Sunday, November 30, 2008
Hey... Bremner, Baird, and Fortune make as much sense as the financial press's discussion of how the market went off the rails and how "Main Street" is now following it into the abyss. In fact, I prefer the BBF "explanation" to the fluff I keep reading in the press.
I'm driven to despair to find the words. Here's a bit that sums it up for me:
In the Bombay I grew up in, your religion was a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle. In my school, you were denominated by which cricketer or Bollywood star you worshiped, not which prophet. In today’s Mumbai, things have changed. Hindu and Muslim demagogues want the mobs to come out again in the streets, and slaughter one another in the name of God. They want India and Pakistan to go to war. They want Indian Muslims to be expelled. They want India to get out of Kashmir. They want mosques torn down. They want temples bombed.This is from an article entitled "What they Hate about Mumbai" by Suketu Mehta in the NY Times.
Christianity has its reforming fanatics such as Savanarola and the Muslims have their moujthpieces of God who speak through massacres such as Bin Ladens. As Mehta points out, these religious fanatics refuse to allow people to live their own lives and instead want to straightjacket them into some ridiculous religious vision of a "pure" life:
Just as cinema is a mass dream of the audience, Mumbai is a mass dream of the peoples of South Asia. Bollywood movies are the most popular form of entertainment across the subcontinent. Through them, every Pakistani and Bangladeshi is familiar with the wedding-cake architecture of the Taj and the arc of the Gateway of India, symbols of the city that gives the industry its name. It is no wonder that one of the first things the Taliban did upon entering Kabul was to shut down the Bollywood video rental stores. The Taliban also banned, wouldn’t you know it, the keeping of songbirds.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
I find his "parallels" with the Great Depression to be silly. In my humble opinion people get seduced by their fame and learn to keep feeding the short attention span of the media with ever greater claims of doom and gloom in times like this (or ever greater claims of utopia achieved during boom times). I don't trust a word of this.
E.g., citing a "parallel" in that an article today trying to explain how real interest rates can be negative was matched by an article in the period 1938-1941 is silly.
On the other hand, I do agree with his comments that economies are psychological and that "animal spirits" drive a market and can be contradictory and irrational. I also agree with this thesis that bubbles breed complacency and that is why the collapse can surprise us so badly. And I agree that the current bailouts are seen as fundamentally unfair and fail insofar as they are not part of a "thought out" policy.
I agree with his call for a "New Deal" and fundamental changes to the markets to "democratize" financial markets.
The above seems awfully persuasive to me, but 52.3% of Californians didn't buy it. They wanted Jim Crow laws. They want racial segregation. They want colour lines. They want religious tests to keep Catholics out of politics and Mormons penned up in Utah. They want sexuality to be legislated. The above advertisement didn't cause the California electorate to pause and consider the benefits of something like the historic Act of Toleration of 1689 where a civil society decides to de-escalate and accept differences. Nope. Californians like their prejudices and want to keep them, thank you very much. The majority voted for Proposition 8.
Yep... life is a study in absurdity. Only 47.7% of the electors in California are willing to try out a little tolerance. The rest are convinced that as good Muslims they must declare jihad on the unbelievers because God is "merciful" and a swift death is what an unbeliever deserves. Oh, and those pesky Christians are convinced that Muslims are fanatical baby killers and that the Crusades didn't finish the business of making the world safe for Christianity. And the Black Power militants are convinced that you have to "off whitey" while the Aryan Nation will either ship the blacks back to Africa or slaughter them in the streets. And of course you have to lock up anybody with an aberrant sexual orientation along with those fifth columnist Japs who were frog-marched off to concentration camps during WWII. Thank goodness we don't waste any time on tolerance. We have too much "business" to get done. We need to clean up the neighborhood and enforce "right thinking" on everybody to make sure that we keep our little corner of heaven safe for the bigots.
