“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, February 08, 2002

Remora

CEO Time

The adulation of the CEO, one of the more puzzling cultural features of the nineties, is turning, predictably, into revulsion. Since Limited Inc has always maintained that most CEOs could easily be replaced by much cheaper computer programs (with the multiple advantages accruing from having a thing at the top that won't borrow money, buy glitzy spreads, aquire trophy girlfriends or wives, or give bogus leadership tips to the young exec crowd), revulsion has always seemed about the right emotional stance to take towards this set. Forbes now has a nice section, CEO Strikeout, targetting these formerly flattered non-entities (although Limited Inc must say that the Strikeout mcguffin, which requires telling the story of a rise and fall by way of balls, strikes, fouls, and, presumably, hits, is a funny idea that should be used once, and then trashed). Today's Bad boy is the CEO of World Comm, Bernard Ebbers. World Comm has been dodging rumors that its accounting structure is creative. Ah, creative, the magic word. Here's the last graf:

"The Next Pitch: WorldCom reports its fourth-quarter earnings tomorrow. If they are reassuring, this stock will be due for a snapback--especially if the report helps Ebbers put to rest some of the rumors dogging his firm. But that snapback, if it comes, may do little more than boost WorldCom back up over the $10 level. And the stock's main appeal--as an acquisition play--could be fading. Today The New York Times reported that the most likely acquirers, SBC Communications and Verizon Communications, have lost interest, due to concerns about the challenges facing the long-distance businesses. The Bells also were said to be nervous about WorldCom's possibly aggressive accounting practices. WorldCom stoutly denies that it has any accounting "issues." But if tomorrow's earnings report fails to clear the air and provide the hoped-for bounce, Ebbers will find himself under increasing pressure to use his deal-making skills to arrange one last merger--one that inevitably would leave WorldCom in the hands of some other CEO."

The Net Economy has a more up close and personal view of Ebbers. They get in his sock drawer, rummage through his underwear, check out his check book, and guess what? It is one of those check books with a calendar, and today Ebbers has written down, guess I'll have to find that $150 million to pay off my loan. Well, since Ebbers is such a neat guy, his company will probably pitch in, like they've done before. Here's the first two grafs:

"It must be nice to be able to look at $180 million as if it's a dirty penny on the street, hardly worth bending over to pick up. That's how some analysts seem to view WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers' $183-million loan that came due this week.

Ebbers had until the end of the day Thursday to pay back the loan from Bank of America, which he secured last year using 11.3 million shares of WorldCom stock. The loan was called because WorldCom's stock price dropped below $10 a share Wednesday. WorldCom is expected to pay off the loan, just as it did in 2000, when it anted up $150 million to cover another of Ebber's debts."

Meritocracy, man. What a wonderful system.

Remora

Brothers and sisters, are you aware of the Swiss site, culture actif? It is a little treasure trove of unexpected essays for the cultural critics among us. Limited Inc urges a visit. They have a five part interview with Jean Starobinski on his latest book, a meditation on the emergence of the term "reaction." Action et R�action: vie et aventures d�un couple. Don't be skeptical -- just as Sherlock Holmes amazed his companion by lighting on the fact of cigar ash or a hissing sound as the main clue to a murder or theft, the good philosophe spots such seemingly peripheral instances of usage in the language and takes them to be curious. It is the ability to see the familiar as something that once wasn't there, that exists now because of some concantenation of acts, which allows the philosopher to justly appeal to language. The modern philosophical act is liberating in so far as it frees us, momentarily, from a false image of necessity - the idea that because our words make sense, now, they have always made sense. That words are place-markers for this eternal sense. The traditional philosophical act, of course, sought just the opposite - sought to prove that the image of necessity we perceive in the language we speak was, in fact, derived from a true image of the world.

