« September 2011 | Main | November 2011 »

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reading List: No One Would Listen

Markopolos, Harry. No One Would Listen. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. ISBN 978-0-470-91900-2.
Bernard L. “Bernie” Madoff was a co-founder of NASDAQ, founder and CEO of a Wall Street firm which became one of the top market makers, and operator of a discretionary money management operation which dwarfed hedge funds and provided its investors a reliable return in markets up and down which no other investment vehicle could approach. Madoff was an elder statesman of Wall Street, respected not only for his success in business but also for philanthropic activities.

On December 10th, 2008, Madoff confessed to his two sons that his entire money management operation had been, since inception, a Ponzi scheme, and the next day he was arrested by the FBI for securities fraud. After having pleaded guilty to 11 federal felony charges, he was sentenced to 150 years in federal incarceration, which sentence he will be serving for the foreseeable future. The total amount of money under management in Madoff's bogus investment scheme is estimated as US$65 billion, although estimates of actual losses to investors are all over the map due to Madoff's keeping transactions off the books and offshore investors' disinclination to make claims for funds invested with Madoff which they failed to disclose to their domicile tax authorities.

While this story broke like a bombshell on Wall Street, it was anything but a surprise to the author who had figured out back in the year 2000, “in less than five minutes”, that Madoff was a fraud. The author is a “quant”—a finance nerd who lives and breathes numbers, and when tasked by his employer to analyse Madoff, a competitor for their investors' funds, and devise a financial product which could compete with Madoff's offering, he almost immediately realised that Madoff's results were too good to be true. First of all, Madoff claimed to be using a strategy of buying stocks with a “collar” of call and put options, with stocks picked from the S&P 100 stock index. Yet it was easy to demonstrate, based upon historical data from the period of Madoff's reported results, that any such strategy could not possibly avoid down periods much more serious than Madoff reported. Further, such a strategy, given the amount of money Madoff had under management, would have required him to have placed put and call option hedges on the underlying stocks which greatly exceeded the total open interest in such options. Finally, Madoff's whole operation made no sense from the standpoint of a legitimate investment business: he was effectively paying 16% for capital in order to realise a 1% return on transaction fees while he could, by operating the same strategy as a hedge fund, pocket a 4% management fee and a 20% participation in the profits.

Having figured this out, the author assumed that simply submitting the facts in the case to the regulator in charge, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), would quickly bring the matter to justice. Well, not exactly. He made his first submission to the SEC in May of 2000, and the long saga of regulatory incompetence began. A year later, articles profiling Madoff and skating near the edge of accusing him of fraud were published in a hedge fund trade magazine and Barron's, read by everybody in the financial community, and still nothing happened. Off-the-record conversations with major players on Wall Street indicated that many of them had concluded that Madoff was a fraud, and indeed none of the large firms placed money with him, but ratting him out to The Man was considered infra dig. And so the sheep were sheared to the tune of sixty-five billion dollars, with many investors who had entrusted their entire fortune to Madoff or placed it with “feeder funds”, unaware that they were simply funnelling money to Madoff and skimming a “management and performance fee” off the top without doing any due diligence whatsoever, losing everything.

When grand scale financial cataclysms like this erupt, the inevitable call is for “more regulation”, as if “regulation” ever makes anything more regular. This example gives the lie to this perennial nostrum—all of the operations of Madoff, since the inception of his Ponzi scheme 1992 until its undoing in 2008, were subject to regulation by the SEC, and the author argues persuasively that a snap audit at any time during this period, led by a competent fraud investigator who demanded trade confirmation tickets and compared them with exchange transaction records would have uncovered the fraud in less than an hour. And yet this never happened, demonstrating that the SEC is toothless, clueless, and a poster child for regulatory capture, where a regulator becomes a client of the industry it is charged to regulate and spends its time harassing small operators on the margin while turning a blind eye to gross violations of politically connected players.

An archive of original source documents is available on the book's Web site.

