, made it even more effective. Most Americans associate racial injustice with the South, and many Northerners insist on their racial innocence. ‘If I hear the four hundred years of slavery bit one more time,’ a white Northerner complained to the journalist Pete Hamill in 1970, ‘I’ll go outta my mind.’

More here.

The Crisis & What to Do About It

George Soros in the New York Review of Books:

George_soros The salient feature of the current financial crisis is that it was not caused by some external shock like OPEC raising the price of oil or a particular country or financial institution defaulting. The crisis was generated by the financial system itself. This fact—that the defect was inherent in the system —contradicts the prevailing theory, which holds that financial markets tend toward equilibrium and that deviations from the equilibrium either occur in a random manner or are caused by some sudden external event to which markets have difficulty adjusting. The severity and amplitude of the crisis provides convincing evidence that there is something fundamentally wrong with this prevailing theory and with the approach to market regulation that has gone with it. To understand what has happened, and what should be done to avoid such a catastrophic crisis in the future, will require a new way of thinking about how markets work.

More here.

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

From The Telegraph:

'Money is the root of most progress,' says Niall Ferguson. 'Behind each historical phenomenon there lies a financial secret.'

Ferguson As if to prove his point, in the very month that his new financial history of the world comes both to the bookshops and, as a six-part documentary, to Channel 4, concerns among American voters about money and the jobs that generate it have arguably propelled to the White House an inexperienced candidate, Barack Obama, who might very well have lost if the election had been fought, as most pundits expected it would be, on issues of national security rather than finance.

So Ferguson's analysis is timely – and all the more so because it sets out to examine the possibility that, as well as a change in the tone of global political leadership, we are witnessing a Darwinian 'great dying' in the financial world, a mass extinction of species that have proved themselves unfit to survive.

His analysis is also well up to the elegant standard we expect from this worldly Oxford-and-Harvard academic who doubles as a trenchant newspaper comment writer. It combines a remarkable sweep of historical reference, from ancient Mesopotamia and medieval Italy onwards, with a rare ability to explain the alchemies and complexities of modern finance.

But for Ferguson devotees, this book nevertheless comes as something of a surprise.

More here.

E Pluribus Unum

From The New York Times:

The Superorganism: The beauty, elegance and strangeness of insect societies by Bert Hölldobler and Edward O. Wilson

Ants Hölldobler and Wilson’s central conceit is that a colony is a single animal raised to a higher level. Each insect is a cell, its castes are organs, its queens are its genitals, the wasps that stung me are an equivalent of an immune system. In the same way, the foragers are eyes and ears, and the colony’s rules of development determine its shape and size. The hive has no brain, but the iron laws of cooperation give the impression of planning. Teamwork pays; in a survey of one piece of Amazonian rain forest, social insects accounted for 80 percent of the total biomass, with ants alone weighing four times as much as all its mammals, birds, lizards, snakes and frogs put together. The world holds as much ant flesh as it does that of humans.

Karl von Frisch, discoverer of the famous waggle dance of the honey bee, said in the 1930s that “the life of bees is like a magic well. The more you draw from it, the more there is to draw.” Plenty of excellent science still springs from that source, and Wilson and Hölldobler gather some classics here. How does an ant work out how far it is back to the nest? Simple: by counting its steps. Glue stilts onto its legs as it sets out and it will pace out into the wilds; take them off and it will walk only part of the way back.

The superorganism has castes, based not on genetic differences but — like our own social classes — on the environment in which they are brought up.

More here.

The Further Adventures of the Emerald Green Sea Slug

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

F1_medium A couple days I introduced an awesome sea slug that eats algae and uses them to become photosynthetic. I thought it would be worth revisiting this marvelously plant-like animal for a couple reasons. One is that I’d like an excuse to post this excellent photo, which is on the cover of the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, where a new paper on the sea slug is being published (photo by Mary Tyler). Another reason is that I wanted to relay an email exchange I had with the lead scientist on the study, Mary Rumpho.

Rumpho discovered that the sea slug has incorporated a key gene for photosynthesis from the algae into its own DNA. That means that the slugs don’t just passively let the photosynthesizing structures from the algae (called plastids) harness sunlight. The slugs themselves actually make proteins that are essential for photosynthesis.

I wondered how in the world a gene from algae got into the slug’s own DNA.

More here.

John Milton Marathon

Jennifer Howard in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

ScreenHunter_14 Nov. 22 12.20 When Richard J. DuRocher, a professor of English at St. Olaf College, in Northfield, Minn., told one of his classes that he was running a marathon, everybody cheered. Then he told them what kind of marathon: a straight-through, out-loud reading of John Milton’s Paradise Lost — all 12 books of it, from Satan’s fall to Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden.

If that sounds eccentric, even masochistic, consider that December 9 is the poet’s 400th birthday. What better way to mark the quatercentenary than to read his greatest work aloud? Marathons are happening at the University of Cambridge, Milton’s alma mater; at the University of Richmond; and at dozens of other places, notes Mr. DuRocher.

If it’s good enough for James Joyce, whose Ulysses gets a public airing every Bloomsday (June 16), it’s good enough for John Milton. But is it heaven or hell for the participants?

More here.

Single-Celled Giant Upends Early Evolution

Michael Reilly in Discovery News:

ScreenHunter_13 Nov. 22 12.12 Slowly rolling across the ocean floor, a humble single-celled creature is poised to revolutionize our understanding of how complex life evolved on Earth.

A distant relative of microscopic amoebas, the grape-sized Gromia sphaerica was discovered once before, lying motionless at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. But when Mikhail Matz of the University of Texas at Austin and a group of researchers stumbled across a group of G. sphaerica off the coast of the Bahamas, the creatures were leaving trails behind them up to 50 centimeters (20 inches) long in the mud.

The trouble is, single-celled critters aren't supposed to be able to leave trails. The oldest fossils of animal trails, called 'trace fossils', date to around 580 million years ago, and paleontologists always figured they must have been made by multicellular animals with complex, symmetrical bodies.

But G. sphaerica's traces are the spitting image of the old, Precambrian fossils; two small ridges line the outside of the trail, and one thin bump runs down the middle.

At up to three centimeters (1.2 inches) in diameter, they're also enormous compared to most of their microscopic cousins.

“If these guys were alive 600 million years ago, and their traces got fossilized, a paleontologist who had never seen this thing would not have a shade of doubt attributing this kind of trace to the activity of a big, multicellular, bilaterally symmetrical animal,” Matz said.

More here.