Monthly Archives: June 2007

Climate denialists in the FT

Is there a reason why the Financial Times published Czech president Vaclav Klaus’s ill-informed rant against climate change? A brief taste of the nonsense:

As someone who lived under communism for most of his life, I feel obliged to say that I see the biggest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity now in ambitious environmentalism, not in communism. This ideology wants to replace the free and spontaneous evolution of mankind by a sort of central (now global) planning.

Perhaps someone on the FT is auditioning for a role on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, where Klaus would be in fine company.

The irrational exuberance song

A good friend, Michael Smolens, is building a fascinating business by encouraging subtitling of video content on the web. He just pointed me to a compelling reaction to the stock market boom in China. “Won’t Sell Even If It Kills Me” could be the song for all market bubbles.

Have a look and listen for yourself. At the moment, the song is available with English subtitles and has been partially translated into Danish and French. If you are a linguist and create a dotsub account, you can submit your own translation (Adrian: how about a Latin version?).

The Wall Street Journal and public goods

Martin Wolf is devastating about Rupert Murdoch in the Financial Times (subscription required):

Down-market is the direction  Mr Murdoch knows. That has been the direction in all of his publications with which I am familiar.  Mr Murdoch can take substantial credit for the tide of vulgarity that now floods the UK. For good or ill, he has helped transform my country.

But it’s Wolf’s peroration that is important:

A cynical employee of the FT might argue that any faltering of the Journal can only be to its benefit. I am not that cynical. The world needs at least two respected, editorially independent and authoritative English-language business papers. One is too few. None would be a catastrophe. Great newspapers are more than just businesses. They provide the public good of reliable information on which our knowledge-intensive society depends. Competitive markets do not provide public goods well. We may discover quite soon just how bad at it markets can be.

The global greed pandemic

Where could you read this?

When greed exceeds fear, markets rise — and vice versa. Today, fear seems to be increasing: Even before last week’s jitters, many smart operators thought assets were priced above their fundamental values. But greed has been increasing even more rapidly. As a result, what one could call “net greed” is still on an upward trend.

The globalization of finance has spawned a global greed pandemic. As the rich get richer, they don’t stop wanting to get richer. Hedge-fund managers, buyout barons, investment bankers and oligarchs look around and see others who are making even more money than they are.

The smart players are infected more by greed than by fear largely because they often have safety nets. Managers of hedge funds and private-equity firms — the two dominant species in the modern financial jungle — typically collect 20% of the profits when things go well. But they don’t share in the losses when things go badly. This one-way bet accentuates greed and blunts fear.

Probably in one of the many lefty blogs or publications I favor, you’d think. Wrong. It’s Hugo Dixon’s Breaking Views (subscription required), a Lex-like column syndicated in The Wall Street Journal. I think his analysis is sound, and I like his rhetoric. But it’s certainly discordant with most of what I read in the Journal, where “greed is good” seems to be a watchword.

The unread

The always-interesting Paleo-Future, which specializes in wacky and often misguided visions of the future published decades ago, had a post the other day the brought me up short. Sinclair Lewis Will Be Read Until Year 2000, noted that the Chicago Tribune, in 1936, reported the results of a reader poll by The Colophon on the contemporary author most likely to be read 64 years hence.

I last read Sinclair Lewis in 1973, 27 years short of The Colophon’s estimate and even then I was part of a small minority. I wrote my junior paper at New Trier East Township High School on Babbit and Arrowsmith, largely on the urging of my father. In his formative years, “Red” Lewis (because of his hair, not his politics) was the great American author. In 1930, when my father was a book-loving 13-year old, Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. From looking at rankings, the only Lewis book that more than a handful of people buy these days seems to be It Can’t Happen Here, his novel about the election of a fascist in the US.

When I read Lewis, I was particularly taken with Arrowsmith, which is the story of an idealistic epidemiologist. I generally lapped up stories of starry-eyed idealists, and I probably still do.

Most of the other authors in The Colophon’s 1936 rankings have similarly fallen by the wayside. Number two was Willa Cather, who I suspect is more popular these days than Lewis, but shading to the obscure (another favorite of my father). Number three is certainly a full-fledged member of the “canon”: Eugene O’Neill (who always struck me as one of the most unlikely Princetonians of all time). Robert Frost is next, who is certainly read, but then the list really fades into obscurity: Theodore Dreiser, James Truslow Adams, George Santayana, Stephen Vincent Benet and James Branch Cabell. Santayana is still quoted (“those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”), but not read. All of these authors were well represented in my father’s library. I suspect if I examine my sister’s bookshelves (she took most of the fiction), I could still find them.

