Saturday, 6 September 2014

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt

FFlash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Michael Lewis
W. W. Norton, 2014, 271pp

I am not a sports fan. I once attended a Seattle Mariners game — we had great seats, front row at third base. I was bored by the end of the first inning. I did enjoy a few Everett Giants games, but in the minor leagues the baseball is probably not the important part. Giants games were outdoors, they had far better hotdogs and beer than anything at the Kingdome, and the tickets were free because I only went when the Empress Larkin was in charge of the alto line in the national anthem. Oddly, I seem to actually enjoy sports movies; The Natural, The Replacements, Bull Durham, and Moneyball all come to mind. In the last case, I also read the book, and was somewhat surprised to learn that Michael Lewis could actually make baseball statistics interesting. When Flash Boys came out, relating to a somewhat more interesting subject, I had to take a look.

As the book opens, Lewis relates that 205 eight-man crews were laying fiber between the South Side of Chicago and Carteret, New Jersey. The crews had no idea what they were building, but if they had all gotten together to plot their work on a map they would have seen that they were laying a conduit along a straight line, therefore the shortest distance, between two data centers. The route had not been selected for speed of digging, in fact they spent a great deal of time boring through mountains rather than deviate from that path. a digital signal from the Chicago Board of trade and NASDAQ data centers required 16-17 ms to make the round trip. Some traders had discovered a Verizon route that cut the time to 14.65 ms and were able to make significant money on the times they found themselves on “The Gold Route”. Those crews were laying a conduit to carry 400 strands of fiber along a path that would require only 12 ms, and they planned to lease the use of the cable for millions. A high-speed trading firm wanting a pair of those fibers (one each way) was asked to pony up $300,000 a month and several million in start up costs. And they all signed up.

Why on earth would these brilliant players shell out that kind of scratch to save 2.35 to 5 ms to send a few messages from Chicago to Trenton? Well, it wasn’t a few messages, it was thousands per minute. And the high-frequency traders (HFTs) had discovered that if their connections were fast enough they could learn a buyer’s interest in a stock, including the price the buyer was offering, and rather than arrange the trade at the best price in the market, they would buy the shares for a penny or two less and pocket the difference when they delivered the shares to the buyer. So who cares about a few pennies? Well, just about anybody that can do it a million times a day. The HFTs could do that, and though there is no real accounting for their results, Lewis estimates that their advantage earned them over $10 billion per year. Even if investing holds no interest to you, that kind of money probably does.

Lewis identifies several participants in the marketplace who discovered and attempted to eliminate these games; one was a manager of electronic trading at Royal Bank of Canada (Brad Katsuyama), one a communications wizard who had worked for MCI, Qwest, and Level 3 but really wanted to be in finance (Ronan Ryan), and one a Russian programmer working for Goldman Sachs (Sergey Aleynikov). Katsayuma led a group that formed IEX, a trading platform based on introducing delays in transmissions to eliminate the time differences that some of the HFTs were using to exact their hidden tax on most transactions, some of which Ryan made possible. IEX is currently treated as one of the “dark pools” but with far greater transparency than any others in that group and is working on the process of becoming an actual exchange. Their current volume is similar to Deutsche Börse, higher than Hong Kong, but less than 5% of the size of NASDAQ. I see that IEX traded over 116 million shares on the 4th, they got a lot of attention when this book hit the market.

Lewis also looks at the risk of things like the “flash crashes” that have staggered markets a few times, but only in passing. The question that this book really addresses is whether or not the HFTs are a positive part of the market. As Lewis documents, they have been trading in ways that come close to theft but they have also forced the buy/sell price spread down which benefits everyone. Some argue that the HFTs contribute by “making a market”, but Lewis points out that they don’t actually perform that function when a stock is under pressure which is the only time it really makes a positive difference. My conclusion is that the HFTs may have been important in providing the volume that made today’s trading so inexpensive, but what the HFTs are actually doing on those networks is a net loss to the economy.

