The theory of efficient markets in finance should be relegated to the Museum of Nice Tries

Cosma Shalizi in American Scientist:

ScreenHunter_02 Oct. 09 09.42 The Myth of the Rational Market, by Justin Fox, is an account—popular but thorough—of the roots, rise, triumph and ongoing fall of the theory of efficient markets in finance. This school of thought is an exemplary specimen of a type of social science that flourished after World War II: It has mathematical models at its center, has supposedly been empirically validated by statistical analyses, is indifferent to history and to institutions, and takes as an axiom that people are intelligent, farsighted and greedy. Unlike many economic theories, the efficient-market school has been influential beyond academia. It helped reshape ideas about how companies should be run, how executives should be paid, and indeed how the economy should be regulated (or not) to promote the general welfare. (In comic-book form: A mild-mannered social science by day, at night efficient-market theory puts on a cloak of ideology and struggles for the Capitalist Way.) The theory contributed, arguably, to setting up the crisis that has gripped the world economy since 2007. Its story is of much more than just scholarly interest.

The founding principles of efficient-market theory are easily described…

More here.

Herta Müller Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

Motoko Rich and Nicholas Kulish in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_01 Oct. 09 09.14 Herta Müller, the Romanian-born German novelist and essayist who writes of the oppression of dictatorship in her native country and the unmoored existence of the political exile, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

Announcing the award in Stockholm, the Swedish Academy described Ms. Müller as a writer “who, with the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose, depicts the landscape of the dispossessed.” Her award coincides with the 20th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Europe.

Ms. Müller, 56, emigrated to Germany in 1987 after years of persecution and censorship in Romania. She is the first German writer to win the Nobel in literature since Günter Grass in 1999 and the 13th winner writing in German since the prize was first given in 1901. She is the 12th woman to capture the literature prize. But unlike previous winners like Doris Lessing and V. S. Naipaul, Ms. Müller is a relative unknown outside of literary circles in Germany.

More here.

The Last Days of the Polymath

Edward Carr in The Economist:

MASA_Polymaths Carl Djerassi is a polymath. Strictly speaking that means he is someone who knows a lot about a lot. But Djerassi also passes a sterner test: he can do a lot, too. As a chemist (synthesising cortisone and helping invent the Pill); an art collector (he assembled one of the world’s largest collections of works by Paul Klee); and an author (19 books and plays), he has accomplished more than enough for one lifetime.

His latest book, “Four Jews on Parnassus”, is an ima­gined series of debates between Theodor Adorno, Arnold Schönberg, Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, which touches on art, music, philosophy and Jewish identity. In itself, the book is an exercise in polymathy. At a reading in the Austrian Cultural Forum in London this summer, complete with Schönberg’s songs and four actors, including Djerassi himself, it drew a good crowd and bewitched them for an hour and a half. Sitting down with the book the next day, I found it sharp, funny, mannered and dazzlingly erudite—sometimes, like a bumptious student, too erudite for its own good. I enjoy Djerassi’s writing, though not everyone will. But even his critics would admit that he really is more than “a scientist who writes”.

The word “polymath” teeters somewhere between Leo­nardo da Vinci and Stephen Fry. Embracing both one of history’s great intellects and a brainy actor, writer, director and TV personality, it is at once presumptuous and banal. Djerassi doesn’t want much to do with it. “Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers—are dabblers in many different areas,” he says. “I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist. And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point out the real difference to me between polygamy and promiscuity.”

More here.



Take a close look at Saying Grace, one of Norman Rockwell’s best-known works. In a crowded railway-station diner, an old woman and a little boy bow their heads in prayer before eating. A pair of young men regard them at close range, forced by the diner’s busyness to share their table with the pious twosome; only a centerpiece condiment tray separates the parties. The onlookers’ faces betray curiosity, even a slight sense of bemusement, but not a hint of mockery or contempt. Zoom out a bit farther and you’ll notice two more observers taking in the scene: a hardened middle-aged man standing off to the left (waiting for a table?) and a seated fellow in the foreground, winding up his meal with coffee and a cigar. Amid all the evident cacophony in the restaurant, these men surely couldn’t have been alerted by their ears to the woman’s and boy’s murmurings; more likely, they caught sight of this strange tableau while idly scanning the room, their heads abruptly stopping mid-swivel, their thoughts somewhere along the lines of “Well, I’ll be goddamned.”

more from David Kamp at Vanity Fair here.

