September 2008

Lawmakers were still wrangling Thursday night about the Bush administration’s $700 billion bailout of the financial system. Political theater was mainly responsible for the delay, but it will be worth the wait if lawmakers take the time to make sure that the plan includes real relief for homeowners and not only for Wall Street.

The problems in the financial system have their roots in the housing bust, as do the problems of America’s homeowners. Millions face foreclosure, and millions more are watching their equity being wiped out as foreclosures provoke price declines.

The problems became even more evident Thursday night with the federal seizure and sale of Washington Mutual to JPMorgan Chase.

It’s unacceptable that lawmakers have yet to come out squarely in favor of bold homeowner relief in the bailout bill. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the biggest advocate of bailing out Wall Street, is also a big roadblock to helping hard-pressed borrowers. He wants to keep relying on the mortgage industry to voluntarily rework troubled loans, even though that approach has failed to stem the foreclosure tide — and does a disservice to the taxpayers whose money he would put at risk in the bailout.

Many of the assets that Mr. Paulson wants to buy with the $700 billion have gone sour because they are tied to mortgages that have defaulted or are at risk of default. Unless homeowners get some help — and its a pittance compared to what Mr. Paulson wants to give to bankers — the downward spiral of defaults, foreclosures and tumbling home prices will continue, which could push down the value of those assets even further.

We could make a strong moral argument that the government has a greater responsibility to help homeowners than it does to bail out Wall Street. But we don’t have to. Basic economics argues for a robust plan to stanch foreclosures and thereby protect the taxpayers’ $700 billion investment.

Mr. Paulson has long opposed what is probably the best way to help Americans stay in their homes: allowing a bankruptcy court to reduce the size of bankrupt borrowers’ mortgages. Unfortunately, but predictably, drafts of the bailout plan circulated late Thursday do not mention that relief.

It is simply outrageous that every type of secured debt — except the mortgage on a primary home — can be reworked in bankruptcy court. The law was designed to protect lenders, who have obviously and disastrously abused that protection. There would be no favors dispensed in bankruptcy proceedings. Lenders would have to accept less of a payback and borrowers would have to submit to the oversight of the bankruptcy court for years.

But the bankruptcy process would mean many fewer foreclosures. And that would halt the downward slide in home prices, reduce the number of vacant homes — and the blight that comes with them — and help preserve equity for all homeowners. It would cost the taxpayer nothing.

Arguments against bankruptcy relief for mortgages have all been raised and refuted in Congressional hearings and debates over the past year.

There should be no more balking. Any bailout bill must allow struggling homeowners to modify their mortgages in bankruptcy court. Mr. Paulson should drop his opposition now. If he won’t, Congress should insist on the bailout for homeowners. Americans’ $700 billion investment needs to be protected.

* Editorial New York Times, (September 26, 2008)

HENRY PAULSON, the Treasury secretary, has opened the government checkbook and is poised to spend $700 billion to end the financial crisis. What comes next depends on the precise mission and operating powers he and Congress assign the new Treasury agency that will oversee the bailout. We see four broad possibilities.

First, the agency could act as a deep-pocketed private investor that sees a bargain buying opportunity — Warren Buffett on steroids. This strategy makes sense if one believes that the crisis has caused the prices of mortgage-backed securities to fall far below their fundamental worth, and that pushing them back up to their real value will be enough to restore the health of the financial sector. Under this “fire sale” view, government involvement is needed because no private actor has enough money to be the market-maker of last resort.

If this is Mr. Paulson’s idea, the employees of the new agency should be investment analysts; indeed, we have heard that the government might even outsource some of the work to private bond managers. One virtue of this approach is that it makes the mission of the agency relatively clear cut: it wants to buy low and (eventually) sell high.

Beyond just buying and holding, a second job for the agency might be to restructure the mortgages it acquires. For example, it could reduce required interest payments so that fewer homeowners default on their loans. Done well, this could avoid costly foreclosures, thereby benefiting homeowners while also raising the value of the securities that the government has bought. This sort of restructuring has been difficult until now, because individual mortgages have been sliced and diced, and the pieces widely scattered. However, if the new agency winds up owning a majority of all problem mortgages, reconfiguring them so that interest payments are lower may become practical.

