2012: Looking Ahead
December 31, 2011, 1:17 pm
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  • In the Venn diagram of the taxonomy of anti-intellectualism, I appear to belong to the intersection of the epistemic-skeptical and (self-defeatingly) the anti-intelligentsianist categories. HT Aretae
  • On vacation driving around in the rented car it became easiest just to leave it mostly tuned to the XM ‘Elvis Radio’ station. This allowed me to further research and confirm my pre-published theory: Elvis is grossly underrated. That said, it also made me unfortunately aware of such recent abominations as some sort of Fatboy Slim (or whoever – does it matter?) remix of “Blue Suede Shoes”, and an ill-advised Natalie-Cole-style-dubbed-‘duet’ version of “In the Ghetto” with Lisa Marie Presley. Who, annoyingly, insisted on pronouncing it with a soft-T like gheddoe instead of Elvis’s original, and in my book CORRECT, pronunciation ghe-TOE.
  • In what is likely to be my final triumph of 2011, I finally (a) finished re-watching Ronin which I had been sporadically watching in 20-minute portions on DVR for about a month, and (b) for the first time, paid close enough attention that I think I (mostly) understand the plot of Ronin.
  • This year’s (R) Presidential race is shaping up to be sort of like 1996, but without the Bob Dole figure. Meaning that they’re acting as if they don’t expect to have any chance of beating the incumbent; thus all halfway-decent possible choices have decided to sit it out, letting the nomination fall to the elder statesman of the party to lose the general election honorably and gracefully. What’s confusing about all of this is that we are continually told that Obama has basically the contrapositive of Clinton’s popularity, and that there is no elder statesman in the first place (there’s only Romney). This all leaves me in nominal sympathy with the NOT(Romney) camp, except that I don’t like any of the surviving non-Romney choices either (and more importantly, I doubt their ability to beat our current Celebrity President in the cool-kid popularity contest general election). So I’m left with NOT(NOT(Romney)), but I’m not sure what that is. I think it’s either just back to Romney, or a wish for some sort of deus ex machina/point at infinity/singularity, depending which algebraic rules we’re working with here. In any event my longstanding prediction that President Obama will win re-election looks better and better. Y’all ready for 2012, the year that Obama’s mandate and legacy is cemented for posterity? Better be.

The Book Series With The Irresistible Name
December 21, 2011, 12:20 am
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So, as dictated by the U.S. Constitution, it’s time to remake, practically shot for shot, yet another gray/dreary Scandinavian hit movie in the English language only like a few years after it was just made (just as they did with Insomnia and Let The Right One In), and that means we’re going to start getting those The Girl With movies. Are you excited yet? Of course you are! Because she’s The Girl with something. She is short and has short black hair and does stuff with computers and oh my gosh it’s just all so inherently fascinating that I’d like to read a trilogy about her and then watch two trilogy movies about her, one in Swedish and the other in English. Should only take like 30 hours of my life all-in, tops. Totally worth it.

I came to this topic idly web-browsing and coming across this review of one of the dang books or another, which informed me that the original title of the first one was ‘Men Who Hate Women’. This brings me to my name theory.

What is my name theory? Simply, that something’s name played an outsized and unrecognized role in its popularity. Applied here, the answer to the critic’s impassioned pleas as to why did these books catch on so much becomes:

Because they were called “The Girl [with something/who did something]”. They would have never caught on if the first one had kepts its original title. Same exact plot/words, but no “The Girl With” in the title, and you do not have a hit.

The name theory applies elsewhere too. Why did ‘Sheryl Crow’ become a star? Don’t get me wrong, her voice and looks are, like, okay, but there’s a zillion people who sing just as well as her and don’t become stars. They aren’t named ‘Sheryl Crow’ though. People liked the idea of listening to music by someone named ‘Sheryl Crow’. They liked the idea of being the kind of person who listens to music by someone named ‘Sheryl Crow’

Or to name a more obvious comparable, how about ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Dan Brown’s highly stupid, warmed-over version of the ’80s-era Baigent/Leigh conspiracy theory is both bizarrely childish to read, and actually manages to be a 10x less interesting than the version that had been used for the computer game Gabriel Knight 3 four years earlier. So why did it catch on? Because it was called ‘The Da Vinci Code’, allowing readers to fancy it had something to do with Da Vinci and art/culture, making it cultural to read it.

