Something for nothing

“With stagnant wages and booming consumption, the cash-strapped American masses had a virtually unlimited demand for loans but an uncertain ability to repay them.  All they had going for them, from the point of view of Wall Street financial engineers, was that their financial fates could be misconstrued as uncorrelated.  By assuming that one pile of subprime mortgage loans wasn’t exposed to the same forces as another–that a subprime mortgage bond with loans heavily concentrated in Florida wasn’t very much like a subprime mortgage bond more concentrated in California–the engineers created the illusion of security.” — Michael Lewis, The Big Short

Clarity

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” — Tolstoy (from The Big Short, by Michael Lewis)

Scribal motivation

“My subject had taken me up, drawn me on, and absorbed me into itself. It was necessary for me, it seemed, to write the book I had been thinking much of, even if it were destined to fall dead from the press, and I had no inclination or interest to write any other.” — John Lothrop Motley (quoted in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XVI, Book II, Ch. 18)

Animals!

“Animals! the object of insatiable interest, examples of the riddle of life, created, as it were, to reveal the human being to man himself, displaying his richness and complexity in a thousand kaleidoscopic possibilities, each of them brought to some curious end, to some characteristic exuberance.” — Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles (trans. Wieniewska)

All arachnids are poisonous

The last of the lower-case very short stories I wrote in 1995 to be published is “latrodectus, loxosceles, lycosa tarentula,” which was accepted by Denver Quarterly in 2003 and published by them in 2006.  Last week, in “mama when she’s really pretty,” I was channeling a six-year-old girl.  This week in “latrodectus, [etc.],” I’m channeling a seven-year-old boy.

Locusts + crops = stubble

“CDOs were flawed from the outset, used too often as a junkyard for risky and substandard assets.  CDOs survived because of changes in the credit markets that produced an excess quantity of these assets and herds of investors hungry for higher yields.” — Anna Katherine Barnett-Hart, “The Story of the CDO Market Meltdown: An Empirical Analysis”

Close your eyes and that’ll look about right

“Not only did the rating agencies fail to examine the accuracy of their own prior collateral ratings, but in many cases, they also used other agency’s ratings without checking for accuracy.  To correct for any shortcomings in the other agency’s rating methodology, they created the practice of ‘notching,’ whereby they would simply decrease the ratings of any collateral security that they did not rate by one notch.  In other words, if Moody’s rated a CDO that was composed of collateral rated BB+ by Fitch only, Moody’s would instead use a rating of BB in their own CDO model because it was not their rating.  They never went back and reanalyzed the other rating agency’s rating, conveniently assuming that decreasing it by a notch would compensate for any shortcomings in the initial risk analysis.” — Anna Katherine Barnett-Hart, “The Story of the CDO Market Meltdown: An Empirical Analysis” (footnotes omitted; emphasis in original)

Roll them bones

“The line between gambling and investing is artificial and thin.  The soundest investment has the defining trait of a bet (you losing all your money in hopes of making a bit more), and the wildest speculation has the salient characteristic of an investment (you might get your money back with interest).  Maybe the best definition of ‘investment’ is ‘gambling with the odds in your favor.'” — Michael Lewis, The Big Short

Just lay back and enjoy it

“The upper classes of this country raped this country.  You fucked people.  You built a castle to rip people off.  Not once in all these years have I come across a person inside a big Wall Street firm who was having a crisis of conscience.  Nobody ever said, ‘This is wrong.'” — Steve Eisman (from The Big Short, by Michael Lewis)

Separate but equally clueless

“There are actually people who do nothing but invest in European mid-cap health care debt.  I don’t think the problem is specific to finance.  I think that parochialism is common to modern intellectual life.  There is no attempt to integrate.” — Charlie Ledley (from The Big Short, by Michael Lewis)

One size fits all

“Our lives, the big and magnificent lives we can just barely make out beneath the mere facts of our lifestyles, are always trying to occur.  But save for a few rare occasions–falling in love, the birth of a child, the death of a parent, a revelatory moment in nature–they don’t occur; the big magnificence is withdrawn.  Stories rub at the facts of our lives.  They give us access–if only for a few hours, if only in bed at the end of the day–to what’s beneath.” — Jonathan Safran Foer (from his foreword to the Penguin Classics edition of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (emphasis in the original))

