According to this article, UFOs changed sometime in late 1960s. If before aliens were perfectly happy to flash their flying saucers and vanish into thin air, afterwards they began abducting us into their labs, where painful and humiliating probes awaited us. I wonder how this change maps to the evolution of American culture.
logic is better than sex
Monday, June 08, 2009
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Its fairly common these days to hear references to "peak oil theory" as a reason why the world is headed towards doom in the near future as we run out of oil and energy prices skyrocket. At the very least, I'm continuously bombarded by books about this when I browse the current-affairs section of the local bookstore. As far as I can tell, theres not that many scientists who literally believe in this; theres a few geologists, an economist here and there, and many environmental activists who promote "peak oil" in order to get more government investments into solar and wind power.
There's various debunkings of peak oil theory available online (see links at the end), but I wasn't completely satisfied by them. So here is my own summary of the basic arguments involved (and their flaws).
First, here is the peak oil argument, at least as I've managed to understand it.
It begins with the uncontroversial fact that petroleum production at many particular oil fields follows a bell-shaped peak. Here for example is the petroleum production of the North Sea:
Moreover, this pattern often holds up when we look at groups of oil fields. For example, if we look at all the oil fields in the US:
The peak oil people then assert that the world's oil production must be following a similar curve. They try to guess how much oil we have left by fitting bell-curves to the currently available data.
This last part is, in my opinion (and in the opinion of many experts), very problematic. Even if we supposed that oil production in any particular source follows a bell curve, it doesn't follow that the world's production will follow a bell curve. The reason people stop extracting oil from any particular place is that it gets more expensive than other places, which are continually being discovered and remapped. Moreover, technology changes all the time, thereby changing which places are the cheapest. As Ismael Hossein-Zadeh, an economist at Drake University puts it,
One of the major defects of Peak Oil is its facile extrapolation or transition from micro to macro level, that is, an unwarranted generalization or extention of what is true in the case of an existing oil well or oil field to the entire world oil production. It is true that every operating or producing oil well or field increases in production rate until it reaches a maximum or peak flow rate, after which the rate of production enters a terminal decline. It does not follow, however, that global world oil production as a whole must soon reach a maximum and begin to run out afterward...
In fact, even as individual oil fields have "peaked" world's oil reserves have been increasing. As this Reason article explains,
...petroleum optimists, such as the analysts at the [US Geological Survey] ... point out that reserve growth and new discoveries have been outpacing oil consumption. (Reserve growth is the increase in production in already discovered and developed fields.) From 1995 and 2003 the world consumed 236 billion barrels of oil. It also saw reserve growth of 175 billion barrels, combined with 138 billion barrels from new discoveries, added a total of 313 billion barrels to the world’s proven oil reserves.To summarize, we keep discovering new oil, as well as new methods for extracting it, which is why individual oil fields tend to peak and decline, even as global production shows no sign of slowing down and global reserves increase.
Let's go back to the data. Here is the graph of global oil production:
So far, it does not look like the left-half of the bell curve. In fact, the main thought I have from staring at it is that it sure looks like oil production mirrors economic growth. The 50s, 60s, and early 70s were a time of rapid economic growth for the world and oil production expanded fast. Then came the slump of the late 70s and early 80s, followed by slower economic growth ever since. Note the lack of growth in the last year or so corresponding to the current economic crisis.
In fact, peak oilers have a pretty bad record in thinking each hill in this graph represents the permanent peak of world oil production. Just to point out a couple of of examples from especially prominent peak-oilers: Colin Campbell predicted that oil peaked in 1989 and Ken Duffeyes predicted that oil peaked in 2000.
The bottom line:
I believe the peak-oil arguments are pretty silly. Let's not forget, of course, that the amount of oil in the ground is finite, so its bound to run out eventually. However, if your goal is to understand when this will happen, trying to fit bell curves to current oil production is a waste of time.
