Monday, April 28, 2014

Guest Post: Cool People

This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal

I have always wanted to be cool. I will always want to be cool. I’m in my late thirties now, and I am confident that if I live to eighty I will still want, in some shadowy recess of my mind, to be cool.

I grew up in a neighborhood that turned out, when I was around twenty, to be very cool. You understand, I didn’t know when I was growing up there that it was cool. It was only later, when the newspaper wrote a story about it and celebrities started relocating there, that I learned that it was cool. But it was cool while I was growing up there, cooler in some ways than it is now, I just didn’t know it. I wasn’t tapped into it. Lucinda Williams was writing music off in the hills and all kinds of people were doing crazy interesting things and I was wandering around in my own little world.

I went away and then later I moved back there. When I moved back there I knew it was cool. I lived there and I was pretty unhappy for reasons that had little to do with coolness. And then I moved away again. Last week, I was listening to a band that is now moderately famous. They lived in that neighborhood and played music there during that second time that I was living there, and they weren’t famous then (I didn’t know anything about them) but now they are, a bit. I always think about that when I listen to their music. And I always think that I should have befriended them then, on the same principle that I should have invested my $27.65 in savings in Google in 1993.

And then I remember what going to parties and bars and online dating in this widely-recognized-to-be-cool neighborhood was like. I would be in a place, thinking I was pretty cute with my Budweiser and my Marlboros and my line of patter. And there would be these people with important haircuts and cool clothes and I would look at them and I would think, these people are too cool to want to hang out with me. My mind could not formulate any points of common humanity between me and them. If I look at pictures of this band and try to imagine them as people rather than members of a moderately famous band, I realize that I would never have felt comfortable talking to them.

In fact, it’s them being famous that creates a relationship between me and them. Relationship is not the right word, but it kind of is. I have a way of relating to them: I appreciate what they do. They make music and I like it. They don’t have a relationship with me in particular, but they have a general relationship with me as one of the people appreciating them and maybe spending money on their music or buying a t-shirt as a show of support. If I wanted to say something to the people in this band I could write them a letter and say, I think your music is great. But if I were able to travel back in time to the era when I lived in the same place as them and were able to be at the same party or bar or whatever, I would have nothing to say. There would be no bridge between me and them. Which I guess means that people are not really that much like Google stock.

When I was seventeen I thought the coolest thing in the entire world would be to be a surfer and I didn’t do anything about it except look at the pictures of the vast blue ocean in the one surfing magazine that I bought for myself in an airport. And then when I was in my late twenties it hit me again that surfing was the coolest thing in the world and I kicked myself for not having taken those seventeen-year old impulses seriously, for lacking follow through. Then I took a surfing lesson and the ocean rolled me around in my wetsuit and I thought, I can’t do this. None of the qualities that surfing required were qualities that I had. Upper body strength, balance, physical courage -- I lacked them all. And so I gave up on surfing. But sometimes I still look out at the vast blue ocean and think that maybe if I tried again, everything would be different. In the same way, that urge, to sidle up to the source of things I like, to buy coolness low and sell high, hits me in the stomach every now and then. I just try to let it wash over me.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Missing Airplanes: The Five Stages Of Commentary

Sun Tower Airplane by Robert Delaunay 1913, via Wikimedia Commons

1: Shock and Confusion
Where is the plane? How could we lose a whole airplane? Weren't there people on board with phones? Why did no one try to call or text? Can't they use "find my iPhone" to find the plane? Why not? What about radar and satellites? How could we lose a whole airplane? What about cell phones, didn't someone try to call or text?

2. Commentators Turn On One Another
People posting about cell phones don't understand the first thing about how the world works and shouldn't be allowed here on the comment boards. Where's the moderator? Even the dumbest child knows that radar isn't always on, it's not that sort of thing. Who are the idiots who keep coming in here to ask about radar and cell phones? If I have to read one more post about cell phones I'm going to kill somebody.

3. Epistemology Seminar
The official story doesn't add up. If that's what happened, how could this other thing also have happened? It doesn't make any sense. What are the odds of that particular thing happening at the exact same time as that other particular thing? Sure, they said that. But these people said this other thing. So who do you trust more? Governments have interests in saying certain things. Governments have interests in not keeping certain secrets. Governments have interest in perpetuating certain lies. Corporations have interests in keeping secrets and perpetuating ignorance, half-truths, and certain lies.

