Twofish's Blog

January 31, 2008

Notes on Rebecca MacKinnon

Filed under: Career, politics — twofish @ 10:34 am

I posted a comment to Rebecca MacKinnon’s blog, which I wanted to copy to mine, but unfortunately I didn’t save a copy.  I’ve asked her to send me back a copy since it makes some points that are worth repeating.

I do think that the headlines of China suppressing dissent isn’t going to wreck its Olympic image nearly as much as she thinks.  This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it just is.  The problem with treating human rights as a public relations issue is that it ends up being a balance between outrage and the need to stay in power, and I think there is going to be a lot less public outrage at Chinese human rights abuses than she thinks.

One big problem is compassion fatigue.  At some point, if you keep talking about Chinese dissidents, people just get numb to it.  People also have extremely short attention spans.  For something to happen, it has to be really outrageous.

The other problem is that one thing that is in the backs of people’s minds is “maybe the Chinese government is right after all” than there was ten years ago.   There are lots of people who regret going into Iraq, and Sadaam Hussein was a far, far nastier person than China is.  So if going to Iraq over human rights was a bad idea and it turns out that the West really doesn’t know how to run a country, then just perhaps pushing human rights on China maybe isn’t such a good idea.

On the other side.  The Chinese government has had a strategy of allowing certain types of dissent.  The strongest thing going for a dissident is the  Niemoeller argument, which is that if you don’t defend me, they’ll come for you.… 

The trouble is that this argument just doesn’t work in China, and the government has a very strong interest in not making the argument work.  So as a result, as long as you don’t cross any red lines and don’t do anything that obviously threatens the Party, they government doesn’t come after you.  This includes most things that people really want do discuss.  There is pretty active debate on things like monetary policy or bankruptcy law, and so most people in China really don’t think that the government is going to come after them, and so people don’t really get outraged over dissidents.

In fact it works the other way.  Because people *can* have debates over monetary policy and the role of Chinese courts, this keeps the Party from doing stupid things.  The Party allows a lot of discussion on some issues because it has figured out that discussion on those issues *helps* it to stay in power.  But if you have someone that acts in a way that clearly threatens the Party’s hold on power, that person will get stomped down.  What happens in practice it that people change their demands so that “Getting rid of the Party” isn’t one of them.

People are very adaptable, and they surprising get used to restrictions on free speech.  For example, I work in a large corporation and while I may or may not grumble about the management, I’m not going to put up a poster saying that the CEO should get fired or telling people that they should join my labor union.  I’d get fired.  However, at the same time within the limits of what I can say and do, I can get a lot done.  I can and do disagree with how things are run, and by expressing those disagreements in “approved forms” I can actually get quite a bit done.

The fact that I’m used to the type of restrictions on free speech in large corporations means that I’m not likely to get outraged when the Chinese government has similar restrictions, and this goes for lots and lots of other people who also work in large corporations.  That the restrictions on free speech in China are very similar to the ones in corporate America is not a coincidence as they are both large bureaucratic organizations.  Yes people of a liberal bent will get annoyed at all of this, but at the end of the day, who pays your salary?

Personally, I think that there is value in being about to say what you think, and I’m doing what I can to push China into a system that is more open.  But you have to look at how things are, and be able to talk about them.  The strategy of “human rights through headlines” I think just doesn’t work, because in order to get anything done requires years and perhaps decades of effort, and trying to change things via outrage just causes you to get burned out.

November 22, 2007

I just don’t know

Filed under: Career, china, finance — twofish @ 8:10 am

One thing about economic statistic measures is that once you dig into them, you find out that are extremely messy and complex, and every economic statistic that I can think of has dozens of assumptions and guesses associated with them. This is true for CPI, GDP, PPP, profit, loss, assets, liabilities, export revenues whatever…..

This means that it is very easy to get into a situation in which you pick apart a statistic if it doesn’t agree with you, but you let it stand if it doesn’t. Because every economic statistic is so fuzzy, it’s very easy to find a reason to ignore it if it doesn’t fit your view of the world. It’s also dangerous to do that.

What I try to do is not to rely on specific statistics, but to get as many numbers as I can in order to put together a general picture. It’s harder to fudge 200 numbers than it is one, and one number is just not enough information to figure out what is going on.

