Turn to Your Left at the End of the Sky

Enabling Skype HD Video

To enable 640×480 video in Skype (instead of the usual 320×240 resolution), add the following lines to the config.xml file in the Skype user directory

<Video>
    <CaptureHeight>480</CaptureHeight>
    <CaptureWidth>640</CaptureWidth>
    <Fps>30</Fps>
</Video> 

There will probably already be a <Video> … </Video> section in the file so just add the middle three lines in that section.

The config.xml file is typically located in:

c:\users\<win_username>\AppData\Roaming\Skype\<skype_username>

Note: The “AppData” folder is a hidden folder so you’ll have to search for it. Either that, or just make all the folders in c:\users\<win_username> visible.

I’m running Windows Vista 64-bit so your location might be different. (If you do have the location for a different OS please leave a comment and I’ll update the post). If you enable “Display technical call info during calls” under Skype->Options->Advanced->Connection, you will be able to monitor the resolution and frame rate. (Hover your mouse over the main Skype tab and a yellow box will pop up with all the technical Skype data, including frames per second, transfer and receive resolution. This is useful for testing whether you are indeed sending the higher resolution image.)

Also, make sure you have the latest Logitech webcam driver installed. You don’t need the Logitech app, just the driver. I use the Logitech Quickcam Ultra Vision  and the image quality is very good.

Skype has gone to great lengths to differentiate this “hack” from their HQ (high quality) video (which requires Skype-endorsed webcams) but I think the difference is marginal if you have decent hardware and bandwidth. It appears that as of Skype 3.8 you will no longer see the usual HQ Video logo but you will still be transmitting video at the higher resolution. Your frame rate might take a slight hit depending on your uplink bandwidth. 

(As an aside: I highly recommend not upgrading to the current Skype 4.0 beta)

May 24, 2008 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Engineering, Technology | , , , , | 6 Comments

Asset Allocation in 30 Minutes a Year

Many people, after finally saving up a modest nest egg, are faced with the dilemma of what to invest it in. For those who don’t have any interest in spending the rest of their lives following stock tickers and listening to analyst conference calls, the following approach can be implemented extremely easily, is very cost effective, and should take less than 30 minutes each year to maintain.

This approach is suitable for people who a) have saved at least $5,000 and b) are aged 10-60. If you are older than 60 you should probably adopt a more conservative approach. If you have less than $5,000 you should spread your investments over fewer funds else trading fees will dampen your returns considerably.

At a high level, you allocate your investments as follows:

60% stocks

20% real estate

10% bonds

10% commodities

There’s no real magic to this. It just depends on how risky you want your portfolio to be. If you already own a house, I would probably halve the real estate section and increase the rest.

Then the allocation to stocks I break down as follows:

60% US stocks

40% International stocks

That is a good mix given the increased participation in the global economy of the rest of the world and helps guard against currency fluctuations of the dollar.

The US stocks I break down as follows:

33% Large cap stocks

33% Medium cap stocks

33% Small cap stocks

The international equity allocation I break down into:

50% Emerging markets (South Africa, China, India, Brazil, Russia etc.)

50% Developed markets (Europe, Japan, etc.)

For the bond allocation, I recommend a broad-based bond index fund (a mix of long-term and short-term bonds). For real estate you can only really invest in commercial real estate (office buildings, shopping centers, apartment complexes). You then round out your portfolio with an allocation to commodities: oil and precious metals.

Putting that all together works out to the following target portfolio (with ticker symbols and fees of representative index funds in brackets):

12% Large cap US stocks [ VV, 0.07% ]

12% Medium cap US stocks [ VO, 0.13% ]

12% Small cap US stocks [ VB, 0.10% ]

12% International : Emerging market stocks [ VWO, 0.25% ]

12% International : Developed markets stocks [ EFA, 0.35% ]

20% Commercial real estate [ VNQ, 0.12% ]

10% Bonds [ AGG or VBMFX, 0.20% ]

10% Commodities [ IGE, 0.48% ]

If anyone finds a comparable fund with lower expense ratios, please leave a comment and I’ll update this list. For instance, in the emerging markets I have substituted VWO for EEM. The former has fees of 0.25% versus 0.75% for the latter. It should be possible to create a portfolio with a blended fee of 0.14% or less.

I generally prefer the exchange-traded funds as it makes it easier to keep all your investments in one place. I recommend E*Trade for a good blend of low fees, ease of use, and reasonable service. The disadvantage is that you have to pay a fee each time you trade whereas at Vanguard you can add money whenever you feel like without paying a broker fee.

Arranging the list in order of decreasing risk would give:

12% International : Emerging market stocks [ VWO ]

12% International : Developed markets stocks [ EFA ]

12% Small cap US stocks [ VB ]

12% Medium cap US stocks [ VO ]

12% Large cap US stocks [ VV ]

10% Bonds [ AGG or VBMFX ]

20% Commercial real estate [ VNQ ]

10% Commodities [ IGE ]

In the long run, the more risk you take, the higher your returns. The key term is “in the long run”. That’s why as you approach retirement you gradually make your portfolio less risky and weight it more and more towards bonds and fixed income securities. There is plenty of evidence that asset allocation is far more important in determining your eventual return than picking the exact stocks or countries to invest in.

The Barclays iShares web site (www.ishares.com) is the best thing since sliced bread and has pretty much everything you need to get started. Most of the funds are index funds which can be traded through an online brokerage like E*Trade.