Posted at 23:34 Permalink

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Reading List: The Guns of August

Tuchman, Barbara W. The Guns of August. New York: Presidio Press, [1962, 1988] 2004. ISBN 978-0-345-47609-8.
In 1871 Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, chief of the Prussian General Staff and architect of modern German military strategy, wrote “no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force”, an observation which is often paraphrased as “No plan survives contact with the enemy”. This is doubtless the case, but as this classic history of the diplomatic run-up to World War I and the initial hostilities from the outbreak of the war through the First Battle of the Marne demonstrates, plans, treaties, and military and political structures put into place long before open conflict erupts can tie the hands of decision makers long after events have proven them obsolete.

I first read this book in the 1980s, and I found upon rereading it now with the benefit of having since read a number of other accounts of the period, both contemporary and historical, that I'd missed or failed to fully appreciate some important points on the first traverse.

The first is how crunchy and rigid the system of alliances among the Great Powers was in the years before the War, and also the plans of mobilisation of the land powers: France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Viewed from a prewar perspective many thought these arrangements were guarantors of security: creating a balance of power in which the ultimate harm to any aggressor was easily calculated to be far greater than any potential gain, especially as their economies became increasingly interlinked and dependent upon international trade. For economic reasons alone, any war was expected to be short—no power was believed to have the resources to sustain a protracted conflict once its trade was disrupted by war. And yet this system, while metastable near the local minimum it occupied since the 1890s, proved highly unstable to perturbations which dislodged it from that perch. The mobilisation plans of the land powers (Britain, characteristically, had no such plan and expected to muddle through based upon events, but as the preeminent sea power with global obligations it was, in a sense, perpetually mobilised for naval conflicts) were carefully choreographed at the level of detail of railroad schedules. Once the “execute” button was pushed, events would begin to occur on a nationwide scale: call-ups of troops, distribution of supplies from armories, movement of men and munitions to assembly points, rationing of key supplies, etc. Once one nation had begun to mobilise, its potential opponents ran an enormous risk if they did not also mobilise—every day they delayed was a day the enemy, once assembled in battle order, could attack them before their own preparations were complete.

This interlocking set of alliances and scripted mobilisation plans finally proved lethal in 1914. On July 28, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia and began mobilisation. Russia, as an ally of Serbia and seeing its position in the Balkans threatened, declared a partial mobilisation on July 29. Germany, allied to Austria-Hungary and threatened by the Russian mobilisation, decreed its own mobilisation on July 30. France, allied with Russia and threatened by Germany, began mobilisation on August 1st. Finally, Britain, allied with France and Russia, declared war on Germany on August 4th. Europe, at peace the morning of Tuesday, July 28th, was, by the evening of Tuesday, August 4th, at war with itself, almost entirely due to treaties and mobilisation plans concluded in peacetime with the best of intentions, and not overt hostilities between any of the main powers involved.

It is a commonplace that World War I surpassed all historical experience and expectations at its outbreak for the scale of destruction and the brutality of the conflict (a few prescient observers who had studied the second American war of secession and developments in weaponry since then were not surprised, but they were in the minority), but this is often thought to have emerged in the period of static trench warfare which predominated from 1915 until the very end of the war. But this account makes clear that even the initial “war of maneuver” in August and September 1914 was characterised by the same callous squandering of life by commanders who adhered to their pre-war plans despite overwhelming evidence from the field that the assumptions upon which they were based were completely invalid. Both French and German commanders sent wave after wave of troops armed only with bolt-action rifles and bayonets against fortified positions with artillery and machine guns, suffering tens of thousands of casualties (some units were almost completely wiped out) with no effect whatsoever. Many accounts of World War I portray the mindless brutality of the conflict as a product of the trenches, but it was there from the very start, inherent in the prevailing view that the citizen was the property of the state to expend as it wished at the will of the ruling class (with the exception of the British, all armies in the conflict were composed largely of conscripts).

