Saturday, January 30, 2016

McSweeneys nihilistic security questions


Every now and then McSweeney's publishes a gem. This is one of their most hit up pieces from last year.

Nihilistic Password Security Questions
BY SOHEIL REZAYAZDI

What is the name of your least favorite child?

In what year did you abandon your dreams?

What is the maiden name of your father’s mistress?

At what age did your childhood pet run away?

What was the name of your favorite unpaid internship?

In what city did you first experience ennui?

What is your ex-wife’s newest last name?

What sports team do you fetishize to avoid meaningful discussion with others?

What is the name of your favorite canceled TV show?

What was the middle name of your first rebound?

On what street did you lose your childlike sense of wonder?

When did you stop trying?

Economics forecasters: pay little no mind to the prognosticators

If this is correct, it's a pretty damning statistic:

"The Economist had a remarkable statistic. The IMF makes forecasts for every country every April. There have been 220 instances across several decades and some number of countries where growth was positive in year T and negative in year T+1. Of those 220 instances, the IMF predicted it in April in precisely zero of those 220 instances."

(From economist Lawrence Summers, via Marginal Revolution).
The Economist had a remarkable statistic. The IMF makes forecasts for every country every April. There have been 220 instances across several decades and some number of countries where growth was positive in year T and negative in year T+1. Of those 220 instances, the IMF predicted it in April in precisely zero of those 220 instances. So the fact that there’s a sense of complacency and relative comfort should give very little comfort. - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/page/2#sthash.dpCjbaxv.dpuf
The Economist had a remarkable statistic. The IMF makes forecasts for every country every April. There have been 220 instances across several decades and some number of countries where growth was positive in year T and negative in year T+1. Of those 220 instances, the IMF predicted it in April in precisely zero of those 220 instances. So the fact that there’s a sense of complacency and relative comfort should give very little comfort. - See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/page/2#sthash.dpCjbaxv.dpuf

Friday, January 29, 2016

Book: Hakagure by Yamamoto Tsunemoto


In the second season of True Detective, I spotted a copy of the Hagakure in one of the detective's homes. This book belongs to the family of texts that include The Book of Five Rings and the Art of War. They are Eastern classics that provide sage doses of wisdom in relation to martial arts and warfare. As a typical Westerner, I'll readily admit that my understanding of practices from the ancient East is entertainingly informed but seriously distorted by Western cultural products including computer games such as Double Dragon and Shinobi, the allure of throwing stars and ninja turtles, The Karate Kid, and more recently films along the likes of The Last Samurai and 47 Ronin. Simply put, ninjas and samurai's are cool, they have a cool mythical allure and practice seriously cool levels of self-discipline and mastery.

Viewing such things from this romanticised lens, I was quite jarred when I started reading a version of the Hagakure. In the context of the modern day, there is much to disprove of: the individual is a slave to custom, personal freedom is limited and is not even sought after, and the value of life is very low. Indeed, the glory of life is in the death. Some paragraphs of the Hagakure are very harsh and strict, sometimes ambiguous and often contradictory. And there's also the seriously  ghastly e.g. 'If you cut a face lengthwise, urinate on it, and trample on it with straw sandals, it is said that the skin will come off. This was heard by the priest Gyojaku when he was in Kyoto. It is information to be treasured.' Quite.

After all that, there is a lot of good stuff as well, some of which is collected further down in the post.

Various notes and quotes from the book and from around it.


On dying:



Alexander Bennet introduction : Attachment to life hindered a warrior during a catastrophe, and so it was deemed virtuous to train one's mind and spirit to choose death with firm resolve if the situation called for 'decisive action.'








Me: Death about death of the self. Can we turn this into death of the non-useful? ie apply it to living up to our own ideals, but first we must have the ideals.

Shakespeare: '“A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”

Content
The book records Tsunetomo's views on bushido, the warrior code of the samurai. Hagakure is sometimes said to assert that bushido is really the "Way of Dying" or living as though one was already dead, and that a samurai must be willing to die at any moment in order to be true to his lord. His saying "the way of the warrior is death" was a summation of the willingness to sacrifice that bushido codified.

Historical context
After his master died, Tsunetomo himself was forbidden to perform junshi, a retainer's ritual suicide, by an edict of the Tokugawa Shogunate combined with his master's disapproval of the tradition. Hagakure may have been written partially in an effort to outline the role of the samurai in a more peaceful society. Several sections refer to the "old days", and imply a dangerous weakening of the samurai class since that time.

The Hagakure was written approximately one hundred years after the start of the Tokugawa era, a time of relative peace. With no major campaigns to fight, the samurai were transforming from a warrior to an administrative class. His work represents one approach to the problem of maintaining military preparedness and a proper military mindset in a time when neither has much practical application.

---

 Does Hagakure represent a 'mystical beauty intrinsic to the Japanese aesthetic experience', or is it a 'text that epitomizes all that is abhorrent in terms of mindless sacrifice, as well as a loathsome depreciation of the value of life and blind obedience to authority'? Invented tradition? A window into the complex ethics of the Tokugawa world? Or simply the 'seditious ramblings of a disgruntled curmudgeon'?
A careful reading of Hagakure will reveal elements of all of these.

Bennett states that the book is vastly misunderstood both inside and outside Japan, and perhaps that is why Jocho encouraged Tsuramoto to burn it upon completion (to prevent it from being read by those who could never understand the spirit in which it was written).

