Saturday, July 30, 2011

Why Oh Why Didn't I Take the Blue Pill?

You want I should introduce you?
Cypher: "You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? [Takes a bite and chews]... Ignorance is bliss."

— The Matrix

Well, it's been about a week since I unplugged from the Matrix social media in the form of Twitter. So far, the Prozac, Xanax, and vodka tonics have kept my DTs (delerium tweetens) to a dull roar. But I must admit I can't resist feeling for the empty plug in the back of my skull every now and then, and I miss all the wonderful imaginary friends and admirers I had collected there. The call-and-response format of the medium is highly addictive to prolix egomaniacs such as myself, and its realtime interruptions and distractions are a pleasing way to fill up the frequent, dull downtime which plagues an investment banker's day-to-day existence. (Twitter is ideal for telephonic drafting sessions and conference calls, for example.) One might even begin to suspect it was specifically designed to keep specimens such as me plugged happily into the battery piles of our Silicon Valley overlords.

At least for now, however, I remain escaped and at large. In addition to all the flattering attention and ego gratification, I miss the constant flow of clever tidbits, quotes, and links which people I followed fed into the stream. I also miss sharing the amusing and intriguing nuggets which I discovered with my followers. This forum is not appropriate for such—at least the way I have traditionally used it—and I have no intention of shaking one demanding monkey off my back only to transform this site into another. There is also the question of appropriateness, since I already try the patience of those readers who come to this site expecting wisdom—or at least amusing tirades—about things financial with poetry, pictures, and other innumerate drivel. Perhaps I will find a way to share such items in another way. I am experimenting as we speak.

In any event, friends, family, and colleagues in the real world seem to be pleased with my recent return to undistracted consciousness. The only one who is truly displeased with me is the Woman in Red, who complains I have abandoned her to other, less attentive digital louts. Sometimes I feel bad about this.

But then I remember she doesn't really exist anyway. Right, honey?

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Adiós Muchachos, Compañeros...

Tired of the life I lead,
Tired of the blues I breed,
Tired countin' things I need,
Gonna cut out wide and that's the truth,
Get a brand new man while I got my youth.

Tired of the clothes I wear,
Tired of the patches there,
I'm tired of the crows I scare,
Gonna truck downtown and spend the moo
Get short vamp shoes and a new man too.

— Pearl Bailey, "Tired"

Well, it appears that I have quit Twitter. Again. Too much of a time suck, too many real-time demands on my attention, have overwhelmed the incontrovertible value of the real friendship and relatively constant stream of valuable, interesting information and correspondence my acquaintances have shared with me there. I will have to replicate the latter in some other less demanding, less addictive way.

As far as the former, I would simply refer you to that old chestnut, intoned sonorously by Leonard Nimoy to William Shatner O so many moons ago:

I have been, and always shall be, your friend. Live long and prosper.

* * *

See you in the funny papers.

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What's in a Name?

By any other name
But that's not what most of us do. Someone, let's say, a baby, is born; his parents call him by a certain name. They talk about him to their friends. Other people meet him. Through various sorts of talk the name is spread from link to link as if by a chain. A speaker who is on the far end of this chain, who has heard about, say Richard Feynman, in the market place or elsewhere, may be referring to Richard Feynman even though he can't remember from whom he first heard of Feynman or from whom he ever heard of Feynman. He knows that Feynman is a famous physicist. A certain passage of communication reaching ultimately to the man himself does reach the speaker. He is then referring to Feynman even though he can't identify him uniquely. He doesn't know what a Feynman diagram is, he doesn't know what the Feynman theory of pair production and annihilation is. Not only that: he'd have trouble distinguishing between Gell-Mann and Feynman. So he doesn't have to know these things, but, instead, a chain of communication going back to Feynman himself has been established, by virtue of his membership in a community which passed the name on from link to link, not by a ceremony that he makes in private in his study: 'By "Feynman" I shall mean the man who did such and such and such and such'.

— Saul Kripke, Naming and Necessity 1

* * *

My name is not TED.

I venture to offer this little corrective, Long-suffering Readers, in order to clear up some misunderstandings which seem to have crept into the minds of a few of you. Notwithstanding my belief that the vast majority of you understand what a pseudonym is and why I purpose one here, I detect hints that some of you may have lost your bearings on occasion and begun to identify the author of these pages—me—with the persona I adopt here. This, you may well imagine, is a mistake.

"TED," of course, is simply an acronym of my true moniker, a convenient shorthand for the full pseudonym I use to conceal my true identity. But I do not pretend it does not carry connotations and referents, both public and private, which may excite a stronger identification of me with the constructed personality I present in these pages. I confess this is not entirely accidental.

