Sunday, April 20, 2014

After Earth

After Earth Poster.jpg

I only recently saw AFTER EARTH, a big-budget movie from last year that went nowhere at the box office.

Rotten Tomatoes called it "a dull, ploddingly paced exercise in sci-fi."

It had some heavy-duty talent: Will Smith both produced and starred, Night Shyamalan directed. And it had an engaging premise: in some distant future the human race has abandoned Earth and the various creatures of the planet are now intensely hostile to humans, two of whom (father and son) nonetheless survive a crash-landing there and must somehow manage to get a distress beacon working while evading various monsters.

Will Smith is credited with the story idea. Shyamalan and Gary Whitta then apparently co-wrote a screenplay from that idea. Anna Rane and Hilary Momberger get credit as "script supervisors."

Personally I enjoyed it. But I'll only comment today on the Moby Dick theme. This ran throughout the movie. Almost the first words spoken are a father/son exchange on that novel.

"I'm reading Moby Dick."

"Your mother told me."

Later in flashbacks, we learn that the family has a history with that novel. The father (also a General of a military organization, the United Ranger Corps) had apparently recommended it years before to his daughter, since deceased, and flashbacks record their conversations about it, and about the girl's astonishment that humans could ever have hunted whales.

At movie's end, father and son are in a rescue craft that is flying them to safety, and the craft apparently passes over a bay in full sight of lots of now-unendangered and happily frolicking whales.

Presumably all this speaks to the ecological concerns that are fashionable in Hollywood movies. But I submit there is something else here. Moby Dick is made so much of because Will Smith's character is the anti-Ahab. Ahab brought himself and his crew to destruction through monomania. Smith is a kinder and more successful sort of authority figure, and though the Earth itself has become a sort of albino whale, Smith brings his son safely through danger and back home.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Insider Trading: The Early Years

From a recent book by Howard Blum: Dark Invasion (2014).

Ever since the 1880s, when Kansas City undertaker Almon Strowger invented what became known as the Strowger switch, it had become easy to listen in on a telephone call. Strowger's circuit-switched system, an ingenious electromagnetic contraption that clicked and clacked noisily like a telegraph key, did the operator's work. The Strowger switch automatically connected the relays and slides at the central telephone offices, completing the circuit that allowed people to talk to each other. Twist another wire around the right switch at the central office and a party line was created: you could hear someone's conversation and he'd never know it....It didn't take long for Wall Street speculators to realize fortunes could be made with the sort of inside information collected by eavesdropping on telephone conversations....

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Interest of History

File:Hugh Trevor-Roper.jpg

A neat quote form Hugh Trevor-Roper,  author of THE LAST DAYS OF HITLER (1947):

"The interest of history lies not in its periods but in its problems."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Connecticut's casinos

SealIndian tribes have a monopoly on running casinos in the State of Connecticut.

The following comes from memory: I'm way too lazy to look it up.

Anyway, the monopoly came about several years ago [;ate 1980s?], and almost accidentally. The state legislature passed a bill that was designed to give non-profit organizations the opportunity to use "Vegas nights" as a fund-raising ploy. The bill was universally understood as referring to transitory activities, not a permanent year-round activity.

But after that bill became law, a federal judge interpreted it -- apparently in conjunction with a federal statute -- as giving the tribes a right to open year-round casinos, so long as the casinos didn't include slot machines (the one game of chance that hadn't been included in the original state law).

The Mashantucket Pequots (whose tribal symbol is shown above) created their no-slots casino at once. It was Foxwoods, a reference to said tribal iconology: and a big hit: big enough a hit that the revenue of the state's own daily numbers operation was apparently suffering as Connecticut residents used their throw-it-away money elsewhere.  The state was soon faced with a choice: rework the law to close the loophole and close down the casinos, or rework it to cut itself in for some of the revenue.

The charities who were benefitting from their Vegas nights lobbied hard against any change that might hurt them.

The state went the other way. It used its one lever: the absence of slot machines in the Pequot casino. Connecticut promised to legalize slots, putting the Pequots into the gaming-world big time at a stroke, IF the state got a percentage of the slots revenue. The percentage eased the state's pain about the loss of money on the daily numbers.

Anyway, the Pequots and since then another tribe as well, have enjoyed their slot machine and casino privileges. I recall getting into some fun exchanges in the letters section of local newspapers back when all this was novel and controversial. I would defend them against idiots who would decry the awfulness of gambling and suggest the rest of the state should boycott them.

I'm not going anywhere with this: I just enjoy a trip down memory lane now and then.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

Link Farming on High-Frequency Trading


My erudite readers are surely aware by now that Michael Lewis has a new book out, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt. It concerns high-frequency trading (HFT), especially as used as part of a process of scalping, or lawful front-running.

Here's the amazon page.