Finally, if you are interested in more, here are some links to others who have made these and other criticisms. The Reason article mentioned above is a good place to start. This article from the economist focuses its attention on the massive alternative energy sources (tar sands, gtl, shale oil) which will most likely overtake conventional crude oil in the next few decades, and which are either neglected or vastly underestimated in most peak oil arguments. Finally, there is this economics-focused takedown from Ismael Hossein-Zadeh which I quoted from earlier.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
This is from For a Palestinian: A Memory of Wael Zuaiter, an exhibit at the Guggenheim that I visited this weekend. In 1972, Zuaiter was a representative of the PLO - a terrorist organization which at the time was bombing schoolbuses. After the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the munich olympics, he was arrested by the Italian police for his connections with the perpetrators, but was ultimately let go. When Israel, in response to the murders, put together a list of PLO organizers of terrorism in Europe - based primarily on testimony of "turned" PLO members - Zuaiter was on top of the list. Israel assassinated him in October 1972.
The exibition is a collection of Zuaiter's extensive book collection, letters, postcards; photographs of the places where he lived and walked; a recording of Mahler's ninth symphony, which was Zuaiter's favorite; snapshots of him with friends; a photograph of Zuaiter lying in a pool of blood after his assassination, a book pierced by a bullet in his hands; pictures of the artist shooting bullets at books (see photograph above). As the New Yorker summarizes it,
Zuaiter, a poet and an intellectual, was never conclusively linked to Black September, and Jacir’s installation and related film elide thorny questions of his alleged culpability. What emerges instead...is a deeply moving memorial with a blatant political agenda.Personally, the only emotion this provoked in me is irritation, but perhaps for others it was "deeply moving." Its hard to feel any sympathy for Zuaiter. For the sake of argument, lets accept the premise that Israeli intelligence was wrong - that Zuaiter was not involved in terrorist acts, and that he was, as the second in command of the PLO would claim later, a pacifist. It is still undisputed that he belonged to a terrorist organization. And, really, working for terrorists has its risks, as Zuaiter found out firsthand.
Incidentally, the US, quite rightly, has a similar policy of assassinating Al Qaeda members whenever it can.
What do we owe the families of the people who have been assassinated this way, and how do we deal with the charges that some of them might be innocent?
It seems quite plain to me that we owe them nothing, no more than we owe to families of enemy soldiers in any war the US has fought. The most measured response to terrorism in our arsenal is to use our intelligence to locate terrorists and assassinate them. As long as in doing so, we are not targeting civilians deliberately, our behavior is nothing more than self-defense. I certainly hope that if some US soldier finds Osama Bin Laden in his sights, he won't hesitate to pull the trigger. I also hope the same would go for anyone working for Bin Laden.
In the end, what the exhibit shows most clearly are the moral blind spots of the artist. Its somewhat repulsive that someone would make, and a major gallery would host, a memorial to a member of a terrorist organization.
On a deeper level, what makes the exhibit a fairly trite work of art is precisely the decision of the artist to "elide thorny questions of [Zuaiter's] culpability." Interesting art requires asking uncomfortable questions and being painfully honest in your answers. The Guggenheim exhibit, on the other hand, feels like a second-rate attempt at political propaganda.
Friday, November 07, 2008
In 2004, Kerry lost 51-48. Yesterday, Obama won 52-46. Thats a net shift of 9 points.
But the shift was not geographically uniform. In the graph below, which I stole from Krugman, shades of blue correspond to shifts towards democrats relative to 2004 while shades of red correspond to shifts towards republicans.
It seems in many places in the US actually experienced large shifts towards republicans - the dark red correspond to shifts of 20 percent or more.
How to explain this data?
The most puzzling thing about it is how the divisions cut across the categories commonly used to think about politics. For example, we tend to think about Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas as being "southern" and hence similar politically, as far as distinct states can be politically similar anyway; but the first two experienced significant shifts towards the democrat whereas the latter two experiences significant shifts towards the republican.
There could be a simple explanation: the differences could simply reflect the efforts put in by the campaigns - perhaps Obama did not campaign, advertise, or moblize voters much in the red-shaded areas. I don't think this is the case; even among safe states for McCain, in which I don't see either McCain or Obama spending much effort, there are large differences.
To take a concrete examples, consider Mississpipi vs. Alabama vs. Tennessee. All three have always been shoo-ins for McCain. Yet Mississippi is covered in blue; it moved the same way as the rest of the nation. Alabama has a mixture of red and blue; and Tennessee is almost entirely covered in red, indicating a large shift in the opposite direction from the rest of the nation.
