Sunday, April 25, 2010

Status report

Just so you're not surprised by continued silence on my part... the last post was by way of a stress outlet. I'm still not done with exams, I'm just past the point where I can bring myself to revise very hard.

Exams end in 1 week. The traditional post-exams hangover will take a bit longer. It usually takes me a couple extra weeks to reacquaint myself with the concept of a social life (and in particular with those parts of my social circle that like to drink large amounts of CH3CH2OH). So expect to hear from me within the month.
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Gazing towards Olympus

I don't normally write fiction because... well... I suck. No way of sugar-coating it, my writing stinks.

That said, I would rather it didn't always stink. So in recent months, in between episodes of screaming exam panic, I've been casting around for stories to experiment with. This one popped more or less fully-formed into my head. I think it was sparked by this Penny Arcade comic about the game God Of War III.

I actually have no idea what GoW3 is about. My version is probably cooler though.

Now, I know what you're thinking: a bird that talks? But the plain truth is, you can't live thousands of years without picking up a few things.

I'm not actually sure how long it was. Certainly in the early days I was just an eagle like any other. Every morning I'd glide over to that mountain, just as the dawn struck it, ready for another breakfast of liver-and-onions. Without the onions, obviously. And with a lot more screaming. But it was a simple life, with a noticeable absence of clocks and calendars. Could have been millennia for all I know.

I think it was some time during the Roman occupation that he started speaking to me. Not surprising really - you chain a guy to a sodding great big rock in the boiling sun for a few hundred years, he'll wind up talking to everything from stones to flying pigs. That's dehydration for you. Eagles is small fry by comparison.

But it was nice, you know? Even when I was just another dumb beast, it was soothing. I'll let you in on a little secret: even birds of prey can get a bit squeamish at times. Cute little lambs gambolling in the green meadows, claws out, whoosh... you'd have to have a pretty stony heart not to feel slightly sorry for them. Not to feel a touch of existential angst on occasion. It was reassuring to know that at least one of my victims didn't hold it against me.

So he spoke to me, and for a century or ten that was all there was to it. There's precedent, you know: prisoners in towers befriending the sparrows, and all that. Befriending the eagle that rips out your viscera every morning is a bit of a stretch, but he always was soft-hearted. That's how he got into this mess in the first place.

And, then as now, soft-heartedness can have some... startling effects. Some time just after they started building churches, it clicked. I began to understand what these funny sounds he made were in aid of. I'm still quite proud of that accomplishment. I mean, even Champollion had the Rosetta stone to help him, you know what I mean? And already spoke a language, for that matter. I was operating from a bit more of a standing start.

Of course this didn't really mean much for fifty years or so, the eagle throat not being noticeably designed for speaking back. But I think he realised I could follow him. He started trying to turn his ramblings into a dialogue, inviting me to nod my head or shake my tail or whatever. He was more than half-mad with hunger and thirst by this point, but we eventually worked out a sort of talon-tapping routine that could get the message across.

(Incidentally this proved to be a useful investment in fine motor skill. After all, how do you think I'm writing this? My typing speed isn't great, but as long as I can get access to a keyboard... Let's just say that some web-cafes shouldn't leave their skylight unlocked, haha.)

Actually he mostly talked about you lot. Humans I mean. He really couldn't get over whether he'd done the right thing or not, giving you fire. He would often ask me to go out and report back to him on how you were doing, what works of art you were producing, what buildings you were constructing. I remember spending a week one time trying to explain the Sistine Chapel to him. I mean, come on, the Sistine Chapel? In glorified Morse code? But he got the general impression at least.

Come to think of it, that was maybe not so tactful, showing him how the world had moved on. Zeus had traded his thunderbolts in for a new throne, the rest of the Pantheon had reinvented themselves as angels and saints and the like, and yet here he was still chained to a mountain. They'd forgotten him. And all the art of mankind, that he had helped bring into being, depicted him as a serpent or monster. You lot aren't exactly much for gratitude.

And I suppose that was the next big development. I started to see his point. He really did want the best for you, you know. Most of the gods spent their time hanging round mountaintops; he was down in the valleys with you. Depressingly keen on helping people, three thousand years before Robert Baden-Powell.

He didn't deserve his punishment. I don't know if Zeus had got up on the wrong side of the cloud that day or what, but damn. Chained to a rock with yours truly performing impromptu surgery on a daily basis. That's gotta sting.

I started eating less of his liver. Some days I'd just make a scratch, give him a bit of an appendectomy scar in case anyone dropped by to check. I brought him berries, fruit, water. Took a while to work out what he was able to stomach (I swear I didn't know about the peanut allergy!) but eventually he started to get healthier. You don't exactly shake off millennia of torment overnight, but he began to seem a little more like his old self.