If you have a mind to learn how to play the HFT game for fun and profit, you could learn a lot from this book but it isn’t going to teach you the nuts and bolts of how to do it. Flash Boys does a great job of illuminating the processes of today’s markets for those that are interested, and like I said at the outset, Michael Lewis, who wrote a book that made baseball statistics fascinating, writes in a way that makes even the backrooms of the market’s heavy hitters sound interesting.

Bank of America’s $17 billion atrocity

The Justice Department is bragging about the $37 billion in fines they’ve assessed related to mortgage-backed securities as well as trumpeting the fact that they’ve started to rake in penalties that exceed the cost of operating the department. The latest and greatest item is the $16.65 billion  settlement with Bank of America over wretchedly-underwritten loans at Countrywide Financial during the height of the housing bubble. I’m hoping to keep this item short, but it’s hard considering how many things are wrong with it.

First, of course, is the question of whether or not these assessments will accomplish anything in terms of changed behavior, which remains to be determined but seems unlikely at the moment. Over the past decade or so we’ve been moving in the direction of fines that, while stunning numerically to most of us, are just seen by the businesses as another cost of the game.

Second is the secrecy with which many of these deals are being hammered out. These are not settlements at trial where the specific misbehavior of miscreant companies is laid out and the disposition of the funds is clearly delineated.

Third is the question of how real the numbers are. In the BoA settlement, some $7 billion is “soft dollars” that the bank will spend on relieving the burdens of individual mortgagors. To start with, many, if not most, of these loans were bundled and sold to investors. If BoA reduces a family’s mortgage balance it’s the investors who are going to be paying the price, although to the extent that BoA is being paid to service those loans their servicing income will likely be slightly reduced going forward. For those loans in which BoA is actually holding the assets, the reduction in principal will reduce income, and thus 35% of those reductions will actually be borne by the Treasury.

Finally, exactly why is BoA being held responsible for Countrywide’s actions taken before they took over? Although the pressure that Hank Paulsen applied to BoA to coerce the takeover of Merrill Lynch in 2009 isn’t as clear here, my recollection is that there was a less overt and less specific pressure from Washington for BoA to take over Countrywide the year before. BoA’s CEO Ken Lewis clearly was acting on his own initiative when the bank bought 17% of Countrywide in 2007, but the complete takeover of Countrywide appeared to be something desired by the government to prevent a financial disaster.

I’m one of the growing number of observers that think a permanent change in corporate behavior requires not fines levied against the companies but prison time for the individuals involved. Even if the natural inclinations of the banks and their boards is to grab every nickle that isn’t red hot or nailed down, if their employees have reason to believe they will be wearing prison jump suits if they cross the line future occurrences will drop.

If I Were King, I would have been delighted to see Countrywide just collapse. I would have been particularly amused if, when the bankruptcy court closed the offices and sold off the assets, the computers were auctioned off for pennies on the dollar to someone who would turn around and wipe the disks and use the systems as the first really big Bitcoin mint. Mortgagors would then see their payments returned “Addressee Unknown” by the post office, and the investors who financed all the paper would discover that there was no way to connect their investments with actual properties. That would have been a fiscal stimulus of the first order! Sure, there would soon have been robo-signers cranking out fraudulent documents to remedy this, as actually happened anyway, but after the first few hundred bankers and lawyers involved were sent up the river that would certainly stop.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Ukraine: What next?

It has been obvious for several weeks that Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been actively supporting the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine with weapons. It was reasonably clear that when the Malaysian airliner was shot down it involved a Russian antiaircraft system that had been moved into Ukraine, operated by quickly trained rebels, then quickly dispatched back into Russian territory when the rebels mistakenly targeted the commercial airliner.

Good intelligence information indicates that Russian artillery units have been active on behalf of the separatists, firing into Ukrainian territory from the Russian side of the porous border. In the last few days there have been documented cases of Russian units in armored cars crossing the border into Ukraine, both still images and video have been recorded. The Ukrainian Army has captured at least four active duty Russian soldiers.

In other words, Russia not only placed troops into Ukraine to take over Crimea, but is now actively attacking the sovereign state of Ukraine militarily. In response I see suggestions that additional sanctions should be imposed on Russia. I can think of one truly appropriate sanction that should be immediately imposed; Russia’s membership in the United Nations should be terminated, including their privileged role on the Security Council.