These first two tasks are probably the easiest for skeptics of government intervention to embrace — or at least tolerate. Unfortunately, they may not be enough. The financial sector is now seriously undercapitalized — struggling institutions simply don’t have enough equity to absorb potential losses — and normal lending within the financial system will not resume until this changes.

Consider Merrill Lynch. It found itself in dire straits because it was having difficulty borrowing to finance its holdings of mortgages and other investments. With options running out, it agreed to merge with Bank of America. Upon the announcement of the merger, the borrowing money problem disappeared, even though Merrill was going to use the borrowed money in exactly the same way as before. What was new was that Bank of America had put its substantial capital base on the line.

Accordingly, a third job for the new agency might be to directly subsidize financial firms to increase their capital. One way to accomplish this would be the agency’s purposefully overpaying — relative to underlying fundamental values — for the mortgages it acquires. Mr. Paulson initially said he wanted to buy mortgages only from American companies; although he apparently changed his mind about foreign banks over the weekend, his original thinking seemed to suggest that he envisions some sort of a subsidy program.

While injecting more money into the financial sector is clearly necessary, doing it this way raises several concerns. For one thing, overpaying for the mortgages would help the banks’ current debt and stock holders. This kind of gift to existing investors (with no upside for the taxpayers providing the money) sets a terrible precedent, surpassing the Bear Stearns and American International Group bailouts, where at least shareholders saw their stakes largely wiped out.

In addition, there would be considerable scope for corruption in distributing the subsidies. Which types of mortgages would get the sweetest deals? What if some banks own disproportionately more of these high-subsidy mortgages? Designing a coherent mission and organizational structure for the agency to minimize these problems will be challenging, to say the least.

If the agency is to get into the direct subsidy business, which may be inevitable, we prefer that it also take on the role of a bankruptcy judge. The government should refuse to buy any toxic mortgage assets from a bank unless it first reaches an agreement with its long-term debt holders to erase some of the debt it owes, perhaps in exchange for stock.

Beyond the principle involved, eliminating some of the existing debt in this way would help to strengthen the bank’s balance sheet. If, in addition, the government received some preferred shares of the bailed-out bank as part of the process (as it did in the A.I.G. rescue), taxpayers might eventually share in some of the gains. Together, these steps would at least partly limit the gift element of the program.

For now, all we can do is make educated guesses at what Mr. Paulson has in mind. But Congress, which has to sign that check for him, should demand some clear answers.

Anil K Kashyap is a professor of economics and finance at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. Jeremy C. Stein is a professor of economics at Harvard.

As economists puzzle over the proposed details of what may be the biggest financial bailout in American history, the initial skepticism that greeted its unveiling has only deepened.

Some are horrified at the prospect of putting $700 billion in public money on the line. Others are outraged that Wall Street, home of the eight-figure salary, may get rescued from the consequences of its real estate bender, even as working families give up their houses to foreclosure.

Most economists accept that the nation’s financial crisis — the worst since the Great Depression — has reached such perilous proportions that an expensive intervention is required. But considerable disagreement centers on how to go about it. The Treasury’s proposal for a bailout, now being negotiated with Congress, is being challenged as fundamentally deficient.

“At first it was, ‘thank goodness the cavalry is coming,’ but what exactly is the cavalry going to do?” asked Douglas W. Elmendorf, a former Treasury and Federal Reserve Board economist, and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “What I worry about is that the Treasury has acted very quickly, without having the time to solicit enough opinions.”

The common denominator to many reactions is a visceral discomfort with giving Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. — himself a product of Wall Street — carte blanche to relieve major financial institutions of bad loans choking their balance sheets, all on the taxpayer’s bill.

There are substantive reasons for this discomfort, not least concerns that Mr. Paulson will pay too much, thus subsidizing giant financial institutions. Many economists argue that taxpayers ought to get more than avoidance of the apocalypse for their dollars: they ought to get an ownership stake in the companies on the receiving end.

But an underlying source of doubt about the bailout stems from who is asking for it. The rescue is being sold as a must-have emergency measure by an administration with a controversial record when it comes to asking Congress for special authority in time of duress.

“This administration is asking for a $700 billion blank check to be put in the hands of Henry Paulson, a guy who totally missed this, and has been wrong about almost everything,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “It’s almost amazing they can do this with a straight face. There is clearly skepticism and anger at the idea that we’d give this money to these guys, no questions asked.”

