Intertwined Markets and the Armageddon to Come

Adam Tooze: Crashed. How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. ISBN 978-1-846-14036-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ This book is a challenge and it is a challenge worthwhile to be taken up. A basic understanding of how bond markets work and how the yield of bonds is tied to the evolution of interest rates is helpful. An interest in economy and politics is indispensable.

Tooze retraces the three highly dramatic episodes of the financial Armageddon of 2008/2009: It starts with the crisis of the US mortgage system, becoming victim of deregulization and banks accumulating debts. Tooze walks us through the failing of American and European banks to provide sufficient liquidity to alleviate that first crisis leading to a European follow-up crisis. The final episode is the rescue attempts of the US Federal Reserve Bank and the European Union, the first being forceful and crowned with at least some success, the latter being timid, incremental and prone to create new problems without solving the old ones. The author shows the different crisis response mechanisms on both sides of the Atlantic and how intimately the two financial markets are linked. If one fails, it draws down the other. Forget all those dreams about national independence. People like Donald Trump, Michael Gove or Nigel Farage are either incompetent or liars. Or both.

Tooze points out fundamental problems of the financial markets and especially the institutional weakness of the European Union when it comes to crisis response. The system of checks and balances between the Commission, the European Central Bank and the Council may give the EU a democratic veneer, but it ties crisis management to the political doctrines of the bigger member states: Germany and France. Greece become an unvoluntary guinea pig and its economy suffered to such a point that is no longer clear what was worse: the disease or the cure. The newly created European Stability Mechanism may able to absorb future shocks, bu for how long? And having a fire-brigade ready never prevented a fire from breaking out. The inherent logics of the financial markets present a risk of their own and the question is whether we have enough safety rules and firewalls to either prevent or contain in a very early stage a would-be inferno.

I learned a great deal from the book. I had to look up a few things I had not learned at school. I still don’t feel comfortable with the concept of bond yields. But once I had worked my way through the first 150 somewhat technical pages I began to dive into a fascinating and scaring politico-economical thriller – John Le Carré for economists! And since the errors of the past tend to be the precursors of the errors in the future, I strongly recommend the book to anyone interested in current affairs. With Trump playing with fire and China holding large reserves of foreign assets – US bonds – we are heading for an uncertain future. If we can’t prevent the next crash, we may at least find some comfort in understanding it!

The potential risk of destabilisation and violent revolt after a collapse of financial markets is comparable to the French Revolution in 1789 and or the Russian Revolution of 1905. Dmitry Shostakovich has captured this spirit in his Symphony No. 11 in G Minor:

Managing Change – A Matter of Life and Death

Walking Around in the House of Suffering

George Szirtes: The Photographer at Sixteen ISBN 978-0-85705-853-9 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Quite a bewildering book. Szirtes sketches a portrait of his mother, and he sketches it with little sympathy. He is interested, but distant. Portraying a stranger. How little he knew when he started the journey back in time, trying to understand her. How much remained unclear when he was done. Right at the beginning, he says about his parents: “They were my parents. They did not speak. I did not ask.” Strangers. I always felt it was more cruel to be with people that do not communicate than to be lonesome. Silence works both ways: offensive as a weapon, defensive as a shield. But silence is always a challenge for a child. Just like a “no” , that perhaps might become a reluctant “yes”.

The portrait of the mother betrays the son. It is intentional. “The Photographer at Sixteen” is a hybrid: part portrait, part memoir. Death is never very far. Nor is desperation. Szirtes language is blunt, laconic. And if father-son-conflicts have inspired more than one novel, drama or poem, the relationship between mother and son is no less… no less what? Cruel? Fascinating? Parents, be they male or female, who pass their unfulfilled social ambitions on to their children are a terrible burden. They want you to have a happy life or what they consider a happy life. As for your wishes, they usually are secondary.

“She had suffered history, now history had to redeem itself through the future.” The future of young George and his brother. Their mother had survived the Nazi concentration camps, and the family had fled Hungary after the Soviet repression of the uprising in 1956. History, suffering, the will to survive, ambitions past, present, future – Szirtes offers a remarkable insight into his family’s story stretching “from Cluj or Koloszvar, also known as Klausenburg” to Wymondham. The elements he reveals give his mother and his relation to her a more precise contour: admiration for his mother’s beauty and her sense of chic, respect for her will-power and ambition, mixed with a healthy dose of scepticism about her choices, her priorities.

Changes in the society of Szirtes’ adopted home country and his mother’s declining health account for the souring relation between a challenging mother and rebellious son. The UK was a safe haven, but not heaven. Delusions, disappointments, a feeling of alienation leading to a certain bitterness – does that sound familiar? Brexit is the final episode of something that started back then in the 60s and is coming to its conclusion in our days. And it had and still has a profound impact on the individual’s life.

