Tuesday, October 29, 2013


They made a movie called Don John? At last! Someone else read the Chesterton poem and thought it was as awesome as I did, and wanted to make a movie about the Battle of Lepanto. Gun upon gun, ha! ha! Gun upon gun, hurrah! Don John of Austria, Has loosed the cannonade! This is going to be AMAZING!!!

Wait, what? It's instead a movie where Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a sex addict?

God damn it. Never mind.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dropping the Mask on Invasive TV Screens

The surest sign cementing my status as a curmudgeon is my annoyance at the creeping spread of TV screens into places that didn't have them before. It was bad enough when they started introducing them into taxis - they would turn on automatically, blaring worthless nonsense at you, and you had to turn them off manually.

But the world has continued to find fresh ways to vex me, the latest being TV screens at petrol pumps. There's no way to turn them off. They're just blaring at you, volume high through tinny computer speakers. Given that the clientele of a petrol station includes nearly all of society, it would be a tough challenge for a well-meaning program director to come up with content that would be interesting to most viewers, given they're only going to be watching it for 3 minutes or so. Whatever you put is likely to be annoying to a lot of people.

Oh well, can't win, don't try! The obvious response is to just make the programming almost non-stop ads. Because that's what you want when filling up your car - a TV screen tuned totally to ads. Every now and again, some crappy 7 second football clip will be displayed, then it's back to finding out about some new snack product. The ratio of advertising to actual content is perhaps higher than any other medium I've come across. The same holds true for the world's crappiest radio station, the 'Gas Station Radio Network'. (Ugh).

This whole phenomenon reminds me of the worst websites, which automatically start playing a video clip or ad, and you have to hunt around to find what's making the noise. Except here there's no way to turn it off.

There is simply no pretense that this is something customers are meant to enjoy, unless these people are complete fools. Or I'm falling victim to the false consensus effect, which is always possible, and the world is actually full of people finding fulfillment in the Gas Station Radio Network. Hey, did you know they sell cheeseburgers here?

I can't tell which possibility is more depressing.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Bravo, Mr Fama!

So Eugene Fama was finally awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, along with Lars Hansen and Robert Shiller. All of them are thoroughly deserving. I suspect in part that the committee might have felt like a parent finally caving to their child's demand for chocolate - it was easier to give Fama the prize than keep dealing with the implicit mockery when his name topped the list of prospective prize winners year after year after year.

I've written about the excellence of Mr Fama before. What I will note, however, is the interesting nature of the prize. It was awarded to the three economists for "for their empirical analysis of asset prices". Both Hansen and Shiller did their most famous work in this area - the Generalized Method of Moments in the case of Hansen, and the excess volatility of prices with respect to dividends in the case of Shiller.

But curiously, Fama's most famous work is developing the idea of market efficiency - that an efficient capital market is one where prices fully reflect all available information. This can work at several levels - weak form, which covers all past price and volume information, semi-strong form, which covers all public information, and strong form, which covers all information, both public and private.

Simple, right? But people hadn't thought about it in that way.

Market Efficiency was a Nobel Prize worthy insight. More importantly, it was a Nobel Prize worthy insight even if markets are not, in fact, efficient. This is because the concept of market efficiency crucially changed the way the debate was framed and the evidence understood. The people that bang on about how markets obviously aren't efficient because of the 87 crash, or the financial crisis, or whatever, still implicitly accept the framework that Fama laid down. It is very difficult to conceive of what asset pricing would look like without Fama.

Of course, people confuse the real contribution of market efficiency with the related point that markets are actually mostly efficient (which Fama has made statements in support of, though by no means universally or dogmatically). But this is the secondary part - the real genius is the idea, regardless of whether efficiency is 'true' or not. The better way of phrasing the question is how efficient markets are, rather than the boo-hiss pantomime of 'all efficient' or 'all inefficient'.

If you come up with a brilliant idea simple enough for people to understand, they'll dismiss it as obviously wrong and unimportant. If you're like Lars Hansen and do something totally brilliant that nobody outside economics will ever understand the importance of, people will assume that your reputation is deserved.

