Justice for Some

26_thumb Joseph E. Stiglitz in Project Syndicate:

The mortgage debacle in the United States has raised deep questions about “the rule of law,” the universally accepted hallmark of an advanced, civilized society. The rule of law is supposed to protect the weak against the strong, and ensure that everyone is treated fairly. In America in the wake of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, it has done neither.

Part of the rule of law is security of property rights – if you owe money on your house, for example, the bank can’t simply take it away without following the prescribed legal process. But in recent weeks and months, Americans have seen several instances in which individuals have been dispossessed of their houses even when they have no debts.

To some banks, this is just collateral damage: millions of Americans – in addition to the estimated four million in 2008 and 2009 – still have to be thrown out of their homes. Indeed, the pace of foreclosures would be set to increase – were it not for government intervention. The procedural shortcuts, incomplete documentation, and rampant fraud that accompanied banks’ rush to generate millions of bad loans during the housing bubble has, however, complicated the process of cleaning up the ensuing mess.

To many bankers, these are just details to be overlooked. Most people evicted from their homes have not been paying their mortgages, and, in most cases, those who are throwing them out have rightful claims. But Americans are not supposed to believe in justice on average. We don’t say that most people imprisoned for life committed a crime worthy of that sentence. The US justice system demands more, and we have imposed procedural safeguards to meet these demands.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, (Anti)Modernist

Solzhenitsyn-84x84 Richard Tempest in Eurozine:

Ezra Pound surprisingly believed that “all good art is realism of one kind or another”. No doubt the author of Ivan Denisovich would have agreed. In his literary and aesthetic tastes he was a bit of a Victorian, seemingly alien to the joys, provocations, and conceits of the arts of the modern. He rejects “the quasi-eschatological mythologeme of the End that became well established in Western culture starting in the late nineteenth century, as in the death of God (Nietzsche), the inevitable and imminent decline of Europe (Spengler), or the disappearance of the novel (Mandelshtam)”. Generally appalled by the stridently iconoclastic character of Russian and European modernism he particularly disliked the claims of its practitioners, or at least the more forward-looking among them, to have superseded and surpassed 2000 years of cultural tradition. In one acerbic comment he wrote: “It was suggested that literature should start anew 'on a blank sheet of paper'. (Indeed, some never went much beyond this stage.)” He makes the same sarcastic point fictively. The Red Wheel features a symbolist groupie, languid, mannered Likonya, a “citizeness of the universe” given to batting her eyes and declaiming Nikolai Gumilev's death-affirming verses. A fan of the constructivist stage director Vyacheslav Meyerhold and the decadent chansonnier Aleksandr Vertinsky (her catholic taste = bad taste), she is wont to say things like: “The cultural life of the nineteenth century was very humdrum.” As a literary lampoon, Likonya belongs in the same category of comic characters as Aviette in Cancer Ward, the buxom SocRealist poetess who likes her tetrameters ideologically “progressive”, but also just a little bit sexy.

Actually, among Solzhenitsyn's artistic negations, socialist realism looms much larger than symbolism or even modernism as a whole. His fictional texts are dynamic confutations of the SocRealist “mode of literary production”, to use Terry Eagleton's term; as well as case-specific confutations of the subgenres of SocRealist prose, e. g., the revolutionary novel, factory novel, kolkhoz novel, spy novel, science novel. Or even SocRealist erotica, if there ever was such a thing. The writer's entire fictional and dramatic output is oriented against SocRealist practices; in the same way that Tolstoy's fictions before 1881 are consistently anti-Romantic in their aesthetics, ethics, and formal values (although after his terrible existential crisis of that year he began writing works that were, in a sense, anti-Tolstoyan). “The whole point about realism – real realism – is that it needs no identifying prefix. Solzhenitsyn's work demonstrates this for all time.”

Global Warming Could Mean a Golden Age for Tropical Rain Forests

500x_rainforest-animals-redeyedfrog1 Alasdair Wilkins in io9.com:

Climate change could have devastating consequences for much of the world's ecosystems, but at least one area might benefit. Ancient rain forests thrived during severe warming millions of years ago, helping to create today's species diversity.

56.3 million years ago, planet Earth was going through one of its hottest periods. Average temperatures were 3-5 degrees higher than they are today, and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere a whopping 2.5 times thicker than what we've got today. Both of those are fairly extreme, and it seems reasonable that life struggled during these times. But, at least in the rain forests, that wasn't the case at all.