Also, it’s useful to just talk to people. Finally, it’s useful to have someone with a different view of how things work look at a number and find out what it means to them. One thing that I find amazing is that a number that is *bad* to one person can be a *good* to someone else.

One thing I like about finance is the brutal honesty that real money forces on you. For example, if I say that the Shanghai stock market is going to crash or the US is going to go into recession, this is perfectly and totally useless for making money. In order to make any real money, I need to say *exactly when* the Shanghai market will crash, and exactly when the US goes into recession, how deep, and how long the recession will be. Once someone makes that predictions, you can see how much they really believe it by seeing how much of their money they put on the prediction.

One of the nice things is that it avoids some of the biases that crop up. People tend to remember the predictions they get right and forget the ones they get wrong, but bank accounts are less forgetful. Also pundits lose nothing for being wrong, but people with real money do. If I knew with certainty which way the SP500 or interest rates would go in the next year, I would be fabulously wealthy, but what leaves me wealthy if I’m right can bankrupt me if I’m wrong. This gives a big incentive to say……

I don’t know………

September 29, 2007

Caveat Emptor

Filed under: academia, Career, china, ghosts, gifted children, mental health, new york city — twofish @ 11:42 am

One of the things that I’ve learned is that history doesn’t end, and problems don’t end.  You get what you want, and that resolves some problems, but the world changes, and you end up with new problems.  They might be better problems.  But unlike a movie or a novel where you reach the end, there is end to history.

One new problem that I’ve found is that I’m now in a position that I’ve giving advice to people, mostly about careers and strategy.  That worries me a lot because anything that I say is going to be incomplete, and I hope it is not incomplete in a way that will get people into trouble or which is misleading.  People thing in terms of “scripts” and “stories.”  There’s the “American dream” script, the “model student” script, the “patriotic overseas Chinese” script, and what I’m often asked to do is to basically help people conform their lives and efforts to a script.  Recently, it’s usually the “successful person in business” script.  What worries me is that a script is an incomplete description of a human being.

What I found is that sometimes you get a better idea of reality by asking the right question. If you ask enough questions and design an experiment well, you get answers. If enough people ask the right questions, you can make a huge amount of progress.

And sometimes the right question is something completely obvious?  Why do I write some much?  Why do I have such a strong urge to help people in their careers?  I think I have a vague understanding of my motives, and it’s a story I don’t want to tell you, and in some ways I can’t tell you.  But it’s something that doesn’t quite fit into the “successful person in business” script or in the “classic immigrant story” script.  Behind my motives, there is a lot of things that most people would consider “negative.”  There is fear, pain, anger, hate, shame, sadness, and guilt.  There are shadows all around me.  When you have lots of bright lights in the big city, shadows are difficult to avoid.

Let me talk about a recurring nightmare that I often have…..

There is a brick floating in mid-air.

That is frightening to me.  Brick don’t float in mid-air, they fall to the ground.  Maybe, one day I will see a brick floating in mid-air, and if that happens, then there is something very, very wrong.  That’s why I care a lot of about physics, math, economics, and law.  They provide certainty or at least the illusion of certainty.  If I see something, it should explainable by the laws of conservation of mass and energy, or it should be consistent with the Peano axioms of natural numbers, or it should be explainable via judicial precedent and constitutional law.  But what it doesn’t.  What if I see a brick floating in mid-air without any explanation.  They I know something is very wrong with the world, and it’s a deeply uncomfortable feeling.  If a brick floats in mid-air, and the laws of physics no longer hold, then what keeps me from falling into the center of the earth.  If I’m in a situation where there is no constitutional, legal  or economic framework, then what keeps “them” from doing nasty, unspeakable things to me.

I want to know that I’m sane, and that the world around me is sane.  That’s why it is important that 2+2 keep adding up to be 4, because if it ends up adding to be something else, then I’m not safe any more, and much of my life has been to deal with the horrible reality that things are not as safe and secure as I would like them to be.  And if they world starts going crazy, at least I want to know how crazy it is.  Maybe when I add 2+2 I don’t get 4.  Do I get 3.99999, 1, -2, or is the answer that I get when I add 2+2, magenta elephant or something that else that is not even a number.

