Archive for October, 2011

More Wall Street Idiocy

I recently discovered that the cable company Hibernia Atlantic is spending $300 million to construct and lay a new transatlantic cable between London and New York [New Scientist, 1 October].  Why? In order to cut 6 milliseconds from the 65 millisecond transit time in order to get more investment trading firms to use their cable.  For 6 milliseconds?  That’s apparently a comparative age when computers can execute millions of instructions in a microsecond, and London traders must think that those 6 milliseconds will make a significant difference in the prices paid and/or received.

And they may well.  Along the same lines, a broker acquaintance of mine pointed out that New York City real estate closest to the New York Stock Exchange computers commands exorbitant rents and prices for exactly the same reason… but I find the whole idea totally appalling – not so much an additional data cable, but the rationale for its use. Human beings can’t process much of anything in 6 milliseconds so that the speed advantage is only useful to computers using trading algorithms.  As I’ve noted earlier, the use of programmed and computer trading has led to a shift in the rationale behind trading to almost total reliance on technical patterns, which, in turn, has led to increased volatility in trading.  Faster algorithmic trading can only increase that volatility, and, regardless of those who deny it, can also only increase the possibility of yet another “flash crash” like that of May 2010, and, even if the new “circuit-breakers”cut in and work as designed, the results will still disrupt trading significantly and likely penalize the minority of traders without superspeed computers.

Philosophically speaking, the support for building such a cable also reinforces the existing and continually growing reliance on maximizing short-term profits and minimizing longer-term concerns, as if we don’t already have a society that isn’t excessively short-term. You might even call it the institutionalization of business thrill-seeking and attention-deficit-disorder. This millisecond counts; what happens next year isn’t my concern.  Let my kids or grandkids worry about what happens in ten or twenty years.

And one of the problems is that this culture is so institutionalized that any executive who questions it essentially destroys his or her future. All you have to do is look at those who did before the last meltdown.

Yes, the same geniuses who pioneered such great innovations as no-credentials-check-mortgages, misleadingly “guaranteed” securitized mortgages, banking deregulation, fees-for-everything-banking, and million dollar bonuses for crashing the economy are now going to spend a mere hundreds of millions to find another way to take advantage of their competitors… without a single thought about the implications and ramifications.

Isn’t the free market wonderful?


Why Don’t the Banks Get It?

Despite the various “Occupy Wall Street” and other grass-roots movements around the country, banks, bankers, and investment bankers really don’t seem to get it.  Oh, they understand that people are unhappy, but, from what I can tell, they don’t seem terribly willing to accept their own role in creating this unhappiness.

It certainly didn’t help that all the large banks ducked out of the government TARP program as soon as possible so that they wouldn’t be subject to restrictions on salaries and bonuses for top executives – bonuses that often exceeded a million dollars an executive and were sometimes far, far greater.  They all insist, usually off the record, that they feared “losing” top talent, but where would that talent go?  To other banks?

Then after losing hundreds of billions of dollars on essentially fraudulently rated securitized mortgage assets, they took hundreds of billions of dollars in federal money, but apparently not to lend very much of it, especially not to small businesses, who are traditionally the largest creators of new jobs in the country. At the same time, they continue to foreclose on real estate on a wholesale basis, even when ordered not to by judges and states and regulators and even in cases when refinancing was feasible with an employed homeowner.

And then… there’s the entire question of why the banks are having financial difficulties.  I’m an economist by training, and I have problems understanding this.  They’re getting money cheaply, in some cases, almost for free, because what they pay depositors is generally less than one percent, and they can obtain federal funds at an even lower rate.

Mortgages are running 4-6%, and interest on credit card debt is in the 20% range and often in excess of 25%.  Yet this vast differential between the cost of obtaining the product and the return on it apparently isn’t sufficient?

And that brings us to the latest bank fiasco.  For years, the banks, all of them, have been urging customers to “go paperless.”  Check your statement electronically; don’t write checks; use your debit card instead. Then, after the federal government tried to crack down on excessive fees for late payments, overdrafts, and the like, now several of the largest banks are floating the idea of a monthly fee for debit card use.  Wait a second!  Wasn’t this the banks’ idea in the first place?  Wasn’t it supposed to reduce costs?  So why are they going to charge depositors more to use their own money?

And the banks still don’t get it?  With all those brilliant, highly compensated executives?

Or don’t they care?

What Is a Cult?