This particular period of global warming was known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum. Around 56.3 million years ago, Earth's temperature started increasing, and it took only 10,000 years for carbon dioxide to reach such high levels. This remained the norm for the next 200,000 years. Despite these seemingly harsh conditions, many species thrived, as the diversity of rain forest species tripled during this period.

Inequality and Moral Hazard Rents in the Financial Sector

Ashwin Parameswaran over at Macroeconomic Resilience:

A recent study by Kaplan and Rauh (h/t Tyler Cowen) confirms what a lot of us suspected anyway: the dominance of Wall Street (bankers, hedge fund managers etc) at the very top end of the income distribution. The presence of bankers at the top end of the income distribution is not surprising – A large portion of this blog has been devoted to the subject of how banks extract significant rents from the implicit and explicit support provided to them by the central bank. It is not surprising then that a significant proportion of these rents flows directly to bank employees. But as Megan McArdle notes, this does not explain the significant presence of hedge fund managers in this list. After all, hedge fund managers do not directly benefit from any state guarantees, implicit or explicit.

The SuperStar Effect?

It is clearly possible that there are many “superstars” in the hedge fund universe who generate genuine alpha and deserve their fat paychecks. But then the question arises as to why the prevalence of such superstars has increased so dramatically in recent times. One explanation may be the increased completeness of markets in the last quarter century which enables hedge fund managers to express a much more diverse range of market views in an efficient and low-cost manner. But this must surely be negated by the reduced supply of easy arbitrage opportunities and the increased competition amongst hedge funds.

Hedge Funds as an Indirect Beneficiary of Moral Hazard “Rents”

Megan McArdle rightly dismisses the role of tax policy on pre-tax compensation of hedge fund managers. But just because hedge funds do not directly benefit from a state guarantee doesn’t mean that central bank policy towards the banking sector is irrelevant in determining their returns. For example, in my post analysing the possible strategy that Magnetar followed in its CDO investments, I observed that Magnetar essentially chose a trade with a positively skewed distribution. As I noted then, it is not a coincidence that Magnetar chose the other side of the trade that was preferred and executed in significant size by bank traders i.e. severely negatively skewed bets such as the super-senior tranche. As I have discussed many times, this demand for negative skewness is driven by the specific dynamics of the moral hazard problem in banking, often exacerbated by the principal-agent problems that exist even between different levels in banks.

Embracing Nature’s Imperfections

Lee Smolin in American Scientist:

Book Gleiser is an accomplished theoretical physicist who holds a distinguished chair at Dartmouth College. His book tells the story of his change of mind about what real science is. Like many people who go into theoretical physics, he began his studies with a fantasy of discovering hidden truths that, when expressed in beautiful mathematical equations, would speak to him of unification and symmetry. He found he was good at this kind of work, and he experienced scientific and professional success. Nonetheless, he came to wonder whether the search for hidden unities in nature is driven more by metaphysical fantasy than by the actual results. Indeed, the results of the search for unification over the past several decades have been disappointing. In the early 1970s theoretical physicists invented what is known as the Standard Model of particle physics, which unifies some, but not all, of the forces in nature and balances nature’s highly symmetric features with its strangely asymmetric ones. In 1975 it was widely believed that this model was just a temporary consolidation of recent discoveries that would soon by superseded by a more unified and symmetric “Grand Unified Theory.” Remarkably, this didn’t happen. The first such theories to be proposed made predictions that were quickly falsified, and later ones made no predictions that anyone knows how to test. What we thought was a narrow ledge offering a place to camp for the night, on the way to a summit of much greater beauty, has turned out to be our ramshackle home theoretically, and we have been stuck there for more than 35 years.

It is possible that this is only a frustratingly long but still temporary setback and that proposals for further unification will turn out to be correct. Certainly most theoretical particle theorists think so. We expect to learn a lot from experiments that have just gotten under way at the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva and at various deep underground laboratories with dark-matter detectors. But it is also possible that the search for further symmetry and unification has been mistaken, and that the right lessons to draw from the Standard Model reside in its asymmetries and unrealized unities. This is what Gleiser has come to think, and he includes in the book a fascinating report of his exploration of the asymmetries of nature. Whether one agrees with Gleiser’s central argument or not, it is a pleasure to follow his reasoning because the book is so beautifully written.

More here.

Friday Poem

—After Hafez

However large earth’s garden, mine’s enough.
One rose and the shade of a vine’s enough.

I don’t want more wealth, I don’t need more dross.
The grape has its bloom and it shines enough.

Why ask for the moon? The moon’s in your cup,
a beggar, a tramp, for whom wine’s enough.

Look at the stream as it winds out of sight.
One glance, one glimpse of a chine’s enough.