Always try to find the funds with the lowest fees. High management fees are a vastly underestimated destroyer of long term wealth. You will always pay higher fees for international stocks and the more esoteric funds. You should definitely never pay more than 0.50% in annual fees. The highest fees are for emerging markets funds and specialty funds which should be around 0.45%. The lowest cost funds, like standard S&P 500 index funds, have fees below 0.1%. Fees tend to come down in the long run so keep reevaluating your choices. Always read the entire prospectus for any funds that you invest in so that you know what you actually own.

One slightly tricky part is balancing your asset allocation across your retirement/non-retirement/tax-deferred accounts. Thanks to the complexities of the US tax code there is no way around having three or four investment accounts. A good rule of thumb is to have the investments which pay dividends in the tax-sheltered accounts and the high-risk, high growth assets in the taxable accounts.

Finally, once you have got your asset allocation set up, you need to rebalance it once or twice a year. Since the various funds grow at different rates, eventually your carefully assigned percentages will be all out of whack. One solution is to add your latest contributions to whichever fund is the furthest off at the time. That way you end up investing new money in the funds which have performed poorly recently (buying low). At the beginning of each year, you can spend 30 minutes rebalancing your portfolio to make sure you remain on target. Resist the temptation to go with the latest fad sector. Investing is a long term discipline.

One last comment:

Your investing will dramatically improve if you read a few solid books that lay the theoretical groundwork for choosing where to put your hard-earned cash. I have read scores of books on investing and I would say that the ones that have most shaped my investing philosophy and have enabled me to outperform the S&P 500 for over 15 years are:

  1. Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre
  2. The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham
  3. Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits by Philip Fisher

Buffet describes his investment philosophy as 80% Benjamin Graham and 20% Philip Fisher. Reminiscences is a classic that has stood the test of time because it so accurately describes the emotional traps that lay in wait for the investor.

Advanced Topic

Finally, there is an excellent website, Asset Correlation, which dynamically calculates a correlation matrix for the major asset classes. It is important to check that you are suitably diversified if you decide to tweak my recommended asset allocation.

November 15, 2006 Posted by | Economics, Investing | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A new method for memorizing bible verses

Memverse.com is a good method of memorizing bible verses.  (The alert web surfer will notice similarities to another website.)

The website is based on a supposedly optimal memorization algorithm that adjusts the frequency of testing depending on your knowledge of the content. It is based on the idea that we should revise what we’ve learnt just before we’re about to forget it. That way, you focus on the verses you don’t yet know well, but don’t forget the ones you have already memorized.

The website went live a few days ago so there are still some rough edges. One limitation at the moment is that you can only memorize individual verses but I suspect that will change soon.

March 4, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, Spirituality | , | Leave a comment

Difference between ‘render’ and ‘redirect_to’

redirect_to :action => ‘list’ forces the clients browser to request the list action.

render :action => ‘list’ will render the template list.rhtml without calling or redirecting to the list action.

February 22, 2009 Posted by | Ruby on Rails | Leave a comment

Mortgage Micromanagement

Apparently “playing by the rules” , according to Obama, includes taking an adjustable mortgage that results in monthly payments equal to 43% (or more) of income. According to the Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan

“For a sample household with payments adding up to 43 percent of his monthly income, the lender would first be responsible for bringing down interest rates so that the borrower’s monthly mortgage payment is no more than 38% of his or her income. Next the initiative would match further reductions in interest payments dollar-for-dollar with the lender to bring that ratio down to 31 percent…”

So in the case of two families with identical earnings and living in identical houses we take the tax money of the responsible family that saved for a downpayment and give it to the irresponsible family that didn’t. And if you were responsible enough to rent until prices came down then you’re just out of luck.

Redistributing wealth based on income is a crude, but necessary, manner of levelling an uneven playing field. Redistribution based on debt introduces considerably more unfairness.

February 18, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Government, Housing | , , | Leave a comment

Kahneman and Taleb Panel Discussion on Economic Crisis

Panel discussion at Edge between behavioral economist, Kahneman and author Taleb on the economic crisis.

Note: They might be at the edge of thought but they certainly aren’t at the edge of the network! Get yourselves a CDN people!

February 10, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Government | Leave a comment

Change in Employment in a Recession

February 9, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Government | , , | Leave a comment

Starting a Rails Project with Bort

I highly recommend Bort when you’re starting a new Ruby on Rails project. Assuming you’re using MySQL, the following steps are all that are necessary to get started:

  1. Download and unzip Bort into project folder
  2. Edit the database.yml and the settings.yml files
  3. Create the database: mysqladmin -u <username> -p create <db_name_development>
  4. If you’re using Dreamhost: add ‘host: mysql.<dbhostname>.com’ to your database.yml file
  5. rake db:migrate

February 8, 2009 Posted by | Ruby on Rails | , , | Leave a comment

Which Ruby on Rails Gem/Plugin to Use

The following gems and plugins are the most popular as of Nov 12th, 2008:

  • Javascript Framework: jQuery (56%), Prototype (43%)
  • Skeleton: Bort
  • Mocking: Mocha
  • Exception Notification: Hoptoad
  • Full text search: Thinking Sphinx
  • Uploading: Paperclip
  • User authentication: Restful_authentication (keep an eye on Authlogic)
  • HTML/XML Parsing: Hpricot

February 7, 2009 Posted by | Computers & Internet, Engineering, Ruby on Rails, Technology | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Volatility Increases in Times of Crisis

Many people have pointed out that stocks all become perfectly correlated in times of crisis. That’s not strictly true but correlations do increase dramatically. Over the past six months (August 4th, 2008 to January 30th, 2009) notice how correlations (for a portfolio containing a selection of the Dow components) have averaged 0.67 and volatility across the portfolio has been 3.1% for the daily return standard deviation.
 