If you go to around the 21 minute mark in this video you see Charllie Rose asking whether "risk management" at Citigroup should have foreseen the risks in the US housing market. Vikram Pandit demonstrates that he is an overpaid master of sleaze by dancing around this question without answering it. He excuses the company from any fault. This is a pretty disgusting exhibition.
What is salt in the wound for me is the following article by Eric Dash in the International Herald Tribune:
Vikram Pandit was paid more than that for taking over as chief executive of the embattled bank. Pandit received about $165.2 million in connection with the sale of Old Lane Partners, the investment firm that Citigroup bought last April for as much as $800 million to lure him to the company.
He received an additional $2.7 million in annual pay in the roughly six months he led Citigroup's investment bank and alternative investments group.And in January, Pandit was given a sign-on grant of stock and performance-based options worth more than $48 million, though the options have no cash value. That brings the total to at least $216 million.
In short, this guy was paid an obscene amount of money to put a "new face" on Citigroup. Meanwhile he continues the legacy of lies and deception. Worse, he appears to have drunk the Kool-Aid of a "risk management" process that couldn't foresee that a bubble in house prices might lead to a crash. You pay $200+ million for a guy who doesn't understand that bubbles will crash? You put in charge a guy who seems blindly willing to repeat mistakes of the past? This is the "best that money can buy"? What a load of horse manure. This guy is just another in a long line of sleaze masters who rake in the dough to hold positions where they use dodgy techniques to extract money out of customers (and now the US taxpayer) and move it into his own pocket and the coterie of "management" buddies at Citigroup. Sick.
Friday, November 28, 2008
I get tired of these stories. When times are good, all we hear are talking heads telling us that things can only get better. When times are bad, we hear a different set of talking heads telling us that things can only get worse. I don't listen. The press is not forecasting, they are feeding our manias.
I'm not saying that these guys aren't smart. They are. But trotting them out now is silly. They don't add any understanding. In fact, they feed the current fascination with gloom and doom.
One of the dumbest things I heard was Taleb saying something to the effect "a small excess of demand can cause oil to go from $20/barrel to $150/barrel". This is nutty. For a completely inelastic good, this would be true. But oil has some elasticity, so an increase in price cuts demand. The proof is all around us in 2008 as gasoline in the US hit $4/gallon. What we now know is that the $150/barrel of oil was in fact due mostly to speculation because the fast collapse in price occurred in Sept/Oct 2008 as hedge funds unwound their positions. This was not "demand pushing prices up or lack of demand bringing them down". This was bubbles and the bursting of bubbles.
When I hear Taleb say "I wake up at night for the past couple of weeks hoping that I'm wrong. I think we may be experiencing something that is vastly worse than we think it is." Nutty! He is claiming that we are so "networked" today that a little cause over here can cause collapses over there. Nutty!
I respect these guys, but they should not be trotting out on stage to speculate so wildly. It does them a dishonour.
Iran: A nation of bloggers from Mr.Aaron on Vimeo.
I like the symmetry: Saddam Hussein brought us the Mother of All Battles and here is the Iranian Revolution bringing us the Mother of All Blogging.
Gladwell's books are always interesting, and a fast read. I picked this one up in the evening and finished it by the next morning. That's my best indicator of an entertaining book.
His theme is simple: success goes to hard work & luck. Nothing profound about that, but it is always useful to remind ourselves. I love the examples of NHL hockey players, Termin's termites, Southerners with a Scotch-Irish ancestry and a culture of honor, airliner crashes cross-linked to PDI (Power Distance Index), and educational results linked to the rice culture. Lots of fascinating examples to hammer home the point. He doesn't try to establish one or the other factors as "dominant". He presents his exemplary cases and lets you see that old cliches like "genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration" or "success favors to the prepared mind" have already nailed the point he wants to make. But his 300 page book is a lot more entertaining than a pithy adage.
I especially enjoyed his last chapter where he traces luck and effort in his family history.
Update 2008dec21: Here is a David Brooks review of the book Outliers in his New York Times op-ed piece. And here is Malcolm Gladwell's thoughts about the Brooks review.