Like the sun in bazaars, streaming in shafts,
any slant on the grand design’s enough.

When you’re here, my love, what more could I want?
Just mentioning love in a line’s enough.

Heaven can wait. To have found, heaven knows,
a bed and a roof so divine’s enough.

I’ve no grounds for complaint. As Hafez says,
isn’t a ghazal that he signs enough?

by Mimi Kahlvati
from The Meanest Flower
publisher: Carcanet, Manchester, 2007

Hafez: here & here
Ghazal: here

The Amazon may have the Andes to thank for biodiversity


Snake The extraordinary biodiversity seen in the Amazon rainforest — one of the most species-rich ecosystems on Earth — may have evolved mainly due to the rise of the Andes, research suggests. The Amazon, the world's largest river basin, is home to the largest rainforest on Earth, covering about 2.58 million square miles (6.7 million square kilometers) in nine countries. This area, known as Amazonia, holds a mind-boggling array of life, harboring one in 10 known species in the world and one in five of all birds. “Many previously unseen species are discovered and documented every year,” said John Lundberg, curator of ichthyology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

The origin of the amazing level of diversity seen in Amazonia has been debated for decades. It was long held that isolated patches of forest served as safe havens during cycles of aridity during the Pleistocene epoch (beginning about 2.5 million years ago and ending 12,000 years ago), refuges that served as incubators for diversity over the past 2.5 million years. However, in the 1990s, support for this idea crumbled after evidence for it was revealed to be a mistake based on how species were analyzed.

More here. (Disclaimer: I am posting this story more for the pictures of the amazing bio-diversity you can see through the various links for those of us who are evo-bio lovers)

The troubling case of Cat Stevens


Salman Rushdie has spoken out against the appearance of Yusuf Islam (a.k.a. Cat Stevens) at a weekend rally with the purported aim of restoring sanity: “I’ve always liked Stewart and Colbert but what on earth was Cat Yusuf Stevens Islam doing on that stage? If he’s a ‘good Muslim’ like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar then I’m the Great Pumpkin. Happy Halloween.” You may recall that the popular singer supported the fatwa against Rushdie, way back when. The case of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam is a troubling one. He was one of my favorite singers in my misspent youth — one of those cases where I don’t want to believe the truth, either. I applaud his charity work for UNICEF, Palestinian refugees, and the children in Gaza. But the data on basic human freedoms are pretty damning. This from the Observer’s Andrew Anthony: “He told me in 1997, eight years after saying on TV that Rushdie should be lynched, that he was in favour of stoning women to death for adultery. He also reconfirmed his position on Rushdie. He set up the Islamia school in Brent, which is currently undergoing council-backed expansion. Its mission statement three years ago explicitly stated that its aim was to bring about the submission of the individual, the community and the world at large to Islam. For this aim it now receives state funding. Its an incubator of the most bonkers religious extremism and segregation, and is particularly strong on the public erasure of women. Why do people go to such lengths to ignore these aspects of Yusuf Islam’s character and philosophy?”

more from Cynthia Haven at The Book Haven here.

judgment will be rendered


“The limits of my language,” Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared, “are the limits of my world.” One of the most notorious limits of our language, and one that has done much to limit our world, is “man” being the embodiment of humanity. That the pronoun “he” can represent indifferently “he” or “she,” that “man” represents “man” or “woman”: these are grammatical traces of the phenomenon that Simone de Beauvoir made the starting point of The Second Sex more than sixty years ago: “humanity is male and defines woman not in herself but relative to him.” Seen in this light, when Nancy Spero began using only the female figure in her paintings in 1976—paintings that by this time were more like what most people would call drawings—she was doing more than simply adjusting her pictorial style or focusing her subject matter. As Spero explained a few years later, “I decided to view women and men by representing women, not just to reverse conventional history, but to see what it means to view the world through the depiction of women.” That is, she was trying, in the way that was open to her as an artist, to change language, to pictographically use “she” or “woman” as her universal term. Her goal was not to overturn the hierarchy and put women on top, because she knew from experience that the effort to make a particular term play the part of the universal could lead only to violent contradiction; rather, she was doing it speculatively, as a thought experiment, in order to see differently, to push back the limits of her world.

more from Barry Schwabsky at The Nation here.

