Sunday, April 25, 2010

What it means to be a Jew...

Tony Judt (who is is stricken with ALS - see Rough Fractals post for a video of Judt speaking movingly about his illness (Click on title of this post for link)) writes about, among other things, Zionism, modern Israel and Judaism with a critical and inside perspective. He is Jewish - British by birth though raised a family and lives in New York).

Below are excerpts from his essay, "Toni" in the May 13, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books. What does it mean to me to be a Jew? The religious aspect / the cultural? Growing up in New York singing Kumbaya and Checkoslovakia Boom Si Boom at summer camp; the Holocaust as compelling reason for Israel; Bar Mitzvah as homage to grandparents - all worthy but is there more than that for an assimilated generation - something that grabs hold or defines or identifies what it means to be Jewish in the modern (American) world?

Here is Tony Judt's perspective: (The excerpts do not do the essay justice - I recommend it in it's nuanced and articulate entirety in which I think he provides a powerful definition of Jewish identity that is not a purely secular definition but neither is it based on memories which few can legitimately claim as their own. He addresses some tough issues...

"I find it odd that American Jews have have taken out a territorial insurance policy in the Middle east lest we find ourselves back n Poland - 1942...Jews in America are more successful, integrated, respected and influential than at any time or place in the history of the community. Why then is contemporary Jewish identity in the US so obsessively attached to the recollection - and anticipation - of its own disappearance?"

"Being Jewish consists largely of what it once meant to be Jewish. Indeed of all the Rabbinical injunctions, the most enduring and distinctive is Zakhor! - Remember! But most Jews have internalized this injunction without any secure sense of what it requires of them. We are the people who remember - something."

"What then should we remember? Great Grandmother's latkes back in Pilvistock? I doubt it: shorn of setting and symbols, they are nothing but apple cakes. Childhood tales of Cossack terrors? What possible resonance could these have to a generation who has never know a Cossack? Memory is a poor foundation for any collective enterprise. The authority of historical injunction, lacking contemporary iteration, grows obscure".

"In that sense American Jews are instinctively correct to indulge their Holocaust obsession; it provides reference, liturgy, example and moral instruction - as well as historical proximity. And yet they are making a terrible mistake: they have confused a means of remembering with a reason to do so. Are we really Jews for no better reason than that Hitler sought to exterminate our grandparents? If we fail to rise above this consideration, our grandchildren will have little reason to identify with us."

"I don't expect Hitler to return. And I refuse to remember his crimes as an occasion to close off conversation; to repackage Jewishness as a defensive indifference to doubt or self criticism and a retreat into self pity... Judaism is for me a sensibility of collective truth-telling: the dafka-like (contrarian) quality of awkwardness and dissent for which we were once known. It is not enough to stand at a tangent to other people's conventions; we should also be the most unforgiving critics of our own. I feel a debt of responsibility to this past. It is why I am Jewish".

(Judt's father's cousin, Toni Avegael, was transported to Auschwitz in 1942 where she was gassed to death. Tony Judt was named after her.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Time Out For A Public Service Announcement...

There Is A God 2.0...

From the NYC DMV web site:

Effective March 21, 2010, drivers in NYC will get a 5-minute grace period past the expired time on Muni-Meter receipts, Alternate Side Parking signs, and any other parking spaces with specific times listed (eg. 8:30am - 9:30am). During the 5-minute grace period, parking tickets cannot be issued.

From the Rough Fractals Archives:


There Is A God...

I was given a $65 parking ticket in NYC on 12/24/08. I submitted the following written statement as to why the ticket should be dismissed. I received a ruling on my plea today and have posted it below as well...

"I am a modest user of public parking in NYC and of the Muni Meters which I consistently pay for with a credit card. On 12/24/08 I had a medical appointment at 25th street and 5th avenue. I pulled into an available space in front of 213 7th avenue and got out of the car to use the muni meter. I think it's somewhat relevant, for reasons you will see soon, that it was not only cold but, raining.