Sadder, of course. Maybe wiser. Certainly more angry. But hey, at least he'd stopped screaming. My eardrums were endlessly grateful.

And that brings us up to the present day. Or at least up to the day - a week ago now - when he asked me to help him. When I agreed to take the final step.

It wasn't easy. People look at you funny if you, an eagle, walk into the local library and check out a book on lock-picking. And some of the other stuff he was asking for... well, normally if someone's packing that kind of hardware, any wise bird avoids them on pain of taxidermy. But there are ways. As I said before, you don't live for thousands of years without picking up a thing or three.

So here we are. Or here I am, anyway. His chains are empty, his rock is bare. I can see the indentation he wore in it from lying there so long. And I can remember the look in his eye as his hands caressed the rifle's stock. I remember how he gazed towards Olympus.

I guess I'm still waiting for the other shoe to fall. What happens if Zeus comes looking for me, afterwards? Or... what happens if he doesn't? Either way, it's going to be one hell of a light-show.

I never told Prometheus about the Crusades, or the Holocaust, or napalm, or the bomb. I couldn't stand to see the look on his face if he'd found out what that fire he carried had been used for. If he'd known the cost of giving fire to man. Eating his liver would have been nothing by comparison.

But I think I know what he would have said. The true fire, the true spark of warmth, is the one in the mind and the heart and the eyes. The physical hearth and forge, the technology, is just a conduit for the greatness in man. I understand this because I felt it too. I felt it when my beak fumbled with the lockpicks, when I dropped the heavy gun by his side.

He gave fire to man. I gave it back.

I hope we were right.
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Saturday, April 03, 2010

Fluffy nonsense

I hate Business Economics, indeed. With a passion. I hate it so much because the cello part is the worst cello part ever written in the history of

Wait, wrong rant.

I'm currently studying for actuarial exam CT7* (Business Economics). Essentially, the purpose of Business Economics is to determine when a sale will occur and at what price. I've hated this subject from the get-go, but it's taken me some time to really articulate what I dislike about it...

What is Business Economics?

To understand Business Economics, the first thing you need to know is: price is determined by the demand for a product and the supply of that product. When the demand at a given price equals the supply at that price, the market is in equilibrium and all produce will be sold. Markets tend towards equilibrium.

The supply function is determined by the seller's return on investment at various prices. A seller will pick the price that maximises their RoI. You can draw a "supply curve" showing the amount that will be produced at various prices. This will be a fairly straight upwards-sloping line.

The demand function is determined by the buyer's utility function. This is a subjective measure of how much value a buyer gets from a product, denominated in currency (e.g. £). Buyers will seek to maximise their total consumer excess: their total utility minus the products' purchase price. You can draw a "demand curve" to show how the amount bought varies at different prices, which will be a fairly straight downwards-sloping line.

To really understand Business Economics, the second thing you need to know is: all of the above is counterfactual bollocks. Markets don't really work like that under any circumstances. You can't draw demand or supply curves, and they wouldn't look like their descriptions if you could.

Theology meets practicality

These two different views of BE are both presented in the same textbook. Chapters 4-7 and 9-12 describe everything about a business in terms of demand and supply. Chapter 8, however, discusses the marketing mix.

The marketing mix is a widely-referenced checklist of things to consider when selling a product. It lists the following components of a successful sale:

1) Product
2) Price
3) Placement (e.g. location, visibility)
4) Promotion (e.g. advertising)

The traditional demand/supply model handles the first two of these fine, but is completely blind to the last two. The only way to account for e.g. the effect of advertising is to say "well, that just means that the person's utility function is higher for this product than it would otherwise have been".

But this just highlights the problem with the demand/supply model. It's not answering the question of "what determines price". It's just restating it in a more sciencey fashion. It is theology rather than science: no more meaningful than answering the question "what created everything" with "God did it".

In short, it sucks.

What went wrong?

I'm not sure why it sucks so much. My best guess is that the people who came up with this theory of economics had "engineering envy". In engineering, you start with various general principles (the laws of science) and reason your way to specific applications of those principles (bridges, buildings, microcircuits, etc).

I would conjecture that the early economists rather liked this idea, so they came up with some vague principles (the "laws" of demand and supply) and tried to reason from them to specific conclusions. But because those broad principles were not reality-based, the effect is similar to a Christian trying to reason from the existence of the Trinity to the existence of an earthquake in Haiti. It's an exercise in applied fuzziness, goalpost-moving, equivocation and redefinition of terms that would shame a Jesuit***.

This entire approach sucks.

First Principles

I'm still working on my own Grand Unified Theory of Economics, and probably will be for some time. But I already know where to start looking.