Bennett shows how Jocho was bitter at the "disintegration of warrior norms over previous decades", "anti-Shogunate sentiment", had a nostalgic longing for the previous regimes and decried how young samurai "talk of money, about profit and loss, their household financial problems, taste in fashion, and idle chatter of sex". At one point in the book, Jocho flatly states that there are "no good men"

...apparent contradictions within the book, including some of its most famous passages. Should a vassal rush headlong into danger, or should he seek a more peaceful alternative? Does one persistently correct the Lord and let him know when he is wrong, or does one carry out the letter of his commands unquestioningly? You should always follow out the Lord's commands, except when you don't. While mastering an art is detrimental to the way of the samurai, when can its study actually be beneficial? There are passages that seem to exhort the virtues of each.

Even the oft-quoted 'The Way of the Samurai is found in death' takes on a new meaning when read in its proper context. Boiled down to its core, it says to simply do your best in everything and approach every situation fearlessly as if it is your last day on earth-to not hold back out of a fear of dying or failing. It's not necessarily about rushing head-on alone into a nest

Quotes

Although the Hagakure was written centuries ago for a breed of warriors that no longer exist, the philosophies and wisdom within are still practical, even in our modern times.

Although it stands to reason that a samurai should be mindful of the Way of the Samurai, it would seem that we are all negligent. Consequently, if someone were to ask, "What is the true meaning of the Way of the Samurai?" the person who would be able to answer promptly is rare. This is because it has not been established in one's mind beforehand. From this, one's unmindfulness of the Way can be known.
in large part we make our logic according to what we like.

To give a person one's opinion and correct his faults is an important thing. It is compassionate and comes first in matters of service. But the way of doing this is extremely difficult. To discover the good and bad points of a person is an easy thing, and to give an opinion concerning them is easy, too. For the most part, people think that they are being kind by saying the things that others find distasteful or difficult to say. But if it is not received well, they think that there is nothing more to be done. This is completely worthless. It is the same as bringing shame to a person by slandering him. It is nothing more than getting it off one's chest.

To give a person an opinion one must first judge well whether that person is of the disposition to receive it or not.

Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending.

A man who bas never once erred is dangerous."...a character is quoted as saying of a candidate being considered for promotion.

A real man does not think of victory or defeat. He plunges recklessly towards an irrational death. By doing this, you will awaken from your dreams.

It is not good to settle into a set of opinions. It is a mistake to put forth effort and obtain some understanding and then stop at that.

How should a person respond when he is asked, "As a human being, what is essential in terms of purpose and discipline?" First, let us say, "It is to become of the mind that is right now pure and lacking complications."

Every morning, the samurai of fifty or sixty years ago would bathe, shave their foreheads, put lotion in their hair, cut their fingernails and toenails rubbing them with pumice and then with wood sorrel, and without fail pay attention to their personal appearance . It goes without saying that their armor in general was kept free from rust, that it was dusted, shined, and arranged.

Although it seems that taking special care of one's appearance is similar to showiness, it is nothing akin to elegance.

If one perceives a person's good points, he will have a model teacher for anything.

In general, a person who is versatile in many things is considered to be vulgar and to have only a broad knowledge of matters of importance.

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to pet wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.

the fact that something bad always happens in the world when strange phenomena occur is due to people seeing something like fluttering clouds and thinking that something is going to happen. The mystery is created in their minds,

When meeting calamities or difficult situations, it is not enough to simply say that one is not at all flustered. When meeting difficult situations, one should dash forward bravely and with joy. It is the crossing of a single barrier and is like the saying, "The more the water, the higher the boat."

Upon reaching the age of forty, both wise and foolish have gone through an appropriate amount of experience and will no longer be perplexed .

Whatever you do should be done for the sake of your master and parents, the people in general, and for posterity. This is great compassion. The wisdom and courage that come from compassion are real wisdom and courage. When one punishes or strives with the heart of compassion, what he does will be limitless in strength and correctness. Doing something for one's own sake is shallow and mean and turns into evil. I understood the matters of wisdom and courage some time ago. I am just now beginning to understand the matter of compassion.

It is said that Tokunaga Kichizaemon repeatedly complained, "I've grown so old that now, even if there were to be a battle, I wouldn't be able to do anything. Still, I would like to die by galloping into the midst of the enemy and being struck down and killed. It would be a shame to do nothing more than to die in one's bed."

In approaching for the attack he does not forget to wait for the right moment. In waiting for the right moment he never forgets the attack.

The saying that "All abilities come from one mind" ...is in fact a matter of being unattached to life and death. With such non-attachment one can accomplish any feat.

These are teachings of Yamamoto Jin'emon:

· Single mindedness is all-powerful.
· Tether even a roasted chicken.
· A man exists for a generation, but his name lasts to the end of time.

There is weakness in perfect clarity.

Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one's body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one's master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.

When one departs for the front, he should carry rice in a bag. His underwear should be made from the skin of a badger. This way he will not have lice. In a long campaign, lice are troublesome.