Although originally published almost half a century ago, this book remains one of the definitive accounts of the origins of World War I and the first month of the conflict, and one of outstanding literary merit (it is a Pulitzer prize winner). John F. Kennedy read the book shortly after its publication, and it is said to have made such an impression upon him that it influenced his strategy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, seeking to avoid actions which could trigger the kind of reciprocal automatic responses which occurred in the summer of 1914. Those who bewail the soggy international institutions and arrangements of the present day, where nothing is precisely as it seems and every commitment is balanced with a dozen ways to wiggle out of it, may find this book a cautionary tale of the alternative, and how a crunchy system of alliances may be far more dangerous. While reading the narrative, however, I found myself thinking not so much about diplomacy and military matters but rather how much today's globalised economic and financial system resembles the structure of the European great powers in 1914. Once again we hear that conflict is impossible because the damage to both parties would be unacceptable; that the system can be stabilised by “interventions” crafted by wise “experts”; that entities which are “too big to fail”, simply by being so designated, will not; and that the system is ultimately stable against an unanticipated perturbation which brings down one part of the vast interlocking structure. These beliefs seem to me, like those of the political class in 1914, to be based upon hope rather than evidence, and anybody interested in protecting their assets should think at some length about the consequences should one or more of them prove wrong.

Posted at 17:42 Permalink

Monday, October 10, 2011

Reading List: Cycles of Time

Penrose, Roger. Cycles of Time. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. ISBN 978-0-307-26590-6.
One of the greatest and least appreciated mysteries of contemporary cosmology is the extraordinarily special state of the universe immediately after the big bang. While at first glance an extremely hot and dense mass of elementary particles and radiation near thermal equilibrium might seem to have near-maximum entropy, when gravitation is taken into account, its homogeneity (the absence of all but the most tiny fluctuations in density) actually caused it to have a very small entropy. Only a universe which began in such a state could have a well-defined arrow of time which permits entropy to steadily increase over billions of years as dark matter and gas clump together, stars and galaxies form, and black holes appear and swallow up matter and radiation. If the process of the big bang had excited gravitational degrees of freedom, the overwhelmingly most probable outcome would be a mess of black holes with a broad spectrum of masses, which would evolve into a universe which looks nothing like the one we inhabit. As the author has indefatigably pointed out for many years, for some reason the big bang produced a universe in what appears to be an extremely improbable state. Why is this? (The preceding sketch may be a bit telegraphic because I discussed these issues at much greater length in my review of Sean Carroll's From Eternity to Here [February 2010] and didn't want to repeat it all here. So, if you aren't sure what I just said, you may wish to read that review before going further.)

In this book, Penrose proposes “conformal cyclic cosmology” as the solution to this enigma. Let's pick this apart, word by word. A conformal transformation is a mathematical mapping which preserves angles in infinitesimal figures. It is possible to define a conformal transformation (for example, the hyperbolic transformation illustrated by M. C. Escher's Circle Limit III) which maps an infinite space onto a finite one. The author's own Penrose diagrams map all of (dimension reduced) space-time onto a finite plot via a conformal transformation. Penrose proposes a conformal transformation which maps the distant future of a dead universe undergoing runaway expansion to infinity with the big bang of a successor universe, resulting in a cyclic history consisting of an infinite number of “æons”, each beginning with its own big bang and ending in expansion to infinity. The resulting cosmology is that of a single universe evolving from cycle to cycle, with the end of each cycle producing the seemingly improbable conditions required at the start of the next. There is no need for an inflationary epoch after the big bang, a multitude of unobservable universes in a “multiverse”, or invoking the anthropic principle to explain the apparent fine-tuning of the big bang—in Penrose's cosmology, the physics makes those conditions inevitable.