The annoying thing is that the world being as confusing as it is, that I often don’t get 4 when I add 2 and 2.  Sometimes I get 3.999, sometimes I get nothing.  Sometimes I get -3.   Maybe I added wrong.  Maybe there is something I’m ignoring.  I don’t know.  But I find those moments very frightening and disturbing, because when I add two numbers and they don’t come out exactly right, I get the glimpse of that brick floating in mid-air.  And my strange insecurities and frustrations about numbers, gets me to the social embodiment of numbers….. Money…..

Money is a funny thing in that I found that people who seem to care a lot about money, really care about something else.  I care a lot about money.  For me, money is a sign that I am sane and that the world is sane.  In business there are so many things that can go wrong, and it is a constant struggle against chaos.  Being able to make money is hard, and making a profit demonstrates that in some way, you are connected to the rest of the world, and that you aren’t in your own little reality disconnected from the reality in the rest of the world.  Having money and making money allows me to convince myself that I am sane.

I say this because one day I might end up labeled as a “business success” and that happens, your story gets repeated, and like all stories, it is incomplete.  Descriptions of reality are always incomplete, but they can be incomplete without being misleading.  Just be aware that there are shadows following me.  I don’t want to tell you what they are, and pretty much everyone who finds out wishes that they didn’t know.  Just be aware that they are there…….

August 28, 2007

Mellow in Brooklyn

Filed under: Career, china, finance, new york city — twofish @ 3:44 am

Looking out at the harvest moon, I’m in a calm mood which is quite unusual for me.  It’s a cool evening, and it looks like it will be unnecessary for me to get that air conditioner.  It’s amazing how much my life has changed over the last year, and the one thing that the last year has cured me of is the fear that things won’t change.  Things have changed, and will continue to change, for the better or worse I do not know.  Also whatever happens it was the result of a conscious decision on my part to change things.

I’ve found that it is important to write things down because it is difficult often to remember how something felt when time passes.  As time passes old memories fade and new memories are recreate, and the past becomes transformed.  But the written word fixes a moment in time, and one can record feelings and thoughts that would otherwise disappear.  I was walking down Soho, and thinking about what it must have been like before the condonmiums and the upscale restaurants, when it was a gritty, more creative place.  That place is gone, but in between looking at that place and reading the history books, I think I have some sense of what that place *felt* like when Andy Warhol lived there.

I grew up in the 1970’s when New York City was the symbol of urban decay and hopelessness.  The snippets of information that I got about NYC was that it was a den of sin and crime.  It took New York a while to pull itself out of the pit, and it took me a while to get rid of my stereotypes.  One of the mental blocks that I had was that with my background, I’d associated suburbs and exurbs with escape from the city, and when I grew dissatisfied of where I was, I was terrified that there wasn’t anything more than where I was.  People change.  Things change.  Neighborhoods change.  Now that I’m here, I think I know a bit what it felt like for someone to arrive here in 1850 or in 1920, the idea that there was something somewhere here to look forward to.

April 26, 2007

Popping open the parachute

Filed under: Career, quantitative finance — twofish @ 3:34 pm

Last week I left my previous employer.  It feels like jumping out of an airplane (with more than a little push).  It’s not a bad feeling actually.  Scary mostly, but not unpleasant scary.

It’s hard to describe my current status.  Technically, I’m unemployed and “out of a job.”  The curious thing is that I don’t feel as if I am unemployed or “out of a job” since I’ve been as busy, and perhaps even more so than when I was employed.  To quote a useful expression, my job is now to get a job, and that involves calling people, writing resumes, preparing for interviews, reading back and forth, travelling.  A lot of stuff which means that I have much less time for blogging.

 I don’t want to talk too much about the last days of my employer right now.  Someday, but it’s too soon to talk about it.  However, looking over the last several years, I made a series of strategic decisions which seem to be paying off right now in a big way.

The first big strategic decision was to leave the employer before my last employer.  This was a good decision because at the time, I had the chance to continue on albeit with relocation, and I decided to jump ship.  This is good because I’ve been “between jobs” before.  I know what to do, what not to do.  I’m finding in particular that resume writing is *much* easier to do the second time around.

