Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my next reading was to be this novella by H.P. Lovecraft.  As I also said, one of the criticisms of the Lovecraft treasury I read before was the omission of this work. I now see why.  I found this story to be at least as enjoyable as any of the others I've read.  In many ways Ward is better, mainly due to its length.  Lovecraft is able to really delve into the characters and create a depth that is very enjoyable, and also create a plot that does not have to be hurried through.  That's not to say that everything is explained, however.  One of the reasons I like Lovecraft is he leaves a lot to the imagination: In this case you never really find out the antagonist's ultimate motive or who exactly some of the characters are, and even though the book seems to wrap up quite nicely, there are enough unanswered questions to make you ponder about what could still happen in the future.

If you are interested in this excellent short work, you can read it here for free, along with many other Lovecraft stories.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Black Swan

This book, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is difficult to review. It represents such a non-conventional way of thinking (and acting) and covers so much material it’s hard to do it justice.

Taleb defines a “Black Swan” as an event with the following characteristics:
  • It is an outlier.
  • It carries an extreme impact.
  • It has retrospective predictability.

He also believes that “A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world…” Events like market crashes and major wars are very good examples of what Black Swans are all about – they are rare in occurrence, have a widespread impact and are subject to postmortem analysis as to why they happened (even though the analysis is usually wrong or incomplete). Taleb states that the bulk of the historical gain of the stock market is due to these Black Swan-type events.

A good part of the book is a lesson against overusing Gaussian bell-curve analysis, especially for social issues like economics, psychology and sociology. Bell curves assume linear relationships, whereas real life demonstrates non-linear characteristics. Mandelbrot’s work in chaos theory is heavily emphasized as having particular relevance to the real, empirical world. My own study of chaos theory confirms many of Taleb’s arguments.

Predictability, or actually non-predictability, is another main focus. It’s very, very difficult to predict anything because of the non-linear nature of most activities. However, plenty of people claim to be able to predict things (economists, meteorologists, et al) by extrapolating historical data. Well, we’ve all seen how well that works. Predictions may be successful in the very short term, but inevitably those Black Swans jump in and mess everything up.

My biggest question while reading the book, however was “How am I supposed to live my life in Extremeistan (Nassim’s name for the world of Black Swans)?” Obviously, it’s not by following the conventional wisdom and predictions we routinely see in our daily lives, since Black Swans ruin much of that wisdom. Taleb suggests that we look at everything critically and skeptically. Don’t blindly follow the advice of so-called “experts”, especially when their “expertise” is in volatile fields. One particularly useful piece of specific advice the author gives is using the so-called “barbell” investment strategy (Taleb was a securities trader for many years), which calls for simultaneous investment in hyper-conservative securities and in hyper-aggressive securities. That way the bulk of your investment is secure (85-90%), while the remainder can take advantage of positive Black Swans (securities that may increase in value dramatically).

The sheer quantity of information in this book is staggering (although sometimes a bit repetitive), and I can’t begin to do it justice, so reading it carefully will take some time for most people, even though it is only 300 pages long. It’s well worth the investment of time, however. I found it to be a very mind-opening experience.

Monday, March 15, 2010

If his lips are moving, he must be...

A breakdown of some of Will Barclay's statement about declining to run for Congress in NY-23:

When I set about on this quest to be elected to represent the people of New York’s 23rd district in the United States Congress, I fully expected that at this point I would be issuing a statement detailing why I think we need to replace liberal Democrat Bill Owens…

Bill Owens is a moderate, not a liberal.

We live in a time of rampant cynicism so maybe it won’t take long for some cynic to gleefully throw at me that famous line by George Bernard Shaw: “When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty.”

I fully expect and resign myself to accepting that my citing duty as the reason for my decision will be dismissed by some, perhaps by many, with cynical comments. So be it.

It’s not cynical to state that if a Republican wins this seat, the 23rd will probably not exist after 2012. Which means either one-and-done or having to run in another district then.

Had I run for Congress I would have had a duty to those who support my candidacy to put in as much time on the campaign trail as my opponents. There are only two ways I could do that.

One way would be to go out campaigning even when I was duty-bound to be in Albany working at the job to which the people have already elected me and for which the taxpayers are paying me to perform. This may well be something that occurs all the time – but I could not in good conscience do that. It’s just not right.

It didn’t stop you from running for State Senate, though, did it?

In a different year, I could have and would have made a different decision.

So, in other circumstances, you would have no problem in “shirking your duty”?

Finally, as I have already pledged in writing: I will support whichever candidate Republican voters choose in the primary. Any candidate worthy of the Republican nomination must, in my view, do the same.

Heh. An obvious slam at Hoffman. Are you sure you’ll support him if he wins the primary?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tales of H.P. Lovecraft

This book is my introduction to the writings of Lovecraft, the classic horror writer who inspired generations of writers like Stephen King.  Lovecraft's stories have a similar feel to Edgar Allen Poe's, but with some science fiction thrown in for good measure.  For many years I have been somewhat familiar with the Cthulhu Mythos, but never really looked into the works of the creator until my son purchased this volume and passed it on to me when he finished.  I am now a fan.

This particular volume (of which there are many) includes ten of his more popular works like, The Call of Cthulhu, The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow out of Time.  In reading other reviews, it appears the main criticism is the absence of his classic The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which I have since acquired and will read next.

As a big fan of Poe I have thoroughly enjoyed this collection, being in a similar vein.  Whether you are a fan of classic horror or science fiction, especially if you are a Stephen King fan, you owe it to yourself to read the works of the man King called, "The Twentieth Century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale."  You won't regret it.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Party of No Redux

An interesting article on MSNBC.com today:

Analysis: Republicans setting filibuster record
GOP senators are on pace to triple previous uses of procedural obstruction

The frequency of filibusters — plus threats to use them — are measured by the number of times the upper chamber votes on cloture. Cloture is a Senate procedure to end debate so other business can be brought to the floor. Such votes test the majority's ability to hold together 60 members to break a filibuster.

In the 110th Congress of 2007-2008, there were a record 112 cloture votes. In this session of Congress, the 111th — for all of 2009 and the first two months of 2010 — the number already exceeds 40.

The most the Democrats have ever use the filibuster was 58 times in the 106th Congress of 1999-2000.

So the next time you wonder why nothing gets done in Washington, here's a big part of the answer.