No. 57 | Catastrophe
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One great thing about the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was its ability to make a scene. Take the unforgettable “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” a panel that took place in New York City in 1971 in which four female delegates were tapped to speak in a discussion moderated by Norman Mailer, who had just published the decidedly un-feminist The Prisoner of Sex. Billed as a dialogue, the result—documented in filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall—more closely resembled a riot. The teeming crowd became unruly even before the event had started, with one heckler yelling out above the din, “Women’s lib betrays the poor! Norman Mailer betrays the poor!” The audience, which included Betty Friedan and a soft-spoken Susan Sontag, came to hear about the burgeoning revolution. They came to see Mailer publicly attack, and be attacked by, the women’s libbers about the politics of sex. But most of all, they came to see Germaine Greer.
All cultures engage in some form of ball play. Ball games are a basic way for us to hone what computational neuroscientist Beau Cronin calls “the quotidian
spatiotemporal genius of the human brain,” and over the past two hundred years, they have come to dominate the popular imagination, with huge swaths of
airtime and large volumes of ink given over to the dramas of soccer, basketball, baseball, American football, tennis, golf, rugby, cricket—the list goes
on.1 All ball sports are aleatoric structures organized, to greater or lesser degrees, around bounce. Aleatoric structures—structures of planned
chance—produce a reliable kind of uncertainty. We don’t know who will win and who will lose, but we know that at the end of the day, there will be a winner
and a loser. A ball introduces a second, more uncertain, kind of uncertainty into the fray. Its bounce dances along the edge of our predictive capacity,
always almost but never fully under control. At least in the Anglophone world, this second kind of chance—the chance of the ball—seems to be especially
important to our contemporary understanding of play.2 While other kinds of contests are raced, run, rowed, and swum; wrestled, fenced, fought, and boxed;
timed, weighed, measured, and judged; ball games are played. And only an athlete who contends with balls (or pucks, or shuttlecocks, or other third
objects) earns the title “player.” We become players in and through bounce.
Over the past twenty years or so, Nikola Tesla has become a folk-hero for the millennial tech-generation, who consider him the godfather of all visionary scientific mavericks, and thus a key precursor to their own “disruptive” aspirations. But during the twilight years of his life, Tesla was a much more withdrawn shadow of his former dynamic self, when he had been equal parts inventor and showman. At the end of the nineteenth century, during the battle for standardized electrical currents, Tesla found that his alternating current (AC) model put him in direct competition with his former boss, Thomas Edison, who favored direct current. Despite the fact that AC systems eventually emerged the winner, Edison’s standing continued to rise while Tesla was relegated to a footnote in history books, at least until the resuscitation of his reputation toward the end of the last century.
D. Graham Burnett
It is perhaps not widely understood (outside the specialized domains of risk modeling and property insurance) that the last twenty years have seen the relatively rapid growth of a new kind of financial instrument: the catastrophe bond. I aim in what follows to offer the reader a brief introduction to these innovative money-things, which sit at the precarious nexus of mathematical modeling, environmental instability, and vast sums of capital. Techno-legal creations of considerable complexity (and some genuine elegance), “cat bonds“ circulate in the Olympian air of global high finance, where they afford investors an opportunity to place large bets on the occurrence (and non-occurrence) of various mass disasters: earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, suitcase nukes. The lengthy, turgid, and highly confidential specifications that make up the prospectuses of these investments might be said to represent a special and entirely overlooked subgenre of science fiction: what we discover, turning the pages of such deals, are fanatically extensive metrical descriptions of countless doomsday scenarios, each story told in lovingly legalistic and scientific detail. Unlike most dystopian fantasizing, however, the worst-case scenarios played out in the appendices of cat bond issues come with very real-world prospective paydays, precisely priced and proper to the consideration of an imaginative portfolio manager looking to diversify her investments.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have really something of great interest to the public!” The former vaudevillian Ed Wynn is providing the introductory patter
to a segment in an episode of his eponymous comedy show, broadcast live in primetime on 9 December 1949. Wynn, who would later voice the Mad Hatter in
Disney’s adaptation of Alice In Wonderland (1951), is a jolly host: he looks like a horned owl in a clown costume, plump and bespectacled with a rubbery
excitement to his expressions that suggests he’s already half-cartoon. His speech has an avuncular warmth, tumbling with a ringmaster’s glee through his
slightly pinched sinuses. The other treats on the show have included a special guest appearance from the famously deadpan actress Virginia O’Brien,
nicknamed “Miss Ice Glacier,” who sang “Bird in a Gilded Cage,” and blubbery Ed’s attempt to dance a ballet overture. The curtains behind Wynn that hide
the set from the audience are fuzzy, gray, and monstrously thick, looking like nothing so much as a carefully graded spectrum of various sorts of domestic
dust; the studio has the acoustics of a damp attic. Wynn tells the audience that they are about to have “the great privilege in seeing for the first time,
certainly on television, and alive, almost!”—an odd thing to say, don’t you think?—“one of the greatest of the great comedians of the silent moving-picture
days. Mr. Buster Keaton!”
It is getting on toward autumn, and this is what she must do with her day. Up early, switch off the alarm, unbolt the doors, and out into the garden in slippers, dressing gown, overcoat. Low sun on her flat dusty curls as she passes along the back of the house, and against the windows, which are shuttered still inside, behind the net curtains. The birds mad at this hour. Starlings. The young ones from the spring, reared and grown, little hooligans now. She has got a bag of seed out of the shed. From here the feeder looks like a small, startled red man, hung from that second stretch of clothesline she had one of the boys put up this time last year. It’s empty now, the feeder, light and swinging in the breeze.