The other big major strategic decision that I made was to put too much of my identity into my new employer or the software I was writing.  This meant that in leaving my employer there was much less emotional trauma than when I left Halliburton, and *MUCH* less trauma than when I left MIT.  One thing that shows this is how little time it took to clean out my desk.  I got notice at 2:30 that my employment was at an end.  By 2:45, I had packed up my office and left the building.  There wasn’t really anything in there that was personal.  Only my personal laptop which I unplugged and carried with me to my car.  This was in contrast to when I left Halliburton when there were boxes and boxes of stuff.

The other thing that made this much less traumatic was that I defined my “job” as something much broader than the 40 hours that I spent at “work.”  I saw myself and still see myself as a “junior faculty person” with a work week of between 60-80 hours.  This made it trival to cope with losing a job, since it was like losing a source of grant funding.  Annoying, but not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.

More to come….

January 13, 2007

Wow!!!! Energy and preindustrial societies

Filed under: Career, economics, energy, finance, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 8:30 pm

Every now and then some powerful ideas collide.  I was just at the Houston for a luncheon on the MIT energy initiative and which meant that I couldn’t read the new books from Amazon until today.  So I’m reading the “Qing Formation in World Historical Time” and then I get to page 279 in a article that Jack Goldstone writes and then suddenly…..

 The ulimate bottleneck in preindustrial economies was quite simple.  It lay not in land or other raw materials but in energy.  Given sufficient energy, land could be enriched by irrigation, and applications of distantly produced fertilizers, fibers could be imported and economically worked into finished products, grain could be harvested and threshed with far less manpower, bricks and other construction materials could be cheaply fired and moved, construction and transportation bottlenecks could be overcome.  Whenever breakthroughs in energy use occurred – in wind or water power, in peat or coal or charcoal or coke – gains generally followed.

The got me thinking, there are three elements in the world

  • matter
  • energy
  • information

And matter, energy, and information both exist in

  • time
  • space

This gets back to thermodynamics and finance.  There are some very basic physical connections between time, energy and information, and information is connected to money in a market economy, because money is the means by which information travels between different points.

December 26, 2006

Moments of self-doubt

Filed under: academia, Career, personal — twofish @ 4:24 am

Everyone in academia has them from time to time.  Moments when you look out and think to yourself, oh my god i’m a complete idiot and totally doomed.

It’s a little worse for me since I’m trying to do something totally different.  There’s something called social validation which is useful.  You think to yourself “what the hell am I doing pretending that I’m a professor” and than you look at your office, your parking space, and the piles of papers on your desk, and you realize that someone is giving you a paycheck to be a professor.

My trouble is that I don’t even have that.  I’m basically forging ahead being a freelance junior faculty member without the normal support structure of a university.  I have to invent things as I’m going along, and no one is telling me whether I’m winning or losing.  So when I have those moments of “what the hell am I doing” I don’t have an organization to fall back on.   The closest thing that I have is the forum at the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is proving very useful, because it tells me that the difficulties that I’m having doing something original, aren’t unique to doing something original.

I miss my mother.  She passed away a while ago, and one of the things that she had was absolute faith in my abilities.  I could talk to her when I had moments of doubt, and just hearing someone that believed that you would pull through was useful.  At MIT, I had a network of people that I could also rely on.  Listening to someone complain about their situation was useful, because it told you that you weren’t unique.  Seeing people  that you regarded as being on the same level as you pull through was also useful, because you could say to yourself, if they could do it, so could I.

What makes my life difficult right now, is that I don’t have anyone like that anymore.  A lot of people have passed away.  I’ve lost track of most of the people I knew at MIT.  I can simulate what some of them would say in my mind, and that helps, until I look at the room and realize that I’m the only one there.

But I pull through.  I’ve done it before.  There’s no reason to suspect that this time will be different.  And ultimately I have history and philosophy on my side, I hope……

What I’m doing is unique for the early 21st century, but there are examples of it happening before.   The sheng yuan scholars of the mid-19th century, and Ludwig Von Mises, who famously was not a paid faculty member or for that matter Confucius. And then there is philosophy, one has to believe that if one is on the side of history, that this will give you power.  The current university structure has only existed since the end of  World War II, but scholarship and learning has existed for a lot longer than that.  One has to believe that there is something fundamental in virtue and scholarship that one can gain strength and power from.

Maybe.  Maybe not.