4. Questioning The Official Story Makes Some People Really Really Mad
You doubt the official story? You think governments don't always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Where's your evidence, you tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist? You tin foil hat types make me sick. An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. You think corporations have interests in keeping secrets and perpetuating lies? Where's the evidence for that, you tin-foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist? You conspiracy theorists disgust me.

5. Comments Go Meta
You people who are so mad about "conspiracy theorists," don't you know there have been many actual conspiracies? How does asking questions about the official story make someone a tin-foil hat wearer? What's your interest in defending the official story, anyway? Are you astroturfing? What's astroturfing? What do you mean, "what's astroturfing?" They haven't found anything; how is this news? What do you mean how is this news, aren't you here commenting? Having comments open on this story is dumb. You coming here to comment to say that is even dumber. Shut up. No, you shut up.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Flash Boys And Philosophy: Truth, Justice And The Nature Of Capitalism

Last week I read Michael Lewis's Flash Boys, you know, the book about High Frequency Trading. Like a lot of people I was struck by the way the narrative is all Good Guys versus Bad Guys and Truth, Justice, and the American Way. 

I'm no expert on the stock market, but I do know something about Good and Bad -- and even something about Truth and Justice. So let me make a few quick observations.

In case you haven't read it, the narrative goes basically like this. At some point some people realized they could have an advantage in trading if their connections were faster; part of that advantage included "seeing" other people's intended trades before those trades got made; this advantage was exploited in a variety of ways, some of which allowed people with faster connections to wipe the floor with everyone else, and some of which seemed to pit the interests of firms against those of the clients they represented. Some good guys called "shenanigans" on grounds that the system was "unfair," "rigged" against those with bad bandwidth.

1. Fairness? WTF?

I was surprised to see the concept of fairness invoked so often to explain what was wrong with using speed to beat out others. Because fairness is often thought, in economics, to be kind of a mirage concept. Among other things, it's vague and ambiguous, we're told.

The efficiency concepts used in economic reasoning don't appeal to fairness, they appeal maximizing or Pareto optimality -- how things are overall. Efficiency doesn't doesn't talk about how the costs and benefits are arranged, only about how they stack up overall. Even the liberty concepts used in economic reasoning -- the freedom for consenting adults to make exchanges as they see fit -- don't appeal to fairness either.

To see how low in our cultural estimation the F-word is, look at our current discourse about inequality. Even people who are upset about inequality can't bring themselves to talk about fairness. They just talk about "consequences."

Try to use fairness to talk about social justice and Serious People will shut you down. The economic perspective tells you there's no such thing. But now suddenly markets can be unfair?

2. Truth, liberty and efficiency are also vague and ambiguous

A charitable interpretation of the "unfair!" complaints would be something like: "this market isn't working to do what markets are supposed to do."

That seems to me possibly a fruitful and reasonable thing to say about this situation. But if it is, one thing this shows is that despite the assertions we sometimes hear to the contrary, the hows and the whys of markets are not simple or straightforward.

For example, for an exchange to be legitimate, everyone needs a certain amount of true information about what is being exchanged and how it works. But how much information? When is it a duty to disclose and when is it buyer beware? Do banks have to reveal what, exactly, they do with client money at all stages? Can they have no proprietary processes?

Given that opponents of GMO labeling tell us revealing the truth is a grave misstep and contrary to capitalist values, clearly what is required for transparency and truth-telling is non-obvious. You might even say these are vague and ambiguous concepts.

When you get into the possibility of beneficial effects of markets things are even murkier. As Lewis describes, the benefits of HFT are sometimes described in terms of increased "liquidity." Naturally, there's disagreement about what is good about that, when it's good, how much is the right amount, etc. The difficulty of measuring effects might even lead you to say that "efficiency" is a vague or ambiguous concept.

In any case, if the issues are transparency, overall benefits, functioning markets, why use the language of fairness and injustice?

Interestingly, even this article defending HFT says that "flash trading" --  i. e., "trading firms paying money to have their computers and servers right next to those of the exchange" -- is "repugnant."

