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Archive for June, 2009

A detail from a picture in Bruce Haley‘s “Timber Industry” project, shot in Oregon in 1999. Haley is a former Army paratrooper and S.W.A.T. team member who became a dedicated and extremely successful war photographer, capturing images of conflict in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Northern Ireland, and Croatia, and winning the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal for his coverage of the ethnic civil war in Burma. Yet despite his success in photographing human beings in the most extreme of situations, in 1999 his subject matter began to shift. As he told Jörg Colberg (writer of the fine art photography blog Conscientious):

By the years in question here, ’99 and ’00, my wife and I had come to the realization that our son (born in ’95) was not just a late talker, but was autistic. Much of my time became devoted to helping him learn to use words, then to use rudimentary sentences, then to answer questions, then to begin grasping the notion of a back-and-forth conversation… So over this period of several years, as I spent countless hours working with my son, trying to teach him how to interact with other people, the humanistic aspect of my photography lessened and lessened until people vanished from my work entirely.

Looking back on this stage of my career, I believe that I was concentrating so much on human interaction in my personal life, that the frustration and burn-out factor of that chased all vestiges of the human form out of my photography completely. I was using my work to get as far away from people as I possibly could, seeking escape and solitude by going into the depths of some of the most damaged places on the planet, where I could be alone. And perhaps there is another aspect to this as well: currently there is no known cause for the autistic spectrum disorders, but many researchers believe that there is a genetic predisposition which is brought on by environmental triggers. My work from 1999 to today has been primarily of an environmental nature; from 2002 onward, exclusively so. I suspect that this is at least partially driven by my involvement with autism, and a deep concern over what the world’s pollutants and toxins are doing to our kids.

- Bruce Haley (August 6, 2007)

"Timber industry" (series), by Bruce Haley (1999)

"Timber industry" (series), by Bruce Haley (1999)

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crumb-music

Robert Crumb’s nostalgia for that old time music.

 

Nostalgia is a suspect emotion, both psychologically and politically. Emotionally, nostalgia carries connotations of escapism, ignoring present realities while longing for a mythical past. Politically, nostalgia has often been used by conservative and Fascist leaders who have deployed images of the good old days in order to thwart social progress.

 

I’m uncomfortable with this view of nostalgia as a purely regressive phenomenon because some of my favorite contemporary artists often do work that consciously tries to evoke melancholy at the passing of time. I’m thinking here of the films of the Coen brothers, the music of Bob Dylan, and especially the comics of Robert Crumb, Seth, and Chris Ware (among many others). All of these artists are nostalgia-obsessed but none of them fit the stereotype of complacency and escapism that fit the nostalgia stereotype: these artists are all astringent and challenging. As an example think of Crumb’s use of blackface racial images: stylistically he is working in a nostalgic mode, but the end of effect of these drawings is to remind us of an uncomfortable past (which lingers into the present).

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Peter Gowan, a Professor of International Relations at  London Metropolitan University who died earlier this month, was a clear-eyed critic of imperialism in all its forms.  As Misha Glenny noted in an obituary in The Guardian Gowan will be particularly remembered as the co-founder (with his wife Halya Kowalsky) of “the highly influential journal Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, which supported socialist and democratic opposition movements including Solidarity, in Poland, and Charter 77, in Czechoslovakia.” Through his activism Gowan “created an eclectic group of British and émigré activists who provided concrete support for eastern bloc opposition groups.”

 

Gowan’s opposition to actually existing socialism didn’t make him naïve about actually existing capitalism. He was a powerful sharp-witted analyst of the international regime that emerged after the end of the Cold War, with the United States as a global hegemon using its  now unchallenged power to enforce a new liberal imperialism, a project aided and abetted by allies in Europe and elsewhere. In the name of humanitarianism and global governance, liberal imperialists have tried to legitimize a new international order where the U.S. and its allies claim an unchecked right to reshape the world in their image.

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metcalf

John Metcalf.

As I often note, we at Sans Everything are nothing if not eclectic in our passions: animal rights, free trade, and anti-imperialism are all causes taken up by the blog. But there is one particular flag that unites us (or at least most of us): John Metcalf, the extraordinary Canadian writer and editor. A.M. Lamey and I have repeatedly written celebrations of Metcalf’s life and work, one of these paeans appeared in a magazine edited by Ian Garrick Mason (only John Haffner, so far as I know, has managed to remain silent on Metcalf). One of my Metcalf odes can be found here.

 

So I’d be amiss if I didn’t point out that two interviews with the great man are now available on the internet here and here. The first interview is particularly delightful because it allows Metcalf to vent, with his characteristic barbed invective, against several over praised Canadian writers.