In all matters of discipline, one will be useless unless he has great pride. Unless one is determined to move the clan by himself, all his discipline will come to naught. Although, like a tea kettle, it is easy for one's enthusiasm to cool, there is a way to keep this from happening. My own vows are the following:

· Never to be outdone in the Way of the Samurai.
· To be of good use to the master.
· To be filial to my parents.
· To manifest great compassion, and to act for the sake of Man.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Book: The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver




"The Signal and Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction" is a  decent book about probabilistic thinking. There are quite a few takeaways for risk-takers and traders and the book did trigger quite a few thoughts, including:

  • Be alert to deadly correlation changes in extreme situations (e.g. asset classes moving together, waves of defaults creating domino effect). 
  • Traders are often alert to the risk of small losses of the type seen in a typical day, death is more likely on the rare extreme day when the monsters emerge from the darkness. 
  • Risk taking affects the mind, which affects subsequent decisions i.e. you aren't the same person once you have taken the risk, especially if it is a big risk. The act affects the agent.
  • Noise can be easily mistaken for signal.
  • Garbage in: garbage out, and there's plenty of garbage.
  • Trading and other speculations: Do the numbers after the fact disprove the hypothesis, does failure prove randomness wins and the edge is a delusion? Poor risk management can easily mask the findings, making it difficult to know if the trader ever had an edge. 
  • Risk management: the concern is not the forecast but the risk of the glaring omission or the reckless battle dominated by emotion (examples to fall back on?).
  • One man's signal is another man's noise: e.g intraday trader versus long term. A small technical pattern versus a policy shift. A day of rain in the summer.
***

Quotes

- The Fuskushima nuclear reactor had been designed to handle a magnitude 8.6 earthquake, in part because some seismologists concluded that anything larger was impossible. Then came Japan's horrible 9.1 magnitude earthquake in March 2011.

- Human beings do not have very many natural defenses. We are not all that fast, and we are not all that strong. We do not have claws or fangs or body armour. We cannot spit venom. And we cannot fly. Instead, we survive by means of our wits. Our minds are quick. We are wired to detect patterns and respond to opportunities and threats without much hesitation.

- We love to predict things - and we aren't very good at it.

- The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.

- We ignore the risks that are hardest to measure, even when they pose the greatest threats to our well-being.

- Risk, as first articulated by the economist Frank H. Knight in 1921 is something that you can put a price on.
Uncertainty, on the other hand, is risk that is hard to measure. You might have some vague awareness of the demons lurking out there. You might evem be acutely concerned about them. But you have no real idea how many of them there are or when they might strike.

- 'If you're in a market and someone's trying to sell you something which you don't understand ... you should think that they are trying to sell you a lemon.' - George Akerlof speaking to the author.

- When there is an excess of greed in the system, there is a bubble. Where there is an excess of fear, there is a panic.

- The most basic tenet of chaos theory is that a small change in initial conditions - a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil - can produce large and unexpected divergences in outcomes - a tornado in Texas. This does not mean that the behaviour of the system is random, as the term "chaos" might imply. ...It just means that certain types of systems are very hard to predict.

- The terms 'prediction' and 'forecast' are employed differently in different fields; in some cases, they are interchangeable, but other disciplines differentiate them. No field is more sensitive to the distinction than seismology. If you're speaking with a seismologist:
A prediction is a definite and specific statement about when and where an earthquake will strike: a major earthquake will hit Tokyo, Japan, on June 28.
Whereas a forecast is a probabilistic statement, usually over a longer scale: there is a 60 percent chance of an earthquake in Southern California over the next thirty years.
The USGS's official position is that earthquakes cannot be predicted. They can, however, be predicted.

- 'Efficient market hypothesis has two components', Thaler told me over lunch. ...'One I call the No Free Lunch component, which is that you can't beat the market. Eugene Fama and I mostly agree about this component. The part he doesn't like to talk about is the Price is Right component.'

- (Thomas Schelling) 'There is a tendency to mistake the unfamiliar for the improbable.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Book: The Meaning of Life by Terry Eagleton



I couldn't connect with this dense little book but it did spawn quite a few thoughts which I've scribbled below. Apologies in advance - I expect the notes may not make much sense to other readers.

** 1/2

Scribblings

 - Life is a series of forward movements, we are always going from a point A to a point B (as David Bowie said, we are in a constant state of arrival and departure). Do these journeys require an underlying sense of meaning, a provider of the 'because' behind the action. Conversely, can we/do we derive the meaning after the event. I suspect life is a combination of the two, which we weave into a coherent narrative.
- Do we overweight meanings to some components of meaning and underweight others i.e. even if meaning is a purely subjective notion, do some external factors hold too much deterministic sway. What about the heavy anchor of the status quo bias i.e. it is too psychologically taxing to question evey motive.
- How does meaning change over time, as we age? 
- Existential questioning along these lines can bring a person close to the edge of the nihilistic abyss.
- Understanding the self: realisation that we are part of a broad system and our autonomy is limited or at least affected by a network of factors: society, family, law, friends, fashions, memes, supernatural beliefs and religion, and of course there is nature (genes and epigenetics, free will, the mind-body connection).
- Why do we seek to be happy? The desire appears to be part of our nature but is perhaps being overly exploited through media as the be all and end all, as something to which we all have a right to. Consider other drivers such as power, love, autonomy, achievement, recognition, freedom, truth, reason, honesty, altruism, etc. Also, think more broadly, in terms of life satisfaction, well-being, purpose, etc.
- For most people, relationships are key. But it shouldn't be assumed to be true for all (e.g, solitary hermits).
- On generalistion: At the population level, man is a social creature who seeks happiness and takes pleasure in good or virtuous deeds. At the level of the individual however, things get more disparate; some seek gains at the expense of others, some take pleasure in harm, some are selfless with little regard for their own health, etc. It is a question of dispersions of meanings. How many people are close to the central tendency and how many are outliers with very different meanings of life?
- Should the emphasis be more about avoiding the negative (e.g. pain and suffering) and less on the positive. Perhaps the latter is best achieved indirectly.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

David Bowie quote



Comic: Dilberts

Weekend funnies, courtesy of Dilbert.





