To read more about Tschinkel's study of ants' nests, and to see more photos, go to the following link at the "Journal of Insect Science":
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Monday, March 23, 2009
Godspeed you to heaven, Uncle Hal.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Friday, March 20, 2009
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Where can I get me one of them code assimilation devices like McCoy is wearing? I've been up to my eyeballs in code the last few days, trying to finish an assignment for my web design class, which was to create a table with columns and rows, using HTML. Using tables for web page layout is old school, because nowadays web designers prefer to use CSS (cascading style sheets), which are more versatile than clunky old tables. But we still have to learn table basics anyhow.
I had been dreading this assignment, so to make it fun, I decided to create a table with a Star Trek theme. Lilah and I have been watching a ton of Star Trek episodes, so a lot of the plots are fresh in my mind. Like "Spock's Brain", a show from the first season, in which McCoy puts on a device called "the teacher"(shown in picture above) that injects him with the knowledge needed to re-insert Spock's brain, after it was removed from a brain-swiping alien.
Now writing code for web pages isn't brain surgery. It's just a great big pain in the watusi, which is why I need one of those badass hair dryers.
You can see my Star Trek table at the link below. It has its flaws and probably violates all kinds of design principles, but it's my table, and I created it entirely by hand-written code. If you right-click on the table and select "View Source", you can see the code I used to create it.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Sunday, March 15, 2009
From Lost through destructive creation, by Gillian Tett
Six years ago, Ron den Braber was working at Royal Bank of Scotland in London when he became worried that the bank’s models were underestimating the risk of credit products. But when the Dutch statistical expert alerted his bosses to the problem, he faced so much disapproval that he eventually left.
“I started off saying things gently ... but no one wanted to listen,” Mr den Braber recalls. The reason, he believes, lay in “groupthink ... and pressure to get business done” – as well as a sheer lack of understanding about how the models worked.
Tales of that nature go some way to explaining how the west’s big banks brought themselves to their present plight and tipped the world into recession. Their writedowns are running at $1,000bn (€795bn, £725bn), according to the Institute for International Finance, the banking groups’ Washington lobby group. The Bank of England says losses arising from banks having to mark their investments down to market prices stand at $3,000bn, equivalent to about a year’s worth of British economic production. On Monday, the Asian Development Bank estimated that financial assets worldwide could by now have fallen by more than $50,000bn – a figure of the same order as annual global output.
It is imperative for policymakers, bankers, investors and voters to understand more clearly what went so badly wrong with 21st-century finance. Certainly, there is no shortage of potential culprits: naked greed, lax regulation, excessively loose monetary policy, fraudulent borrowing and managerial failure all played a role (as in earlier periods of boom and bust).
Another problem was at play: the extraordinary complexity and opacity of modern finance. During the past two decades, a wave of innovation has reshaped the way markets work, in a manner that once seemed able to deliver huge benefits for all concerned. But this innovation became so intense that it outran the comprehension of most ordinary bankers – not to mention regulators.
The current crisis stems from changes that have been quietly taking root in the west for many years. Half a century ago, banking appeared to be a relatively simple craft. When commercial banks extended loans, they typically kept those on their own books – and they used rudimentary calculations (combined with knowledge of their customers) when deciding whether to lend or not.
From the 1970s onwards, however, two revolutions occurred: banks started to sell their credit risk on to third-party investors in the blossoming capital markets; and they adopted complex computer-based systems for measuring credit risk that were often imported from the hard sciences – and designed by statistical “geeks” such as Mr den Braber at RBS.
Until the summer of 2007, most investors, bankers and policymakers assumed that those revolutions represented real “progress” that was beneficial for the economy as a whole. Regulators were delighted that banks were shedding credit exposures, since crises such as the 1980s US savings and loan debacle had demonstrated the dangers of banks being exposed to a concentrated type of lending. The dispersion of credit risk “has helped to make the banking and overall financial system more resilient”, the International Monetary Fund proclaimed in April 2006, expressing a widespread western belief.
