Inside Men

From The New York Times:

RajJust a few years ago, Raj Rajaratnam and Rajat Gupta were two of the most admired business luminaries from the “twice blessed” generation of South Asian immigrants. Both were born after India achieved independence from Britain in 1947, and both came to the United States after the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 abolished national origin quotas. Like many top students at the time, they sought graduate business degrees: Rajaratnam at the Wharton School, Gupta at Harvard. Rajaratnam founded the Galleon Group hedge fund and became a billionaire, and was considered the richest Sri Lankan-born person in the world. Gupta rose within McKinsey & Company to become the elite consulting firm’s three-term leader and the first Indian-born chief executive of a multinational company. Both were rich and reputable, traveling in the most exclusive social and business circles. Rajaratnam was dedicated to helping victims of land mines; Gupta presided over global efforts to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

Needless to say, neither of these men needed to engage in insider trading.

And yet (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t read the business pages since 2011), in separate trials, juries convicted each of multiple counts of securities fraud. Investigators discovered that Rajaratnam had been given insider tips and used this advantage to make millions of dollars trading shares. Gupta was one of his sources. Rajaratnam received an 11-year sentence, the longest in American insider trading history; Gupta got two years. In one particularly dramatic instance, Gupta, on a conference call with Goldman Sachs’s board of directors one week after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, in 2008, learned that Warren Buffett was prepared to support Goldman with a $5 billion investment. Within minutes, Gupta called Rajaratnam and Galleon purchased nearly $25 million of Goldman stock, mostly for Rajaratnam’s portfolio. The following month, when Gupta learned Goldman was about to report a loss, he called Rajaratnam 23 seconds later. Galleon soon began dumping Goldman stock.

More here.

A Test to Measure How Rational You Really Are


George Dvorsky inteviews Keith E. Stanovich in io9:

Cognitive biases are an essential part of the modern definition of rationality in cognitive science.

To think rationally means taking the appropriate action given one’s goals and beliefs — what we call instrumental rationality — and holding beliefs that are in synch with available evidence, or epistemic rationality. Collectively, the many tasks of the heuristics and biases program — and the even wider literature in decision science — comprise the operational definition of rationality in modern cognitive science (see my book Rationality and the Reflective Mind, 2011).

Let me give you some examples of instrumental rationality and irrationality:

  • The ability to display disjunctive reasoning in decision making [e.g. Either the Sun orbits the Earth, or the Earth orbits the Sun. The Sun does not orbit the Earth. Therefore, the Earth orbits the Sun.]
  • The tendency to show inconsistent preferences because of framing effects [e.g. saying a ‘glass is half empty’ can often be more persuasive than suggesting the inverse; this is somewhat related to the negativity bias]
  • The tendency to show a default bias [a.k.a. the status quo bias in which we hold a preference for the way things currently are]
  • The tendency to substitute affect for difficult evaluations [sometimes when we have to answer a difficult question we actually answer a related but different question without realizing a substitution has taken place]
  • The tendency to over-weight short-term rewards at the expense of long-term well-being [which is also referred to as the current moment bias]
  • The tendency to have choices affected by vivid stimuli [e.g. men have been shown to make poor decisions in the presence of an attractive female]
  • The tendency for decisions to be affected by irrelevant context


Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

Peloponnesian-warHe was ‘the laughing philosopher’ because, wrote Hippolytus, ‘he regarded all human affairs as ridiculous’. Democritus (c460-c370 BCE) was the last of the Presocratics (though many don’t regard him as one), and the most influential. He was born into a wealthy family – so wealthy, it was said, that the Persian king Xerxes paid a visit as his army marched through Democritus’ home town of Abdera in Thrace during his futile attempt to conquer Greece. Democritus spent much of his inherited wealth on travel, satisfying his thirst for knowledge, journeying to Egypt, Ethiopia and as far afield as India. He himself declared that none among his contemporaries had made greater journeys, seen more countries or met more foreign scholars.

In his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, the third century biographer Diogenes Laertius tells a story of Democritus deliberately blinding himself in order to be less disturbed in his philosophical pursuits. It is a fanciful tale – old age rather than self-mutilation most likely deprived him of his sight – but it does convey a sense of the awe with which contemporaries regarded both Democritus’ search for truth and the asceticism to which he subjected himself in this pursuit. He was, wrote Cicero ‘as great a man as ever lived’.

Yet, Democritus also came to be the most reviled of the Presocratics. Plato found him so distasteful that he refused to discuss his philosophy and, some claim, even wanted all his works burnt.

More here.

The Most Dangerous Threat to the World Is … Collective Psychosis in Pakistan?