Now, the conformal rescaling Penrose invokes only works if the universe contains no massive particles, as only massless particles which always travel at the speed of light are invariant under the conformal transformation. Hence for the scheme to work, there must be only massless particles in the universe at the end of the previous æon and immediately after the big bang—the moment dubbed the “crossover”. Penrose argues that at the enormous energies immediately after the big bang, all particles were effectively massless anyway, with mass emerging only through symmetry breaking as the universe expanded and cooled. On the other side of the crossover, he contends that in the distant future of the previous æon almost all mass will have been accreted by black holes which then will evaporate through the Hawking process into particles which will annihilate, yielding a universe containing only massless photons and gravitons. He does acknowledge that some matter may escape the black holes, but then proposes (rather dubiously in my opinion) that all stable massive particles are ultimately unstable on this vast time scale (a hundred orders of magnitude longer than the time since the big bang), or that mass may just “fade away” as the universe ages: kind of like the Higgs particle getting tired (but then most of the mass of stable hadrons doesn't come from the Higgs process, but rather the internal motion of their component quarks and gluons).

Further, Penrose believes that information is lost when it falls to the singularity within a black hole, and is not preserved in some correlation at the event horizon or in the particles emitted as the black hole evaporates. (In this view he is now in a distinct minority of theoretical physicists.) This makes black holes into entropy destroying machines. They devour all of the degrees of freedom of the particles that fall into them and then, when they evaporate with a “pop”, it's all lost and gone away. This allows Penrose to avoid what would otherwise be a gross violation of the second law of thermodynamics. In his scheme the big bang has very low entropy because all of the entropy created in the prior æon has been destroyed by falling into black holes which subsequently evaporate.

All of this is very original, clever, and the mathematics is quite beautiful, but it's nothing more than philosophical speculation unless it makes predictions which can be tested by observation or experiment. Penrose believes that gravitational radiation emitted from the violent merger of galactic-mass black holes in the previous æon may come through the crossover and imprint itself as concentric circles of low temperature variation in the cosmic background radiation we observe today. Further, with a colleague, he argues that precisely such structures have been observed in two separate surveys of the background radiation. Other researchers dispute this claim, and the debate continues.

For the life of me, I cannot figure out to which audience this book is addressed. It starts out discussing the second law of thermodynamics and entropy in language you'd expect in a popularisation aimed at the general public, but before long we're into territory like:

We now ask for the analogues of F and J in the case of the gravitational field, as described by Einstein's general theory of relativity. In this theory there is a curvature to space-time (which can be calculated once knows how the metric g varies throughout the space-time), described by a [ 04]-tensor R, called the Riemann(-Christoffel) tensor, with somewhat complicated symmetries resulting in R having 20 independent components per point. These components can be separated into two parts, constituting a [ 04]-tensor C, with 10 independent components, called the Weyl conformal tensor, and a symmetric [ 02]-tensor E, also with 10 independent components, called the Einstein tensor (this being equivalent to a slightly different [ 02]-tensor referred to as the Ricci tensor[2.57]). According to Einstein's field equations, it is E that provides the source to the gravitational field. (p. 129)

Ahhhh…now I understand! Seriously, much of this book is tough going, as technical in some sections as scholarly publications in the field of general relativity, and readers expecting a popular account of Penrose's proposal may not make it to the payoff at the end. For those who thirst for even more rigour there are two breathtakingly forbidding appendices.

The Kindle edition is excellent, with the table of contents, notes, cross-references, and index linked just as they should be.

Posted at 21:09 Permalink

Monday, October 3, 2011

Why I Am Not a Conservative

I have borrowed the title of this piece from an essay by F. A. Hayek, published in his 1960 book, The Constitution of Liberty. Unlike Hayek, who wished to distinguish his free market and individual liberty ideas from the conservative tradition of the European continent, here I wish to explain why I have now entirely distanced myself from those in the United States (and to a lesser extent in the rest of the Anglosphere) who identify themselves as “conservatives”.