And hence they didn't give Fama the prize for market efficiency directly - they gave it for his body of work on empirical asset pricing. Which is fair enough, as it gets to the main point. By including Shiller, they also added someone whose work tends to suggest that markets may not be efficient, although again by performing novel tests to examine this question. Don't get me wrong, Shiller is a totally deserving recipient. But it still seems to me that Fama's work is the most central of the three, in the same way that Leonid Hurwicz was arguably the most central in the mechanism design prize of 2007. It seems like the addition of a behavioral person in the empirical asset pricing prize was partly a way of saying that the committee doesn't necessarily think markets are efficient (a totally fair opinion), and also, along with the prize label, to insulate themselves somewhat against clowns who misunderstand the importance of market efficiency.

Still, this is all by the by. A great day for Chicago.

It's been a while since anyone has been inducted into the Shylock Holmes Order of Guys Who Kick Some Serious Ass, but Eugene Fama is most deserving of the honour. Congratulations! Apparently some guys in Sweden rate your work too, but that's not so important.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Odd Hedges Against Modern Worst-Case Scenarios

File this one under “it’s probably still a bad idea, but it’s not clear exactly why”.

The idea of a hedge is to take steps that are (typically) costly today in order to get better payouts in bad states of the world. Unemployment insurance and health insurance are classic ones, well understood by most people.

But there are plenty of other disasters in life that people don’t think much about how to hedge.

There are, for instance, plenty of possible states of the world where civil society breaks down altogether. Frankly, the best argument for gun ownership is for the eventuality of some extended civil emergency where government disappears for weeks or months on end. If the police aren’t coming to save you any more, you’ll probably wish you’d bought that shotgun. And antibiotics. And water. Lots and lots of water. You’re laughing at the preppers now, but that’s to be expected – until the disaster comes, they’re the weirdos buying insurance that never pays out.

The most unorthodox life hedge that I’ve been musing about (only in abstract terms, of course) is that of faking low level symptoms of mental illness. Go to a doctor, and complain that you’ve been hearing voices. They’re not saying alarming or violent things, just other voices in your head. When you get referred to a psych, they can disappear. Maybe they come up again in a few years. Or if you’re worried about appearing crazy, complain about chronic sleepwalking and other dissociative states. 

What, you’re probably wondering, is this a hedge for?

Credibly establishing an insanity defense if you’re charged with a serious crime, particularly a capital crime.

Courts have a good ability to sniff out people who are bogusly claiming insanity to get out of prison sentences. It’s no good to just claim after the fact that you were mad. But if there’s a paper trail of psych evaluations starting several years earlier, it becomes much easier to run an insanity defense.

Obviously, as any good lawyer will tell you (and as I've written about before), you generally don’t want to plead insanity, since this means getting locked up in a psych ward forever, which may or may not be better than getting locked up in prison forever. It probably is better than the chair, though.

That’s where sleepwalking comes in. Some jurisdictions will accept various dissociative states (like sleepwalking, being concussed, that kind of thing) as indicating a lack of intent, but not indicating enough craziness to get you institutionalised. I don’t know how likely this is to work, but it’s a possibility.

Of course, the down side is that you will have a medical history of mental illness, which might cause all sorts of problems I don't understand. That said, for better or worse (and it's often for worse), modern society is reluctant to forcibly institutionalise mentally ill people who haven't committed a crime and aren't an immediate threat to other people's safety, so I don't know how big the costs of being diagnosed as schizophrenic would actually be. Of course, after you're charged, all bets are off.

These actions fulfill the big point of the hedge – if you find yourself being charged with a capital crime, you may well wish you’d done it. I personally doubt this will ever happen to me, so the chance of it paying off is low, and the potential other costs of being diagnosed as mentally ill are large. So it’s probably a bad idea. Plus, I don't want to lie in general, let alone commit fraud, so I wouldn't be doing it in any case. But it’s still interesting to think about.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Only a hobo, but one more is gone

The massive fire engine drove past me down the narrow street, sirens wailing, and turned down towards the parking lot next to the beach. 'Typical', I thought to myself. 'This city is massively oversupplied with emergency fire services, so they get dispatched for every little nothing. Perhaps the sand is on fire?' As I walked towards the beach, I saw a lifeguard 4WD racing across the sand to the site of the conflagration, where a few other emergency vehicles were already gathered.