Book: Risk Intelligence by Dylan Evans




"He who knows best, best knows how little he knows." - Thomas Jefferson

Risk Intelligence by Dylan Evans is all about thinking about risk and uncertainty in a coherent manner. I didn't find the book to be a 'game changer' but it is packed with lots of great examples and quotes, and it is also written in a clear style that is very easy to read. Had I not already read a fair few books on risk and human biases, I'm pretty sure Risk Intelligence would have been a eye-opener.

***1/2

Quotes

- Experts often think they know more than they do.

- Almost everyone overestimates how long the both good and bad feelings will last. ...  most people are reasonably happy most of the time, and most events do little to change that for long. ...Yet most people persist in thinking that powerful events must have long-lasting emotional consequences.

- "However sure you are that you can easily win,....there would not be a war if the other man did not also think he had a chance" - Winston Churchill.

- "The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion...draws all things else to support and agree with it." - Francis Bacon

- "Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally" - J.M. Keynes.

- As one expert gambler, the Irish race bettor J.P. McManus, told me, a nice who has lost all his bets at the racetrack in the morning may be so desperate to back a winner before going home that he stakes everything on a horse he has never heard of in the last race of the day. J.P., on the other hand, could always take it or leave it. His motto was "There's always another race."

- "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge" - Darwin

- "If you want to succeed, double your failure rate" - Thomas J.Watson, founder of IBM

Notes to self, made while reading


- Risk Intelligence (RI) concerns judgement based on rational calculation and well calibrated intuitive feelings, as opposed to being misinformed by biases (e.g. overconfidence, availability heuristic, wishful thinking, confirmation bias, etc). RI enables the decision maker to feel comfortable and make decisions when faced with uncertainty...

- CSI effect: the jury expects more proof than the forensic evidence can deliver.  Even DNA and fingerprints are about probabilities.

- Airport security: there is a difference between feeling safe and being safe. How much is theatre?

- Some hazards evoke a stronger emotional response than others. Think about terrorism, global warming, homicide, road accidents. Emotion affects risk appetite, and leads to things like the 1% doctrine. 

- Wishful thinking: seeing the world as you think it should be as opposed to how it is.


- RI is easily distorted by the madness of crowds, the influence of the herd.

- Without underplaying the value the basic statistical knowledge, RI doesn't necessarily mean a person has a very strong capability for probability theory. A lot can be intuitive. Some games requires probability theory e.g. casinos, but for many aspects of life you don't need to know, and often can't know, the odds of events.

- Be aware when probabilities are expressions of certain events (e.g. coin toss), or are subjective expressions (e.g. assigning a probability to a business failing).

- A frequent characteristic of successful gamblers: "They all knew their strengths and weaknesses very well and were brutally honest with themselves. Many of them kept accurate and detailed records of their earnings and losses, and they reviewed their strategies regularly to learn from their mistakes."

Friday, January 22, 2016

Book: Letters from a Stoic by Seneca


 

Toward the end of this book's excellent introduction, a portion of my anticipation for reading Seneca's letters was replaced with dread when I read that a critic noted of the philosopher's hard-hitting style, that 'to read him straightforward is like dining on nothing but anchovy sauce.' I like my anchovy sauce as much as the next man but this filled me with caution.

Having just read the first letter, which is printed below, I'm happy to report that any fears were unfounded and the translation is highly readable. In fact, I'm already sensing that Letters from a Stoic will be a keeper.
LETTER II (with a few lines taken out)

Judging from what you tell me and from what I hear, I feel that you show great promise. You do not tear from place to place and unsettle yourself with one move after another. Restlessness of that sort is symptomatic of a sick mind. Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.

....You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind. To be everywhere is to be nowhere. People who spend their whole life traveling abroad end up having plenty of places where they can find hospitality but no real friendships. The same must needs be the case with people who never set about acquiring an intimate acquaintanceship with any one great writer, but skip from one to another, playing flying visits to them all.... nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent changes of treatment; a wound will not heal over it if it being made the subject of experiments with different ointments; a plant which is frequently moved never grows strong. Nothing is so useful that it can be of any service in the mere passing. A multitude of books only gets in one’s way. So if you are unable to read all the books in your possession, you have enough when you have all the books you are able to read. And if you say, ‘But I feel like opening different books at different times’, my answer will be this: tasting one dish after another is the sign of a fussy stomach, and where the foods are dissimilar and diverse in range they lead to contamination of the system, not nutrition. So always read well-tried authors, and if at any moment you find yourself wanting a change from a particular author, go back to ones you have read before.

Each day, too, acquire something which will help you to face poverty, or death, and other ills as well. After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day. This is what I do myself; out of the many bits I have been reading I lay hold of one. My thought for today is something which I found in Epicurus (yes, I actually make a practice of going over to the enemy’s camp – by way of reconnaissance, not as a deserter!). ‘A cheerful poverty,’ he says, ‘is an honourable state.’ But if it is cheerful it is not poverty at all. It is not the man who has too little who is poor, but the one who hankers after more. What difference does it make how much there is laid away in a man’s safe or in his barns, how many head of stock he grazes or how much capital he puts out at interest, if he is always after what is another’s and only counts what he has yet to get, never what he has already. You ask what is the proper limit to a person’s wealth? First, having what is essential, and second, having what is enough.

Book quotes: The Oxford Book of Humourous Quotations (4th and final installment)


This must be Thursday. I could never get the hang of Thursdays.  - Douglas Adams

I do love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as the go past. - Douglas Adams

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford. - Samuel Johnson

I wouldn't mind seeing China if I could come back the same day. - Philip Larkin

I can resist everything except temptation.  - Oscar Wilde

War is God's way of teaching Americans geography - Anonymous 

Wealth and power are much more likely to be the result of breading than they are of reading. - Fran Lebowitz

The English winter - ending in July. To recommence in August. - Lord Byron

There is no such thing as bad weather. Only inappropriate clothing. - Ranulph Fiennes.