    BAC GE IBM INTC JNJ KO MCD MMM MRK MSFT PFE PG T WMT Return StdDev
Bk Of America Cp BAC                             -95.8% 9.8%
Gen Electric Co GE 0.63                           -80.9% 4.8%
Intl Business Mac IBM 0.66 0.68                         -48.1% 3.0%
Intel Corporation INTC 0.57 0.64 0.74                       -66.9% 4.1%
Johnson And Johns JNJ 0.50 0.58 0.67 0.69                     -28.4% 2.5%
Coca Cola Co The KO 0.39 0.45 0.56 0.66 0.72                   -35.8% 2.8%
Mcdonalds Cp MCD 0.54 0.62 0.66 0.66 0.69 0.66                 -5.5% 2.7%
3 M Company MMM 0.56 0.66 0.68 0.68 0.77 0.66 0.75               -39.3% 3.0%
Merck Co Inc MRK 0.55 0.62 0.71 0.75 0.80 0.66 0.73 0.72             -23.6% 3.5%
Microsoft Corpora MSFT 0.58 0.55 0.75 0.80 0.72 0.68 0.68 0.68 0.73           -54.0% 4.0%
Pfizer Inc PFE 0.61 0.60 0.66 0.70 0.76 0.64 0.67 0.71 0.80 0.70         -37.5% 3.2%
Procter Gamble PG 0.53 0.62 0.68 0.69 0.84 0.70 0.73 0.78 0.82 0.72 0.77       -30.1% 2.6%
At&T Inc. T 0.60 0.57 0.72 0.72 0.77 0.64 0.69 0.69 0.79 0.75 0.75 0.76     -29.7% 3.6%
Wal Mart Stores WMT 0.44 0.51 0.57 0.57 0.75 0.61 0.72 0.66 0.71 0.61 0.64 0.73 0.66   -34.4% 2.7%
Exxon Mobil Cp XOM 0.49 0.56 0.71 0.72 0.81 0.64 0.71 0.72 0.78 0.76 0.76 0.78 0.81 0.67 1.9% 4.3%
Portfolio -44.6% 3.1%

Historically, the same portfolio has exhibited correlations between the various components which have been considerably lower. In fact, over the past twenty years (February 2nd, 1989 to Jan 30th, 2009), correlations have averaged 0.32, approximately half the correlation we have seen recently. The standard deviation of the daily returns was only 1.1%

 
  BAC GE IBM INTC JNJ KO MCD MMM MRK MSFT PFE PG T WMT Return StdDev
Bk Of America Cp BAC                             3.2% 2.5%
Gen Electric Co GE 0.49                           8.4% 1.8%
Intl Business Mac IBM 0.31 0.41                         7.3% 1.9%
Intel Corporation INTC 0.31 0.40 0.45                       15.4% 2.7%
Johnson And Johns JNJ 0.27 0.39 0.23 0.22                     14.5% 1.5%
Coca Cola Co The KO 0.28 0.38 0.21 0.22 0.41                   12.4% 1.6%
Mcdonalds Cp MCD 0.27 0.36 0.24 0.22 0.30 0.34                 12.9% 1.7%
3 M Company MMM 0.35 0.45 0.28 0.29 0.31 0.34 0.28               9.1% 1.5%
Merck Co Inc MRK 0.27 0.36 0.23 0.22 0.51 0.35 0.26 0.28             8.2% 1.9%
Microsoft Corpora MSFT 0.31 0.41 0.41 0.55 0.28 0.27 0.23 0.26 0.26           21.5% 2.3%
Pfizer Inc PFE 0.30 0.40 0.25 0.23 0.52 0.35 0.27 0.29 0.54 0.29         12.0% 1.8%
Procter Gamble PG 0.27 0.37 0.19 0.20 0.41 0.43 0.33 0.34 0.35 0.21 0.36       14.3% 1.6%
At&T Inc. T 0.32 0.37 0.26 0.25 0.32 0.32 0.27 0.29 0.29 0.28 0.29 0.30     8.4% 1.8%
Wal Mart Stores WMT 0.32 0.45 0.29 0.30 0.34 0.36 0.32 0.35 0.31 0.33 0.33 0.34 0.32   13.8% 1.8%
Exxon Mobil Cp XOM 0.29 0.37 0.26 0.24 0.33 0.34 0.25 0.37 0.31 0.28 0.32 0.27 0.35 0.29 13.5% 1.5%
Portfolio 13.2% 1.1%

 All these results were created using the tools at AssetCorrelation.com

February 1, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Investing | Leave a comment

The End of Solitude

The property that grounds the self in the post-modern age is visibility [link to original article]… 

The End of Solitude

As everyone seeks more and broader connectivity, the still, small voice speaks only in silence

What does the contemporary self want? The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge — broadband tipping the Web from text to image, social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider — the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude. Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn’t say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can. I was told by one of her older relatives that a teenager I know had sent 3,000 text messages one recent month. That’s 100 a day, or about one every 10 waking minutes, morning, noon, and night, weekdays and weekends, class time, lunch time, homework time, and toothbrushing time. So on average, she’s never alone for more than 10 minutes at once. Which means, she’s never alone.

I once asked my students about the place that solitude has in their lives. One of them admitted that she finds the prospect of being alone so unsettling that she’ll sit with a friend even when she has a paper to write. Another said, why would anyone want to be alone?