My guess is that these divisions could represent significant cultural cleavages which I have not seen anyone explain.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Some links I found to be interesting:
Stopping a Financial Crisis, the Swedish Way.
Letter to congress by a number of economists.
Letter to the editor in the washington post.
And now a random thought. I wonder to what extent scientists and engineers are responsible for the current financial crisis.
Hear me out. I know for a fact that many investment banks will hire graduates from technical fields (math, physics, engineering) with no knowledge of economics, finance, or law. As far as I can tell, what most of these people do when they get to wall street is something like modeling and prediction of time series, without much concern for the theoretical economic models that generate these time series. Of course, my sample size for making this assertion is around 3, so take it with a grain of salt.
When a time series is nice and regular, trying to predict it is not unfeasible, but rare events - say occurring once every 70 years, or, even worse, for the first time - create problems. There is no good way to predict them based on the data alone; the only hope is to think of whats possible in terms of the fundamental laws which generate your time series, which, in this case, probably requires a really good familiarity with economics and with the american regulatory framework.
But since a lot (most?) of people on wall street don't have this familiarity, they tend to fuck up in major ways every time a rare event occurs. This is a recurring pattern, manifesting not just in the current crises, but also (recently) in the asian financial crisis and the collapse of LTCM.
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
I did not very get far reading this polemic by Marshall Sahlins against the proposed Milton Friedman Institute at the University of Chicago. I do want to dissect the first couple of paragraph as an example of really crappy writing.
Suppose you want to argue that the proposed Milton Friedman Institute is going to give rise to ideological research. This sounds like it could be a plausible argument, its a rather hard one to make. The institute is not up and operational yet, and so it has not really sponsored much research so far. One has to read its mission statements and news releases accompaning the founding of the institute for evidence of ideological bias, and those - as far I saw - do not include much besides a commitment to the study of markets.
What to do? How about this: instead of claiming that the institute will support ideological research, why not just claim that some people think the institute will support ideological research? Such a claim does not really need much defending. And viola,
...to many observers at home and abroad, the establishment of a monumental institute named after Friedman and directly subsidized by private funds, will brand the University of Chicago as an academic instrument of a certain ideology.Of course, the reaction of any normal person reading this is to wonder why we are concerned about the reaction of "many observers" at all - shouldn't we be basing our decisions on whether these claims are, you know, true or not, rather than whether "many observers" think they are true?
By the way, the writers of the faculty petition against the institute pulled a similar trick:
Many colleagues are distressed by the notoriety of the Chicago School of Economics, especially throughout much of the global south.... The effects of the neoliberal global order that has been put in place in recent decades, strongly buttressed by the Chicago School of Economics, have by no means been unequivocally positive. Many would argue that they have been negative for much of the world's population....Clearly, we should cancel the institute - we don't want to create distress for "many colleagues!"
Moving on, Sahlins gives us a dirty smear-by-association,
Does the university expect us to "disappear" the memory of the Friedman-trained Chicago Boys, who supplied the economic programs for the draconian regimes of Augusto Pinochet in Chile and the generals in Argentina? The sacrificial reduction of social values to monetary calculations is the essence of Friedman economics, and helps explain its historic taint as the complement of state terror. Not long before he was assassinated in Washington by Pinochet's agents, Orlando Letelier, ambassador of the deposed Salvador Allende government, wrote that the Chicago Boys "convinced the generals that they were prepared to supplement the brutality which the military possessed, with the intellectual assets it lacked."Of course, helping a government with economic policy does not implicate you in any political crimes the government has made. I'd also note that helping to make Chile richer is nothing to be ashamed of.
Anyway, this is where I stopped reading. Final thought: being a distinguished anthropologist does not prevent you from making really shitty arguments. If you thought that success in anthropology implies some degree of mental rigor, you thought wrong.
Monday, August 11, 2008
Some random thoughts on the Russia/Georgia war:
1. It seems that most reporting on this subject in the western media has a fairly uniform anti-Russian tone. I can see how it might be tempting to adopt such a tone. Its easy to cast Georgia as the good guy - after all, it is a democracy with free elections. By contrast, the same cannot be said of Russia, which seems to be getting more and more authoritarian every day. Putin now effectively controls what goes onto the major television stations as well as most the print media. Critics of the government are arrested based on flimsy pretexts. And so on.