The following sections are from Chapter I, Article 2 of the UN Charter:

2. All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

3. All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Russia is clearly operating in Ukraine in violation of the UN charter. In addition, when the UN was formed the Soviet Union was granted the highest membership status along with the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and France. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian federation took over the Soviet membership on the presumption that the end of the Soviet Union and the creation of the Russian Federation was merely a name change. This was patently absurd, in 1945 the Soviet union was a significant power and rightly ranked with the other permanent members of the Security Council. Forty-five years later the one-time superpower had a withered dramatically. At that time there were 15 republics making up the Soviet Union, Russia is only one of those, further diminishing its stature. The Russian Federation was a grand new sovereign entity, carved out of Soviet Union but certainly not a successor. They should have been required to apply for membership as the new country that they were, and would certainly not have been given a permanent in the Security Council based on the situation in 1991.

If I Were King I would ask my economic advisors to evaluate the possibility of additional economic sanctions against the Russian Federation in response to their current disregard of international norms. But I would also direct my ambassador to the United Nations to demand the expulsion of the Russian Federation and terminate all treaties benefiting Russia that were simply inherited from the Soviet Union. Russia has had autocrats of various stature for most of its recorded history. Some of them were worthy and talented rulers by the standards of their time such as Peter, Elizabeth, and Catherine. Vladimir Putin is only a pale shadow of Russian emperors of the past, and acting as if the rules for invading foreign sovereign states had not changed since the days of Catherine the Great further diminishes him. The rest of the world should not treat Putin as the legitimate leader of a major power when he is no more than a kleptocratic spoiled child somehow in command of the Russian heartland. only when Russian troops have been with drawn from the Ukraine, Russian military support for the rebels has ended, and Crimea has been restored to its rightful place within a sovereign Ukraine should Russia’s application to rejoin the UN be considered.

Everything Bad Is Good For You

Cover imageEverything Bad Is Good For You
Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, Penguin Group, 2005, 238pp

Having misread a blurb regarding this book, I was hoping to gain support for my idea that the nutritional benefits of, say, butter and rice cakes are actually proportional to their levels of flavor. Sadly, I received no such reinforcement but I’ll stick with that belief anyway. What Johnson does advance in this book is the surprising concept that television, video games, and the Internet are actually making all of us smarter. As far-fetched as that might sound, he makes strong case.

He starts with games. As a boy Johnson deeply explored fantasy baseball games at a time when these were strictly on paper. He enjoyed analyzing the many factors that went into success of a player and a team, and the differences between various tools involved in his exploration. Touching on significant research he examines modern video games, the fact that they’ve forced the player to spend hours of time that isn’t particularly enjoyable simply learning the rules needed to complete the game. Johnson marvels at the growing complexity of video games from the likes of Pac-Man, for which a single page describing patterns to watch for was all the documentation extant, to Grand Theft Auto III, for which a 53,000 word “walk-through” exists that many find essential to playing the game. Where the cynic expected games to offer the path of least resistance to players, in truth they have become impressive challenges, much like the efforts he put into hypothetical baseball. Johnson applauds the devotion of what others see as slackers to learning and mastering the complexity of these games.

He then moves on to broadcast television. He recalls how Newton Minow, an FCC Commissioner, declared TV to be a “vast wasteland” in 1961. He looks closely at the growing complexity of prime time shows. He takes the police procedural genre for one set of examples, noting the absolute consistency and linearity of Dragnet (1951-1959), relating that Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) introduced a second subplot, normally comic, to start and end each show while the bulk of the time was still spent on a purely linear story. Years later, in 1981, came Hill Street Blues, a program that routinely had six or eight simultaneous plots developing, some of which had started in previous episodes and some extending into future ones. This development was followed by other programs until the Sopranos routinely involved a dozen distinct threads with 20 or more recurring characters. (He doesn’t mention them, but two of the procedurals from Don Johnson that were followed in the royal rec room, Miami Vice and Nash Bridges, reinforce the idea.) In other words, during several decades broadcast television was changing from the most simple of entertainments to dramas nearly as complex as a novel.

