Posts by author:

Daniel

The World Is Squared: Episode 4 – In Hot Places

by Daniel on November 18, 2014

And the travelogue continues – this chapter covers my family’s visits to Jordan and to Sri Lanka. The next episode will take us to a seaside cottage in Bali …

[click to continue…]

I’m just in the middle of writing an article on the technicalities of the foreign exchange market, and what went wrong, and this example came up. I think the fair solution is pretty intuitive, but maybe others will differ. Presume below that this is a one-time interaction, so nothing to do with reputations, repeat business etc.

“You are on your way to the fruit market, because you want to buy five oranges. Someone you’ve never met before accosts you on your way and says “Hey, you! Could you buy me five oranges please? I’ll give you the money when you come back and I’ll pay you ten pence for doing it”. You think what the hell, and say yes. You ask what’s the maximum he’s prepared to pay for them and he says “Don’t care – whatever the market price is”.

Down at the market, there is one stall which has five oranges for sale at 50p each, and another stall with five oranges for sale but charging 55p each. You buy five oranges from each stall and head back home.

Your customer is waiting back at your gate. He gives you your ten pence, and asks “How much did my oranges cost?” What do you tell him?

You have three choices really (I’d be interested to know if anyone could justify any other price).

a) Tell him “50p each” – ie, you filled his order first and then your own
b) Tell him “55p each” – ie, you bought yours first, and then his
c) Tell him “52 and a half pence” – ie, you give him the weighted average of what you managed to pick up

In case a) your good turn has cost you a pretty penny – you paid £2.75 for your oranges when you could have got them for £2.50, and your 10p wages doesn’t cover the difference. Even in case c) you are down on the deal – paying £2.625 for your oranges, less 10p for an “all in” cost of oranges of £2.525 which is 2.5p more expensive than if you’d never met the guy. A lot of people would say case b) is perfectly fair – this guy clearly doesn’t really care all that much about how much he pays for oranges, or he would have gone to market himself rather than grabbing a complete stranger to do so. It’s also the point at which your profit from the overall transaction (10p) equals the wage that he said he would pay you.

Why should you subsidise him? But on the other hand, isn’t there something a bit hinky about deciding that all the best-priced oranges were for you, and all the worst deals were for your client?

Of course, I think people’s intuitions about fairness might change if your customer was paying you £10 to go to market for him, or if you had explicitly promised him that you would get him the best price possible. But in the simplest case (and this does match up pretty well to the actual structure and pricing of the FX market), I think it’s not obvious at all that the most intuitive concept of fair dealing corresponds at all to the regulatory concept of “duty of best execution”. Anyway, what do you think?

Update the longer post is now up.

My travelogue continues … By the way, check out friend-o-the-blog Sam Bikinoraion’s blog – he is also going round the world this year, and seems to be visiting a load of my favourite places, which I didn’t fancy taking the kids to. This episode takes me through Greece, and is posted a bit in arrears, as I headed off to the desert after the events described herein …

[click to continue…]

Every single IT guy, every single manager …

by Daniel on September 23, 2014

I’m sure that this point has been made somewhere or other in the general debate on email spying and the NSA/Snowden revelations, but in my opinion not often enough or forcefully enough. People who want to dismiss the whole thing as “no big deal” are, in my view, totally underestimating the scale of the blind trust that’s required of them. In other words, even opponents of ubiquitous surveillance (like Kieran in this worked example) tend to assume that the institution which has access to your information is the institution which collected it. But that’s not necessarily the case at all.

The Leveson Inquiry in the UK demonstrated that the Police National Computer could be accessed by more or less any tabloid journalist with a phone and an account with a crooked detective agency (which served as the conduit to crooked insiders). The Manning and Snowden revelations, whatever else they’ve shown us about the world, have made it clear that mid-level employees can get access to huge amounts of top secret data as long as they’ve got the wit to smuggle it out on a thumb drive.

So the question is not so much “do you trust the CIA/NSA/MI6/etc?”. It’s “Do you trust every single sysadmin working for these organisations? Every single analyst? Every single middle manager?”. The CIA might not be interested at all in my dull mobile phone conversation metadata, but someone else might – the Leveson inquiry was told how the UK’s PNC was used by one copper to check out his daughter’s new boyfriend. In terms of our personal data, the kind of uses which the agencies want to be allowed to make, while worrying enough in themselves, are the tip of the iceberg. And all the policies which might prevent it from being accessed by blackmailers, tabloid journalists, nosey neighbours and basically anyone else, are themselves top secret and not subject to any sort of legal oversight.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory, as you can see; it’s based on the fact that big and complicated systems are set up to malfunction, particularly if they are able to declare themselves above any regulation at all. And the way in which this particular system is set up to malfunction is easily predictable and potentially very damaging to innocent people. I am personally not at the stage where I trust every single person who might be hired for a low level IT job in a security agency, and I’m not sure that I trust an entirely opaque set of safeguards with no accountability either.