Mr. Paulson has argued that the powers he seeks are necessary to chase away the wolf howling at the door: a potentially swift shredding of the American financial system. That would be catastrophic for everyone, he argues, not only banks, but also ordinary Americans who depend on their finances to buy homes and cars, and to pay for college.

Some are suspicious of Mr. Paulson’s characterizations, finding in his warnings and demands for extraordinary powers a parallel with the way the Bush administration gained authority for the war in Iraq. Then, the White House suggested that mushroom clouds could accompany Congress’s failure to act. This time, it is financial Armageddon supposedly on the doorstep.

“This is scare tactics to try to do something that’s in the private but not the public interest,” said Allan Meltzer, a former economic adviser to President Reagan, and an expert on monetary policy at the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business. “It’s terrible.”

In part, Mr. Paulson’s credibility has been dented by his pronouncements in previous weeks that the crisis was already contained. Some suggest this was a well-intentioned effort to stem panic. But the aftermath complicates his quest for the bailout.

“If you view your public statements as an instrument of policy, people don’t believe you anymore,” said Vincent R. Reinhart, a former Federal Reserve economist and now a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

The biggest point of contention is over whether and how taxpayers would benefit if the bailout succeeded in righting the financial system, sending banking stocks upward.

In Mr. Paulson’s plan, the Treasury would have the right to buy as much as $700 billion worth of troubled investments, with the taxpayer recouping the proceeds when those investments were sold over coming years. But many economists — Mr. Elmendorf among them — argue that taxpayers should get more out of the deal, securing stock in the banks that make use of the bailout. The government could then sell off that stock at a profit when conditions improve. A similar approach was used successfully in Sweden in the early 1990s when its financial system melted down.

* By PETER S. GOODMAN (NYT; September 23, 2008)

HOUSTON — Officials from Galveston will ask Congress for about $2.2 billion in disaster relief this week to repair the battered island’s port, save a major research hospital from going under and rebuild the city’s infrastructure.

The estimate of the damage done when Hurricane Ike raked the island on Sept. 13 was breathtaking. With 57,000 residents, the amount officials are asking for works out to about $36,800 a resident.

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the federal government has disbursed about $100 billion for things like housing reconstruction and infrastructure repairs along the entire Gulf Coast.

Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas of Galveston will appear before the Senate Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery on Tuesday morning and will ask the federal government to foot the bill for $1.1 billion in damage to the city.

Mayor Bill White of Houston and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst will also appear before the subcommittee, though neither intends to ask for a specific amount of money. Aides to both men said it was too early to assess the damage fully.

Galveston officials said the $1.1 billion would go to fix water, sewerage and drainage systems as well as traffic signals, roads and bridges. The city is also asking for money to build housing, give grants to small business owners and restore beaches, City Manager Steve LeBlanc said.

All this will be in addition to the money the city has received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for cleaning up debris, he said. “We’re not going up asking for something we’re already getting,” Mr. LeBlanc said.

At the same time, the University of Texas Medical Branch — the oldest medical school in Texas and a major center of research on infectious diseases — will request $609 million to get the complex’s six hospitals, medical school and various research centers up and running, Dr. Ben G. Raimer, a vice president of the school, said.

The Port of Galveston is seeking $500 million to repair docks, warehouses, fences and parts of the giant bulkhead wall that separates the island from the channel, Steven M. Cernak, Galveston port director, said.

Mr. LeBlanc acknowledged that the amount the city was seeking might raise questions in Congress, which is wrestling with whether to approve a $700 billion plan to bail out Wall Street. But, he said, “These are legitimate requests.”

Dr. Raimer said the university’s board bought only $100 million worth of insurance to cover the medical school, teaching hospital and various research laboratories, including the new Galveston National Laboratory, which is to investigate, among other things, pathogens used as biological weapons.

The medical center is in shambles, officials said. Flooding on the first floor of the main hospital knocked out $8 million worth of equipment, and repairs to its buildings alone will cost $225 million.

In research laboratories, the school lost some $17.6 million worth of equipment to heat and humidity, Dr. Raimer said. An additional $51 million worth of equipment was damaged in the complex’s clinics.

To make matters worse, the hospital moved 296 patients to other hospitals and estimated it would lose about $276 million in revenues as a result. The medical center employs more than 8,000 people on Galveston Island, he said.

