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Vol. 37 No. 6 · 19 March 2015

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The robots are coming

‘The robots will only eat all the jobs if we decide to let them,’ John Lanchester writes (LRB, 5 March). This is surely mistaken. We might as well say: ‘Devastating climate change will only happen if we decide to let it.’ There seem to be psychological forces we cannot control that prevent collective action, even when we are aware of the problems that are about to clobber us (and of their solutions). The likely consequences of developments in artificial intelligence and robotics become clearer by the day, but the likelihood of governments doing anything to address them is close to zero. Why? Lanchester nails that: money. Just as preventing climate change means spending trillions today for no immediate profit, so machine intelligence promises more money (to a few) than Croesus could have dreamed of.

Robin Prior
San Diego, California

Please Not Hillary

My evaluation of Hillary Clinton’s record was not an attempt to hold her to some impossibly high idealistic standard, as Tom McBride seems to think (Letters, 5 March). On the contrary: my aim was to take her exceptionalist world view seriously and to sort through its policy consequences using the available evidence. Her most prominent achievement, to take the most egregious example, turns out to be her most catastrophic failure: by advocating US involvement in the invasion of Libya, she helped to create the chaos that now characterises that country and is spreading to its neighbours. My larger point was that American exceptionalism leads to reckless interventions abroad that endanger us all, but that prove especially damaging to the people they are supposed to help. The exceptionalist outlook transcends party ideology; it is embraced by the Clintons, the Bushes and the entire Washington establishment. We badly need a public debate that challenges that consensus. But we are unlikely to have it, given the widespread assumption that Hillary Clinton is the only alternative to the all too real nightmare of Republican rule.

Jackson Lears
Ringoes, New Jersey

Cash for Diagnoses

Gavin Francis supports GPs who don’t diagnose dementia because they think there’s no point (LRB, 5 March). It is outrageous that publicly funded professionals could withhold important information about my health. It’s all very well being professionally insulted by the government’s offer of fifty quid. The sooner someone sues a GP for failure to diagnose as early as possible, the better. Significant financial and emotional damage, and unnecessary disability can be avoided if you are told what’s wrong at the earliest opportunity and then take action to slow the progress of the disease. Recently, in London, I’ve seen figures for 20 per cent diagnosis rates in some practices against 75 per cent in Belfast. Francis says ‘presumably’ the government thought low diagnosis was evidence of poor care. If anything, it is evidence of no care at all. But that will be for the lawyers to prove.

June Andrews
University of Stirling

Gavin Francis writes: So it’s the fault of GPs, once again the lightning conductors for the nation’s health anxieties. I’m not insulted. What is outrageous is that this initiative specifically erodes patients’ trust in their doctors’ motives, and uses the consulting room to gather data rather than to offer help and support. So there are disparities between London and Belfast, well, go find out why London GPs are overwhelmed instead of sticking a bounty on the head of everyone with memory loss. Suing won’t help. We all want better care. Before June Andrews phones the lawyers I invite her to visit my practice so she can see the barriers I face in getting support for patients with dementia and the reasons diagnosis might be delayed. They are complicated, often historical and political, and they won’t be overcome by crude financial incentives or adopting a belligerent attitude to those of us trying to provide care.

The Austerity Con

I was glad to read Simon Wren-Lewis’s assessment of macroeconomic policy-making alongside Peter Godfrey-Smith’s review of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis (LRB, 19 February). Though the two fields appear worlds apart, they have much in common. Ecology and economics share a common etymological root in the Greek word oikos. The term ‘ecology’ was coined by the anatomist Ernst Haeckel, who defined it as ‘Haushaltung der Natur’: nature’s housekeeping. It is the place of the household in the foundations of each field that has led to a widespread misconception in both macroeconomics and macroecology.

The fallacy of economics is to conflate the workings of a household budget with those of a whole economy. What is rational for an individual can be damaging when applied on the scale of a national economy. The error of Gaia theory is to believe that the forces that promote stable co-operation among organisms within communities will scale up to the Earth as a whole system.

The two fields have recently begun to talk to one another. A conference last September at the LSE brought ecologists and economists together to discuss their shared problems. The ecologist Robert May has collaborated with economists to investigate how lessons learned from webs of interaction among species can inform our view of the stability and organisation of economies, and vice versa. Both systems are prone to occasional collapse, and understanding why is a key concern on both sides.

Markus Eichhorn
University of Nottingham

The Hell Hole

John Lahr’s perceptive account of Eugene O’Neill repeats the common mistake that the playwright suffered from Parkinson’s (LRB, 5 February). Although O’Neill was so misdiagnosed in 1941, his autopsy alongside later studies revealed that his condition (which killed him) was a rare Parkinson’s lookalike: a late-onset neurodegenerative disease called cerebellar cortical atrophy. The autopsy findings were published by Arthur and Barbara Gelb in their 1962 book on O’Neill and more expansively treated by doctors Bruce H. Price and E.P. Richardson in the New England Journal of Medicine on 13 April 2000. (Richardson had supervised the original autopsy almost fifty years earlier.) Trust O’Neill to be different.