Everything I Own I Carry With Me

Cover Herta Müller just won the Nobel Prize for Literature…

I carried everything I had. It wasn’t actually mine. It was either intended for a different purpose or somebody else’s. The pigskin suitcase was a gramophone box. The dust coat was from my father. The town coat with the velvet neckband from my grandfather. The breeches from my Uncle Edwin. The leather puttees from our neighbour, Herr Carp. The green gloves from my Auntie Fini. Only the claret silk scarf and the toilet bag were mine, gifts from recent Christmases. The war was still on in January 1945. Shocked that, in the depths of winter, I was to be taken who-knows-where by the Russians, everyone wanted to give me something that would be useful, maybe, even if it didn’t help. Because nothing on earth could help. It was irrevocable: I was on the Russians’ list, so everyone gave me something – and drew their own conclusions as they did. I took the things and, at the age of seventeen, drew my own conclusion: the timing was right for going away. I could have done without the list being the reason, but if things didn’t turn out too badly, it would even be good for me. I wanted away from this thimble of a town, where all the stones had eyes. I wasn’t so much afraid as secretly impatient. And I had a bad conscience because the list that caused my relatives such anguish was, for me, tolerable. They feared that in another country something might happen to me. I wanted to go to a place that did not know me.

more from an excerpt of Herta Müller’s newest novel at Sign and Sight here.

The literary journal is dead. Long live the literary journal


“The first function of a literary magazine is to introduce the work of new or little-known writers of talent.” There is an appealing modesty about this brisk declaration, even a kind of impersonality in subordinating editorial ego to the larger good; it seems likely to provoke a murmur of agreement, not least from new or little-known writers. But this is not, of course, the only way in which the function of such publications may be conceived. The editor of one of the many new literary periodicals established in the 1920s announced a no less definite sense of purpose in quite other terms: “I shall make its aim the maintenance of critical standards and the concentration of intelligent critical opinion”. The goals expressed in these two quotations are not necessarily in conflict: editors might, it is true, maintain “critical standards” in a practical way by identifying new literary talent. But the tendency is for the pursuit of these two purposes to result in periodicals of rather different types. One, often thought of as the classic “little magazine”, largely carries new poetry and fiction, mostly by as yet unrecognized writers, often exemplifying a style of writing that is self-consciously, even determinedly, insurgent and unfashionable. The other, committed to upholding the critical or reviewing function, is largely filled with essays and book reviews, taking in the literature of both the past and the present, as well as taking in more than literature; it aspires to shape intelligent opinion and to combat the slackness and puffery of mainstream literary journalism.

more from Stefan Collini at the TLS here.

Thursday Poem

My Mother’s Sari

There, in the wooden box
my mother’s sari, enveloped in white muslin,
with mothballs.

Her sense of order is in each one
of its folds,
and the press of her palm.
A universe of ironing lies beneath the pillow.
Tiny packets of camphor, incense and fragrant roots –
her perfume.

My mother’s sari’s tucked-in eagerness
coupled with the jingling of bangles
is the zest to get down to work.

Lines running across the broad pallu,
the unbroken bridges of an upright life,
keeping all evil at bay –
a cane to reprove naughty children.

Folds tucked into a knot,
a mysterious treasure-house of meanings,
the pretty yellow Madhura sari
with its green border of blooms . . .
. . . that queen was perhaps like my mother.

Read more »

Little Miss Sunshine

From The Washington Post:

Book Sixteen years after Peter Kramer's “Listening to Prozac,” Richard Powers has heard the alarming implications of treatments that let us buy better moods and personalities. His cerebral new novel offers a chilling examination of the life we're reengineering with our chromosomes and brain chemistry. Although it's tempting to call “Generosity” a dystopia about the pharmaceutical future in the tradition of Huxley's “Brave New World,” Powers sticks so closely to the state of current medical science and popular culture that this isn't so much a warning as a diagnosis. And as with any frightening diagnosis, you'll be torn between denial and a desperate urge to talk about it.

The story begins on a deceptively small scale: Russell Stone is a cynical young editor for a cheesy self-improvement magazine called Becoming You. He's still recovering from a brief period of fame when his witty personal essays were sought after by NPR and the New Yorker. But now, at 32, he spends his days translating saccharine testimonies of personal triumph into Standard English. Lonely and depressed, he jumps at the chance to teach a night class in creative nonfiction at a Chicago arts college.

Everything in this provocative novel revolves around a mysterious student in Russell's class named Thassa Amzwar.

More here.

Is Life Expectancy Reduced by a Traumatic Childhood?

From Scientific American:

Abuse A difficult childhood reduces life expectancy by 20 years among adults who experienced six or more particular types of abuse or household dysfunction as kids, while those who suffered fewer types of trauma lost fewer years of life, a large-scale epidemiological study finds.

The study, published this week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, reports that participants who were exposed to six or more different types of adverse childhood events (ACEs), such as physical or sexual abuse, were also 54 percent more likely to die during the 10-year period of the study. On the other hand, people who reported fewer than six ACEs did not have a statistically increased risk of death compared with the control group (those reporting no adverse childhood events). Still, those with one to five ACEs who did pass away during the study period were on average three to 5.4 years younger than those who died in the control group.

“As far as we know, this is the first cohort study to examine the association between ACEs and mortality,” wrote David Brown, an epidemiologist at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and lead author of the study.

More here.

