Monday, January 25, 2010

So Many Unanswered Questions

In the latest issue of Orion magazine, Lou Bendrick reports on the launch of the DoggieLoverDoll, for all your pet's masturbation needs. Those dog owners frustrated by their pets' tendency to shag anything and everything now have the answer to hand, as it were, in the form of this canine sex doll. Or maybe not, since Bendrick reckons that the doll, which hails from Brazil, will inevitably flop (fnur fnur) in the States because,

" . . . while watching our little buddy fulfill his 'great sexual appettite' without apology on a public sidewalk pains us, it pales in comparison to explaining to an unwitting houseguest why your dog toy has an artificial vagina."

And besides, who's going to wash it every evening? Is your dog that well trained? I don't see many dog owners going for that, unless the manufacturers have also come up with dog-size condoms for you to slip on his tumescent member every time he gets the urge, and then you might as well cut out the middle-man altogether.

Or maybe this is a piece of marketing genius, and the manufacturers expect you to buy a new doll for your dog after each time it's used. Cue some cheap joke about seeing dog owners coming.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Speak, Memory

When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies, by Andy Beckett. Faber and Faber, 448 pp.

About a quarter of the way into Guardian journalist Andy Beckett's impressive account of Britain in the 1970s, self-satisfied Labour Party politician Denis Healey, who served as Harold Wilson's chancellor of the exchequer, observes that he knew "bugger all about economics" when he was appointed to the post, but soon learned, as chancellor that "economics is just a branch of social science" and was able to get on top of the job within the space of three months. It's a striking admission not just for what it tells us about Healey's complacency and the lack of expertise required of a politician even at the giddy heights of government, but also because it draws attention to the fact that much of what matters in history actually takes place elsewhere. Beckett might have done well to heed the content of Healey's observation and pursued its implications. Economics is indeed no more than branch of social science, but you wouldn't know this from what is, by Beckett's own admission, a history of the period confined to political and economic events. This isn't to belittle his achievement, since the book is substantial and stands in its own right as a well-researched and thorough piece of journalism within its own self-defined parameters, but a good deal of context is lost if significant social forces—demographics, crime, scientific and technological developments, deskilling, shifts in religious allegiance, patterns of geographical and social mobility, changes in youth culture, etc., etc.,—are treated as epiphenomena or mere ephemera that have no enduring structural impact. It's a history that only the vulgarest of Marxists could love.

Beckett has also taken a top-down approach to history, interviewing the individuals at the heart of things, as though they were the key players rather than merely representative or indicative of larger social forces and mass movements. To interview the founders of Spare Rib or Sid Rawle, the "king of the hippies," is all well and good, to the extent that they embody the rise feminism or the free festival movement, but the idea that these individuals were the prime movers or somehow "led" the movement rather than just surfed a wave (some may even say, cynically, "took advantage") of those movements is to mistake cause and effect. In sum, I would have preferred to read a People's History of the 70s rather than a one-sided Great Man's History of the 70s.

The definition of politics used by Beckett is conventional, too. It's what you'd expect of a Guardian journalist, touching all the right bases—gay rights, feminism, Grunwick and Saltley Gates, Northern Ireland, the rise of environmentalism, the increasing visibility of minorities—but because of the limitations he places on himself there is precious little on, for example, the anti-Apartheid movement, Britain's relationship to the Commonwealth, immigration from Uganda, or the issues of Rhodesia and Cyprus; nor is there any indication that Beckett understands the political significance of other aspects of everyday life, such as youth culture, most notably punk rock and its entire DIY ethic, the role of sports in generating nationalist sentiment (this was a decade that saw not just the British Lions tour South Africa but also Buster Mottram joining the National Front, of hooliganism, of Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon, Scotland going to World Cups and England not), nor the importance of the mass media in generating a set of communal values, along with the accompanying marginalization or demonization of "outsiders." Such a change in terms might well have required Beckett to do double the legwork required to produce the book he has (he tells us it was five years in the making), but it would have yielded a more comprehensive, more rounded and contextualised account of the period while also countering the standard Spenglerian "decline of empire" narrative that is usually imposed on the decade. The 1970s were certainly turbulent, but they were also colourful and exciting and brimming with new possibilities, with hope, with resistance and struggle; they just need to be looked at from a perspective other than that of a Telegraph reader.

Lest I be accused of some nostalgie de la boue, I'll happily acknowledge to growing up in the 1970s and that consequently I'm prone to a rose-tinted view of those years. Even the blackouts caused by power cuts were a source of excitement, our generation's equivalent of the Blitz. But I'd make the point, too, that my elders who saw the 1970s in apocalyptic terms were themselves guilty of romanticizing earlier decades, as though the Second World War was a triumph of communal spirit and victory a demonstration of British superiority, the empire and commonwealth a source of pride rather than shame. The message to take away, I'd suggest, is to be very careful when compartmentalizing the past, either chronologically or sociologically, because the process of categorization carries with it implicit assumptions that will inevitably shape the final result. The truth lies in the interstices.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Coming Property Crash

Megan McArdle, business and economics editor at The Atlantic magazine, warns in her article "Capitalist Fools" of the upcoming bust in the commercial real estate market.

