Friday, 30 December 2011

160 chars: Complexity in finance

Good article: Why is finance so complex? Answer: To fool people into taking more risk then they realise they are taking

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Mandatory Banking

Here's a question I've been pondering that I'd like to throw out for the economists - my understanding is that although people tend to think of the money in their bank account as 'theirs', in practice they have 'lent' the money to the bank who then lend it to other people but promise to give it back to the lender if they need it (as often noted, a promise they can only keep under certain conditions). So really the money is only 'theirs' if they keep it under their mattress or something.

Now, it seems that in the modern world, for all intents and purposes, having a bank account is pretty much vital if you want to do anything at all - e.g. try getting your employer to pay your salary if you don't have a bank account - so we now live in a society where lending money to banks is (for all intents and purposes) mandatory. I have a feeling this should change our whole concept of what money is and several of the fundamental principles underpinning it. So: How does 'mandatory' banking affect the theory of money?

(originally a comment on this metafilter thread)

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Steve Jobs

In about 2000, Douglas Adams wrote a really good essay (called 'Turncoat', in the Salmon of Doubt) about how he saw the torch of zeitgeist moving from pop music (the Beatles) through to comedy (Monty Python, whose stardom rose as the Beatles faded) and then on to ... technological innovation. Its partly an essay about being disillusioned with comedy, but also an essay about Douglas's conversion to being a fan of technology rather than a satirist of it.

So he makes the case that the people really doing the cool stuff these days are not the pop stars or the performers (I mean, music is great but when's the last time that music changed the world? Thirty years ago?), but the people building new ways for us to communicate and play and work together.

So for people wondering why so many people feel so affected by Steve Job's death - its because we're living in the future, and the people inventing new stuff in tech and on the internet are as important to our culture as pop stars were in the 60s.

(originally a comment on this metafilter thread)

Friday, 23 September 2011

Good Will Hunting

This thread on mefi got me thinking about Good Will Hunting. Its a long time since I saw GWH but I remember being annoyed by the "Hollywood" smart person aspect. I think there's a scene where he flicks through his girlfriend's textbook for 20 mins and then does all her homework for her. Savants exist in some fields but not like that. Good Will Hunting is to 'intelligent' as Rambo is to 'resourceful with guns'.

But I did like this monologue:
Why shouldn't I work for the NSA? That's a tough one. But I'll take a shot. Say I'm working at the NSA, and somebody puts a code on my desk, something no one else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I'm real happy with myself, 'cuz I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East, and once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels are hiding. Fifteen hundred people that I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are saying, "Oh, send in the marines to secure the area", 'cuz they don't give a shit. It won't be their kid over there, getting shot. Just like it wasn't them when their number got called, 'cuz they were pulling a tour in the National Guard. It'll be some kid from Southie over there taking shrapnel in the ass. He comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, 'cuz he'll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so that we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And of course the oil companies used the little skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them but it ain't helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. They're taking their sweet time bringing the oil back, of course, maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin' play slalom with the icebergs, it ain't too long till he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy's out of work. He can't afford to drive, so he's walking to the fuckin' job interviews, which sucks because the shrapnel in his ass is giving him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he's starving 'cuz every time he tries to get a bite to eat the only blue plate special they're serving is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I'm holding out for something better. I figure: fuck it, while I'm at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected President.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Cognitive Surplus

I've had a quote rattling around in the back of my head for a while, about the time taken to create Wikipedia versus time spent watching TV. I found the original source when I started reading Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus:
"Imagine treating the free time of the world's educated citizenry as an aggregate, a kind of cognitive surplus. How big would that surplus be? To figure it out, we need a unit of measurement, so lets start with Wikipedia. Suppose we consider the total amount of time people have spent on it as a kind of unit - every edit made to every article, and every argument about those edits, for every language that Wikipedia exists in. That would represent something like one hundred million hours of human thought* ... One hundred million hours of cumulative thought is obviously a lot. How much is it though, compared to the amount of time we spend watching television?

Americans watch roughly two hundred billion hours of TV every year."
* Of his Wikipedia time estimate, Shirky says: "Martin Wattenberg, an IBM researcher who has spent time studying Wikipedia, helped me arrive at that figure. It's a back-of-the-envelope calculation, but its the right order of magnitude."