Johnson sees the internet in the same light. Not only does it provide resources for enhancing other parts of life, including access to helpful information about video games and staggering amounts of discussion about television (look for the extensive analyses of both the drama and the medicine in House, M.D. that can be found on-line), but it has pushed us into a new way of learning. He quotes Steve Jobs as positing that the difference between television and the internet is the difference between lean-back and sit-forward media. But the whole book points out that we have been moving from the former to the latter in other pursuits.

Johnson asserts an underlying change that he calls the “Sleeper Curve”, an increase in societal mental acuity that is quietly enhancing the intelligence of just about everybody that participates in our increasingly-complex society. Where George Will sees “an increasingly infantilized society”, Johnson sees “a kind of positive brainwashing” in the same media that Will, and many other observers, deride.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

Despite watching this happen, I didn’t see what it really meant. Before getting too excited about your kids’ media habits, consider Johnson’s view and look closely at what is actually being watched. Odds are good that they are stimulating young minds rather than creating the zombies that so many parents fear are sitting on their sofas, when parents prefer more identifiable homework.

Alas, I’m not sure this helps me personally. I rarely watch broadcast television and the only game I seem to play is Freecell, which can be mastered in thirty seconds and I mostly use to let my brain wander without doing much of anything. Did you think that video games were just modern pacifiers? In most cases, as Johnson points out, the answer would be no, but in my case it’s true. I do think the internet has had a positive impact on my intellect, but I’m completely missing the benefits of games and TV.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Constitutional Right to Farm

Americans have a pretty reasonable set of rights vis a vis the government, I’d prefer the range were a bit broader but there’s no question that we’re well ahead of almost everybody else in the world. China and Russia may not like it, but their protestations that our rights are some “western conspiracy” are absurd, they grew directly from the early days of the Enlightenment. That may have started with English and French philosophes, but every part of that applies to humans in general rather than humans in a particular place.

One right that we are not guaranteed is a right to farm, but then there doesn’t seem to be a lack of farming, and the constraints on that activity are primarily economic rather than governmental, so it’s no surprise that James Madison didn’t include any reference to agriculture in the Bill of Rights, nor has any subsequent amendment. In Missouri, however, Amendment 1 is on the ballot. The heart of this would amend Article I, Section 35 of the Constitution of Missouri to read:

That agriculture which provides food, energy, health benefits, and security is the foundation and stabilizing force of Missouri’s economy. To protect this vital sector of Missouri’s economy, the right of farmers and ranchers to engage in farming and ranching practices shall be forever guaranteed in this state, subject to duly authorized powers, if any, conferred by Article VI of the Constitution of Missouri.

That certainly sounds like something any Chamber of Commerce or state legislature would go along with, clearly a harmless bit of rural boosterism. Except that the organizers see it as a way to prevent regulation of agriculture, such as attempts by the much hated (at least in Missouri farm country) Humane Society of the United States to advocate rules on the amount of space and fresh air that laying hens must be provided. In North Dakota, the only other state with a similar amendment, there haven’t been any real changes as a result. (I learned of this issue from a New York Times article by Julie Bosman, “Missouri Weighs Unusual Addition to Its Constitution: Right to Farm” in today’s issue.)

But if they reject reasonable regulation of their operations, how far do they intend to go? Will they be spraying the wetlands protected for migratory birds with DDT? Allowing unimpeded fertilizer runoff into streams and rivers? Depleting aquifers for thirsty crops and leaving cities to live on Perrier? What about bringing back slavery? All of these are historically-accepted “farming and ranching practices” in the US.

The vote is tomorrow (5 August 2014), and the farm community has spent over a million dollars pushing it. It’s a primary in a non-presidential year so turnout will be low, hordes of angry farmers arriving at polling places on their tractors could put it over, despite the overwhelming opposition by just about every newspaper in the state.

If I Were King I’d just smile, knowing that much of the country’s strength, as the early leaders of the Enlightenment knew, is based on the ability of the citizens to organize and campaign to change the way they are governed. Regardless of who is in charge, or whether this is adopted at the polls, this case may make the farmers feel better but won’t change much.