Mr. Cernak said the port, which covers more than 800 acres, and employs 3,000 people, suffered significant damage. To restore the port to what it was before the storm will take at least a half-billion dollars, Mr. Cernak said. But he added that with temporary repairs the port could be operating at about three-quarters of capacity within a month. “That’s just operating on a Band-Aid,” he said.

Galveston officials are also requesting that the federal government release 600 acres on the city’s eastern side known as the East End Flats, which the Army Corps of Engineers uses to dump dredge material, Mr. LeBlanc said. The city wants to develop the property, which is by the seawall and levees, to expand its tax base. It was undamaged by Hurricane Ike.

“We’re simply asking for it back,” he said. “If this is the catalyst to help break that loose, so to speak, then so be it.”

* By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr. (NYT; September 23, 2008)



Millions of Americans with chronic disease like diabetes or high blood pressure are not getting adequate treatment because they are among the nation’s growing ranks of uninsured.

That is the central finding of a new study to be published Tuesday in the medical journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

The study, the first detailed look at the health of the uninsured, estimates that about one of every three working-age adults without insurance in the United States has received a diagnosis of a chronic illness. Many of these people are forgoing doctors’ visits or relying on emergency rooms for their medical care, the study said.

The report, based on an analysis of government health surveys of adults ages 18 to 64 years old, estimated that about 11 million of the 36 million people without insurance in 2004 — the latest year of the study — had received a chronic-condition diagnosis.

“These are people who, with modern therapies, can be kept out of trouble,” said Dr. Andrew P. Wilper, the study’s lead author. Therapies for someone with diabetes and hypertension “are routine and widely available, if you have insurance,” said Dr. Wilper, a medical instructor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The most recent government estimate of the number of people in this country without health insurance is 47 million, which means that if the proportions found in the study have remained constant, there might be nearly 16 million people in this country with a chronic condition but no insurance to pay for medical care.

Nearly a quarter of the uninsured with a chronic illness who were surveyed said they had not visited a health professional within the last year. About 7 percent said they typically went to a hospital emergency room for care.

“A lot of people are suffering from a lack of health insurance,” said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, another of the study’s authors, who is a physician and associate professor of medicine at Harvard.

People with high blood pressure, for example, are at risk for catastrophic medical events like a stroke if they are not getting the drugs they need or having a doctor monitor their disease, said Karen Davis, the president of the Commonwealth Fund. The fund, a foundation in New York that specializes in health care research, has done its own research into the lack of adequate medical care among the uninsured.

The study, being published Tuesday, may have underestimated exactly how many people who are uninsured have a chronic illness, because it includes only those who have already received such a diagnosis, the authors said. Individuals who have not had their conditions diagnosed because they are not seeing a doctor or nurse are not included.

The study’s authors say that their findings cast doubt on the common assumption that many of the uninsured tend to be young and healthy, requiring little in the way of medical care. Because so many actually have chronic conditions that may be expensive to treat, the cost of covering the uninsured is often underestimated, said Dr. Woolhandler, who advocates a nationalized system of health care.

In Massachusetts, she said, the state’s effort to overhaul its health insurance system to cover more residents is costing much more than expected and has not led to universal coverage because policy makers assumed that more people would be healthy. “The state experiments have all failed because of cost,” she said.

The study describes harsh consequences for neglecting easily treatable diseases in so many people. “For some of the 11.4 million uninsured Americans with serious chronic conditions, access to care seems to be unobtainable; many may face early disability and death as a result,” the study’s authors said.

* Text By REED ABELSON (NYT; August 5, 2008)


The pictures show shredded limbs, burned faces, profusely bleeding wounds. The subjects are mostly American G.I.’s, but they include Iraqis and Afghans, some of them young children.

They appear in a new book, “War Surgery in Afghanistan and Iraq: A Series of Cases, 2003-2007,” quietly issued by the United States Army — the first guidebook of new techniques for American battlefield surgeons to be published while the wars it analyzes are still being fought.

Its 83 case descriptions from 53 battlefield doctors are clinical and bone dry, but the gruesome photographs illustrate the grim nature of today’s wars, in which more are hurt by explosions than by bullets, and body armor leaves many alive but maimed.

And the cases detail important advances in treating blast amputations, massive bleeding, bomb concussions and other front-line trauma.