Nevertheless, it seems to me that its wrong to cast Russia as the villain in this conflict. Majorities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia do not want to join Georgia. Georgia is trying to subjugate two distinct ethnic groups, with distinct cultures and languages, against their will.
Of course, there are thorny questions here (how exactly do we decide which groups are entitled to self-determination?) to which I don't have any systematic answers. Still, its hard to feel any sympathy for the Georgian attempt to restore its "territorial integrity" at the expense of two peoples which have given up thousands of lives in the past two decades fighting for independence.
2. John McCain's reaction to this conflict is pretty crazy:
If there is one thing we should learn from this conflict, its that admitting Georgia into Nato makes it quite likely that the US will be drawn into military conflict with a nuclear superpower over a country most Americans haven't even heard of until last week.
McCain seized on the conflict again today during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania, remarking that Nato's decision to delay Georgian membership in the alliance this year "might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks"."I urge Nato allies to revisit the decision," McCain said.
Friday, July 25, 2008
I just saw an english-subtitled version of the confrontation between Hugo Chavez and Zapatero/King Juan Carlos. I know this has been around for more than a year, but nevertheless:
At the heart of the issue, I think, is a divergence in meaning that the word "fascist" has undergone. In most of the world, the word no longer has any connection to any ideology, and none to historical fascist movements; instead, it functions as an insult people hurl at movements who are slightly more authoritarian that they'd like - examples abound. On the other hand, in countries that have actually had experience with fascism, the word retains some connection to the historical fascism, and is considerably more insulting. So Chavez and Zapatero may be using the same word, but end up speaking past each other.
Saturday, July 05, 2008
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
For a clear-headed discussion of academic freedom in the context of the John Yoo case, see here. I have a few of additional things to say on the matter.
When people typically argue that Yoo should be fired, they tend to resort to two main arguments.
The magic job title: Suppose you and I strike up a conversation, and you happen to ask me what I think about the power of the executive, and I reply that since the president is the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, there is no legal limitation whatsoever on the orders he can give to the troops. Interesting, you say, can you write this down for me along with the references? Sure, I say.
That's just talk.
On the other hand, suppose I have a JD and have "white house legal counsel" as my job title. Further...
...Suppose you and I strike up a conversation, and you happen to ask me what I think about the power of the executive, and I reply that since the president is the commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, there is no legal limitation whatsoever on the orders he can give to the troops. Interesting, you say, can you write this down for me along with the references? Sure, I say.
Well now thats a war crime.
According to this view, writing down my opinions is clearly not a crime. Its my JD and my job title that magically transform writing my opinions into crimes.
And that, of course, is just silly - a lawyer is just someone who writes down his opinions in exchange for money. Nothing more, nothing less.
The consequence argument: A consequence of Yoo's writing down his opinions was that people were tortured, and therefore Yoo is guilty of a war crime. For example, Marty Lederman (an actual law professor - I am not just pulling random yahoos of the internets) writes,
...no one thinks a professor should be fired for having views deemed morally reprehensible or for producing a shoddy piece of work. The claim here is that the morally reprehensible views, and the shoddy work, in this case were put to use in official state conduct that facilitated and immunized horrific crimes. And that makes the question at least a bit more complicated...Of course, nothing in this argument references the fact that Yoo was a white house legal counsel. In fact, if he just expressed his views to Bush over lunch, the argument would still hold. As long as his act results in torture or, in Lederman's words, is "put to use in official state conduct that facilitated and immunized horrific crimes," there is no difference whether he wrote it down in a memo or expressed it verbally.
Nor does he have to express it to Bush; it could be any kind of lower ranking official in the white house. Nor, come to think of it, would Yoo even need to do that; if he just published the arguments of his memo in a magazine, the effects would be the same.
You can see how this argument leads to a blanket restriction on speech. Once you start saying that some speech is a war crime based on the acts it inspires in other people (irrespective of its content - for this argument to work, it doesn't matter if Yoo is right or wrong!), free speech is pretty much in the toilet.