The interview -- Limited Inc has only read the first page, it is rich enough for one visit -- takes us up to the moment that Newton introduces the word reaction in his famous third axiom. What went before the coupling of action and reaction was action and passion. Here's what Starobinski has to say about it:

Les anciens opposent antith�tiquement, action et passion ; action et, traduisons " passion " dans un quasi synonyme " souffrance ", " agir et souffrir ". Cette souffrance, dans la pens�e de certains philosophes de l�antiquit� -Aristote, par exemple- elle est partout, et l�action aussi est partout. Quand Aristote r�fl�chit aux divers types de mouvements, il envisage un type de mouvement parmi d�autres qui est le mouvement dans l�espace; le mouvement local, celui que nous constatons quand nous donnons un coup � un corps dur ; dans le choc, le corps nous r�siste ; le doigt appuie sur la pierre et nous avons le sentiment que la pierre appuie sur le doigt. La pierre est d�une certaine fa�on passive quand nous appuyons notre doigt dessus et elle exerce quelque chose comme une action en retour, une r�pulsion : les anciens parlaient de passion. Le mot " r�action ", � travers des d�rivations qui ont pass� par le grec, n�a pas �t� constitu� dans la langue latine ancienne ; il n�existait pas ; oui, la r�pulsion, mais pas la r�action. Comment ce mot s�est-il form� ? Et bien il a fallu, tr�s probablement, qu�� travers des traductions arabes, ou en revenant au texte grec, des savants, th�ologiens, philosophes du Moyen-�ge, comme Albert le Grand, essaient d�adapter certains mots grecs, ou certains mots arabes � la langue latine sp�cialis�e qui �tait la leur. C'est alors qu'on pourra voir le mot " r�action " doubler le mot " passion ". Toute passion est une r�action ; elle est passive. La r�action est con�ue comme quelque chose de passif, mais qui partage quand m�me avec l�action une qualit� dynamique.

"The ancients opposed, authentically, action and passion; action and, translating passion in its quasi synonym, sufferance, to act and to suffer. That sufferance, in the thought of certain ancient philosophers, Aristotle for example, is everywhere, and action is also everywhere. When Aristotle reflects on the diverse types of movement, he envisions a type of movement among others which is movement in space; local movement, that which we observe when we give a blow to a hard body. In the shock, the body resists us. [In the blow] we hold a finger on a stone and we have the sentiment that the stone holds on the finger. The stone is in a certain manner passive when we rest our finger upon it and it exercizes something like an action in return, a repulsion: the ancients spoke of passion. The word, reaction, going through all the derivations that occured in Greek, wasn't constituted in ancient latin. It didn't exist. Yes, repulsion, , but not reaction. How was this word formed. Well, it was necessary, probably, that by way of arabic translation, or in returning to the Greek text, the thinkers, theologians, philosophers of the Middle Ages, like Albert the Great, tried to adapt certain greek words or certain arabic words to the specialized latin peculiar to them. It is thus that one can see the word "reaction" double the word "passion." All passion is a reaction. It is passive. Reaction is conceived as something passive, but which shared, nonetheless, a dynamic quality with action."

Thursday, February 07, 2002

Remora

Tom Powers made the case, years ago, that Heisenberg intentionally monkey-wrenched the Nazi Atom Bomb program. He could make this case because of the curious fact that the German atom bomb team had the resources to make much more progress towards the development of the bomb than they actually did. Richard Rhodes book on the hydrogen bomb, Dark Sun, shows that even the Soviet team was closing in on the bomb in the last years of the war. The Soviets, of course, had the advantages accrued from an espionage system that was delivering primo content about the Americans, yet the Soviet physicists got pretty far along on their own, too.

When Powers' book, Heisenberg's War, was published, it re-opened a debate about Heisenberg's role in the war. Powers thesis has been disputed for a while due to the release of transcripts showing what German physicists, interned in Farm Hall in England, said to each other when they heard the news about Hiroshima. Heisenberg said, "One can say that the first time large funds were made available in Germany was in the spring of 1942, after our meeting with Rust [the education minister] when we convinced him that we had absolutely definite proof that it could be done." There is also this interesting conversation between Heisenberg and Weisaecker:

"HEISENBERG: The point is that the whole structure of the relationship between the scientist and the state in Germany was such that although we were not 100% anxious to do it, on the other hand we were so little trusted by the state that even if we had wanted to do it, it would not have been easy to get it through.

DIEBNER: Because the officials were only interested in immediate results. They didn't want to work on a long-term policy as America did.

