Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tobin redux, and what the L?

Interesting to see Adair Turner apparently considering a Tobin tax to curb destablising speculative currency trades, in an interview with Prospect Magazine. As reported in the Guardian:
He told Prospect: "If you want to stop excessive pay in a swollen financial sector you have to reduce the size of that sector or apply special taxes to its pre-remuneration profit. Higher capital requirements against trading activities will be our most powerful tool to eliminate excessive activity and profits.
"And if increased capital requirements are insufficient I am happy to consider taxes on financial transactions – Tobin taxes."

The paper's Larry Elliot embraces the comment:
Lord Turner's championing today of a levy on financial dealings to curb the power of the City marks a breakthrough in the long struggle to have the neglected brainchild of American economist James Tobin become a practical policy proposition.

But it does seem like fairly weak support, really. It's not a great advance on his views in his Just Capital (Macmillan 2001), in which he notes that there are 'at least theoretical attractions' in the tax - 'The key arguments against it are therefore not theoretical but simply the impracticality of enforcing it and deciding on division of revenues in a world of multiple nations and government.'
Those arguments remain.

And here's a puzzling little recession-related thing. The Guardian again relays the wise words of an advertising chap on the likely shape of recovery:
Martin Sorrell, WPP chief executive, gave the City little to cheer about as he used his trademark skill with metaphors to suggest the recession would be "L-shaped" – an italic capital L, to be exact. He said that while chief executives and marketing managers may have recently begun to feel slightly more positive about the global economy, that was not yet translating into actual spending.
Now, here's an italic capital L:
How the hell does that fit onto a graph of any economic indicator against time?


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

So has Taleb gone nuts?

Last evening, I caught a rather bemused-seeming Nassim Nicholas Taleb appearing at the end of Newsnight, apparently following some kind of meeting with David Cameron. When he could get a few words in between Kirsty Wark and some chap from the Times talking about Cameron's intellectual credentials (such as they are), Taleb was making his usual points about risk in the economy and other areas. Here's something he said:
"We have to be more conservative with some classes of risk, like the climate - we have to be more worried about the climate than people traditionally have."

So it's slightly puzzling to read this morning's papers and see Taleb presented as a climate change denier (see the Scotsman, for instance - although it is strangely satisfying to see even the Sun portraying denialism as the hallmark of a crank).

The implication is that Taleb (and by extension, Cameron, who shared a platform with him at the RSA event) has joined that weird lobby of evidence-denying dishonest do-nothings. From what I've read of his work, that seems rather unlikely.

For example, there's this from an essay on the Edge:
Correspondents keep asking me if the climate worriers are basing their claims on shoddy science and whether, owing to nonlinearities, their forecasts are marred with such a possible error that we should ignore them. Now, even if I agreed that it was shoddy science; even if I agreed with the statement that the climate folks were most probably wrong, I would still opt for the most ecologically conservative stance. Leave Planet Earth the way we found it. Consider the consequences of the very remote possibility that they may be right—or, worse, the even more remote possibility that they may be extremely right.

Here's what he reportedly said at the RSA, as per the London Evening Standard:
"I'm a hyper-conservative ecologically. I don't want to mess with Mother Nature. I don't believe that carbon thing is necessarily anthropogenic"

[EDIT, 20/8: Having now listened to the recording of the meeting, available from the RSA page linked above, it's clear that what Taleb actually says is "Even if I don't believe that carbon thing is necessarily anthropogenic, I just don't want to mess with Mother Nature." Which is obviously quite different. Shame on the Standard.]

It's grossly unfair to paint Taleb as part of the denial lobby, when his message is that even if you don't accept the evidence, we should be doing all we can to reduce greenhouse emissions because the potential cost of not doing so will be devastating. That's a long way from the do-nowt bleating of the fossil fuel industry shills and the genuine fruitloop fringe.

I strongly suspect Labour party briefings are behind this morning's stories. That not only seems deeply unfair on Taleb (but then, if you lie down with dogs, etc), but also rather unnecessary, as you really don't need this kind of spin to suggest that Cameron's a bit of a twat.

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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Doctor King's houses of horror

I've just been reading, somewhat belatedly, Jonathan Coe's very enjoyable state-of-the-(1980s)-nation gothic satire 'What a Carve Up!'. In his author's note at the end of the book, Coe notes his 'shadowy debt' to the works of Frank King, author of 'The Ghoul' (1928), on which the 1960 movie (from which Coe took his title and elements of plot) was loosely based. Coe also says that he had been unable to trace any information on King, whose bibliography also includes such thrilling titles as 'Terror at Staups House', 'This Doll is Dangerous', 'Death of a Cloven Hoof' and 'Only Half the Doctor Died'.