Friday, April 04, 2008
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.So wrote George Orwell almost sixty years ago. I'm reminded of this today by the emerging controversy over John Yoo - a number of people want this man fired because they don't like the legal opinions he wrote while working for the Department of Justice. Of course, if you have any commitment at all to "academic freedom," its impossible to support this. Cases like Yoo's, in fact, are exactly the reason why we have the tenure system -professors need job security precisely so that they can conduct independent and potentially unpopular scholarship. Unless you are perfectly content to live in a world without academic freedom - where the opinions of academics are up for review by their superiors - you have an obligation to support Yoo's right to hold his legal views and still keep his job. All in all, this case is a no-brainer.
Watch, however, how language is twisted in an effort to make Yoo's role seem larger than life. This piece at the Huffington posts quotes the following:
"Addington, Bybee, Gonzales, Haynes, and Yoo became, in effect, a torture team of lawyers, freeing the administration from the constraints of all international rules prohibiting abuse."while Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber writes
...this is not, in the end, an issue of academic freedom. That is, it doesn’t concern Yoo’s ideas about the laws or communication of same; it concerns credible allegations that Yoo acted directly and deliberately, in his capacity as an employee of the US government to facilitate war crimes.Of course, when all is said and done, all Yoo did was give his legal opinion. To bring Orwell's point home, you could argue directly that lawyers ought to be jailed if their opinions about the constitution are too wacky, but that would be far too honest.
This whole thing sort of reminds me of another disturbing trend: the way labels like "human rights" have been co-opted in the service of speech suppression. Read more about that here.
Update: This formulation is particularly amusing,
None of Yoo’s critics, to my knowledge, are arguing that he should lose his job for his ideas; rather that he should lose his job for actions that he took as a servant of the US government…Of course, the actions in question consist of nothing more than writing down his ideas.
Tuesday, April 01, 2008
The Times has an article about Palestinian children's tv:
Another children’s program, “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” has become infamous for its puppet characters — a kind of Mickey Mouse, a bee and a rabbit — who speak, like Assud the rabbit, of conquering the Jews to the young hostess, Saraa Barhoum, 11. “We will liberate Al Aksa mosque from the Zionists’ filth,” Assud said recently. “We will liberate Jaffa and Acre,” cities now in Israel proper. “We will liberate the whole homeland.”
The mouse, Farfour, was murdered by an Israeli interrogator and replaced by Nahoul, the bee, who died “a martyr’s death” from lack of health care because of Gaza’s closed borders. He has been supplanted by Assud, the rabbit, who vows “to get rid of the Jews, God willing, and I will eat them up, God willing.”
When Assud first made his appearance, he said to Saraa: “We are all martyrdom-seekers, are we not, Saraa?” She responded: “Of course we are. We are all ready to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our homeland. We will sacrifice our souls and everything we own for the homeland.”
Sunday, February 10, 2008
Here is a puzzle I thought of the other day.
Suppose a time traveler from the future proposes a deal for you. He has taken some scans of you and he claims to be able to reconstruct you precisely in the future - molecule for molecule. Furthermore, in the future improved advances in medicine have made eternal youth possible, so that what you get is not just more life but eternal life. In return, he asks you to run errands for him for a mere decade or so.
Should you accept? Our immediate intuition is to say no - whatever he will reconstruct in the future will not be you - perhaps it will be a copy of you, but not you, who will have died by then.
Consider, though, a different scenario. Suppose a professor of biology from university X claims to have found the key to eternal youth. He claims that the cell-division process is inherently flawed; every time your cells divide, the new copies are slightly degraded. Worse, some cells in your body do not divide at all, and as a result degenerate over time. He claims to have perfected the cell division process, and learned how to induce division in cells which do not divide.
He offers you a pill - for the same price as the time traveler in our first example - which, if you take, will induce each of your cells to make a perfect copy of itself every day - no degradation. If you take it, he says, you will have eternal life. Some of your friends have taken it and have indeed stopped aging as a result. Moreover, they seem the same as ever - no side effects.
Should you accept? Our immediate intuition is to say yes - this is eternal life, and surely its worth whatever is asked for it.