Recently, apparently members of the Christian right are suggesting that presidential candidate Mitt Romney is not a “Christian,” but a member of a “cult.” As a resident of Utah for nearly twenty years, and as a not-very-active Episcopalian who still resents the revision of the King James version of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer, I find the raising of this issue more than a disturbing, not so much the question of what Mr. Romney believes, but the implications that his beliefs are any stranger or weirder than the beliefs of those who raised the issue.

Interestingly enough, the top dictionary definitions of the word “cult” are “a system of religious rites and observances” and “zealous devotion to a person, ideal, or thing.”  Over the past half-century or so, however, the term cult has come to be used in a more pejorative sense, referring to a group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre.  Some sociologists make the distinction that sects, such as Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Catholics, etc., which are products of religious schism, therefore arose from and maintain a continuity with traditional beliefs and practices while cults arise spontaneously around novel beliefs and practices. Others define a cult as an ideological organization held together by charismatic relationships and the demand of total commitment to the group and its practices.

Mitt Romney is a practicing Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but does that make him a member of a cult?  Since the LDS faith specifically believes in Jesus Christ and follows many “Christian” practices such as baptism, belief in an omnipotent God and his son Jesus Christ, and rejected the practice of polygamy a century ago, can it be said to be a total “novel” faith or any more “bizarre” or “abnormal” than any number of other so-called Christian faiths?  Mormonism does demand a high degree of commitment to the group and its practices, but is that degree of commitment any greater than that required by any number of so-called evangelical but clearly accepted Christian sects?

While I’m certainly not a supporter of excessive religious beliefs of any sort, as shown now and again in some of my work, and especially oppose the incorporation of religious beliefs into the structure of secular government, I find it rather amazing that supporters who come from the more radical and even “bizarre” [in my opinion] side of Christianity are raising this question.  What troubles me most is the implication that fundamentalist Christianity is somehow the norm, and that Mormonism, which, whether one likes it or not, is clearly an offshoot of Christianity, is somehow stranger or more cultlike than the beliefs of the evangelicals who are raising the question.

This isn’t the first time this kind of question has been raised, since opponents of John F. Kennedy questioned whether the United States should have a Catholic president, with the clear implication that Catholicism was un-American, and it won’t be the last time.  The fact that the question has been raised at all in this fashion makes me want to propose a few counter-questions.

Why are those politicians who endorse and are supported by believers in fundamentalist Christianity not also considered members of cults?

Are we electing a president to solve pressing national problems or one to follow a specific religious agenda?

Does rigid adherence to a religious belief structure make a more effective president or a less effective one?  What does history show on this score?

And… for the record, I’m not exactly pleased with any of the candidates so far.


The Wrong Message

Social media are here, regardless of whether we like them, dislike them, use them, or don’t use them.  They’re also becoming a part of education, and school districts and colleges and universities across the country are struggling with policies that allow constructive use of social media while curbing abuse.  Some school districts prohibit their use in education entirely, while others range from restricted use to almost unrestricted use.

Time will tell, as with many things, just what uses will be allowed, but there’s one aspect of all of this that, I must say, troubles me greatly.  One educator, cited in a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor, made an observation along the lines that he had to give feedback on assignments to students through Facebook because students never checked email since email just wasn’t part of their world.

I relayed that comment to my wife the college professor, and she nodded sagely, informing me that a growing percentage of college students simply never check their email or answer telephone messages. She should know, since her university system will inform her whether any email she has sent has even been opened – and many aren’t.  An increasing number of students only respond, and not necessarily reliably, to text messages and Facebook postings.

What?  Since when are students determining what forms of communication will be used in education?  The issue here, it seems to me, is not just whether social media has a place in education, and what that place should be, but also who exactly is setting the standards and the ground rules.

To begin with, for a teacher to reach a student through a social network, the teacher must belong to that network, and depending on the settings, etc., must request of the student to be accepted as a “friend,” or request that the student contact them and be accepted as a friend. In short, either party can refuse communications, and, in effect, the students are effectively setting the requirements for what communications they’ll receive and how.  I can certainly see students – and parents – rebelling if teachers required communications via FedEx, UPS, or carrier pigeon, but not accepting emails as opposed to Facebook messages?  Email is a non-obligatory electronic communications system far more open to all users and recipients, and takes no more time or equipment than does Facebook or any other social network. Also, teachers should be teachers, not “friends,” because even the most brilliant of students should not be encouraged to think of themselves as the equal of their teachers, no matter how much greater some of them may doubtless end up.