I do not usually have enough quarters with me to pay cash for the muni meter which is why I use my credit card. I went to the muni meter nearest the car and attempted to use the aforementioned credit card which was accepted but after attempting to contact the bank the machine indicated via its LCD display that there was a "communication errror". Ok, its raining and I am getting wet but I try again - same deal, no dice.

So now I am running a little late and getting pretty wet but I want to pay so I go to the next block to use the muni meter there and - you guessed it - same deal - "failure to communicate". I try twice.

Now I am unhappy, wet and longing for the good old days of old fashioned parking meters and even though you needed coins for them at least I could go to a bank and keep a roll of quarters and if the meter was broken then usually no ticket was issued because anyone can see the meter is broken and you could put up a sign that says "broken meter" and out of politeness and fairness no ticket was issued and sure enough the next day the city had already fixed the meter.

With the muni meter their is no way to tell it's broken but let me tell you they break all the time and the idea of standing in the cold rain, fiddling with a machine and a credit card and an LCD display and getting wetter and colder and later for the appointment and frustrated and its Christmas Eve...

Well after trying twice again at the second meter I stormed off to my appointment and I mean give me a break, I went to two muni meters in the rain and the system was down and going to yet another block in the cold rain until I found a working muni meter receipt dispenser struck me as semi, if not completely, crazy.

So in the name justice I ask you to see past the technicalities and agree that I am NOT GUILTY (which is true when this incident is viewed through a human lens and not just from the glow of a muni meter LCD display) and I feel so strongly about this that if you do find me guilty I ask that instead of a fine you sentence me to whatever you deem the appropriate amount of jail time because I say "ENOUGH".

Enough cowering to the unthinking and unyielding technology that everyday diminishes our humanity...

Enough of muni meters that seem to laugh at us as we fumble in the rain with our credit cards while it takes its time, makes us wait and then taunts us with its dim LCD response, "communication error"...

Enough with a system that demands individual responsibility and accountability but accepts none for its own broken, uncaring, one size fits all parking rules and regulations.

For all those reasons I ask you to dismiss the ticket or send me to jail where I will do my time and in so doing wash away the guilt that I acknowledge - GUILTY AS CHARGED...

Guilty of being a human being...

Guilty of caring...

Guilty of wanting my children to stand up tall and proud knowing that the world is in fact not a one way street with no parking unless you ask permission, rather it is a four lane highway crossing the vastness of our lives through a landscape where men of honor are in the driver's seat. No more "system down - communication error" humiliations. I would rather go to jail and suffer a few days or a weekend or whatever the jail time is than simply pay this un-just ticket and suffer more for my tacit agreement that I deserve this ticket (which I do not for the reasons I have already explained).

Thank you for your consideration."

In today's mail I received the following DECISION AND ORDER, CITY OF NEW YORK DEPARTMENT OF FINANCE, dated 2/18/09:

"Respondent claims that the meter was broken at the time the summons was issued. This is an affirmative claim wherein the burden of proof rests with the respondent. Respondent's claim is supported by persuasive testimony.

Total Amount Due: $0.00

Retain this record of your hearing for 8 years and 3 months."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

American Idol

Rough Fractals has been enthusiastically following this season for the first time. Half way through here is our take and prediction of the field:

Crystal Bowersox will win, Lee Deweeze (sp?) will be runner up. I think they are both fantastic but Crystal is even more than that - she is (in my opinion) a real talent. I think this experience is radically changing her and not all that change is for the good. Tuesday night Sully (the Hudson River Landing airplane pilot) was in the audience. What the hell was he doing there? He is a Hero - not an Idol (and his personal willingness to play the part only up to a point and no further was what was so compelling about his post landing stance). The fact that he was in the Idol audience having to smile at (and be congratulated by) Ryan Seacrest (who by any measure is not even on the same scale as Sully) was jarring. Crystal is about to crash through the time space worm hole and I fear for her safety. The good news (?) is that her Dad can soon quit his job (exactly what he should not do - the guy is shell shocked). Lee D. on the other hand has less of a roller coaster in his future and I think will find the ride easier. Siobhan will get a job in Off-Broadway musicals. The rest of them have had their life time peak experience and are about to have "major bummer" tattooed on their frontal cortexes.