According to Joseph Gyourko, a Wharton real-estate professor, at least $250 billion worth of commercial loans are going to roll over in each of the next few years. When they do, many landlords will probably be caught short—and so will their bankers. Although most U.S. residential mortgages were bundled into mortgage-backed securities, only a fraction of commercial mortgages were securitized. Some bank or finance company still carries the rest on its books and will have to write them down if they can’t be rolled over; some of those banks will ultimately have to be taken over by the FDIC. As the banks’ loan portfolios are sold off, the write-downs of the underlying collateral will give bank examiners a new, lower reference price for the collateral held by other banks, possibly tipping those banks into insolvency as well. You get the picture.


Chicago School veterans suddenly discover the virtues of Keynesianism. An article by John Cassidy in the January 11th New Yorker.

What the Hell Is His Story?

I always understood that Native Americans acquired their name by virtue of the first thing their mother saw after giving birth:

Clarence Wolf Guts was one of South Dakota's most celebrated World War II veterans. A U.S. Army code talker, he and other Lakota soldiers conversed in Indian to confuse the Japanese who were intercepting transmission. His valuable service became known following the release in 2002 of the film Wind Talkers.

Spotted in South Dakota magazine.

Hedge Your Bets

There's an absorbing piece by Malcolm Gladwell here in the January 18th issue of The New Yorker in which he discusses the truth behind the success of entrepreneurs. Some excerpts of note:

In a recent study, “From Predators to Icons,” the French scholars Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot set out to discover what successful entrepreneurs have in common. They present case histories of businessmen who built their own empires - ranging from Sam Walton, of Wal-Mart, to Bernard Arnault, of the luxury-goods conglomerate L.V.M.H. - and chart what they consider the typical course of a successful entrepreneur's career. There is almost always, they conclude, a moment of great capital accumulation - a particular transaction that catapults him into prominence. The entrepreneur has access to that deal by virtue of occupying “a ”structural hole,“ a niche that gives him ”a unique perspective on a particular market. Vilette and Vuillermot go on, 'The businessman looks for partners to a transaction who do not have the same definition as he of the value of the goods exchanged, that is, who undervalue what they sell to him or overvalue what they buy from him in comparison to his own evaluation.“ He moves decisively. He repeats the good deal over and over again, until the opportunity closes, and - most crucially - his focus throughout that sequence is on hedging his bets and minimizing his chances of failure. The truly successful businessman, in Villette and Vuillermot's telling, is anything but a risk-taker. He is a predator, and predators seek to incur the least risk possible while hunting.

. . .

People like Dassault and Eastman and Arnault and Turner are all successful entrepreneurs, businessmen whose insights and decisions have transformed the economy, but their entrepreneurial spirit could not have less in common with that of the daring risk-taker of popular imagination. Would we so revere risk-taking if we realized that the people who are supposedly taking bold risks in the cause of entrepreneurship are actually doing no such thing?

. . .

(Hank) Paulson's story also casts a harsh light on the prevailing assumptions behind corporate compensation policies. One of the main arguments for the generous stock options that are so often given to C.E.O.'s is that they are necessary to encourage risk-taking in the corporate suite. This notion comes from what is known as “agency theory,” which Freek Vermeulen, of the London Business School, calls “one of the few academic theories in management academia that has actually influenced the world of management practice.” Agency theory, Vermeulen observes, “says that managers are inherently risk-averse; much more risk-averse than shareholders would like them to be. And the theory prescribes that you should give them stock options, rather than stock, to stimulate them to take more risk” Why do shareholders want managers to take more risks? Because they want stodgy companies to be more entrepreneurial, and taking risks is what everyone says that entrepreneurs do.

The result has been to turn executives into risk-takers. Paulson, for his part, was stunned at the reckless behavior of his Wall Street counterparts. Some of the mortgage bundles he was betting against - collections of some of the sketchiest subprime loans - were paying the investors who bought them six-percent interest. Treasury bonds, the safest investment in the world, were paying almost five percent at that point. Nor could he comprehend why so many banks were willing to sell him C.D.S. insurance at such low prices. Why would someone, in the middle of a housing bubble, demand only one cent on the dollar? At the end of 2006, Merrill Lynch paid $1.3 billion for First Franklin Financial, one of the biggest subprime lenders in the country, bringing the total value of subprime mortgages on its books to eleven billion dollars. Paulson was so risk-averse that he didn't so much as put a toe in the water of subprime mortgage default swaps until Pellegrini had done months of analysis. But Merrill Lynch bought First Franklin even though the firm's own economists were predicting that housing prices were about to drop by as much as five percent. “It just doesn't make sense,” an incredulous Paulson told his friend Howard Gurvitch. “These are supposedly the smart people.”

Backhanded Compliment of the Week

What else would you expect from the Telegraph?