Again, I may be antiquated, but at this point using social networks for any form of “official” communication, whether educational, governmental, or business, raises questions about security, privacy, scholastic policies, discipline, and propriety that certainly have not been answered.


Too Much Instantness?

Who’s the leading GOP presidential candidate this moment?  Romney? Perry? Cain? Is Christie in or out? What about Palin? The stock market’s up three hundred points – oops, down four hundred, up one hundred, down two hundred…  The latest on Amanda Knox, or whatever celebrity’s hot, bestseller numbers on Amazon reported hourly… commodity reports tracked by the millisecond, commodities and stocks traded by the nanosecond….

Forget about telephone calls.  Keep up with Twitter, 128 character quick bits, or friend messages, quick test messages on your iPhone.  Forget about so-called instant messages; they’re too slow, and emails… obsolete!

Have we as a society lost our minds?

There’s an old, old saying – Act in haste; repent at leisure – and I have the feeling that almost no one has heard it or remembered it. We’re inundated with instant information, pressured to act and decide instantly.  The worst of it is that because there’s so much instant communication and information, people are often taking longer and longer to get around to working on projects and doing actual work because they have to deal with the instant information, and that means more and more decisions and actions are taken with less and less forethought because there’s less and less time to actually consider them, and almost everything becomes an instant decision.

For example, when the liquidators took over Borders, they didn’t have “enough time” to consider selling blocks of leases to other bookstores and chains, or to sell book stock in lots.  In the end, I suspect, they raised far less cash than if they’d taken a bit more time to plan things out.

My son and I tried to buy a bathing suit for his daughter, because she’d inadvertently left hers behind.  This was the first weekend in August – still summer, one might think.  We had to try four stores before we could find any bathing suits at all – in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where the temperature stays above eighty degrees until October.  Why?  Because instant automated decisions insist that the summer buying season is over in mid-July.

Programmed computer trades, made in nanoseconds, have transformed the stock market from a marketplace where fundamentals and logic had a role into a largely “technical” market based on using algorithms to make quick profits, but the result is an extremely volatile market, and one in which the risks of catastrophic losses and meltdowns become more and more probable, even when the underlying fundamentals of many securities are sound.  What’s happening is that the instant information drags the entire market up or down almost in lockstep, regardless of the differentials in values of various stocks.  So “hot” stocks with little behind them behave in much the same way as issues with solid fundamentals. That has turned the market into even more of a casino than it was. We’ve already had one “flash crash” in the market, and I’d be astonished if we don’t have another.

The instant emphasis pervades everything, it seems, even when there’s a question as to whether it makes sense, but, after all, “instant” is so much better.


Dead or Alive?

No… I’m not going to write about “wanted” posters, but about the awareness of being alive.  What sparked this was a New York Times article about how Grande Prix racing had gone from a sport that killed drivers every year on a predictable basis to one that seldom sees fatalities, thanks to the improved safety technology incorporated in the race cars… and how its public profile has dropped in the American media.

Every so often my wife and I may glance at a story or an ad or something that depicts so-called extreme sports.  Almost invariably, even when she says not a word, I know what she’s thinking.  She can’t understand why anyone would engage in something that dangerous, and she thinks they’re idiots for doing so.

My attitude is a bit different. Not only do I think they’re foolish, but I tend to feel sorry for them. Anyone who can only feel alive when risking death and annihilation, or who can only find a thrill or meaning in life in such circumstances, most likely isn’t truly alive most of the time anyway.  Many of those individuals, interestingly enough, claim that the rest of us aren’t truly alive because we don’t understand what it is to be alive in the face of danger.

Obviously, we’re all different, but I’d like to think that it shouldn’t take the imminent threat of death to feel alive, but what bothers both of us even more than that is the apparently growing popularity of such “sports”… where, like the crowds in the Roman Coliseum or the Circus Maximus, everyone roars when there’s a death or a crash.  But then, some Republicans roar when a governor boasts about the executions in his state. I’m all too aware that life can be fragile, and that no one so far has managed to get out of it alive, but I find it a sad commentary on humanity that bystanders and voyeurs can get a thrill or pleasure out of death and destruction.

Oh… I know that tendency has been around throughout history, and that less than two generations ago in parts of the United States, lynching was a spectator sport.  I’m also more than casually aware that death is, sooner or later, potentially all too close to most military personnel… but shouldn’t death be thought of as a reluctant necessity rather than with excitement or as entertainment?

