Detroit Vlog!

May 25, 2009 at 2:38 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Here it is! Though, we’ve been in Chicago this past day or so–so I guess Detroit is old news. Hopefully the next vlog will be forthcoming soon–and getting progressively more professional-looking…


New Search Options, New Issues?

May 13, 2009 at 5:02 pm | Posted in Technology, World of Ideas | Leave a comment
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Slashdot | Google Unveils Search Options and Google Squared.

Google has apparently unveiled a couple of interesting new technologies that will allow for slightly different angles of attack in presenting users with search results. The first would seem to help categorize the results in various ways, while the second would compile the information gleaned, rather than the websites themselves.

It’s the latter that concerns me slightly. As someone who writes stuff and puts it “out there” on the web, I cannot help but wonder whether something like that will end up stripping away any final remnant of authorial attribution? Perhaps that notion is becoming somewhat outdated anyway? I don’t know.

The other, larger concern would have to do with context. We all know that information from the internet cannot be trusted. While having a “digest” type compilation of information searched, will make some measure of corroboration a little easier, stripping the info from its original context means that we might be less equipped to assess the biases that are underlying and mediating whatever information we happen to find. E.g. some info about an archeological finding that sounds somewhat plausible, until you look at the rest of the site and find that the author is a creationist.

Of course, people who worry about that will undoubtedly click through and check the sources for reliability or plausibility (in which case, I’m not sure whether the compliation would be of much use?). BUT, those who don’t will now have little to no chance of spotting any holes–as they might, just in passing, when navigating to the actual site. Skimming through the isolated, compiled information would likely mean that the more subtle biases in particular would be obscured.

Of course, this is pretty preliminary. Perhaps they’ve already thought of this and somehow managed to mitigate it via the interface itself. That would be a Good Thing–so let’s hope that’s where they’ve taken it!

It was, like, totally random

May 9, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Posted in World of Ideas | Leave a comment
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Wednesday night, Tom and I went to see a talk by Leonard Mlodinow, from Caltech, whose recent book, The Drunkard’s Walk, is in bookstores and available for purchase.

I haven’t read this one, but based on his talk, I suspect it would cover similar ideas to the book A Random Walk Down Wall Street, by Burton Malkiel, which I read a couple of years ago.

The “drunkard’s walk” refers to the notion that, as with someone really drunk who is wandering aimlessly about, things that are truly random cannot be predicted. Though there are some stretches where there appears to be a pattern to the progress, even these seeming “trends” are, in fact, just the results of cumulative happenstance. As with the monkeys and typewriters notion, sometimes even random processes will line up into apparently coherent and consistent strings. Sometimes even the random hitting of keys will result in recognizable words.

The Malkiel book applied this notion to the stock market for the most part, pointing out that while there was little evidence that attempts at pattern recognition in stock trends were actually borne out as being effective, there is plenty to support the notion that in fact the stock market moves randomly, like the drunkard out on an aimless stroll: he may know his general direction, but it’s difficult to predict, from one step to the next, where he will go. In other words, he felt that things like day trading were little more than guess work. And, while you can see certain overall trends, like the current widespread, cross-sector downturn, it’s impossible to predict when it will turn around, by how much and so on. His conclusion was that mutual funds are to be avoided, and that an investor’s best bet is to just go with an index fund, using something like the S&P 500.

Derivatives might well change things up a bit. A money manager who has figured out a clever way to use those to mitigate risk might be able to come out ahead more consistently–but I only say that because I haven’t read enough about the range and variety of derivatives, how such instruments would work, and whether there’s actually evidence that they do.

All the same, as regards the markets in general, I found the arguments pretty compelling. Mlodinow branched off into a couple of additional facets of the randomness concept, but otherwise covered similar ground. I’d certainly recommend the Malkiel as readable, interesting food for thought. If the Mlodinow is similar (and possibly wider-ranging, rather than focussing on how randomness relates to the stock market), then it might be worth checking out as well. Whether you end up agreeing or not, it’s interesting stuff. If you happen to have read either of these books, but remain a staunch proponent of technical or fundamental analysis, I’d love to hear your arguments against the evidence produced and in favour of your approach!

For the record, I’d actually still do fundamental analysis and likely even do a bit of “tech” analysis too–in that I’d look at the general mood of investors, to try to gauge whether it’s a good time to buy and whether the stock is close to bottoming out, or reaching its peak, before investing. It’s one thing to agree that the day-to-day movements are generally random, and another to throw out the whole idea of a downward or upward trend in markets. As Malkiel points out, if you have a long horizon (i.e. 20-30 years before you retire), then just investing in an index should do you fine. It goes up over the long term, generally performing slightly better than inflation, and so your money will grow.