Update – 6 August 2014 – Amendment 1 passed with a 50.1% yes vote. The Missouri secretary of state has until 26 August to certify the results, at which any person who voted against it can demand a recount based on the slim margin. I’m not sure whether to be appalled or amused at the possible legal antics to follow.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Why We Make Things

why-we-make-thingsWhy We Make Things and Why It Matters: The Education of a Craftsman
Peter Korn
David R. Godine, Publisher, 2013, 167pp plus backmatter

Many artists struggle for recognition, particularly those who work in media other than painting and sculpture. For artists like the Empress Larkin whose work in fiber can be seen as making stuff, and certainly for potters, the battle rages to be seen as an artist rather than “doing crafts”. Sadly, this struggle can be seen not only with the public but also with the artists’ families. I doubt that I will have much luck getting those who fail to see the art, and only see the craft, to read Why We Make Things And Why It Matters, but it would certainly help.

The book is basically a memoir from the time author Peter Korn abandoned his college work through the current day, with the author being the founder and executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship at Rockport, Maine. As with many artists who have worked with things that might be dismissed as craft, he found little understanding when he chose to pursue crafting with wood, first as a carpenter and later as a furniture maker. He quotes his father as saying, “You’ll regret doing work that doesn’t challenge your mind.”. Through a long series of towns, relationships, Hodgkin’s disease (twice), and at least two dogs, Korn discovers that life in craft is anything but a life that fails to challenge the mind. In fact, he asserts that working with wood, at least, involves intense mental activity on several levels.

Intellectuals like myself tend to see thinking as strictly a mental activity, but Korn makes the point that a combination of heart, head, and hand takes one to an additional level. “I found that even so simple an operation as cutting a mortise harmonizes intellect, manual skill, and character in a way that underscores the artificiality of the Cartesian divide between mind and body. When you add the creative component of design, craft becomes a fully integrated application of one’s capacities.”

I have, in the distant past, sometimes had the space for a table saw, drill press, and other “shop tools”, even if I didn’t pursue any craft to the level that Korn has. I feel some sense of loss as a result of using my hands only for typing.

Reading Korn’s book will not immediately provide the space and budget to pursue such things anytime soon, but it planted the seed. If you pursue any of the paths that turn ideas into physical objects, or think perhaps you should, this book will clarify many things.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

My friend Paul Schell

City of Seattle photo of Paul Schell, 1999

City of Seattle photo of Paul Schell as mayor, 1999

I get news bulletins from various newspapers throughout the day, rarely is it personal. This morning the Seattle Times informed me that my friend Paul Schell had died this morning.

Paul was a wealthy man, a lawyer, real estate developer, and patron of the arts. Although we both live on Whidbey Island, we don’t travel in the same circles, so I haven’t spent a lot of time with him recently. but whether it was a chance meeting on the streets of Langley during Choochokam or a few moments when I was at their home helping his wife Pam with her computer, it was always a delight to talk to Paul. I think Paul actually read more than I do, he certainly retained familiarity and understanding of an unusual range of topics. (As Seattle mayor he built the new downtown library and several branches, his commitment to reading was great.) When I think of brilliant people whom I might enjoy talking with, at length and on any subject, I would have to put Paul in a group including the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Dorothy Parker, and Richard Feynman.

I first met Paul and Pam when I was hired as a campaign coordinator for the Committee to Turn Off Billboards in 1971, a noble but losing effort that demonstrated Paul’s concern about the city environment. When Paul was the head of Seattle’s Department of Community Development he had the bright idea of hanging colorful banners on the light poles along the Seattle waterfront. I was in the screen printing business at the time and those first banners were printed in my shop. It was an interesting experience as the mix of my scruffy staff and the sharp young lawyers volunteering from his office mixed in a solvent haze during the printing.

At that time Paul was president of Allied Arts of Seattle and somehow I seemed to be involved in quite a few of their activities. Seattle became one of the first cities anywhere to adopt a “1% for art” program in 1973 as a result of pressure from the Schells and Allied arts.