J. J. Gould in The Atlantic:

ScreenHunter_228 Jun. 28 17.15It may not be the most dangerous place in the world, but, with its mix of political instability and nuclear capability, it's plausibly the most dangerous place for the world. Yet according to Husain Haqqani, Americans have a chronically hard time understanding why.

“I do believe that Pakistan is a dangerous place,” Haqqani said, speaking withThe Washington Post's David Ignatius and retired U.S. general Stanley McChrystal at the Aspen Ideas Festival today, “but … not for the reasons the Americans think it is. The Americans don't get Pakistan.”

Haqqani, who served as Pakistan's ambassador to Washington from 2008-2011, thinks that U.S. diplomats and military leaders have, after decades of on-again, off-again engagement with Pakistani officials, internalized a distorted sense of possibility in the United States' involvement in Pakistan as a whole.

Haqqani believes that Islamabad's generals in particular have played a big role over time in flattering Americans' sense of efficacy in Pakistan — and seems to believe that U.S. generals have been particularly susceptible to being misled, tending to see Pakistan's military leaders as their apolitical counterparts, rather than “politicians in uniform.” It's not that American officials' thinking about Pakistan is insufficiently complex, according to Haqqani (McChrystal, after all, had just emphasized the importance of not looking for simple fixes in Pakistan); it's that American officials' thinking about Pakistan serially overestimates the United States' ability to promote stability and development in the country at all.

More here.

around alone


There is an old sailors’ proverb claiming that below latitude 40 degrees south there is no law, and below 50 degrees, no God. Cape Horn sits at 56 degrees south, about 550 miles lower than the southernmost point of mainland New Zealand, and forces sailors much farther south than they would otherwise go. It is a landform that resonates with centuries’ worth of collective fear; thousands of people have died there. The cape itself is a promontory on a small island off the tip of South America that was first rounded in 1616 by a Dutch expedition—previous ships had gone through the Strait of Magellan—and was named after its captain’s hometown, Hoorn. There, mariners endure increasingly extreme weather as currents that otherwise circulate freely around Antarctica are forced through the narrow Drake Passage. South America’s steep continental shelf amplifies waves to heights that can surpass a hundred feet, and violent, gusty winds called williwaws shoot down through the Andes. The Horn, a symbol of the dangers of the sea, looms large in a sailor’s mind until it has been safely passed. In December 1968, the first of the men of the Golden Globe made his approach. Robin Knox-Johnston, a twenty-nine-year-old captain in the British Merchant Navy, was leading the field in the southern Pacific. One of the first to enter the race, he was still stewing about a French victory in the 1964 Observer Singlehanded Transatlantic Race, which had inspired headlines offensive to Knox-Johnston’s national pride (“Frenchman Supreme on the Anglo-Saxon Ocean,” ran one such offender in Paris Match).

more from Maggie Shipstead at Lapham’s Quarterly here.

Tymoshenko’s two bodies


The political phenomenon of Yulia Tymoshenko, her meteoric business career, her triumphant ascent to power and the consequent drama of her criminal prosecution and imprisonment are unique, even for turbulent, post-communist eastern Europe. Having started with a video rental shop at the end of the 1980s, she built a business empire using her husband’s family connections. Ten years later, in a move typical of Ukrainian tycoons seeking to protect their business interests, she entered politics. However, upon her election to the Ukrainian parliament, she joined the opposition to president Kuchma. Dismissed from her post of deputy prime minister in charge of energy policy in 2001, she faced a criminal case and spent 42 days in prison – a fact she later made use of in presenting herself as a victim of the Kuchma regime. In the 2004 presidential elections, Tymoshenko supported Viktor Yushchenko and became the female icon of the Orange Revolution. Her visual appearance from that period evoked a broad variety of cultural connotations: from Marianna of the Ukrainian revolution and a woman-warrior fighting the dark forces of evil to the traditional Mother of the Nation, the embodiment of chastity, tenderness and love. Tymoshenko’s golden plait, reminiscent of a nimbus or a crown, has become the most successful brand in Ukrainian politics since she appeared on the covers of glossy magazines and on TV screens. Styled as a political celebrity, she did not so much persuade as seduce both the Ukrainian and the international public.

more from Tatiana Zhurzhenko at Eurozine here.