And what does it say about us as a culture that the more violent forms of “entertainment” seem to be the most popular?

Dead or alive…?


The Same Book? [And Lots of Spoilers]

For at least several years, I’ve been puzzled by the handful of readers/reviewers who insist I write “the same book” over and over.  My first reaction was that they weren’t reading all of what I wrote… but several of these reader reviewers have clearly read much of what I write.  So my latest reaction tends to be, “If you find what I write so objectionable in its repetition, why do you keep reading my work and repeating your objections?”  If you don’t like it… then don’t read it.  I understand that my work doesn’t appeal to everyone.  No author’s work does.

But perhaps they feel so strongly that they’re compelled to try to persuade others that my work is “repetitious” or the like?  Why?  What’s the point?  I’ll admit that there are books and series that I feel the same way about… but I don’t spend time and ink trying to make that point to those who love those books and series.  If their followers enjoy them, then that’s their pleasure.

This “sameness” criticism has been applied especially to the Recluce Saga, and since several amateur reviewers [who consider themselves superior] continue harping, I thought I’d try to take a more analytical look at the saga and see if I could identify persistent areas of “sameness/repetition.”

One charge is that I always write about young people trying to find their way, yet out of the 16 books in the Recluce Saga, only four deal with protagonists younger than 20 [six, if you count the second book in the case of Lerris and Cerryl], and those young people come from very different backgrounds, ranging from being an orphan to being the son of a ruler.  In six of the sixteen books, the protagonists are well-established in their occupations and all over 30. Do they all then go from rags to riches?  In only three cases in all the Saga do the protagonists become absolute rulers – Cerryl, Lorn, and Saryn.  While Cerryl does move from “nothing” to high wizard, Lorn is the son of the fourth most powerful man in Cyad, and takes two books and much effort to reach the top spot. Saryn begins as number two in Westwind and ends up as number one in Lornth. Creslin starts out as the son of a ruler and ends up as one of five members of the ruling council, in roughly the same place after a great deal of trial and tribulation.  Kharl is a prosperous cooper who loses everything and finally manages to become a modestly endowed junior member of the aristocracy.  Dorrin  comes from a prosperous background, is exiled, fights, and ends up as what might be called an engineering tribune who founded Nylan. Justen begins as an engineering mage and ends up as a druid-influenced gray wizard and far from wealthy.  Rahl begins as a scrivener and ends up as the Mage-Guard advisor to the provincial governor. Nylan begins as a ship’s engineer and ends up as a gray mage in Naclos.    So… most of them did somewhat better for themselves, if at rather high costs, but not all did.

Well… maybe the books are stylistically similar.  Of the sixteen, two were written in the first-person past tense, four in the third-person present tense, and ten in the third-person past tense [which is the POV used in about 90% of all F&SF books].  That doesn’t present an overwhelming “similarity” in approach and actually differs greatly from the average.

Then does this purported sameness lie in the plot or the characters?  I’d be the first to admit that there is one definite element of similarity – the main characters all do survive and succeed to some degree, but the degree of their physical success varies considerably.  Creslin and Megaera effectively lose their entire families and end up trying to build a land on a desert isle.  Lerris ends up with no wealth, and no family except his wife.  Lorn becomes emperor, but loses his father and sister, and his remaining sister exiles herself. Justen spends his life as a wandering gray mage.  Rahl becomes a high-ranking mage-guard and does marry his love.  Kharl loses his wife and children, but eventually gains true love and  small estate.  Nylan gains nothing, except his wife and son, and loses his daughter.  Cerryl gains great power, and will spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder.  Maybe I’m missing something, but the only similarity I see is that these characters have paid high prices for their survival and success, and the prices they have paid differ in how and when they were paid.

Heinlein once observed that there were only three plots in fiction – the success story and its opposite, the tragedy; the love story; and the story of the person who learned something.  I’ve only written one tragedy [The Forever Hero], and while many of my books incorporate love stories, I will admit that most of my books do center on people who have learned something and who have succeeded to some degree – if generally at a high personal cost.

If some reviewers claim that this is writing the same book again and again, then the same claim could be lodged against  90% of all the books ever written, because every book with a plot will have a basic sameness compared to what came before, and like pretty much every writer, I’m guilty of that sameness.

So what else is new?