During Paul’s first run for mayor of Seattle in 1977 I printed his signature in green ink on several thousand bumper stickers. But for my van, I enlarged it: in emerald green ink, 6 feet long on both sides. Politics frequently involves candidates appearing at dinners in the homes of supporters, normally large homes of very wealthy supporters, a category in which my roommate and I did not fall. Preparing that meal was a memorable experience, it featured rolled filet of red snapper stuffed with crab and the largest salad I ever tossed (lacking a huge bowl, we used a black garbage bag). The dinner did not raise significant money, our friends didn’t have deep pockets, but I counted it a success when one of Paul’s campaign staff told me that he had not seen Paul enjoying himself as much during the entire rest of the campaign.

Paul lost that election, but was elected in 1989 as a Port of Seattle commissioner and played a significant role in the growth of Seattle’s international trade. In 1997 he took another run at the mayor’s office. Charles Royer, the man Paul lost to two decades before, said of Paul’s one term, “Paul is no longer mayor primarily because he had maybe the worst string of purely god-awful bad luck of any mayor in Seattle’s history.”.  (“Unlucky Paul Schell“, Seattle Times) Paul was a great believer in the potential of government as an organizational and structural tool to improve communities. Royer identified Schell as one of the most productive mayors in Seattle’s history, but noted that he lacked the interest and talent in the political process, and as a result he was the first Seattle Mayor to lose a primary campaign for reelection in over 75 years.

I think Jim Bruner’s Seattle Times story, “The Measure of a Mayor“, after Paul’s loss in 2002 is a good summary of Paul’s contributions and the faults that cost him a second term.

About that time of Paul said, “I never did anything in my first term to ensure that I’d get elected to a second.”, and I think he was proud of that. In an age when most politicians won’t make a move without current polling, Paul did what he thought was right. It’s the eternal paradox of the honorable politician: Do you play the game to make this polity a better place for the citizens, with the risk that you’ll look in the mirror and see the same things you ran against in the first place? Or do you do what you see as best at every opportunity and end up out of office – losing the power to make those improvements. Seattle might have been better off if Paul had followed the first path, but I’m proud to have known the man who stood his ground.

Paul underwent a quadruple bypass at Swedish Hospital on Wednesday of last week, complications led to his death this morning at age 76. (See “Former Mayor Paul Schell dies” by Lynn Thompson and Jim Bruner in today’s Seattle Times) Whenever any married man dies the mourners sympathize with the widow over her loss, but time moves on. This case seems to me to be different. Pam has shared a home and broken bread with Paul for 51 years, the loss of an intellectual conversation partner of Paul’s stature goes far beyond the typical.

Richard Feynman, a “curious character”

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Charactercover
Richard P. Feynman (Author), Ralph Leighton (Editor)
W. W. Norton, 1985, 1997 paperback, 346pp plus backmatter

What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character
Richard P. Feynman (Author), Ralph Leighton (Editor)
W. W. Norton, 1988, January 2001 paperback, ~250 pp

Richard Phillips Feynman (1918 to 1988) was truly a curious character as the subtitles of these two volumes assert. Feynman was an imp, rarely accepting any limits on his curiosity. He shared the 1965 Nobel prize in physics for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics, one of the most puzzling and challenging areas of physics. But he also played the bongo drums and picked locks.

While working on his doctorate at Princeton he joined the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. As if the difficulties in this work weren’t sufficient to occupy his genius, he learned to open all of the filing cabinets and safes in which highly-classified work of the entire organization was stored. This may have actually been a significant contribution, based on the frequency with which more-senior scientists were unavailable for meetings and their notes were needed.

One of the noted physicists involved in the project was Hans Bethe, who took advantage of a quirk in Feynman’s character that others might not have welcomed. As Feynman describes it in the first volume, when talking physics he completely forgot any sense of rank or propriety. This meant that when a senior and respected scientist like Bethe or Fermi presented a new idea, the young Feynman was the only one ready to shoot holes in it. He spent a great many hours doing exactly cover

Shortly before joining the Manhattan project Feynman married his first wife, Arline, who was suffering from tuberculosis. There was no on-site housing for families, and Feynman tells of borrowing cars and hitchhiking to visit her in the hospital. The title of the second volume comes from a recurring comment of Arline’s, who died in 1945.

