Through Analysis, Gut Reaction Gains Credibility

From The New York Times:

Gut Two years ago, when Malcolm Gladwell published his best-selling “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” readers throughout the world were introduced to the ideas of Gerd Gigerenzer, a German social psychologist. And now he has written his own book, “Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious,” which he hopes will sell as well as “Blink.” “I liked Gladwell’s book,” Dr. Gigerenzer said during a visit to New York City last month. “He’s popularized the issue, including my research.”

Q: O.K., let’s start with basics: what is a gut feeling?

A: It’s a judgment that is fast. It comes quickly into a person’s consciousness. The person doesn’t know why they have this feeling. Yet, this is strong enough to make an individual act on it. What a gut instinct is not is a calculation. You do not fully know where it comes from.

My research indicates that gut feelings are based on simple rules of thumb, what we psychologists term “heuristics.” These take advantage of certain capacities of the brain that have come down to us through time, experience and evolution. Gut instincts often rely on simple cues in the environment. In most situations, when people use their instincts, they are heeding these cues and ignoring other unnecessary information.

More here.

Rent Wars

I sublet. Being chosen as the one fit to take care of a stranger’s prize possession, their home, is not easy. I’ve taken care of their pets, helped with moves, stored their boxes and, when told, avoided the landlord. Most have been fair. However, I recently subleased an apartment from a woman in Brooklyn. She asked me to take care of her cats, find and send important mail to her, and store her stuff in the second room. After two glasses of wine I agreed. I paid her $1970.00 a month.

Everything felt fine at first, even after I saw a notice which listed her rent at almost half my bill. She later accepted a permanent teaching position, and, at the same time, renewed her original lease. She said she did so because she liked the extra income. I started to feel uncomfortable and gave notice that I was leaving. So she asked me to show it to a couple with a baby, desperate for a place. It was one too many times. I told her that her contract violates New York state law. At most, she was allowed to charge a 10% surcharge if the apartment is fully furnished with the her furniture, not 160%. I told her that statute was in her lease that she’d signed. And that this needs to be resolved quickly.

An apology was how she proposed to resolve the problem. I have done nothing since. I wonder if another sub-tenant is being hurt, and how I could help. Note, the landlord is also hurt, essentially locked into the original tenant’s rent while she collects. In addition, the value of the owner’s rent-controlled apartment can drop considerably if the tenant or their family stays many years. This law was being abused by the very tenant that it meant to protect. However, if I report the tenant, the landlord will likely terminate the lease and evict the sub-tenant. The current sub-tenant may be on the streets again.

Even Hollywood found something to exploit in rent control. Rent Control (2002) begins with two young actors arriving to the city, fresh out of Iowa. The couple can only find affordable housing by moving in with Holly’s eccentric Aunt Agatha, and her 15 cats, in her rent-controlled, spacious 1-bedroom apartment. After weeks of fruitless apartment-hunting, they find Agatha’s dead body on the kitchen floor, on a diet pill overdose. So they pretend Agatha is still alive, to keep the rent-controlled apartment, remain in, and still have a chance to succeed as actors. A more humorous example of the conflicts this regulation can create.

Rent control had an even more chaotic start. They were first adopted in response to WWII-era shortages in the United States. It was one of many price controls introduced during the dismal and alarming period between the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and America’s turn to a full wartime economy in 1943. Together with rubber, gasoline, coffee and shoes, the housing market was seen as another thing that needed to be rationed or, at a minimum, regulated. By 1947 all these controls were phased out, except on housing, which later got another boost following Richard Nixon’s 1971 wage and price controls.

Like New York, rent controls remain in effect in some cities with large tenant populations, such as San Francisco, and Washington, DC. Smaller communities and towns in California and New Jersey can also have rent control. The laws have been adopted for mobile home parks, since residents own their homes but rent the land. The high cost of moving homes, makes mobile home owners even more vulnerable to excessive price increases. In recent years, rent control in some cities has been ended by state ballot.

The argument for rent control says “that a housing shortage cannot be immediately made up, no matter how high rents are allowed to rise” However, many economists say that it overlooks one consequence. If landlords are allowed to raise rents to reflect inflation and the true conditions of supply and demand, individual tenants will economize by taking less space opening more accommodations to others. The same amount of housing will shelter more people, until the shortage is relieved.

Economic arguments against the law say that rent control discriminates in favor of those who already occupy houses or apartments in a particular city or region at the expense of those who find themselves on the outside. Since supply is perpetually low, landlords do not have to worry about tenants leaving. Unless the landlord thinks that punitive action will be taken against them for doing so, they might let building maintenance deteriorate in order to mitigate the lower rental income.

Rent control also sets people against one another. Rent-protected New Yorkers become prisoners of their bargain apartments, knowing that such a great deal is rare. They may become increasingly threatened by the new tenants as they try to protect their homes. Less lucky tenants could also harbor resentment, as one man said “It just brings out these terrible thoughts that you wouldn’t otherwise have. You see these 80-year-olds in the elevator and you think; would you just die already?”

However, advocates of controls say that the rental market suffers from information asymmetries and high transaction costs. A landlord likely has much more information about a home than a prospective tenant can reasonably detect. Furthermore, once the tenant has moved in, the costs of moving again are very high. A dishonest landlord can hide defects and, if the tenant complains, threaten to raise the rent at the end of the lease. With rent control, tenants can be certain that hidden defects be repaired to comply with code requirements, without fearing retaliatory rent increases. Rent regulation may thus compensate somewhat for inefficiencies of the housing market.

To this day New York City remains deeply divided on the law. As Paul Krugman puts it, “bitter relations between tenants and landlords, with an arms race between ever-more ingenious strategies to force tenants out… and constantly proliferating regulations designed to block those strategies”. The law has flaws, such as keeping families trapped in apartments too small for their needs, while others abuse the system, subleasing their rent controlled apartments at much higher rates.  The law gives little incentive for landlords to pay for building maintanance. However, informational asymmetries and high moving costs cut tenant’s bargaining power, so that state regulation has value. Fixing rent laws will not be an easy decision, but, at least many of the current problems are what supply-and-demand analysis predicts.

My Mother’s Secret Travel Diaries

Elatia Harris


Long before my time, my mother was a young artist traveling in Italy, where every year for more than a decade she contrived to spend a cheap but luxurious low season. The dollar was not then merely strong, like a sick man set on a good day, but truly mighty, Americans the affable blundering giants familiar to readers of Henry James.  And the Italians were deep and small.  I know all this as if from personal memory, for my mother told it to me not piecemeal but like a favorite bedtime story, over and over again.  And if she had not done, then I would know it anyway from her travel diaries, which are mine.

When I found them they were knotted shut, bound with ribbons.  School-girl composition books, cardboard-sided, with taped spines — the kind you still see at the stationer’s, only now they’re even flimsier.  To these, my mother attached long silk ribbons, fiendishly knotted so that I had finally to clip them.  I wasn’t impatient — it was just that the knots failed to loosen even with skillful teasing, as if my mother herself wanted never again to page through these books without a sense of trespass.  Keeping me out wouldn’t have been an issue; writers for whom that’s an issue burn their diaries, they don’t tie them up.  I was under no pressure of curiosity, either, to learn more than I already knew of my young mother’s Italian journeys, for I have stumbled through my own life trailing her immense youth, my awareness of it perfect.  It was the knots that got me.

When I thought I’d heard it all — the long Roman winters warm enough at high noon for an hour of reading on the roof garden, the windy trips to the cemetery island in Venice, where an anguished pilgrim left on Diaghilev’s grave a black ballet slipper threaded with carnations, the white peacocks of the Villa Borromeo, white but iridescent too, the spectral feathers with their blank eyes iridescing whitely. Yes, my mother could taunt you with wants. The best defense was simply to appropriate her memories, every single luscious one. Just to take it all in through your very pores.  So it is with her diaries. My mother and I have the same name, a family name going far back and never borne by more than two women at a time, sometimes only by one.  Her handwriting too has come to me entire — I could have formed with the same pen-strokes those loops and hooks, that pitching fractal sea that reaches into my mind.

Viacondottitiny_2 Hats, for instance.  I came to Rome ecstatically prepared by my mother’s Italian winters, when, in the chic quarters of town where she could always wangle a toehold, to be hatless was to be gauche.  No sooner had I heard my first church bells ring than, hat-wise, I knew what to do.  I simply found in the Via Condotti a couture model that was just right, then made a dog-leg to a less splendid street nearby, where within a few days a copy could be had for not much from a tiny shop without a name.  Just a door, a counter, and a display window full of undecided felt.  If you wanted not to skimp on hats, however, you went to Baronceli in Venice.  There they would fashion for you the perfect hat, and you’d walk out looking as much like Audrey Hepburn as your genetic endowment and ability to self-starve permitted. Whether this remains a hot tip, so that a girl indulging herself to look that retro could still use it, I cannot say — but it was once bedrock. 