Nothing is really work, unless you would rather be doing something else. - J.M. Barrie

Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? There's a support group for that. It's called EVERYBODY and they meet at the bar. - Drew Carey

I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. - Jerome K. Jerome 
 

The 4th industrial revolution is over-hyped - a video from the FT at Davos





Pensions - the unfairness explained

Setting aside any political motivations for the introduction of flat-rate tax relief on pensions contributions, we should appreciate the unfairness of the current system. Journalists typically give the following types of examples to explain the current situation:

Basic rate tax payers currently need to put in 80p for every pound that goes into their pension, as they get 20% tax relief. Middle rate tax payers, who pay an income tax rate of 40%,  need to put just 60p in for every pound. Lastly, those in the highest income tax bracket (i.e. at the 45% tax rate) need to put in just 55p for each pound that goes in to their pension.

I think that it is misguided to look at the percentages from this perspective. Instead, lets see what happens when we view the rebates in a rate of return context, i.e. how much does your contribution grow by as a result of the relief.

Low rate: 80p to £1 is day-one gain of 25%
Middle rate: 60p to £1 is a day-one gain of 67%
High rate:  55p to £1 is a day-one gain of 82%

This clearly shows how distorted things are and it explains why the highest rate tax payers have a much greater incentive to stuff their money into a pension: not only do they have a lot more spare money but they are offered a rate of return that is more than three times the rate available to low rate tax payers. The distortions skew incentives even more under the new pensions regime, as pensioners are no longer forced to buy low-rate annuities on retirement and can take 25% of their pension pot tax free at the age of 55. In effect, high rate tax payers can treat a portion of their pension more like a long-date bond with unbelievable returns.

It's a greet wheeze that nobody can be blamed for taking advantage of, but things do need to change. Come the March Budget, it will be interesting to see if the chancellor merely rebalaces the system with a single tax-relief rate for all (e.g. 30% relief, which works out to a gain of almost 43% on all contributions), or whether the government sneakily uses the overhaul as an opportunity to raise tax revenue by introducing a much lower rate.

We'll revisit this post once the budget details are confirmed.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Book: Meditations by Marcus Aurelius




The Meditations are a fascinating set of fragmentary personal notes from the Roman Emperor Philosopher Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180), who was a student and practitioner of Stoicism.  It's not clear how these notes were used by the emperor if indeed they were used at all, or what the intention was when Marcus was putting them together, but publication for a wider audience doesn't appear to have been a goal. Bearing that in mind, we should count ourselves lucky the journals survived and were discovered in later years.

The format of the notes - a hodge-podge collection of reflections, exhortations, addresses to the self, philosophic reminders, aphorisms and excerpts - suggests Marcus was creating his own personal reference guide to help guide him along his life's journey, and what a journey it was. His father passed away early on and Marcus was adopted first by his grandfather and then his uncle, who became the Emperor of Rome after Hadrian's passing. When his uncle subsequently passed away, the baton was handed to Marcus and Lucius Verus Commodus (Lucius had also been adopted by the uncle), and together the two brothers ruled as joint-emperors. (Click here for more on Marcus Aurelius' biography.)

Marcus Aurelius appears to have enjoyed a relatively successful reign but he didn't have it easy. There were revolts, invasions, famines and plagues, and the emperor also suffered personal misfortunes, including illnesses and the death of thirteen out of fourteen children. Against this backdrop, and with Marcus clearly finding a mental home in the doctrines of Stocisim, it is no surprise that the Meditations comes across in parts as emotionless, cold and austere. The striking surprise though is just how much material remains applicable for people aspiring to live a good life that is led by the higher self. Themes touched upon include: death; loss; glory; impermanence; fate; self-control; indifference and triviality; reason; fame; admirable traits; loss; character; triviality and perspective. I found much to contemplate and will try to integrate at least some of the widsom into my own thinking.

I highly recommend the Penguin edition of the Meditations. It has a great preface and introduction and the reference Notes are also very well put together. I will provide quotes from the book in future posts.

*****

Book quotes: The Oxford Book of Humourous Quotations (3rd installment)

I'm free of all prejudice. I hate everyone equally. - W.C. Fields

I always have a quotation for everything - it saves original thinking. - Dorothy L.Sayers

'Classic'. A book which people praise but don't read. - Mark Twain

I went to a restaurant that served 'breakfast any time.' So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance. - Steven Wright

The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.  - Rita Mae Brown

I don't deserve this award, but I have arthritis, and I don't deserve that either. - Jack Benny

The amount of sleep required by the average person is about five minutes more. - Anonymous.

Rise early. Work late. Strike oil. - John Paul Getty

It's difficult to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys. - Helen Osbourne

There's no deodorant like success. - Elizabeth Taylor

Whenever a friend succeeds, something in me dies.  - Gore \Vidal

Films: Star Wars & Rango


The latest installment of Star Wars is an enjoyable film that is worth seeing at the big screen if you are remotely interested in this kind of thing. I do think the movie it felt too much like a deliberate nostalgic mash-up and was lacking in originality to warrant the high praise being heaped upon it, but perhaps the expectations bar was set a little too high for this one.

*** 1/2

I also saw the animated feature Rango (2011) on Netflix the following day and thought it was pretty dang amazing. The script is clever and zippy, and while it is probably several steps too advanced for the younger audience, the quality of the animation visuals is up there with the best I have seen (possibly even the best), and this seemed sufficient to keep young minds transfixed.