Fascinated by rhythm, Feynman arranged a temporary teaching job at Rio de Janeiro, in hopes of learning Latin styles of drumming while he was there. He was greatly frustrated by his students rote memory-based approach to the textbook material when their total lack of deeper understanding was revealed. On the other hand, he was welcomed into a small marching band and was cheered on the streets of Ipanema during Carnevale parades.

Feynman was often noted for solving problems in an almost visual manner, laying out a problem on the blackboard, staring at it for significant length of time, and then writing down the solution without remembering any of the steps his brain had to go through to get there. Teaching required him, on occasion, to spend significant time trying to figure out what those steps were so he could present them to students.

When teaching at Caltech he frequently used a local topless bar as his office, sketching formulae on placemats and napkins. When the county attempted to close the bar, Feynman was the only patron who would testify to the public benefits of the disreputable place. At another point in his career he actually sought training in picking up women, his account of that experience is particularly notable.

Ralph Leighton, the son of one of Feynman’s colleagues at Caltech and a fellow drummer, goaded Feynman into telling a great many stories about his life, which he recorded and transcribed. These transcriptions, lightly edited, are the source of both of these volumes. Most of the tales are whimsical, displaying the range of Feynman’s activities outside of science, but the second of these two volumes includes much material related to Feynman’s involvement in the investigation into the Challenger disaster. Although engineers at Morton Thiokol, manufacturer of the solid-state booster rockets which failed in this case, were aware that low temperature led to leaks that bypassed the O-rings that sealed the joints between the rocket sections, it was Feynman challenging the authority of the investigating committee’s chairman and demanding information from NASA that led to identifying the cause of the tragedy.

As it happened, I read the two books out of sequence and do not have the second title available at the moment, for the most part I can’t tell you which story is in which volume. I greatly enjoyed both, and if the antics and capers of this brilliant scientist are of interest to you, it won’t matter to you either because you’ll want to read them both. Feynman was among the greatest of physicists and apparently a pretty good drummer, his writing isn’t really at the same level. But it’s his story and his voice and if you have any interest in the subject (and I can’t imagine how you might not), curl up with these and enjoy.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Bulletin for Gaza

I know your situation is rather desperate. I know that people are dying, too many of them. I wouldn’t like this either, but there are some facts you need to face:

1) There are people among your population that are using precious resources that could go for food and medicine and spending them instead on rockets and rifles. What cement is available should be used to build schools and other resources for residents, instead it’s being used to line tunnels. Much of your misery stems directly from these misallocations.

2) Israel is a much more advanced society than Gaza is, they have anti-missile defense systems and bomb shelters. No matter what military tactics Hamas uses, far more Palestinians are going to die than Israelis.

3) Because of its history, Israel is going to respond to attacks on its territory; it always has and it probably always will.

4) Because of past Palestinian deprecations, you’ll have to be patient. I know you can put the violence behind you, but you need to understand that Israelis who have faced the possibility of suicide bombers in local cafes will take a while to trust you.

These facts may not please you, but you have no choice but to live with them. The question is what decisions you make based on those facts.

For example, you may be a peaceful school teacher or grocer, but if you allow Hamas forces to use your house to launch rockets into Israel, your home becomes a military site that Israel, very reasonably, may decide to eliminate. If the IDF calls you on the phone and tells you to get your family out of there in ten minutes, do it in five or expect to die. In other words, don’t let Hama use your house, and if they force their way in, get out while you can.

By my lights, the Hamas leadership is psychotic. They have initiated every attack, they’ve launched missiles immediately at the end of every ceasefire, not to mention rejecting most possibilities to pause the battles. While Israel has killed far too many Gazans in collateral damage, they’ve strived to keep it down and are actually targeting military sites (such as they exist in Gaza) while Hamas is sending rockets blindly toward Israeli cities with no effort to target military assets at all. Actually, with no targeting at all, they just point them toward Israel and hit the launch button.