Longhi_6 The diaries are scattered with appreciative self-portraits, hatted just so.  Occasionally, in Venice, my mother drew herself masked — masked in her own diaries.  Although I do not believe she went out on the town in maschera, even at Carnival time. She would have told me — if for no other reason to let me suppose she sinned more impressively than she can have done.  Sinned the way a young masked woman does, in a city where the unreality of self once obliged residents to go out masking six months of the year, sporting in the brim of a hat multiple masks in case more than one false self at a time was needed. Of course I still have my mother’s hats. I understand her balking, however, at the purchase of a Venetian mask — a good one being custom-made to fit your face so well that no method of attachment is necessary.  You could jiggle plenty and it wouldn’t fall off.  Whoever you are, you cannot but be glad that your mother never had a mask like that.


Before starting a new diary, to stiffen and decorate the inside covers and create end-papers my mother would collage train tickets, hotel stationery, soap wrappers, cafe napkins, bottled water labels, concert programs, even the tiny paper parasols from tropical drinks.  I must say she filched soap and stationery from awfully good hotels to make this attractive effect. And she was crafty at peeling thin strips of posters off outdoor walls — about a lecture on nose jobs given years earlier by a Milanese professor, about the sold out engagement of an exotic dancer, Sissy Chinchilla, in a strip club in Bari, about the canceled appearance at the Verona amphitheater of The Virgin Prunes, a rock band whose fame must even then have been hazy.

That such as Sissy Chinchilla had made a splash in Bari mattered to my mother. She would say that if you took in a new city without paying heed to those hoary masonry walls where everyone with anything to tell the world pasted a notice, using such stubborn glue that the rain of years was not enough to wash it away, so that ultimately whatever was there became informational lichen, then you might as well not have stepped down from the train that brought you.  Leaving aside whether the salient point of a thing eluded her — and believe me, it often did — my mother held ephemera in a tight grasp.  Literally, for I can see now her gloved hands — gloves from Sermoneta by the Spanish Steps, such supple skins they used — stripping from communal walls those intensely meaningless paper shards that rustle and shift in their delicate moorings when you smack her diaries wide open. Dark now with time, for her they were the sparkle on the water. 


Little in my mother’s diaries struck me harder than the rather deep relationships she entered into with animals.  Take her affecting sketches of Fafner, a brindled dachshund of Catania.  She measured him at 4.5 feet long, from the nose to the tip of his tail, and made notes on other minutiae pertaining to this Fafner — his “balls like wild plums” for instance.  There was the Neapolitan mastiff, Boss, a Cerberus of a dog who kept his owner well guarded in her little shop in the Via Borgognona.  Boss, with his gunmetal coat and golden eyes roaming horribly over any threat.  And what of the mongrel she followed all one long afternoon on Capri?  It’s not a thing you think to do with a Capri afternoon, to follow a dog.  The creature kept glancing back over its shoulder at her, whether beckoning her on or glaring at her to make her go away, my mother never knew. 

Velia What kind of woman carries on so, about lower mammals she has known in foreign parts?  Such tales excite no one to envy, and my mother when she chose could make a listener glitter with it.  Take the day in Tarquinia that she and a few others were let into the frescoed tomb of the ravishing Velia, a noble Etruscan maiden with a pouty sneer.  What had got Velia in a state of perpetual affront down there?  Her own death, most likely.  And it was wet enough in her tomb to grow mushrooms.  After a frigid half hour with a guard shining a flashlight on every painted square inch of the two thousand-five hundred year-old chamber, my mother and the others climbed the numerous and slippery steps leading back above ground — to the sun, the grass in the wind, the satiny red poppies dotting the long field that overlay the necropolis. Cued by nothing they could name, the women in the little group ran as one to tear poppies from the earth and weave them into their hair.  Judging from my mother’s diaries, however, it took no more than a black and white rabbit in the petting zoo of the Public Gardens in Taormina to outweigh, page for page, the psychic density of that maidenly tomb.


Were the animals stand-ins?  That is, was it a kind of maternal behavior — observing closely the tender Sicilian rabbit, feeding it daily with pale lettuces and corn?  I think the rabbit was no placeholder, for Italy was and is full of the most cherubic bambini, the sight of an unencumbered girl stopping a pram to pet and coo a common one.  Why, the sheer Eros of Italian motherhood famously lulls you to fecundity, yet my mother held back and held back and held back — slender, hatted, attentive to rabbits, dogs and mute stones.  And of all the beings — cat ladies, Jesuits, Mexican Holy Year penitents with running mascara, aged countesses, smoldering waiters – that appeared in her decade’s worth of diaries, there is not a single drawing of a single child.

Englishcemetery Rather, she made sketches of children’s graves — the life-sized marble effigy of a chubby-ankled Victorian pre-schooler in the English cemetery in Florence, for instance, and the nearly featureless grave of Alberto who died aged 9 in Venice, every other detail of his headstone, even the tiny photo under glass, having weathered too poorly to be discerned. That marble toddler in Florence — I never visited the exact grave — wore a cunningly chiseled velvet frock that made you want to touch the nap. She planted her feet wide on her tomb slab and raised her arms so high in a “Not me!” appeal to Fate that her petticoats showed. Tell me, what grieving couple of the Brownings’ circle could have possibly taken comfort in that?  Surely it was not quite as my mother saw it, and the actual marble baby balances sweetly between two worlds, her hands held out in welcome. But then, I know at this distance certain things that my young mother couldn’t have then known as she furiously drew and made notes – how the grave of a child must not look, for one thing.

Remember that my mother was a painter who made whatever she saw her own, often without regard to how it really appeared.  Really appeared to whom? — I can hear her ask, and yes, she would have said whom.  Her grammar was both leisurely and perfect — oh, that was a mask.  Like the mask of generalized leisure the diaries wear, for she had by the standards of today almost endless time in Italy – time that keeps on expanding, a wavy transparent upload allowing me to know more than I can, like the android in Bladerunner who didn’t know she could play the piano until she sat down at one and played it.  So it is that I know my mother’s idea of herself as a young artist abroad, and where she thought she fitted in.  She was rather unconcerned to fit into the 20th century schema, figuring that was bound to happen whether one wished or unwished it.  It is as plain from her diaries as from her paintings that she was after something altogether different – not timeless, just different.  Be who you are, she would say, it’s the Socratic lesson. Yes, follow that star – as I have done.  Long before she knew me I sensed my own coming on, permeable as Orion as I then was, and I stepped down from her sky, not to be stopped.

Goethe288x224 One winter, she took a room with a roof garden – you could get them cheap, the Italians think their winters are cold — not far from Goethe’s house on the Corso, where, in his 30’s he had lived for two years, registering himself in the parish of Santa Maria del Popolo as “Filippo Muller” – a slightly younger man.  After visiting the Sistine Chapel, Goethe most famously roamed the Campagna – his friend and Corso housemate, the German painter Tischbein, immortalized him there in a broad-brimmed hat and a garment that is partly toga and partly duster.  My young mother set out to roam the Campagna, too, wearing I believe a voluminous beret with a feather. How things had changed in the 200 years since Goethe! The grotto of the nymph, Egeria, its mouth splashed with lime and flanked with heaping garbage trucks, the temple of Deus Rediculus now the mainstay of a trailer park where wood fires burned.  One could still hear the cowbells and smell the clover that would have penetrated the sensorium of Goethe, however. And there were my mother’s usual strays – underfed dogs, out for themselves on this comfortless Fellinian terrain, cats stretching in the faint sun.


Would it have made a painting? The colossal disregard for their cultural patrimony and their environment shown by the Italians – the empty Fanta cans silting up the tombs at Cerveteri, the plastic bags of picnic litter tied insouciantly to low branches beside the storied Lake of Nemi – my mother described it all without any wish to paint it. Only to know it as she painted what she painted, and to make sure Antiquity never took on the aspect of a polished white thing in a well swept museum.