Though it is expensively produced and includes a foreword by the ABC correspondent Bob Woodruff, who was severely injured by a roadside bomb in 2006, “War Surgery” is not easy to find. There were strenuous efforts within the Army over the last year to censor the book and keep it out of civilian hands.

Paradoxically, the book is being issued as news photographers complain that they are being ejected from combat areas for depicting dead and wounded Americans.

But efforts to censor the book were overruled by successive Army surgeons general. It can be ordered from the Government Printing Office for $71; lists it as out of stock, but the Borden Institute, the Army medical office that published it, said thousands more copies would be printed.

“I’m ashamed to say that there were folks even in the medical department who said, Over my dead body will American civilians see this,” said Dr. David E. Lounsbury, one of the book’s three authors. Dr. Lounsbury, 58, an internist and retired colonel, took part in the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq and was the editor of military medicine textbooks at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

“The average Joe Surgeon, civilian or military, has never seen this stuff,” Dr. Lounsbury said. “Yeah, they’ve seen guys shot in the chest. But the kind of ferocious blast, burn and penetrating trauma that’s part of the modern I.E.D. wound is like nothing they’ve seen, even in a Manhattan emergency room. It’s a shocking, heart-stopping, eye-opening kind of thing. And they need to see this on the plane before they get there, because there’s a learning curve to this.”

The pictures of wounded children include some of a 5-year-old shot in a vehicle trying to run through a checkpoint. Other pictures show wounds riddled with dirt, genitals severed by a roadside bomb, a rib — presumably that of a suicide bomber — driven deep into a soldier’s body, and the tail of an unexploded rocket protruding from a soldier’s hip.

There are moments that reflect the desperation in the invaded country: an Afghan in the jaw-locked rictus of tetanus after home-treating a foot blown off by a landmine. And moments that reflect the modern American army: a soldier with unexplained pelvic pain that turns out to be a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy.

The book was created to teach techniques that surgeons adopted, abandoning old habits.

For example, they no longer pump saline into a patient with massive trauma to try to get the blood pressure back up to 120. “You do that, you end up with a highly diluted, cold patient with no clotting factors, and the high pressure restarts bleeding,” Dr. Lounsbury said. Instead, they try to bring it up to just 80 or 90 with red cells and extra platelets, which encourage clotting.

Also, initial surgery even on a severely wounded patient may be brief — just enough to control hemorrhaging and prevent contamination by a torn bowel. Then the patient is returned to intensive care to warm up, raise the blood pressure and restore the electrolyte balance. The next operation is usually just enough to stabilize the patient for transport to a more sophisticated hospital, perhaps in Baghdad or Kabul, in Germany or the United States.

The book describes a surgeon who erred fatally by trying to do too much — a four-hour operation on a soldier who had lost a leg to a roadside bomb. The effort drained the forward hospital’s blood bank, and the patient died on the helicopter to the next hospital.

Also, neurosurgeons treating a blast victim now quickly remove a large section of the skull to relieve pressure, even if no shrapnel has penetrated. Such patients are sometimes able to walk and talk after a blast but then collapse and die as their brain swells.

The procedure is described by the surgeon who saved Mr. Woodruff’s life that way.

Amputations have also changed. Dr. Lounsbury’s brother lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, and in those days clean “guillotine” amputations were done as high as possible. Now surgeons try to preserve as much bone and flesh as they can, even if the stump is unsightly. Modern prosthetics are molded to it.

Doctors have also become quicker to diagnose “compartment syndrome” even in patients too sedated to feel pain; swelling in an injured muscle can cut off the blood supply, leading to gangrene and amputation. Surgeons now “fillet” the muscles to relieve the pressure, often even before it builds, since restitching healthy tissue is better than losing a limb.

And when morphine is not enough, nerve blocks — internal drips of local anesthetic, often given by a small pump held by the patient — have become common in pain control.

Dr. Ramanathan Raju, chief medical officer for the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation and a former trauma surgeon, viewed the book and said it would be “extremely useful” to civilian surgeons because of what it teaches about blast injuries and when a surgeon should stop to let a patient recover.

“The Army should be very happy about this,” Dr. Raju said. “In the past, people said, Oh, Army surgeons are like butchers, they’re not research oriented. This shows how skillful they are.”