feminism now


A t a time when gay marriage is eliciting widely divergent views about the nature and importance of the institution of marriage in general, it is as well to be reminded, as we are by Alison Wolf at the beginning of The XX Factor, that for most women in the developed world, whether or not they marry is less important now for their personal fulfilment than it has ever been in recorded history. For Jane Austen, refusing a proposal of marriage was an utterly life-changing event, something that could not have been said of any of the men in her society. In some parts of the world today, refusing a proposal is still impossible, however calamitous a young woman fears its consequences will be. But in Europe and North America in the twenty-first century, choosing a marriage partner has for many women become a lifestyle choice with fewer long-term consequences than choosing a school or a job. Alison Wolf’s twist on this turn of events, though, is to argue that it means very different things to the most educated 20 per cent of women than to the 80 per cent of their less educated sisters. These women, she writes, “have become a class apart . . . they are more like the men of the family than ever before in history. It is from other women that they have drawn away”.

more from Paul Seabright at the TLS here.

Karl Marx: a Nineteenth-Century Life

From The Guardian:

Germany---Karl-Marx-125th-010“Great passions, which, due to the closeness of their object, take the form of small habits, grow and once more reach their natural size through the magic effect of distance,” wrote Karl Marx to his wife Jenny in 1856, as she journeyed from London to Trier. “My love of you, as soon as you are distant, appears as a giant … the love, not of Feuerbach's human being, not of Moleschott's metabolism, not of the proletariat, but the love of the beloved, namely of you, makes the man once again into a man.”

Typical Marx: Romantic, charismatic, cosmopolitan, and at once able to combine the workers' revolution with protestations of uxoriousness. But also disingenuous, since it wabiographys during one of these absences that Marx managed to impregnate the family maid, Helene Demuth. Such are the personal and intellectual complexities that Jonathan Sperber pursues through 600 pages of tightly argued text in this profoundly important biography of “The Moor”. In contrast to Francis Wheen's raucous account of Marx's life as hack, brigand and rapscallion, Sperber places the history of ideas at the heart of his study. And it is a refreshingly anti-populist take. According to Sperber, not only is Marx's critique of capitalism of very limited applicability to the modern world, it was barely relevant when first published. Even in the 1860s his was the old world of Robespierre, Hegel, Adam Smith and the Spinning Jenny. Indeed, “Marx is more usefully understood as a backward-looking figure, who took the circumstances of the first half of the 19th century and projected them into the future, than as a sure footed and foresighted interpreter of historical trends.”

More here.

Researchers Reformulate the Model of Mitochondrial Function

From ScienceDaily:

MitoThe energy released from the rupture of chemical bonds in food molecules is stored temporarily in the form of high energy electrons in two types of molecule, N and F, whose proportions vary depending on the nutrient source. By themselves, these molecules cannot provide a freely utilizable source of rapidly mobilized energy for the cell's needs; access to this stored energy requires the mitochondria, which uses five molecular machines, called complexes I, II, III, IV and V, to convert the energy stored in N and F molecules into the universal energy source ATP. Until very recently these complexes were thought to float freely and independently in the internal membrane of mitochondria, without interacting. Work by Dr. Enriquez's group has now shown this view to be incorrect. “The five complexes do not always move independently in the membrane,” explains Dr. Enríquez. “On the contrary, they associate in distinct combinations called respiratory supercomplexes. Our work explains the functional consequences of these interactions.” The study shows that these associations are dynamic and are modified to optimize the extraction of energy from N and F molecules depending on their relative abundance, which in turn reflects the composition of foods consumed in the diet. The Science study describes these supercomplexes and their functions. The significance of this, in the words of Dr. Enriquez, is that “the system for optimizing the extraction of energy from food molecules is much more versatile than was believed and can be modulated in unexpected ways in order to adjust to the dietary composition of nutrients or to the specialized function of particular cell types.”

During the study the team also made the unexpected discovery that the most widely used mouse strain for laboratory genetic analysis is unable to correctly assemble the respiratory supercomplexes. This raises serious questions about the validity of extrapolating results obtained with these mice to humans.

More here. (Note: The last paragraph is why I vehemently oppose the use of mouse models to study human cancers)

Quants Ask: What Crisis in the Humanities?


Jennifer Schuessler in the NYT (image from Nate Silver's post on the topic):

Two recent reports on the beleaguered state of the humanities have had pundits of all stripes scrambling to explain what many see as a dismal statistic: the proportion of college students graduating with degrees in subjects like English or history has fallen to a mere 7 percent in 2010, down from 14 percent in 1966.

Is the state of the economy to blame? The obsession with the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math)? The anti-humanities rhetoricof right-wing politicians? The ideological excesses of left-wing professors?

Now one number-crunching historian has pointed the finger in an unexpected direction: women.