Bankers were even more thrilled, because when they repackaged loans for sale to outside investors, they garnered fees at almost every stage of the “slicing and dicing” chain. Moreover, when banks shed credit risk, regulators permitted them to make more loans – enabling more credit to be pumped into the economy, creating even more bank fees. By early 2007, financial officers at Britain’s Northern Rock gleefully estimated that they could extend three times more loans, per unit of capital, than five years earlier. That was because they were turning their mortgages into bonds and were thus able to meet regulatory guidelines in a more “efficient” manner.
But as innovation grew more intense, it also became plagued with a terrible irony. In public, the financiers at the forefront of the revolution depicted the shifts as steps that would promote a superior form of free-market capitalism. When a team at JPMorgan developed credit derivatives in the late 1990s, a favourite buzzword in their market literature was that these derivatives would promote “market completion” – or more perfect free markets.
In reality, many of the new products were so specialised that they were never traded in “free” markets at all. An instrument known as “collateralised debt obligations of asset-backed securities” was a case in point. This gizmo turned up in the middle of this decade when bankers created bundles of mortgage-linked bonds, often intermingled with other credit derivatives. The alphabet soup of abbreviations this generated was often as baffling as the products that the acronyms represented. In 2006 and early 2007, no less than $450bn worth of these “CDO of ABS” securities were produced. Instead of being traded, most were sold to banks’ off-balance-sheet entities such as SIVs – “structured investment vehicles” – or simply left on the books.
That made a mockery of the idea that innovation had helped to disperse credit risk. It also undermined any notion that banks were using “mark to market” accounting systems: since most banks had no market price for these CDOs (or much else), they typically valued them by using theoretical calculations from models. The result was that a set of innovations that were supposed to create freer markets actually produced an opaque world in which risk was being concentrated – and in ways almost nobody understood. By 2006, it could “take a whole weekend” for computers to perform the calculations needed to assess the risks of complex CDOs, admit officials at Standard & Poor’s rating agency.
Most investors were happy to buy products such as CDOs because they trusted the value of credit ratings. Meanwhile, the banks were making such fat profits they had little incentive to question their models – even when specialists such as Mr den Braber tried to point out the flaws.
In July 2007, this blind faith started to crack. Defaults had started to rise on US subprime mortgages. Agencies such as S&P cut ratings for mortgage-linked products and admitted that their models were malfunctioning. That caused such shock that investors such as money market funds stopped purchasing notes issued by shadowy entities such as SIVs. The gangrene of fear began to infect “real” banks, which investors realised were exposed to SIVs in unexpected ways. “In spite of more than 30 years in the business, I was unaware of the extent of banks’ off-balance-sheet vehicles such as SIVs,” Anthony Bolton, president of investments at Fidelity International, recently observed.
From 2005, banks such as Merrill Lynch, Citigroup and UBS had been stockpiling instruments such as CDOs. “We never paid much attention ... because our risk managers said those instruments were triple-A,” recalls Peter Kurer, UBS chairman. But when subprime delinquencies rose, accountants demanded that banks revalue these instruments.
By the spring of 2008, Citi, Merrill and UBS had collectively written down $53bn. Shockingly, two-thirds of that stemmed from supposedly triple-A CDOs, which by then were deemed to be worth only half of their face value. In financial services, this “was the era when models failed”, as Joshua Rosner, an American economist, has put it.
Banks tried to plug the gap by raising more than $200bn in new capital. But the hole kept deepening. As a result, trust in the ability of regulators to monitor the banks crumbled. So did faith in banks. Then, as models lost credibility, investors shunned all forms of complex finance.
Last September, the final pillar of faith collapsed. Most investors had assumed the US government would never let a large financial group fail. But when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, distrust and disorientation spiralled. Most funding markets seized up. Prices went haywire; banks and asset managers discovered that all their trading and hedging models had broken down. “Nothing in the capital markets worked any more,” says the chief risk officer at a large western bank. The system, as Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, noted a few weeks later, was “on the precipice”.
Today, as they seek new pillars of trust for finance, governments are stepping in to replace many market functions. The US Treasury is conducting “stress tests” of banks, to boost investor confidence. In Britain the state is insuring banks against losses on their toxic assets. Banks and rating agencies are – belatedly – revamping their models. Financiers and regulators have also pledged to make the industry more transparent and standardised.