WEIZSAECKER: Even if we had gotten everything that we wanted, it is by no means certain whether we would have gotten as far as the Americans and English have now. There is no question that we were very nearly as far as they were, but it is a fact that we were all convinced that the thing could not have been completed during the war.

HEISENBERG: Well, that's not quite right. I would say that I was absolutely convinced of the possibility of our making a uranium engine, but I never thought we would make a bomb, and at the bottom of my heart I was really glad that it was to be an engine and not a bomb. I must admit that.

What is at the bottom of a man's heart is seen by the Lord alone, as we know here at Limited Inc. And we also know there is no Lord, so it is seen by no-one -- an eminently Heisenbergian problem.

In any case, Heisenberg's enthusiasm has now been decisively clarified with the publication of a letter (subject to this report in the NYT) that Neils Bohr drafted (but never sent) to Heisenberg about a 1942 meeting between the two of them.

"Bohr, who died 40 years ago, said that under his beloved prot�g�, "everything was being done in Germany to develop atomic weapons."

In particular, the documents describe a meeting that Heisenberg initiated between the two men in occupied Denmark in September 1941.

After the war, Heisenberg said he traveled to Copenhagen to share his qualms about nuclear weapons. But the papers, released by the Bohr family and posted on the Niels Bohr Web site, www.nba.nbi.dk, which is maintained by the Niels Bohr Archive, tell a different story."

Powers still claims that Bohr and Heisenberg were talking past each other. But the Farm Hall recording (made without the physicists being aware of it) seems to accord pretty well with Bohr's memory. Of course, Heisenberg wasn't a Nazi. He knew that the Nazi attack on "Jewish science" was utter nonsense. But he was a patriotic German. His stance was shared by much of the German high command, external and damning obedience while sustaining, in the inner exile at the bottom of the heart, his dissent.

Sounds like the way Limited Inc is living through the Bush era.

Wednesday, February 06, 2002

Remora

Limited Inc wants to point you, this morning, to this article by Ken Silverstein in the American Prospect.The article is a variation on shooting ducks in a barrel -- Silverstein trolls the American press for its past coverage of various Latin American free marketeers, who have recently been coming to bad ends, along with their countries. The coverage, it turns out (to no one's surprise) was more starry eyed than accurate, reflecting the usual fantasies of the exploiter class. Oh, drat, there's that Marxist vocabulary again! What we meant to say is that it reflected the innovative but sometimes not quite realistic thinking of the entrepeneurial class. Is that better?

Here's a pin-em-to-the-wall graf:

"Among Latin America's "reform-minded leaders," according to a laudatory 1991 article in the Post, were Menem, Carlos Andres Perez in Venezuela, Carlos Salinas in Mexico, Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil, and Alberto Fujimori in Peru. A decade later, one of these five crusading reformers has been impeached, three live abroad in disgrace, and the other, Menem, is widely reviled and suspected of plundering Argentina's state treasury. Had the U.S. press not cavalierly dismissed the "short-term pain of millions," [a phrase used in another Post article] maybe none of this would have come as such a big surprise."

Silverstein flips through the careers of the big five highlighted by the Post. What do we find in the eight years since Latin America discovered the magic of the marketplace? Thuggery, bribetaking, bubble markets, devaluations, suitcase toting exile, police repression, and ineffectual bail-outs. Sound familiar? Sound like the seventies? Sound like the eighties? It should. The same situations get repeated over and over because there is no cool vision about just whose interest is being served in the formation of economic policy. Why, after all, should the US be considered a neutral party when it operates, and has always operated, in its self interest? I've just finished an interesting book about just this subject: Uncommon Grounds, the history of coffee and how it transformed our world, by Mark Pendergrast. Coffee once accounted for up to 40% of Brazil's GDP. It is still a major export. The US is the major consumer of the drink. And the history of the trade between the US and all the coffee producing countries of Central and South America is poisonous, a matter of stolen Indian land, oversupply, and continual pressure by the US to keep coffee prices as low as possible. I think we will have more to say about this book in a later post.

Here's another Silverstein graf. Venezuala is in the news today -- its current honcho, Chavez, apparently thinks Castro's polity is some kind of model to mimic. A back to the future kind of thing. A let's get retro kind of thing. Here's the background.