To that remarkable question, history offers a number of answers. Man may be a social animal, but solitude has traditionally been a societal value. In particular, the act of being alone has been understood as an essential dimension of religious experience, albeit one restricted to a self-selected few. Through the solitude of rare spirits, the collective renews its relationship with divinity. The prophet and the hermit, the sadhu and the yogi, pursue their vision quests, invite their trances, in desert or forest or cave. For the still, small voice speaks only in silence. Social life is a bustle of petty concerns, a jostle of quotidian interests, and religious institutions are no exception. You cannot hear God when people are chattering at you, and the divine word, their pretensions notwithstanding, demurs at descending on the monarch and the priest. Communal experience is the human norm, but the solitary encounter with God is the egregious act that refreshes that norm. (Egregious, for no man is a prophet in his own land. Tiresias was reviled before he was vindicated, Teresa interrogated before she was canonized.) Religious solitude is a kind of self-correcting social mechanism, a way of burning out the underbrush of moral habit and spiritual custom. The seer returns with new tablets or new dances, his face bright with the old truth.

Like other religious values, solitude was democratized by the Reformation and secularized by Romanticism. In Marilynne Robinson’s interpretation, Calvinism created the modern self by focusing the soul inward, leaving it to encounter God, like a prophet of old, in “profound isolation.” To her enumeration of Calvin, Marguerite de Navarre, and Milton as pioneering early-modern selves we can add Montaigne, Hamlet, and even Don Quixote. The last figure alerts us to reading’s essential role in this transformation, the printing press serving an analogous function in the 16th and subsequent centuries to that of television and the Internet in our own. Reading, as Robinson puts it, “is an act of great inwardness and subjectivity.” “The soul encountered itself in response to a text, first Genesis or Matthew and then Paradise Lost or Leaves of Grass.” With Protestantism and printing, the quest for the divine voice became available to, even incumbent upon, everyone.

But it is with Romanticism that solitude achieved its greatest cultural salience, becoming both literal and literary. Protestant solitude is still only figurative. Rousseau and Wordsworth made it physical. The self was now encountered not in God but in Nature, and to encounter Nature one had to go to it. And go to it with a special sensibility: The poet displaced the saint as social seer and cultural model. But because Romanticism also inherited the 18th-century idea of social sympathy, Romantic solitude existed in a dialectical relationship with sociability — if less for Rousseau and still less for Thoreau, the most famous solitary of all, then certainly for Wordsworth, Melville, Whitman, and many others. For Emerson, “the soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone, for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society.” The Romantic practice of solitude is neatly captured by Trilling’s “sincerity”: the belief that the self is validated by a congruity of public appearance and private essence, one that stabilizes its relationship with both itself and others. Especially, as Emerson suggests, one beloved other. Hence the famous Romantic friendship pairs: Goethe and Schiller, Wordsworth and Coleridge, Hawthorne and Melville.

Modernism decoupled this dialectic. Its notion of solitude was harsher, more adversarial, more isolating. As a model of the self and its interactions, Hume’s social sympathy gave way to Pater’s thick wall of personality and Freud’s narcissism — the sense that the soul, self-enclosed and inaccessible to others, can’t choose but be alone. With exceptions, like Woolf, the modernists fought shy of friendship. Joyce and Proust disparaged it; D.H. Lawrence was wary of it; the modernist friendship pairs — Conrad and Ford, Eliot and Pound, Hemingway and Fitzgerald — were altogether cooler than their Romantic counterparts. The world was now understood as an assault on the self, and with good reason.

The Romantic ideal of solitude developed in part as a reaction to the emergence of the modern city. In modernism, the city is not only more menacing than ever, it has become inescapable, a labyrinth: Eliot’s London, Joyce’s Dublin. The mob, the human mass, presses in. Hell is other people. The soul is forced back into itself — hence the development of a more austere, more embattled form of self-validation, Trilling’s “authenticity,” where the essential relationship is only with oneself. (Just as there are few good friendships in modernism, so are there few good marriages.) Solitude becomes, more than ever, the arena of heroic self-discovery, a voyage through interior realms made vast and terrifying by Nietzschean and Freudian insights. To achieve authenticity is to look upon these visions without flinching; Trilling’s exemplar here is Kurtz. Protestant self-examination becomes Freudian analysis, and the culture hero, once a prophet of God and then a poet of Nature, is now a novelist of self — a Dostoyevsky, a Joyce, a Proust.

But we no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. What technologies of transportation exacerbated — we could live farther and farther apart — technologies of communication redressed — we could bring ourselves closer and closer together. Or at least, so we have imagined. The first of these technologies, the first simulacrum of proximity, was the telephone. “Reach out and touch someone.” But through the 70s and 80s, our isolation grew. Suburbs, sprawling ever farther, became exurbs. Families grew smaller or splintered apart, mothers left the home to work. The electronic hearth became the television in every room. Even in childhood, certainly in adolescence, we were each trapped inside our own cocoon. Soaring crime rates, and even more sharply escalating rates of moral panic, pulled children off the streets. The idea that you could go outside and run around the neighborhood with your friends, once unquestionable, has now become unthinkable. The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.

Under those circumstances, the Internet arrived as an incalculable blessing. We should never forget that. It has allowed isolated people to communicate with one another and marginalized people to find one another. The busy parent can stay in touch with far-flung friends. The gay teenager no longer has to feel like a freak. But as the Internet’s dimensionality has grown, it has quickly become too much of a good thing. Ten years ago we were writing e-mail messages on desktop computers and transmitting them over dial-up connections. Now we are sending text messages on our cellphones, posting pictures on our Facebook pages, and following complete strangers on Twitter. A constant stream of mediated contact, virtual, notional, or simulated, keeps us wired in to the electronic hive — though contact, or at least two-way contact, seems increasingly beside the point. The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.