Here was Crystal's Tuesday performance. (If, like me, you are a sucker for emotion, watch to the end)...

Monday, April 19, 2010

Quote of The Week - David Lipsky...

"Life is the accumulation of flukes."

--- David Lipsky in "Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself - A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace" (published by Broadway books April 13, 2010) based on Lipsky's five day trip with DFW on his (DFW's) 1996 book promotion tour for his novel, Infinite Jest.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The lower the pay, the harder the work...

I am posting this because it resonates with a view I have had forever - the lower the pay, the harder the work (not the other way around)...



"Unlike 90 percent of America, I was rooting for Duke last night. This was widely cast as a class conflict — the upper crust Dukies against the humble Midwestern farm boys. If this had been a movie, Butler’s last second heave would have gone in instead of clanging off the rim, and the country would still be weeping with joy.

But this is why life is not a movie. The rich are not always spoiled. Their success does not always derive from privilege. The Duke players — to the extent that they are paragons of privilege, which I dispute — won through hard work on defense."

--- from Redefining What It Means to Work Hard – Opinionator Blog –

I know, I know, I was supposed to lay off David Brooks for a while. But how can this latest gem of his possibly be ignored? I’m beginning to absolutely love this guy — for sheer comedy value, he really doesn’t have any peers at this point, especially with Thomas Friedman seeming more subdued and gloomy than ever. In fact I’m beginning to worry that Friedman might take himself out of the comedy game for good by shaving his porno mustache, thereby eliminating the Boogie Nights factor from his work and leaving Brooks the runaway clubhouse leader.

Anyway Brooks in the above column — a sort of running conversation he has with Gail Collins — manages to take the experience of watching the recent Duke-Butler NCAA championship game and turn his impressions into the missing last chapter of Atlas Shrugged. He starts with the above observation that the reviled Dukies, who are often painted as college basketball’s spoiled children of privilege, won because they simply worked harder than those poor mid-major farm boys from Butler. Then he has a remarkably funny exchange with Collins in which he expands this observation to the rest of society. The whole passage reads as follows:

David Brooks: A few hours after that atrocity of opening day, Duke went on to beat Butler the national championship. You should know that Duke is one of my alma maters. I am very generous in my definition of alma maters. I claim that affiliation with any school I went to, taught at, lived near (Villanova and St. Johns) or parked at.

Unlike 90 percent of America, I was rooting for Duke last night. This was widely cast as a class conflict — the upper crust Dukies against the humble Midwestern farm boys. If this had been a movie, Butler’s last second heave would have gone in instead of clanging off the rim, and the country would still be weeping with joy.

But this is why life is not a movie. The rich are not always spoiled. Their success does not always derive from privilege. The Duke players — to the extent that they are paragons of privilege, which I dispute — won through hard work on defense.

Gail Collins: I’m sorry, when the difference is one weensy basket, I’d say Duke won neither by privilege nor hard work but by sheer luck. But don’t let me interrupt your thought here. I detect the subtle and skillful transition to a larger non-sport point.

David Brooks: Yes. I was going to say that for the first time in human history, rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people. How do you construct a rich versus poor narrative when the rich are more industrious?

I had to read this thing twice before it registered that Brooks was actually saying that he was rooting for the rich against the poor. If he keeps this up, he’s going to make his way into the Guinness Book for having extended his tongue at least a foot and a half farther up the ass of the Times’s Upper East Side readership than any previous pundit in journalistic history. But then you come to this last line of his, in which he claims that “for the first time in history, rich people work longer hours than middle class or poor people,” and you find yourself almost speechless.

I would give just about anything to sit David Brooks down in front of some single mother somewhere who’s pulling two shitty minimum-wage jobs just to be able to afford a pair of $19 Mossimo sneakers at Target for her kid, and have him tell her, with a straight face, that her main problem is that she doesn’t work as hard as Jamie Dimon.