But the two scenarios are actually identical - in the latter case, you will be copied one cell at a time, but in the former case you will be copied in one shot. Accepting that no cell of your body now is going to be part of the future you, it seems weird to argue that whether the future entity is you depends on how it was constructed from you - whether on a cell by cell basis, or all-at-once.
Sunday, December 09, 2007
Suppose, for a moment, that you are a white farmer of solid means in the antebellum south. You have a neighbor who treats all of his slaves mercilessly, requiring them to work 16 hour days, and feeding them only one meal a day. You feel the need to do something that will, if not fix, then at least alleviate the cruelty you are witnessing.
Your solution: you take a loan and buy the slaves from your neighbor. You figure that if you force them to work 14 hours a day, and feed them breakfast in addition to their one meal, you will earn enough money to repay the loan - indeed you might even make a small profit. So this is what you end up doing.
A happy ending? Everybody is better off, after all; you are making a small profit, whereas the slaves are in a marginally better position. An economist would call that a Pareto-improvement.
Most people would not agree. We have a strong moral intuition that tells us that engaging in exploitation and slavery are wrong, regardless of the circumstances. I'm going to take it as a given that there are certain moral absolutes, and that slavery is one of them.
There is one area of public discourse where the argument of the slaveholder gets offered again and again in slight disguise. This is free trade; one hears that we are only improving the situation by agreeing to purchase products from nations where sweatshops and child labor are prevalent. After all, people are choosing to work in the sweatshops, so they must be better off working in a sweatshop than the other options available to them.
Paul Krugman wrote a decade ago
Why does the image of an Indonesian sewing sneakers for 60 cents an hour evoke so much more feeling than the image of another Indonesian earning the equivalent of 30 cents an hour trying to feed his family on a tiny plot of land...?and here is Clive Crook writing in the Atlantic Monthly
It is very hard to maintain that (a) trade is good for us in the aggregate and (b) it makes sense to go slow on trade liberalization. If you are going to argue (b), before long you will find yourself failing to mention (a).Crazy.
Crook - who is a columnist for the Financial Times - was prompted to write the above by Hillary Clinton's recent statement
...what I have called for is a time-out which is really a review of existing trade agreements and where they are benefiting our workers and our economy and where the provision should be strengthened to benefit the rising standards of living across the world...I’m trying to take the trade agreements that [Bush] has negotiated each one on its merits - and I will support the Peru agreements because it has the kind of strong labor and environmental provisions that I’ve long called for...for which she has been criticized by various free trade supporters. On the other hand, to me Clinton's statements have been like a breath of fresh air. Most American politicians fall either into the free trade radical or the protectionist camp. Its nice to have a candidate who has a level-headed approach to trade issues.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
I don't dispute that at times the US has been inconsistent in its pursuit of democracy. Sometimes other priorities - like fighting Al Qaeda - have been pursued at the expense of democracy promotion. This has lead some critics to argue that the entire policy is little more than a sham within which the US cloaks its geopolitical interests: while the US criticizes its enemies for their anti-democratic practices, it turns a blind eye to similar practices perpetrated by its allies. I think two recent developments prove this to be false:
|You Are a Caramel Crunch Donut|
You're a complex creature, and you're guilty of complicating things for fun.
You've been known to sit around pondering the meaning of life...
Or at times, pondering the meaning of your doughnut.
To frost or not to frost? To fill or not to fill? These are your eternal questions.
Thursday, November 08, 2007
I came across this curious tidbit the other day; this is Johnathan Edwards, addressing the question of whether the Christians in heaven will not be saddened by the eternal sufferings of the damned. The source is here.
The seeing of the calamities of others tends to heighten the sense of our own enjoyments. When the saints in glory, therefore, shall see the doleful state of the damned, how will this heighten their sense of the blessedness of their own state... When they shall see how miserable others of their fellow-creatures are...when they shall see the smoke of their torment...and hear their dolorous shrieks and cries, and consider that they in the mean time are in the most blissful state, and shall surely be in it to all eternity: how they will rejoice!
