Tuesday, January 31, 2012


In a discussion of the financial crisis, Francis Fukuyama recommends The Big Short by Michael Lewis. “What this book does quite brilliantly is show that there was actually a high degree of intentionality in creating the crisis.”  This is something that any of us who have tried to educate ourselves now know well.  Much of the financial system was, and largely remains, predatory. A primary question now is what to do about it.  (Some ideas, perhaps here and here.)

I read The Big Short a while ago and strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn't.  Only today did I start reading Boomerang, Lewis's more recent collection of essays. The piece on Iceland is funny as well as insightful:
...Back away from the Icelandic economy and you can't help but notice something really strange about it: the people have cultivated themselves to the point where they are unsuited for the work available to them. All these exquisitely schooled, sophisticated people, each and every one of whom feels special, are presented with two mainly horrible ways to earn and living: trawler fishing and aluminium smelting There are of course a few jobs in Iceland that any refined, educated person might like to do. Certifying the non-existence of elves, for instance...But not nearly so many as the place needs, given its talent for turning cod into PhDs. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Icelanders were still waiting for some task more suited to their filigreed minds to turn up inside their economy so they might do it. Enter investment banking...
It remains to be seen whether women will make a better job of Iceland's future than its men have of its present...assuming men let them.

Sky light

Early yesterday evening I was, while calm, quite down. Then, on the way to collect L at about 5.20, I saw the sky. It was very clear, and a deep blue light filled the west before the oncoming night.  The new moon, about a quarter full, was towards the zenith in the south.  Beneath it and slightly to the right was Jupiter. Further towards the southwest and considerably lower though still high up (perhaps 45 degrees) was Venus. The clarity was exceptional and I fancied I could see Venus's crescent my naked eye. I felt profound joy and awe at the sight - an intimation of the dance of matter of which consciousness is part. And I remembered an even more intense moment of this kind when looking at hillside woodland on a bright afternoon winter light just two days before that I had already forgotten. The trees were dormant but life was still dancing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Safe House

Janine Webber, born in Lvov in 1932, tells me she survived by posing as a Catholic and working as a maid. "I lived with two families: one betrayed me and killed my brother. After that, we lived in a hole, 13 adults and me, hidden by a young Pole. His name was Edek. He hid 14 Jews for nothing, for no money. For a year, in a bunker. We took it in turns to lie down or to sit. For a year, I didn't see daylight. I was 10."
-- Jonathan Freedland

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Catch 2012

There was only one catch and that was Catch 2012, which specified that no country was allowed to have nuclear weapons to deter its enemy's nuclear weapons unless it already had them.

The only countries that possessed nuclear weapons legally – the permanent members of the UN Security Council – did so on the understanding that they had made a solemn promise to phase them out. This they had no intention of doing.

Countries like North Korea and Israel which possessed nuclear weapons illegally did not consider themselves bound by any such undertaking – an indication of the higher moral standard to which they aspired. These countries made it very clear that they had the power to inflict indiscriminate death on the civilian population of their neighbours, and that was just fine with them.

Countries like Iran which saw themselves as threatened by weapons of mass destruction held illegally countries like Israel were, however, under no circumstances to be allowed to possess the power to deter such an attack. If they tried to do so, they were to be destroyed, even if this caused catastrophic damage to the global economy and sowed seeds of hatred for generations to come.

Some people suggested that it would be quite easy to avoid such a conflict. All that would have to happen would be for the nations that possessed nuclear weapons illegally or sought to do so to phase them out or refrain from making them in the first place, and agree to a nuclear-free regional zone enforced by intrusive UN inspections.  This suggestion was greeted with enthusiasm and relief by most civilians. As the consequence it was immediately laughed at and dismissed by those who made the decisions.

(P.S. 31 Jan: Steve Coll on cool heads)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The carceral state

I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers. . . . I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.
-- Adam Gopnik quotes from Charles Dickens on solitary confinement in an outstanding piece on incarceration in the United States. Six million people are under correctional supervision in the U.S.—more than were in Stalin’s gulags. At any one time around 50,000 of them are in solitary confinement.

