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“Fortune favors the brave”*…


History is filled with almosts. With those who almost adventured, who almost achieved, but ultimately, for them it proved to be too much. Then, there are others. The ones who embrace the moment, and commit. And in these moments of truth . . . they calm their minds and steel their nerves with four simple words that have been whispered by the intrepid since the time of the Romans. Fortune favours the brave.

Adam Tooze been mulling these lines ever since he first saw the commercial for crypto.com done by Matt Damon during a football game back in the autumn of 2021:

Now he unpacks the backstory…

The phrase “fortune favors the brave” is generally attributed to Pliny the Elder, the obsessive scholar and Roman Fleet commander. He uttered it on the fateful night of August 24 79 AD when the volcano Vesuvius erupted and buried Herculaneum and Pompeii. As recalled 25 years later, at the request of Tacitus, by his nephew Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder ignored the advice of his helmsman and steered directly towards the eruption, hoping to pull off a famous rescue. Instead, he was overwhelmed, lost control of the situation and finally, in ridiculous circumstances, succumbed to the fumes, becoming one of the thousands of casualties…

You might say that evoking Pliny’s famous phrase was more apt than Damon or crypto.com realized.

But Vesuvius does not belong only to the classical tradition. In the 18th century, the volcano would become one of the quintessential sites of the romantic sublime…

A fascinating “close read” of an influential TV spot, its intellectual antecedents, and its (intended and unintended) message: “Fortune Favors the Brave: the making of crypto ideology, Vesuvius, and the romantic sublime,” from @adam_tooze.

* Pliny the Younger, “quoting” Pliny the Elder


As we iron out the irony, we might recall that, on this date in 2008, the Dow Jones Average fell 8%, continuing a slide that had begun with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and other smaller financial firms. The DJI was at 8,149.09, roughly the midpoint (in both timing) of the sub-prime lending crisis and the Dow’s 54% fall to 6,469.95 (in March, 2009) from its peak of 14,164 on October 9, 2007. The recovery, of course, took much longer.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 1, 2022 at 1:00 am

“America’s health care system is neither healthy, caring, nor a system”*…

Care is deteriorating even as prices rise. There are a number of reasons; Fred Shulte explores a new and growing category of culprit…

Private equity is rapidly moving to reshape health care in America, coming off a banner year in 2021, when the deep-pocketed firms plowed $206 billion into more than 1,400 health care acquisitions, according to industry tracker PitchBook.

Seeking quick returns, these investors are buying into eye care clinics, dental management chains, physician practices, hospices, pet care providers, and thousands of other companies that render medical care nearly from cradle to grave. Private equity-backed groups have even set up special “obstetric emergency departments” at some hospitals, which can charge expectant mothers hundreds of dollars extra for routine perinatal care.

As private equity extends its reach into health care, evidence is mounting that the penetration has led to higher prices and diminished quality of care, a KHN investigation has found. KHN found that companies owned or managed by private equity firms have agreed to pay fines of more than $500 million since 2014 to settle at least 34 lawsuits filed under the False Claims Act, a federal law that punishes false billing submissions to the federal government with fines. Most of the time, the private equity owners have avoided liability…

The terrifying details: “Sick Profit: Investigating Private Equity’s Stealthy Takeover of Health Care Across Cities and Specialties,” from @FredSchulte at @KHNews.

See also: “Private equity, health care, and profits: It’s time to protect patients,” “Private equity health-care monopolies are on a profitable killing spree,” and “Private equity deals drive up healthcare use, costs among physician practices, JAMA study finds” (this last, source of the image above).

* Walter Cronkite


As we muse on mercenary medicine, we might send healing birthday greetings to James Collip; he was born on this date in 1892. A biochemist, he partnered with Frederick Banting and Charles Best to discover insulin in 1921. The co-inventors sold the insulin patent to the University of Toronto for a mere $1. They wanted everyone who needed their medication to be able to afford it.

Today, Banting and his colleagues would be spinning in their graves: Their drug, on many of the 30 million Americans with diabetes rely, has become the poster child for pharmaceutical price gouging.