I just came across this book review in the LRB, containing a detailed account of the death of Walter Benjamin:
Benjamin would set out for the [Spanish-French ] border with two other people, Henny Gurland and her teenage son, Joseph, on 26 September 1940 ...Benjamin was a very advanced 48, with a promising future behind him and a number of medical problems, including lung trouble and a heart condition.
Fittko describes the little party striking out at a steady pace, she and Joseph taking turns to carry Benjamin’s black briefcase. Much later, when people asked her if she knew, or he’d said, what it contained, she was impatient. He was carrying a very important manuscript, worth more in his eyes than his own life, as he’d intimated, but that was as far as it went. Fittko was a militant people-smuggler on her first run, not a scholar or literary hanger-on. ‘For better or worse,’ she said of Benjamin’s luggage, ‘we had to drag that monstrosity over the mountains.’ She also called it ‘his ballast’. It’s likely, given the importance attached to it, that she embellished her memoir – and indeed her memory – to make more of the mysterious briefcase. Rolf Tiedemann, co-editor of the Suhrkamp seven-volume Gesammelte Schriften, speculated that its contents might have included a copy of the Theses on the Philosophy of History; the Harvard editors of the Selected Writings say the same. In any event, the manuscript, along with the bag and whatever else it contained, crossed the frontier and promptly disappeared.
On the journey, Benjamin... was a model compared with some of the fusspots she’d later deliver to safety. She remembers resting up, eating ‘a piece of bread I’d bought with bogus food stamps’ and pushing the tomatoes across to Benjamin, who’d asked: ‘By your leave, gnädige Frau, may I serve myself?’ That’s how it was, she says, with ‘Old Benjamin and his Spanish court etiquette’.
Fittko...had taken ten hours to climb from Banyuls to the Spanish border with the Gurlands....She was basking in her first triumph, delighted with the route and – this has an air of embellishment – gratified to think that ‘Old Benjamin and his manuscript are safe now . . . on the other side of the mountains.’
Had Portbou remained a quiet fishing community it might never have been bombed by Italian aircraft during the Civil War, but it became a strategic railway station at the end of the 1920s and was still badly damaged when the refugees arrived. On announcing themselves to the authorities, they were told they’d be returned to France the following day. Birman [a member of Benjamin's party -alex]was mortified: evidently they should have gone through the formalities at an earlier point of entry, which they must have missed; their contact in Banyuls had warned against this eventuality. Birman’s neck ‘was seized by a big male hand’. She was ‘turned around and commanded by a stocky man to follow him closely’. Her destination was the Fonda de Francia, a hotel in Portbou where she and the others were placed under garde à vue. It was a watering hole for special services, including the Gestapo (in those days undercover as shipping agents), informers and spooks from both sides of the border.
Birman says that they all had to double up except for Benjamin, who got ‘a room for himself: his companion with son another place, Sophie and I a room, and my sister and Grete Freund a small cell’. The situation could not have been worse, yet there was a trapdoor somewhere in this despair and Birman fell through it when she and Sophie Lippmann decided that the gold coins they’d brought with them should now be used to pay someone – anyone – to intercede on their behalf with the authorities. Lippmann felt the ‘hotel warden’ might be biddable and predictably enough, when she went to look for him, he was ready to help.
On her return she told Birman that she’d heard a ‘loud rattling from one of the neighbouring rooms’. Birman went to investigate and found Benjamin ‘in a desolate state of mind and in a completely exhausted physical condition’. He told her he could not go back to the border and would not move out of the hotel. She said there was no alternative and he disagreed: ‘He hinted that he had some very effective poisonous pills with him. He was lying half naked in his bed and had his very beautiful big golden grandfather watch with open cover on a little board near him, observing the time constantly.’ This ‘big golden grandfather watch’ was perhaps a pocket watch; and if so, surely the one he’d consulted earlier in the day to ration the pauses during his heroic, debilitating ascent. Birman told him about the attempted bribe and urged him to hold off. ‘He was very pessimistic’ and thought the odds were way too long. A little later, Henny Gurland came into the room and Birman left. There were several visits by a local doctor who bled the patient and administered injections, but if Birman was aware of this, she doesn’t say so. She takes it to be a clear case of suicide. ‘The next morning,’ she writes, ‘we heard that he had succeeded and was no more amongst us.’
