“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 20, 2004

Bollettino

PS – we urge readers to peruse this James Surowiecki article about Big Pharma, and then compare it to the LI criticism of a former Surowiecki piece on big pharma. We reproduce our piece, all the way back from 2001, here. Has Surowiecki been sneaking glances at our humble blog? The suggestion that he makes – that smaller R&D firms represent the coming wave of research, while the Pharma dinosaurs should either learn to market efficiently or die in their own stupors, is exactly the point we were making about the way monopoly has practically driven efficiency out of the big Pharma culture. Here’s our humble little piece:

In the November 5th New Yorker there is a column by the astute but limited James Surowiecki, who makes the standard case against breaking the Bayer patent on Cipro. The case goes like this: to come up with an antibiotic takes years of R & D, and R & D costs beaucoup millions; so if in the end, the anti-biotic isn't a moneymaker, then R & D into other anti-biotics will be inhibited. Thus it is socially advantageous not to bust Bayer's balls, so to speak.

Unfortunately, as Surowiecki sleepwalks through his econ 101 lecture, he adds a number of facts that contradict his larger point, and support the idea that monopoly actually has an inhibiting effect on medically important R & D. He averts to the slowdown in antibiotic research after 1967, a generally agreed upon high point in the war against infectious diseases. That slowdown, he contends, was market driven:

"Besides, given the choice between making an anti-biotic that a person might take for two weeks once in a lifetime or developing an anti-depressant that a person would take every day for the rest of his life, drug companies naturally opted for the latter." If S. could be shaken out of his dogmatic slumbers for a bit and made to read back his own sentence, he might notice that monopoly, here, does the opposite of what he claims it does. It levels the field so that it makes it more profitable to de-emphasize exploring anti-biotic pharmaceuticals as compared to the more lucrative anti-depressives. In other words, bad research drives out good. And the penalty for that is minimal, given that anti-biotics are being held in a sixteen year bondage according to federal law, and the patent time frame is easily extendable. S. even is hip to the result of this: "that's why in the past twenty-five years they {big Pharma] have developed just one new class of anti-biotic." Well, let's look at correlations. We have an increasingly sophisticated sphere of intellectual property laws, and we have an increasingly debauched drug research system, more interested in those nifty sex-drive-n'-hair enhancers than in coming up with cures for multiple drug resistant tb. Now if the state were sensitive to this, it would not hand out monopoly power like candy. If there was a smaller time frame, the sex-drive-n-hair enhancers would have to be marketed more efficiently, as generic drug companies can come up with amazing copies quickly. In this atmosphere, the profitability of anti-biotic drugs as compared to others would go up, since there is less likely to be a major profit in copying them, and there is more reason to emphasize them for their developers. They would be mid-list drugs, steady sellers. Moreover, breaking up the monopoly power of big Pharma would recognize the R & D real world - which is networked through a university system largely subsidized by the good old Gov. Perhaps smaller companies can't compete with giant companies that dragoon, or tempt, researchers into more frivolous but lucrative research. But if there were more starters, there might just be more incentive to do that major research. In other words, more competition, lower entry costs, is what we should be aiming at.

Of course, Surowiecki's idea that tech comes when you lay out money as automatically as an old pooch trots to the dogfood bowl when you put out the Gainesburgers is pretty naive. It shows zero feeling for the history of the golden age of medicine, which was driven, pre-1967, much more by an ethos of public healthcare than by the numbers pharmaceutical giants are used to now. And another hint: the fons et origo of that era is clearly the biggest of all state endeavors of the 20th century -- as with most of our technology, the modern medical era can be tracked back to WWII. War is the mother of invention.
6:54 PM
Bollettino

LI is finishing up the 13th chapter of our novel – hurray! And so, at such a solemn moment, we’ve been contemplating the spirit of comedy. Yes, we know there are giants’ footsteps, here, and we tread, comparatively, with a munchkin’s size 7. Still, when you are working on a fictional, comic account of an attempted rape, you think, why am I trying to make this funny, as well as, why is this, or not, funny?