It soon became apparent that, oversupplied though they may be, this was no false alarm. A crowd was gathered around at a distance of perhaps 10m, circling a crowd of several lifeguards and a couple of fire department paramedics. The emergency services workers appeared to be huddled over a figure, partly concealed by a small concrete wall.

The first sign that something was seriously awry was the bobbing motion of one of the lifeguards as he performed CPR. I stood and watched for a minute or two, and the CPR continued. I'm no medical expert, but I know enough to know than when they have to perform CPR on you for several minutes straight, this is a Very Bad Sign. We were far enough from the water that this didn't look like a drowning situation. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me, and I sidled around until I could get a look at unfortunate subject of everyone's attention. Was it an old person, perhaps, having a heart attack? As I got closer, eventually I saw that it was a youngish man, perhaps in his 30s, with shaggy hair and short beard. His shirt had been removed, and he looked somewhat haggard - I thought I could see the outline of his rib cage, and he was wearing some shapeless khaki pants. I got embarrassed from staring too intently, and I shied away to a greater distance.

I started going through the possibilities in my head, and they looked grim. No obvious friends or relatives around, as the only people close by were the emergency services guys. Add in the disheveled clothes and the fact that he was getting CPR while looking young, and it seemed very likely he was homeless. Possibly overdosed, possibly drank himself comatose. Given they were administering CPR, he obviously had no pulse now, and probably had none when they arrived. To make matters worse, a homeless guy on his own lying on the sidewalk without a pulse could lie there for quite a long time without attracting attention. People would likely just presume he was sleeping, or drunk, or passed out.

Minutes passed, and the CPR continued. By this point, I was beginning to suspect that the man was simply dead, and the CPR was mostly a hail mary, a vain prayer to deaf heaven. The main ambulance arrived, and the paramedics brought the stretcher. My worries were supported by the fact that, even though the lifeguards were still performing CPR, the ambulance workers didn't seem to be showing a sense of urgency in their motions. I kept watch to see if they were going to get a defibrillator out, but they didn't. I remember reading once that, contrary to how it's often portrayed in the movies, CPR doesn't generally restart your heart. It's just a stopgap measure to prevent brain death from lack of oxygen until they can get a defibrillator. Perhaps they were going to do it in the ambulance. But it didn't look good.

Eventually, they placed the man onto the wheeled stretcher, and rolled him to the ambulance. The lifeguard was still performing CPR, but it looked to me more and more like defiant optimism against the rapidly diminishing odds. Those with the most experience of death, the fire paramedics and ambulance paramedics, moved slowly and somberly. It was only the lifeguards still working feverishly.

More power to them, of course. If you stop it, he's dead for sure, and the ambulance is surely better supplied with things to revive pulseless patients. But it seemed like the CPR was partly for the crowd. It was the physical manifestation of the vain hope that his heart might somehow restart. It let all but the more medically minded folks believe that what they were witnessing was merely a medical emergency, rather than a death scene.

I have lived over three decades on this planet, and had never seen a dead body before today. This kind of situation is inconceivable in almost any other period of human history. You leave in an ambulance as a man with a medical condition. You arrive in the hospital as a corpse, taken in the back entrance. Death is shielded from our sight altogether, unless you happen to be there at the end for a loved one. Otherwise, the acknowledgement of how we all end might be the ghost haunting the feast. Hence the charade. Exeunt, pursued by an ambulance. Even when you suspect that the person is dead, the flurry of last ditch treatment serves to maintain the fig leaf that maybe the person wasn't really dead - that maybe death can be warded off indefinitely, and our days will always be in the sun.

The ambulance pulled away up the hill, sirens blaring but driving carefully, and the crowd started to disperse. The show was over. I wandered down to the beach, and bodysurfed in the waves with my thoughts as company. I walked back up the hill, and passed the spot where the scene had occurred. Nothing beside remained. The bustle of the boardwalk continued, as if the man had never been there at all.

Does it take much of a man to see his whole life go down
To look up on the world from a hole in the ground
To wait for your future like a horse that’s gone lame
To lie in the gutter and die with no name?
Only a hobo, but one more is gone
Leavin’ nobody to sing his sad song
Leavin’ nobody to carry him home
Only a hobo, but one more is gone

Friday, October 4, 2013

I come here not to bury the Silk Road, but to praise it.