If I Were King I’d have an envoy in the Muddle East and he would be pushing hard to make life better for all Palestinians. The Israelis have a history of working closely with the Palestine Authority’s security teams, they’d be happy to do so again if you tossed Hamas in favor of Fatah in Gaza. Israel has a history of providing power and water to Gaza, not to mention buying goods from Gazan enterprises that provided jobs and revenue. But the first step is for you to choose peace over madness. You have families, this shouldn’t be all that hard.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

No Place to Hide

No-place-to-hideNo Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State
Glenn Greenwald
Metropolitan Books (a Henry Holt imprint), 2014, 253pp, backmatter online

Opinions regarding Edward Snowden tend to be neatly divided, some see him as a hero, the rest see him as a traitor. I fear that only the former group is likely to read No Place To Hide, I might as well admit at the outset that I am in this group. I feel we owe a great deal to Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning as well, and reading this book convinces me that I need to add Glenn Greenwald to the list, considering the significant risks he took in bringing Snowden’s revelations to light.

The book is surprisingly evenhanded while discussing the incredible details of the NSA’s invasion of our privacy, because of his involvement with Snowden and the timeliness of the story the book largely focuses on this matter but without attempting to demonize America compared to other surveillance states. He could easily have been much harsher, for example his quote of Sen. Joe Biden from 2006 excoriating the metadata collection of the NSA under President Bush is mentioned, the hypocrisy noted, and then Greenwald moves on.

Still, after delineating the extent of the NSA’s surveillance and the cooperation of the other four members of the Five Eyes (Australia, Canada, Great Britain, and New Zealand) we are left knowing that no surveillance state in history has matched the current levels.

I didn’t grow up under the Stasi like Angela Merkel did, but I was raised in a surveillance state. No, not some reprehensible communist regime, but rather the warm and comforting environment of small town America in the ’60s. My parents were prominent members of the community and any wayward act I might have committed was very likely to be relayed to them by those who happened to see it. Somehow, I came away from that with a warm regard for the safety fostered by that natural watchfulness. As Greenwald clearly points out, governments rely on the expectation that their watchfulness is only a risk to malefactors, that those of us who go about our business responsibly have nothing to fear and in fact benefit from it. Of course he also points out that the division between those we think should be watched for our safety and those who should be left alone tends to change with the times. Ten years ago it was Democrats decrying the ominous intent of the NSA programs we knew so little about at the time, while today most Democrats defend the White House policies and it is the Republicans who are more likely to cry foul. The Panopticon is real, if there is one chapter in Greenwald’s book that is important, it is the one that documents the general dangers of government having the kinds of information that the NSA is currently collecting.

He also does a fair job of demolishing the idea that such surveillance will actually make us safer. He makes it clear what a tiny part of the government’s use of this data has had anything to do with terrorism and how the use of that scary word is a flatly fraudulent excuse for assaults on our rights. Investigating the Brazilian oil company Petrobras or listening in on Angela Merkel’s cell phone calls obviously have nothing to do with terrorism, and breaking into Chinese telecom equipment manufacturers systems is all about maintaining the NSA’s ability to “collect it all” rather than any defense against future terrorist acts. He points out that in order to justify the incredible expense of the NSA’s operation, compared to our investment in normal police activities, they would have to stop over three hundred realistic attacks a year when they have, in fact, stopped none at all.

As Greenwald released the first of Snowden’s cache of documents, he was attacked not only by the governments eagerly participating in the surveillance be revealed, but also by journalists, many of whom were quick to define him as an activist or a blogger rather than being one of their august company. I won’t expand on that here, suffice it to say that the chapter covering the foolishness and bad taste of much of the journalistic community is choice reading.

The most devastating effect of reading this book is the awareness that those we see as “the good guys” are, when they are in power, just as likely to pursue these reprehensible activities. Looking back over history it seems to me that even the power of surveillance that J Edgar Hoover had when he so eagerly dug into the background of Martin Luther King, Jr was probably excessive, and I would very much like to see us roll back the federal capabilities in this area at least a half century. If I Were King, I’d like to think that I would dismantle all of it. Alas, this book leads me to wonder if I could do that once I was on the other side. But it should be dismantled, this level of surveillance is damaging to our society and provides little or no safety at huge expense.