But the brutal truth is that until financial markets live up to their name – becoming places where assets are traded and priced in a credible manner – it will be difficult to rebuild investor trust. Not for nothing does the root of the word “credit” come from the Latin credere, meaning “to believe”.
The past year has shown that without faith, finance is worth naught. Rebuilding the sense of trust could take rather longer than that.
Entire article at Financial Times:
Friday, March 13, 2009
Thursday, March 12, 2009
When I was in my late twenties, I read "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand, because a friend had been enthusiastic about it. First I was turned off because the writing wasn't very good. It was cliched and melodramatic, something my writing teacher would have torn apart. The characters were one-dimensional, like cartoon figures, and the narrative was clunky and preachy. But something else bothered me as I got deeper into the book. I was starting to get the creeps about Ayn's vision of utopia as she saw it. Her heroines were golden, perfect and extremely successful. I began to notice that none of them had to deal with the real-life issues that plague mere mortals. No sickness, disease, disability, no unexpected family crises, no emotional or mental problems, no addictions, no depression, no self-doubt or uncertainty. These people resembled some form of idealized human. What gave me a sick feeling was the way these high achievers were nearly set apart as some sort of master race. It seemed like a fantasy, but one that Ayn Rand took seriously as a standard that humans should live up to. She seemed to have contempt for the common man with human frailties.
I did some more reading about Ayn Rand and her philosophies during that period, and found her way of thinking largely repugnant. Ayn believed that "rational self-interest" was the highest moral value. Because we have needs and desires, fulfilling them is rational, and the only true moral good. She denounced altruism, saying that making a sacrifice for others was to give up a higher value for a lesser one. She wrote disparagingly about those who "live their lives through others" by sacrificing for others. Apparently Mother Theresa was a fool. She decried any motivation besides self-interest as being parasitic. Had she walked the earth with Jesus, she would have found him and his teachings pathetic.
Rand clearly missed out on the human experience. She doesn't get what it is to be human at all. If that seems like an overstatement, consider her funeral, where a six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign was placed near her casket, as she had requested.
Rand's philosophy limits humans to a very narrow level of experience. We may choose to make a sacrifice in the interest of justice, peace, love, community, compassion, service, because we experience something within ourselves, or we experience a connection with others, that goes beyond rationality. Rand, who did not believe in God or spirituality of any kind, would have dismissed this as some sort of psychological weakness.
Rand's argument is on shaky ground, because it seems that sharing her philosophy with the unwashed masses goes against her self-interest, if it persuades them to give up their parasitic self-sacrifice in pursuit of unbridled success. Thus empowered, they could pose a competitive threat to her.
But there is another flaw in Rand's over-simplified view of her achiever class and their heroic success, as depicted in Atlas Shrugged. She writes about these titans as if they are producing and industrializing and creating their wealth in a vacuum. As if the only well they have drawn from is their own private one. But since they are not truly gods, the reality is they have created and produced by using an interconnected web of resources like the rest of us. A web that includes highway systems and telephone lines and power grids, and intangible things like communication, social stability, and the protection of laws. They operate from a field of cultural and educational and political influences that exist in a democracy. And their ascent relies on an army of working class people who pick the tomatoes, harvest the crops, collect the garbage, empty the bed pans, nurse the sick, repair the bridges, drive the trucks, ship the freight, clean the offices, teach the population who will grow into paying customers. There is no extracting them from the complex interweaving of societal forces that have made their rise to power possible. They are not an island to themselves, producing in isolation. To suggest that they are is ludicrous.
Yet this Randian idea is still being waved around, much to my dismay. Rep. John Campbell, who thinks that Obama's policies are aimed at punishing the high achievers, suggests that the creators of "all the things that benefit the rest of us" may go on strike, Rand-style:
"People are starting to feel like we’re living through the scenario that happened in 'Atlas Shrugged," said Campbell. "The achievers, the people who create all the things that benefit [the] rest of us, are going on strike. I’m seeing, at a small level, a kind of protest from the people who create jobs, the people who create wealth, who are pulling back from their ambitions because they see how they’ll be punished for them."