swift: not a hater…


There is a verbal problem which can be confusing for readers of Gulliver’s Travels. They have ceaselessly been told, almost from the day on which Swift’s novel first appeared, that it was consummately misanthropic; and this was quite true, upon the basis of a certain definition of misanthropy. Moreover, no one has explained this particular definition more clearly than Swift himself. In November 1725, on the eve of the publication of the Travels, he wrote, in a famous letter to Alexander Pope, “When you think of the world give it one lash the more at my request. I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is towards individuals: for instance, I hate the tribe of lawyers, but I love Counsellor Such-a-one, and Judge Such-a-one . . . . But principally I hate and detest that animal called man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth. This is the system upon which I have governed myself many years, but do not tell.” There is no reason to disbelieve what Swift says here; though if we feel we need proof, we can find it in his biography; for he plainly had very tender feelings for his Stella and Vanessa, and he spoke poignantly of “the terrible wounds near my heart” that the deaths of the Johns Gay and Arbuthnot had been to him.

more from P. N. Furbank at the TLS here.

Researchers discover key mutation in acute myeloid leukemia

From PhysOrg:

Mutationsins The Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis team initially discovered a mutation by completely sequencing the genome of a single AML patient. They then used targeted DNA sequencing on nearly 300 additional AML patient samples to confirm that mutations discovered in one gene correlated with the disease. Although genetic changes previously were found in AML, this work shows that newly discovered mutations in a single gene, called DNA methyltransferase 3A or DNMT3A, appear responsible for treatment failure in a significant number of AML patients. The finding should prove rapidly useful in treating patients and which may provide a molecular target against which to develop new drugs.

“This is a wonderful example of the ability of the unbiased application of whole-genome, DNA sequencing to discover a frequently mutated gene in cancer that was previously unknown to be correlated with prognosis,” said Eric D. Green, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), a part of the National Institutes of Health, which co-funded this study. “This may quickly lead to a change in medical care because physicians may now screen for these mutations in patients and adjust their treatment accordingly.”

More here.

Thursday Poem

The Investment

Over back where they speak of life as staying
('You couldn't call it living, for it ain't'),
There was an old, old house renewed with paint,
And in it a piano loudly playing.

Out in the plowed ground in the cold a digger,
Among unearthed potatoes standing still,
Was counting winter dinners, one a hill,
With half an ear to the piano's vigor.

All that piano and new paint back there,
Was it some money suddenly come into?
Or some extravagance young love had been to?
Or old love on an impulse not to care–

Not to sink under being man and wife,
But get some color and music out of life?

by Robert Frost
from The Collected Poems,
Complete and Unabridged

Greenhouse Bananas

From Scientific American:

Greenhouse-bananas_1 Here’s my conclusion: the only strong evidence we have that Oklahoma Senator James M. Inhofe isn’t a clown is that his car isn’t small enough. As I write in early December, the Copenhagen climate change conference has just begun. And Inhofe, that gleeful anarchist, says he is going to Copenhagen to try to sabotage the affair. Inhofe has famously called climate change “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” (Actually, the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people was Lord Amherst’s distribution of smallpox-ridden blankets, but I digress.)

But he has also called global warming the “second largest hoax ever played on the American people after the separation of church and state.” Well, it’s good to know that the senator is capable of revising his theories after he acquires new information, a necessary condition for a truly scientific worldview. Inhofe’s attacks on climate change science have been so engrossing that until recently I was unaware of his influence in Uganda. Investigative reporter Jeff Sharlet points out that Inhofe influences Ugandan parliament member David ­Bahati through their common membership in the Washington, D.C. evangelical group called the Family. Bahati introduced legislation in Uganda that recognized “aggravated homosexuality,” punishable in some cases by death. (Scrutiny by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow led to Inhofe repudiating the bill as this issue went to press.)

More here.

Memoirs of an Anonymous Phone Sex Worker

From Granta:

ScreenHunter_18 Nov. 11 12.19 For the man with the rubber bands I was Madame Katherine. A green-eyed, red-headed English dominatrix dressed in slick leather and killer heels. In reality I was a black, dreadlocked and barefooted college student in a broom skirt and faded brown tank top looking over a pile of laundry at my alarm clock wondering what the hell I was going to say that would keep him on the phone for a minimum of ten minutes and wouldn’t disgust me too much.

I have three rubber bands, a belt and some ice cubes. Tell me what to do.

During my two days of training Heather, my mentor, named the four basic categories of men she encountered. There were the kinkies, the sneakies, the boyfriends and the regulars. It was just my luck that my first solo call was a kinky. I was questioning my sanity when the phone rang. Being a phone sex operator sounded good in theory. I could choose the callers I would accept. I decided my own hours and avoided the commute to work in the ridiculous extremes of Massachusetts weather that threatened in some months to steam me alive and in others to freeze the breath out of me. The job seemed interesting and at times amusing when I had Heather leading the way, but when my brief apprenticeship ended and my roommates left the apartment for their regular day jobs I was alone at a crossroads. Was I the kind of girl who could do this job or not?