Only a person who has never actually held a real job could say something like this. There is, of course, a huge difference between working 80 hours a week in a profession that you love and which promises you vast financial rewards, and working 80 hours a week digging ditches for a septic-tank company, or listening to impatient assholes scream at you at some airport ticket counter all day long, or even teaching disinterested, uncontrollable kids in some crappy school district with metal detectors on every door.

Most of the work in this world completely sucks balls and the only reward most people get for their work is just barely enough money to survive, if that. The 95% of people out there who spend all day long shoveling the dogshit of life for subsistence wages are basically keeping things running just well enough so that David Brooks, me and the rest of that lucky 5% of mostly college-educated yuppies can live embarrassingly rewarding and interesting lives in which society throws gobs of money at us for pushing ideas around on paper (frequently, not even good ideas) and taking mutual-admiration-society business lunches in London and Paris and Las Vegas with our overpaid peers.

Brooks is right that most of the people in that 5% bracket log heavy hours, but where he’s wrong is in failing to recognize that most of us have enough shame to know that what we do for a living isn’t really working. I pull absolutely insane hours in my current profession, to the point of having almost no social life at all, but I know better than to call what I do for a living work. I was on a demolition crew when I was much younger, the kind of job where you have to wear a dust mask all day long, carry buckets full of concrete, and then spend all night picking fiberglass shards out of your forearms from ripping insulation out of the wall.

If I had to do even five hours of that work today I’d bawl my fucking eyes out for a month straight. I’m not complaining about my current good luck at all, but I would wet myself with shame if I ever heard it said that I work even half as hard as the average diner waitress.

Then again, maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong perspective. Would I rather clean army latrines with my tongue, or would I rather do what Brooks does for a living, working as a professional groveler and flatterer who three times a week has to come up with new ways to elucidate for his rich readers how cosmically just their lifestyles are? If sucking up to upper-crust yabos was my actual job and I had to do it to keep the electricity on in my house, then yes, I might look at that as work.

But it strikes me that David Brooks actually enjoys his chosen profession. In fact, he strikes me as the kind of person who even in his spare time would pay a Leona Helmsley lookalike a thousand dollars to take a shit on his back. And here he is saying that the reason the poor and the middle classes are struggling is because they don’t work hard enough. Is this guy the best, or what? Does it get any better than this?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Graffiti - Pure Artistic Expression?

The following graffiti chain is transcribed from a men's room wall. It is not known if the person who started the chain ever went back to see if his instruction to "DISCUSS" was ever followed:

I would call writing on bathroom walls a perverse and pathetic form of rebellion...maybe that is a good definition of contemporary art, come to think of it.

The writer defines art as images made for "critical acclaim" or "financial reward". That is much too narrow a definition. Other purposes are personal satisfaction, experiment, transcendental meaning, societal commentary, hegemonic support, and political protest. None of these need involve critical acclaim or money.

It is only in the absence of ulterior motives that we can perceive pure beauty (i.e., art for art's sake rather than for political, selfish, monetary or other agendas). Returning a lost wallet to its owner and then accepting a "reward" does not diminish the virtue of the good deed but surely if that person would not have returned the wallet but for the reward their claim to virtue is less robust than someone who returns it solely because it is the right thing to do.

Even if a work of art (or a sunset) seems beautiful to the observer how can we label it "beautiful" unless perceived in a disinterested way (i.e. without sentimentality or reference to anything outside itself)?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Black Swan...

David Usher writes a blog on which he muses about technology, telecommunications, public policy, regulation, society, media, war, culture and politics. He suggested I read "The Black Swan, The Impact of The Highly Improbable" by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (You can find David's blog at The book led to this fairly ridiculous correspondence between me and my brother in law the stock market guru whose most recent stock pick is Radio Shack (symbol RSH):

I replied to Bro-In-Law;

"I have, as you know, given up (for the most part) trying to either time the market or pick individual stocks on either a fundamental or technical basis.

Your recent suggestion, Radio Shack, (RSH) does seem to be trying to rebrand itself but I think it faces challenges. It is a nice store for small products when you want to talk to a salesman without the hassle of Best Buy hugeness but the Shack's salespeople are usually not very up to speed. I could see them improving by cutting out their poorly performing stores. I think of them as the electronic version of Starbucks, they have lost their way and are trying to get back to what they do well - they may succeed. I would be reluctant to be long on options now because the market seems over heated to me (but what do I know)?

