Europe’s Political Economy: The Italy Debate

Adam Tooze at his own website:

Right now the greatest threat to the eurozone and one of the most significant tail risks for the world economy is the unresolved standoff over the Italian budget and its public debt running to 133% of GDP. If Italy were not a member of the eurozone, if it had its own central bank debt at this level would be a matter of concern rather than alarm. But Italy is tied to the euro, the response of the ECB in a crisis is unpredictable and speculation about Italy leaving the euro is idle. Both the political and economics costs are too vast to contemplate seriously.

Last week I contributed a New York Times op-ed about the stand off and its risks: How does the EU think this is going to end?

My main theme was that the Rome government, however unpalatable its politics, has to be taken seriously as an expression of the crisis of Italy’s political economy. There are even worse political constellations, some of which might offer a fiscal deal more amenable to the Commission, but would be disastrous for Europe in political terms. For the EU to offer only discipline risks a further turn for the worse.

More here.

It’s Time to Study Whether Eating Particular Diets Can Help Heal Us

Siddhartha Mukherjee in The New York Times:

In the 1920s, Otto Warburg, a German physiologist, demonstrated that tumor cells, unlike most normal cells, metabolize glucose using alternative pathways to sustain their rapid growth, provoking the idea that sugar might promote tumor growth. You might therefore expect the medical literature on “sugar feeding cancer” to be rich with deep randomized or prospective studies. Instead, when I searched, I could find only a handful of such trials. In 2012, a team at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston divided patients with Stage 3 colon cancer into different groups based on their dietary consumption, and determined their survival and rate of relapse. The study generated provocative data — but far from an open-and-shut case. Patients whose diets consisted of foods with a high glycemic load (a measure of how much blood glucose rises after eating a typical portion of a food) generally had shorter survival than patients with lower glycemic load. But a higher glycemic index (a measure of how much 50 grams of carbohydrate from a food, which may require eating a huge portion, raises blood glucose) or total fructose intake had no significant association with overall survival or relapse.

While the effect of sugar on cancer was being explored in scattered studies, the so-called ketogenic diet, which consists of high fat, moderate protein and low carbohydrate, was also being promoted. It isn’t sugars that are feeding the tumor, the logic runs. It’s insulin — the hormone that is released when glucose enters the blood. By reducing carbohydrates and thus keeping a strong curb on insulin, the keto diet would decrease the insulin exposure of tumor cells, and so restrict tumor growth. Yet the search for “ketogenic diet, randomized study and cancer” in the National Library of Medicine database returned a mere 11 articles. Not one of them reported an effect on a patient’s survival, or relapse.

More here.

Kate Bush and Me

David Mitchell at The Guardian:

Aerial is Kate’s third masterpiece, along with The Dreaming and Hounds of Love. What constitutes a “masterpiece” is only established by the ultimate critic, time; but even producing three contenders for the title in a single career puts a songwriter in the most exclusive company. “Bertie” is a madrigal about her young son, whose birth and upbringing accounted in no small part for the 12-year hiatus. By now my wife and I had a small child of our own whose toothy grin was for us, too, “The most truly fantastic smile / I’ve ever seen”. “Mrs Bartolozzi”, surely the only song by a major artist whose lyrics include washing machine onomatopoeia, portrays a housekeeper of a certain age. The drudgery of her life smothers her own memories and desires, and puts me in mind of a 21st-century Miss Kenton from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. The song “How to Be Invisible” contains a Macbeth-esque recipe for invisibility that is, Kate-ishly, both quotidian and magical: “Eye of Braille / Hem of Anorak / Stem of Wallflower / Hair of Doormat.” Disc one’s last song is my desert island Kate song: “A Coral Room”. Musically, this ballad for piano and vocal is one of her sparsest. Lyrically, it’s one of her richest, describing an underwater city, dreamy and abandoned and swaying and recalling Debussy’s prelude La Cathédrale Engloutie. The city is deep memory, crawled over by the spider of time, perhaps from the hills of time in “Moments of Pleasure”. Speedboats fly above and planes – perhaps a black Spitfire or two – come crashing down.

more here.

The Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce

John Banville at Literary Review:

This book is, in its sly way, far more substantial than it might at first seem – more, indeed, than it presents itself as being. Colm Tóibín’s subject is the influence of their fathers on the artistic thought, attitude and writings of three great Irish literary artists: Oscar Wilde, W B Yeats and James Joyce. What Tóibín has produced is not only a group portrait of three men who in their way were almost as brilliant as their sons, but also an illuminating meditation on the familial sources of artistic inspiration.

Happily, Tóibín is no Freudian and avoids obfuscating speculations on, for instance, the Oedipus complex, although he does cheerfully acknowledge that the three sons often chafed under the burdens placed on them by their variously annoying, interfering, disreputable and importunate paters. If it is not easy being a father, it is sometimes nigh impossible to be the father’s offspring. As Kingsley Amis pointed out, the greatest gift a father can bestow on his son is to die early.

more here.

Sing, Goddess

Patricia Storace at the NYRB:

Achilles delivering Briseis to Agamemnon’s heralds; bas-relief by Antonio Canova, circa 1787–1790

The Silence of the Girls, Pat Barker’s unsentimental and beautiful new novel, tells the story of the Iliad as experienced by women captives, from inside the Greek camp overlooking the walls of the besieged city of Troy. They are the Greek heroes’ prizes, taken from conquered outlying towns and villages to be prostitutes, domestic workers, and, on occasion, wives. Herodotus, in his Histories, tells of the Ionian Greek customs with regard to their captured women: they

married Carian girls, whose parents they had killed. The fact that these women were forced into marriage after the murder of their fathers, husbands, and sons was the origin of the law, established by oath and passed down to their female descendants, forbidding them to sit at table with their husbands or to address them by name.

The novel is told, mostly in the first person, by Briseis, the captive queen awarded to Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest warrior. She becomes the motive for the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek troops, and the resulting destruction their troops suffer, caused by the two men’s personal feud.

more here.

Now you sea me: meet the ocean’s endangered animals

Samantha Weinberg in More Intelligent Life:

Philip Hamilton, a seasoned underwater photographer, has spent the past five years seeking out the stars of the seas, but also the smaller, lesser-known creatures. In his book, “Call of the Blue”, there are pin-sharp close-ups of a hawksbill turtle and a great white shark – and of a tiny xeno crab and a strange group of Lambert’s worm sea cucumbers. There are also great splashes of colourful reefs and gaudy anemones, and a silvery view into the mouth of a whale shark, the largest fish in the world. Coursing through this visual warmth is an icy current: essays and interviews with scientists, photographers and “ocean guardians” – people who are devoted to protecting the oceans. Though they are clearly fascinated by all things oceanic, the stories they tell are more terrifying than any tiger shark. The waters are warming; as a result, corals are bleaching and dying, leaving creatures of all types homeless and vulnerable. We are catching too many fish and filling the oceans with plastic. “Large marine animals have survived five mass extinctions millions of years ago,” Hamilton writes. “However, many of them are now at the brink of disappearing for good.”

It was, he admits, a calculated decision to mix beautiful pictures with harsh words: “I’m not trying to deceive myself [by] hiding the problems and pretending that everything is perfect out there.” Yet he realised that the book would go unnoticed without beautiful photographs. “A single photo can be the most powerful conservation tool,” he says. This magnificent book is his call to arms. Let’s hope it works.

More here.

Hannah Arendt On Why It’s Urgent To Break Your Bubble

Siobhan Kattago at the Institute of Art and Ideas:

In the current political climate of populism and xenophobia, it is tempting to simply close the door and withdraw from public affairs. Indeed, there is a pervading sense that there is no alternative to our polarised politics, neoliberal capitalism and corruption. Pleas for solidarity among nation-states seem to be easily overshadowed by resentment towards foreigners and nostalgia for lost national glory. And yet, it is precisely such retreat into the private realm that Hannah Arendt warned against during the 20th century. It is during moments of political crisis that individual potential for new beginnings matters most; it is in times of political division that we are faced with the task of cooperating and finding a way to share our fragile world.    