But what, if not sketching for her paintings, was my mother doing with these months-long chunks of her youth? She had a career, and she had to mind it — although one is tempted by the diaries to imagine she merely went forth to take Italy in, including all the pricey lunches that she left frank, unashamed records of, so that I am staggered at the things she could afford to eat, spending what she believed was very little. My mother would hurriedly jot down notes on an early morning visit to the church of Sant’ Agnese in Agone, say, and then add a line about dashing over to the Galleria Doria-Pamphili because she’d heard the private apartments might be open from 11 till noon – she was all for private apartments – where she caught sight of a reliquary full of  “festooned saint bits,” the saint herself in a vitrine, “child-sized with thin sox. ”  But it was the day’s luncheon that was detailed utterly without haste.  On the day of the saint bits, for instance, she lunched at the Costa Balena, a favorite trat near the Porta Pia, tucking into Jewish-style artichokes, followed by trenette al’ pesto and grilled rospo with lemon and herbs. The rolls were crusty, the Frascati just the right temperature not to mention an arresting straw color unusual for Frascati, and as a digestivo there was a big mason jar full of almond-scented ratafia ladeled out by the owner to every thirsty comer.

Pick almost any day anywhere in Italy, and you read of something similar laid before my mother, whether she lunched alone or in company. She would paste the restaurant receipt into her record of the day, occasionally surrounding it with exclamation points, wings, shafts of light penetrating cloud cover, volcanoes erupting or some other private though easily decoded symbol denoting whether the lunch had been so-so — or epiphanial.



I submit there is something not quite right about a girl barely out of her teens caring so what she eats, knowing not just bad from good but which foods are a full expression of terroir and which are but vitiated things, knowing when a whole civilization speaks to you through your sense of taste and when it is mute and you are …only eating.

And when did she work, for Heaven’s sake? Do you spend the morning running around Italy, then lunch like she did, and still get any work done?  I’m afraid so.  Anyone who doubts my mother was working has only to take a look at her paintings, of which I am the chief guardian. They are all around me now, even on the floor turned to face the wall – just so that I can turn them to the room again when I freshen things up.  I am like Boss, the golden-eyed mastiff, alert to any threat to my stock and its provider.  So it is surely not for nothing, all the work she did.

For a long time my young mother and I only brushed as in a crowded passage, though when at last we met we tangled into a knot.  Until then, however, I would see her standing at the far end of San Marco, against the blazing facade — gloved, hatted just so, too slender to be feasting like I know she did.  And she would fling her crusts to the hideously thronging pigeons that never alarmed her no matter how fast they came or how greedy, because animals and their demands were easy, and she was without them violently discontent, knowing perfectly that no tomb was worth a rabbit yet spending her youth at graveyards and at laden tables. And because I know what she knew at any given moment, I see that she had no awareness of me then in the shadowy portico, moving in and out of view like a masker awaiting an assignation. It would be long years before I overtook her, and there was much observing left for her to do.

Whenever she departed a town – Taormina, for instance, to which she always returned — my mother would leave it as if for the last time, with a rhapsodic backward-glancing drawing of a thing seen from the moving train.  I too am fond of looking backwards — I prefer to sit facing that way when my train pulls out.  So I know the long vistas of departure, and that wide nexus of gravel and track where trains appear almost to collide before one switches off at a saving angle and the other hurtles on. But there is a dark mountain I have not seen, leaving Taormina station, that I know my mother saw.  Not just drew, but saw. A dark mountain cleft on one side, with paths converging on a villa halfway up — and in the villa, truth to tell, I do not quite believe. Yet behind shut lids I see that mountain as if from a searing retinal imprint when racketing towards the Straits of Messina and the mainland beyond, I widened my eyes, knowing I was leaving for the very last time.


The 3qd U.S. Open Preview

How good are the tennis players competing in the U.S. Open, which starts today?  Consider these names: Frank Dancevic, the Canadian number one, who beat Andy Roddick three weeks ago; Aisam-ul-haq Qureshi, the Pakistani number one, who played Marat Safin at Wimbledon this year; Israeli number one Dudi Sela; and Japanese number one Takao Suzuki, who last October came within four points last fall of defeating Roger Federer. What do these players have in common?  They weren’t good enough to be guaranteed spots in the draw.  All of them played in last week’s qualifying tournament, in which 128 men and 128 women compete to fill the final 16 places in the men’s and women’s draws.

I watched Qureshi play two qualifying matches last week, the second against Scoville Jenkins, an African-American player who has given Rafael Nadal a difficult match in the past.  The level of play was nearly indistinguishable from that of the best players – after all, even Federer and Nadal, who dominate their peers like no other duo in history, only win 55% of their points played.  Qureshi is an exciting player who forces the action by coming to net after every serve, but after winning a dramatic first set in a tiebreaker, he injured his wrist in the second and retired, ending his hopes to qualify for the main draw.  Jenkins’ reward for qualifying?  To face Federer in the first round.  On outer courts this week, you’ll see the stylish Dancevic as well as many more familiar names.  In Arthur Ashe and Louis Armstrong stadiums, where tennis’ upper crust perform their magic, court-side tickets are very difficult to obtain, so it can be hard to see human drama that is so palpable when sitting a few feet from a player. 

Tennis is a sport afflicted by its white-shoe image.  Investment advisers, insurance companies, and gold watchmakers lavishly sponsor the sport,  but it’s a case of very unequal revenue sharing.  Players outside the top fifty make much less than comparably ranked athletes in other sports, and the Jenkins’ and Sela’s of the tour scrape to pay for flights, hotels and coaches, despite the relative closeness of their abilities to the best.  Marketers have tried to inflate professional tennis into a kind of upper-middlebrow fashion show, yet beneath this lies a rigorous sport that demands the discipline, dexterity, and intense focus of a concert violinist. 

If you do get great seats at Arthur Ashe stadium, though, these skills will be displayed quite fully.  Last Thursday afternoon, Roger Federer, practiced there.  With an audience of about five security guards and your excited correspondent, media badge nervously clutched, in the empty 22,000-seat arena, Federer goofed around between points against Germany’s Nicolas Kiefer, then proceeded to hit his stunning and flawless strokes.  Seen at close range, I can perhaps best describe his play as explosively graceful, or violently precise.  He wasn’t very focussed, though, missing some shots and laughing, “Nein!”  (Federer tends to exposulate in different langauges, using “Allez!” for the French, and “Come on!” in Queens.)  At one point, Kiefer aced him, and Federer, without looking, smashed the ball off the tarp behind him, neatly banking it into the hands of a waiting hitting partner.  It was the kind of thing you might see a magician do, yet for Federer it was just an absent-minded expression of annoyance.  Such is life as the greatest practitioner ever of tennis.

Rafa Nadal, meanwhile, was literally waiting in the wings for his own practice session with the former world number one Juan Carlos Fererro.  But Federer didn’t clear out of his chair, continuing to laugh and joke with Kiefer.  Finally, Nadal, whose eagerness to hit tennis balls is infinite and joyous, walked out onto the court.  At this Federer stood began to pack up his bag, with his back turned to his greatest rival – perhaps a subtle psychological tactic?  Not to be ignored, however, Rafa playfully tapped Roger on the calf with his racquet as he passed, to which Federer brightly responded, “Hey Raf!,” and left Nadal to perform his own tricks.

The U.S. Open starts today.  The schedule is here.  A grounds pass is $45.00, and gains you admission to every court other than Ashe.  Take the 7 train to Willets Point-Shea Stadium and follow the devotees.

(For more of my 3quarks tennis writing, click here, here, here, or here.)

Qurratulain Hyder (Aini Apa), 1927-2007

Surood e rafta baaz ayad kay nayad
Nasim e az hijaz ayad kay nayad
Saramad rozgar e ein faqeeray
Dagar dana e raaz ayad kay nayad

AaIt was a lovely winter evening in 1983 when I first met Aini Apa at the home of my beloved Misdaq Khala Jaan (Saleha Abid Hussain, the prolific Urdu writer) in Okhla (New Delhi). She looked even grander in person than I had imagined and by the end of that evening, I was completely ravished forever by her palpable charisma, her sharp intellect and her great good humor. She, on the other hand, thought I was a snob and said so to my dearest friend Sughra Mehdi (a famous writer in her own right and the adopted daughter of Misdaq Khala Jaan and Janab Abid Hussain Sahib). The reason she thought I was a snob is quintessential Aini Apa. My visit to Delhi, along with my mother, had been hastily arranged from Karachi, while I was home from the USA for two short weeks and our stay in India was going to be quite rushed. The dinner had been arranged by Misdaq Khala Jaan so Ammi and I could meet our friends and relatives in one evening. Aini Apa was living in Zakir Bagh at the time, being the first occupant of the Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan Chair at Jamia Millia, and was a frequent presence at my aunt’s home. She considered Sughra Mehdi as her friend and confidant (Aini Apa bestowed the title of “Musheer Fatima” on Sughra as Sughra is forever being solicited for practical advice by the young and old alike).