When in need of help, I always go to an expert. Or so I’ve been instructed by the Reader’s Digest and the Poison warning label on insecticide cans. So I decided to look up the current research on comedy. This took me, bien sûr, to recent issues of Humor: the international journal of research in humor. I am just catching up with the 2002 issues. As the readers of HIJRH are well aware, literary comedy is not where your average humor researcher majorly focuses, especially when there are all those holes in the correspondence between threatening facial expressions of chimpanzees (barring teeth) and ritualistic smiling ceremonies of the Ainu. Or the like. I reluctantly scrolled through articles that would instruct me, with statistics, about the compatibility or incompatibility of husbands and wives reflected in a humor metric, and an article about the function of jokes in a medical context, to give my undivided attention to Salvatore Attardo’s reading of Wilde’s texts in Humorous Texts: a Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis. Or, at least, the cheat sheet, Christie Davies’ fine review. Any man who is willing to go mano a mano with Oscar, as Jr. Bush said to his Dad one humid Georgetown night, is all right with us. Davies begins his review by summing up Attardo’s achievement:

Perhaps the most significant innovation to be found in Attardo’s work
is the introduction of the idea of the ‘jab line’, and his use of it to discuss
texts in terms of particular con.gurations of jab and punch lines. In a
joke, an entity that must end with an uproarious punch line in which
the unexpected is suddenly revealed, the humorous jab lines thrown out
en route to the punch line are of secondary interest but in a longer
narrative it is essential to consider both the nature of each jab and the
pattern and sequence of jabs that make up the humorous text. Attardo
applies his method to a number of well-known humorous texts including
Voltaire’s Candide, Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey and Lord
Arthur Saville’s Crime by Oscar Wilde in an innovative and illuminating
way.

It turns out that he not only applies his method, but uses it to quantify. Quantifying the density of the jab lines in Oscar Wilde is a perversity that even Wilde never dreamed of – but seriously, ladies and germs, we are interested io the ways and wherefores of this mapping of laughs. As we had already learned from the sociobi articles in the HIJSH, the evolutionary theory of laughter right now couples it to tickling. And tickling is something like jabbing. So we had a vague sense that we were being carried smoothly down the currents of the finest scholarship. Here is Davies to elucidate:

“Let us take for example a line from Wilde’s description
of the people attending Lady Windermere’s reception in which ‘‘a perfect
bevy of bishops kept following a stout prima donna from room to room’’.
Attardo notes the humorous script oppositions of bishops/prima donna,
normal/abnormal, shows that they are in proximity and that the bishops
are being targeted and wonders whether there are further jabs here based
on alliteration and whether in addition stout is opposed to beautiful. Yet
to this reviewer the humorous thrust of the passage appears quite different
with the key opposition being between spiritual and carnal. The
bishops are in a bevy a collective term more usually applied to birds or
animals than to clergymen (who are not beauties either) and are in keen
sexual pursuit of the prima donna whom they follow eagerly from room
to room presumably in the hope that there will be an episcopal score.
The stout prima donna far from being a stereotypically fat and repulsive
opera singer is for them buxom and zaftig, a Junoesque beauty with all
the allure of the stage. What did the bishops say to the actress? Yet if
Salvatore Attardo and I see different jabs in different places and interpret
the jabs differently, how is the problem of the observer to be resolved?”

Indeed, Davies’s question does intrude, rather, the bothersome subjective. The image of these bishops, with their Episcopal skirts, one presumes, flying about, following a prima donna of a certain rotund and orotund quality – dare one dare the sexual proclivities on display, here? -- seems, to us, indicative of some dysfunction at the heart of the world. Nietzsche asked if there were any scientific truths that could only be apprehended through laughter – a profound question. Perhaps the whole evolution of sex is one. In Darwinian terms, could there be a more severe failure in the signals of sexual ornamentation that, presumably, play in the background of every animal pursuit?

Attardo, at least, is happy with his own analysis; not least because, given the distribution of jab lines, he can then plot their density. There’s a small glitch here – as Davies points out, the thinning of jab lines in the text corresponds to his sense of where the text is funniest, when one might expect a thickening of jab lines. Surely there is a Zen koan lurking here about clapping at a jab line with one hand or something. Like someone who thinks the funniest jokes are those that nobody laughs at, Davies is obviously a party pooper.

But I share Davies sense of humor, which is why I am such an unsuccessful player on the world stage.