What struck me, was the effort invested by the Szirtes family in creating a maximum distance between them and their original Jewish identity. The Holocaust and the prevailing anti-Semitism may have justified such an attitude in Hungary, but not in the UK. To me it looks like fleeing from oneself. And what identity is to be found instead? A post-World War II British identity? If Britons struggled with this concept – they still do – how could a family of Hungarian exilees of Jewish descent possibly succeed?

What I appreciated most about the book, is the fact that Szirtes does not shy away from showing us how little he knows of the biography of his mother. By extension he says that we can only have a fuzzy idea of some person’s identity, changing over time and with the source of our information about that person. How little we know about even those who seem close to us. “I am interested in her, so I go on inventing a truth I can believe in … The trick is to invent the truth.” This book is about composite identities: what others see in us, what we see in us, what we try to make others see in us. Man is a confusing species.

I recently came across a composer who first had to flee the Nazis and seek refuge in the USSR, where a decade later he was arrested by the Soviet authorities who sensed a “Jewish cosmopolitan conspiracy”, whatever that might have been. In 1940 Mieczyslaw Weinberg wrote his String Quartet No. 2:

A Quartet Written on the Way to Tashkent

From Quarks to Black Holes and Back

Marcus de Sautoy: Ce que nous ne saurons jamais (English title: What We Cannot Know, translation by Raymond Clarinard) ISBN 978-2-35087-405-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Warning: If you don’t like abstract thinking, don’t buy this book. If you cringe at the sight of an even simple mathematical formula, don’t start reading this book. If you think an electron is a weapon from “Star Wars”, stick to science fiction and don’t loose you time pretending to read this book. Nobody will believe you anyway. However, if none of the above is true and if you are interested in the limits of human knowledge, in questions about the (in)finity of the universe, the place of God in cosmology or the prelude to the Big Bang, then and only then, do read this book.

The book is well written. It is well researched. It does not shy away from controversial discussions, absurd conclusions and highly hypothetical models of what was, is and will be. It offers a contradicting look into the past and a fuzzy view of the future slong with a disputed assessment of the present. It is full of facts about theories, theories about so-called facts, formulas and though experiments and entertaining jokes.

“What We Cannot Know” is written by a mathematician, who plays the trumpet (rather well it would appear) and the cello (not so well, if we believe de Sautoy). De Sautoy is an official atheist obsessed by his dice and the question of God. This alone sounds promising and makes it worthwhile to hear what he has to say. I shall not attempt to write a synopsis of this book. I would have to rewrite it, which would make no sense at all, would it? I will just enumerate a few topics from a scientist’s everyday life about which humanity knows little and about which it will perhaps never know everything.

The subdivision of the atom for instance: protons, neutrons, electrons and, one level deeper, the quarks. Easy stuff. Unknown and unimaginable some 100 years ago. Can we go deeper and divide matter even further? Can we smash the quark and “look” inside to see what’s in there and what holds it together? We don’t quite know how much we (don’t) know. Space is next. It expands with unequal speed. Why? For how long already? Will it contract at some point? We can’t say. Is it infinite? Some say humanity is inherently unable to answer that question.

What about time? Since we cannot prove it, we BELIEVE that time started to come into existence at some point, but will it ever end? And how exactly did it come into existence? Some respected researchers believe that time is an illusion, just as others believe that any form of “confirmed” knowledge is an illusion. Science is what happens after we have proved that one theory is wrong and before we publish a new one. Or so it would seem.

How about aliens – should we look for them? If there is some kind of intelligent life in outer space different from ours, we should expect it to be more developed. SETI might be a risky bet. Do we really want to meet something more clever than us? Finally conscience. What is it? Where is it located in the brain? How does it start? Can it transcend death? Or be emulated by Artificial Intelligence? We don’t know. In a more general way, our brain and the way it works are one of the biggest mysteries of all. I think, therefore I am, you may say with René Descartes. Really? But who is I? Think about it. Cogito, sed sum?

We know so little despite 10,000 years of scientific research, religious experiences and philosophical debates. We strive to gain insight, instead we discover the dimension of our ignorance, the limits of our thinking. De Sautoy takes the reader on an exciting trip through the history of science and into its possible future, showing us the known unknowns and trying to figure out ways to identify unknown unknowns.

“What We Cannot Know” is one of those books that I had been looking for for a long time, and it was not me who found it. The book rather found me, since I did buy it initially not for myself. Once I had started to read it, I had a hard time to put it down. Understanding how knowledge grows and why in certain areas we fail, is truly fascinating. Realizing that this question cannot be dissociated from the question of God (or any other supposed Creator) makes it even more interesting. A delight for an armchair philosopher like me!