CNBC has on Lewis, and Brad Katsuyama, a man flatteringly profiled in his book, as well as one of the bad guys in the book's story, William O'Brien of BATS. They looked like they were about to start punching each other now and then. If you haven't seen it: here it is.

Felix Salmon has reviewed the book for Slate, here.

But Salmon was writing about the book before he wrote that piece, even (by his own admission) before he had finished it. Salmon, and many other people at that stage of the brouhaha, were reacting as much or more to the 60 Minutes roll-out of the book as to the book itself.

For the informed reactions of Ginger Szala, a veteran financial markets reporter, go here.

And for my own reaction: here.

Of course, this was an issue in some quarters well before Lewis decided to infuse it with his own brand. Arnuk and Saluzzi highlighted some of the issues two years ago. And I reviewed them at the time.

The photo of Brad Katsuyama I've inserted above was used to illustrate a Wall Street Journal story about HFT and the utility of BK's trading platform as an "antidote" back in July of last year.

And one of the commenters on the amazon-com page for the Lewis helpfully refers us to another one: The Lights in the Tunnel.

You'll surely be hearing and reading more about HFT.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The New "Cosmos"

File:Carl Sagan Planetary Society.JPGNeil DeGrasse Tyson is the astronomer who is now explaining the "Cosmos" to the lay audience in the revived television series of that name.

Ah, the fond memories that name brings back. Of the original Carl Sagan series, I mean of course, which in 1980 became the most widely watched television series in the history of US public television.

Sagan's Cosmos also coincided with something called Battle of the Network Stars, the sort of thing that today would be called "reality programming." It was a series of sporting or pseudo-sporting events involving established personalities. In the 1980 season, the ABC team included Scott Baio, CBS's team included Gregory Harrison, and NBC's, Pamela Helmsley. If those don't sound like top tier stars to you: the feeling is natural. These were TV personalities who could use the additional exposure that the silly games would get them.

All of this is simply an excuse to go a little further down memory lane and recall a brilliant SCTIV spoof on Battle, called Battle of the PBS Stars. One of the teams was captained by William F. Buckley (Firing Line was still on the air in those days) and the other was captained by, you guessed it, Carl Sagan.

Series regular Dave Thomas played Sagan, with special emphasis on the pronunciation of the letter "b" as in "billion."

At one point there is a football game between the two teams, and Buckley's team nrings in some heavy-hitting ringers. They run head-on into Sagan, and then you see a doll presumably filled with helium and representing Sagan floating up into the sky.

I believe it was Eugene Levy who, as host Howard Cosell, delivered the punchline as 'Sagan' disappeared from sight. He told us we shouldn't be sad about Sagan's loss, because now "he's up in the cosmos, where he always wanted to be."

I'm working from memory here, because I'm too lazy to look these things up, so that account may not be entirely accurate. Still ... Neil Tyson is treading on sacred ground. Best of luck to him.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Shakespeare's Montaigne

Stephen Greenblatt is the general editor of The Norton Shakespeare and author of the book Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. The April issue of Harper's includes a review of a book by Stephen Greenblatt and Peter Platt, Shakespeare's Montaigne.

Joshua Cohen, writing the review, calls it "a crash course in Elizabethan lit, a multi-culti study of the development of English and, above all, a revisionist biography of a monumental dramatist who not only cribbed the classical education he lacked but also responded to his sources with a fierce and censorious intelligence."

So the working hypothesis of the study is that Shakespeare got his classical education second-hand, largely by reading Montaigne, and that he was at the same time willing to bite the hand that fed him some good material.

For example, in his essay "Of the Cannibals," Montaigne sentimentalizes the just discovered people of the Americas, seeing them as peaceful anarchists. He writes that they:

hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate, nor of politic superiority; no use of service, of riches, or of poverty; no contacts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation, but idle; no respect of kindred, but common; no apparel, but natural; no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn, or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulations, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them.

That quotation is taken from a translation of Montaigne by a contemporary of Shakespeare's, John Florio.

In The Tempest, Gonzalo fantasizes of a similar world, in quite similar language.

I'th' commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, coin, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women, too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty...."

It seems as if Shakespeare must have had Florio/Montaigne's book open to the relevant page when he wrote Gonzalo's speech.

Cohen contends though that this was as much commentary as influence. In Montaigne, the passage is in earnest, in Shakespeare, it is a bit of a game, poking fun at Gonzalo's naiveté -- and presumably Montaigne's as well.

Fascinating point, Mr. Cohen.

I do think that Greenblatt, who seems to have been the senior of the two authors in the book under review, is the real deal in Shakespeare scholarship. I've long had difficulties with the excessive efflorescence of Harold Bloom on the subject of the bard. Thus, it is Greenblatt's photo I have included above.