If you’re writing a book or other creating endeavor, pay attention to what you call it. It really matters.

Don’t Cry Nork Tears Around Me
December 20, 2011, 1:23 am
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A lot of commentary (cf. Michael Totten) on the following video seems to suggest the reactions depicted are, at least in some significant part, faked, e.g. because the people in it think that if they don’t cry they’ll get in trouble:

I’m not sure why. This interpretation seems to stem from the error of assuming that North Korean people and society is basically like our people and society, just with a wacky dictator on top. Like a charmingly more-straitlaced version of South Korea, that happened to have a crazy celebrity who uses/kills people in charge. I think, rather, that having a wacky dictator on top of your society actually affects the society. What I tend to see in North Korean is Jonestown writ large. A mass psychosis. Almost all of the people depicted there would qualify as mentally ill here.

That said, I have little doubt that those emotional responses are in fact real and genuine, as far as that goes.

We’re going to have to face it: People love their dictators. And the more miserable they are, the more they will love him. The more empty and powerless their lives are, the more their hopes and dreams get tied up with the dictator’s fate. Commentators assume that the Norks are aware of Kim Jong Il’s brutality and venality. I think that even if they are, they are not, because they are in denial about it, the same way I as a Giants fan am in denial about Barry Bonds’s steroid use: it’s a thing I’ve heard people say, but as a fact it has no effect on me – travels into my ears without lodging itself in my brain. A fact I am incapable of absorbing. North Korea, same thing. Kim Jong Il is a god. Many Norks probably didn’t quite realize he could die.

Sometimes it’s only when dictatorships get prosperous that they start to grumble against their dictator. This can manifest as a generational effect. Older Russians love their Stalin. Younger Russians have no use for him. In any event, this has clearly not been an issue in North Korea for some time.

We’ll have to see how things go with the fat little boy now in charge. I don’t know whether his power is real or whether he’s a figurehead the generals maneuvered into place or whether he’s a weakling destined to be dethroned via coup within the week or what. Whatever the case, this Nork generation is lost, gone. Their children might be capable of being slightly embarrassed by them, sometimes. Their grandchildren might be capable of forming mostly-sane thoughts about this period in their nation’s history. In the meantime, those tears are real.

Why Are There Still ‘Record’ [sic] Companies?
December 19, 2011, 10:00 pm
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Reading through this tale of a rocker’s $62.47 royalty-check (HT Dr. Frank) I couldn’t help but chuckle and feel some sympathy for the record company.

Let me clarify. Of course my sympathy lies with the musician. I want musicians to get paid for their output. I want them not to get screwed. I want the musicians I like to be able to make recorded music and yet still be able to live their lives and pay their bills. I am willing to pay a premium if that will help. (Side note: in the current setup, there doesn’t seem to be a good way for me to do so.)

But most of that blog post is about how the record company, a large organization probably staffed to at least some extent by the sort of overworked schmoes with boring, go-nowhere jobs you’ll find doing the grunt work in any such organization, has probably screwed up the data collection and accounting necessary to create an accurate statement of the current status of his digital royalties (which are still in the red and not likely to go black anytime soon). The statement seems screwed up. It seems like it must be missing info. It took a long time to produce. When he raised objections, his questions were answered, but the clear attitude was that since his wasn’t a band that was ‘recouped’ (which means, I gather, a band on which (bizarro, admittedly) record-company accounting can recognize as having had their investment pay off), it wasn’t much worth focusing on them or correcting the odd $10,000 rounding error here or there.

The reason I chuckle is that it seems so much like banking.

He, as the ‘client’, is clearly a small fry. They only produced the report as a special favor to him because he had connections. But ultimately, some poor schmoe probably had to do some manual bullcrap in Excel or Word to make it. The numbers that it’s based on probably come from fusing various databases that some poor IT grunt fights with and find/corrects errors in every day. The project timelines to fix everything and get it right extend and extend as other fires pop up to put out, other high-profile projects (and clients) take precedence. And so it goes. What do you expect when you go through a giant organization like this?

