King Arthur and the Stock Market

O Fortuna
velut luna
statu variabilis,
semper crescis
aut decrescis;
vita detestabilis
nunc obdurat
et tunc curat
ludo mentis aciem,
dissolvit ut glaciem.

O Fortune,
like the moon
you are changeable,
ever waxing
or waning;
hateful life
first oppresses
and then soothes
as fancy takes it;
and power
it melts them like ice.
–Carl Orff,
Carmina Burana,
O Fortuna (Stanza 1)

I was listening to an economist discuss projections of the market for 2018, and it struck me how much this reminded me of King Arthur. The connection? The medieval idea of the Wheel of Fortune, a prism which could help us view the world in proper context and settle our turbulent emotions just as it did centuries ago.

Now, this is not the game show with Pat and Vanna that has filled the after-dinner TV slot for decades. Although those who know about the enduring notion of Fortune surely find it amusing that this show has displayed such enduring popularity.

Illustration from John Lydgate’s Troy Book, f.30v

The basic idea of the Wheel of Fortune, if you recall from your world history days, is that those on top of the wheel — kings, rich men, landowners — enjoy the bounty of the earth, while the poor and the peasants struggle at the bottom. But the wheel always turns and even kings and emperors now high will eventually be struck low. We’ve seen this played out in history and can understand the dynamic. Dictators who overstep their power are brought down. Wealthy playboys waste the inheritance that their thrifty parents worked years to create. Meanwhile, others rise out of poverty to amass their own financial empire or to create their own new political followings. Continue reading “King Arthur and the Stock Market”

I Didn’t See That Coming

Why don’t we anticipate large scale events better? Giant hurricanes (again, the 3rd in ten years)…500 year floods (again, the 3rd in Houston in three years by at least one account)… the crash of the economy… the election of crazy people… the list is getting pretty darned long.  People’s inability to see the coming tsunami wave is analyzed quite well in a book I recently read: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:
a. The illusion of understanding…
b. The retrospective distortion…
c. The overvaluation of factual information and the handicape of authoritative and learned people
The Black Swan

Taleb’s book is only ten years old but already a classic. I read it on the mini-bus driving around the quiet hills of Ireland, and I can’t imagine a better way to absorb such an indictment of our human myopia. It’s very readable; there are some numbers in it, but mostly in the footnotes or the appendix. Most of it is anecdotes and stories, which is kind of ironic, since one of Taleb’s main points is that we rely on anecdotes to understand things because we can’t cope with the math. As it turns out, that’s probably okay, because we aren’t using the math properly anyway.

The Illusion of Understanding–Don’t Be the Turkey
One way Taleb says we fail to predict properly is in our inability to understand the world in front of us. The world is complicated and large; it’s hard to take it all in. As a result, we either (a) conclude that we can’t predict anything because it’s too complicated or (b) we rely on simply models and create quasi-statistical understandings entirely based on the present. These models fall apart if what our scope is limited. The best example of this is Taleb’s Turkey analogy.

The turkey, born on January 1st, for example, learns to look forward to the chef. The chef feeds him every day, lovingly popping the tastiest grains and morsels into his little mouth. For 330 days, he sees that chef come over and knows, from experience, that something good’s gonna happen.

Until it doesn’t. Continue reading “I Didn’t See That Coming”

The Avocado Toast War

When I was trying to buy my first home, I wasn’t buying smashed avocado for $19 and four coffees at $4 each.
–THIS GUY*, Australian Real Estate Mogul

We are on the precipice of a full-scale war. The skirmishes are already under way at blogs, tweets, instagrammies, and facebook posts around the globe. While the world may be going to hell in a handbasket for other reasons, humanity is in high dudgeon over avocado toast. I might as well as join the party.

The instigator was THIS GUY (*who I refuse to name; you can google it if you want to give him the publicity) with his comment targeting the group we all love to bash, the Millennials. This 35 year old real estate mogul from Melbourne targeted Millennials on the Australian 60 Minutes by focusing on their passion for the luxuries of Avocado Toast, lamenting how it prevents them from properly purchasing a white picket fence house in the suburbs and having the 2.3 children that has been mythically dictated to be required for a good life.

Such comments raise so many questions. What is the price of avocados and, moreover, of avocado toast? What is the price of a house, and how does it compare to toast? Are millennials buying houses and, if not, why not? Who is THIS GUY? And, anyway, who asked him?

20170517 avocadotoast Continue reading “The Avocado Toast War”

Tax the Peasants with this One Weird Trick!

Taxes are universally despised by everyone who pays them; shared resources are universally used by everyone who pays taxes. These are common unpleasant truths like waste disposal and knowing where hamburgers come from. No one is pleased when April 15th approaches.

While the income tax in the US is a phenomenon that started in the middle of our young history, taxation in general goes back to the dawn of civilization. The notion of paying resources into the central governing body is at least as old as the development of writing. Many of the earliest forms of writing – cuneiform on clay tablets from Lagash, Sumeria ( now modern Iraq) – reflected accounting for taxes paid by the farmers and peasants.  Some of these predated coinage, so many taxes were paid in kind. Farmers paid with chicken, livestock, or grains and if they didn’t have the goods, they paid in labor.

20170412 tax gods_of_egypt___tax_day_by_serverustare
SeverusTare, Deviant Art

Continue reading “Tax the Peasants with this One Weird Trick!”

Moving to Healthy

20170308 healthcitiesmap.JPG
Combined map of Healthiest cities, Kaj courtesy of Easy Map Maker

I want to be healthier. I should probably move to Gunbarrel, Colorado. Or Portland Oregon; Rochester, Minnesota; or Highlands Ranch, Colorado. These are all the healthiest places in America, according to multiple ranking studies published within the last year. Being healthier is good, but whenever you look at these Healthy Places studies, you come to some quick conclusions. The studies seem to have issues with their methodology of places or factors, come to very different conclusions, or intermix causal reasons with results. Beyond a slightly interesting headline, most of the rankings as individual places to live aren’t interesting except as a curiosity. But there are conclusions to draw, if you look past the rankings themselves.

I almost feel nervous doing data analysis in this column TWO WEEKS IN A ROW, after the analysis of the Best Actresses last week. But a ValuePenguin study came out over the weekend, and I couldn’t help it. I had to peek at it and got irritated, went digging at the data, and voila! Fodder for an argument!  When I started looking at other similar studies, the need to quarrel with the information got even bigger, and the need to vent even greater. Let’s consider it a public service. Continue reading “Moving to Healthy”