As a result, we are losing both sides of the Romantic dialectic. What does friendship mean when you have 532 “friends”? How does it enhance my sense of closeness when my Facebook News Feed tells me that Sally Smith (whom I haven’t seen since high school, and wasn’t all that friendly with even then) “is making coffee and staring off into space”? My students told me they have little time for intimacy. And of course, they have no time at all for solitude.

But at least friendship, if not intimacy, is still something they want. As jarring as the new dispensation may be for people in their 30s and 40s, the real problem is that it has become completely natural for people in their teens and 20s. Young people today seem to have no desire for solitude, have never heard of it, can’t imagine why it would be worth having. In fact, their use of technology — or to be fair, our use of technology — seems to involve a constant effort to stave off the possibility of solitude, a continuous attempt, as we sit alone at our computers, to maintain the imaginative presence of others. As long ago as 1952, Trilling wrote about “the modern fear of being cut off from the social group even for a moment.” Now we have equipped ourselves with the means to prevent that fear from ever being realized. Which does not mean that we have put it to rest. Quite the contrary. Remember my student, who couldn’t even write a paper by herself. The more we keep aloneness at bay, the less are we able to deal with it and the more terrifying it gets.

There is an analogy, it seems to me, with the previous generation’s experience of boredom. The two emotions, loneliness and boredom, are closely allied. They are also both characteristically modern. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citations of either word, at least in the contemporary sense, date from the 19th century. Suburbanization, by eliminating the stimulation as well as the sociability of urban or traditional village life, exacerbated the tendency to both. But the great age of boredom, I believe, came in with television, precisely because television was designed to palliate that feeling. Boredom is not a necessary consequence of having nothing to do, it is only the negative experience of that state. Television, by obviating the need to learn how to make use of one’s lack of occupation, precludes one from ever discovering how to enjoy it. In fact, it renders that condition fearsome, its prospect intolerable. You are terrified of being bored — so you turn on the television.

I speak from experience. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, the age of television. I was trained to be bored; boredom was cultivated within me like a precious crop. (It has been said that consumer society wants to condition us to feel bored, since boredom creates a market for stimulation.) It took me years to discover — and my nervous system will never fully adjust to this idea; I still have to fight against boredom, am permanently damaged in this respect — that having nothing to do doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The alternative to boredom is what Whitman called idleness: a passive receptivity to the world.

So it is with the current generation’s experience of being alone. That is precisely the recognition implicit in the idea of solitude, which is to loneliness what idleness is to boredom. Loneliness is not the absence of company, it is grief over that absence. The lost sheep is lonely; the shepherd is not lonely. But the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies. You could call your schoolmates when I was a teenager, but you couldn’t call them 100 times a day. You could get together with your friends when I was in college, but you couldn’t always get together with them when you wanted to, for the simple reason that you couldn’t always find them. If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation. We lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. They have lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude.

And losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing “in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures,” “bait[ing our] hooks with darkness.” Lost, too, is the related propensity for sustained reading. The Internet brought text back into a televisual world, but it brought it back on terms dictated by that world — that is, by its remapping of our attention spans. Reading now means skipping and skimming; five minutes on the same Web page is considered an eternity. This is not reading as Marilynne Robinson described it: the encounter with a second self in the silence of mental solitude.

But we no longer believe in the solitary mind. If the Romantics had Hume and the modernists had Freud, the current psychological model — and this should come as no surprise — is that of the networked or social mind. Evolutionary psychology tells us that our brains developed to interpret complex social signals. According to David Brooks, that reliable index of the social-scientific zeitgeist, cognitive scientists tell us that “our decision-making is powerfully influenced by social context”; neuroscientists, that we have “permeable minds” that function in part through a process of “deep imitation”; psychologists, that “we are organized by our attachments”; sociologists, that our behavior is affected by “the power of social networks.” The ultimate implication is that there is no mental space that is not social (contemporary social science dovetailing here with postmodern critical theory). One of the most striking things about the way young people relate to one another today is that they no longer seem to believe in the existence of Thoreau’s “darkness.”

The MySpace page, with its shrieking typography and clamorous imagery, has replaced the journal and the letter as a way of creating and communicating one’s sense of self. The suggestion is not only that such communication is to be made to the world at large rather than to oneself or one’s intimates, or graphically rather than verbally, or performatively rather than narratively or analytically, but also that it can be made completely. Today’s young people seem to feel that they can make themselves fully known to one another. They seem to lack a sense of their own depths, and of the value of keeping them hidden.

If they didn’t, they would understand that solitude enables us to secure the integrity of the self as well as to explore it. Few have shown this more beautifully than Woolf. In the middle of Mrs. Dalloway, between her navigation of the streets and her orchestration of the party, between the urban jostle and the social bustle, Clarissa goes up, “like a nun withdrawing,” to her attic room. Like a nun: She returns to a state that she herself thinks of as a kind of virginity. This does not mean she’s a prude. Virginity is classically the outward sign of spiritual inviolability, of a self untouched by the world, a soul that has preserved its integrity by refusing to descend into the chaos and self-division of sexual and social relations. It is the mark of the saint and the monk, of Hippolytus and Antigone and Joan of Arc. Solitude is both the social image of that state and the means by which we can approximate it. And the supreme image in Mrs. Dalloway of the dignity of solitude itself is the old woman whom Clarissa catches sight of through her window. “Here was one room,” she thinks, “there another.” We are not merely social beings. We are each also separate, each solitary, each alone in our own room, each miraculously our unique selves and mysteriously enclosed in that selfhood.

