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Manufactured Response

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I spent most of my life trying to Americanize myself, but all that rebelliousness melted away when the earthquake hit

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“Did you see?” my mother says to me, ripping up tissue paper. “The butterflies couldn’t get out of their cocoons. Their eyes are deformed, legs crooked, wings bent.”

She forwards me an article from Nature about the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear-plant explosions and the butterflies that had hatched from radiated cocoons. Zizeeria maha, they’re called, or the pale grass blue butterfly. This is a time when people in Tokyo are suddenly using foreign words like microsieverts and Geiger counters while avoiding nuclear and radiation, and instead talk about butterflies, whose collapsed eye sockets resemble popped bubble wrap. “If the soil is contaminated, everything is contaminated. If the water’s contaminated, everything’s contaminated.”

My mother loves concrete because it lets her high heels clack. She’s like an indoor cat that appreciates nature from the closed window. She’s always hated butterflies, calling them caterpillars with wings. And here she is, obsessing over them.

I say goodbye, click the exit box, and shut my laptop. The New York sirens wail outside my apartment, reminding me that I’m far away from her and have been for a long time.

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Disgorge the Cash

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Companies used to borrow in the markets as a last resort finance investment in their business. Now it’s a front for shareholder giveaways

“All these people have a sort of parlay mentality, and they need to get on the playing field before they can start running it up. I’m a trader. It all happens for me in the transition. The moment of liquidation is the essence of capitalism.”
“What about the man in Rigby?”
“He’s an end user. He wants to keep it.” 
I reflected on the pathos of ownership, and the ways it could bog you down.

—Tom McGuane, Gallatin Canyon

In January 2010, Wall Street Journal columnist Brett Aronds wrote a peevish article about Apple. Instead of wasting its money on this stupid tablet thing, he said, the company should “hand it back to its rightful owners. … The money belongs to stockholders: Give. Indeed Jobs should go further. Apple should—gasp—start borrowing, and hand that money back, too … the biggest innovation we’d like to see from Apple this season isn’t the iPad or iSlate or iTablet. It’s the iGetsomemoneyback.”

Given the spectacular success of the iPad launch a few months later, Aronds’ complaint would seem singularly ill timed. But no: It was prescient. In 2012, under the prodding of activist investor Carl Icahn, Apple announced it would begin paying dividends for the first time in its history. And it began a share-repurchase program to “return capital to shareholders” (in the words of its press release) that rapidly expanded in size. By last year, Apple’s share repurchases had reached a pace of $30 billion per year, on top of $11 billion in dividends. This tribute to shareholders represents four-fifths of the company’s cash from operations and slightly exceeds its $37 billion reported net income for 2013, compared with just $8 billion spent on fixed investment and $4 billion on R&D.

If you read the business press, you’re used to these kinds of stories. A company whose mission is making something gets bought out or bullied into becoming a company whose mission is making payments to shareholders. Apple is only an especially dramatic example. But the familiarity of this kind of story is a sign of a different relationship between corporations and the financial system from what prevailed a generation ago.

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The Art of Antarctic Cooking

Antarctic -- Borchgrevink Das Festland an Suedpol 2

It’s a dog-eat-dog world down there at the South Pole 

The morning of January 4, 1909 found Ernest Shackleton and his crew on the vast and desolate Ross Ice Shelf. Hell-bent on reaching the South Pole, they had faced some tough going. Fierce winds buffeted them. An ice chasm had swallowed their sole remaining pony, and the lost animal’s burden thus became theirs. Each crew member pulled a sledge loaded with some 70 pounds of supplies, straining muscles left cramped by nights spent in ice-rimed sleeping bags.

Yet frostbite and charley horses pained them less than the hunger they felt. Their rations nearly exhausted, they knew starvation loomed. “The end is in sight,” Shackleton wrote that bleak January morning. “Short food and a blizzard wind from the south.” In four months they had enjoyed only one full meal. They subsisted on crushed biscuits, rancid pony meat, pemmican (meat mixed with vegetable matter and fat), the occasional seal or penguin — and these in portions barely able to sustain them. How long they might continue to sustain them, no one could say. In much the same state a month later, Shackleton would write, “Feel starving for food…. Talk of it all day.”

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Get the Balance Right

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A new biography of Walter Benjamin stumbles on the problem his writing addressed: how to write history without taking the victor’s perspective. 

“‘A man who dies at the age of thirty five’, said Moritz Heimann once, ‘is at every point of his life a man who dies at the age of thirty-five.’ Nothing is more dubious than this sentence – but for the sole reason that it violates time. A man so says the truth that was meant here – who has died at thirty-five will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who dies at the age of thirty-five. In other words, the statement that makes no sense for real life becomes indisputable for remembered life.”

Walter Benjamin, who wrote these lines, died in September 1940, aged 48, at the border of occupied France and Francoist Spain. His violent end still casts its light on his entire life. He was driven to suicide after the group of refugees he was traveling with was denied passage through Spain on their way to the U.S. If he had just arrived a couple of days earlier or later, the border would have been open, and Benjamin might have enjoyed the life of a distinguished New York scholar like his friend Hannah Arendt, who took the same escape route shortly after his ill-fated last journey.

Despite a belated reception, today Benjamin has arrived in the official pantheon of global humanities. Depending on theoretical trends and political interests, his German and later international receptions have depicted the contradictory image of a heterodox Marxist, Marxist Rabbi, conservative anarchist, proto-Postmodernist, mystical theologian, left cultural critic, or prophetic art and media theoretician. However, even with his posthumous fame as a modern icon, the image of his life has more or less remained the same. It is the image of a man who died as a radical leftist intellectual and a stateless German-Jewish refugee. Be it his sheltered Berlin childhood around 1900, his failed entry into German academia, his broken marriage and fleeting affairs, his impoverished exile after the Nazi takeover in 1933, or his incomplete Parisian work on the Arcades Project, it seems that his suicide in 1940 has retroactively turned the vicissitudes of his life into the story of a fateful tragedy. Benjamin’s work is read through his life, characterized by intellectual ingenuity, yet inhibited by failure, melancholia, and existential ambiguity.

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The Postcapital Economy

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China’s command-like economy may be better suited to cope with technologically driven abundance

For years, China’s country’s growing spare capacity and rising investment have worried outsiders like me about the sustainability of its growth model. The idea that Chinese demand for resources—which were ultimately being used as much for manufacturing for the export market as domestic-based consumption—was indicative of a competitive and sustainable global bid for goods and output seemed to me unconvincing. Especially without evidence that any rebalancing from investment and export-driven growth to consumption-based growth was really happening.

Two things have since led me to adjust my opinion.

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