Sunday, March 28, 2010

The speed of money

Apparently there is an entire small industry devoted to reducing the latency of financial transactions (typically measured in milliseconds).

And that's only a tiny part of the larger industry that makes the infrastructure for electronic transactions of all sorts. Here's a random company in that field. On that site, go find "Switching engine demo" (can't link directly, it's all Flash). Watch out for the sharks!

My ignorance of the financial world is nearly total, but it seems to me that stuff like this must be either a symptom or a cause of the recent collapse. The existence of hundreds of thousands of hair-trigger electronic automated trading rules all linked to each other through near-instantaneous networks seems problematic. What kind of dynamic system does this create? Doesn't it sound like you could get small-scale bubbles happening on a second-to-second basis?

It also sounds like another indication that the financial industry is a net economic drain. Think of all the people working on shaving milliseconds off of financial transactions. What possible benefit are they bringing to society? Presumably the only reason to care about millisecond-scale latency of transactions is because it brings some kind of advantage, in other words, you are racing to make your trade before the next guy can. The relation of this to any actual economic value escapes me.

I am enough of a believer in capitalism to acknowledge that the capitalist function of allocating capital productively is worthwhile. In fact I found my way to this topic via a casual conversation with a VC -- and whatever you think about Silicon Valley VCs, at least they are actual investors, not pure speculators; unlike the sorts of people who slice up shitty mortgages and resell them and unlike people who are slaving away to shave milliseconds off of transaction times. But 95% of the energy of the financial world seems devoted to things that have no visible relation to actual, real-world economic value.

Is there a way to bring the financial world closer to reality? One possible answer is a tax on financial transactions, which would put some dampers on whatever crazy feedback loops might exist in this system. Hm, Keynes had this thought in 1936:
"Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the situation is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation. The introduction of a substantial Government transfer tax on all transactions might prove the most serviceable reform available, with a view to mitigating the predominance of speculation over enterprise in the United States.

And here's a recent op-ed piece saying much the same thing.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

New frontiers of stupid

I watch more Glenn Beck than I care to admit, and it's made me somewhat jaded, but still this clip of Victoria Jackson managed to disturb the crap out of me. Either she's been putting on a 20-year-long piece of performance art or the civic discourse of this country has descended even further than I thought possible. Sarah Palin looks like a Rhodes scholar next to this:

It did remind me of someone else though:

On a somewhat related note, here's a glimpse of the internal workings of Fox News.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Exploding head watch

Is it wrong to take joy in the suffering of others? Probably. But when the others are rabid wingnuts, I don't want to be right.

Some PJM wanker:
The current American president is arguably the gravest mistake the American electorate has ever made...This is not the place to run through the chronicle of Obama's blunders, backslidings, broken promises, outright lying, despotic tendencies, shallow education, historical falsifications, ludicrous policies, betrayal of allies, and economic bungling (assuming this is not deliberate)... What strikes me as most ominous, however, is that the American people have elected a president for whom the critical battleground in the world is not the Middle East or Iraq or Iran or even Afghanistan. For this president, the war he is declaring is to be fought right here on American soil against a late-awakened majority of his own countrymen, on whom he wishes to impose a political structure alien to their history, culture, economy, and feeling of exceptionalism.
Bill Whittle, another PJM columnist:
Everywhere I have looked this morning the reaction seems to be more or less the same: a nation of steely-eyed missile men. These Marxist bastards have no idea what is coming for them. No idea.
"Steely-eyed missile men"?

Jan Z in a comment on Victor Davis Hanson
Racism is fueling the leadership, read, Obama. This is all about Reparations plus interest....Ultimately all the government intervention will empower the government to be a single employer...Revenge against all non minority people is what Obama desires from his heart.
A sturdy Viking lashes out with his +6 battleaxe: (via Sadly, No!):
Posted by: Odins Acolyte at March 22, 2010 09:47 A
We have a war now, should this become law. The little liberal weenies who have been crying about illegal wars over seas are about to have a real reason to cry. This shall not stand in my land.


All across the nation, Americans are cleaning and lubricating their guns and checking their ammo supply.

There will be no election this November. The coming revolution will resemble France in 1789 more than America in 1776.
This one's pretty vanilla, but I love people who say things like this on the Internet, which I seem to recall the government having a hand in building:
We hate universal health care simply because everything the government touches, regulates, manages turns to s@@t. The government has not solved a single social or economic problem in its history.
Oh well, that was a stupid exercise. Here's a real thought to redeem this post. One thing I've learned in following the right -- the factor that is always bubbling under the surface, the reason the US has such trouble enacting basic social welfare legislation, the universal hidden variable of American politics, is the same original sin of the Republic -- racism. Any sort of social welfare is seen as a transfer from the deserving race to the undeserving. The French or the Swedes don't have that sort of problem. This sounds overly reductive but it becomes glaringly obvious if you spend any time on these sites.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The state of mind of the mind of the state

A couple of clowns who look like minor characters in a low-budget comedy movie:

managed to pull a prank on ACORN (formerly one of the most effective groups around for politically mobilizing people of ordinary means) that triggered the established powers coming down on them like a ton of bricks, including the House passing an unconstitutional bill of attainder directed against them. They are now on the verge of bankruptcy:
Acorn’s contributions have dried up, its national staff has been cut by more than three-quarters, services for the poor have been suspended, and chapters have closed or reorganized under other names, even though a district attorney found that Acorn employees in Brooklyn did nothing illegal and a federal judge ruled that Congress acted unconstitutionally in cutting off funding as punishment.
The NYT's public editor does not quite apologize for their key role in the ratfucking of ACORN, but does go so far as to call the story "fascinating".

But the good news is, Congress is probably going to pass a Health Care Reform Bill! That requires the citizenry to purchase the products of a corrupt and useless industry! The sad thing is that the passage of this deeply flawed bill actually is good news within the degraded state of our polity.

I've been thinking lately about social cognition or "the mind of society" -- how societies think. How government, media and other institutions form an infrastructure for cognition and decision-making for society as a whole. This is an enormous topic, but for the purposes of this post the answer is "not very well".

Saturday, March 06, 2010

American Taliban

The existence of militant Christian Taliban groups is old news. Such a group with the technical savvy to make a website loaded with flash animations and a Google maps mashup showing all the satanic sites in Amarillo (including Buddhist temples and New Age gift shops) is a bit more interesting. A group like that whose leader has a day job as a security guard at Pantex, the place that assembles all of the US's nuclear weapons, is frankly terrifying.

Short of the Army of God snagging a nuke, which I have to admit seems unlikely, the Texas Observer article shows that this group has developed a more mundane tactical innovation -- they regularly publicize the names of people doing things they disapprove of, such as attending swingers events or going to a Unitarian Church, often resulting in actual harm such as job loss. They will surveil ungodly sites and take people's license plates, for example. Given how easy it is to find information about people these days, and to spread it far and wide, I'm guessing we'll see more of these tactics employed in cultural and political conflicts. Perhaps people will think twice before exposing their life on Facebook, unless they plan not to have any enemies.