To remember this, to hold oneself apart from society, is to begin to think one’s way beyond it. Solitude, Emerson said, “is to genius the stern friend.” “He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” One must protect oneself from the momentum of intellectual and moral consensus — especially, Emerson added, during youth. “God is alone,” Thoreau said, “but the Devil, he is far from being alone; he sees a great deal of company; he is legion.” The university was to be praised, Emerson believed, if only because it provided its charges with “a separate chamber and fire” — the physical space of solitude. Today, of course, universities do everything they can to keep their students from being alone, lest they perpetrate self-destructive acts, and also, perhaps, unfashionable thoughts. But no real excellence, personal or social, artistic, philosophical, scientific or moral, can arise without solitude. “The saint and poet seek privacy,” Emerson said, “to ends the most public and universal.” We are back to the seer, seeking signposts for the future in splendid isolation.

Solitude isn’t easy, and isn’t for everyone. It has undoubtedly never been the province of more than a few. “I believe,” Thoreau said, “that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark.” Teresa and Tiresias will always be the exceptions, or to speak in more relevant terms, the young people — and they still exist — who prefer to loaf and invite their soul, who step to the beat of a different drummer. But if solitude disappears as a social value and social idea, will even the exceptions remain possible? Still, one is powerless to reverse the drift of the culture. One can only save oneself — and whatever else happens, one can still always do that. But it takes a willingness to be unpopular.

The last thing to say about solitude is that it isn’t very polite. Thoreau knew that the “doubleness” that solitude cultivates, the ability to stand back and observe life dispassionately, is apt to make us a little unpleasant to our fellows, to say nothing of the offense implicit in avoiding their company. But then, he didn’t worry overmuch about being genial. He didn’t even like having to talk to people three times a day, at meals; one can only imagine what he would have made of text-messaging. We, however, have made of geniality — the weak smile, the polite interest, the fake invitation — a cardinal virtue. Friendship may be slipping from our grasp, but our friendliness is universal. Not for nothing does “gregarious” mean “part of the herd.” But Thoreau understood that securing one’s self-possession was worth a few wounded feelings. He may have put his neighbors off, but at least he was sure of himself. Those who would find solitude must not be afraid to stand alone.

William Deresiewicz writes essays and reviews for a variety of publications. He taught at Yale University from 1998 to 2008.

January 26, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Spirituality | 1 Comment

Iowans for Corn-powered, All-American Web Browsers

H1-B visa holders are the Palestinians of American politics (with apologies to the Palestians). Each side uses them for their own interests. One side wants to protect them from being exploited and the other side wants to prevent them from exploiting. Neither side has their best interests at heart.

U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, sent this letter to Microsoft [emphasis mine].

January 22, 2009

 Mr. Steve Ballmer

Microsoft Corporation

One Microsoft Way

Redmond , WA   98052-6399

Dear Mr. Ballmer: 

I am writing to inquire about press reports that Microsoft will be cutting approximately 5,000 jobs over the next 18 months.  I understand that the layoffs will affect workers in research and development, marketing, sales, finance, legal and corporate affairs, human resources, and information technology. 

I am concerned that Microsoft will be retaining foreign guest workers rather than similarly qualified American employees when it implements its layoff plan.  As you know, I want to make sure employers recruit qualified American workers first before hiring foreign guest workers.  For example, I cosponsored legislation to overhaul the H-1B and L-1 visa programs to give priority to American workers and to crack down on unscrupulous employers who deprive qualified Americans of high-skilled jobs.  Fraud and abuse is rampant in these programs, and we need more transparency to protect the integrity of our immigration system.  I also support legislation that would strengthen educational opportunities for American students and workers so that Americans can compete successfully in this global economy.

Last year, Microsoft was here on Capitol Hill advocating for more H-1B visas.  The purpose of the H-1B visa program is to assist companies in their employment needs where there is not a sufficient American workforce to meet their technology expertise requirements.  However, H-1B and other work visa programs were never intended to replace qualified American workers.  Certainly, these work visa programs were never intended to allow a company to retain foreign guest workers rather than similarly qualified American workers, when that company cuts jobs during an economic downturn. 

It is imperative that in implementing its layoff plan, Microsoft ensures that American workers have priority in keeping their jobs over foreign workers on visa programs.  To that effect, I would like you to respond to the following questions:

*          What is the breakdown in the jobs that are being eliminated?  What kind of jobs are they?  How many employees in each area will be cut?

*          Are any of these jobs being cut held by H-1B or other work visa program employees?  If so, how many?

*          How many of the jobs being eliminated are filled by Americans?  Of those positions, is Microsoft retaining similar ones filled by foreign guest workers?  If so, how many?

*          How many H-1B or other work visa program workers will Microsoft be retaining when the planned layoff is completed?

My point is that during a layoff, companies should not be retaining H-1B or other work visa program employees over qualified American workers.  Our immigration policy is not intended to harm the American workforce.  I encourage Microsoft to ensure that Americans are given priority in job retention.  Microsoft has a moral obligation to protect these American workers by putting them first during these difficult economic times.

 Sincerely,

Charles E. Grassley

United States Senator

Of course, no mention of Microsoft’s moral obligation to its shareholders. And I don’t remember anyone caring about “the American workers” when we tied Microsoft up in court for years and drained their coffers. Maybe those laid off can dust themselves off and volunteer at Mozilla, the organization “dedicated not to making money”.

If US immigration policy is not intended to harm Americans then who is it intended to harm? 

 

 

 

January 25, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Government, Politics, Technology | , , , | Leave a comment

Christmas in Baghdad

Small, incremental change is hard to detect but accumulates over time:

From a distance, it looks like an apparition: a huge multi-colored hot-air balloon floating in the Baghdad sky, bearing a large poster of Jesus Christ. Below it, an Iraqi flag. Welcome to the first-ever public Christmas celebration in Baghdad.