That one comparison alone gives plenty of food for thought. Shirky's style is to carefully reinforce subtle points by repeating similar examples (often with similar paragraph structures) which can make the book seem repetitive. But he is repeating in order to tease out the subtleties; every example he gives in the book is saying 'people can work together to do stuff' - which is obvious - but the value in his examples is the deeper anaylsis of how they are working together, why, and how more of the same can be made to happen.

See also this Guardian Review

Near the end of the book, one paragraph in particular really stood out for me, not because it was about anything internetty, but because Shirky casually crystalised a thought that I had been struggling to form - about 21st century politics and how it is converging on variations of 'free market with state support for some things', with the 'big ideas' of the 19th and 20th Century now seeming hopelessly simplistic:
"Neither perfect individual freedom nor perfect social control is optimal (Ayn Rand and Vladimir Lenin both overshot the mark), so it falls to us to manage the tension between individual freedom and social value, a trade-off that follows the by-now-familiar pattern of having no solution, just different optimizations that create different kinds of value, and different kinds of problems that need to be managed."

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Review of "Outside"

This Metafilter comment from mefi user aeschenkarnos back in March 2008 is a fantastically written review of the multiplayer video game "Outside". It already been widely quoted elsewhere, and its well worth quoting in full here.
Traditionally Outside receives extremely high ratings by those who like to see others play it, and these people are in many cases comfortably ensconced Inside themselves. Outside was released many years ago, it was in fact the first massively multiplayer game, and yet it has always managed to avoid the double-edged Retro tag. In its favor, continual user updates have kept Outside current; there are always new things to see and do Outside. Participants are permitted, to some extent, to modify their own areas of Outside, which is a large part of the fun of the game. However it seems that in the end one is modifying Outside largely for the sake of it, and having done it, there is a distinct feeling of "now what?"

In terms of the traditional target age content metrics, Outside is remarkably high in sex, violence and challenges to traditional values, despite the strong child-focussed marketing it receives. Many would go so far as to say that for a child to develop the ability to cope with Outside is essential, as long as the harm incurred is not too debilitating. Children injured playing Outside are usually comforted by parents, and soon encouraged to go Outside again; this leads to the conclusion that somehow Outside has escaped any and all of the usual moralizing that surrounds the videogaming industry. One might say that Outside gets a free pass from the Jack Thompsons of this world.

That aside, how does Outside actually rate? The physics system is note-perfect (often at the expense of playability), the graphics are beyond comparison, the rendering of objects is absolutely beautiful at any distance, and the player's ability to interact with objects is really limited only by other players' tolerance. The real fundamental problem with the game is that there is nothing to do.

In terms of game play the game sets few, if any, goals: the major one is merely "survive". What goals a player sets, are often astonishingly tedious to actually achieve, and power-ups and gear upgrades, let alone extra weapons, are few and far between. Some players choose accumulation of money, one of the many point systems in the game, as a goal, but distribution of this is often randomized and it can be hard to tell what activities will lead to gaining points in advance, and what the risks will be.

Other players choose to focus on accumulation of personal abilities, the variety of which greatly exceeds the capacity of any individual to accumulate; again, the game requires players to engage in years of grinding to achieve any notable standard with a skill or ability. Players are issued abilities and characteristics largely at random, and it is entirely possible for a player to be nerfed beyond any reasonable expectation of being able to play the game, or to be buffed to the point where anything he or she does is markedly easier. Unfortunately over time, player abilities tend to degrade, unless significant effort is made to keep skills up. This reviewer cannot emphasise this enough: Outside requires a huge time investment to build up player abilities, exceeding any other massively multiplayer game on the market by some three orders of magnitude.

Players are encouraged to focus on social interaction, which can be engaged in in a variety of ways. In fact it's extraordinarily difficult to solo anything whatsoever in Outside, apart from basic skill and knowledge accumulation quests. One of the major forms of social interaction in the game is based largely around the addition of new players to Outside, and is both complex and, in comparison to the storyline-driven romance quests of, say, Baldur's Gate or Mass Effect, they are immensely difficult. Dedicated players of Outside, however, report that the romance quests are among the most rewarding the game has to offer.

The game world is immense, perhaps unfeasibly so. The sheer amount of resources that went into development of the Outside environment is staggering to consider. Outside is a world of tremendous size, containing examples of every known real-world terrain type and inhabited by every known real-world animal. On the other hand it is somewhat lacking in the traditionally expected, more interesting, zones where the developers would be given the opportunity to show off their skills in varying the physics and graphics of the game. There are, for instance, no zones where gravity varies to any significant degree.