I just finished reading Black Swan which I think agrees with your investment thesis. To sum it up, as I understand it, Black Swans are events that do not appear anywhere on the Bell Curve proving that the Bell Curve itself is inadequate as a model yet is widely utilized to this day (Black Scholes for example is premised on a bell curve methodology). Bell Curves work in predicting the range of possible outcomes of heads or tails (40 heads in a row is on the far end of the curve) but does not work for complex outcomes where the impact of one variable has a wide range (and ever widening as you move out in powers) of impacts on future outcomes (like the angle of a ball bouncing - the range of angle is further multiplied with each subsequent bounce. Thus all models that are based on the Gaussian Bell Curve are terrific for predicting likelihood of unrelated events but flawed for predicting events that are not independent of one another (which is how the real world works unlike flipping pennies). As Nassim Taleb says, "Remember that if either of these two central assumptions is not met, your moves (or coin tosses) will not cumulatively lead to the bell curve. Depending on what happens, they can lead to the wild Mandelbrotian-style (fractal !!! emphasis mine) scale-invariant randomness." (page 251).

Interesting - way over my head but confirms my belief that insurance companies had no business issuing credit default swaps to guaranty citi bank debt on Pachinko Parlors in Japan (which they did - see

The converse, "White Swans", can happen to the upside as well so Taleb's view is that investors should put most of their money in Treasuries and buy small amounts of options to take advantage of the unpredictable on the upside while limiting the unpredictable downside events by not buying too much of any one option."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

This I Believe - Financial Capital Vs. Human Capital

In the U.S. the highest compensation is paid to people to whom we entrust our financial capital: investment bankers.

Compare this to the compensation paid to the people to whom we entrust our human capital: teachers.

It is exactly upside down.

The world has gone coco for cuckoo puffs.

This I believe.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Madam Speaker - Read My Lips...(Mini Cooper, UC Berkeley; Ask Jeeves, Haiti, Bio Nano Technology, Robert Reich, Raising Taxes On The Rich).

It will be a bit of a slog to get to the punch line which explains the title of this post ... but here goes:

Picked up at SFO airport by friend in silver convertible mini cooper --

We drive to (fundraiser) dinner at UC Berkeley and are seated next to a friend of my mini cooper friend (well only sitting part of the time because the dinner set up was "international" and you had to wander around to different food stations (e.g. Japan, Mexico, Peru, China, Spain, Italy and one called "Mediterranean Fusion") accompanied by a genuine international student - in our case Roel (pronounced Roole) from the Netherlands - so we wandered Bar Mitzvah like among the food stations filling our plates and THEN sat down) and the friend of my friend turns out to be a Venture Capital guy and the founder of a very successful silicon valley venture capital firm that was an early stage investor in Ask Jeeves. Ask Jeeves made him a lot of money because the early stage guys sold it when nascent search engines were hot and a lot of money was being bet on which one would become dominant and google was considered a pretty dumb name and so he (the VC guy) cashed out and his Ask Jeeves money bought him his private Turbo prop which he pilots himself on weekends from his home in San Francisco to his home in Telluride, which turbo prop is considered the best in its class for safety and short runway capability (important for Telluride) and which he recently lent to a Haitian relief agency to fly some Docs down to Haiti because it has a large fuel tank which is key because no fuel could be picked up in Haiti post earth quake and planes that go there can't pick up fuel for the return because there is no fuel and in talking about planes the VC guy tells me that his father died when he (the VC guy) was 11 years old. Died in a private plane which he (the father) was piloting. I asked if he knew what the cause of the crash was and he said he surmises the same things that cause every aviation accident in varying degrees, e.g., (1) pilot error (meaning less than perfect response to whatever was occurring) ; (2) conditions (meaning probably should not have been flying) and 3) mechanical failure. He says he has very fond memories of flying with his dad when he was a kid (the oldest of four).