One of the book’s most powerful aspects is its juxtaposition of operating room photographs with those of the war outside the tent. It is filled with random shots — burning vehicles, explosions, a medic carrying a child, another in a Santa Claus hat. It also has portraits of soldiers, often dazed and exhausted; one even has tears on his cheek.

Many are by David Leeson of The Dallas Morning News, who was embedded with the Third Infantry Division during the Iraq invasion and won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage.

Even more humanizing are photos of recovered patients: an Iraqi whose jaw was destroyed shown with it rebuilt, a soldier who lost half of his skull smiling at a ceremonial dinner with his wife, a soldier whose face was pulverized by a blast looking scarred but handsome a year later.

Military censors suggested numerous changes, including removing photos showing burning vehicles and the faces of any American wounded. They also wanted to excise references to branches of service and how injuries occurred.

For example, according to unclassified e-mail provided by the authors, one suggested removing this description: “A helmeted soldier suffered a forehead injury during the explosion of an improvised explosive device. He was a front seat passenger” in a Humvee. The censor suggested: “A 22-year-old male was hurt in a blast.”

Two in the chain of command who raised such objections — one civilian and one officer — said they did so only out of concern for patients’ privacy and for security reasons. For example, they said, mentions of wound patterns might tell the enemy that helmets and Humvees were vulnerable.

But the authors argued that it was crucial for surgeons to expect wounds behind armor and absurd to conceal that they occurred.

“The enemy knows that,” said Dr. Stephen P. Hetz, a retired colonel and co-author.

They also argued that the book was dedicated to soldiers and marines and that the wounded were proud to be identified as such. All whose faces were fully shown, whether American, Iraqi or Afghan, had given written permission, they said. If it was not obtained, patients’ eyes were covered with black bars. The random war photos, they argued, were as much as five years old and some had been in newspapers, so they would give enemies no useful information.

Censors also tried to prevent the book from getting a copyright and the international standard book number letting it be sold commercially, Dr. Lounsbury said.

Ultimately, they were overruled.

Kevin C. Kiley, a retired lieutenant general who was the Army’s surgeon general when the book was being prepared, said some higher-ups in the military had been worried that the pictures “could be spun politically to show the horrors of war.”

“The counter-argument to that, which I concurred with,” Dr. Kiley said, “was that this is a medical textbook that could save lives.”

He said it “absolutely” ought to be available to civilians, particularly to surgeons.

Dr. Hetz said that as a West Point graduate and onetime infantry officer — and as a former aide to two surgeons general, to whom he could appeal directly — he always had more faith than Dr. Lounsbury that the book would ultimately not be suppressed.

“There was never any doubt in my mind that the Army would publish this,” he said. “It was just a matter of getting around the nitwits.”

*Text By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. (NYT; August 5, 2008)

In May 1974, three months after his dramatic expulsion from the Soviet Union, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn entered on a search for a place to live in North America. The search ended in Cavendish, Vt., but the first stop was at our summer place on a lake here in Quebec where Solzhenitsyn wanted to continue the long talks he had begun earlier in Zurich with my father, the Rev. Alexander Schmemann, a Russian Orthodox theologian and historian.

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, the Nobel Prize-winning author who chronicled the horrors of the Soviet gulag system, died on Sunday. He was 89. Left, in 2007, Mr. Solzhenitsyn received the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin at his home outside Moscow. Photo: Ria Novosti/Reuters

I was thrilled to be there. Solzhenitsyn was a giant among the heroic dissidents in the Soviet Union, and his saga was a defining episode in the decline of the Communist tyranny. The appearance of “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in the journal Novy Mir on Nov. 20, 1962, opened the window into the Stalinist camps and demonstrated that the great moral tradition of Russian literature had survived decades of brutal efforts to extirpate it.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn in the 1950s at the Kazakh prison camp that inspired “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Then came “The First Circle,” “The Cancer Ward,” the 1970 Nobel Prize and the monumental “Gulag Archipelago,” revealing the full evil of Stalinism. Finally, there was the furious Soviet assault and the brusque expulsion.