"Consider Venezuela. After Perez was elected in 1989, its economy was the first in Latin America to be deemed a miracle. The country's gross national product climbed sharply at the start of Perez's tenure, but simultaneous austerity policies caused the real value of salaries to fall by almost half. In 1989 the government decided to triple bus fares. Riots broke out, and the security forces summoned to quell them killed somewhere between 400 and several thousand people, mostly in the poor barrios. Perez's popularity plummeted. For some reason, this baffled The Miami Herald, which reported in 1992 that international economists were "puzzled by Venezuela's generalized malaise because this oil-rich country is the economic star of the Americas."

Implicated in a series of corruption scandals, Perez was forced to resign in 1993. He now resides in the Dominican Republic. Last December a Venezuelan judge announced that his court was considering bringing charges against the former president and that Perez would be placed under house arrest if he returns home."


Tuesday, February 05, 2002

Dope

Limited Inc amused a friend in L.A. a month ago by arguing that the 20th century's greatest scientist, in terms of the impact of his work on human history, was not Albert Einstein, but Fritz Haber. True, if Time Magazine had put Haber's picture on the cover as the greatest person of the century, the iconic resonance would have been somewhat less. As in, people would say, who the hell is Fritz Haber?

Here's what Haber did:



"On July 2, 1909, Haber and a colleague in the laboratory at Karlsruhe produced a continuous flow of liquid ammonia, about a pint in five hours, from hydrogen and nitrogen fed into a hot five-inch iron tube a couple of feet tall, the gases at 200 atmospheres pressure over an osmium metal catalyst."

Sounds, well, boring, right? But before Haber synthesized nitrogen, the world agricultural system depended on either organism induced nitrogen enrichment -- via the humble legume -- or enrichment by way of waste, whether that of birds (guano) or of humans (nightsoil) or of the beasts of the field and the street (which is why the immense amounts of horse shit deposited in cities in the 19th century eventually wound its way back to the field). My friend was amused because this sounds like a curious, but in itself unimportant, fact. It is something only a crank would pounce on. As you know, dear reader, Limited Inc has never been afraid of crankishness. Haber, whose work was put into workable factory order by Bosch (hence the name for the Haber-Bosch process), was not the genius Einstein was -- in fact, he wasn't a genius at all, just an exceptionally clever chemist. Probably someone else would have come along and synthesized nitrogen in the 20th century if Haber hadn't done it -- but the fact is, Haber did do it. As William McNeill wrote in Something New Under the Sun, his environmental history of the 20th century, without synthesized fertilizer, the world could only support its present human population by putting an area of land equal to the size of Latin America under cultivation.

Environmentalists, Limited Inc feels, have never fully confronted this fact. The assumption of those who decry the quantity of environmental harm caused by fertilizers -- and it is immense -- is that if these fertilizers didn't exist, a Malthusian mechanism would have culled the world population, thus maintaining an equilibrium between population and resources. Yet this kind of thinking -- which is based on the classical economic models of the 19th century -- doesn't convince us. Perhaps the one to two billion extra people we can surely attibute to synthesized nitrogen just wouldn't have materialized given the more restrained resources of the pre-Haber world; yet look at the 19th century's patterns of cultivation, the seemingly unstoppable acquisition and use of lands as diverse as the Great Prairies and the pampas, and it is easy to imagine another case, in which even greater swathes of tropical land area would be put to the plow as food needs expand.

The American Scientist review of Vaclav Smil's book on Haber draws the consequences of Haber's work for you, sitting at home with your cornflakes:

"In the year 2000, Haber�Bosch synthesis worldwide produced about 2 million tons of ammonia a week. For the 6 billion of us to be fed now, Haber� Bosch synthesis provides more than
99 percent of all inorganic nitrogen inputs to farms. Synthetic ammonia supplies about the same nitrogen tonnage in fertilizer for our crops as all green nature gains both from its microorganisms and from lightning. The raw materials for Haber�Bosch synthesis are atmospheric N2 and the natural gas that supplies both hydrogen and most of the energy. Haber�Bosch today uses energy quite frugally; only one-sixtieth of commercial fuel worldwide is now used to make ammonia.