There is a good response to this, put more eloquently than I could by a political blogger named Hunter. Since it is rather long, I will post it as Pt. 2., below this post.
Oh, yes please. By all means, let's give that "strike" a go. I'll tell you what, "achievers" -- you keep your Collateralized Debt Obligations, and we'll keep the food. You take away your energy futures trading, and we'll keep the actual power plants. You run off to your own private island with your structured corporate insurance derivatives, and we'll keep the automobiles, and the boats, and the oil, and the coal, and the grain, and the batteries, and the electronics, and the cows, and the roads and bridges, and the drinking cups, and the indoor plumbing, and the light bulbs, and the televisions, and the art, and the music, and the trees that grow the fruit, and the lumber, and the recycling centers, and the actual pills to cure what ails you, and the fishing lines, and the books, and the buildings, and the railroads, and the little metal clips that hold the little hydraulic lines that keep that gigantic, thundering airplane you're on in the air. We'll keep the borax, iron, salt, aluminum, and steel. We'll keep the corn, the soybeans, the lettuce, and the water. We'll spot you as many U-haul boxes as you need to pack up your money and your stock certificates, and then please, by all means -- teach us a lesson.
Go live your Randian fantasies, go create that wonderful utopia in which only the most wealthy are permitted entry, and you are not burdened with the outrageous insult of having to contribute back a proportionate share of your income in order to help maintain the very fabric of the nation around you. I can see now that the thought that you might have to pay the same share of your income in taxes that your housekeeper does has drained your already blanched faces, and the thought of having to pay as much in taxes as your wretched mothers and fathers did, a few decades before you, is nothing less than an armed assault on your beachheads. What fool would suggest we possibly return to the same tax polices that existed under that shameless wealth-stealer and Stalinist, Ronald Reagan? And what insane person would dare seek to treat achievers identically to the lower classes, the people with grubby hands and only one house?
Just who are these "achievers, the people who create all the things that benefit the rest of us?" They're not the farmers -- we must give far more deference, assign far more value to those that push money from one column to the next. They're not the factory workers, those couldn't possibly be the people who "create all the things that benefit the rest of us." They are not nearly so important as the people that invent the derivatives to speculate upon the future trajectories of the numerical indexes that represent the simplified and aggregated "marketplaces" in which the company will sell the products that the workers at the machines create.
You can see how the "achievers" are better than anyone else, and how put upon they are. We claim that the farmers of America create our food, but they are only the saps at the bottom of the chain -- food does not exist unless there is a global market to assign it value, then gather cash by making increasingly leveraged wagers on the incremental differences within submarkets of that global market. You may claim that our miners, those that willingly entomb themselves under a billion tons of rock in order to pry just a small amount of the raw materials of society out from under it, may create "things", for without them there would be precious few "things" to create -- but they are hicks, undeserving of such admiration, and certainly undeserving of official "Achiever" tax breaks. What do they know of danger, who have not had to rush to their computer to trade a several thousand shares bought earlier in the day, so as to gain a slight monetary advantage over the hundreds of thousands of people doing the same?
So yes, please, by all means, teach us a lesson, Achiever Class, and do it quick. You take your money, and we'll take the people who know how to fix your plumbing at three in the morning. You grab your portfolio and hold it high above your heads, a symbol of your lifetime of accomplishments, and we'll take all the firefighters. I can only presume you will not need our doctors, our schoolteachers, our grocers or even our tax accountants. Ayn Rand would have wanted it that way: Ayn Rand, oracle of the prickish class, official trumpet section for anyone and everyone that thinks themselves a king.
Are we becoming a nation intent on scamming itself, a nation that only values work or inventiveness when it is applied to new ways of squeezing more transactions between the same market endpoints, or milking out one more tenth of a percentage point in income by taking on thirty times that in risk?