A new wave of posthumous books by iconic authors

Alexandra Alter in the Wall Street Journal:

ScreenHunter_03 Oct. 08 09.36 A new wave of posthumous books by iconic authors is stirring debate over how publishers should handle fragmentary literary remains. Works by Vladimir Nabokov, William Styron, Graham Greene, Carl Jung and Kurt Vonnegut will hit bookstores this fall. Ralph Ellison and the late thriller writer Donald E. Westlake have posthumous novels due out in 2010.

The posthumous works may generate as much controversy as enthusiasm. Many are incomplete or appear in multiple drafts, raising thorny questions about author intent. Others, dug up from the archives of authors' early and less accomplished work, could be branded disappointing footnotes to otherwise lustrous literary legacies. An unfinished murder mystery by Graham Greene, which is being serialized in the literary magazine, “The Strand,” was slammed on the Los Angeles Times's literary blog, Jacket Copy, as “a far cry” from Greene's later works, such as “The Power and the Glory.”

While some attribute the surge in posthumous publications to macabre coincidence, others say publishers are more aggressively seeking works by famous dead authors because they have established audiences—an irresistible prospect for a struggling industry.

More here.

Richard Dawkins: ‘Strident? Do they mean me?’

Emma Townshend in The Independent:

4853882_246793t Richard Dawkins is in the middle of London's Natural History Museum, telling me about the applications on his iPhone. Sitting in the museum café, he holds the phone up to his mouth and tips back his head to show me how he can drink a virtual “pint” of Carling on screen, the beer draining as the phone tips further. Which is not exactly what I was expecting.

Dawkins has the enthusiasm of a teenage geek for new technology. “I love my iPhone,” he confesses. “I'm on my third already.” Then he shows me another phone app, this time simulating Darwinian natural selection. As each generation of a populace is born, the appearance of the group of individuals on screen varies. As Sir David Attenborough walks past and says hello, I feel secretly relieved we aren't still laughing at the lager trick. “Do you find it difficult to switch off from technology?” “Aha, yes,” he says with a dark chuckle, straightaway. And do you ever get in trouble for that? He laughs again.

To most observers, Dawkins is the textbook aggressive champion of evolutionary theory. His new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, is intended to amass the scientific testimony for evolution in one place, answering creationist critics who say there is no evidence that evolution by natural selection has ever taken place. In person, Dawkins fails to live up to the “aggressive” label.

More here.

Archie’s Destiny, as Shaped by Robert Frost

George Gene Gustines in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_01 Oct. 08 08.44 Is Archie Andrews a bigamist?

That perennially teenage redhead from Riverdale made headlines around the world when word leaked, back in May, that he would propose to his longtime love interest, Veronica Lodge, in issue No. 600 of the comic that bears his name. But that issue, published in August, was only Part 1 of a six-part story. Although Archie did marry Veronica, things will take a turn in November, when Archie proposes to the lady in waiting, Betty Cooper. That’s just the latest twist in the romantic triangle that has thrust this nearly 70-year-old character, and his parent company, into the media spotlight…

The wedding, which began as a way to celebrate the 600th issue, has become a game changer for the company. “What the story has done is to introduce Archie on a global level,” said Jon Goldwater, co-chief executive of Archie Comic Publications. The company plans to roll out new titles for international markets, pursue film and TV opportunities and release a series of deluxe collected editions.

More here. [For Aps and Ga.]

Three Win Chemistry Nobel for Ribosome Research


Dennis Overbye in the New York Times:

Three researchers whose work delves into how information encoded on strands of DNA is translated by the chemical complexes known as ribosomes into the thousands of proteins that make up living matter will share the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the Swedish Academy of Sciences said Wednesday.

The trio are Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, England; Thomas A. Steitz of Yale University; and Ada E. Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. Each scientist will get a third of the prize, worth 10 million Swedish kronors in total, or $1.4 million, in a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.

If the sequence of lettered nucleic acids in DNA forms the blueprint for life, ribosomes are the factory floor. In a press release, the Swedish academy said the three, who worked independently, were being honored “for having showed what the ribosome looks like and how it functions at the atomic level.”

More here.

It’s a short step from believing in outer truth to believing in inner truth


In its essence life is monotonous. Happiness therefore depends on a reasonably thorough adaptation to life’s monotony. By making ourselves monotonous, we make ourselves equal to life. Thus we live to the full. And living to the full is to be happy. Unhealthy, illogical souls laugh—uneasily, deep down—at bourgeois happiness, at the monotonous life of the bourgeois man who obeys a daily routine . . . . . . , and at his wife who spends her time keeping the house tidy, is consumed by the minutiae of caring for the children, and talks about neighbors and acquaintances. That’s what happiness is, however. It seems, at first glance, that new things are what give pleasure to the mind; but there aren’t many new things, and each one is new only once. Our sensibility, furthermore, is limited, and it doesn’t vibrate indefinitely. Too many new things will eventually get tiresome, since our sensibility can’t keep up with all the stimulations it receives.

more from Richard Zenith’s translation of Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously revealed work at Poetry here.