More trivially, Lahr confuses the Provincetown Players’ short-lived start-up operation in that Cape Cod wharfside shed with their subsequent work in Greenwich Village, site of the 1917 performance he refers to. And our country’s only Nobel playwright picked up four Pulitzer Prizes, not five: not bad, all the same.

Murray Biggs
New Haven, Connecticut

Significant Timing

Michael Wood refers to Borges’s postscript to his story ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’ (LRB, 5 March). ‘Borges writes that faced with the invasion of objects from an imaginary planet, “reality gave ground on more than one point … The truth is that it hankered to give ground. Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever which gave an appearance of order – dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism – was enough to fascinate men."’ Wood records the date of the postscript as 1947: ‘The timing is significant,’ he writes. It is indeed, and even more than Wood suspects. The postscript had in fact already appeared when the story was first published in 1940 in the Argentinian periodical Sur (a history of which, by John King, I reviewed in the LRB of 3 March 1988). In 1940 Borges was predicting the demise in the very near future, and in any case before 1947, of those three examples of ‘symmetrical systems’ giving ‘an appearance of order’, an order that ten years earlier (in 1930 as much as in 1937) ‘was enough to fascinate men’. But reality did not give ground, at least to that extent. Borges had been too optimistic, and he turned out to have been right only as regards Nazism. Dialectical materialism took fifty years longer to disappear, and as for anti-Semitism, Borges would have done better to quote instead a line from one of his poems about Buenos Aires: ‘la juzgo tan eterna como el agua y el aire’ (‘I judge it as eternal as water and air’).

Daniel Waissbein
Gattaiola, Italy

Why no mention of Muriel Rukeyser?

Marilyn Hacker wonders why I didn’t discuss Muriel Rukeyser in my article on Charles Reznikoff, and asserts that ‘none of the [presumably male] critics who write about the Objectivists … ever mentions her work,’ and that it took ‘the women’s movement to bring her work the attention it deserves’ (Letters, 5 March). The latter may be largely true, but I have been a great admirer of Rukeyser since the age of 13. (I even sent her a fan letter back then, in the early 1960s, which she kindly answered.) I first complained in print about her neglect in 1979, and have written about her and anthologised her various times since, in the context of the American avant-garde. (A reading, I suspect, that is quite different from Hacker’s.) Rukeyser was almost twenty years younger than Reznikoff; her ‘documentary’ poems come later; she was not directly associated with the Objectivists. Rukeyser and Reznikoff never wrote about each other or to each other. I did not mention Muriel Rukeyser in my article on Charles Reznikoff because I was writing an article about Charles Reznikoff.

Eliot Weinberger
New York

Written into History

Richard Henry Holland takes me to task for calling the leaders and members of the Confessing Church ‘biblical fundamentalists’, but that is precisely what they were: they regarded the Bible as God’s revelation to humankind and rejected the Nazi-inspired German Christians’ repudiation of the Old Testament as a ‘Jewish’ book (Letters, 5 March). He points out that the White Rose Movement, young students who distributed Christian-inspired anti-Nazi leaflets during the war and paid for it with their lives, were neither fundamentalists nor members of the Confessing Church, but there was only a handful of them, while Pastor Niemöller of the Confessing Church preached to congregations of thousands in his parish church at Dahlem. Brave though it was, the White Rose’s resistance was wholly without effect, unlike Niemöller’s. As for the Social Democrats, Holland is wrong to claim Rosa Luxemburg had to overcome anti-Jewish prejudice in the party. For all the controversial nature of her message, she was never once criticised because she was Jewish. She was denigrated because she was a woman, but that’s another matter. Other leading Social Democrats were popular not least because they were Jewish, members of a minority with whose disadvantages working-class socialists strongly identified.

Richard J. Evans

How to Balance an Egg

Richard Barnett briefly retells the ‘Egg of Columbus’ story, in which Columbus challenged the ‘grey beard nobles’ at court, who had dismissed the difficulty of his voyage, to make an egg stand upright on its end (LRB, 5 February). It is said that Columbus took the egg, gently cracked one end and thus made it stand upright. For many years I have enjoyed showing to surprised onlookers that one can make an egg stand on its end by balancing it with a light touch from the fingers of both hands until it is steady. The balance can be remarkably stable – the egg can stand on its end for several days – and can be achieved on a variety of surfaces: wood, marble, plastic and metal. It requires more patience to balance it on its narrower end. I have no way of knowing what Columbus actually did or said at court, but since it would have been possible for him to have stood the egg upright without cracking it, it is also possible that the story was designed to misrepresent him.

Frank Tangherlini
San Diego, California

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