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
The heart of his argument is the tension between economics/state security with its desire to wall off knowledge from the natural human urge to learn:
Yet our right to learn is actually quite problematic. It's not guaranteed by the laws of any country, even ones that pride themselves on openness and explicit codification of human rights. The original reason was probably that people couldn't imagine needing such a law. But the newer, more sinister reason is that countries need strong espionage controls to discourage the "learning" of military secrets crucial to state security. This includes not only logistical and technological information but, increasingly, fundamental scientific understanding that might aid foreign states or terrorists in creating weapons. Governments don't want the right to learn codified because they want to abridge this right as necessary to protect the state. They also want to abridge it as necessary to protect the state's economy. The latter practice was always important, but our transition to the Information Age has given it renewed relevance. The right to learn is now aggressively opposed by intellectual property admovates, who want ideas elevated to the status of land, cars, and other physical assets so that their unauthorized acquisitiona can be prosecuted as theft.An example of the crazed extrapolation: He ends the book with a techno-nerd/scientist moving to a colonized moon to get access to the free exchange of knowledge looking wistfully back on the earth with the thought:
What a stroke of good fortune it was to escape here! How unthinkable it would be for anyone with a brain to live anywhere else. How irrelevant and decadent that blue ball has become. Still, it would be terrific if they sent up more girls.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
I've read Chilton's Rabbi Jesus and found it fascinating. He's added a lot of historical detail that is missing in other accounts. He uses his extensive knowledge to give you a sense of "being there" so that you get a better feel for the person and the times. I'm not competent to judge how accurate the historical recreating is, but his scholarly annotations imply a deep historical understanding, so I'm willing to trust that this is a sound interpretation.
He presents Paul as a complex character warts and all. Paul went from a fanatic persecuting early Christians to become an early Christian leader who ranted and "persecuted" his competitors within the Christian community. You get a sense of the years of failure and the moments of breakthrough. You come to understand the tensions in the early Christian groups and how historical accident gave the prize to Paul's followers. Very interesting stuff, and Chilton has an excellent writing style that makes it wonderfully reading despite its academic roots.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Who knows the future? I certainly don't. But I sure hope the past is not prologue. I want to paint a better picture and step into it and away from all the doom and gloom around me right now.
And... now for the funny bit...
We are controlled by our hormones. Here's a bit from The Naked Scientists that explains it:
John - I got access to the floor in the City and we took salivery steroids from a group of traders over a two week period to test that steroids were in fact responding to the money they were making and losing in the market and whether this, in turn, was affecting their trading performance.
Meera - What did you find?
John - We found that the traders, if they had high testosterone in the morning relative the the median levels, they made a lot more money for the rest of the day than they did on the days when they had low testosterone.
Meera - When most people think of testosterone they obviously associate it largely with males. Does this then mean that females are relatively unaffected?
John - Women have about 10% of the testosterone that men do. It's entirely possible that they're not subject to this kind of overconfidence.
Meera - But you're also looking into levels of cortisol, as well.
John - That's right. In the current environment that may be the more interesting steroid. When the market turns around it turns into a crash what can happen is that cortisol, which is a stress hormone, can become elevated in the bodies of traders. Cortisol, if you're exposed to it chronically at high levels for a long period of time, it can have a devastating effect on both the mind and the body. In terms of affecting traders decisions what it can do is affect the memories you recall. You tend to recall bad memories, negative precedents. You tend to see risk where maybe there is none. You become fearful, you feel anxiety. I think that decreases a trader's appetite for risk. While testosterone is causing people to take too much risk cortisol is causing people to take too little risk in the crash.
Meera - What do you think the current situation is now? Do you think there are going to be higher levels or cortisol in the traders at the moment?
John - It's not only how far the market has fallen. It's how long it's been falling. These traders have been under stress for almost a year and a half now. Their cortisol levels must be elevated. I'm sure there's a very good chance it's affecting their decisions.