The second stage of my travelogue finds me and the family in the French Alps, heading to the Italian lakes. Shortly after finishing this, I set off for Venice to take a ferry down the Adriatic …

[click to continue…]

Thanks to P O’Neill in comments to my last post, for suggesting both the idea for this poor-man’s Friedman travelogue and its title. The first installment comes to you from the youth hostel in Grindelwald.

[click to continue…]

The end of a glittering career ….

by Daniel on August 16, 2014

And so, as readers of my Twitter account might be aware, I’ve had a life event recently. As of today (I’m posting this from the WiFi at Geneva airport) and for the next year, I am doing less of the stockbroking, and more of the travelling round the world with my family.
[click to continue…]

The biggest game in town

by Daniel on December 24, 2013

I never really got round to writing a proper Christmas sermon this year, but given that it’s been kind of topical recently, I thought I might have a go at explaining one of the phenomena of online political debate which is as persistent as it is puzzling – that is to say, why does everything end up turning into a flamewar about Israel?

Consider, reader, a person who is a bit of a nut. His very favourite thing in the world is to have arguments on the internet about the politics and government systems countries he will never visit. There are two issues in the world which he regards as massive injustices which cry out to heaven for redress – the Russian occupation of Chechnya, and the military junta in Burma/Myanmar. He also, broadly, supports the cause of the Palestinians, but this really isn’t much of an issue for him; he’s much better informed and much more concerned about Chechnya and Burma.

So why, when the NSA takes a snoop over this fellow’s online output, does he seem to spend all of his time arguing about Israel and Palestine?
[click to continue…]

I wrote this in late September 2011, to explain to my circle of friends why I thought we were in the state we were in. It’s by way of background to my latest post on secular stagnation, so I’ve disabled comments on this one.
[click to continue…]

“When you write down all the good things you should have done, and leave out all the bad things that you did do, that’s memoirs” – Will Rogers

“Secular stagnation” is doing the rounds as a theory of why we’re in the mess we’re in, after this Larry Summers talk, which Paul Krugman is claiming basically summarises ideas that he’d also been talking about for the last few years. I am not sure about the extent to which anyone can claim priority on this though – as Krugman says, Summers is basically giving a clear expression of a set of ideas which have been ubiquitous for a long time, to the extent that I was making jokes along that line, ten years ago. I will follow Krugman in saying that I also had been thinking about a similar explanation of things since 2009, set out in cursory form here and in greater detail here[1].

Basically, the thesis is that since about the mid-1990s, it has been the case that it has only been possible to achieve anything like full employment in America during periods when the private sector has been chronically over-consuming and increasing its debt levels. The “natural rate of interest” consistent with full employment has been consistently negative all that time, and since there are good theoretical reasons[2] to presume that the natural rate of interest has some relationship to the natural rate of economic growth, this might be saying something rather depressing about the underlying growth potential of the developed world’s economy. And so on, and so forth.

Now it’s an interesting question, although not one on which I find myself with anything to say, as to whether we are stagnating secularly[3]. But the thing I do want to address is that, in the way in which the issue is being discussed historically, there is a lot of rewriting of the recent past.

Right from the start, you can see that there has been a lot of semantic drift in the word “bubble”. From having once referred to a specific model of how prices could depart from fundamentals in a rational expectations model, to referring to any general inflation of securities valuations, Summers and Krugman appear to be using “a succession of bubbles” to refer to “any period during which personal gross debt increased based on rising asset values”. As an opponent of linguistic inflation, I’m already prejudiced against this way of thinking of the economic history of the last two decades. But in describing the growth in debt as if it was a purely exogenous phenomenon, due to nothing other than animal spirits and irrationality, there’s a really dangerous kind of mistake being made.
[click to continue…]

Sveriges Riksbank prize actually, blah blah blah

by Daniel on October 15, 2013

I have always been of the view that there’s no real point in getting too outraged about the Nobel Prize for Economics. For one thing – economics is an important subject which is bound to have an important prize, and it’s a good thing that this prize isn’t wholly in the control of the American Economic Association[1], because if it was it would be a whole lot worse. For another, on an objective look at the quality of the company which the Economics Nobel is keeping, I don’t think anyone can really claim it’s bringing the average down. The Peace Prize is a notorious joke, of course, but the Literature prize is also wildly eccentric, and even the Physics and Chemistry prizes are occasionally awarded to people who believe in ESP[2]. So let’s stipulate that the Balzan Prize and the Fields Medal are both really really good prizes, and that winning one of them is probably even better than having dinner with the King of Sweden[3].