Two days ago, the Feds finally shut down the Silk Road, the online marketplace for drugs, guns, hitmen and other miscellaneous highly illegal items. They arrested a man, Ross William Ulbricht, alleged to be the founder of the site. He went under the alias 'The Dread Pirate Roberts'. This name is taken from the movie 'The Princess Bride', and is actually a pretty excellent alias given the nature of his work:
A pirate of near-mythical reputation, the Dread Pirate Roberts is feared across the seven seas for his ruthlessness and swordfighting prowess, and is well known for taking no prisoners.
It is revealed during the course of the story that Roberts is not one man, but a series of individuals who periodically pass the name and reputation to a chosen successor. Everyone except the successor and the former Roberts is then released at a convenient port, and a new crew is hired. The former Roberts stays aboard as first mate, referring to his successor as "Captain Roberts", and thereby establishing the new Roberts' persona. After the crew is convinced, the former Roberts leaves the ship and retires on his earnings.
If you believe the allegations about Ulbricht contained in the various affadivits, he is (to quote Stephen Hawking's memorable description of Sir Isaac Newton), by all accounts, not a pleasant man. He allegedly tried to organize not one but two attempted murders - first of a former employee that was likely to squeal to the FBI, and second of a person trying to blackmail him by threatening to release information about Silk Road drug suppliers.

(As a side note, the latter reminds me of the Morgan Freeman quip in The Dark Knight):
Let me get this straight. You think that your client, one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the world, is secretly a vigilante who spends his nights beating criminals to a pulp with his bare hands; and your plan, is to blackmail this person? Good luck.
So it's not hard to see what's ugly and destructive about the Silk Road. Having never been interested in purchasing drugs, murder-for-hire services, guns, or anything else on the site, I had no interest in its continuation. To the extent that the world would be better off with fewer murders and illegal guns (and probably with fewer drugs as well), it's a good thing that it's gone.

But let's just pause for a moment and appreciate what a truly astonishing feat of engineering and business the Dread Pirate Roberts was able to pull off. 

This was a website that let you buy drugs off the internet and ship them to your house via the postal service. 

It did this with remarkable success, facilitating more than a million transactions between strangers. Estimates of its revenues are as high as $1.2 billion, with commissions of almost $80 million.

That's a pretty darn serious business operation right there. How many celebrated startups ever generate revenues of $1.2 billion in their first two years? Or ever?

And think about the constraints the business was operating under. 

As I wrote about in March, anonymous drug sales over the internet have perhaps the steepest challenges of information asymmetry and moral hazard of any market I can imagine. How do you stop people shipping grass clippings instead of marijuana? Or ensure that customers pay when shipments may not arrive? Or convince people to give out their postal address to strangers when ordering drugs online, not knowing whether they're sending it to a federal agent?

Here's a great essay on how they managed to solve these problems. But suffice to say, it's pretty impressive. 

This is also a business that's going to be incredibly difficult to get off the ground in the first place. Suppose you're the chief of marketing for an online drugs site. How exactly are you going to run your campaign? You can't call up Saatchi and Saatchi and arrange a billboard campaign paid from the company checking account. And who do you even contact for customer and supplier outreach? Drug sellers are somewhat cagey about putting their email addresses up to be contacted. Even if the idea of an online drug marketplace seems feasible once it's already going, it would be a nightmare trying to get it started.

What about other challenges from the business environment? If you're creating your hypothetical startup, making the AirBnB of self storage, or the Dropbox of the pets world or whatever, you might get competitors trying to undercut you, or unpredictable shifts in the regulatory environment that make it hard to compete. 

Here, you have every law enforcement agency in the world furious at your existence, sparing no expense to try to hunt you down. You need to run the entire business while being completely anonymous. Remember, this whole site was operating within plain sight of the FBI for over two years. Charles Schumer complained about it back in June 2011. The continued existence of the Silk Road was a massive embarrassment to the US Government, and hell hath no fury like the US Government scorned.

I'll say this - you don't need to like drugs at all to recognise that the Dread Pirate Roberts was a God damn genius. I wish he'd turned his efforts to something more socially useful than selling drugs online. But be that as it may, the Silk Road is one of the most remarkable startup stories in the history of the internet.

(previous Silk Road discussion here)