At the blog Sapping Attention, Ben Schmidt, a doctoral candidate in history at Princeton University, notes that between 1950 and 2002, the percentage of male college students who major in the humanities nationally remained steady at roughly 7 percent. The percentage of female college students majoring in the humanities, however, fell dramatically, to 9 percent from 15 percent.

To Mr. Schmidt, this gives the lie to the idea, advanced in a recent Op-Edcolumn by David Brooks of the New York Times, that the humanities “committed suicide” by focusing on “class, race and gender” at the expense of eternal questions. Instead, he suggests (tongue in cheek), they may have been murdered by egalitarians who made other fields more welcoming to women.

Some women may have shifted to the sciences. But the biggest change, according to charts Mr. Schmidt made a few years ago as part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Indicators Project, may be business majors.

Egypt: Lynching of Shia Follows Months of Hate Speech

From Human Rights Watch:

2013_Egypt_ShiakillingsThe lynching of four Shia by a mob apparently led by Salafi sheikhs in the village of Abu Musallim in Greater Cairo on June 23, 2013, came after months of anti-Shia hate speech at times involving the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, Human Rights Watch said today. The episode shows that the government needs to recognize that Shia in Egypt are at risk and to take protective measure to ensure their protection and equal rights.

The investigation ordered by President Mohamed Morsy needs to look into the police failure over a period of three hours to intervene to halt the mob attack on a house where a group of Shia had gathered for a religious feast. The investigation also should address the role played by Salafi sheikhs against Shia families in Abu Musallim, Human Rights Watch said. Morsy should state unequivocally that Shia in Egypt have the right to practice their religious beliefs without fear and intimidation, something he has failed to do, Human Rights Watch said.

More here.

The Myth of the Komodo Dragon’s Dirty Mouth

Ed Yong in Not Exactly Rocket Science:

Komodo-dragonsIn 1969, an American biologist named Walter Auffenberg moved to the Indonesia island of Komodo to study its most famous resident—the Komodo dragon. This huge lizard—the largest in the world—grows to lengths of 3 metres, and can take down large prey like deer and water buffalo. Auffenberg watched the dragons for a year and eventually published a book on their behaviour in 1981. It won him an award. It also enshrined a myth that took almost three decades to refute, and is still prevalent today.

Auffenberg noticed that when large animals like water buffalo were injured by the dragons, they would soon develop fatal infections. Based on this observation, and no actual evidence, he suggested that the dragons use bacteria as a form of venom. When they bite prey, they flood the wounds with the microbes in their mouths, which debilitate and kill the victim.

This explanation is found in textbooks, wildlife documentaries, zoo placards, and more. It’s also wrong. “It’s an enchanting fairy tale, which has been taken as gospel,” says Bryan Fry from the University of Queensland.

In 2009, Fry discovered the true culprit behind the dragon’s lethal bite, by putting one of them in a medical scanner. The dragon has venom glands, which are loaded with toxins that lower blood pressure, cause massive bleeding, prevent clotting and induce shock. Rather than using bacteria as venom, the dragons use, well, venom as venom.

More here.

Bono the philanthropist is nothing but a crony of bankers and neocons, argues Terry Eagleton

Terry Eagleton in The Guardian:

Irish-musician-Bono-arriv-010It is no surprise that Bono and Bob Geldof, the two leading celebrity philanthropists of our time, are both Irish. The Ireland into which they were born in the 1960s was caught between third and first worlds, and so was more likely to sympathise with the wretched of the earth than were the natives of Hampstead. As a devoutly Christian nation, it also had a long missionary tradition. Black babies were a familiar object of charity in Ireland long before Hollywood movie stars began snapping them up. Bono himself was a member of a prayer group in the 1970s, before he stumbled on leather trousers and wrap-around shades. Scattered across the globe by hunger and turmoil at home, the Irish have long been a cosmopolitan people, far less parochial than their former proprietors. Small nations cannot afford the insularity of the great.

Besides, if you were born into this remote margin of Europe and yearned for the limelight, it helped to have an eye-catching cause and a mania for self-promotion. Rather as the Irish in general were forced by internal circumstance to become an international people, so men like Bono and Geldof could use their nationality to leap on to the world stage.

Bono belongs to the new, cool, post-political Ireland; but by turning back to the old, hungry, strife-torn nation, now rebaptised as Africa, he could bridge the gap between the two. Even so, he has not been greatly honoured in his own notoriously begrudging country, or elsewhere. Harry Browne recounts the (perhaps apocryphal) tale of the singer standing on stage clapping while declaring: “Every time I clap my hands, a child dies.” “Then stop fucking doing it!” yelled a voice from the crowd.

More here.