But I have come to the conclusion that to have a life worth living, you must at some point risk everything for your beliefs, if only to see if they are worth anything or not.

But it is still lonely.  It is still painful.  It is still scary to risk public humilation.

But if you are living with pain.  If you’ve been humilated before.  Then you can act with some boldness that would be impossible for normal people.

So accept the fear and the doubt, consume and digest it.  Acknowledge it.

I am terrified, I am afraid, and I severely doubt my ability to do what I want to do.

But I’ve never let that stop me before……

And it’s not going to stop me this time……

December 18, 2006

Protected: Human lightning rod

Filed under: academia, Career, personal — twofish @ 5:40 am

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December 16, 2006

My reading list this weekend

Filed under: academia, austrian economics, Career, china, personal, quantitative finance — twofish @ 5:17 am

I have a few papers on utility-based pricing of incomplete markets that I’m reading this weekend.  They are your typical mathematician paper with theorems and proofs.  I’m trying to learn the genre of that field so that I can apply it to my own models.  The main difference is that I will be modelling a market with a lot of different people having different utility functions, which brings the derivative pricing model closer to Austrian economics.  I’m also going to try to read some of the works on the philosopher Dai Zhen.  There are also some papers on the Malliavin calculus I’m going to have to review.

I’m still waiting to hear about which way my life is going.

December 12, 2006

Overachievers anonymous

To whom it my concern:

So tell me, what does it feel like to be perfect?  I’m really curious, since that might give me some insight in what I need to do in my own imperfect life…..




That’s actually what all of this is about.  I’m one of the first generation of Chinese-American overachievers, and I’ve reached a point in which there are very few guideposts, and the closest thing that I have to a role model is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, which should  be obvious given if you read the rest of my posts.

I’m actually trying to go back and find some historical analogues to figure out what to do.  The Jews of central Europe and the Middle East.  The Sheng-yuan scholars of the mid-Qing dynasty.  Earlier waves of Chinese immigration.  The Romans.  All are useful, but none of them quite exactly fit my current situation.  Which is not surprising since history doesn’t repeat.  I am sure I’ll figure out something.

The thing that keeps me in good shape is that I had a very strong liberal arts education when I was younger.  This focus on learning the liberal arts seemed merely interesting at the time, and it actually seriously hurt me when I tried applying for grad school, but it’s become very, very useful now, that I’m in a new situation for which there are no roadmaps and no guides.

Let me give you an example of a “real ethical dilemma.”  Suppose (hypothetically of course) I work at a company.  I don’t think that the company treats me particularly well.  I want to leave, however I believe that my leaving the company will cause extreme hardship to my co-workers.  What should I do?  Similarly, trying to figure out what to say on a blog and what not to blog brings up a whole host of ethical issues.  I will go insane if I don’t say certain things and I think I also have a moral duty to help 20 year olds realize that their problems won’t disappear when they reach 40.  However, I also have moral duties not to impose in other people’s privacy, and not to hurt other people.  But I also have moral duties to speak the truth.  So what do I do?  Every sentence is basically a balancing act.

It’s trying to figure out what to do with those issues, that is why I’m thankful that I have a liberal arts education so that I can at least begin to think through what should I do.  Now here is the problem…..

I had to fight the system in order to get a good liberal arts education.  Most of what I’ve read about history and philosophy, I’ve read outside of formal class.  Reading these sorts of things has actually hurt me in my academic career, because being interested in things other than the things that you are supposed to be interested in is the kiss of death in academia.  Academia has this industrial assembly line model of education which is just deadly for any sort of real education and research.  In fact the irony is that the industrial approach to education, really runs counter to the need for liberal arts.

A lot of twenty year olds think that they don’t need philosophy, and they are for the most part right.  If you are in a structured environment like the university, most of the decisions are made for you, and the number of real decisions that you make are limited.  Even the decisions you *can* make are hidden, because if everything is doing X, it makes it unobvious that you can do Y.  All of this philosophy stuff is not useful, if you can’t decide, which is why philosophy is not considered useful for slaves (and it is dangerous for slaves to learn philosophy since they start questioning the ideas that keep them chained).

It’s only after you end up in an unstructured environment where it is clear that there are real decisions with real consequences, that you find all of this liberal arts stuff useful.

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