It's not enough to produce energy anymore, or to transport it -- there's not enough profit in that. So any company worth its salt, like Enron, knows the real money is in speculating on energy, not actually doing anything with it. Any Wall Street broker worth their salt knows that investing in a factory is an absurdist proposition, you want to invest in the companies that invest in the investors that financed the investment of that factory. What fool would want to provide actual healthcare, when all the actual cash is to be made in managing that health care by deciding what gets covered, and how much it should cost, and exactly how many files need to be moved how many times before your doctor will see even a dollar in cash from your visit six months ago, and how precisely your health management company should invest that dollar in other marketplaces, during the ever-expanding length of time it is held between when the service is rendered and all possible paperwork has been exhausted and the dollar must, at long last, be forked over?
What would happen if America's financial sector threatened to go the same way as America's textile industry, or America's steel industry? We are seeing it now -- there is no price not worth paying, in order to prop up the Masters of the Universe. We'll do it, and we have to do it, so tied in is every part of the world economy to all of the others.
Those same financiers might -- gasp -- have to pay three more percentage points of tax, in exchange for saving them, their companies, and their entire industry, and so many may flee to Bermuda and be done with the likes of us. We might block a loophole or two, or question why some company (probably led by Phil Gramm) might keep tens of thousands of secret, offshore bank accounts in an apparent attempt to allow the wealthy to subvert the very laws that the rest of us saps must live by, each and every year, and to even bring such questions up is a declaration of class warfare.
When you have lived your life in the presumption that you are simply better than all those around you, and that your station in life is so far above all others that you should be honored as titan, or Achiever, or demigod, it is merely a given that the common people should not only rescue you from your own created catastrophe of errors, but they should feel damn lucky to have the privilege.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Jon Stewart's response was to say, No--he preferred to think of it as "turd mining." Well, where Jim Cramer is concerned, the mine is vast and rich.
New video from 2006 has surfaced today, where Cramer blatantly admits to market manipulation and illegial activity that is "okay" because the SEC won't catch on.
In a videotaped interview with TheStreet.com's columnist Aaron Task, Cramer says that market manipulation is "a fun game, and it's a lucrative game." He suggests all hedge fund managers do the same. "No one else in the world would ever admit that, but I could care. I am not going to say it on TV."
He goes further: "A lot of times when I was short at my hedge fund, and I was positioned short, meaning I needed it down, I would create a level of activity before-hand that could drive the futures."
Cramer's view on falsely creating the impression a stock is down what he calls "fomenting"): "You can't foment. That's a violation... But you do it anyway because the SEC doesn't understand it." He adds, "When you have six days and your company may be in doubt because you are down, I think it is really important to foment."
Cramer on the truth: "What's important when you are in that hedge fund mode is to not be doing anything that is remotely truthful, because the truth is so against your view - it is important to create a new truth to develop a fiction," Cramer advises. "You can't take any chances."
and realize that everything they heard was a lie
But then again Fannie Mae lied
and it's just fiction and fiction and fiction
The way that the market really works is
Leak it to the press
Leak it to CNBC
That's also very important
And then you have a viscious cycle down
And it's a pretty good game
And you can play it for a percent or two"
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
I was browsing the Payless Shoes website when I saw that one of the menu choices for sandals said "Gladiator Inspired." What?? What the heck was that? I clicked and found various arena-ready styles like the ones below:
Monday, March 9, 2009
Since I haven't had time to work on anything for my blog, I am posting the lyrics to one of my favorite Bjork songs, titled "Heirloom" off her Vespertine CD. I love the idea of the glowing lights, and the image of the trapeze workers.
I have a recurrent dream
Everytime I lose my voice
I swallow little glowing lights
My mother and son baked for me
And during the night
They do a trapeze walk
Until they're in the sky
Right above my bed
While i'm asleep
My mother and son pour into me
Warm glowing oil
Into my wide open throat
I have a recurrent dream
Everytime i feel a hoarseness
I swallow warm glowing lights
My mother and son baked for me, oh
They make me feel so much better
They make me feel better
Friday, March 6, 2009
Thursday, March 5, 2009
this woman stirring her cup
is marshalling forces
every turn of the spoon
passivity is a splendid disguise
size up, dismiss
size up, dismiss
as if I were something potted
but this Danielle Steele hides a camera
were you to know
I am the center of things