"One of the finest machines ever," said a friend who has owned several. Land Rover owners possess the sort of brand loyalty that makes even Altrincham FC supporters look fickle. There are specialist clubs and magazines for the various sub-tribes of owner.

I'd suspect it was written by a Macc fan if I thought they knew how to hold a pen.

An Unfortunate Ambiguity

I had to read the entire article about Mary J. Blige in the December 28 issue of Jet magazine to make sure I understood the logic behind the title of her new album. Apparently she cried alot:

Mary J. Blige has turned personal adversity to her benefit. Having survived child abuse and a string of abusive adult relationships, she is stronger than ever, as suggested by the title of her new CD, Stronger with Each Tear. She is also using her music and high profile to help other women to heal, and she believes that women who have suffered abuse by men must take the difficult step toward forgiveness. The singer recently opened the Mary J. Blige Center for Women in her hometown of Yonkers, New York, an initiative of her Foundation for the Advancement of Women Now, which seeks to educate, empower, and encourage women.

One-Dimensional Bragg

An inaccurate and unfair post title, but what the hell. In last week's In Our Time program, Melvyn Bragg discussed the Frankfurt School with Jonathan Rée, Esther Leslie, and Raymond Geuss. You can listen here.

While I'm here, I'll mention also the latest issue of the New Humanist magazine, which has Laurie Taylor discussing the clerical child sexual abuse scandals in Ireland and an interview between A.C. Grayling and Tzvetan Todorov, among its many other delights. And Terry Eagleton picks up a Bad Faith award along with Karen Armstrong.

Friday, January 08, 2010

It's Freezing. Let's Boogie!

The Ex: Jack Frost Is Innocent

Thursday, January 07, 2010

More Podcast Pleasure

In Our Time broadcast on Mary Wolstonecraft here.

Old broadcast on anarchism here.

Oh Sting, Where is Thy Death?

Good news from the NYT.

Last fall, the American Law Institute, which created the intellectual framework for the modern capital justice system almost 50 years ago, pronounced its project a failure and walked away from it.

There were other important death penalty developments last year: the number of death sentences continued to fall, Ohio switched to a single chemical for lethal injections and New Mexico repealed its death penalty entirely. But not one of them was as significant as the institute’s move, which represents a tectonic shift in legal theory.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

That's Class

The latest podcast from Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed programme, which I now some regular readers listen to regularly, features a discussion on class and social mobility in contemporary Britain. Contributors are Richard Reeves, Director of the think tank Demos; Danny Dorling professor of geography at Sheffield University; Dick Hobbs, sociologist at the London School of Economics; and our favourite Brummie (for this week, anyway) Lynsey Hanley, Guardian journalist and author of the very excellent Estates - an Intimate History, reviewed by Lisa here.

The previous podcast on Bourgeois marriage in Victorian England passed me by. I'm off to download it now.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

All Gods are (Nonexistent) Scumbags

Atheist Ireland has posted 25 blasphemous quotations in protest at the new Irish blasphemy law. If 25 aren't enough for you, you can read the Comments.

Facebook page here.

Ete Yor Branes

A miscellany of articles that didn't make it into the 2009 lineup:

An article by Nicholas Wade in the NYT on research into brain synapses.

Benedict Carey's piece
in the same paper on the theory that our adaptive capacity to predict the near future is responsible for some perceptual illusions.

Another one by Carey
on a theory of mental disorders that made me laugh because Badcock was one of my lecturers at the LSE and used to come up with daft ideas even then.

An article by Brian Bethune in Maclean's on the theories of Keith Stanovich on Why Smart People Do Stupid Things and his idea of a Rationality Quotient.

Sandra Steingraber's article in Orion on epigenetics, which includes these interesting paragraphs:

Consider this: identical twins are epigenetically unique; attached to their identical chromosomes are nonidentical patterns of methyl groups and histones. Moreover, in a phenomenon called epigenetic drift, twins become more different with time. As revealed in a 2005 study, younger twins are more alike than older twins. As twins age and have different environmental experiences, their genetic expression diverges. Twins who spend more of their lives together in the same environment have gene-expression portraits that are more similar than twins who go their separate ways.

. . .

Perhaps most astonishing of all, epigenetic changes can be inherited. This means that the environmental exposures we experienced as children can have consequences not just for us but also for our descendants. More philosophically, it means that, contrary to current biological dogma, the nineteenth-century idea that acquired traits can be passed down the generations may not be so wrong-headed after all. And this brings us back to Darwin, who developed his ideas before we had a working understanding of genes and who was agnostic on the subject of the heritability of acquired characteristics. The reality of epigenetic inheritance hardly overturns natural selection—indeed it shows us another route by which species can adapt. Finally, it shines a spotlight on one of Darwin’s lesser-appreciated insights: that all of life is interrelated—not only by our common origins but also by our common ecology.

and finally a piece from Wired by Clive Thompson on the virtues of a wandering mind. For anyone who gets their best ideas while out for a walk.