Like every other reader of Urdu literature, I worshipped Aini Apa and was dying to meet her, but had been duly forewarned by Sughra not to show my adoration as Aini Apa was known to be irritated by all manner of people claiming to be her fans. As a result, I spent the entire evening regaling her with juicy gossip about our common acquaintances (she loved to gossip), jokes (she had a fantastic sense of humor and she roared with complete abandon if she liked the joke), poetry (I lay claim to knowing hundreds of Urdu verses, including some wicked and funny ones) and conspicuously avoiding any acknowledgment of her as the greatest living writer of her time. The fact that Aini Apa minded my deliberate avoidance of the subject is why I say it was quintessential Aini Apa. She was full of surprises and contradictions. For example, she once asked a famous critic repeatedly to tell her what he thought of her latest book, while he tried helplessly to excuse himself modestly from doing so because he felt he was not good enough to critique her work. At her insistence, he finally caved in and feebly critiqued a few very minor points in the novel. Aini Apa’s subsequent unbridled wrath which immediately and ferociously descended upon the miserable chap and lasted late in to the night, lived up to its legendary reputation. Paradoxically, when the famed Urdu writer and tri-lingual poet, and my flamboyantly gay best friend (we were known as the Hag-Fag couple in Chicago, and he insisted that he was the hag) Ifti Nasim was invited by Jawarhlal Nehru University in Delhi to give a series of lectures, one of his major attractions was to be able to meet Aini Apa. He asked me for an introduction to her and I called Aini Apa to request some time for Ifti. She was completely smitten by him forever as on the first meeting, he promptly produced a lipstick from his pocket and said, “You will love this Aini Apa because I use the same shade.”

Aps_and_aaIt took two more meetings before we really became friends, and then stayed in touch ever since. I invited her as a guest of my literary club Urdu Mehfil in the summer of 1992 to Cincinnati [photo on the right shows us at that time], and during the few weeks that she stayed with me, we traveled (Buffalo, Niagara Falls), laughed hysterically, had serious bitching sessions, ate out at fancy restaurants, and talked endlessly about subjects ranging from Masnawi e Zehr e Ishq, Dilli kay karkhandar, Mir Anis, and Bollywood to how sweet she thought EM Forester, Arnold Toynbee and John Dos Passos were in person, and how arrogant Steinbeck. During this stay, I taped many hours of serious conversations with her. She agreed to be interviewed only if I would write out my questions in advance and she would decide whether they were worth answering or not. I will transcribe these in Part Two of this article. She had very definite likes and dislikes and two things she hated with a passion were any mention of her writing and all desserts. The latter prompted my darling Zakia to compose the following parody of Ghalib’s ghazal on the spot while we were all together in Cincinnati:

Zindagi youn bhi guzar hi jaati
Kyoon jawani ka figure yaad aaya

Munh mein rasgulla na aya tha hanooz
Aini Apa ka qahar yaad ayaya

Some years ago in Chicago, I was complaining about the malice and political acrobatics of a peer to my dear friends Arjun Appadurai and Carol Breckenridge when Arjun cut me short and made the following profound statement: “Azra yaar, there are very few people who are truly the A-team (Beethoven, Einstein, Freud, Michelangelo… get the picture). The rest of us are all just B-team. What difference does it make to complain or feel competitive within the B-team?” I can safely say that of the five A-team people I have met in my life, Aini Apa heads the list.

She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and grew up among the exclusive elite circle of her famous parents Sajjad Hyder Yildirim and Nazr Sajjad Hyder. At 19, she astounded the world of Urdu with her first novel, Meray Bhi Sanam Khanay which dealt with the theme that occurs repeatedly in her subsequent works; the tragedies and social betrayals resulting from the partition of the subcontinent. Where history is concerned, the devil definitely lies in detail. With profound insight, exquisite sensitivity and heartbreaking prose, she chronicled the stories of families and individual lives as they were rent asunder in parallel with the fissuring of the country. This is what C.M. Naim, Professor of Urdu Literature and Languages at the University of Chicago says in his introduction to “A season of Betrayal” which contains the English translations of her short story Patjhar ki Avaz and the two novellas, Sita Haran and Housing Society:

The days and months that preceded and followed August 1947 – when the Indian subcontinent became free of colonial bonds – were filled with most horrific acts of physical violence. It was also a time of other, equally rampant violations that were not any the less scarring for not being patently physical. These were violations of trust; they wounded and maimed the psyches of their victims, leaving the bodies intact. And their time – that season of betrayals – lasted longer than just several months. At the time, most major Urdu writers – they were almost all men – wrote about the horrors and brutalities that some human beings could deliberately inflict upon others in the name of religion. Only later did some of them –Rajinder Singh Bedi, for one – turn their attention to the other, less overtly bloody tragedies: what had happened and continued to happen to individual and families at that human site where there had been no “riot” and yet there were any number of victims. Prominent among the latter was Qurratulain Hyder, who may also have been unique among all writers, women and men, for having experienced and written about such tectonic upheavals in all the emergent borders – in India and in both West and East Pakistan. Interestingly, she first responded in the form of novels, as if the magnitude of the events demanded a larger canvas, and only later turned to shorter genres. In some sense however, she never stopped examining the consequences of those events, as is evident even in her most recent works.

The second last paragraph sums it up beautifully:

In almost all her writings Hyder has been concerned with Time, that faceless presence which transforms all appearances and which we ignore only at our own peril. Though this inevitability of change is our only permanent reality, Hyder persistently urges us to recognize both its faces, one of gain and the other of loss. A linearly progressing time brings about changes. Should we then take sides? Should we say that change is progress? Or should we sat it is decline? Either according to Hyder would be simplistic and perilous, for such issues are not settled by a reference to the material world alone. What counts for her is the human spirit and relationships it generates and nurtures. That is where the linearity of time seems to curve into a spiral, urging us to recognize a past that never quite disappears.

I may be stretching the point but it seems to me that what Hyder tacitly offers us is nothing but that wise Candidean response: even in the best of all possible worlds, it is best not to neglect to tend our garden. Certainly, through the several thousand pages of her writings, she has shown herself to be an eloquent witness to that truth.

A Season of Betrayals (Oxford University Press).

At 28, she published her magnum opus, the landmark Aag ka Darya, which is arguably the best book in fiction, occupying that coveted place in Urdu which Garcia Marquez’s One hundred years of Solitude occupies in Hispanic literature. The world of Urdu changed forever after this book was published since every subsequent writer has been influenced by Aini Apa (yes, including Salman Rushdie):

It was the season of beerbahutis and rainclouds, some time in the 4th century B.C. In a cool grotto Gautam Nilamber, a final year student at the Forest University of Shravasti chances upon Hari Shankar, a princeling yearning to be a Buddhist monk. He falls in love with the beautiful, sharp-witted Champak. And thus begins a magnificent tale that flows through Time, through Maghadhan Pataliputra, the Kingdom of Oudh, the British Raj, and into a Time of Independence. This fiery river of Time flows along the banks of their lives as they are reborn and recreated, weaving through twists and turns, the flows and eddies, keeping them together, keeping them apart. The story comes full circle in post-Partition India where Hari Shankar and his friend Gautam Nilamber Dutt meet in a grotto in the forest of Shravasti, and mourn the passing of their lives into meaninglessness, their friends who have left for Pakistan, and what remains of their country of which they were once so passionately proud. What happens between then and now is history, full of the clangor of conflict, the deviousness of colonizers, the apathy of maharajahs, and the irrelevance of religion in defining Indianness.

(Publishers note on River of Fire).

I read this mesmerizing book once every 2-3 years, and to me, in addition to its captivating prose and the stories themselves, it also represents one of Aini Apa’s central and profound tenets: current events, history, and most importantly, the past, have a nasty habit of intruding into our lives no matter how private a citizen we wish to be. Should we then abandon society and lead the life of an ascetic Jain? Well, as she deftly shows in the interconnected stories, even that does not protect us. In fact, one of the major messages of the book is exactly the message which Ghalib sends in the following brilliant couplet.