But keeping aware of trends, wading in when the market bottoms out (or at least is considerably lower, even if it’s not quite at bottom) after a bust, then sniffing the air and selling off stocks after a sustained boom, seems likely to net you an extra chunk of change in the long term, cumulatively speaking. True–you might not catch it at absolute bottom (you may purchase, and then see your investment decline for a while), and you might not sell at the peak (it’s so frustrating to see the selling price climb ever higher after you’ve sold), but in general, you’ll have come out ahead of those who held on through the peak, hoping for ever higher gains, and then panic sold when it fell below the price that the paid for the stock.

For those not familiar with stock stuff, this is what most investment people would consider a conservative, or low-risk strategy. It’s not gonna make you rich overnight, but over time, you should have a tidy nest egg. Since I haven’t seen a lot of evidence (and I’ll admit I haven’t looked a lot) to support the idea that other strategies are actually effective and not just a matter of those randomly generated strings that look like actual patterns, that’s what makes the most sense to me. Other options seem rather a lot games of chance, rather than calculated risks–and I prefer the latter when it comes to my savings.

At any rate, lots of overlap between the two books. Given that, the Perimeter Institute talk was more a refresher on a few of the interesting conceptual aspects of randomness, rather than a mindblowing introduction to concepts never before seen by yours truly.

Springtime awakening

May 6, 2009 at 3:39 pm | Posted in writing | Leave a comment
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Standing by the creek, you can hear the quiet splash of water flowing.

Standing by the creek, you can hear the quiet splash of water flowing.

The scene I’m working on is resisting me—not quite sure why yet, though I just scrapped the 1500 or so words I had written on it and started it afresh from a different POV. That feels better, but the resistance is still there. I think it might just be loss of momentum—I have to push through and get back into it. But for now, I’m taking a brief “blog break.”

These past couple of days, it’s like my senses have been awakened with the spring. Not that I’ve been senseless before this, but in retrospect, my appreciation of the winter was all about the crisp clarity of bare, filigreed branches and starkly exquisite detail, against a cool palette of whites, blues and sparkling ice. It felt refined, aesthetic and cerebral, though my appreciation was no less profound for all that.

Spring is different. The Ontario spring is brief, electric, colourful—like a jolt in the arm. And suddenly, I’m noticing smells, textures, colour.

Breezes cool but not arctic, whispering across the bare skin of my arms as I pull up the healthy crop of garlic mustard that has sprung up under two of our trees. The air is redolent with the smell of garlic from the plants. The cold of the moist earth in my fingers as I get at the root and tug, gently. There’s either an exquisite sense of release, as the root yields and emerges whole, or a quiet, disappointing “pop” as it breaks off partway. Whereupon I sigh and move onto the next one.

One of the trees has soft, silken needles, like the pelt of an animal, and climbing under it to get at the garlic mustard feels like an embrace, its soft branches parting gently to allow me in. The other is spiky and harsh, its needles a pale, frosted green, as if it carries with it a touch of ice, even in midsummer. If I forget my gardening pad, then I dare not kneel or sit under that one—the fallen needles, branches and cones are sharp and leave splinters, often as not. But once I find the hidden entrance, where the branches are thinner, and sneak under its canopy, it feels like a hidden fortress. A quiet sanctuary. The dappled light shines through onto the layers of discarded needles, the breeze tickles my bare arms and I can hear the sound of the nearby creek plashing over rocks and branches, such that I simply have to pause and honour the moment, if only briefly. With much of the garlic mustard routed, I can now smell the bracing cleanliness of the pine itself.

Later, I sit out on our crumbling, overgrown terrace in the back, listen to the birds, and watch a languid, furry bumblebee browse through the catalogue of our bushes and tulips. The green of the moss is almost neon in its sunlit vibrancy, and the early blossoms of blue-purple periwinkle, yellow daffodils, red tulips and white trilliums entice me into the little grove beside our house, where I feel the rough, varied textures of the tree bark under my fingertips as I reach out to trunks and branches for balance.

So it is that the world blossoms, and along with it, my senses.

The tumbledown terrace.

The little grove, with daffodils and trilliums.

Imperial History of the Middle East in 90 seconds

May 4, 2009 at 9:54 pm | Posted in World History | Leave a comment

This looks to be a fascinating website. With the use of a timeline and a world map, the above video graphically depicts the different Imperial expansions that swept through the middle east throughout history–in 90 seconds. It’s really interesting to visually observe the scope of some of those empires, like that of Alexander the Great. To imagine that he conquered such a vast territory over the course of his short life, in a period where such distances would not have been easily traversed really fascinates me. Of course, as I watched, I was waiting for the Mongol empire–and truly, it was an impressive spectacle.

The website also has maps that show the history of religion as well as of various long-term conflicts.

Imperial History of the Middle East.

Urban Art: pavement stories

May 3, 2009 at 5:48 pm | Posted in Visual Art | Leave a comment

This stuff, posted by username “Chewie” is really cool. I really love the way he uses the cracks and fissures of the urban landscape as part of the setting or context for so many of the pieces. I really enjoyed the detail of the fellows on safari, hiding in the weed clump above as they observe the animals.

In the one below, I enjoyed the use of pebbles as rain!

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