The cost of the four most popular types of insulin has tripled over the past decade, and the out-of-pocket prescription costs patients now face have doubled. By 2016, the average price per month rose to $450 — and costs continue to rise, so much so that as many as one in four people with diabetes are now skimping on or skipping lifesaving doses


Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 20, 2022 at 1:00 am

“There was so much more going on than any one person could know, reality was so much bigger than the self, that it was alarming to contemplate”*…

Henry Oliver on The Panic of 1825 and the ways in which it modeled crises to come and shaped the modern world…

… the Panic of 1825… wasn’t like panics of the past. There was no external cause of this bubble — no war, no weather, no pandemic. It was not a speculative mania. It took place in many fragmented investments — loans, insurance policies — made by individuals, often in good faith, in the new economic system. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had introduced a new gold standard. To avoid a sudden stop in loans and note issues (after running the war on cheap money) the Bank designed a transition. First, they hoarded gold like Smaug, to keep prices high and prevent a run. Second, they brought out new low-yield stocks. Third, the government issued new bonds and started a big infrastructure programme. With all the extra money in the system, backed by gold, people started investing, post-war prosperity flourished, and George IV could yap complacently about the success of the economy. Now that gold payments resumed, the market for precious metals boomed. Hence all those investments in South American gold mines. That all sent capital overseas, and so the currency was becoming, in reality, a paper system. Letters and warnings were published in The Times, but all in vain. And so when the bank drew in its horns, the crash was inevitable.

This wasn’t, then, a rampant speculative bubble. It was a diversification crisis. So many people invested in so many different things and none of them knew enough about the rest. Many investments were sound. Many participants were not speculators. “The fundamental problem in the market,” as one scholar has written, “was not that investors were over-extending themselves but rather that they did not have enough information to appreciate how over-extended everyone else already was.” After the crash, the finance system started to be centralised, to avoid such situations in the future.

1825 is known as the first modern financial crisis. No single group could be blamed for what happened. It was a systemic event. It demonstrated, quite firmly, that there is no place or person at the centre of things, no-one who runs the market. 1825 was, in some senses, the year the modern economy started. But it wasn’t just in economics that 1825 changed the world. Politics and literature were reinvigorated too…

More (including the role of Disraeli) at “1825: the first modern financial crisis,” from @HenryEOliver.

[Image above: source]

* Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future


As we ponder precedent, we might recall that it was on this date in 1867 that the first stock ticker was introduced.

The advent of the ticker ultimately revolutionized the stock market by making up-to-the-minute prices available to investors around the country. Prior to this development, information from the New York Stock Exchange, which has been around since 1792, traveled by mail or messenger.

The ticker was the brainchild of Edward Calahan, who configured a telegraph machine to print stock quotes on streams of paper tape (the same paper tape later used in ticker-tape parades). The ticker, which caught on quickly with investors, got its name from the sound its type wheel made.


Calahan’s ticker (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 15, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The real alchemy consists in being able to turn gold back again into something else; and that’s the secret that most of your friends have lost.”*…

16th century alchemical equipment, and 21st century reconception of Luria’s 16th century Sephirotic array by Naomi Teplow.

About a decade ago, the formidable Lawrence Weschler was a visiting scholar at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where he conceived a concept for an exhibit that, sadly, never materialized. Happily, he has shared the design in his wonderful newsletter, Wondercabinet

Lead into Gold:

Proposal for a little jewel-box exhibit

surveying the Age-Old Quest

To Wrest Something from Nothing,

from the Philosopher’s Stone

through Subprime Loans

The boutique-sized (four-room) show would be called “Lead into Gold” and would track the alchemical passion—from its prehistory in the memory palaces of late antiquity through the Middle Ages

(those elaborate mnemonic techniques whereby monks and clerks stored astonishing amounts of details in their minds by placing them in ever-expanding imaginary structures, forebears, as it were, to the physical wondercabinets of the later medieval period—a sampling of manuscripts depicting the technique would grace a sort of foyer to the exhibition),

into its high classic phase (the show’s first long room) with alchemy as pre-chemistry (with maguses actually trying, that is, to turn physical lead into physical gold, all the beakers and flasks and retorts, etc.) to one side, and astrology as pre-astronomy (the whole deliriously marvelous sixteenth-into-seventeenth centuries) to the other, and Isaac Newton serving as a key leitmotif figure through the entire show (though starting out here), recast no longer in his role as the first of the moderns so much as “the Last of the Sumerians” (as an astonished John Maynard Keynes dubbed him, upon stumbling on a cache of thousands of pages of his Cambridge forebear’s detailed alchemical notes, not just from his early years before the Principia, but from throughout his entire life!).