In his post Ask Jeeves VC career he has specialized in medical bio-technology and is devoting most of his time now to developing a medical nano-sensor that can instantly diagnose complex whatever-can-be-diagnosed from a drop of blood in 3 minutes (versus the 45 minutes it takes in an emergency room lab now) at a cost of a few dollars (versus the two thousand dollars it costs now) which will pretty-much-revolutionize what will happen to you if you are, for example, at a fundraiser dinner at UC Berkeley and have severe chest pains and rather than have to be rushed to the nearest hospital which is 8 blocks away and upon arrival have blood taken which will be sent to the basement lab and come back 45 minutes and two thousand dollars later, now using nano sensor technology you will be diagnosed instantly by any Doc at the dinner or in the ambulance on the way to the hospital using this nano-sensor and by the time you arrive the hospital will already have your diagnosis; and this device does-in-fact work and is-in-fact in production and will-in-fact soon be a real-big-deal. (FYI Nano = one billionth and is the time it takes light to travel one foot, i.e., one billionth of a second, i.e., a nano second).

And then it's time for the featured speaker, Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and, according to Newsweek magazine, "one of the top ten Cabinet Secretaries of the last 100 years" (this conveyed by the Dean of International House during his intro) who spoke for 45 minutes (and then took questions) about the "mythology" of the relationship between international trade and employment in the US (the gist of which is that they are not related at all because trade (digression into the the nature of it, the economics of it, the importance of it, the impact of it) has been completely stalled on all political fronts for the last 20 years because Congress will (he predicts) never enact meaningful trade agreements post NAFTA because people believe (mistakenly) that trade agreements mean loss of US jobs which is to his way of thinking so wrong headed and basically moronic that he really cannot believe it. Great speech even though he confessed in response to a question from the back of the room during the Q & A that he did not know how to solve the problem of overuse of antibiotics in livestock production in the U.S. (what this had to do with the subject matter of his speech being lost on me and I think on him although unlike me he was too polite to smack his forehead and silently mouth to the person sitting next to him "what the hell?" probably because - after all - this is California).

So, over Peruvian and Mediterranean Fusion appetizers the VC guy tells us that the night before he (the VC guy) was at a democratic fundraiser and in return for his very large contribution was given a one minute audience with Madam Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and he says to us "so if you have only one minute to make a pitch to Nancy Pelosi what would your pitch be?" (it took me a second to grok what he meant by "pitch" but I got it) and I said, as I scooped up a dab of MF hummus on my triangle of crisped pita), "change the carried interest tax treatment given to hedge fund managers from capital gains rate to earned income rates" thinking to myself, as the words escaped, "lame"... and VC guy stared at me through his Sigmund Freud style glasses (he is a cute Geeky Mogul) and then everyone at the table pitched their "pitch" - "improve health care reform", "do financial reform now"...

So anyway his pitch was, "People in my income bracket should pay more in taxes - raise my taxes".

That was it - a succinct pitch. She said, "Got it".


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

This I Believe - a serious tax proposal

The other day it was reported that the average pay for the top 25 hedge fund managers in 2009 was $1 billion per manager. The top guy last year made over $4 billion. That is BILLION and it was their compensation for one year.

What kind of a country do we want to be?

Here is my proposal for the kind I believe we should be: The current tax rates should apply on the first $50 million of compensation and the rate should increase by 10% for every $10 million above that up to a top rate of 90%. In other words, above $100 million annual compensation should be taxed at 90%. (By the way, 90% tax on the top 25 hedge fund guys would have produced enough tax revenue to fund the entire U.S. Department of Education last year.)

How much money does one person need? Anyone who thinks this is a bad idea or that it will be a disincentive or that the system will unravel as a result of this change is wrong.

This I believe.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men - Tony Judt...