Dair naheen, haram naheen, dar naheen aastan naheen
Baithay hayn rahguzar pay hum, koi hamayn uthai kyoon

Aini Apa’s memory was extraordinary and flawless, her intelligence was dazzling, her knowledge of Urdu, Hindi, and English literature, archeology, dance, classical music, (her last book is a biography of Ustad Baray Ghulam Ali Khan), painting, etymology and history was astonishing. I never heard her utter a platitude in all the times I have spent with her, and she was equally brilliant in both Urdu and English. Aini Apa was a fantastic mimic and could adopt a series of perfectly authentic regional accents. She thoroughly enjoyed a good joke, especially if it involved her. She loved the hajv written by her cousin which begins with the following lines:

Qurratulain hayn adab may dakheel
Jaisay Mulk e Arab mayn Israel

Aa_youngShe was a stunningly good looking young woman and cut a striking, imposing and graceful figure when older, and when she was not writing, her pet hobby was painting. I have never met anyone who valued her family more than she did. There was unconditional love in her heart for each and every member of the extended Hyder clan and for that of her mother’s side as well. Her glorious personality sparkled and lit up every room she was in. When I was in Delhi in 1992, Shabana Azmi had come to see me at my lovely friends Zakia and Akku Zaheer’s home in Ashadeep. Aini Apa was also there for dinner that night. It was a magical evening with Sughra, Saiyeda (Hamid), Zakia, Aini Apa, Shabana, my friend Mehro and her husband Samar. Sparks of wit, hypnotizing Urdu couplets, and funny lines ranging from Ajit epigrams to Blonde jokes were flying all over. I saw Shabana, who is no less magnificent a person, an icon of Bollywood cinema with hundreds of millions of devoted followers, being completely blown away by Aini Apa. Such was her charisma, such her charm.

Aisa kahan say laain kay tujh sa kahain jissay?

I never met anyone whose set of values was as decent, who combined her celebrated wisdom with mind-boggling innocence and vulnerability, who was easily the kindest, gentlest, most sensitive person around and yet who did not suffer fools lightly. Javed Akhtar once said to me that the names of people Aini Apa really likes can be written on a grain of rice (secretly, both he and I were unabashedly confident that we were among those) and yet her circle of friends and acquaintances was exceedingly wide. She was compassionate to a fault and could feel the pain of the haves and have-nots with equal sensitivity.

As a friend, she was breathtakingly generous and thoughtful. During one of my visits to Delhi, she arranged an amazing evening for me. My favorite Urdu poet (who I think is as great as Ghalib) is Mir Anis, the acknowledged King of elegiac poetry (marsias), and whose unique style of reciting marsias was legendry in Lukhnow. Aini Apa invited the grandson of Sir Sultan Ahmed for a majlis at her place because Tanveer has learned to copy Mir Anis precisely, from gestures and voice intonations to the angarkha and dupalli topi he wore. I was more deeply touched by her thoughtful gesture of holding a majlis for me because she was not a practicing Shia (although her mother was), but did it because she knew of my absolute devotion to Anis. She was also a great admirer of Anis and her story, “Qayd khaney main talatum hay kay Hind aatii hay” is a lovely reminder of that.

Aini Apa could do no wrong as far as her diehard admirers like me were concerned for one simple reason:

Wu tu iss funn ka Khuda hay yaaro
Uss ko har baat rava hay yaaro

(She is the Goddess of her field
Everything is permissible for her)

Last year, we were chatting on the phone when something I said reminded her of a wonderful anecdote about the great Ismat Chughtai. Ismat Apa was trying to give some extra money to her washerman, an extremely poor, illiterate man from some hinterland in UP. He asked her what he was supposed to do with the money, and Ismat Apa said what do you mean what are you supposed to do with the money? Buy toys for your children. His response was a drawled out “Phaiiiiinh???” (the Purbi version of phir which means and then?). And Ismat Apa said, well, buy some new clothes for your wife, and he said “Phaiiiiinh???” And on and on. So Azra Begum, this is what life is all about…..a never ending series of “Phaiiiiinhs???” I got the Sahitya Academy Fellowship …. “Phaiiiiinh???” I got the Bharatiya Gnanpith (India’s highest literary award)……..“Phaiiiiinh???” I get the Nobel Prize tomorrow …… “Phaiiiiinh???”

During my last trip to India in 2004, I drove from Janpath to Noida every single day to see her. Her breathing problems caused by severe and progressive pulmonary fibrosis were getting visibly worse. One afternoon following lunch, I cornered Aini Apa and suggested immediate re-evaluation of her condition by a fresh team of specialists. She was adamant in the beginning, insisting that she had the best physicians taking care of her already, but over the next few days, was finally convinced to follow my advice, and subsequently, did better for a long while.

The first evening I went to see Aini Apa in 2004, I had taken my 9 year old daughter Sheherzad with me. Aini Apa was exceedingly attentive to her, had her recite lots of poetry by Ghalib and Iqbal which I have made the innocent one memorize since she was three years old, encouraged her on during and after each poem by applauding loudly. When she found out that Sheherzad had been taking Kathak dance lessons, Aini Apa was visibly delighted and insisted that she does a few steps for the guests which included the Vice Chancellor of Jamia. Such was Aini Apa’s aura that without a peep, my daughter got up and performed an entire song for her.

On my last day in Delhi, Aini Apa insisted upon coming to see me herself for lunch at Abid Villa in Okhla. Walking into the house from the car which had been pulled up in the driveway almost to the front door, Aini Apa was completely out of breath and had turned blue. It took many puffs from her various inhalers, and the connection to her portable oxygen tank before she could catch her breath sufficiently to be able to talk. Then she was unstoppable. During this memorable afternoon, as we sat in Sughra’s verandah, enjoying what Josh Sahib has named the gulabi dhoop of a January afternoon, the front door bell rang. Sughra’s young niece Zehra answered the door, and then to our great delight, yelled out in all earnestness, “Sughra Apa, the beggar is here. What do you want to give him today, lunch or lecture?” At last, the time came for us to part. We walked Aini Apa to the car, a few short yards bringing on another severe attack of breathlessness. When she was safely seated in the car and had caught her breath somewhat, she asked the driver to open the trunk. “I have been thinking about what to give you” she said, “and decided upon a very special gift.” Out of the trunk came a huge, beautiful, bright yellow satin quilt with silver stripes on top and brown lining at the bottom. “I got this made in Radoli because I always felt cold in America, so I know this is one present you will definitely use.” Needless to say, I had to borrow an extra large suitcase from Sughra to fit this lihaf in for the trip back home to Chicago, but it remains one of my prized possessions. She gave me a big kiss and we stood on the road waving to her until her car turned the corner and went out of sight. This was the last time I would see Aini Apa.

Aa_lastIn March of this year, as my other A-team member friend Sara Suleri Goodyear and I were working on our book Ghalib: Epistemologies of Elegance, we agreed that the best person to write a foreword for our book would be Aini Apa. Given the highest esteem in which we both hold Aini Apa, we felt it called for a trip to India in order to make the request in person. Sara by the way, who has never met Aini Apa, but is nonetheless an admirer of hers, reminds me uncannily of Aini Apa: the same regal personalities, equally intelligent, classy, wise, witty, sensitive, generous, and above all, both have a wonderful sense of humor. Had they so chosen, each could have become a great actress. It was one of my wishes to see them together in the same room. We called Aini Apa and asked her if she could spare a week for us, to which she readily agreed and insisted that we stay with her. As our bags were packed and all preparations were complete, including a menu for our various meals at Aini Apa’s by her devoted housekeeper Rehana, at the last minute Sara was denied a visa by the Indian consulate in New York. We later learned that this was a tit-for-tat game being played between Pakistan and India. Pakistan had denied a visa right around the same time to Javed Akhter, so India was going to do the same for a prominent Pakistani. We were heartbroken. When I called to tell Aini Apa about the visa situation, she was incensed and threatened to call the Prime Minister and protest. Unfortunately, it was too late as Sara’s Spring break at Yale was going to be over soon and she had to start teaching again. We decided to go during her Winter break. Alas, Aini Apa did not wait for us.

My last phone conversation with Aini Apa was some six weeks before the end came. She was her usual sparkling self and we gossiped and chatted for a long time. In early August, I had some kind of a premonition, and called her only to be told that she had been admitted to the ICU that very day with a severe pneumonia. I called regularly, and received increasingly ominous reports from Sughra, Bacchan (Aini Apa’s grand-niece Huma Hyder who was adored by Aini Apa like a daughter and who did more for Aini Apa than any other soul) and Rehana. I talked to Dr. Shukla, her personal physician, and learned that even as she was improving in some ways and had been transferred from the ICU to the step-down unit, her lungs were not cooperating since almost no functioning pulmonary tissue was left. At 11:00 p.m. on August 21, Sughra called with the news that Aini Apa was no more.