The show would then branch off in two directions, in a sort of Y configuration. To one side:

1) The Golden Path, which is to say the growing conviction among maguses and their progeny during the later early-modern period that the point was allegorical, an inducement to soul-work, in which one was called upon to try to refine the leaden parts of oneself into ever more perfect golden forms, hence Faustus and Prospero through Jung, with those magi Leibniz and Newton riffing off Kabbalistic meditations on Infinity and stumbling instead onto the infinitesimal as they invent the Calculus, in turn eventually opening out (by way of Blake) onto all those Sixties versions, the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, etc., which set the stage for the Whole Earth Catalog and all those kid-maguses working in their garages (developing both hardware and software: fashioning the Calculus into material reality) and presently the Web itself (latter day version of those original memory palaces from back in the show’s foyer, writ large);

while, branching off to the other side, we would have:

2) The Leaden Path, in which moneychangers and presently bankers decided to cut to the chase, for, after all, who needed lead and who needed gold and for god’s sake who needed a more perfect soul when you could simply turn any old crap into money (!)—thus, for example, the South Sea Bubble, in which Newton lost the equivalent of a million dollars (whereupon he declared that he could understand the transit of stars but not the madness of men), tulipomania, etc., and thence onward to Freud (rather than Jung) and his conception of “filthy lucre” and George Soros (with his book, The Alchemy of Finance), with the Calculus showing up again across ever more elaborate permutations, leading on through Ponzi and Gecko (by way of Ayn Rand and Alan “The Wizard” Greenspan) to the whole derivatives bubble/tumor, as adumbrated in part by my own main man, the money artist JSG Boggs, and then on past that to the purest mechanism ever conceived for generating fast money out of crap: meth labs (which deploy exactly but exactly the same equipment as the original alchemists, beakers and flasks and retorts, to accomplish the literal-leaden version of what they were after, the turning of filth into lucre).

And I appended a xerox of that napkin sketch:

Eminently worth reading– and enjoying–in full. “The age-old human quest to turn nothing into something.”

* Edith Wharton


As we appreciate the abiding attraction of alchemy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the act creating the Tennessee Valley Authority. A feature of the New Deal, the TVA was created to provide navigation, flood control, electricity generation, fertilizer manufacturing, regional planning, and economic development to the Tennessee Valley, a region (all of Tennessee, portions of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and small areas of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia) which was particularly hard hit by the Great Depression relative to the rest of the nation. While owned by the federal government, TVA receives no taxpayer funding and operates similar to a private for-profit company.

The TVA has been criticized for its use of eminent domain, which resulted in the displacement of over 125,000 Tennessee Valley residents for the agency’s infrastructure projects. But on balance the TVA has been documented as a success in its efforts to modernize the Tennessee Valley and helping to recruit new employment opportunities to the region.

FDR signing the TVA Act [source]

“Information was found to be everywhere”*…

A newly-proposed experiment could confirm the fifth state of matter in the universe—and change physics as we know it…

Physicist Dr. Melvin Vopson has already published research suggesting that information has mass and that all elementary particles, the smallest known building blocks of the universe, store information about themselves, similar to the way humans have DNA.

Now, he has designed an experiment—which if proved correct—means he will have discovered that information is the fifth form of matter, alongside solid, liquid, gas and plasma…

Dr. Vopson said: “This would be a eureka moment because it would change physics as we know it and expand our understanding of the universe. But it wouldn’t conflict with any of the existing laws of physics. It doesn’t contradict quantum mechanics, electrodynamics, thermodynamics or classical mechanics. All it does is complement physics with something new and incredibly exciting.”

Dr. Vopson’s previous research suggests that information is the fundamental building block of the universe and has physical mass. He even claims that information could be the elusive dark matter that makes up almost a third of the universe…

Is information is a key element of everything in the universe? “New experiment could confirm the fifth state of matter in the universe.”

* James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood


As we go deep, we might send thoroughly-modeled birthday greetings to Stanislaw Ulam; he was born on this date in 1909. A mathematician and nuclear physicist, he originated the Teller–Ulam design of thermonuclear weapons, discovered the concept of the cellular automaton, and suggested nuclear pulse propulsion.

But his most impactful contribution may have been his creation of the the Monte Carlo method of computation. While playing solitaire during his recovery from surgery, Ulam had thought about playing hundreds of games to estimate statistically the probability of a successful outcome. With ENIAC in mind, he realized that the availability of computers made such statistical methods very practical, and in 1949, he and Nicholas Metropolis published the first unclassified paper on the Monte Carlo method… which is now widely used in virtually every scientific field, in engineering and computer science, finance and business, and the law.


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