More here.

Body-snatching, not socialising, drove the evolution of bigger-brained insects

Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science:

ScreenHunter_17 Nov. 11 12.12 Some insects, such as ants, lead famously social lives, with massive colonies of individuals, cooperating for a common good. These insects also tend to have unusually large brains. For over 150 years, this link has been tacitly taken as support for the idea that social animals need extra smarts to keep track of all their many relationships. But Sarah Farris from West Virginia University and Susanne Schulmeister from the American Museum of Natural History aren’t convinced.

After comparing a wide range of species, they think that the large brains of these insect collectives have little to do with their cooperative societies. Instead, their enlarged brains may have been driven by a far grislier habit: body-snatching.

The link between brain and group size was first documented by a French biologist called Felix Dujardin. He is credited for discovering mushroom bodies, a pair of structures in insect brains that control a variety of higher mental abilities: learning, memory, processing smell, attention and more. They are the insect equivalent of our own cerebral cortex, which also governs our most vaunted mental skills. Indeed, both the mushroom bodies and the cerebral cortex may have evolved from the same ancestral structure.

More here.

How to Win Back Pakistan

Michael O'Hanlon in Foreign Policy:

ScreenHunter_16 Nov. 11 11.47 Pakistan arguably remains the most complex ally the United States has ever had in wartime, making President Franklin D. Roosevelt's challenges in dealing with Stalin (a far worse leader, but at least one who knew the outcome he wanted) seem simple by comparison.

Nine years into the campaign, we still can't clearly answer the question of whether Pakistan is with us or against us. America needs bold new policy measures to help Islamabad — in all its many dimensions and factions — make up its mind.

The crux of the problem is this: Despite allowing massive NATO logistics operations through its territory and helping the United States pursue al Qaeda operatives, Pakistan tolerates sanctuaries on its soil for the major insurgencies fighting in Afghanistan. These include the Afghan Taliban (otherwise known as the Quetta Shura Taliban because its principle base remains in Quetta in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan) as well as the Haqqani and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin (HiG) networks. The Haqqanis straddle the border between the Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika as well as North Waziristan and other tribal areas within Pakistan; HiG is further north, operating in and around the Khyber Pass connecting Kabul and Jalalabad in Afghanistan with Peshawar and points east in Pakistan.

More here.

Iranians have stopped revolting and are now glued to a new, illegal satellite television channel

Christopher De Bellaigue in Prospect:

ScreenHunter_14 Nov. 10 16.21 Isabela rested her head on Salvador’s naked chest, looking up into his eyes. He reached across to the bedside table for a sip from a glass of wine. Isabela sighed. “There is so much I still need to tell you.”

“Fraud!” The Iranian woman sitting next to me in front of the big flat-screen television shook her head. Her husband explained that Isabela is not to be trusted; she is a poisoner and an adulteress. We were in the couple’s sitting room in central Tehran—a long way from Colombia, where Body of Desire is made. Every weekday night, anecdotal evidence suggests, a huge number of middle-class Iranians lose themselves in this preposterous programme, in which a murdered businessman’s spirit has entered the body of Salvador, a farmer. The fact that it is broadcast on an independent satellite channel means that these Iranians are breaking the law. More importantly, they are opening a new front in Iran’s cultural war with the world.

Body of Desire and a host of other soap operas are broadcast from Dubai by Farsi 1, a satellite channel co-owned by Rupert Murdoch and Saad Mohseni, an Afghan entrepreneur. The channel, which features shows from South Korea and the US, targets Iranians who have tired of the fare served up by the state broadcasting company. Even people close to the Iranian government concede that homegrown shows can be dull. Raunchy subjects are off limits, a hug between a mother and her son is deemed improper to show, and prayers and Koranic exegesis occupy primetime spots.

Programmes shown on Farsi 1 explore, if that is the right word, themes such as infidelity and lust, while making a show of respecting Iranian values.

More here.

The Internet? Bah! (or, The Worst Prediction of All Time?)

Clifford Stoll was riding high on his recent fame (for having helped to catch the infamous hacker Markus Hess) when he published this article in Newsweek in 1996 (he now sells blown glass Klein bottles on the web):

Cliffordstoll Consider today's online world. The Usenet, a worldwide bulletin board, allows anyone to post messages across the nation. Your word gets out, leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophany more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harrasment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen. How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc. At best, it's an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can't tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure.

More here. [Thanks to Jennifer Oullette.]