The country that now synthesizes most ammonia is neither Germany nor Japan nor the United States, but the land where the most people sit daily to table�China. About one-third of its limited natural gas is used to make fertilizer, and in many older, smaller plants much coal is used as well. Children in the developing world feed on crops grown with fertilizer made from synthetic ammonia, and the 2 or 3 billion more of us who will arrive by mid-century will do the same."

It is hard to imagine the world without synthetic ammonia. Certainly it would be a world much less urbanized than our own. The great fact of the 20th century is that rural society, as the dominant force in culture, disappears, at least in the Western Industrial societies. In fact, it has disappeared so rapidly, and so completely, that few people are aware of the negative space, so to speak, thereby created.

As for Fritz Haber, his life could have figured in a play by his contemporary, Georg Kaiser:

"The Haber-Bosch process is generally credited with keeping Germany supplied with fertilizers and munitions during World War I, after the British naval blockade cut off supplies of nitrates from Chile. During the war Haber threw his energies and those of his institute into further support for the German side. He developed a new weapon�poison gas, the first example of which was chlorine gas�and supervised its initial deployment on the Western Front at Ypres, Belgium, in 1915. His promotion of this frightening weapon precipitated the suicide of his wife, who was herself a chemist, and many others condemned him for his wartime role. There was great consternation when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for 1918 for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.

After World War I, Haber was remarkably successful in building up his institute, but in 1933 the anti-Jewish decrees of the Nazi regime made his position untenable. He retired a broken man, although at the time of his death he was on his way to investigate a possible senior research position at Rehovot in Palestine (now Israel)."



Monday, February 04, 2002

Remora

Our readers are francophiles to a manjack, right? Or if they aren't, what are they doing reading a weblog named for Derrida's famous invective? Well, messieurs et mesdames, you must go to Eric Ormsby's piece on Louis Simpson's Villon translations in the New Criterion. The first couple of paragraphs try to hard to make the case that Villon was, supremely, the poet of farewell -- although there is, certainly, something to that notion, Ormsby is warming to his subject, and isn't quite there yet. We are being tickled with rhetoric, here. Still, it is a useful idea. One is reminded of that Mandelstam verse, "I have studied the science of farewells", in Tristia -- 'farewells' we prefer to goodbys, and surely to parting, as in this translation of Mandelstam's most famous poem in Archipelago:




I have studied the science of parting
In the bareheaded laments of night.

Oxen chew, the waiting drags on

As the vigil stretches the night�s last hour.

I honored the ritual of the crowing night

When I took up the traveler�s heavy grief.

I saw in a woman�s distant eyes

Tears mingling with the muses� song.


Villon, who knew to the intake of smelly breath the stable sounds of chewing oxen, was not burdened with Mandelstam's history. His farewells do not ring out with our knowledge of the slaughtered past and to come. They are, rather, the goodbys launched by men about to be hung for bawdry, theft, murder -- all the ways of the riotous reprobate. Villon, of course, can be made into a sentimental roustabout -- in the same way Rabelais becomes Rabelaisian, an excuse for Victorian scatology. Orwell pointed out how all too embarrassing the term Rabelaisian is in some essay. Ormsby avoids that image in his review, pulling up, instead, those features in Villon that re-emerge in Baudelaire, in Rimbaud, in Celine -- that omni-directional rage, with its curious intervals of complete self-lessness. Here's a beautiful passage on Villon's women:

"Villon clearly loved women, for whom he had a surprisingly subtle and sympathetic regard; they are certainly the dominant figures in his testamentary poetry: not only his own mother or the Virgin Mary, but also the various lovers he alternately excoriates, cajoles, and caresses. His masterpiece in this genre is undoubtedly the long lament usually known as �La Belle Heaulmi�re,� or �The Beautiful Helmet Maker,� after its protagonist. Villon�s poem is an extended illustration, if one were needed, of Baudelaire�s line four-hundred years later that �c�est un dur m�tier d��tre belle femme� (�It�s hard work being a bombshell�). An old woman, la Belle Heaulmi�re, catalogues her charms as they once were and as they are now; like Villon, she grasps herself only in the backward glance. The poem is remarkable in that its compassion is tacit and arises from the unflinching scrutiny of a woman�s body in decline. Unlike other compositions of the time, it is not prompted by malicious delight or the kind of Tartuffian schadenfreude that seems to have motivated so many medieval denunciations of the female form. Instead, pity and terror are aroused.