Who did The Colophon’s readers miss? Two giants, certainly: William Faulkner and John Steinbeck. It’s interesting to me that they didn’t select John Dos Passos, another favorite of my father’s – and another of today’s unread. And it’s wholly predictable that a so-called genre writer like Dashiell Hammett didn’t make an avowedly “literary” list.

The current issue of The New Yorker has a profile of the curator of the University of Texas’ world-beating literary archive, Tom Staley.  He and his colleagues divide living authors into As, Bs and Cs. They set out to snaffle absolutely everything they can from As, from Bs they want a fairly comprehensive set of literary materials, and from the lowly Cs they seek merely first editions. Ian McEwan is apparently an A, and from the discussion of Texas acquisitions it’s apparent that Tom Stoppard and Norman Mailer are as well. Bs include JD Salinger, David Foster Wallace and JM Coetzee. Cs: Martin Amis, Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers. I wonder if in 64 years the University of Texas scholars will be any more prescient than The Colophon’s readers in 1936. I suspect not.

Against the forces of ignorance

Biologist Jerry Coyne:

Suppose we asked a group of Presidential candidates if they believed in the existence of atoms, and a third of them said “no”? That would be a truly appalling show of scientific illiteracy, would it not? And all the more shocking coming from those who aspire to run a technologically sophisticated nation.

Yet something like this happened a week ago during the Republican presidential debate. When the moderator asked nine candidates to raise their hands if they “didn’t believe in evolution,” three hands went into the air—those of Senator Sam Brownback, Governor Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo. Although I am a biologist who has found himself battling creationism frequently throughout his professional life, I was still mortified. Because there is just as much evidence for the fact of evolution as there is for the existence of atoms, anyone raising his hand must have been grossly misinformed.

I don’t know whether to attribute the show of hands to the candidates’ ignorance of the mountain of evidence for evolution, or to a cynical desire to pander to a public that largely rejects evolution (more than half of Americans do). But I do know that it means that our country is in trouble. As science becomes more and more important in dealing with the world’s problems, Americans are falling farther and farther behind in scientific literacy. Among citizens of industrialized nations, Americans rank near the bottom in their understanding of math and science. Over half of all Americans don’t know that the Earth orbits the Sun once a year, and nearly half think that humans once lived, Flintstone-like, alongside dinosaurs.

Now maybe evolutionary biology isn’t going to propel America into the forefront of world science, but creationism (and its gussied-up descendant “Intelligent Design”) is not just a campaign against evolution—it’s a campaign against science itself and the scientific method.

The old order changeth

The world’s center of gravity is changing in many ways: economically, culturally, politically. And then there’s tennis. Peter Bodo’s Tennis World:

This has been a historic Roland Garros, and Italian journalist and blogger extraordinare Ubaldo Scanagatta helped me put it into perspective in a conversation we had shortly after the Vitches made the semis. Ubaldo pointed out that when Lleyton Hewitt lost to Rafael Nadal yesterday, “it was the story of 75 years of tennis history, disappearing.”

What he meant was that the three towering tennis powers – Great Britain (who invented the game), the Australians (who brought it to its apex at the dawn of the Open era) and the US (who dominated the game in the subsequent, commercially-driven era), were clearly – if not necessarily permanently – in ruins.Oh, there was Serena Williams on the women’s side – for another 45 minutes, anyway – but Serbia and Russia accounted for half of the entire quarterfinal line-up at Roland Garros.

And about that fourth tennis power, France, home of the legendary Musketeers (LaCoste, Cochet, Borotra and Brugnon) had started 36 players in Paris this year – their bodies lay strewn all over the red clay, like so many poppies on a graveyard.

So much for the old world, let’s celebrate the new. It’s always better to live in the light than the dark.

Putin is frightening

Gregory White from the Wall Street Journal was one of the western journalists invited to dinner with Russian president Vladimir Putin on Friday (dessert: wild-strawberry soup with vanilla ice cream). Putin’s threat to target strategic missiles on European targets understandably received considerable coverage, but I found some of his more offhand remarks more chilling.
From Monday’s Wall Street Journal (subscription probably required):

“I am an absolutely pure democrat. The real tragedy is that I am the only one. Elsewhere in the world there just aren’t any others,” he added sarcastically, cataloging human-rights abuses outside Russia. “Since Mahatma Gandhi died, there’s just nobody left to talk to,” he joked.

Defining hauteur

I had an email from my friend David Derrick with the intriguing subject line: “Moderately hilarious exchange with the Maharanee of Patna”. You can read the minor tiff in his comments.

Not surprisingly, I’ve never written the word “maharanee” before. I suspect David has done it frequently over the years.