Ted is common shorthand for the name Theodore, from the Greek Θεόδωρος (Theodōros), which means "God's gift." I leave it as an exercise for my readers to discover how this may be relevant to an arrogant, supercilious, opinionated investment banker living and writing on the island of Manhattan in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Eleven. No peeking.

My true name, however, is not Ted. Assuming for the moment one subscribes to the notion that given names influence destiny or convey meaning beyond acting as mere referents—which I do not—this makes sense, for if I were truly God's gift to investment banking, society, and/or women, as I often trumpet in these pages, you may rest assured most everybody would feel that God is handing out some pretty chintzy gifts.

My given names were granted me in honor of an unfortunate relation who reportedly flew his plane into the side of a mountain in some long-forgotten war. I say "reportedly" because the fog of war, distance of time, and the natural proclivity of my family to dramatize quotidian events with the Sturm und Drang of Götterdämmerung may have put a slightly higher polish on the event than facts warranted. Sound familiar? In any event, you may now see why I prefer to think that names are not destiny.

* * *

Neither, on the other hand, are literary personae real individuals. I promulgate an arrogant, bombastic, naughty, slightly larger than life personality in these pages for comic effect, emphasis, and fun, not because that is who I truly am. It's fun to pretend to be a Big Swinging Dick. It's more entertaining for you, too, and it attracts more pageviews. This last, frankly, is the primary reason this onanistic opinion-fest exists in the first place. Finally, it draws chicks like moths to a flame. (See what I mean?) But the persona is not me.

Now don't fret that I plan to drop the disguise in favor of some misguided attempt at transparency or—God forbid—sharing. All the reasons I hide behind my pseudonym remain in full force and effect; I will only forgo the pretense once Steve Schwarzman and Henry Kravis drop theirs and marry in public on the steps of City Hall. In the meantime, just don't confuse the man behind the curtain with the Wizard of Oz. I have many valuable things in my gift, but yacht rides on the Mediterranean are not one of them.

But feel free, Dear Friends, to continue to call me TED. I will know to whom you are referring. It just isn't me.

* * *

Now, about that champagne, Natasha...

1 Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1980, pp. 91–92.

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Problem of Evil

Original photo credit Associated Press
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

— Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Dirge Without Music"

Hat tip Katherine C. James.

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Cheapest Substance in the World


Tim Harford on error, the God complex, and making "good mistakes." Should be required viewing for politicians, scientists, economists, and every other subject matter "expert" out there.
Now I'm not trying to deliver a nihilistic message here. I'm not trying to say we can't solve complicated problems in a complicated world. We clearly can. But the way we solve them is with humility, to abandon the God complex and to actually use a problem solving technique that works. And we have a problem solving technique that works.

Now, you show me a successful complex system, and I will show you a system that has evolved through trial and error.

There will be a quiz later.

(via Paul Kedrosky)

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

In Praise of the Outsider

Surely you must be joking, Mr. Feynman
I think the problem is not to find the best or most efficient method to proceed to a discovery, but to find any method at all. Physical reasoning does help some people to generate suggestions as to how the unknown may be related to the known. Theories of the known, which are described by different physical ideas may be equivalent in all their predictions and are hence scientifically indistinguishable. However, they are not psychologically identical when trying to move from that base into the unknown. For different views suggest different kinds of modifications which might be made and hence are not equivalent in the hypotheses one generates from them in one's attempt to understand what is not yet understood. I, therefore, think that a good theoretical physicist today might find it useful to have a wide range of physical viewpoints and mathematical expressions of the same theory (for example, of quantum electrodynamics) available to him. This may be asking too much of one man. Then new students should as a class have this. If every individual student follows the same current fashion in expressing and thinking about electrodynamics or field theory, then the variety of hypotheses being generated to understand strong interactions, say, is limited. Perhaps rightly so, for possibly the chance is high that the truth lies in the fashionable direction. But, on the off-chance that it is in another direction—a direction obvious from an unfashionable view of field theory—who will find it? Only someone who has sacrificed himself by teaching himself quantum electrodynamics from a peculiar and unusual point of view; one that he may have to invent for himself. I say sacrificed himself because he most likely will get nothing from it, because the truth may lie in another direction, perhaps even the fashionable one.

But, if my own experience is any guide, the sacrifice is really not great because if the peculiar viewpoint taken is truly experimentally equivalent to the usual in the realm of the known there is always a range of applications and problems in this realm for which the special viewpoint gives one a special power and clarity of thought, which is valuable in itself. Furthermore, in the search for new laws, you always have the psychological excitement of feeling that possibly nobody has yet thought of the crazy possibility you are looking at right now.