Where we are and what we do

“We live on the surface of our planet.  Human life happens on a shell as thin, relative to the size of the earth, as an egg’s, or as thin as the paint on a wall.  We have lifestyles on the surfaces of our lives: habits and culture, clothes, modes of transit, calendars, papers in wallets, ways of killing time, answers to the question ‘What do you do?’  We come home from long days of doing what we do and tuck ourselves under the thin sheets.  We read stories printed on even thinner paper.  Why, at the end of the day, do we read stories?” — Jonathan Safran Foer (from his foreword to the Penguin Classics edition of Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories)

short and sweet

This week I’m posting another of those lower-case short-shorts I wrote in the mid-90s, “mama when she’s really pretty.”  I was channeling a six-year-old girl when I wrote this.  It was published in Chiron Review, a litmag run by Michael Hathaway for nearly thirty years before folding earlier this year.

You can’t get there from here, or from anywhere you’re at

“Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative, but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing.  They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation.  They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language.  They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite, and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographical societies, and royal botanical gardens.  They balanced the local budget and generated fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home government would rarely bail them out.  If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.

“Postconflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism.  Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention.  Their policy fails but no one notices.  There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility.  Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organization long enough to be adequately assessed.  The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neocolonialists have no such performance criteria.  In fact their very uselessness benefits them.  By avoiding any serious action or judgment they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation, and oppression.

“Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world.  If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.”

— Rory Stewart, The Places in Between, pp. 247-248

How it can be done

“A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents—he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction.” — Edgar Allan Poe (quoted in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XVI, Book II, Ch. 14)

Keeping things balanced

“Patriotism is a curious passion. It does not seem possible to love one’s own country except by hating some other country.” — Archibald MacMechan (from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XVI, Book II, Ch. 10)

The next level

“As an explanation of the mystery of existence the transcendental philosophy makes little appeal to our own hard-headed and scientific generation; but no one, assuredly, with any measure of spiritual and poetic perception can give himself sincerely and unreservedly to one of the literary masterpieces of the transcendental school, to one of the greater essays of Emerson for example, the Self-Reliance, Compensation, Spiritual Laws, or The Over-Soul, without a consciousness, as he puts down the volume, of having passed for the time into a higher sphere of being, without a deepened conviction of the triviality, the relative unreality, of material concerns, without a sense of spaciousness, of clarity, of nobility, of power, a feeling that that much abused word ‘eternal’ has suddenly put on a very real and concrete meaning. Against such an actual experience no mere argument can avail. Nor does the emotion thus evoked end in vague mystical exaltation. It leaves, rather, whether the reader profit by it or not, a distinct sense of its bearing on the daily conduct of life.” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Book II, Ch. 8

Just close your eyes and choose

“We like to pretend that our experiments define the truth for us.  But that’s often not the case.  Just because an idea is true doesn’t mean it can be proved.  And just because an idea can be proved doesn’t mean it’s true.  When the experiments are done, we still have to choose what to believe.” — Jonah Lehrer, “The Truth Wears Off”

Get back to work

“After the Revolution the novel-reading habit grew, fostered by American publishers and cried out against by many moralists whose cries appeared in magazines side by side with moral tales. Nearly every grade of sophistication applied itself to the problem. It was contested that novels were lies; that they served no virtuous purpose; that they melted rigorous minds; that they crowded out better books; that they painted adventure too romantic and love too vehement, and so unfitted readers for solid reality; that, dealing with European manners, they tended to confuse and dissatisfy republican youth. In the face of such censure, native novelists appeared late and apologetically, armed for the most part with the triple plea that the tale was true, the tendency heavenward, and the scene devoutly American.” — from The Cambridge History of English and American Literature, Vol. XV, Book II, Ch. 6

Neither a Kennedy nor a Bush be they

There was a great person named Kusa, born to Brahma.  He was a great ascetic of indefatigable vows, conversant with righteousness and worshipping good men. That eminent one married a princess of Vidarbha who was born in a noble descent and suitable to him.  He begot four virtuous sons comparable to himself named Kusamba, Kusanabha, Adhurta Rajas and Vasu. Highly lustrous king Kusa, possessor of great perseverance, eager to be righteous, always truthful in speech, with a desire to carry out the duties of the warrior race, addressed his sons saying: ‘O! My sons.  Be engaged in the task of governance by following righteousness. You will acquire immense merit’.” — Valmiki Ramayana, Balakanda Sarga 32