[...]

Many of the people attending the Christmas celebration appear to be Muslims, with women wearing head scarves. Suad Mahmoud, holding her 16-month-old daughter, Sara, tells me she is indeed Muslim, but she’s very happy to be here. “My mother’s birthday also is this month, so we celebrate all occasions,” she says, “especially in this lovely month of Christmas and New Year.”

January 21, 2009 Posted by | Christianity, International Affairs, Politics, Spirituality | Leave a comment

The Roots of a Financial Crisis

Stats from Howard Marks’ letter to Oaktree clients:

  • Consumer credit outstanding grew 260 times from 1947 to 2008 (4% of GDP to 18%)
  • Bank indebtedness: 21% of GDP in 1980, 116% in 2007
  • Federal debt: $1 trillion in 1980, $11 trillion in 2008
  • State debt: $1.2 trillion in 2000, $1.85 trillion on 2005 (9.2% CAGR)
  • Solvency became contingent on the continuous availability of credit
  • An upward sloping yield curve promotes short term borrowing to cover investing long.

Question: how should one invest in 2009? A global reflation seems the most likely path. Does the US have any option other than inflating its way out of its troubles…

January 15, 2009 Posted by | Economics, Investing | Leave a comment

Analysis of the Trial of Sir Thomas More

Article on the trial of Sir Thomas More:

For instance, did you know that we have no copy of the oath which More famously refused to take? That no official transcript of the trial was made? That we are not certain whether there were one, three, or four formal charges? That, contrary to current legal practice, the more grave the case, the fewer the rights of the accused? That More’s civil rights, as defined by English law at the time, may have been more or less respected? In other words, there was nothing procedurally unusual about More spending years imprisoned in the Tower of London, undergoing several interrogations, being suddenly brought to court for trial, and hearing the charges against him (read in Latin) for the first and only time. And there was considered nothing untoward in having judges sitting on the bench with a vested interest (to put it mildly) in seeing More condemned, such as an uncle, a brother, and the father of Anne Boleyn.

December 4, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Government, Philosophy, Politics, Spirituality | , | Leave a comment

Obama on Faith

Full interview from 2004 on Obama’s faith

December 3, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Spirituality | , , | Leave a comment

Using Ziya with Rails

  1. Upgrade to latest version of RubyGems (‘sudo gem update –system’)
  2. Add GitHub repository (‘gem sources -a http://gems.github.com&#8217;)
  3. Upgrade to latest version of Ziya (‘sudo gem install derailed-ziya’)
  4. Install Ziya in project directory (‘Ziyafy’ in project home)
  5. Add ziya.rb to config/initializers directory
  6. Copy your themes into ../public/themes/

Some other thoughts: If you’re frustrated by the almost non-existent documentation and the fact that the gem is in constant flux, don’t despair. The best way to understand how to customize your graph is to look through the example themes (for some reason they didn’t install with my gem but I downloaded them from GitHub).

Also, the reference material at XML/SWF charts is very useful and Ziya seems to adhere quite closely to the naming conventions.

I also found that I needed user-defined functions fairly quickly to customize axes etc.

Here is an example of how to use Ziya to create a scatter chart:

== Chart Controller ==

01: def load_ef

02:    # Create graph data object
03:    chart_data   = Array.new

04:    # Pull portfolios out of database
05:   @query = sessions[:period].to_i

06:    @portfolios = Portfolio.find(:all, :conditions => ["period = ?", @query])

07:    # Strip out risk and return
08:    @portfolios.each { |x|
09:       chart_data  << x.std_dev
10:       chart_data  << x.port_ret
11:    }

12:    title = “User-entered portfolios”

13:    chart = Ziya::Charts::Scatter.new(‘LICENSE-KEY’)
14:    chart.add( :axis_category_text, %w[x y]*(chart_data.length/2) )
15:    chart.add( :series, title, chart_data )

16:    chart.add( :theme , “assetcorrelation” )

17:    respond_to do |fmt|
18:      fmt.xml { render : xml => chart.to_xml }
19:    end
20: end

== View ==

1: <div>
2:   <%= ziya_chart load_ef_url, :size => “1200×800″ – %>
3: </div>

== Routes.rb ==

1:  map.load_ef   ‘/chart/load_ef’,   :controller => ‘chart’, :action => ‘load_ef’

As far as I understand, Rails will first look for a method in your controller that matches the view, then, once it starts rendering the view, it hits the callback (line 2 in the view snippet above) and at that point calls the method in the chart_controller to render the chart data, using the routing information in Routes.rb.

Note that in this case, I am pulling the data for the chart out of my database.

November 28, 2008 Posted by | Ruby on Rails, Technology | , , , , | 1 Comment

Still 50 Years to Wait

[Welcome to our first-time guest blogger]

 

It is a relief to many that Obama is in. Credit goes to those who feel that way for significant, i.e. policy, reasons, but public comments made it seem we were simply proud we have proven to the world that we’re not racist.

 

Oddly enough, no one is eager to show we are not sexist. To the contrary, like bullies on the playground, we shouted at the female candidates: “She-goat!” “Dominatrix!” and my favorite, “Breeder!” (Thank you for that last one, Bigot Maher.)

 

Reuters photographed Palin from behind and between her legs…ah, harkens back to the good-old-days when She-Ra’s legs framed the shots of He-Man in the 80’s.  I say those were the good-old-days because that was a time when educated women called foul on things like that. But this time I heard crickets.  Even my (former) hero Steinem held the coats for the ensuing mob.