Now here he was in the flesh.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn at a news conference in Zurich, shortly after he was deported in 1974. In exile, he kept writing and thinking a great deal about Russia. Many in the West didn’t know what to make of the man. He was perceived as an undeniably great writer and hero who had been willing to stand up to the leadership of a totalitarian state. Yet he seemed willing to stand up and lash out at everyone else as well — democrats, secularists, capitalists, liberals and consumers. Photo: Bernard Frye/Associated Press

My function was modest; I came to cook and drive. All Solzhenitsyn wanted were potatoes roasted with onions for his meals and a small, inconspicuous car for transport. But the conversations were electrifying: it was as if what Solzhenitsyn wanted from my father was an instant transfer of all the Russian history and ideas that had been denied him in the Soviet state.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn in Germany in 1974, a few days after being deported and stripped of his citizenship. Since the publication of “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” Mr. Solzhenitsyn’s fame had spread throughout the world as he drew upon his experiences of totalitarian duress to write evocative novels like “The First Circle” and “The Cancer Ward” and historical works like “The Gulag Archipelago,” his masterpiece which led to his expulsion from his native land. Photo: Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The talks were interrupted only for BBC Russian-language news, which Solzhenitsyn would rush outdoors to tune in to on a portable shortwave radio. He had lists of questions and took copious notes in a tiny hand — perhaps another legacy of a lifetime of hiding writings and thoughts from “them” — and the conversations continued even on long treks through the countryside. There was still ice on the lake and, as in Russia, only the first hint of green in the woods. Solzhenitsyn said our fields and forests lacked the songbirds of the Russian countryside. This was not Russia.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature in Stockholm four years late in 1974. Photo: UPI

That was always the reference point: Russia. Everything — the conversation, the setting, the food, the writing, the shortwave broadcasts, even the safari-style jacket and the patriarchal beard he wore — was about Russia.

It was his Russia; one in which speaking truth was dangerous and heroic; a great and holy Russia that had to be rescued from an evil and godless power. Joseph Brodsky, another great literary exile, once told me that writing poetry in Russian became difficult for him in America after the language ceased to surround him.

Mr. Solzhenitsyn waved as he got on a train in 1994 in Vladivostok bound for Khabarovsk. Mr. Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia from two decades in exile in 1994, after the fall of the Soviet Union.Photo: Michael Estafiev/European Pressphoto Agency

Solzhenitsyn seemed to fear a similar fate — that any interest or involvement in his new surroundings would dilute his self-imposed, sacred mission of rescuing Russia. He seemed determined to sustain the spirit of moral resistance. In all his years in Vermont, he rarely ventured into the world, and then it was to inveigh against Western immorality, consumerism and decadence in terms that showed little firsthand knowledge.

The next time I saw Solzhenitsyn was 20 years later, when I covered his return to Russia in Vladivostok, in the Russian Far East. He continued to issue moral thunderbolts, now also against the chaotic, new post-Soviet Russia. Perhaps he was right, but his incessant criticism and the naïveté of his exhortations, usually centered on patriotism as the key to Russia’s future, seemed irrelevant to Russians caught up in the post-Communist tumult. The work that he had regarded as the most important of his life, “Red Wheel,” attracted little attention.

At a news conference in Vladivostok in 1994. Upon his return to Russia, Mr. Solzhenitsyn began to voice his pessimism, deploring the crime, corruption, collapsing services, faltering democracy and what he felt to be the spiritual decline of Russia. During his 20 years exile, he never doubted he would be able to return to his homeland. Photo: Michael Estafiev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It was a sad ending, but also typically Russian. As Solzhenitsyn himself noted in “The First Circle,” the writer is like a second government in a dictatorship. The paradox is that the moral authority gained through prophetic and powerful writing undermines the creativity at its source. Like many great Russian writers, Solzhenitsyn achieved immortality before he became conscious of his power, which then turned into pedantry.

None of that detracts from the paean to the human spirit of “Ivan Denisovich,” the great conflicts of his major novels, or the majestic anger of “Gulag.” To his credit, Solzhenitsyn struggled to the end to maintain the power and purity of these great works.

* By SERGE SCHMEMANN (Editorial NYT; August 5, 2008)

Here is a fun and easy experiment that Rachel Herz of Brown University suggests you try at home, but only if you promise to eat your vegetables first, floss afterward, and are not at risk of a diabetic coma. Buy a bag of assorted jelly beans of sufficiently high quality to qualify, however oxymoronically, as “gourmet.” Then, sample all the flavors in the bag systematically until you are sure you appreciate just how distinctive each one is, because expertise is important and you may never get another excuse this good.