This immediately tickled a memory. Last year, the Halifax Courier published this story, based on research by local historian David Glover, on the life of what it calls one of the town's famous yet perhaps forgotten sons. Frank King was indeed born in Halifax in 1892 - just a few streets away from my house, in fact - worked as a doctor in the town before quitting to write full-time (something rather appropriate to Coe's book), and died in 1958 just out at Norton Tower.

Intriguingly, King was likely to have been writing at his offices in Rhodes Street at the time the Halifax Slasher panic struck the immediate neighbourhood.

If anyone is in touch with Coe, please do let him know.

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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Complete Ballard

Complete (by tim2ubh)
Arriving on my desk with an entirely appropriate crash, comes the new US edition of The Complete Stories of JG Ballard, courtesy of the publishers WW Norton.

An expanded version of the Complete Short Stories, published in the UK by Flamingo in 2001 and now a collector's item, the new volume weighs in at something over 1200 pages and 98 stories. It dwarfs the comparable tome for, say, John Cheever (whose best-known story, 'The Swimmer', is not exactly un-Ballardian).

It's also a monumental work in the literal sense - the book, and its marketing, seems designed to establish Ballard's reputation in the US, where he's more often regarded as a proto-cyberpunk oddity rather than the major literary visionary he latterly became in Europe (the UK lagging somewhat behind France, of course).

Within that unfortunately 80s-styled dustjacket sits everything from all the previous short story collections (apart the bulk of The Atrocity Exhibition, the nature of which as novel or short story collection remains moot for Ballardian scholars), plus a few rarities such as 'The Recognition' (from Dangerous Visions, 1967) and the handful of pieces published since 1990's War Fever collection.

The small number of more recent stories neatly illustrates the decline of the market for short stories, something that Ballard bemoans in his brief introduction republished from the UK edition. The majority of these stories date from the 1960s, appearing in titles from Amazing Stories to Playboy, as the Seer of Shepperton raised his family on the fruits of his restless typewriter.

Many readers (but not myself) rate Ballard's short stories above his novels. It's true that many of the novels resemble extended (arguably, over-extended) short stories rather than the conventional plots of the 'Hampstead novel' (Ballard's own contemptuous phrase for the works of most of his literary contemporaries). Later novels did take their narrative structure from the crime genre, but to create satirical and psychological why-dunnits rather than boring who-dunnits, and overlaid with the near-hallucinatory repetitions and riffs that characterised his more avant-garde masterpieces such as Crash. It's the literary equivalent of the best Krautrock.

By contrast, the short stories are purest pop, offering the most concentrated yet accessible doses of Ballard. The vision and the language are unmistakeable, from the first line of 'Prima Belladonna', written over half a century ago:
I first met Jane Ciracyclides during the Recess, that world slump of boredom, lethargy and high summer which carried us all so blissfully through ten unforgettable years...

The US Complete Stories is actually more complete than the UK Complete Short Stories, but is still not really complete. Unlike the original edition, it does include the minor (and slightly re-titled) 'The Secret Autobiography of J.G. B******' (first published in the French-language Etoile Mecanique in 1982) and Ballard's last published short story, 'The Dying Fall' (Interzone, 1996), as well as 'The Ultimate City' (Low-Flying Aircraft, 1976) which was included in the original single-volume UK edition but not the later two-volume version.

But there's still no 'Journey Across a Crater' (New Worlds, 1970, which Ballard was apparently never happy with), 'Neil Armstrong Remembers His Journey to the Moon' (Interzone, 1991), or various 'surgical fictions' and experimental pieces from Ambit, New Worlds and elsewhere. Nor (understandably) is there Ballard's first actual published story, the Hemingwayesque 'The Violent Noon', with which he won a university short story competition at the tender age of 20. Completists should refer to Rick McGrath's exhaustive (and slightly illicit) Uncollected J.G. Ballard.

But this is still a pretty much essential volume for anyone less obsessive than Rick or myself. It should certainly play a major role in consolidating Ballard's rep in the US - I hope mostly among people who will read it for the pure pleasure of his writing, as well as those in the man's detested 'over-professionalized academia'.

The main question for me is what gets priority on my shelf - this comprehensive volume, or my set of original anthologies, excavated from secondhand shops across the country over the years, all somewhat battered but redolent of their own times.
More than complete (by tim2ubh)

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