So, the Fama/Shiller/Hansen prize, or as the vast majority of comment has it, the prize for “Fama, Shiller and that other guy”. What does it say about the state of economics? I think it encapsulates everything good and bad about the subject. First, the good.

[click to continue…]

While in an unusually masochistic mood, I read all of Steven Pinker’s astonishingly wordy essay on science science science science did I tell you how much I love science? Just as there are few clearer signs that one cannot program a computer than to publicly call yourself a “hacktivist” and few clearer signs that you didn’t do statistics at university than to boast that you’re a “data geek”, Pinker, who made a perfectly decent academic career as a computational linguist, and then an absolutely stellar one by making up a load of rubbish about social sciences really sounds like he’s overcompensating for something. Everyone’s happy about the moon landings and curing smallpox and all that, but it really is a bit unseemly to imply that if you object to Pinker and his mates constantly gobbing off about things they don’t want to bother learning about, you’re in favour of unanaesthetised dentistry. The whole olive-branch-I’m-only-here-to-help thing is made particularly ridiculous of course, by the quite colossal strop that Pinker is still throwing even to this day about “postmodernism” and the way in which he reacts to the idea that scientists are human beings operating in a social context, and that therefore the things they do are a potential subject of sociological analysis.

Anyway, if you want to read a lot of very tendentious stuff about the role of science in literature and music, and if you want to be told that evolutionary psychology approaches and “the epidemiological dynamics by which one person affects others” (he means memes, but presumably has been told about the cat pictures thing) are much much more mainstream and universally accepted than they really are, then there it is. Because that isn’t really my subject here, more of an introductory toccata on the theme of run-on sentences.

I wanted to highlight this interview which Chris pointed out to me on Twitter, and which contains this quite startling passage, which was skipped over by the interviewer in such a manner as to suggest that it’s a mere commonplace of British university administration.
[click to continue…]

#AllWhiteFrontPages

by Daniel on July 6, 2013

So a while ago on Twitter, I saw this storify by @KateDaddie, talking about ethnic minority representation in the British media, in the context of this article by Joseph Harker in the British Journalism Review. As I am a notorious stats pedant and practically compulsive mansplainer, my initial reaction was to fire up the Pedantoscope and start nitpicking. On the face of it, it is not difficult to think up Devastating Critiques[1] of the idea of counting “#AllWhiteFrontPages” as an indicator of more or less anything. But if I’ve learned one thing from a working life dealing with numbers (and from reading all those Nassim Taleb and Anthony Stafford Beer books), it’s that the central limit theorem will not be denied, and that simple, robust metrics with a broad-brush correlation to the thing you’re trying to measure are usually better management tools than fragile customised metrics which look like they might in principle be better. Anyway, Kate asked me to come up with a simple probability model to give an idea of what sort of frequency of #AllWhiteFrontPages might be considered odd, and this is the way I went about it. This is being crossposted to the new Media Diversity UK blog.

[click to continue…]

Welcome! Once more, I’m trying to help people understand how policies get made from the inside, and how something that looks like a dumb idea can often be the best choice out of a bad decision set, in the context of the ongoing Euro crisis. The last one was pretty didactic, in that I was aiming to steer people down a path to the decisions I thought were being under-rated. This time, what strikes me about the Cyprus policy agenda is the sheer amount of uncertainty and ambiguity; nearly every idea could end up succeeding brilliantly or failing horribly. So this time round, I’m introducing a large element of chance.

In this episode, as in the last one you are once again a representative of the Secret One World Government, and you have been temporarily flown in to pull the strings in the island of Surpyc, which is currently experiencing a bailout crisis…

[click to continue…]

My annual kind-of-tradition continues this year, to the protests of all our long suffering readers. Thoughts on evidence, disagreement, knowledge and related matters follow, in suitably opaque and allusive style …

On not believing in Canada

I remember clearly when I first started along the road that led me to where I am today – the unfashionable and lonely position of an adult man, educated and well-travelled, who doesn’t believe in the existence of Canada. I was a kid at Sunday School, and the vicar was trying to talk to an awkward class of hard-nuts and smart-asses about the general concept of faith in the absence of empirical evidence.

“What about Canada?”, he asked us all, his thick Welsh accent muffled slightly by an impressive crop of nostril hair. “You’ve never been to Canada! You’ve never seen Canada! You’ve never even met anyone who’s been to Canada! But you believe in Canada, don’t you, Davies?”.

He cast his gaze around the room, having to swivel his neck a bit as something like a dozen of us were called “Davies”. I elected myself as the spokesman and made what seemed to be the obvious response:
[click to continue…]