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Add to this my experience with computer modeling and the ease with which you can miscalculate something base on your assumptions, I've been leery of model predictions ever since.
Here is yet another example of how the ever receeding horrors of global warming need to be modified as scientists find that their models need "adjusting" as they encounter the difficulties of realistically representing the carbon cycle. Here is another example where tweaking means that the apocalypse of heat death is moved out yet again for a few more years...
From a news report on PhysOrg.com:
A new Cornell study, published online in Nature Geosciences, quantified the amount of black carbon in Australian soils and found that there was far more than expected, said Johannes Lehmann, the paper's lead author and a Cornell professor of biogeochemistry. The survey was the largest of black carbon ever published.
As a result of global warming, soils are expected to release more carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere, which, in turn, creates more warming. Climate models try to incorporate these increases of carbon dioxide from soils as the planet warms, but results vary greatly when realistic estimates of black carbon in soils are included in the predictions, the study found.
By entering realistic estimates of stocks of black carbon in soil from two Australian savannas into a computer model that calculates carbon dioxide release from soil, the researchers found that carbon dioxide emissions from soils were reduced by about 20 percent over 100 years, as compared with simulations that did not take black carbon's long shelf life into account.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Maybe I tuned into the wrong channel. I thought the Singularity was coming and we were going to live forever and wealth would be raining from the skies. I've got to change channels back to something more entertaining...
There are the odd funny moments, e.g. when Niall Ferguson says that a critic commented on his speech about a possible financial meltdown: "Next time don't invite this pessimistic professor, let's just invite Mary Poppins."
This interview is actually fairly informative. It is a quick romp through the themes of the book, so if you are allergic to reading, this will give you sufficient familiarity to market yourself as an avid reader of Niall Ferguson and up on his latest book!
Update 2009jan02: Here is a talk by Niall Ferguson in Oct 2008 at the Hoover Institute on "Geopolitical Consequences of the Credit Crunch":
Friday, November 21, 2008
Thursday, November 20, 2008
The election of Barack Obama to the presidency may signal more than the end of an era of Republican presidential dominance and conservative ideology. It may mark the beginning of a Fourth Republic of the United States. ...Here Lind defines the foundation of each republic...
As I see it, to date there have been three American republics, each lasting 72 years (give or take a few years). The First Republic of the United States, assembled following the American Revolution, lasted from 1788 to 1860. The Second Republic, assembled following the Civil War and Reconstruction (that is, the Second American Revolution) lasted from 1860 to 1932. And the Third American Republic, assembled during the New Deal and the civil rights eras (the Third American Revolution), lasted from 1932 until 2004. ...
The first three American republics display a remarkably similar pattern. Their 72-year life span is divided into two 36-year periods (again, give or take a year -- this is not astrology). During the first 36-year period of a republic, ambitious nation-builders in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton strengthen the powers of the federal government and promote economic modernization. During the second 36-year phase of a republic, there is a Jeffersonian backlash, in favor of small government, small business and an older way of life. During the backlash era, Jeffersonians manage to modify, but never undo, the structure created by the Hamiltonians in the previous era.
...what causes these cycles of reform and backlash in American politics? I believe they are linked indirectly to stages of technological and economic development. Lincoln's Second American Republic marked a transition from an agrarian economy to one based on the technologies of the first industrial revolution -- coal-fired steam engines and railroads. Roosevelt's Third American Republic was built with the tools of the second industrial revolution -- electricity and internal combustion engines. It remains to be seen what energy sources -- nuclear? Solar? Clean coal? -- and what technologies -- nanotechnology? Photonics? Biotech-- will be the basis of the next American economy. ...Here Lind provides the bookends for each of his "republics"...
Naturally, the Americans alive during the founding of new American republics have other issues on their minds. The Civil War was fought over slavery, not steam engines, and the New Deal, for all of FDR's commitment to nationwide electrical power fed by hydroelectric dam projects, was animated by a vision of social justice. The broad outlines of technological and economic change merely provide the frame for the picture; the details depend on the groups that emerge victorious in political battles.