****

Talking about aninations, I'm surprised we haven't seen a full scale animated feature that is targeted only at the mature audience. Movies like Rango and The Fanastastic Mr.Fox may appeal across the spectrum but just once I would like to see somebody like Tarantino go wild with his imagination and create something for the grown-ups. Such a movie could always be cut and modified to make a PG version at low cost, if this was deemed necessary for the numbers to work. The funny thing is we haven't really see anyone even try this, but here's hoping.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Book quotes: The Oxford Book of Humourous Quotations (2nd installment)


I don't want to achieve immortality through my work...I want to achieve it through not dying.  - Woody Allen

I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather ... not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car. - Anonymous

Depression is merely anger without enthusiasm. - Steven Wright

That's okay, we can walk to the kerb from here - Woody Allen on Annie's parking in Annie Hall

I'm English and as such crave disappointment. - Bill Bailey

An Englishman, even if alone, forms an orderly queue of one. - George Mikes

There's no such thing as fun for the whole family - Seinfeld

The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened.  - Saki

If only God would give me some clear sign! Like making a large deposit in my name at a Swiss bank.  - Woody Allen

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, where does that leave God? - Anonymous

There is only one thing in the world worse than being talking about, and that is not being talked about.  - Oscar Wilde

My son's taken up meditation - at least it's better than sitting around doing nothing. - Max Kauffman

You know everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.  - Will Rogers

He never chooses an opinion, he just wears whatever happens to be in style. - Leo Tolstoy

Life doesn't imitate art, it imitates bad television - Woody Allen

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must  keep moving forward. - Albert Einstein 

Life is just one damned thing after another.  - Elbert Hubbard

We're all in this together - by ourselves. - Lily Tomlin

Most of one's life .... is one prolonged effort to prevent oneself thinking. - Aldous Huxley

Most people die without ever having lived. Luckily for them, they don't realise it. - Henrik Ibsen

The man who is denied the opportunity of taking decisions of importance begins to regards as important the decisions he is allowed to take.  - C.Northcote Parkinson

Do you think I would marry anyone who would marry me? - Henry James

Marriage isn't a word...it's a sentence. - King Vidor (in The Crowd)

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, then what are we to make of an empty desk. - Anonymous

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking it is stupid. - Anonymous

Facebook is for people who can't face books - Madeline Beard

Why would I tweet when I've not yet read The Brothers Karamazov? - Michael Palin

A fool and his money are soon parted. What I want to know is how they got together in the first place.  - Cyril Fletcher

A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it's raining. Robert Frost.

A bank is a place that will lend you money if you can prove that you don't need it. - Bob Hope

All I ask it the chance to prove that money can't make me happy. - Spike Milligan

I never think of the future. It comes soon enough. - Albert Einstein

What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet. - Woody Allen

You would not like Nietzsche. sir. He is fundamentally unsound. - P.G. Wodehouse.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book: The Oxford Book of Humourous Quotations by Gyles Brandreth

The Oxford Book of Humourous Quotations is a great coffee table book, offering a trove of witty quips from across the cultural spectrum.



My favourite quotes are recorded below, with more to follow in future posts.

---

When you do Shakespeare they think you must be intelligent because they think you understand what you're saying. - Helen Mirren

I used to work for a living, then I became an actor. - Roger Moore

Talk low, talk slow, and don't say much. - John Wayne

She generally gave herself very good advice (though very seldom followed it) - Lewis Carrol

Just remember, once you're over the hill you begin to pick up speed. - Charles Monroe Schulz

I feel like I'm twenty again, but with arthritis - Sylvester Stallone on the latest Rambo installment

Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter.  - Leroy Paige

Nothing makes a man so adventurous as an empty pocket - Victor Hugo

California is a fine place to live, if you happen to be an orange. - Fred Allen

The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children.  - Edward VIII

Honey bees are amazing creatures. I mean, think about it, do earwigs make chutney? - Eddie Izzard

I live in a city. I know sparrows from starlings. After that everything's a duck as far as I'm concerned. - Terry Pratchett 

It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take advantage of them.  - P.G. Wodehouse

My body is a temple and my temple needs redecorating.- Joan Rivers

Imagination without skill gives us modern art. - Tom Stoppard

The play was a great success, but the audience was a total failure.  - Oscar Wilde

GAMBLER: Say, is this a game of chance?
CUTHBERT J.TWILLIE: Not the way I play it.
- W.C. Fields

It may be that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong - but that's the way to bet.  - Damon Runyon

He is not only dull in himself but the cause of dullness in others. - Samuel Foote

The covers of this book are too far apart. - Ambrose Bierce

No furniture so charming as books. - Sydney Smith

I'll give you a definite maybe. - Sam Goldwyn

Children: You spend the first two years of their life teaching them to walk and talk. Then you spend the next sixteen years telling them to sit down and shut up. -Anonymous

I want my children to have all the things I couldn't afford. Then I want to move in with them.  - Phyllis Diller

You know you're working class when your tv is bigger than your bookcase. - Rob Beckett

They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. They're not laughing now.  - Bob Monkhouse.

The most remarkable thing about my mother was that for thirty years she served nothing but left-overs. The original meal was never found.  - Tracy Ullman

A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.  - Kenneth Tynan

Book: Supersense by Bruce Hood



While I didn't make it to the end of Supersense - it rambled on a little too much for my liking - I did at least take away a valuable lesson: that we all harbour some level of superstitious beliefs, holding the rational and non-rational side by side as we go about our business.