 

Especially mesmerizing was the “role of the vice president” discussion. Palin said the VP is in charge of the Senate.  Article 1 Section 3 of the constitution says:

The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided. The Senate shall choose their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the absence of the Vice President.

This election was indeed about audacity — the audacity to take direction from the Constitution.  If only legislators would treat Article I Section 8  with more reverence we would have a much simpler government. (I’ll give you a hint, establishing a post office and postal roads is 1 of the 18 things with which they are actually tasked.)  But I digress. For this comment Palin was burnt at the ignoramus stake.  I can’t bring myself to discuss the bikini characterizations, the dolls, and the frenzy on fashion. It is a confounding hatred for the very gender that promoted the abolition of slavery (to make no mention of the party.)

 

And now to keep hope alive: history suggests we have only 50 more years before a woman is in the White House:

  • Voting rights:  African American Men – 1870. Women – 1920.
  • US Senate:   AAM – 1870. Women – 1922* 
  • US Congress: AAM – 1868. Women – 1917

If history repeats once more, Obama’s daughters will have to wait until they are nearly 60 years old for our great nation to consider their application on merit.  Chelsea will be in her 70s, and, apparently, too old for the job.

 

We’ve come a long way from slavery. But we’ve hardly come a long way from the Salem witch trials. In fact, some might say we just had one. 

 

*Rebecca Latimer Felton of Georgia, the first woman to serve in the United States Senate, took the oath of office on November 21, 1922. Having been appointed to fill the vacancy for her husband, Felton served for just 24 hours. The first woman elected to the Senate was Hattie Wyatt Caraway of Arkansas in 1932.

November 23, 2008 Posted by | Government, Politics | , , , | Leave a comment

Rationalism in Politics

What has been wanting on the right at the start of this century is a true “conservative disposition” — the disposition to enjoy what is rather than pining for what might be (to paraphrase Himmelfarb), to enjoy the givens and the goods of life without subjecting them to social or political validation.

Rationalism in Politics, despite being clouded by the “fumes of tradition”, is a breath of fresh air.

His [the Rationalist's] mental attitude is at once sceptical and optimistic: sceptical, because there is no opinion, no habit, no belief, nothing so firmly rooted or so widely held that he hesitates to question it and to judge it by what he calls his ‘reason'; optimistic, because the Rationalist never doubts the power of his ‘reason (when properly applied) to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration, which is the ground and inspiration of argument: set up on his door is the precept of Parmenides–judge by rational argument. But besides this, which gives the Rationalist a touch of intellectual equalitarianism, he is something also of an individualist, finding it difficult to believe that anyone who can think honestly and clearly will think differently from himself.

November 23, 2008 Posted by | Books, Economics, Government, Philosophy, Politics | , , , | 1 Comment

Calculating daily volatility

Volatility is usually expressed as the annualized standard deviation of returns. Volatility is proportional to the square root of time. That means one can approximate a volatility over a smaller time period than one year by dividing the annual vol by the square root of the number of trading periods one is interested in.

So, to convert annual volatility to a daily vol, divide by 16, which is the square root of 256 — about the number of trading days in the year.

Back in the days when vol was 15-20% annually (way back in 2007), a daily vol was about 1%. These days, the VIX is closer to 80 which implies a daily return of +- 5%.

On Sept 15th, 2008, when Lehman was allowed to go bankrupt (“Lehman is not too big to fail” – Paulson), the VIX went up to 80 and has been in that region ever since. The Lehman bankruptcy has turned out to be a massive event in financial history.

November 19, 2008 Posted by | Economics, Government, Investing | , , | Leave a comment

Bring Back the Sabbath

Stilling the eternal, internal murmur of self-reproach

God stopped to show us that what we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating it and start to think about why we did so. The implication is clear. We could let the world wind us up and set us to marching, like mechanical dolls that go and go until they fall over, because they don’t have a mechanism that allows them to pause. But that would make us less than human. We have to remember to stop because we have to stop to remember. 

November 3, 2008 Posted by | Christianity, Philosophy, Spirituality, Thoughts | | Leave a comment

The Limits of Knowledge

This just in: there are absolute, logical limits to the ability of any method (including the scientific one) for acquiring knowledge to produce a comprehensive theory of the world

Well, call off the search for a theory of everything. Physicist David Wolpert, in an article published in the prestigious Physica D (vol. 237, pp. 1257–1281, 2008), has shown that — at best — we can achieve a theory of almost everything. Wolpert’s work is very technical, but its implications are spectacular. Unlike the above mentioned limits to knowledge, which come out of empirical disciplines, Wolpert used logic to prove his point, following in the steps of the famousincompleteness theorem demonstrated by Kurt Godel in 1931. (An accessible summary of Wolpert’s discovery can be found in an article by P.-M. Binder in Nature, 16 October 2008.)

Basically, Wolpert — building on previous work by Alan Turing — formalized a description of “inference machines,” i.e. machines capable of arriving at inferences about the world (human beings are one example of such machines). Wolpert focused on what he calls strong inference, the ability of one machine to predict the totality of conclusions arrived at by another similar machine. Wolpert then logically proved the following two conclusions: a) For every machine capable of conducting strong inferences on the totality of the laws of physics there will be a second machine that cannot be strongly inferred from the first one; b) Given any pair of such machines, they cannot be strongly inferred from each other.

Of course, the article ends with the obligatory sideswipe at creationists.

Reference to original paper:

Physical limits of inference


Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena, Volume 237, Issue 9, 1 July 2008, Pages 1257-1281
David H. Wolpert

October 23, 2008 Posted by | Mathematics, Philosophy, Science | | Leave a comment

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