Over the years, I've gotten along fine with conservatives, finding many of their views and policy preferences congruent with my own. (Actually, I get along great with most people, regardless of their political views, because I try to spend as little of my time as possible occupied with politics, as there are so many more interesting things to do.) To the extent that conservatives promote sound money, limited government, low taxes, minimal regulation, and overall reducing the rôle of the state in the life of the citizen, we're singing from the same hymn book in perfect harmony. It's mostly when so-called “conservatives” try to use the coercive power of the state to impose their own agenda upon individuals or to export their beliefs outside their borders by military force that we part company. All such endeavours, by their very nature, involve using the power of the state to reduce the natural rights of individuals—what they choose to do with their bodies; how they earn, spend, and invest the fruits of their labour and intellectual accomplishments; and how and where they choose to live, travel, and what they do there, among a multitude of infringements upon liberty.

Among infringements upon liberty, it's difficult to top murdering citizens without any legal proceeding whatsoever. And this is what finally makes me draw the line between myself and “conservatives” in the United States. On September 30th, 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, both U.S. citizens, were killed in Yemen by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle controlled by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command under the direction of the CIA. Al-Awlaki had been placed upon a targeted killing list by officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government. There is no indictment, trial, or other judicial process required in order for an individual, U.S. citizen or otherwise, to be placed on this list—purely executive discretion.

Please read al-Awlaki's biography (yes, Wikipedia can be unreliable, especially for contentious matters in the news, but the information in this case appears to be well documented). There is little, if any assertion, no less evidence that he ever committed an overt act worthy of capital punishment. Did he incite others to such acts? Of course—there is abundant evidence of that. But, isn't doing so free speech? And, as an American citizen (al-Awlaki never renounced his U.S. citizenship, nor had he been issued a certificate of loss of nationality pursuant to 8 USC 1481 due to an expatriating act), he was entitled to the protection owed to citizens abroad, not remote control assassination.

And what did Samir Khan do to merit his summary execution? Well, as far as I can determine, he operated a blog and later edited Inspire magazine. Apparently freedom of the press goes only as far as not offending those controlling the missiles which will rub you out if your content is deemed unsuitable.

As U.S. citizens travelling abroad, al-Awlaki and Khan bore U.S. passports, which contained the language:

The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.
Perhaps this should be amended to add:
Should this citizen/national irritate the regime in Washington to a sufficient extent it deems he or she needs to be blown to bits, please stand aside and let our missiles take out our citizen on your sovereign territory without collateral damage.

Now here's the thing: I believe that the world is better off without neo-medievalist advocates of terror such as al-Awlaki and Khan, but you have to do it the right way. If they can be indicted on conspiracy or incitement charges, brought to trial, and convicted, then they should serve whatever penalty their crimes merit. But if the U.S. can kill two of its own citizens on the territory of a nation with which the U.S. is not at war, for “crimes” which appear to be nothing more than speaking and writing their own (however misguided and pernicious) opinions, then what is to prevent the U.S. from targeting anybody who disagrees with its policies anywhere in the world, at home or abroad?

My dismay at this episode was compounded many times by the reaction among the “conservative” community where, with a few notable exceptions, the general sentiment was “Ooh-raah! U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!”. National Review Online ran an on-line poll asking “Was it legal and right for the U.S, to kill Awlaki?”. A total of 87% of the 17,228 responses said “Yes”, while only 13% replied in the negative. One can only conclude that the fifth amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not figure among the principles these “conservatives” wish to conserve.

I have no desire to associate with “conservatives” of this ilk and now draw a bright line of distinction between myself and them.

Posted at 20:00 Permalink

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Reading List: Falling to Earth

Worden, Al with Francis French. Falling to Earth. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-58834-309-3.
Al Worden (his given name is Alfred, but he has gone by “Al” his whole life) was chosen as a NASA astronaut in April 1966, served as backup command module pilot for the Apollo 12 mission, the second Moon landing, and then flew to the Moon as command module pilot of Apollo 15, the first serious geological exploration mission. As command module pilot, Worden did not land on the Moon but, while tending the ship in orbit awaiting the return of his crewmates, operated a series of scientific experiments, some derived from spy satellite technology, which provided detailed maps of the Moon and a survey of its composition. To retrieve the film from the mapping cameras in the service module, Worden performed the first deep-space EVA during the return to Earth.