Kaheen andheray say manoos hu na jaayey adab
Chiragh taiz hava nay bujhaaey hain kya kya

–Kaifi Azmi

Aini Apa no more? That can never be. Even if it sounds clichéd, as long as Urdu is alive, she truly will always reign supreme as one of its most dominant writers, and she will live through the several generations of writers she has already and indelibly influenced, with many more to come. So instead of saying Inna Lillah, I am going to say:

Aini Apa Zindabad!

This article is dedicated to my brother Abbas who first requested nicely that I write something about Aini Apa and when I did not respond (so heartbroken I felt by this terrible loss), he browbeat me into it.

‘Is your mouth a little weak?’: Commitment, politics and poetry

Australian poet and author Peter Nicholson writes 3QD’s Poetry and Culture column (see other columns here). There is an introduction to his work at and at the NLA.

The politically-engaged poem follows in the wake of the horrors of history, or as a literary tremor in the tidal pool of self thrust into a furious universe with no undue ceremony. Some cultural and economic theorists say all action and thought is political and thus all literature is political too. Can a poem change the course of political devolution? Can you save the world with a song, with performance poetry—‘Strange Fruit’, ‘We Shall Overcome’? Despite all evidence to the contrary, a poet likes to think it can be so, despite the cynicism of ‘All art is quite useless’.

We are the language animals, and if we end up distrusting words, nihilism follows close behind. Blake had none of these doubts. Here is a poem from Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

         The Chimney Sweeper

A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep. in notes of woe!
Where are thy father & mother? say?
They are both gone up to church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath.
And smil’d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death.
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy. & dance & sing.
They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King
Who make up a heaven of our misery.

This directness and simplicity, this eloquent concision, had, by the mid-twentieth century, turned into something like this:

The monopoly
Of the slave trade,
                           at this time Gibraltar
and the old bitch de Medicis died in miseria,
                ‘29, John Law obit
as you may read in San Moisé, in the pavement,
Grevitch, bug-house, in anagram: “Out of vast
a really sense of proportion
                                  and instantly.”
wanted me to type-write his name on a handkerchief.
In 1766 was beheaded, in the charming small town of Abbeville,
                Young Labarre, for reading Arouet de Voltaire,
where the stream runs close to houses.
                                 Ezra Pound The Cantos Thrones de los Cantares XCVl–ClX  C

Pound said that he would like a Chinese ideogram for sincerity on the title page of The Cantos. Is this the sincerity of fragmentation?—regarded as a virtue by the Imagists.

Pound’s style was not an option for a poet like Osip Mandelstam. Here is the poem about Stalin that got Mandelstam arrested and sent into exile. Privations and sickness followed, homelessness, then a transit camp, and death on December 27, 1938.

                    The Stalin Epigram

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another  meouws, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

                          [November 1933] Translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin

The Russians give the permanent lie to idea that poetry can not be intimately related to the life of the people without work descending to propagandising. As the Blake poem shows, this direct confrontation with political realities was nothing new in poetry. Shelley took on Liverpool’s government, after the Peterloo massacre in Manchester in 1819. Here is an excerpt from ‘The Masque of Anarchy’:

I met Murder on the way—
He had a mask like Castlereagh—
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed the human heads to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.

Next came Fraud, and he had on,
Like Eldon, an ermined gown;
His big tears, for he wept well,
Turned to mill-stones as they fell.

And the little children, who
Round his feet played to and fro,
Thinking every tear a gem,
Had their brains knocked out by them.

The emotion still leaps out across the years. You know this is not feigning, or something written to order. Almost any poet worth the name is capable of harnessing the Muse to the sudden immensities, splendours and awfulness of politics. A problem can arise when a reader is unaware of the events that gave birth to the poem. Edith Sitwell, confronted by the realities of the Second World War, suddenly lifts herself above the word games and indulgences to the hard biblical utterance of ‘Still Falls The Rain’ as the bombs fall on London. But if you don’t know what happened to London during the war the poem isn’t going to make much sense. Here is the beginning of the poem.

Still falls the Rain—
Dark as the world of man, black as our loss—
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the Cross.

Still falls the Rain
With a sound like the pulse of the heart that is changed to
   the hammer-beat
In the Potter’s Field, and the sound of impious feet

On the Tomb:
                    Still falls the Rain
In the Field of Blood where the small hopes breed and
   the human brain
Nurtures its greed, that worm with the brow of Cain.

This poem is—perhaps—more a personal response to political events than a politically-engaged poem. It’s interesting to go back and look at anthologies to see how well the poems stand up to the slew of time. Jon Silkin’s Poetry of the Committed Individual published by Penguin in 1973 provides some interesting examples. Emanuel Litvinoff wasn’t letting T. S. Eliot off the hook back then either. Here is an excerpt from ‘To T. S. Eliot’:

I am not one accepted in your parish,
Bleistein is my relative and I share
the protozoic slime of Shylock, a page
in Sturmer, and, underneath the cities,
a billet somewhat lower than the rats.
Blood in the sewers. Pieces of our flesh
float with the order of the Vistula.
You had a sermon but it was not this.

Other poets in this anthology include Hill, Harrison, Holub, Brecht, Ungaretti, Hikmet and Tsvetaeva.

The problem in art comes when you start to look for ideological correctness. Life is messy, confused, and art reflects that. We sometimes compromise our ideals. If we say we don’t we are probably lying. And how would we behave in the situations the poets above found themselves confronted by? ‘The banality of evil’ is the omnipresent reference of our time, but, if you’ve ever met it face-to-face, perhaps evil wouldn’t seem banal at all.

The truth is that all, poets included, live in a state of contradictoriness and illogicality. But poets can be wise, sometimes. Lorenz Hart asks in the song ‘My Funny Valentine’—‘Is your figure less than Greek? / Is your mouth a little weak? / When you open it to speak, are you smart?’ Well, poets can have weak mouths and torsos less than Greek. If they can’t always be expected to be heroic, like Mandelstam or Celan, they try to understand the world in poetry, which is not an essay, not philosophy and should not be a tract. But sometimes they are smart, smarter than all the tracts and propaganda, all the journalism, all the surrounding sound and fury.

‘And The Winner Is . . .’, which follows in the tradition of the politically-engaged poem, can be read here.

Billie Holiday sings ‘Strange Fruit’ here. 2′ 33”

Below the Fold: While the Watchman Sleeps: Fraud in Today’s America

Count them up: a bridge collapse, sleazy mortgage-writing, record home foreclosures, killer pharmaceuticals, deathly toys, a stock market meltdown, e. coli and salmonella outbreaks. Would you like to add to my list?

WashingtonEven if you believe in nothing positive about the role of government, doesn’t this litany give you pause? This side of sanity, there are a scant few who don’t believe at least in a watchman state that protects its citizens against violence, theft, fraud, and breach of contract. This is the maximum a state should provide, according to the late libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, perhaps the most famous believer in the minimal state of our time. The state is our watchman, the minimal protector of our rights not to be robbed, violated or killed by another, and is the guarantor that we will not be defrauded and that contracts we make will be enforced.

Well, the watchman is asleep, drugged and nearly done in by 31 years of neoliberal rule. That’s right Clintonites and those who still feel sorry for Jimmy Carter. Oh, and you irreconcilable Nixon-haters (yes, me still, I admit), recall that he helped start Medicaid, the last Great Society program of the last century. After Nixon then, and for 31 years, the foxes have run the federal chicken coup, and they have cleaned out the hens that once laid the golden eggs of protection and regulation. The malicious and ideological government haters, the industry lobbyists running departments that regulate their industries, and flimflammers that pretend that self-regulation is really regulation, have made sure that even if the federal government wanted, it could not protect us from the fraud and the theft of our well being now in full swing.

For many of our problems, there are simply no watchmen left. The Food and Drug Administration has 1962 food inspectors (down from 2200 in 2003) that must assure the safety of food imports. They sample 1% of the imported food we eat. As you know, even Fido needs to worry about poisoned pet food. They are also charged with assuring that the 12,000 food production facilities states-side are not slipping us poison.

The Department of Agriculture and state departments of agriculture, have 7,700 inspectors – a seemingly bountiful staff when compared with the FDA. Yet, they must account for the safety of all animals and the food products that are produced from them. You may recall the Jack-in-the-Box e.coli outbreak that arose from infected ground beef. Because of over-stretch, these departments must rely in part on self-regulation, which usually means that employees in slaughter houses and packing plants are designated to monitor the everyday through-put onsite and report possible violations to designated state or federal inspectors. A fair-minded person might doubt whether an employee would rat on his firm, or how a boss would resist firing the employee who ratted. She might even think it irresponsible to leave the public safety in the hands of potential code and law violators.

Do you wonder now why 73,000 people, of whom 60 die, come down with e.coli in a typical year? There is listeria and salmonella to think about too.