Repugnant why? If moving your servers makes people better off and there's no rule against it, what's the economic principle under which they're supposed to refrain?

3. H. L. Mencken, the language of honor, and the true goal of lording it over other people

Encountering the moralizing and indignation-oriented language in the HFT debate reminded me immediately of H. L. Mencken's discussion of the concept of "honor" among men. As I described before, in his Defense of Women, Mencken regards with contempt the way men talk of women having "no sense of honor," when they themselves appeal to honor and fair play only in contexts like gambling and games, when nothing meaningful is really at stake. When the chips are down, he says, everyone fights tooth and nail, and honor and fair play go out out the window.

This was, of course, relevant to a Defense of Women in 1918 because women were dependent on marriage for survival. Unlike men, of course they had to fight tooth and nail in the love and romance arena.

The point here, though, is that Mencken thinks concepts like honor and fair play are especially likely to be used in contexts like gambling and games. It is, of course, not news that the stock market can seem more like gambling and games than it does like like engaging in meaningful exchanges of goods.

And here I have to say, from the point of view of a total outsider, the glimpse into the culture of Wall Street of Lewis's book does nothing to dispel such ideas. The way it comes off, the prestige of a bank is everything, more important than even whether money is being made. It's almost like the money is just an imperfect tracker for what really matters to people, and what really matters to people is some vague sense that they can lord it over someone else.

If lording it over someone else is what they're in it for, it's no mystery about the language of injustice. The "advantage" to the speedy would then be analogous to the advantage of a cheater in sports. And we all know what to say about that: it's repugnant.

If you really want to hear indignation and the language of fairness and injustice, forget poverty and war and people dying pointlessly. Because sports is where the REAL action is.

So: as I see it, if the debate over HFT is laden with Big Concept Value words, that's because economic reasoning is shot through with Big Concept Values, even though people don't like to say so. The issue isn't HFT, but rather the nature and justification of capitalism itself.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Signs Of The Times: True Secrets Of My Inbox, Revealed!

Dear Friend,
We're putting on a thing and we would love you to join us! Our thing will be lame and sad if people don't come. Plus, we're under a lot of pressure from our funding agency/higher-ups/other to show how popular we are, and we can do this by having a successful thing. We're hoping if you come to our thing, we can eventually get you to like/follow/add us on social networking and thereby be on our lists for future things.

We realize that you have other items on your to-do list, including getting on with your life. But without Real People (tm) at our things, we will cease to exist, and that will make us very sad. You wouldn't want that to happen, would you?

Tireless Organizer

Dear Scholar,
We've started up a weird journal that sounds like a respectable one, and we're hoping you'll be confused into submitting something. We wrote this email to sound vaguely like you have been targeted by our community of researchers because we found your work interesting, but really that's just wordplay; in fact we sent identical emails to millions of people.

We're new and we're open access, so we're hoping it takes you a while to figure out that we're in this to make money in ways you didn't even know were possible in publishing. For example, maybe if your article is accepted, we can charge you a fee to get it published, and you'll pay. That would be awesome for us.

Maybe you're wondering about the people listed on our editorial board, whose names you've never heard and whose universities seem obscure. Don't waste your time thinking about it. We don't know what their deal is either.

Hoping to con you in one way or another,
Sketchy Open Journal of X

Dear Blogger,
We hear you have a blog! That is awesome! We are a PR company representing a person who had an experience and then made a thing. We all know that having an experience and then making a thing means nothing in today's world without fans, so we are reaching out to you. We're so excited you have a blog where you could talk about this thing!

We realize you are one tiny blogger with a very tiny readership, but we are so desperate for the crumbs of attention that you might be able to give us that we are emailing you directly. Given that you are on our list, just imagine how deeply into obscurity our list goes! We are just hoping against hope that if the right person can just give a shout out, we can go viral with this amazing story. And since you are on the internet, you might be that person!

In fact, we're so excited about the possibilities, we're willing to offer you a live interview/meeting/viewing/lunch with the creator of this thing, so you can tell your readers first hand about its awesomeness.

Please, please, get in touch!

Best wishes and hope to hear from you!

Desperately Seeking Any Publicity Whatsoever