Tony Judt is a brilliant and considered by some, controversial, historian who writes frequently for the New York Review of Books. Two years ago he was diagnosed with ALS and he has been writing about that experience as if he was a reporter embedded on the battlefield of the disease providing dispatches from the front lines letting the rest of us know what it is like to be so utterly conscious of personal horror. He does not offer any trite life lessons - as he says, "surviving is its own lesson". Below is a a short video of him talking about his disease and if you click on the title of this post you will be taken to a link of his recent 40 minute interview with Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air that reminded me of an interview I heard with author William Maxwell ("All the Days and Nights") when he was in his 90's and (although under very different circumstances) also discussed his mortality with brilliance and acceptance, horror and joy.

Below are highlights of the Judt interview excerpted on the Fresh Air web page. Judt recently published a new book, Ill Fares The Land, a letter to young people about applying the past to the future — as well as a critique of what Judt calls the 'deteriorating social contract' in the US and Europe. He argues that "something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today."

"For 30 years," Judt writes, "we have made a virtue out of the pursuit of material self-interest. ... The materialistic and selfish quality of contemporary life is not inherent in the human condition. Much of what appears 'natural' today dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth-creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities [between] rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth."

"It's about not forgetting the past. About having the courage to look at the present and see its faults without walking away in disgust or skepticism. ... I do think we're on the edge of a terrifying world, and that many young people know that but don't know how to talk about it."

Interview Highlights

On how living with ALS makes him feel:

"You mustn't focus on what you can't do. If you sit around and think, 'I wish I could walk,' then you'll just be miserable. But if you sit and turn around and think, 'What's the next piece I'm going to write?' then you may not be happy, but you certainly won't wallow in misery. So it's an active choice every day to renew my interest in something that my head can do, so I don't think about the body."

On what he has learned from his ALS:

"Unlike cancer, which I've had in the past, or AIDS or some other major organic breakdown or disease, no one has any ideas how to fight it. So once you get past the thought that this is ridiculous — Why can't they do something? — you stop thinking of your body as the object to fight. ... I was a very controlling person. And for me, I did not like to be in the push car, to be in the stroller — because it meant my mother was in charge. ... And from very early on, I've hated depending on the kindness of others. And I'm learning to do so, and it's a very good sentimental education."

On his religious views:

"I don't believe in an afterlife. I don't believe in a single or multiple godhead. I respect people who do, but I don't believe it myself. But there's a big 'but' which enters in here. I am much more conscious than I ever was — for obvious reasons — on what it will mean to people left behind once I'm dead. It won't mean anything for me. But it will mean a lot to them. It's important to them — by which I mean my children or my wife or my very close friends — that some spirit of me is in a positive way present in their lives, in their heads, in their imaginations and so on. So [in] one curious way I've come to believe in the afterlife — as a place where I still have moral responsibilities, just as I do in this life — except that I can only exercise them before I get there. Once I get there, it will be too late. So, no God. No organized religion. But a developing sense that there's something bigger than the world we live in, including after we die, and we have responsibilities in that world."

On whether history matters to him as much:

"I think it does. It really does. I know that sounds funny, but I believe the reason is this: that all I ever wanted to do in life professionally [and] occupationally was teach history and read and write it. There are times when I've thought, 'My God, you're a dull man, Judt. When you were 13, you wanted the same thing, and now you're 62 and you still want it.' And the upside of that is that I get as angry at bad history writing, or the abuse of history for political purposes, as I ever did."

On losing control of one's body:

"I don't feel at all like I'm being buried alive. I feel like this body is the accidental case in which I lie for six hours at night thinking. And that really does work. I sleep more in the days than I do at night. So nothing has gotten better, but my capacity to live within it has grown hugely."

On what gives him pleasure:

"The thing about ALS is that there are only two things left, beyond your head, which still work. One is the reproductory apparatus, and one is the excretory apparatus. Then you keep those until you die. So you still get pleasure from sex, and you can still get pleasure from anything you can see, anything you can say — and although this may not last much longer, anything you can eat. ... Sometimes, I think, well, all the good things in life are still with me. Food. Sex. Videotapes. I've got it all — what's the problem?

On what he misses:

"The only thing that I miss that I can't reproduce is travel. I can pretty much do anything else, but I can't travel easily. And I miss that terribly, because I was a person who moved all the time. My history writing was based on what I saw in strange, exotic places rather than just reading books. ... So I miss that."


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