Because more than anything it occurs to me that this guy, and (one assumes) thousands like him, are being extremely ill-served by these large organizations we call ‘record companies’, and should cease using them. There are no ‘records’ to produce anymore, after all. So what exactly is the value-added they are contributing? From what I’ve been able to gather so far, it boils down to,

1) They will sign a giant contract on your behalf with iTunes and Spotify and (&c) on which they get like $10 bajillion dollars upfront and some percentage of each download, out of which you get, like, $0.00002.

2) Promotion and whatnot, cuz without promotion your band doesn’t get known in the first place.

It seems to me that function #2 could be done by any sort of PR agency, and possibly better. Meanwhile, function #1 doesn’t seem like a service that musicians should seek at all.

Make a web page and sell your mp3s on your own. If nothing else, it’d probably be just as easy a way to (not) make $62.47.

News Flash: Loans Are Risky
December 18, 2011, 4:56 pm
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Although few know in any detail what the ‘Volcker Rule’ is, everyone who even aspires to hold anything resembling a semi-respectable opinion on The Economy is fully on board with the philosophy behind it, which is that banks shouldn’t engage in ‘prop trading’ or, more generally, ‘risky’ stuff. Here is a typical example, which I cite only as a useful instance of the eminent reasonable-soundingness of the position:

…legislative intent in this legislation is clear…to cut banks down to size and return them to their historical role of intermediating between savers and borrowers. […] the Volcker Rule directs the regulators to get banks out of the business of betting on the markets.

Hear, hear! you all say. It’s about time! Banks shouldn’t bet on markets. The horror! They should just do the pure and safe and vanilla ‘intermediating between savers and borrowers’ that our grandpas’ banks did.

Being (as far as I can tell) the only person on the entire Internet who doesn’t think ‘prop trading’ should be banned, and therefore is against the Volcker Rule or anything like it lock stock & barrel, allow me to briefly explain what is wrong with the preceding conventional wisdom. Because it is, in fact, a contradiction.

How exactly do banks ‘intermediate’ between savers and borrowers? A saver is someone who wants to make a 1-day loan to a bank. A borrower is someone who wants to borrow 5-, 10- or 30-year money from a bank. How exactly can you ‘intermediate’ between two such people?

The short answer is, ‘you can’t’. The saver and the borrower are not coming to you with truly offsetting positions. So the real answer is, by taking risks.

The above, pure, clean, grandpa-approved banking transaction entails huge risk! What on earth could be more risky than borrowing 1-day money (from the savers) and turning around and lending it out long-term? You’ve all seen It’s A Wonderful Life; what if the savers all come to your teller window at the same time and want their money back? Separately, what if the borrowers’ loans come due and turns out they’re bankrupt? What if the assets the borrowers pledged as collateral (bonds, houses, whatever) suddenly drop in value? What if interest-rates precipitously rise and you suddenly find yourself having to pay savers far more to borrow from them than the average rate you’ve already locked in making all those long-term loans?

If you want banks taking deposits and making loans, then by definition you DO SO want them taking risk. If you don’t want them taking risk, you don’t want banking at all. Modern banking, or no-risk: pick one. The people who complain that banks ‘took risks’ and don’t want them ‘betting on the markets’, yet in the same breath say they should ‘merely’ be focusing on making fractional-reserve maturity-mismatched loans with depositors’ money (!), are either just ignorant or haven’t thought through the situation enough. News flash, all you Conventionally-Wise: LOANS ARE RISKY.

What? Oh, I see, the risk in vanilla lending is ‘understood’ and can be regulated and ‘controlled’ and, like, hedged because we have so much experience with all that sort of thing. Right, I forgot. I guess that’s why all those mortgages (a very, very vanilla and traditional and grandpa-approved type of loan) in the past 10-15 years have all worked out so well and caused no problems for anyone.

Huh? Oh, the mortgages only caused problems because of evil derivatives like mortgage-backed securities and CDS? Um, you do realize that that’s how banks hedged those mortgages, right? If you wanted banks controlling/hedging their risk – and you all sure talk like you do – then CDS was precisely what you were asking for. Similarly, banks can control the risk in their loan portfolios by hedging them – with derivatives. They can hedge the interest-rate risk – with interest-rate swaps (more derivatives). Those derivatives lead to more risk (i.e. counterparty risk), which can be hedged – with more derivatives.