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medium-Fisherman-holding-dorsal-fin-cut-from-scalloped-hammerhead

 

 

 

 

 

 

At a Brussels nuclear law conference in 2007, I gave a technical paper on intergenerational issues in nuclear waste economics. I argued for the prudence of applying a conservative discount rate when setting aside funds for future nuclear waste management so as to guard against contingencies. Recently I had the chance to look at my argument again with fresh eyes when I obtained a copy of the conference proceedings (published by Bruylant), and I was struck by one passage that may be of broader interest, especially given what happened between 2007 and now in global financial markets:  

“The fifth and final argument for [a conservative discount rate] is the possibility of some unforeseen event that could dramatically change the economic circumstances of one country or another. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent recent book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the mathematician and former trader argues that history is dominated by highly improbable, high impact events. He cautions that markets are poor predictors of war, for example, that government predictions are generally unreliable, and that the accuracy of a forecast ‘degrades rapidly as you extend it through time.’ Or as he cautions in a nutshell: ‘No one in particular is a good predictor of anything. Sorry.’

The  Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to rapid – and quite unforeseeen – devaluation of the Thai baht, the Korean won, and the Indonesian rupiah. Argentina’s economy, meanwhile, experienced hyperinflation in the late 1980s and then collapsed between 1999 and 2002. Japan actually experienced deflation and a zero interest rate policy between 2001 and 2005, quite at odds with economic predictions for the country two decades earlier (and also at odds with what one would expect of the world’s second largest economy). These examples give us pause, because Argentina, Japan and Korea have nuclear plants, and Thailand announced plans in June 2007 to build the country’s first nuclear plant. All will need [nuclear waste] repositories in time. But more within the spirit of Taleb’s argument, the better lesson is to recognize that we have no idea where the next financial crisis will occur.”

The last sentence was meant as a general warning, not a premonition. We may have recognized the lesson of that sentence for now – humility – but we’re likely to forget it again in the next bull market.

As for the title of this post, it comes from the fact that seemingly small human preferences at one moment in time – apparently marginal increments of utility or enjoyment – can have huge impacts on future generations. As Cowen and Parfit write (I quote them in my paper), “Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra [the ruler of ancient Egypt] wanted an extra helping of dessert.” The example sounds far-fetched, right? But the issue is whether incremental forms of consumption and enjoyment at the expense of the environment today – widespread enjoyment of shark fin soup, for example – are set to have similarly dramatic and harmful impacts on future generations.

As the British economist F.P. Ramsey wrote in an important paper in 1928 (“A Mathematical Theory of Saving,”), to “discount later enjoyments in comparison with earlier ones … is “a practice which is ethically indefensible and arises merely from the weakness of the imagination.” Sadly, and ironically, Ramsey died only two years after writing those words, only 26 years old, and with the wisdom of someone who had lived much longer.

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Canoe

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sans Everything depends not only on its writers, but also its readers. Given the huge difference between daily site visits and replies to our posts it is clear that the vast majority of visitors to the site are content to read quietly, which is perfectly fine with us. We are also delighted, however, to have some regular readers who themselves have become a part of the blog through their regular responses, and in no case is this more true than with David Sachs.  His interests are as varied as our posts and then some, and he adds immeasureably to our ongoing conversation.

What Sans Everything readers may not know is that David has put together a highly original and very funny podcast entitled Tennis Vagabond, based on a novel he wrote called The Life on Court of Bacon O’Rourke (you can subscribe to the podcast for free). As David explained to me, “Tennis Vagabond follows the young tennis legend Bacon O’Rourke who travels the open road with whiskey in his flask and a racquet on his back, serving and volleying and drinking and toking his way across the land. This comic epic is, in short,  Jack Kerouac with a tennis racquet, and some serious bad guys. The story covers tennis and evil, sex and death, drugs and physics, and the dangers in commodifying that which we love. The bad guys in hot pursuit of Bacon and his underground tennis caravan include the mythical Tennis Illuminati (secret masters of the Game), and a down-and-out coach with a taste for detective novels, Zen quips, and funk music. God and the Devil make cameos as tournament umpires.” It also has a physics blog, a tennis blog and some memorable video extras (trust me: the strip tennis match is sure to hold the attention of people who otherwise don’t care for tennis).

Tennis Vagabond‘s mix of lowbrow and highbrow will appeal to many Sans Everything visitors, and it is also timely in its central message: “a parable of consumerism, commodification, and the progression of open-ended capitalism at a time when those things are being questioned.” But why tennis in particular? David’s answer: “I’m not too sure, but it worked. As Tom Robbins says about hitchhiking in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the Truth is there in anything, if you push it far enough (‘when it has been pushed far enough it contains everything else’).”

Congratulations, David, and we look forward to hearing of O’Rourke’s continuing adventures!

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A recent episode of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered discusses Japan’s (mis)treatment of foreign workers; my Japan book co-author, Jean-Pierre Lehmann, is interviewed just after five minutes into the seven minute program. It’s also worth listening for the politician Taro Kono’s candid comments about 3:28 into the interview.  

A recent New York Times article, “Japan Pays Foreign Workers to Go Home, Forever,” provides some further context (the photo by is from a town hall meeting in Hamamatsu; see the photo essay accompanying the article).

As Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, is quoted in the New York Times, “It’s a disgrace. It’s cold-hearted … And Japan is kicking itself in the foot … We might be in a recession now, but it’s clear it doesn’t have a future without workers from overseas.”

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