George W. Bush was not only the final president of the Jeffersonian backlash period of Roosevelt's Third Republic, but the last president of the 1932-2004 Third Republic itself. The final president of a republic tends to be a failed, despised figure. The First Republic, which began with George Washington, ended with James Buchanan, a hapless president who refused to act as the South seceded after Lincoln's election. The Second Republic, which began with Abraham Lincoln, ended with the well-meaning but reviled and ineffectual Herbert Hoover. The Third Republic, founded by Franklin Roosevelt, came to a miserable end under the pathetic George W. Bush.This cookie-cutter version of history is too simplistic for me. But it does raise interesting questions about trying to organize and think about American history.
At thirty-eight, Kiehl is one of the world’s leading younger investigators in psychopathy, the condition of moral emptiness that affects between fifteen to twenty-five per cent of the North American prison population, and is believed by some psychologists to exist in one per cent of the general adult male population. (Female psychopaths are thought to be much rarer.) Psychopaths don’t exhibit the manias, hysterias, and neuroses that are present in other types of mental illness. Their main defect, what psychologists call “severe emotional detachment”—a total lack of empathy and remorse—is concealed, and harder to describe than the symptoms of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This absence of easily readable signs has led to debate among mental-health practitioners about what qualifies as psychopathy and how to diagnose it. Psychopathy isn’t identified as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s canon; instead, a more general term, “antisocial personality disorder,” known as A.P.D., covers the condition.I've highlighted one line above. I'm not an expert but my experience says it is a "dimensional" condition, i.e. there are degrees of it. It isn't categoric, i.e. all or none.
There is also little consensus among researchers about what causes psychopathy. Considerable evidence, including several large-scale studies of twins, points toward a genetic component. Yet psychopaths are more likely to come from neglectful families than from loving, nurturing ones. Psychopathy could be dimensional, like high blood pressure, or it might be categorical, like leukemia. Researchers argue over whether tests used to measure it should focus on behavior or attempt to incorporate personality traits—like deceitfulness, glibness, and lack of remorse—as well. The only point on which everyone agrees is that psychopathy is extremely difficult to treat. And for some researchers the word “psychopath” has been tainted by its long and seamy relationship with criminality and popular culture, which began with true-crime pulps and continues today in TV shows like CBS’s “Criminal Minds” and in the work of authors like Thomas Harris and Patricia Cornwell. The word is so loaded with baleful connotations that it tends to empurple any surrounding prose.
Here's the key point of the article:
Kiehl hopes, will confirm his theory, published in Psychiatry Research, in 2006, that psychopathy is caused by a defect in what he calls “the paralimbic system,” a network of brain regions, stretching from the orbital frontal cortex to the posterior cingulate cortex, that are involved in processing emotion, inhibition, and attentional control.Here's the background info on spotting psychopaths:
In order to distinguish psychopaths from non-psychopaths among the Western volunteers, Kiehl and his students use the revised version of the Psychopathy Checklist, or PCL-R, a twenty-item diagnostic instrument created by Robert Hare, a Canadian psychologist, based on his long experience in working with psychopaths in prisons. Kiehl was taught to use the checklist by Hare himself, under whom he earned his doctorate, at the University of British Columbia. Researchers interview an inmate for up to three hours, and compare the inmate’s statements against what is known of his record and his personal history. The interviewer “scores” the subject on each of the twenty items—parasitic life style, pathological lying, conning, proneness to boredom, shallow emotions, lack of empathy, poor impulse control, promiscuity, irresponsibility, record of juvenile delinquency, and criminal versatility, among other tendencies—with zero, one, or two, depending on how pronounced that trait is. Most researchers agree that anyone who scores thirty or higher on the PCL-R is considered to be a psychopath. Kiehl says, “Someone who scores a thirty-five, a thirty-six, they are just different.Here's the historical background...
