synthetic zero

October 29th, 2008

I was thinking about this passage, today, from Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

During the last ten years of his life, [my father] gradually lost the power of speech…in the end he could utter only a very small number of words, and every attempt to define his thoughts resulted in the same sentence, one of the last sentences remaining to him: “That’s strange.”

He said “that’s strange,” and his eyes showed the immense astonishment of knowing everything and being able to say nothing…

Throughout the ten years, Papa worked on a big book about Beethoven’s sonatas. He probably wrote a little better than he spoke, but even while writing he had more and more trouble finding words, and finally his text had become incomprehensible, consisting of nonexistent words.

He called me into his room one day. Open on the piano was the variations movement of the Opus 111 sonata. “Look,” he said, pointing to the music (he could no longer play the piano). And again, “Look,” and then, after a prolonged effort, he succeeded in saying, “Now I know!” and kept trying to explain something important to me, but his entire message consisted of unintelligible words, and seeing that I did not understand him, he looked at me in surprise and said, “That’s strange.”

I know of course what he wanted to talk about, because it was a question he had been asking himself for a long time. Variation form was Beethoven’s favorite toward the end of his life. At first glance, it seems the most superficial of forms, a simple showcase of musical technique, work better suited to a lacemaker than to a Beethoven. But Beethoven made it a sovereign form (for the first time in the history of music), inscribing in it his most beautiful meditations.

Yes, all that is well known. But Papa wanted to know how it should be understood. Why exactly choose variations? What meaning is hidden behind it?

That is why he called me into his room, pointed to the music, and said, “Now I know!”

….I am going to try to explain it with a comparison. A symphony is a musical epic. We might say that it is like a voyage leading from one thing to another, farther and farther away through the infinitude of the exterior world. Variations are like a voyage. But that voyage does not lead through the infinitude of the exterior world. In one of his pensées, Pascal says that man lives between the abyss of the infinitely large and the abyss of the infinitely small. The voyage of variations leads into the other infinitude, into the infinite diversity of the interior world hidden in all things.

…Variation form is the form in which the concentration is brought to its maximum; it enables the composer to speak only of essentials, to go straight to the core of the matter. A theme for variations often consists of no more than sixteen measures. Beethoven goes inside those sixteen measures as if down a shaft leading into the interior of the earth.

The voyage into that other infinitude is no less adventurous than the voyage of the epic. It is how the physicist penetrates into the marvelous depths of the atom. With every variation Beethoven moves further and further away from the initial theme, which resembles the last variation as little as a flower its image under a microscope.

Man knows he cannot embrace the universe with its suns and stars. Much more unbearable is for him to be condemned to lack that other infinitude, that infinitude near at hand, within reach….

It is not surprising that in his later years variations become the favorite form for Beethoven, who knew all too well…that there is nothing more unbearable than lacking the being we loved, those sixteen measures and the interior world of their infinitude of possibilities.

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October 9th, 2008

Roubini, cheery as always:

At this point severe damage is done and one cannot rule out a systemic collapse and a global depression. It will take a significant change in leadership of economic policy and very radical, coordinated policy actions among all advanced and emerging market economies to avoid this economic and financial disaster. Urgent and immediate necessary actions that need to be done globally (with some variants across countries depending on the severity of the problem and the overall resources available to the sovereigns) include:

- another rapid round of policy rate cuts of the order of at least 150 basis points on average globally;

- a temporary blanket guarantee of all deposits while a triage between insolvent financial institutions that need to be shut down and distressed but solvent institutions that need to be partially nationalized with injections of public capital is made;

- a rapid reduction of the debt burden of insolvent households preceded by a temporary freeze on all foreclosures;

- massive and unlimited provision of liquidity to solvent financial institutions;

- public provision of credit to the solvent parts of the corporate sector to avoid a short-term debt refinancing crisis for solvent but illiquid corporations and small businesses;

- a massive direct government fiscal stimulus packages that includes public works, infrastructure spending, unemployment benefits, tax rebates to lower income households and provision of grants to strapped and crunched state and local government;

- a rapid resolution of the banking problems via triage, public recapitalization of financial institutions and reduction of the debt burden of distressed households and borrowers;

- an agreement between lender and creditor countries running current account surpluses and borrowing and debtor countries running current account deficits to maintain an orderly financing of deficits and a recycling of the surpluses of creditors to avoid a disorderly adjustment of such imbalances.

At this point anything short of these radical and coordinated actions may lead to a market crash, a global systemic financial meltdown and to a global depression. At this stage central banks that are usually supposed to be the “lenders of last resort” need to become the “lenders of first and only resort” as, under conditions of panic and total loss of confidence, no one in the private sector is lending to anyone else since counterparty risk is extreme. And fiscal authorities that usually are spenders and insurers of last resort need to temporarily become the spenders and insurers of first resort. The fiscal costs of these actions will be large but the economic and fiscal costs of inaction would be of a much larger and severe magnitude. Thus, the time to act is now as all the policy officials of the world are meeting this weekend in Washington at the IMF and World Bank annual meetings.

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October 7th, 2008

This is a time that will be remembered in the history books.  It’s certainly the end of Reaganomics and it may be the beginning of a massive worldwide depression.  The issues are complex and there are way more than two sides to this, but I will say this: the Federal government as well as the governments of all the developed nations need to act immediately to forestall an economic catastrophe.  There are some who are saying we ought to have let the banks fail — a variation of the laissez-faire attitudes that brought us the Great Depression.  Yes, these bankers are hardly sympathetic figures — but there’s a fire raging and the whole world is at risk at this point.

The bailout was highly flawed, and yet, SOME sort of bailout needed to get passed … but it isn’t going to be enough. MUCH more needs to be done. May you live in interesting times.

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October 2nd, 2008

It’s a scary, dramatic time, but I am actually hopeful. These will be difficult years ahead, but one thing’s for sure: we won’t be able to keep doing what we have been doing. In the midst of this crisis is an opportunity to remake our world. The purveyors of unrestricted unregulated capitalism have been thoroughly discredited at this point. What happens when you deregulate completely? Ponzi schemes.

I’m all in favor of the free market but you have to temper it with intelligent oversight and regulation, to keep it stable. This idea had faded into the background but it’s now back. It’s now not only credible it’s what the world is looking to us to do to save ourselves from our own shortsightedness. Yes, the rescue bill is incredibly flawed — but it’s obvious we have to do something massive, and soon. This is a turning point in American, and world, history. You’re living through it, folks. We’re going to be in the history books, right here, right now.

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October 1st, 2008

It’s strange days indeed these days. Human beings, for some reason, tend to underestimate the frequency of rare events, and even after they occur we go back to the presumption of normality.  We get used to the fact that incredible events have occurred in the past, but somehow assume they will not recur in the future.  Here we are, however, living through a series of incredible events (though, they’re events that ought to have been foreseen).  I hope we’ll remember this … and remember that seemingly incredible things happen with surprising frequency.

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