Look at the big picture again, and start to zoom in. Zoom in on a single continent (Asia). Zoom in on a single country (India). Zoom in on a single region (Uttar Pradesh). Zoom in on a town (Agra, home of the Taj Mahal). Zoom in on a little shop selling tables made of marble, and inlaid with semiprecious stones. Zoom in on the room where a tourist and a salesman are sipping tea together.

That tourist is me. That salesman, I am fairly sure, overcharged me by an order of magnitude for what was, I must admit, a rather lovely souvenir for my parents.

When an economic model can explain what happened in that room, in concepts more meaningful than the data they abstract...

When an economic model can explain what happened in that room, in a way that helps me to identify and avoid such situations in future...

When an economic model can explain what happened in that room, in enough detail that I can see how to return the "favour"...

...then I will consider it worth learning for exams.

Rant over.

* "CT" stands for "Core Technical". To become a fully fledged Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries** I need to have completed:

9 x Core Technical exams
3 x Core Applied exams
2 x Specialist Technical exams (from a choice of 9)
1 x Specialist Applied exam (from a choice of 6)
1 x Partridge in a Pear Tree.

** In Britain, for historical reasons, we have both an Institute of Actuaries and a Fellowship of Actuaries (collectively known as the Profession). Most Cambridge grads join the IoA. This is so that, when we've claimed our congregational MA and achieved the rank of Fellow of the IoA, we can put the letters MA FIA after our name and pretend to be Sicilian dons.

*** Yes, I know that the Jesuits were actually quite science-minded for their time. Their reputation for inflicting "sophisticated" theological arguments on the uninitiated is probably still valid.

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Contagion effects

One interesting topic of financial research in recent years has been the concept of "contagion". This is the effect whereby (for example) financial troubles at one bank can lead to a "domino effect", potentially bringing down the entire damn economy...

(This sort of thing is very important from an actuarial perspective - it goes back to my discussion of stochastic asset models. It's common to try to invest in a low-risk fund when a policyholder nears retirement; however, in a contagion-ridden market, there may be no such thing as a low-risk fund!)

I have three comments on this:

1) At the same time I was in Cambridge last week, they were holding a conference on this very subject. I've been reading through some of the papers, and they're rather cool - I might summarise some on this blog later.

2) There seems to be a strong link to principles of ecosystem collapse (see for example this excellent paper from PLoS CompBio). I'm surprised there's not more cross-research going on. (Or maybe there is and I just haven't found it?)

3) Some kind of contagion principle seems to apply to the use of the term "in respect of". You can measure how heavily-regulated someone's industry is just by seeing how often they employ this phrase. After some consideration, I have decided that it can almost always be replaced with the word "for". This, of course, is vastly shorter, thus saving wear and tear on keyboards.

OK, so that third point didn't really relate to the other two, but it's been bugging me for a while. As someone with a love of the English language and its intricacies, I really hate it when people try to fake linguistic sophistication by use of stock phrases and pompous legal jargon. It's like I'm a fan of automobile engineering and they're the blokes from "Pimp My Ride".

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Interesting turn of phrase

I'm having a lazy day.

This is probably not a good idea - actuarial exams start in under 3 weeks. However, I'm still recovering from last weekend, when I received my congregational MA at Cambridge and got absolutely wasted on College port* with some old friends. I vaguely recall dancing on tables. And I had a busy week too, so what the hey.

In particular, I'm taking the time to read up on a few blog archives, mostly related to skepticism in the UK. Of particular interest recently has been the Appeal Court decision in the trial of science writer Simon Singh. The (very senior) judges running the show apparently gave the legal version of two raised fingers to the British Chiropractic Organisation. A most welcome verdict.

(I actually walk past the BCA's head office on my way into work each day. I'm considering dropping some Sense About Science literature through their door in case they feel like signing up. Worth a try.)

One interesting thought for the day was in this pro-CAM comment on the Adventures In Nonsense blog. FYI, the blog author is the guy who sent out 500 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority about chiropractors who claimed to treat infant colic.

The comment uses an interesting phrase: "open-minded skeptic". I am actually impressed that a pro-alternative-medicine commenter would use this phrase; many of them seem to think it's an oxymoron. But let's examine what it means to say a person is an "open-minded skeptic".

"Open-minded" = is willing to examine any new claim
"Sceptic" (with a C) = demands good evidence for any new claim before accepting it
"Skeptic" (with a K) = gets pissed off if he/she receives no good evidence and yet finds people still parroting the same sodding claim

On this basis, I would say that most of the folks on Simon Singh's side in this battle of public opinion are indeed "open-minded skeptics". I'm happy to quietly support them; I only wish I could do more.

* If you ever visit Christ's bar, do not buy the College red or white wine, it gives you a splitting hangover. The port, however, kicks ass but leaves neurons standing. There's also a cafe called Taffy's just out the College's side gate where you can buy a fry-up cure for what ails ya the following morning.
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