Withdrawal from public affairs is more than a sign of cynical escapism and alienation; for Arendt, it denotes the situation of ‘worldlessness,’ whereby the sense of shared reality begins to disintegrate. Worldlessness is like a desert that dries up the space between people. By resigning ourselves to the belief that political engagement is futile, we remove ourselves from the world and from one another. As Arendt argues in Crises in the Republic (1972) and her posthumously published The Promise of Politics (1993), when we lose touch with the world, we experience a dangerous ‘remoteness from reality.’

More here.

Imagining What Happens When the Robots Take the Wheel

Matthew DeBord in the New York Times:

An appalling statistic appears toward the end of “No One at the Wheel,” Samuel Schwartz’s valuable primer on self-driving cars: In the century since the automobile arrived on the scene, 70 million people have been killed by it, and four billion injured.

Schwartz, who served as New York City’s traffic commissioner in the 1980s, was nicknamed “Gridlock Sam” for his devotion to the conundrum of traffic (and for coining the loathsome term). He knows everything about how cars and people don’t get along, having been on the front lines. This book — written in an earnest, conversational style — is his attempt to grapple with a fresh threat that’s appeared after decades of progress.

Futurists may have promised us flying cars, but what we’re going to get instead are driverless ones, and Schwartz’s is the first comprehensive analysis of what that will mean on the ground. Most likely, there will be far fewer fatalities. With nearly 40,000 people killed in 2017 in the United States alone, that’s a huge benefit. But cars that can drive themselves will bring with them other knotty societal problems.

More here.

Noam Chomsky and the Question of Individual Choice in a Vastly Unequal World

Anjan Basu in The Wire:

As a scientist, Chomsky always locates the question of rational choice at the centre of any debate about issues of real public interest. That is not to say, though, that he is concerned with rationality alone. Far from it, in fact. Chomsky has written extensively about how a ‘rational’ debate can be so constructed as to completely undermine – indeed, subvert – the irreducible moral values implicit in a choice.

With withering scorn, he wrote in his 1969 classic, American Power and the New Mandarins, about well-known American liberals who managed to successfully mask the immorality of  the war on Vietnam, projecting the debate around the war as primarily one about the proportionality of its costs to its likely outcome. In a talk given at Harvard in June, 1966 in the course of the anti-war protests– later published as the celebrated essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals – Chomsky argues that Americans “can hardly avoid asking (themselves) to what extent the American people bear responsibility for the savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population in Vietnam”.

More here.

Reflections on the Mail Coach (1849)

Thomas de Quincey at berfrois:

No dignity is perfect which does not at some point ally itself with the mysterious. The connexion of the mail with the state and the executive government—a connexion obvious, but yet not strictly defined—gave to the whole mail establishment an official grandeur which did us service on the roads, and invested us with seasonable terrors. Not the less impressive were those terrors because their legal limits were imperfectly ascertained. Look at those turnpike gates: with what deferential hurry, with what an obedient start, they fly open at our approach! Look at that long line of carts and carters ahead, audaciously usurping the very crest of the road. Ah! traitors, they do not hear us as yet; but, as soon as the dreadful blast of our horn reaches them with proclamation of our approach, see with what frenzy of trepidation they fly to their horses’ heads, and deprecate our wrath by the precipitation of their crane-neck quarterings. Treason they feel to be their crime; each individual carter feels himself under the ban of confiscation and attainder; his blood is attainted through six generations; and nothing is wanting but the headsman and his axe, the block and the sawdust, to close up the vista of his horrors. What! shall it be within benefit of clergy to delay the king’s message on the high road?—to interrupt the great respirations, ebb and flood, systole and diastole, of the national intercourse?—to endanger the safety of tidings running day and night between all nations and languages?

more here.