Anyway, this got me thinking that I’d like to share one of Thurber’s letters to E.B. White. It concerns E.M Foster’s Abinger Harvest. Thurber particularly liked the essay on Howard Overing Sturges, a minor belle-lettrist now best known for being Henry James’ friend. Thurber writes:

Writes Foster, in all seriousness: Stugis… wrote to please his friends, and deterred by his failure to do so he gave up the practice of literature and devoted himself instead to embroidery, of which he had always been fond.’ It’s a way out, all right.

Then, further on: “I once went to Sturgis’ house myself – years ago… My host led me up to the fireplace, to show me a finished specimen of his embroidery. Unluckily there were two fabrics near the fireplace, and my eye hesitated for an instant between them. There was a demi-semi-quaver of a pause. Then graciously did he indicate which his embroidery was, and then did I see that the rival fabric was a cloth kettle-holder, which could only have been mistaken for embroidery by a lout. Simultaneously I received the impression that my novels contained me rather than I them. He was very kind and courteous, but we did not meet again.’”

Now, in my opinion, Thurber underestimates Foster, whose whole oeuvre is devoted to undermining seriousness and the deathly pall it casts on life. On the other hand, notice how Thurber reading Foster creates the Thurber in Foster -- the embroidery surely would fit not only fit into a Thurber story, but existed, perhaps, only to be put, later, into a Thurber story. At least, that is what Mallarme would have said, if he'd been born in Columbus Ohio, too. But we have to ask, how would our inestimable Professor Attardo explain Foster’s letter? Who let the jab lines in?

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Bollettino

After the first few months of WWI, according to Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, the German general staff knew that their one major hope (to knock out a stronger, more numerous enemy quickly) had been dashed. At this point, the Chief of Staff uttered the immortal words that sum up the incorrigible stupidity of the military mindset: “even if we are ruined by it, it was still beautiful.” One wonders if any Russian general feels the same this week, the fifteenth anniversary of the Russian evacuation of Afghanistan.

It is funny. I went through the eighties as a very active protestor. I talked every day with various leftist friends. We all talked about Nicaragua. None of us talked about Afghanistan. Even when the place was invaded, in 1979, the event was overshadowed, to the average American mind, by what was happening in Iran. Who knew that it was all about the leakage, the leakage? It never penetrated that there was some meaning in the fact that the largest CIA outpost in the world, after Langley, was located in Islamabad. About which we still know next to nothing.

Well, here was a small war (merely a million or so dead and wounded) with big consequences. It struck a fatal blow to one of the great empires of the post WWII world, and its aftermath kidneypunched the other. Just think: the demoralization of the Soviet army – in a country that devoted 15 percent of its GDP to the army, a country in which the army was, supposedly, the only thing that worked – materially deteriorated Soviet morale. Gorbachev, Chernobyl – yes, there were many small stages on the way to the final Soviet rust-out, but Afghanistan was definitely the music in the background, just as Vietnam was the music in the background in the seventies.

And then, the other empire, America the Good. America blindly and blithely arming happy Islamicists with Stinger missiles. Afghanistan was photo op number one for the up and coming right winger in the 80s. How could we not have known? When a group that has an unerring sixth sense for unlucky decisions, not to mention dirty, inhuman ones, was so involved in resisting the Russians in the mountains, we should have paid more attention. The allies are always dirty – Laotian generals neckdeep in opium money, Contra torturers, etc., etc. But since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, it seemed like an easy call to support whoever opposed them. The whole tangle of that history is still tangled, and we doubt we are going to be handed the thread by the 9/11 commission. But we know it is there – just look at the first WTC bombing, look at who facilitated it and how they got here. For instance, look at this Atlantic article, written in 96, which traces the the Cia’s development of the radical Islamic network through the exemplary life of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, the man who was financed and nurtured by the CIA almost to the day he was arrested, in New Jersey, for planning the blowing up of the World Trade Center.


WHEN Sheikh Omar entered the United States, in July of 1990, via Saudi Arabia, Peshawar, and Sudan on a much-disputed tourist visa issued by an undercover agent of the CIA, his primary purpose was to set up a U.S. infrastructure, a funding mechanism, and an organizational base for Egypt's militant Islamic groups -- an undertaking that he had largely accomplished by the time of his arrest in 1993.”