The condition was first described clinically in 1801, by the French surgeon Philippe Pinel. He called it “mania without delirium.” In the early nineteenth century, the American surgeon Benjamin Rush wrote about a type of “moral derangement” in which the sufferer was neither delusional nor psychotic but nevertheless engaged in profoundly antisocial behavior, including horrifying acts of violence. Rush noted that the condition appeared early in life. The term “moral insanity” became popular in the mid-nineteenth century, and was widely used in the U.S. and in England to describe incorrigible criminals. The word “psychopath” (literally, “suffering soul”) was coined in Germany in the eighteen-eighties. By the nineteen-twenties, “constitutional psychopathic inferiority” had become the catchall phrase psychiatrists used for a general mixture of violent and antisocial characteristics found in irredeemable criminals, who appeared to lack a conscience.Here is the bottom line for those of us dealing with people in the workaday world:
In the late nineteen-thirties, an American psychiatrist named Hervey Cleckley began collecting data on a certain kind of patient he encountered in the course of his work in a psychiatric hospital in Augusta, Georgia. These people were from varied social and family backgrounds. Some were poor, but others were sons of Augusta’s most prosperous and respected families. Cleckley set about sharpening the vague construct of constitutional psychopathic inferiority, and distinguishing it from other forms of mental illness. He eventually isolated sixteen traits exhibited by patients he called “primary” psychopaths; these included being charming and intelligent, unreliable, dishonest, irresponsible, self-centered, emotionally shallow, and lacking in empathy and insight.
... Cleckley also argued, the individualistic, winner-take-all aspect of American culture nurtures psychopathy.
... Finally, the emphasis in the word “psychopath” on an internal sickness was at odds with liberal mid-century social thought, which tended to look for external causes of social deviancy; “sociopath,” coined in 1930 by the psychologist G. E. Partridge, became the preferred term. In 1958, the American Psychiatric Association used the term “sociopathic personality” to describe the disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In the 1968 edition, the condition was renamed “general antisocial personality disorder.”
Hare has published two books that translate some of the concepts of psychopathy for a general audience and attempt to teach people how to identify the “successful psychopaths” in their midst. In the introduction to “Without Conscience,” he writes, “It is very likely that at some point in your life you will come into painful contact with a psychopath. For your own physical, psychological, and financial well-being it is crucial that you know how to identify the psychopath.” Among the professions likely to attract psychopaths, he writes, are law enforcement, the military, politics, and medicine, although he notes that these have norms and are self-policing. The most agreeable vocation for psychopaths, according to Hare, is business. In his second book, “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work,” written with Paul Babiack, Hare flirts with pop psychology when he points out that many traits that may be desirable in a corporate context, such as ruthlessness, lack of social conscience, and single-minded devotion to success, would be considered psychopathic outside of it.And here is the key problem which we face in trying to use knowledge about psychopathy/sociopathy:
This blurriness in the psychopathic profile can make it possible to see psychopaths everywhere or nowhere. In the mid-fifties, Robert Lindner, the author of “Rebel Without a Cause: A Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath,” explained juvenile delinquency as an outbreak of mass psychopathy. Norman Mailer inverted this notion in “The White Negro,” admiring the hipster as a “philosophical psychopath” for having the courage of nonconformity. In the sixties, sociopathy replaced psychopathy as the dominant construct. Now, in our age of genetic determinism, society is once again seeing psychopaths everywhere, and this will no doubt provoke others to say they are nowhere, and the cycle of overexposure and underfunding will continue.
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Hey... but the tune is quite catchy. I wonder if this could be used in advertising. Maybe to sell soap or a new deodorant?
Monday, November 17, 2008
He notes we are 6,527 days since Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web and then goes on to talk about Berners-Lee's vision of the Semantic Web.
If you want a BIGGER HISTORY of the Web, click here.
If you want to know about this "semantic web" thing that Kelly is talking about, look here.