Silicon Valley’s Chinese Dream

Jacob Silverman at The Baffler:

China’s rise as a tech powerhouse has dovetailed with Silicon Valley’s growing, and often vividly expressed, distrust toward democracy itself. Always steeped in libertarian pique—not long ago, technologists expressed hope for floating ad-hoc nation-states or, as Larry Page put it, referencing Burning Man, “some safe places where we can try out some new things”— Silicon Valley now toys with Californian secessionism and Singapore-style authoritarian technocracy. That new horizon, that place of raucous experimentation with a frontier-like possibility at striking it rich, they believe, is in China.

Long the industrial producer of Silicon Valley’s gadgets, China has developed its own thriving startup scene, towered over by juggernauts like Alibaba, Xiaomi, Huawei, and Tencent, which are formidable rivals to Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, et al. From biotech to facial recognition systems, Chinese tech companies and their state backers are working intently on bleeding-edge technologies that can in turn be sold to governments in Central Asia and Africa, where China has funded numerous infrastructure projects while snapping up interests in mines, farmland, ports, and a Djiboutian military outpost.

more here.

Honduran Woes

John Perry at the LRB:

In her new book, The Long Honduran Night, Dana Frank asks whether Honduras should now be called a ‘failed state’. She argues that it shouldn’t, as it works perfectly for those who control it: landowners, drug traffickers, oligarchs and transnational corporations, the US-funded military and corrupt public officials. The Trump administration has seen Hernández as an ally in their project of restoring US influence in Latin America, promoting transnational capitalism and widening the reach of the US military.

But Hernández has earned Trump’s displeasure for failing to stop the migrant caravan, mainly of Hondurans, that has now arrived at the US border. Trump threatened to punish Hernández by cancelling all aid, even though the pressures on people to migrate are a result of the policies the US has encouraged Honduras to pursue. Hernández seemed nonplussed, closing a border post to migrants days after they’d left, and persecuting anyone still in Honduras who could be blamed for the exodus. Desperate to regain his credentials with Washington, he even told Mike Pence that Venezuela had financed the caravan.

more here.

Friday Poem

A Tree Within

All is visible and all elusive,
all is near and can’t be touched.

Paper, book, pencil, glass,
rest in the shade of their names.

Time throbbing in my temples repeats
the same unchanging syllable of blood.

The light turns the indifferent wall
into the ghostly theater of reflections.

I find myself in the middle of an eye,
watching myself in its blank stare.

The moment scatters. Motionless,
I stay and go: I am a pause.

by Octavio Paz
from Collected Poems 1957-1987

Read more »

LSD Changes Something About The Way You Perceive Time

Shayla Love in Tonic:

In 2015, when cognitive neuroscientist Devin Terhune was hit by a car, the impact took less than a second, but he felt it to be much longer. “I was riding [my bike] very fast, and so when I hit the car I went flying back around 15 feet or more,” he says. “Objectively, I’m sure the whole thing probably unfolded in less than a second but I experienced flying through the air as lasting at least 5 seconds—it felt very slow.” Time stretched out from milliseconds to seconds and Terhune lived first-hand something we experience in less dramatic ways each day. We measure time in set amounts— seconds, minutes, and hours. But the way time feels is more slippery. Ten minutes while you’re bored is an eternity and those same ten minutes with your best friend disappear like nothing. This flexibility in perceiving time is only enhanced when psychedelic drugs enter the mix. A review from 1964 on hallucinogens reveals how long we’ve been playing with the dials of time—speeding it up, and slowing it down—through drugs. One account from 1913 on mescaline intoxication said that mescaline made a person feel like “the immediate future was rushing on at chaotic speed, and the time was boundless.”

study from 1954 found time disorders in 13 out of 23 people under the influence of psychedelics. Most of them felt a “sense of temporal insularity,” where only the present was real and the past and future were far, far away. “One subject experienced a ‘timeless, suspended state; a few felt time to be slipping away very quickly, whilst in others the passage of time was slowed down,” the review wrote. “In one case where the mood fluctuated between elation and depression, the passage of time was experienced concurrently as rapid and slow.”

More here.