Bruce Hood hypothesises that culture and religion capitalise on our inclination to infer hidden dimensions to reality and while these beliefs will evolve over a person's lifetime, all of us hold these beliefs to differing extents. For example, I tend to think of myself as a pretty cold rationalist for the most part, but would still feel a bit weird throwing darts at a picture of a baby's face, or wearing a murderer's cardigan. And I don't think I could live in a house where somebody has been murdered in the recent past. Some logical reasoning can help to explain some of these inclinations, but I know for sure that some of the feeling is also down to 'it just doesn't feel right' supersense, which has no logic supporting it. Others believe in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, evil omens, homeopathy, and lots of other general superstitions such not walking under a ladder or knocking on wood for good luck.  On the supernatural side of things, beliefs may stem from religion (angels, jinn, god, the devil) but can also be secular (e.g. ESP, telepathy, clairvoyance). One way or another, it's all magical thinking in the sense that it isn't properly evidence backed or supported by natural laws as we currently understand them, and yet such thinking continues to pervade our apparently 'Enlightened' minds.With human minds instinctively geared to seek causes for all events, it is no surprise that lots of superstitious beliefs permeate the modern world (think of all the little superstitious rituals of sports stars), and as much as we may wish this wasn't the case, these beliefs are likely to be with us for some time yet.

**1/2

Dilbert: Spreadsheets


source

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Book: The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Cosanocha


The Start-Up of You is a pretty good career advice book that applies the mindset of the Silicon Valley entrepreneur to the modern worker.

The gist of the book is that the modern worker can stack the odds of career success in their favour by preparing for a future that can't be predicted. Examples of ways to go about succeeding in this world of constant disruption include developing transferable skills (by investing heavily in yourself) and competitive advantages, networking, and intelligent risk taking (e.g. working on multiple side projects that may or may not flourish, and pursuing break-out opportunities when they arise). Importantly, their is no stasis in the world of the dynamic go-getter, instead his world is one of 'permanent beta', where the only plan that doesn't change is the plan to constantly adapt. It all makes sense and is quite enthusing, but at the same time it is also rather tiring, if that makes any sense.

One concept I particularly liked is the idea of an ABZ approach to a career, where 'A' is the original plan that you are pursuing, 'B' is a pivot off the journey to 'A' to a new plan (i.e. it is born from the original journey), and 'Z' is a non-desirable fail-safe or fall-back. Think of Z as the lifeboat option that covers the worst case scenario. it could include things like having your basic requirements such as a roof over your head and a reasonable pension covered, being ready to accept a minimum wage job to make ends meet, etc). The problem for many folks I guess, is that getting the the 'Plan Z' lifeboat ocean-ready can end up being a life's work in itself. However, if you can have a fall-back in place so you aren't destitute when the AB journey fails, and there are always failures along the way, you are in a much better place to take intelligent risks along the way.

An executive summary of the book can be found here.

***

Quotes

- Easy success had transformed the American auto companies into risk-averse, non-meritocratic, bloated bureaucracies. When the competition heated up and customer needs changed, the company executives and the autoworker employee unions did not adapt. Instead, they did more of the same. ...Detroit was once the symbol of progress, of what is good and possible. The auto industry was once the symbol of entrepreneurship. Now Detroit is the symbol of despair.
Detroits are Everywhere.

- ...it doesn't matter how hard you've worked or how passionate you are about an aspiration: If someone won't pay for your services in the career marketplace, it's going to be a very hard slog. You aren't entitled to anything.

- ...contrary to what many bestselling authors and motivational gurus would have you believe, there is not a 'true self' deep within that you can uncover via introspection and that will point you in the right direction. Yes, your aspirations are themselves shaped by your actions and experiences. But your aspirations are themselves shaped by your actions and experiences. You remake yourself as you grow and the world changes. Your identity doesn't get found. It emerges.

- ... we are all risk takers. But we are not all equally intelligent about how we do it. Many people think you get career stability by minimising risk. But ironically, in a changing world, that's one of the riskiest things you can do.  ... Rather than avoiding risk, if you take intelligent risks, it will give you a competitive edge.

- For the start-up of you, the only long-term answer to risk is resilience. Remember: If you don't find risk, risk will find you.

- ...relationships matter because the people you spend time with shape who you are and who you become. Behaviour and beliefs are contagious; you easily 'catch' the emotional state of you friends, imitate their actions, and absorb their values as your own. If your friends are the type of people who get stuff done, chances are you'll be that way, too. The fastest way to change yourself is to hang out with people who are already the way you want to be.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Book: Plum Pie by P.G. Wodehouse


I do have high expectations when I pick up a Wodehouse, and while they weren't dashed completely in this instance, I'd say about half of the stories from Plum Pie just didn't take.

***

Memorable language

'I believe he gave uniform satisfaction, sir.'

'a man of infinite resource'

'waterfront language'

'Yes, sir, a stiffness certainly existed. There was no fusion between your souls.'

'Yes, sir. Mr Eggleston is one of our angry young novelists.' ...'What's he angry about?'.
'Life, sir.'
'He disapproves of it?'
'So one would gather from his output, sir.'

'...did you happen to drink in any of the conversation that was taking place?'

It was one of those trains that has not become attuned to the modern spirit of speed and hustle...

Sunday, January 10, 2016

I like this chart on social change in America

Click on the picture to embiggen. From Bloomberg.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Book: Meet Mr Mulliner by P.G. Wodehouse


Meet Mr Mulliner presents a collection of hilarious family tales told by the great yarn-spinner Mr Mulliner. This is Wodehouse at his very best. Highly recommended.