— Richard P. Feynman, The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics, Nobel Prize Lecture, December 1965

Tim Harford wrote a worrying piece in the Financial Times this weekend, entitled "Why there will never be another Da Vinci." His premise, which he finds plenty of data to support, is that human knowledge is becoming so vast and deep that it is likely impossible for any one human being to have a broad, multidisciplinary understanding of any of it. Breadth implies shallowness, and depth requires a level of specialization heretofore unseen in human history. Scientific literature is now produced by teams of researchers, all of whom are older and have had to study longer and deeper to contribute important work than their predecessors. Barring another Dark Age, he writes, "there will never be another Da Vinci."

He believes we can solve the problem of continued innovation via proper attention to organization, funding the big, expensive projects under government supervision and encouraging more radical innovation under the aegis of for-profit venture capital. But this scheme omits the important objective of funding ongoing fundamental research outside the mainstream of accepted science, which is something neither big scientific bureaucracies nor financially motivated enterprises are particularly good at doing. Perhaps this can be done via hands-off funding of truly independent basic research efforts by government—subject to the normal risks such potentially disruptive, politically unsponsored efforts face in any society—or via private foundations. Certainly one should take some measure of comfort that major research universities have, to date, fostered just this sort of independent foundational research. Let us hope they can preserve this deeply uneconomic—yet profoundly important—activity in an age when more and more people within and without academia question the value and purpose of its mission.

* * *

On the one hand, one can worry that the industrialization of science—like factory workers on an assembly line—raises the serious risk that no-one involved will have the knowledge or the wisdom to challenge the premises upon which the science factory works. For never forget that the fundamental mission of science is to question. The less an individual scientist knows about the factory or the materials and tools she is working with, the less she will be able to challenge what she is doing and how. Notwithstanding their stated missions, it is well known that—organizationally at least—bureaucracies exist primarily to defend, expand, and replicate themselves. Bureaucratizing existing scientific paradigms—like the tens of billions being spent at CERN to test the Standard Model of particle physics—only tends to ensure they are that much more difficult to challenge and overthrow. If it is to fulfill its social function, science cannot afford to become sclerotic. If science does not carry an institutional mandate to both allow and encourage challenging it at the root, it is no longer science. It is engineering, or product development.

On the other hand, however, one can see an upside to the dwindling breadth of knowledge of individual scientists. For ignorance of what is "known for a fact," and "how things are done" can be extremely liberating for an independent thinker. Richard Feynman accomplished as much as he did in large part because he refused to stand upon the shoulders of his predecessors and colleagues. He learned for himself, and developed truly innovative ways of thinking about difficult problems because he started from first principles. Of course, Richard Feynmann was a bloody genius, and he had the mental tools to build from scratch what 99.8% of his colleagues could only begin to take on faith and precedent.

But let's not kid ourselves. The great leaps of scientific discovery and innovation have almost always sprung from the fevered brow of some Prometheus. The rest of us—smart as we may objectively be—are simply ants in the anthill, building, foraging, fighting, dying. Our passage, if we are lucky, is marked by small improvements to the existing structure of human knowledge and society. It takes the fundamentally alien intelligence of a genius to see things we cannot see, to kick over the anthill we have devoted our lives to because it is in the wrong place.

So I cannot bemoan, with Mr. Harford, that "Wall Street and the City find it so easy to recruit disaffected young physicists." The ones who trade careers as workers in the scientific anthill for more lucrative and less demanding ones programming Gaussian copulas in the financial one will not be missed. Nor will the ones who decamp to Silicon Valley to design virtual farm animals.

Factory workers are a dime a dozen, and genius is not a numbers game.

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.

— Arthur Schopenhauer

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Heart of a Woman

Amadeo Modigliani, Reclining Nude
What lively lad most pleasured me
Of all that with me lay?
I answer that I gave my soul
And loved in misery,
But had great pleasure with a lad
That I loved bodily.

Flinging from his arms I laughed
To think his passion such
He fancied that I gave a soul
Did but our bodies touch,
And laughed upon his breast to think
Beast gave beast as much.

I gave what other women gave
That stepped out of their clothes,
But when this soul, its body off,
Naked to naked goes,
He it has found shall find therein
What none other knows,

And give his own and take his own
And rule in his own right;
And though it loved in misery
Close and cling so tight,
There's not a bird of day that dare
Extinguish that delight.

— W.B. Yeats, "A Last Confession"

Muse indeed. Enjoy your holiday weekend.

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.