Now for the meat of our matter: pinch your nostrils shut and do the sampling routine again. Notice the differences? That’s right — now there are none. Every bean still tastes sweet, but absent a sense of smell you might as well be eating sugared pencil erasers. And if in midchew you unbind your nose, what then? At once the candy’s candid charms return, and you can tell your orange sherbet from a buttered popcorn.

We’ve all heard about the mysterious powers of smell and its importance in love, friendship and food. Yet a simple game like What’s My Bean, and our consistent surprise at the impact of shutting down our smell circuits, shows that we don’t really grasp just how deep the nose goes. At the International Symposium on Olfaction and Taste held in San Francisco late last month, Dr. Herz and other researchers discussed the many ways our sense of smell stands alone. Olfaction is an ancient sense, the key by which our earliest forebears learned to approach or slink off. Yet the right aroma can evoke such vivid, whole body sensations that we feel life’s permanent newness, the grounding of now.

On the one hand, said Jay A. Gottfried of Northwestern University, olfaction is our slow sense, for it depends on messages carried not at the speed of light or of sound, but at the far statelier pace of a bypassing breeze, a pocket of air enriched with the sort of small, volatile molecules that our nasal-based odor receptors can read. Yet olfaction is our quickest sense. Whereas new signals detected by our eyes and our ears must first be assimilated by a structural way station called the thalamus before reaching the brain’s interpretive regions, odiferous messages barrel along dedicated pathways straight from the nose and right into the brain’s olfactory cortex, for instant processing.

Importantly, the olfactory cortex is embedded within the brain’s limbic system and amygdala, where emotions are born and emotional memories stored. That’s why smells, feelings and memories become so easily and intimately entangled, and why the simple act of washing dishes recently made Dr. Herz’s cousin break down and cry. “The smell of the dish soap reminded her of her grandmother,” said Dr. Herz, author of “The Scent of Desire.”

Many mammals are clearly nosier than we. Consider that our olfactory epithelium, the yellowish mass of mucous membrane located some three inches up from our nostrils, holds about 20 million smell receptors designed to detect odor molecules delivered either frontally, when we, say, sniff a rose, or via the rear, the volatile aromas that come up through the back of the mouth and give each jelly bean meaning. The nasal membranes of a bloodhound, by contrast, sustain an olfactory army 220 million receptors strong.

Yet for all the meagerness of our hardware, we humans can become better nosehounds with startling ease. In one experiment, Dr. Gottfried said, subjects exposed to a single floral scent for just three and a half minutes markedly improved their ability to discriminate among whole families of flower odors. In another, participants soon learned to distinguish normally undetectable differences between one herbal smell and its mirror-image molecular twin if they were given mild electric shocks every time they guessed wrong.

Moreover, numerous studies have shown that smell memory is long and resilient, and that the earliest odor associations we make often stick. “With a phone number, if you get a new one, a week later you may have forgotten the old one,” Dr. Herz said. “With smells, it’s the other way around. The first association is better than the second.”

In another presentation, Maria Larsson, an associate professor of psychology at Stockholm University, described the power of smell to serve as an almost magical time machine, with potential for treating dementia, depression, the grim fog of age. Johan Willander and others in her lab have sought to give firm empirical foundation to the old Proustian hypothesis, the idea that smells and aromas, like the famed taste of a madeleine dipped in tea, can help disinter the past.

Studying groups of Swedes whose average age was 75, the researchers offered three different sets of the same 20 memory cues — the cue as a word, as a picture and as a smell. The scientists found that while the word and visual cues elicited associations largely from subjects’ adolescence and young adulthood, the smell cues evoked thoughts of early childhood, under the age of 10.

And despite the comparative antiquity of such memories, Dr. Larsson said, people described them in exceptionally rich and emotional terms, and they were much likelier to report the sudden sensation of being brought back in time. They smelled cardamom, and there they were in the kitchen, flour dust flying as they helped Mama and Nana roll out the holiday buns. The scent of tar, and they’re back at the dock with Dad, tarring the bottom of the family boat in anticipation of long summer sails.

* By NATALIE ANGIER (NYT; August 5, 2008)

Dr. Larsson attributes the youthfulness of smell memories to the fact that our olfaction is the first of our senses to mature and only later cedes cognitive primacy to vision and words, while the cortical link between olfaction and emotion ensures that those early sensations keep their bloom all life long.