The respawn rate of objects and players is ridiculously slow. A dead player can expect to wait for years to respawn, and will be set back to zero assets and a tiny, nearly helpless form. Death is hardcore, and resurrection all but impossible. Outside is not a game for the QQers out there!

In terms of the social environment, almost anything goes. Outside has a vast network of guilds, many of its players are active participants in designing the game's social environment, and almost any player will be able to find company to undertake their desired group quests. On the other hand, gold-buying is rife, the outskirts of virtually every city zone in the game are completely overrun by farmers, and the developers have so far proven themselves reluctant to answer petitions, intervene in inter-player disputes, or nerf broken skills and abilities. Indeed this reviewer will go so far as to say that the developers are absent from the game entirely, and have left it to its own devices. Fortunately, server uptime has been 100% from day 1, despite there being only one server for literally billions of players.

On the whole, Outside is overrated, and many gamers will find themselves forced by friends and family to play it against their will, but it still deserves a high rating. I give it 7/10, and look forward to improvements in future patches.

Aeschenkarnos, March 2008

Friday, 11 February 2011

Eeeee Eee Eeee

In 'Mrs Dalloway', Virginia Woolf expertly conjured what it feels like to be in the mind of a wealthy middle class woman going about her business in London as she prepares for a party and meets and old flame. In 'Eeeee Eee Eeeee', a short, unusual book, Tao Lin expertly conjures what its like to be in the mind of a bored, depressed Domino's pizza worker in Florida who misses his ex-girlfriend and feels like he has no future.

There is lots of repetitive language, several beautifully written passages of whimsical daydream-philosophising, and lots of bears and mooses. Tao tries to describe the aim of the book in this interview:
Eeeee Eee Eeee is written from an existential point of view, meaning it tries not to block out any information. Or that is how I wanted it to be. In order to have morals one must block out information and make assumptions. Eeeee Eee Eeee does not have morals. It doesn’t teach you anything. Or maybe it does. Since I wrote it instead of killing myself or taking anti-depressants and watching TV every day maybe that means the book is life-affirming. If you look at both me and the book then maybe the book is moral and teaches you something. If you look at just the book, it doesn’t teach you anything.
Here's some of the passages that struck me as interesting:
What frightened him (although sometimes calmed him) was the first of those thoughts, about not knowing how to be happy; there was something irreversible about it, except possibly by potion or true love, like in every movie by Disney, as it was like a fairy tale in that sketched out, theoretical way. But it was a fairy tale gone wrong, without any domestic whimsy or fast-moving plot, and in real time, without any pleasant summations of long periods of despair, loneliness, and ennui. It just didn't seem good, or allowed.
Near the end, there is a long monologue by the 'president':
Why are we born? Why do we die? Where do we go when we die? Where did consciousness come from? Politics does not acknowledge those questions. Politics says 'Have we blocked out enough information so that the word "progress" has meaning? How do we distract from the mystery and oneness of existence?'. Politics is a pretend game where it is very important to block out the information that it is a pretend game. I'm the president, I think. There is no good or bad. You arrive. Here you are. No one tells you what to do. So you make assumptions. Or you believe someone else's assumption. A common assumption is that pain and suffering is bad. But how do you know if an action will increase or decrease net pain and suffering in the universe from now until the end of time? You can't know. Impossible. You don't know if drawing your friend a picture will or will not cause fifty thousand years of suffering to ten million organisms on Alpha Centauri one billion years from now. So you create context. A common context is one's life plus the next few generations, not including animals, plants or inanimate objects, and only on Earth, with the emphasis on one's own country. So now you've made an assumption and also blocked out more than 99.9% of the universe, 99.9% of all life on Earth, and an infinite or unknown amount of time.
Most of the book isn't like that though, most of it is about pizza, boredom, and bears carrying blankets. Its a short book though, so the strangeness casts a spell rather than becoming a burden.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Clay Shirky on Wikileaks

After carefully considering what my own position is on Wikileaks, I find that Clay Shirky has got there before me and explained it much better than I can, in this Guardian article.
WikiLeaks has not been a series of unfortunate events, and Assange is not a magician – he is simply an early and brilliant executor of what is being revealed as a much more general pattern, now spreading ...