Those are the larger toxic spills. But I think, even more than the macro and visible events, what happened in Afghanistan set off a chain of small wars that are still going, and that will just get worse if the causes of them aren't made clear, and resistance to those causes doesn't coalesce around a progressive standard. Chechnya is the worst of them at the present time. The U.S., for its own reasons, abetted Yeltsin, one of the great thieves of our time, and – as is the case when you deal with the devil – was forced, by circumstances, to abet Putin. We’ve previously posted about the ‘terrorism of mirrors” that inflected Putin’s campaign for president – terrorist acts in 99 that were attributed to Chechens, even as all indications point to a dirty operation by Putin’s own national police department.

So what happens in the last two weeks? More of the collateral c. from Afghanistan, by way of Chechnya. One of Putin’s strident critics is Boris Berezovsky. We have no time for Boris’ moral character – he hasn’t got any. But that made him a perfect in between man to plan things between Moscow and Chechnya in 99, that oddest of years. When Yeltsin melted in his pilfered fats off the throne, leaving space for Putin, the former head of the secret police started operating like former heads of secret police operate: getting rid of his enemies, and wacking former associates. Boris Berezovsky was among the casualties. When Berezovsky fled to London, he started ratting out the whole dirty deal that had used the death of thousands of Chechnians as a prop to keep the electorate voting for Putin, and implicitly voting to protect Yeltsen’s family from jail time. Ivan Rybkin, the presidential candidate who disappeared, reappeared in a disoriented state, then hightailed it for London himself, was another loud critic of the Chechnyan policy. He was, supposedly, being funded by Berezovsky. Both of these are not harmless critics, in Putin’s view, since both know where the bodies were buried – and I don’t mean that figuratively.

A regime founded on a classic totalitarian big lie – the attack by the Chechens – exists only by means of small lies, the shattered fragments that reflect the original lie to the point of maximum distortion, renews its energies by periodical reinvigorating the causes of violence -- even if it has to counterfeit those causes, produce them in the secret police hq. So no one should be surprised that, as it is an election season, here comes the subway bombing. There are multiple levels in the terrorism that haunts Moscow at election time. Inexplicably, the system keeps failing in elementary ways, all the gates between Grozny and Moscow keep opening up, inexplicably the gross tolls of violence always seem to favor Putin’s ever more nationalistic stances. Yulia Latynina has a scathing column about that subway bombing. Here are few grafs:

“Terrorist acts will continue to happen in Russia for two reasons.
First, because it is in the very nature of the system in place in Chechnya. Chechen field commanders produce terrorist acts, just as the Ostankino meat plant produces sausages. It's their business, just as is the case in Palestine. In both Chechnya and Palestine, there are people with power, influence and money who would not have power, influence and money if there were no terrorist acts.
It is not easy to fight terrorism even in a normal country, just as it is not easy to deal with gangrene even in a clean operating theater.
If, however, the operating theater is located in a pigsty, the nurses have pinched all the lightbulbs and the surgeon is not thinking about how to do the operation right, but about how he can cut off the patient's hand with his gold watch -- then it's a very different matter. And that is the second reason why terrorist acts will continue to occur.”

The problem with taking sides, in Russia, is that the sides are so filthy. It is like a fight in a locked toilet stall where the toilet has overflowed. Latynina properly attacks Putin’s populism, his war on the oligarchs – but this isn’t to defend the owners of Yukos, who basically stole the company from the state. This is a turf war in Shark land, and one’s challenge has to be promoting those sharks who, for their own sharkish reasons, are using the ultimate shock tactic of truth. The truth, at the moment, doesn’t matter – a situation bound to drive a writer mad. A parallel exists in this country, but let’s not go there right now. Barthes used the word “effect” to signify the aura, the premium, that surrounds certain writers, celebrities, objects. In Russia’s situation, the opposite is happening – call it effectlessness. Truth is ripped from its pragmatic coordinates – it is, contra William James, what doesn’t work.

Chechnya goes on. That's the saddest, sickest monument to what the cold war oligarchs, on both sides, did to us.
¶ 4:04 PM