Speaking of self-regulation, how about those 12 million Mattel and Fischer-Price toys in America’s play pens contaminated with lead? The producers recalled the products upon discovery, it’s been reported. Less well known is the statement of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission that it doesn’t test toys for dangerous substances or even for dangerous designs and parts. It too relies on the self-regulation of toy makers, who seemed to have missed the problem 12 million toys ago.

Then there are the dangerous drugs. (I reported on TV pharmaceutical advertising in my last column.) Recall the Vioxx scandal? An estimated 100,000 people suffered unnecessary heart attacks and strokes because they took Vioxx. A former FDA higher-up in 2004 reported to Congress that the FDA is approving questionable drugs. Download this list and check your medicine cabinet:

1. Accutane, an acne drug that can cause birth defects
2. Crestor (remember Mandy Patimkin walking down that endless flight of stairs, presumably on his way to catch an ax murderer?), a cholesterol drug that can cause a muscle-wasting disorder
3. Baycol, another cholesterol drug related to muscle-wasting
4. Bextra, a Cox-2 inhibitor like Vioxx that may increase cardiovascular risks in some people
5. Prilosec and Nexium, the most popular drugs in America, have recently been cited in research as possible causes of heart failures and premature heart-related deaths

There are likely more. This is just a list I scraped up in an hour’s time. Once more, not only do the pharmaceutical companies do the efficacy studies themselves for drug approval, they pay doctors directly to produce additional studies. Medical ethics presumably protect us from the worst fraud, but it is important to keep in mind that data are highly interpretable. Like the glass, results can be interpreted as half-full or half-empty. The subtleties of drug-testing results could enable doctors to honor their paymaster while not blemishing their careers. How many have tipped the scientific scales in favor of the pharmaceutical companies, we will never know. But, again, does it seem reasonable to you to leave those who will profit from a positive outcome in charge of the efficacy research?

The Minneapolis bridge collapse. Danger noted, no one notified, nothing done. No one knows who is the watchman in this case, but each party is fearful that they will be named, blamed, and billed for building a new one.

The mining accident in Utah. 47 miners in the United States died last year, a small number considering mining fatalities in China said to be in the thousands, Russia (approximately 1000), and the Ukraine, where an average of 300 miners die a year. Thus far, the thinking is that it was an unfortunate accident not attributable to misfeasance or malfeasance on the company’s part. But again, if you listen to the whole story, you hear about hundreds of safety violations discovered in the company in question’s mines on a yearly basis. Note too that the cost of the fines probably doesn’t add up to a day’s receipts. Would you stop driving because of a parking ticket? In parts of Boston where I live, people in some neighborhoods consider parking tickets as simply part of the cost of living in a trendy surrounds. The mining companies may treat fines this way too. However, miners die because the fines don’t interrupt the flow of business and have a minimal impact on company profits. Here we have the weak watchman.

Then, there is the swindle of the month – subprime mortgage loans. Have you ever tried to read a mortgage contract? In a comfy middle class world, people hire a lawyer to do it, and given that banks like to keep middle class customers happy, the lawyer doesn’t have to do much because their isn’t much to worry about. The fine print is not friendly but at least it is relatively benign.

On late-night television, on smarmy and network channels, you begin to sense that there is another world out there filled with people who would be thieves and con artists if the watchman weren’t drugged and asleep. From the depths of America’s financial world come the debt consolidators, the credit card purveyors for the bankrupt, and the Wimpy salesmen who will give you a loan on your civil suit judgment today in return for the settlement money tomorrow, a hefty interest charge, of course, appended.

Then there was my favorite. I found him so despicable that I cannot remember his name or his firm, which, come to think about it, might save me litigation costs, if his dubious little business has escaped the sub-prime landslide. He, the president of the firm, was there to give you mortgage money, even if you had been turned down elsewhere. The tag line of the commercial says it all: “When the bank says no, we say yes!”

And so did they all. And this year, 760,000 households will lose their homes. Another estimated 940,000 households will be dispossessed of their homes in 2008. The causes are many: adjustable rate mortgages, balloon payments, high mortgage insurance, high late charges, as well as job loss, family disruption, and bankruptcy. (N.B. Did you know that the medical bills are the single biggest cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States?) And don’t forget; they don’t call them sub-prime mortgages for nothing. Borrowers were paying at interest rates 3%, 4% and sometimes 5% above the going rate.

Many times, people did not know what could happen to them. They lacked that lawyer who, in their cases, would have had a lot to do protecting their clients from unfair lending conditions. Sometimes, borrowers were simply in over their heads, and no one told them how fragile their toehold of the American Dream was. A tiny slip in world financial markets could ruin them.

And so it did. But there’s more. There was still more money to be made off the struggles and sacrifices of the subprime borrowers. The Alfred E. Newmans of the banking world packaged the risky loans in with the good, sort of like when the fish vendor slips a smelly fillet in among the others on the scale. The bundled mortgages backed bonds, “structured investment vehicles,” and back room credit swaps. Even German banks got taken in. So much for their legendary probity.

No American watchmen took notice. Not the state legislatures, the Congress, the White House, the Federal Reserve, or the federal agencies that could or do regulate lending. Nope, not a one. Like Sergeant Schultz, they knew nothing. But all it took was to watch late night TV. Or read the corporate reports. Or watch investment banks gobble up the subprime lending firms. The only people for whom this scam was a secret were the now hard-pressed borrowers.

Now the watchmen are awake and worried about the financial world tanking over the swindle of the sub-prime mortgage borrowers. There are calls, not unanimous by any means, to help out the victimized households with refinancing. Add up the figures provided above. By the time Congress or the Federal Reserve acts, say by the end of 2008 – there is an election going on after all – 1.7 million households may have lost their homes.

Is it asking too much for a watchman to be put back out on the perimeters of the state once again? Can the government at least guarantee us protection from violence, fraud, theft, and breach of contract?

It would not be the dawn of a new age, but simply the recreation of the American conservative dream. Chump change politically for our bankrupt political class.

Eliezer Yudkowsky (not Robin Hanson) on Fake Causality

Over at Overcoming Bias:

Phlogiston was the 18 century’s answer to the Elemental Fire of the Greek alchemists. Ignite wood, and let it burn. What is the orangey-bright “fire” stuff? Why does the wood transform into ash? To both questions, the 18th-century chemists answered, “phlogiston”.

…and that was it, you see, that was their answer: “Phlogiston.”

Phlogiston escaped from burning substances as visible fire. As the phlogiston escaped, the burning substances lost phlogiston and so became ash, the “true material”. Flames in enclosed containers went out because the air became saturated with phlogiston, and so could not hold any more. Charcoal left little residue upon burning because it was nearly pure phlogiston.

Of course, one didn’t use phlogiston theory to predict the outcome of a chemical transformation. You looked at the result first, then you used phlogiston theory to explain it. It’s not that phlogiston theorists predicted a flame would extinguish in a closed container; rather they lit a flame in a container, watched it go out, and then said, “The air must have become saturated with phlogiston.” You couldn’t even use phlogiston theory to say what you ought not to see; it could explain everything.

This was an earlier age of science. For a long time, no one realized there was a problem. Fake explanations don’t feel fake. That’s what makes them dangerous.

Arendt-ians v. Chavistas in Venezuela

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl in The Nation:

[O]n a day-to-day basis, the danger is more that the Bolivarian Revolution will operate increasingly like a perverse bank; it is, like Iran’s, what might be called a Resources Revolution, one keyed to the world-historical moment in which those who control natural resources can spend independently of the wealthy elites they have overthrown. Chávez, the petro-revolutionary, does not have to pay any attention to people who grew wealthy–or even just got technically and professionally educated–under the Punto Fijo regime.

Much of the money has gone into the creation of a kind of alternative society, and more controversy surrounds this development than any other, making it the hardest dimension of the revolution for an outsider to assess. The government directly funds hundreds of so- called misiones in communities. The missions do provide employment and bring food (delivered in military trucks), healthcare (aided by Cuban doctors) and education directly to the people, which is surely a good thing; but they are not like the revolutionary councils that have sprung up, Arendt noted, in all revolutions, constituting the people’s forums for ongoing political participation (until they were, time and again, crushed by parties aspiring to total control). Despite a lot of rhetoric about participatory democracy, the missions are not political formations that could reform local, city and provincial governments, making them more responsive to the grassroots, and they have alienated rather than inspired the country’s labor unions because they are run and firmly controlled from the center, often quite literally from Chávez’s office. No totalitarian military and secret police bureaucracy has been built up in Venezuela, but a controlled service sector has, and a rerun of centralized state socialism will ensue unless the political problem is grasped by the Chavistas, by the anti- Chavistas or, more likely, by the students, who are grassroots political actors and not caught up in haggling about whether the missions have, in statistical terms, benefited the poor or not, at what cost and how efficiently or inefficiently.