... Assange has claimed, when the history of statecraft of the era is written, that it will be divided into pre- and post-WikiLeaks periods. This claim is grandiose and premature; it is not, however, obviously wrong.

(originally from a comment in this metafilter thread)

Monday, 7 February 2011


This Economist blog post, written during the peak of the Wikileaks fightback - The 24-hour Athenian democracy - is pretty good, as the journalist actually gets to see how they were operating and seems to 'get it'.

Anonymous are a prototype human hive mind, the first of their kind (I guess?). In that they actually aim to behave as a hive mind, rather than a more traditional anarchist group or collective or suchlike. Which makes them fascinating, but also very lowest common denominator.

(originally a comment from this metafilter thread)

Friday, 28 January 2011

Protests in Egypt

From the Guardian Liveblog (1:12pm and 1:33pm):
Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch: 
We are in East Alexandria. Immediately after prayer, the people came out of mosque with banners and started marching, shouting 'we are peaceful, we are peaceful'. Security arrived and immediately began shooting teargas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters, about 600. Then one-hour rock throwing clash, but police didn't advance more than one block and kept being pushed back. Then a massive column of protesters came from the other direction and blocked in police, holding up their hands and shouting we are peaceful. Right now police is held up in the yard of mosque and protesters all around, police can't move. They repeatedly ran out of teargas and begged protesters to stop, protesters telling them to join them.
(later) The police have now given up fighting the protesters. The police and protesters are now talking, with protesters bringing water and vinegar (for teargas) to the police. Afternoon prayer has just been called and hundreds are praying in front of the mosque in east Alexandria.
 (originally a comment in this metafilter thread)

Monday, 24 January 2011

Corporations with the rights of People

The Corporation asks "If corporations are people, what sort of people are they?" and comes to the conclusion that Corporations are psychopaths, exhibiting general psychopathic traits such as 'incapacity to experience guilt', 'callous disregard for the feelings of other people', 'deceitfulness (continual lying to deceive for profit', etc. Which makes sense, given that they are entities created to singlemindedly pursue profit above all else.

So, perhaps corporations should be treated like people, but only after careful consideration of the type of people they are. If corporations were treated as psychopaths, I'd be satisfied.

(originally a comment on this metafilter thread)

Monday, 3 January 2011

DSM-V problems

re: Inside the battle to define Mental Illness - Wired Jan 2011

This is the first proper edition of the DSM to come out in the internet age, and so there's going to be a battle about it. It used to be put together by a relatively small group in their own philosophical bunker, but now its open to much more public scrutiny.

Gestalt Prayer and Beyond Perls

Gestalt was originally a German word roughly akin to 'shape' or 'form'. Its English meaning is generally one of unity, holism, and a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Gestalt Prayer was written by Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy (not to be confused with Gestalt Theoretical Psychotherapy and definitely not with Gestalt psychology).
The Gestalt Prayer

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I, and if by chance we find each other, it's beautiful.
If not, it can't be helped.

(Fritz Perls, 1969)

In the 1970s it was popular on posters like these:

... although the posters tended to omit the rather less lyrical final line.

Taken on its own (rather than interpreted through the lens of Gestalt Therapy) it's quite a confident message of emotional independence, of sorting your own 'thing' out before getting tangled up with anything else. A little bit too hip though, and delivered with a shrug and swagger rather than a wise stroking of a goatee beard.

In the Journal of Humanistic Psychology (1972 vol 12 no 2), Professor Walter Tubbs published a poem called Beyond Perls in response. It has a mini-following of its own (apparently its quoted in The Road Less Travelled), and is much more of a wise-stroking-1970s-beard poem. Apparently the 'I and Thou' bit is a reference to Martin Buber, and presumably Professor Tubbs was also weaving various other thinkers into this. But its clear enough that it can be understood without reference to any particular therapy tradition:
Beyond Perls

If I just do my thing and you do yours,
We stand in danger of losing each other
And ourselves.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations;
But I am in this world to confirm you
As a unique human being,
And to be confirmed by you.

We are fully ourselves only in relation to each other;
The I detached from a Thou

I do not find you by chance;
I find you by an active life
Of reaching out.

Rather than passively letting things happen to me,
I can act intentionally to make them happen.

I must begin with myself, true;
But I must not end with myself:
The truth begins with two.

(Walter Tubbs, 1972)