De Sautoy was once asked which piece of music he would like to be able to play, and he chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites. An excellent choice since Bach’s music is full of intricate maths:

Resting body and soul in Bach’s geometry

Traveling back in time for a cup of tea with Goethe

Bruno Preisendörfer: Als Deutschland noch nicht Deutschland war. Reise in die Goethezeit. ISBN 978-3-86971-110-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Would like to know how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spent his day? Or in what kind of bed he slept? Perhaps you would be fascinated by the myriads of problems a traveler trying to cross Germany at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century had to face? Passport issues, the fear of being robbed, whom to bribe, how to avoid the lost or the damage of your luggage… And would you have thought of the necessity to take a pillow with you on the coach? You probably have not the faintest idea about the link between serf-bondage and the technique of ploughing a field. Nor would you know about the different schooling system, the peasants’ resistance to modern agricultural methods or and how the philosopher Immanuel Kant from Königsberg found a highly original way to quench his thirst at night without leaving his bed.

Bruno Preisendörfer has written a curious and highly interesting book in which he presents all the facets of life in Germany during the “Weimarer Klassik” (1786-2832), an era named after the intellectual aura emanating from Goethe’s residence town. The many curiosities, painstakingly researched, make this book worthwhile reading and highly entertaining. Middle-class families in Dresden for example would rather spend money on fashionable clothes than on nutritious food. Goethe’s friend Friedrich Schiller spent a sixth of his annual budget on tobacco, wine, beer, coffee and tea. And would you have guessed that magnetism had the reputation of healing all kind of ailments if only you had unconditional faith in the healer and a generous hand?

Needless to say that I laughed a lot about such anecdotes, while the plain facts and figures about extreme poverty, high child mortality rates and the working conditions in the early industrial age make our current day labour conflicts look like a walk in the park. Torture during judicial proceedings, public hangings and wide-spread censorship show a less familiar side of Germany during the Enlightenment. Traveling back in time with Goethe and Preisendörfer was a fine reading experience and a useful reminder for me not to complain too much about whatever. I live a privileged life, even compared to Goethe or King Frederic II of Prussia.

This book is about traveling and Franz Schubert, a contemporary of Goethe, wrote a wonderful song cycle about a “Winter Journey”:

Wandering to the Point of No Return

Music and the freedom of expression in Nazi Germany

Hans Hinterkeuser: Elly Ney und Karlrobert Kreiten. Zwei Musiker unterm Hakenkreuz. ISBN 978-3-929386-53-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️ This interesting book presents two outstanding German musician whose lives took radically different directions under the Nazi reign over Germany: The pianist Elly Ney, an unconditional admirer of Adolf Hitler, embarked on a glorious career, supported by Hitler’s regime. The pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, as such an unpolitical man, was condemned and hanged by the Nazis after he had in private voiced the opinion that Germany was losing World War II after the defeat in Stalingrad.

By juxtaposing not only the professional evolution of both musicians but also their ideas about art and aesthetics, Hans Hinterkeuser shows that arts were intimately linked to politics in Nazi Germany, and that no musician could pretend to be exclusively concerned by music. If politics threaten the existence of large parts of the population, humanitarian obligations take precedence over artistic considerations. Music had to serve the glorification of the Führer, of Nazi Germany, of the Aryan race and the will to be the strongest. Elly Ney was an enthusiastic supporter of these ideas. Kreiten wasn’t.

Ney was obsessed by Ludwig van Beethoven’s music and sincerely believed that only someone with a pure German soul could correctly perform Beethoven’s compositions. She saw herself as such a person and developed a real, or rather a surreal, cult around Beethoven where playing Beethoven’s music became a holy act with rituals codified for eternity. This fit very well into the Nazi propaganda emphasizing the superiority of the German race.

Karlrobert Kreiten was different. He played works from a large variety of composers: Mozart, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofiev. He had no hesitation to recognize the genius of foreign composers and he would not have questioned that any piece of art is interpreted at two levels: at the level of the performing artist and at the level of the audience. The idea that there could only be one way two perform a piece would have sounded absurd to him.

Kreiten was a bright mind and refused to stop thinking during the Nazi era. Ney was a narrow-minded believer who did never question the official truth. While she must have known about the forced exile of many of her Jewish colleagues and while she could not possibly have ignored the rumours about the genocide in the East, she chose to support the Nazis. Kreiten however identified the news of the glorious battles on the Eastern front as propaganda and did not hide his opinion. He was betrayed, arrested and executed, despite a courageous protest from the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, while Ney was unrepentant and embarked on a second career after 1945. Her allegiance to Hitler was passed under silence.

In my opinion, the use of classical music as a propaganda tool by Communists or Nazis is an important subject. Identifying the underlying rationale my help us today recognize current instances where arts are misused to propagate racist or undemocratic ideas. In this respect, Hinterkeuser wrote an important book. It would however benefited his message if he had been able to deliver it in a neutral, less emotional way. His indignation about Ney’s career is understandable, however his personal judgment is irrelevant in a scientific publication. The case against Ney is sufficiently strong already.

Music is about creativity and creativity requires freedom of expression, freedom that cannot be total, but must be limited by other people’s freedom to live without being discriminated in their fundamental rights. Beethoven was an enthusiastic supporter of modern civic rights and the freedom of expression as you may hear in his incidental music “Egmont”, Op. 81:

Liberty, sacrifice and charming madness