Pretty shoulders, long and slender
Arms; beautiful hands and wrists,
That my fate seemed to intend for
Heated tourneys in the lists
Of passion � small, tilting breasts,
Rounded thighs, wide loins, and then
The vulva in its little nest
In the middle of the garden.

Horribly, these have now become:

Wrinkled forehead and gray hair,
Sunken eyebrows, and the eyes
Whose laughter drove men to despair,
Clouding � again to itemize.
The nose that was a perfect size,
Hooked. Two hairy ears hang down.
You�d have to look hard to realize
This death�s-head is a face you�ve known.

Ah, as Limited Inc plummets through middle age like Lucifer thrown out of the American heaven of perpetual adolescence, the death's head is rapidly becoming his own inexcusable, unmitigated face. We must go out and read some Villon today.


Sunday, February 03, 2002

Remora

Limited Inc admits that we were once forced, in a philosophy class, to peruse Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick's masterpiece. We did not come away from the experience with the awe of the convert; we didn't even retain a polemical disdain for the book's sophistries. We simply found the book trite. Nozick's book generated excitement among a generation of philosophers trained in logic chopping and little else. Since logic chopping is a useful but minor instrument, they were left at a loss -- what do you do once you have diagrammed the prisoner's dilemma ten times over? They had no sense of repertoire, which they mistook this gap in their brains for a mission to make philosophy a science. Why read anything that wasn't in English? Why read anything that was written before 1945?

Well, in one sense the logic choppers have a point. The history of philosophy is, in itself, of little importance. Carnap once noted, somewhere, his distress at the philosophy department meetings in the U. of Chicago in the 40s, where collegues would say things like, oh, the important thing about evolution is that Thomas Acquinus refuted it in such and such a tractate. In other words, learned ignorance of the most repellent type.

What reading books, not articles, and books published before 1945, and books published even in French or German, mindboggling as that is, does is, it gives one a repertoire of themes, references, and variations. This, Limited Inc would argue, is an essential feature of the intellectual vocations.

Now, Robert Nozick is dead. The Economist published a review of his new book in order to praise the man. Unfortunately, the Economist reviewer has merely grazed philosophy, no doubt in his pre-law days at some fond U. The reviewer is impressed by Nozick's less than Wildean one-liners ("Yet in the vigour of its arguments, the punch of its formulations (taxation is �on a par with forced labour�; �to each as they choose, from each as they are chosen�) and the breadth of its attack, the book had an impact far beyond the academic world); he is obviously sympathetic with Nozick's conservativism; but he has no idea what philosophers, like, do. Here's a sample graf:

"After his first book, he turned to pure philosophy, joking that he did not want to write "Anarchy, State and Utopia II". In 1981 came "Philosophical Explanations", which contains a famous chapter asking a seemingly bootless question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?", as well as chapters on personal identity and on free will. It is best remembered for an ingenious argument against scepticism, and for a dispositional account of knowledge as true belief that would reliably stick with the truth (or self-correct) as relevant circumstances changed."

Wow. The reviewer has obviously never heard of Leibnitz -- and God knows what he thinks Heidegger did (most likely, he gets his idea of big H from the journals, and so thinks of Heidegger as Hitler's speech writer). The bootless question is also taken up by Shestov, figures in Sartre, and has been trampled on by hundreds of the lesser fry. And as for the Quinean tang of the Nozick's dispositional thesis, forget it. It is way over the reviewer's head.

However, it is the grace note at the end that will make the literate reader wince.

"Philosophy begins in wonder, he writes at the end, with a silent nod to A.N. Whitehead." That silent nod is Nozick snoozing off. We are riffing on a platitude that goes back to Aristotle. And not the Onassis one. The Economist would do well to select its encomiasts for dead philosophers among a pool of writers that has read one or two of them.