If there’s anything as famous about Benjamin’s death as the briefcase, it’s the fact that at the time he crossed, Spanish officials had been ordered to turn back refugees – anyone sans nationalité, as Henny explained it in her letter to her husband – and that this order was enforced for a day or so, then set aside, or ignored, immediately afterwards. It was Benjamin’s timing that was fatal: Arendt called it ‘an uncommon stroke of bad luck’. Much has been said about this, but Momme Brodersen’s remark, in his 1996 biography of Benjamin, is the one that lingers in the mind: ‘It is hard not to ask whether . . . Benjamin’s death was “preventable”, “unnecessary”, though these are unanswerable, pointless questions. Hundreds of others were dying, unnecessarily, anonymously, on the borders; millions were to die with no border in sight.’
The following day was probably more distressing to Birman than the night before... The warden was serving coffee to Birman, her sister Dele, Sophie Lippmann and Greta Freund when two policemen arrived and announced that they’d all have to return to the border and pick up entry visas. They left under escort and made the ascent in a couple of hours. The only sign of a customs point was a weather-beaten phone booth. The frontier itself consisted of a rope and beyond the rope an ominous, bored assortment of goons, French and German. The Spanish gendarmes turned back, pointing out how honourably they’d refrained from untying the rope and delivering them back into Vichy. They even left some coins for the refugees to use in the phone booth: they should phone through, they advised, to the police at Portbou, requesting permission to set foot on the Spanish soil they’d been pacing in such desolation for the better part of 24 hours.
"There we were sitting on rocks and burnt-out slopes. We were so depressed that we did not even notice that the sky was becoming darker and darker, although it was early in the afternoon. A thunderstorm! No, a rainstorm . . . We weighed our possibilities. There was only one direction with uncertain issue, all the others meant death. So we decided to return to Spain. There was no hope of walking down. There were no passable tracks any more, one could only sit on stones and try to glide down."
They slithered back to Portbou under driving rain and arrived at the police station around six in the evening. The captain of the guard thrust some papers in Birman’s pocket, told her their visas were in order and advised them to leave before dark. He waved them on for a baggage inspection, which they survived with their gold intact. The ‘hotel-keeper’, presumably the guardian Sophie had met the night before, was watching eagerly, and once they were through he demanded the promised reward. ‘Her offer had worked,’ Birman says, ‘even in our absence . . . he must have communicated with the police captain to rescind his previous order,’ but too late to stop them being marched back to the frontier. Once the gold was handed over, everything changed. The refugees were escorted to the Fonda de Francia as guests, rather than prisoners, and a lavish spread was prepared.
The gold probably tipped the scales in Birman’s favour, notwithstanding her all-round resourcefulness. If her story is true, it might have held out hope for Benjamin too. But Birman’s ‘professor’ was not a believer. Early in life he’d got out of gold – turning away from the path indicated by his family’s wealth – and into a pure, non-remunerative form of work, perhaps best thought of as the investigation of modernity: a cornucopia of social production and, as he envisaged it, a nearly miraculous condition of the kind you might come to understand after long study of an infant prodigy capable of grand engineering schemes, precocious feats of reasoning, high poetic utterance, generosity of spirit and a cruelty that knew no bounds. The European culture that Benjamin loved had the infernal vigour of the child genius, even though, in his reflections on the Second Empire, he could also discern the outlines of the ageing hag. Living on modest means, he did as much in his century for the discursive essay as Montaigne had done in his, though he was better placed, historically, not just to think about the world, but to try to say how the world thought back. Unlike his father, an auctioneer, rentier and speculator, Benjamin at 48 had a universe to offer but very little to transact, in life or on the point of dying, and so on his last journey he took the cash he could muster and the few articles he rightly considered essential: an obscure manuscript, a pocket watch and enough morphine ‘to kill a horse’, as Koestler had described it after their meeting in Marseille. Gold was not part of this crude survival kit, which provided for dispatch rather more than salvation. Benjamin may have been devoted to memory and posterity, but he had very little intellectual or moral interest in the road ahead – his or anybody else’s. ‘We know,’ he wrote in the last of his aphorisms on ‘Messianic time’ in the Theses, ‘that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however.’