*****

Memorable lines and snippets

My dear Augustine (wrote Angela Mulliner), 

I have been thinking so much about you lately, and I cannot forget that, when I saw you last, you seemed very fragile and deficient in vitamins. I do hope you take care of yourself .
I have been feeling for some time that you ought to take a tonic, and by a lucky chance Wilfred has just invented one which he tells me is the finest thing he has ever done. It is called Buck-U-Uppo, and acts directly on the red corpuscles. It is not yet on the market, but I have managed to smuggle a sample bottle from Wilfred's laboratory, and I want you to try it at once. I am sure it is just what
vou need.

Your affectionate aunt,

Angela Mulliner.

---

"DARKLING (A Threnody).
By L. Bassington Mulliner.

(Copyright in all languages, including the Scandinavian.)

" Black branches,
Like a corpse s withered hands,
Waving against the blacker sky :
Chill winds,
Bitter like the tang of half-remembered sins;
Bats wheeling mournfully through the air,
And on the ground
Worms,
Toads,
Frogs,
And nameless creeping things;
And all around
Desolation,
Doom,
Dyspepsia,
And Despair.
I am a bat that wheels through the air of Fate:
I am a worm that wriggles in a swamp of Disillusionment;
I am a despairing toad;
I have got dyspepsia."
---

What with taxes and super-taxes and death duties and falling land-values, there has of recent years
been very, very little of the right stuff in the Biddlecombe sock. Shake the family money-box and you will hear but the faintest rattle.

---

'He shut his eyes, and presently sleep, which has been well called Tired Nature's Sweet Restorer, brought oblivion.'

'oblige me'

'sorrow and disillusionment racked within Mulliner like a physical pain.'

'a warm performer on the Stock Exchange'

'a devil of a fellow'

'his morale had been shattered into fragments'

'the man of action and the man of letters do not always go hand in hand.'

Book: Mr Mulliner Speaking


Mr Mulliner Speaking is another corker of a collection of stories from the great P.G. Wodehouse. It's not quite on par with Meet Mr Mulliner, but is still a top notch comic read.

****

Memorable lines and snippets

'Be big and broad. Think spaciously.'

'....all his better nature recoiled from it.'

'...he was a man with a position to keep. Younger men looked up to him for guidance.'

'My views in kindness to animals is rigid. My impulse, on encountering a rabbit, is to offer it lettuce. To my family, on the other hand, a rabbit is incomplete without a deposit of small shot in it.
..My elder brother Reginald spreads destruction in every branch of the animal kingdom'.

'It is pretty generally recognised that he is beyond the reach human science. The only thing seems to be to let him go on til he eventually runs down.'

'She had supposed him one who lived, far above this world's coarseness and grime, on a rarified plane of his own, thinking beautiful thoughts.'

Half a million hits

Wow, my blog has been visited half a million times.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Books: A couple of fails, a couple of successes


David Mitchell's books tend to get rave reviews and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is no exception. It sounded fantastic, however when I started reading it I found myself struggling to find a way in. After a couple of attempts, I had to throw in the towel and move on.



Michael Bond, the famed creator of Paddington Bear, also has a string of delightful detective novels to his name. The Monsieur Pamplemousse series isn't a touch on Wodehouse, but is proving entertaining enough. I lost interest in the The Carbon Footprint (*) and called it quits at around the halfway mark, but The French Solution was very good (****) and I'm also enjoying The Militant Midwives (****).

Memorable lines from Monsieur Pamplemousse and the French Connection

Afterwards he was to realise that even a spider's web has to start somewhere.

'Life, Aristride,' began the Director, 'is not all champagne and boules'
... (Aristride) 'I imagine in Russia they probably use the phrase "vodka and onions".'

'It is said that God smiles when he looks down on people and sees them making plans.'

The same flowers were in bloom, confirming his initial suspicions that they were probably vacuumed every morning rather than watered.

'He has an important day ahead of him tomorrow and he needs all his faculties.'

Unfitbit

Just before Christmas, I mentioned that I would like to have shorted a US company called Fitbit. At the time, Fitbit's share price was about $28.50. It's only been just over a week and the stock has already fallen down to $22.95!

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Not another article on dieting

Yes, not just another article on dieting, but one that is well worth reading.

In this carefully considered piece, food writer Bee Wilson discusses how healthy eating is a learned behaviour that we can change, and is something that extends well beyond simply knowing which foods are 'good' or 'bad'. We may not know which is the best of all diets, and nutrition science often produces contradictory headlines, but this masks the bigger issue of out cultural reluctance to change our behaviours and preferences e.g. a default assumption from parents is that their children won't like vegetables and fruits. I particularly like her point that well intentioned acts such as covertly sneaking vegetables in food, or feeding children healthy equivalents of foods that are packaged like junk foods (e.g. healthy crisps), does the opposite of encouraging healthy eating behaviours.

"We think we are being clever when we smuggle some beetroot into a cake. Ha! Tricked you into eating root vegetables! But since the child is not conscious that they are consuming beetroot, the main upshot is to entrench their liking for cake. A far cleverer thing would be to help children learn to become adults who choose vegetables consciously, of their own accord."

"There are three big things we would all benefit from learning to do: to follow structured mealtimes; to respond to our own internal cues for hunger and fullness, rather than relying on external cues such as portion size; and to make ourselves open to trying a variety of foods. All these three can be taught to children, which suggests that adults could learn them too."

Monday, January 04, 2016

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

It looks like another season of this great little web-series by Jerry Seinfeld has just kicked off. The first episode features US President Obama of all people, and is both funny and insightful. If you're a Seinfeld fan, last season's episode with Julia-Louis Dreyfus is also brilliant, as is the one with Jim Carey.