Growing up on a farm in rural Michigan during the first great depression and the second World War, Worden found his inclination toward being a loner reinforced by the self-reliance his circumstances forced upon him. He remarks on several occasions how he found satisfaction in working by himself and what he achieved on his own and while not disliking the company of others, found no need to validate himself through their opinions of him. This inner-directed drive led him to West Point, which he viewed as the only way to escape from a career on the farm given his family's financial circumstances, an Air Force commission, and graduation from the Empire Test Pilots' School in Farnborough, England under a US/UK exchange program.

For one inclined to be a loner, it would be difficult to imagine a more ideal mission than Worden's on Apollo 15. Orbiting the Moon in the command module Endeavour for almost three days by himself he was, at maximum distance on the far side of the Moon, more isolated from his two crewmates on the surface than any human has been from any other humans before or since (subsequent Apollo missions placed the command module in a lower lunar orbit, reducing this distance slightly). He candidly admits how much he enjoyed being on his own in the capacious command module, half the time entirely his own man while out of radio contact behind the Moon, and how his joy at the successful return of his comrades from the surface was tempered by how crowded and messy the command module was with them, the Moon rocks they collected, and all the grubby Moon dust clinging to their spacesuits on board.

Some Apollo astronauts found it difficult to adapt to life on Earth after their missions. Travelling to the Moon before you turn forty is a particularly extreme case of “peaking early”, and the question of “What next?” can be formidable, especially when the entire enterprise of lunar exploration was being dismantled at its moment of triumph. Still, one should not overstate this point: of the twenty-four astronauts who flew to the Moon, most went on to subsequent careers you'd expect for the kind of overachievers who become astronauts in the first place—in space exploration, the military, business, politics, education, and even fine arts. Few, however, fell to Earth so hard as the crew of Apollo 15. The collapse of one of their three landing parachutes before splashdown due to the canopy's being eroded due to a dump of reaction control propellant might have been seen as a premonition of this, but after the triumphal conclusion of a perfect mission, a White House reception, an address to a joint session of Congress, and adulatory celebrations on a round-the-world tour, it all came undone in an ugly scandal involving, of all things, postage stamps.

The Apollo 15 crew, like those of earlier NASA missions, had carried on board as part of their “personal preference kits” postage stamp covers commemorating the flight. According to Worden's account in this book, the Apollo 15 covers were arranged by mission commander Dave Scott, and agreed to by Worden and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin on Scott's assurance that this was a routine matter which would not affect their careers and that any sales of the covers would occur only after their retirement from NASA and the Air Force (in which all three were officers). When, after the flight, the covers began to come onto the market, an ugly scandal erupted, leading to the Apollo 15 crew being removed from flight status, and Worden and Irwin being fired from NASA with reprimands placed in their Air Force records which would block further promotion. Worden found himself divorced (before the Moon mission), out of a job at NASA, and with no future in the Air Force.

Reading this book, you get the impression that this was something like the end of Worden's life. And yet it wasn't—he went on to complete his career in the flight division at NASA's Ames Research Center and retire with the rank and pension of a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force. He then served in various capacities in private sector aerospace ventures and as chairman of the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation. Honestly, reading this book, you get the sense that everybody has forgotten the stupid postage stamps except the author. If there is some kind of redemption to be had by recounting the episode here (indeed, “Redemption” is the title of chapter 13 of this work), then fine, but whilst reading this account, I found myself inclined to shout, “Dude—you flew to the Moon! Yes, you messed up and got fired—who hasn't? But you landed on your feet and have had a wonderful life since, including thirty years of marriage. Get over the shaggy brown ugliness of the 1970s and enjoy the present and all the years to come!”

Posted at 22:24 Permalink