The Undiscovered Country

The statistics of death show leaps in modern life expectancy but fail to answer the question: Why do we die?

Robert Dorit in American Scientist:

Screenhunter_02_aug_26_1450We may be the only species that is aware of its own mortality. Yet despite death’s central role in shaping human self-consciousness, mortality remains an elusive biological phenomenon. Fate and accident shape some ends, but these things aside, we cannot answer what seems like a straightforward question: Why do we die? The question, of course, is not really simple, nor does it yield a single answer. We will each die in our own way. But an answer collected from individual stories is not what we are after. We are, instead, seeking a more general explanation, rooted in material cause, which accounts for the patterns of human mortality. For now, we will leave out deaths that come from external causes—accidents or acts of violence—for they tell us little about the biological underpinnings of mortality.

The pattern of death has changed through history. We can infer something about this pattern from fossils of early Homo sapiens. Judging by the condition of their skeletons and the extent of tooth wear, their life expectancy has been estimated at around 25 years. Tens of thousands of years later, as written records and gravestones become available, our ability to estimate life expectancy takes a major leap forward. The story told by these later records is dramatic: In the past 1,000 years, life expectancies and, presumably, their underlying causes have fundamentally changed. In the United States, for instance, the Social Security Administration has predicted life expectancies for the year 2050 will reach 77 years for men and 83 years for women.

So what are we to make of so drastic a change, a tripling of life expectancy at birth in 50 generations?

More here.

Cormac McCarthy wins James Tait Black Memorial Prize

From the BBC:

Screenhunter_01_aug_26_1433The Road, McCarthy’s tale of a father and son in a post-apocalyptic America, was named the best novel of the year.

He wins £10,000, as does Byron Rogers, who won in the biography category for his book about Welsh poet RS Thomas.

The University of Edinburgh has awarded the two prizes since 1919. Past winners include DH Lawrence and EM Forster.

McCarthy, 74, was not at the ceremony at the Edinburgh International Book Festival to collect the award.

More here.

Sins of Emission

Elizabeth C. Economy in Foreign Affairs:

Screenhunter_04_aug_26_1408China’s rapid development, often touted as an economic miracle, has become an environmental disaster. Record growth necessarily requires the gargantuan consumption of resources, but in China energy use has been especially unclean and inefficient, with dire consequences for the country’s air, land, and water.

The coal that has powered China’s economic growth, for example, is also choking its people. Coal provides about 70 percent of China’s energy needs: the country consumed some 2.4 billion tons in 2006 — more than the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined. In 2000, China anticipated doubling its coal consumption by 2020; it is now expected to have done so by the end of this year. Consumption in China is huge partly because it is inefficient: as one Chinese official told Der Spiegel in early 2006, “To produce goods worth $10,000 we need seven times the resources used by Japan, almost six times the resources used by the U.S. and — a particular source of embarrassment — almost three times the resources used by India.”

More here.

grace paley (1922-2007)


During a writing career that began more than 50 years ago, Paley published only three collections of stories, but those books — “The Little Disturbances of Man” (1959), “Enormous Changes at the Last Minute” (1974) and “Later the Same Day” (1985) — garnered elaborate praise from critics, fellow writers and a loyal core of readers. One noted admirer, novelist Philip Roth, said her stories offered “an understanding of loneliness, lust, selfishness and fatigue that is splendidly comic and unladylike.” In 1993 Paley received the $25,000 Rea Award, which has been described as the Pulitzer Prize of short-story writing. Declaring that Paley’s voice was like no other in American fiction, the judges called her “a pure short-story writer, a natural to the form in the way that rarely gifted athletes are said to be naturals.”

more from the LA Times here.

gods and monsters


In 1805, a young scholar-official of the East India Company was invalided home to Suffolk at the age of only 35. Edward Moor had first gone out to India at the age of 11, soon learnt to speak several Indian languages, and became passionately interested in the cosmology and beliefs of the Hindus.

Now, back in England with time on his hands and in an unfamiliar country he hardly remembered, Moor filled his time by gathering together and organising the artistic, anthropological and textual materials he had been collecting for many years on the deities and images of Hinduism. Five years later, in 1810, he finally published his masterwork, The Hindu Pantheon.

more from The Guardian here.

Long live the knife, the blessed knife!


The brainwave to create castrati had first occurred two centuries earlier in Rome, where the pope had banned women singing in churches or on the stage. Their voices became revered for the unnatural combination of pitch and power, with the high notes of a pre-pubescent boy wafting from the lungs of an adult; the result, contemporaries said, was magical, ethereal and strangely disembodied. But it was the sudden popularity of Italian opera throughout 1600s Europe that created the international surge in demand. Italian boys with promising voices would be taken to a back-street barber-surgeon, drugged with opium, and placed in a hot bath. The expert would snip the ducts leading to the testicles, which would wither over time. By the early 1700s, it is estimated that around 4,000 boys a year were getting the operation; the Santa Maria Nova hospital in Florence, for example, ran a production line under one Antonio Santarelli, gelding eight boys at once.

more from The Smart Set here.

River of Fire

From Powell Books:

Book The most important novel of twentieth-century Urdu fiction. Qurratulain Hyder’s River of Fire makes a bid to be recognized in the West as what it has long been acknowledged in the East: the most important novel of twentieth-century Urdu fiction. First published as Aag ka Darya in 1959, River of Fire encompasses the fates of four recurring characters over two and a half millennia: Gautam, Champa, Kamal, and Cyril—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. In different eras different relations form and reform among the four: romance and war, possession and dispossession. Interweaving parables, legends, dreams, diaries, and letters, Hyder’s prose is lyrical and witty. And she argues for a culture that is inclusive: River of Fire is a book that insists on the irrelevance of religion in defining Indian identity.
More here.

The Empire Strikes

From The New York Times:

Author In his sixth novel, “The Bloodstone Papers,” the Anglo-Indian novelist Glen Duncan, who typically writes painfully lucid, bereft books about modern men obsessed with sex and death, steps halfway out of his den of regret to look back at the gilded, sun-weathered pages of empire. He’s still got a painfully lucid, bereft main character: Owen Monroe, a depressed Anglo-Indian teacher in London, nearly 40, whose students’ heads are “full of mobile phone numbers and contraception, hip-hop lyrics, diets, the gaggle of celebrities having a permanent soirée in their brains.”

Jaded and morose, mourning a vanished ex, Owen plumps out his “bitty,” wifeless life by tending bar at a place called Neon Hallelujah and writing pornography under the pseudonym Millicent Nash. But this time Duncan’s protagonist isn’t focused entirely on himself: Owen is obsessed by an Englishman named Skinner and by the mystery of whether Skinner did or did not repeatedly dupe Owen’s father, Ross, in India in the 1940s and ’50s — and if so, why he did, and why Ross let him get away with it.

More here.

Do Not Ask or Do Not Answer?

Rapid advances in genetic testing promise to transform medicine, but they may up-end the insurance business in the process.


From The Economist:

“If you can make a good soufflé, you can sequence DNA.” That assertion sounds preposterous, but Hugh Rienhoff should know. When his daughter was born about three years ago, she suffered from a mysterious disability that stunted her muscle development. After many frustrated visits to specialists, Dr Rienhoff, a clinical geneticist and former venture capitalist, decided to sequence a specific part of her genome himself. He discovered that her condition, which most resembled a rare genetic disorder known as Beals’s syndrome, was probably due to a new genetic mutation. “Without a lab and for just a few hundred dollars, you can contract or outsource almost all the steps,” he explains.

What a well-connected and highly motivated scientist in California can do today the rest of the world will be able to do tomorrow. Indeed, a number of firms are already offering tests for specific ailments (or predispositions to ailments) directly to the public, cutting out the medical middle-man. Dr Rienhoff, for his part, will soon launch, a not-for-profit venture intended to help others to unravel the mysteries of their family’s genes in the way that he unravelled those of his own.

The much-heralded genetics revolution thus appears, at last, to be arriving. As with every revolution it brings hope: rapid diagnosis of disease; treatments tailored to have maximum effect with minimum side-effect; even the possibility of prevention through early warnings of susceptibility. However, as with every revolution, there is fear as well. That fear is focused mainly on the question of what has come to be known as genetic privacy.

More here.  [Thanks to Saifedean Ammous.]