Monday, March 31, 2014

Reading Review: Week 9

Frank Voisin: Book Reviews

I wish I had the time to review books, instead of just articles.  But at least I can point people to a good collection of reviews of various business and finance books.

Bot & Dolly and the Rise of Creative Robots

If you've seen the short film Box and wondered how it was made, this article will help you understand.  The crazy thing is that it was made in live action, without postproduction tricks.  There is a large photograph of the Bot & Dolly studio at the beginning of the article, and it sure does look like a fun place to work!

Parallel Parking in the Arctic Circle

I don't mean to downplay the military and climate implications of the article, but the part that struck me the most was how the fragile, artificial environment of a nuclear submarine drives a culture of high integrity and transparency.  Perhaps I was jarred by the contrast to my own work environment.  I work in a passive-aggressive culture with little transparency or accountability.  It occurred to me that perhaps this is allowed to persist because, unlike the submarine, there is so little at stake.  Something for us to think about as we go about our business in our office cube farms.

Ray Dalio: Principles

My guess is that even most readers of personal finance blogs don't know who Ray Dalio is.  But maybe you should.  Principles is a 123-page document that explains how Dalio approaches management, work, and life.  It is this sort of deep thinking that has driven Bridgewater Associates to be what it is today.  There are some very insightful points in the document, and I would encourage a weekend read if possible.

Coldplay: Magic

Has everyone heard the new Coldplay song?  Of course I was so swamped with work that my kids had to point out to me that it had been released.  The first thing I noticed was how nicely understated parts of the song are, which is not exactly a common thing in popular music.  My second thought was that this is the sort of piece that will ultimately be redone in other genres (think Jazz or World Music) because the simple chord progression lends itself to endless riffs and improvisation.  Overall, it's a nice teaser release for the upcoming album.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Reading Review: Week 8

How High-Speed Traders Are Like Fish

This is a short, yet interesting, article about price discovery and market synchronization.  It has been decades and decades since any retail trader could realistically hope to consistently trade off of primary news.  Even in the old days, if a company released bad earnings or announced that they lost a major lawsuit, the stock would tank almost instantaneously.  But it wasn't too long ago that traders could profit from delayed moves in related securities after the news event.  The delays took minutes - sometimes even hours - because there were relatively few people monitoring news stories of a particular company who would also know the related companies and be prepared to act on them.  Quite a few good traders made a living this way in the 80's and 90's.  But now with computers in the act, the moves in these related companies synchronize almost immediately.

A Miniature Manhattan Wrought in Marble

This article contains some beautiful pictures of the sculpture Little Manhattan.  It took artist Yutaka Sone almost 20 years to create it!  I love how the piers are displayed at the edges.

What is the World's Scarcest Material?

This is one of the few articles I've seen that isn't overly simplistic when it comes to natural resource drawdown.  I've read so many authors that think we can just say, "hey, we're using X amount of this resource each year and known reserves are 15X, so we're going to run out in 15 years!"  Supply and demand is not quite so simple.  When demand outstrips supply, prices rise.  Higher prices often lead to finding substitutes (reducing demand), finding new sources of the resource (increasing supply), and increased recycling of the existing supply.  Additionally, reserve numbers themselves are often based upon how much can be commercially extracted at the current price.  There are also complex relationships between resources.  The article mentions zinc with indium, but there are many others.  The bottom line: don't worry about whether we're going to "run out" of certain things in the future.  Instead, worry about how much things are going to cost!

The Asian Elephant Art & Conservation Project

Elephants actually painting pictures - how cool is that?  Some of the paintings are very primitive, and also keep in mind that in some of the more elaborate paintings, the elephants have been "directed" as to where to place the paints.  Still, some of the elephants have progressed to the point where they can paint a reasonably good flower by themselves.  Ging Gaow and Noppakhao seem to be the most proficient artists.

Naked Mole Rat Named "Vertebrate of the Year"

This awkwardly worded title reads like a headline from The Onion.  However, the study of the naked mole rat is actually a serious and important subject.  As it turns out, the naked mole rat harbors a most unusual property: it does not develop cancer - ever.  There are no known instances of naturally occurring cancer in this species.  Additionally, when given compounds that are commonly used to precipitate cancer in laboratory mice and rats, they still do not develop cancer.  It's unclear whether this research will lead to any breakthrough in cancer treatment, but it doesn't seem to be completely out of the question.  After all, trabectedin was extracted from marine invertebrates.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Reading Review: Week 7

On the Merits of Being a Financial Historian

This well written piece explains why it's important to examine the history of past investment returns, even though they don't predict the future.  The author argues that a probabilistic point of view is still better than nothing, and I don't disagree with that observation.  But the real insight of this article is the observation that the main reward of investment learning and research is probably not optimization, but emotional control.  As the author puts it: "At the end of the day the asset allocation you choose isn't nearly as important as your ability to follow it through the ups and downs in the markets".

Greg Speicher: My Investing Blueprint

This is Greg Speicher's value investing framework.  He has 10 main points, with subpoints being links to previous articles he's written on the topic.  It's nicely organized and fairly comprehensive, so it's like getting a free investing book.

Why We're Happy Being Sad: Pop's Emotional Evolution

This article describes in statistics what I've long suspected: there's been a dramatic increase over the last 50 years in the use of minor keys in pop music.  A couple of years ago I began to notice how many songs on the radio were in a minor key, which seemed kind of strange to me because I didn't remember any such songs growing up.  It turns out my memory was largely correct.  Pop music used to be totally dominated by major keys.  For example, in 1965, every single top 40 hit was in a major key.  But the use of minor keys steadily increased throughout the 1990's and 2000's, so that now the majority of pop songs are actually in a minor key.

Unlocking the Scrolls of Herculaneum

You may have heard that 90% of the major works of classical literature have been lost.  The article details the attempts to unlock the treasures of the Villa of the Papyri, which housed a library of at least 2,000 scrolls that were unfortunately carbonized by a volcanic eruption in 79AD.  Modern techniques such as multi-spectral imaging and CT scanning have shown great promise for unlocking the ancient texts.  Some of the earlier attempts at opening these scrolls were mind numbingly slow.  An 18th century conservator for the Vatican devised a machine to open them, but it took four years to open one scroll!  (One can only imagine the conservator at a hypothetical high school reunion.  "Ah, yes...well, I've spent the last 20 years slowly unrolling 5 scrolls.")

VLF Waves, The Ionosphere, and Earthquakes

This is a jump page to a variety of research on using changes in the ionosphere to possibly predict major earthquakes.  It is early stage research, with a lot of potential and a lot of challenges.  Some of the links are quite technical; others are not.  It's a fascinating concept, but it's not clear at this point whether it will lead to any major prediction breakthroughs.