So I could (theoretically) concede this conventional-wisdom notion that grandpa-banking risks can be wisely controlled and hedged, but at the cost of you acknowledging that all sorts of derivatives will need to exist because they play such a crucial role in hedging and spreading the risk inherent in the banking sector. But once we admit that we’ve stepped well away from savers-and-borrowers grandpa-banking and have headed pretty far downfield towards (gasp) ‘prop trading’. After all, the question is no longer whether banks will take risk (they will – loans are risky!), or stick to the ‘good’ sort of grandpa-approved instruments like loans (they won’t – because they can’t – because if they did they wouldn’t be able to control the risks you say you want controlled). The question is simply which risks banks will take, and how much. One way or another, you’ve already conceded that banks will have to be allowed to have desks trading, like, CDS and the CDX.NA.IG credit index and 10-year interest-rate-swaps and suchlike. That desk, whatever it does, will always have taken on some amount of risk or basis. What level of said risk you choose to call ‘prop trading’ is a matter of boring semantics. To borrow from the joke about the high-class lady who protest she’s not a prostitute, we’ve already established that banks will take on risk and therefore (intentionally or not) make bets on the market – we’re just haggling about the amount… That is because at the end of the day there’s no actual ‘bright line’ you can actually draw between ‘good’ risk, and evil ‘prop-trading’ risk. You might think there is, and think that regulators are smart enough to draw it, but you are wrong.

Now, I am just as against private gains/socialized losses as you are. But this ongoing project to micromanage, at the regulatory level, which and how much risk banks can take is an absurd and doomed one. Instead, I am here to say, on the Internet, that we should let banks ‘prop trade’ all they want. BUT, we should also let them fail, if/when they become insolvent doing so.

In fact, if we did that, and credibly, we might find that banks would do a far better job policing their own risk than would regulators sitting in Washington.

My Best Christopher Hitchens Anecdote
December 18, 2011, 3:48 pm
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Like most other narcissists, the primary meaning I find in Christopher Hitchens’s passing is the opportunity it affords me to puff up myself and my importance. Thus let me regale you with my best Christopher Hitchens anecdote:

This one time, many years ago, I was walking away from the north side of the UC Berkeley campus up Euclid Avenue, and I saw Christopher Hitchens sitting at a little cafe table outside (I think it was called) Cafe Nefeli, having a heated conversation with some other guy I didn’t recognize. Or at least, I think it was Christopher Hitchens – assuming he was in town for a panel discussion or somesuch, I figured he was being taken out for coffee afterwards by whatever boring professor had invited him, I didn’t want to stare too long, on account of how I find it sort of embarrassing to encounter and stare at celebrities. (See also: the time I noticed Will Ferrell sitting a few tables over from me at a restaurant, and then some fratboy-types near the window waved at him and gave him thumbs-ups.) So I tried not to swivelneck and used the corner of my eye as much as possible, then kept on going back home to play Starcraft on the computer or something.

Hey, I didn’t say it was a good anecdote. Anyway, Christopher Hitchens, RIP.

Good News About The ‘War’ In Iraq
December 15, 2011, 6:38 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Panetta formally shuts down US war in Iraq

If you have a brain this is probably confusing to you since the U.S. hasn’t been waging anything that could be legitimately termed a ‘war in Iraq’ for years and years, so let me translate this from Conventional-Wisdom-News-Speak into understandable/logical English for you:

Panetta has ‘formally shut down’ the U.S. garrison stationed in Iraq, which at ~4000 (according to the article) is already modest by most standards, but (the article alleges) is soon to be fully withdrawn.

My reaction: Good. It’s not clear why we need to have a garrison stationed in Iraq at this time (?). Now let’s remove the one stationed in Afghanistan as well (or, for you Conventional-Wisdom/News People, ‘end the war in’ Afghanistan).

Actually while we’re at it, can we ‘end the wars in‘ places like Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, Kuwait, and the UK? Those are all bigger ‘wars’ than the ‘war in Iraq’ currently is.

And if you’re one of those deniers who don’t think they’re wars, please explain why not (showing your work as to why Iraq is). I look forward to it,


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