Friday, January 20, 2012


I put on the headphones and was suddenly engulfed in birdsong—so much so that for a moment I took them off to look around. Where were all these birds? The sun’s first rays were just lighting the foggy gray around us, and I thought I should be able to see them. Certainly, I could hear them through the headphones. Krause smiled, understanding my bewilderment. “Just listen,” he advised. I put them back on, and once again felt the slight disorientation of being pulled into an invisible world, one I had never known existed. Goldfinches added their quick, metallic notes to the more melodious calls of the sparrows; robins and grosbeaks whistled sweetly, juncos chirped, and towhees wheezed tow-wheee, tow-wheee. Every few minutes, another species joined the chorus, creating the morning’s biological symphony. I was instantly addicted, and I wanted to know why. Even more, I wanted to know why these once ubiquitous choruses are in such decline.
-- from The Sound of Silence by Virginia Morrell

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Experiments in ethics

One version of Naturalism starts by thinking of ethics not as the search for a single immutable all-serving principle, but rather as an entirely human endeavor, a project begun by our remote ancestors tens of thousands of years ago and continuing indefinitely into the future. There is no mountain to climb, no final compendium of ethical truths, but only a central human predicament, from which we escaped by learning—imperfectly—to regulate our own conduct. The philosophical study of this project must absorb the insights of various natural and human sciences, bits of evolutionary biology and primatology, of psychology and anthropology, of archaeology and history. (Naturalism should be elaborated broadly, recognizing the potential contributions of all rigorous forms of inquiry across the entire spectrum, from art history and anthropology to zoology; there is no need for Naturalists to lapse into the scientism of taking some particular area of physical science as fundamental.) Sensible conclusions cannot be reached by pitting imprecise principles against fanciful cases, but rather by looking, as carefully and as comprehensively as we can, at the details of ethical practice and ethical change.
-- from Philip Kitcher's review of On What Matters by Derek Parfit

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Liu Xiabo

When the “rise” of a large dictatorial state that commands rapidly increasing economic strength meets with no effective deterrence from outside, but only an attitude of appeasement from the international mainstream, and if the Communists succeed in once again leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road, the results will not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people, but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world. If the international community hopes to avoid these costs, free countries must do what they can to help the world’s largest dictatorship transform itself as quickly as possible into a free and democratic country.
Liu Xiabo quoted by Simon Leys

Friday, January 13, 2012

Dark materials

...any hopes that the nature of [dark matter] would be quickly revealed by these first detections have been utterly dashed. The trouble is that dark matter appears to be different things to different detectors. It appears heavier in one detector than another; it appears more ready to interact in one experiment than another. In the most extreme case, it shows up in one instrument but not in another - even when both are made of identical material and are sitting virtually next door in the same underground lab...
-- from Dark matter mysteries

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Beyond Afgansty

More than ten years after September 11, it is simply appalling that supposedly well-informed people are still treating the terrorist threat in such a crude and mechanistic fashion. Have they not realized that the membership of al-Qaeda and its allies is not fixed, but depends on al-Qaeda’s ability to recruit among Muslims infuriated by US actions? Or that a terrorist attack on the US is as likely—more likely—to be planned in Karachi, Lahore, the English town of Bradford, or New York as in Pakistan’s frontier areas? An essential US motive for a peace settlement in Afghanistan, one allowing complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, is precisely that it would allow America to pull back from the existing confrontation with Pakistan—not continue it into the indefinite future, with all the gains that this would create for resentment by extremists.
-- Anatol Lieven

Friday, January 06, 2012


'Hi!' said the Muskrat. 'Now I should like my book spirited back again, please.'

'Right!' said the Hobgoblin. 'Here you are, sir!'

' "On the Usefulness of Everything",' read the Muskrat. 'But this it the wrong book. The one I had was about the Uselessness of Everything.'

But the Hobgoblin only laughed.
-- from Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson.