December 2003

Financial Engineering News on DARPA’s futures market

Nice analysis of DARPA’s geopolitical futures markets (discussed in previous posts here and here) in the Financial Engineering News. From the conclusion:

“Even if there were not any moral issues surrounding them, these futures are not a very smart thing to do. That is simply because there is a lot more information out there about what is going on geopolitical and terrorist-wise than what would ever come about from a market,” comments Gordon Woo, a risk modeler at RMS. Indeed, one betting shop manager in the U.S. already admitted that success in his business depends on knowing when a new book or report on terrorism or foreign affairs is coming out so he can close his book beforehand. The head of quantitative research at one large investment bank put it more bluntly: “I think the fact that officials in Washington considered this in the first place makes the U.S. government look totally bereft of common sense when it comes to the threat of terrorism.” He adds: “The point is that the market would allow any terrorist group to simply plan an attack and then have someone [or more] place a bet on it and make a pot of money. This is logical, but also immoral.”


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Number mobility: 26 days and still holding

I got a new cellphone back on December 5th, swapping out my T-Mobile Sidekick for an AT&T Treo 600 (both good phones, but AT&T has much better coverage in my area). I also signed up to transfer my T-mobile number over to my new phone.

Twenty-six days and about 8 hours on hold with technical support later and I’m still waiting for my number to be transferred. The problem is a classic multi-system gridlock. AT&T sent a request for number transfer to T-mobile through Telcordia, an intermediary that handles number portability communication between the various telcos. They then sent a follow-up with more information, but the follow-up arrived at T-mobile before the main request arrived. This wedged T-mobile’s system and caused both requests to be dropped. Now T-mobile is asking AT&T to cancel and resubmit the request, because they can’t get their side unwedged. Unfortunately, AT&T’s system can’t cancel requests that are awaiting a response. Gridlock.

There’s no one person to blame here. T-mobile’s system clearly shouldn’t have gotten wedged so easily, Telcordia shouldn’t have delivered messages out of order, and AT&T shouldn’t have sat on the request for three weeks when they thought the ball wasn’t in their court. Most importantly, both telcos need more staff to cut through the hour+ hold times.

At long last I’ve gotten the problem escalated at AT&T, thanks to a dedicated number mobility group member named Andrea who was willing to wait through T-mobile’s hold time and patch me into the call. They now say it’ll be another 48-72 hours, which will bring them just under the 30-day return policy on my new phone. Here’s hoping…

Update: And 29 days after purchase, my new phone finally takes calls! (And there was much rejoicing.) FYI, you can cut to the head of AT&T’s customer support queue by dialing 1-888-799-1305 and selecting 3G and English. This is the priority queue used by AT&T stores, though customers can also use it. (Thanks to Nelson and Vyruz Reaper for the number.)

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The Deceitful Krauthammer

Last Friday, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote a rather snide piece on Howard Dean, drawing on his own previous career as a psychiatrist to diagnose what he calls “Bush Derangement Syndrome: the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency — nay — the very existence of George W. Bush.” With obligatory sideswipe at Barbra Streisand, he paints Dean as a previously sane and intelligent man struck by this new disease, and uses two quotes from recent interviews to back up his tongue-in-cheek diagnosis.

Now I have no problem with snide columnists, though sometimes I wish there weren’t quite so many of them. However, I do have problems with columnists who deliberate edit quotes to make readers think something was said that wasn’t. Here’s one of Krauthammer’s quotes — play along at home and see if you can spot where he tries to pull the wool over your eyes:

That’s what has researchers so alarmed about Dean. He had none of the usual risk factors: Dean has never opined for a living and has no detectable sense of humor. Even worse is the fact that he is now exhibiting symptoms of a related illness, Murdoch Derangement Syndrome (MDS), in which otherwise normal people believe that their minds are being controlled by a single, very clever Australian.

Chris Matthews: “Would you break up Fox?”

Howard Dean: “On ideological grounds, absolutely yes, but . . . I don’t want to answer whether I would break up Fox or not. . . . What I’m going to do is appoint people to the FCC that believe democracy depends on getting information from all portions of the political spectrum, not just one.”

Some clinicians consider this delusion — that Americans can get their news from only one part of the political spectrum — the gravest of all. They report that no matter how many times sufferers in padded cells are presented with flash cards with the symbols ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, PBS, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times — they remain unresponsive, some in a terrifying near-catatonic torpor.

If you answered that the trick is with “those suspicious ellipses which broke up Krauthammer’s pleasing text” then you’ve been reading the same Daily Howler articles I have. As the Howler points out, the official transcript for the Hardball interview gives a whole different context than you get from Krauthammer (missing text in bold):

       MATTHEWS: …Ted Kennedy was part of that deregulation, the deregulation of radio. There are so many things that have been deregulated. Is that wrong trend and would you reverse it?
       DEAN: I would reverse in some areas.
       First of all, 11 companies in this country control 90 percent of what ordinary people are able to read and watch on their television. That’s wrong. We need to have a wide variety of opinions in every community. We don’t have that because of Michael Powell and what George Bush has tried to do to the FCC.
       MATTHEWS: Would you break up Fox?
       MATTHEWS: I’m serious.
       DEAN: I’m keeping a…
       MATTHEWS: Would you break it up? Rupert Murdoch has “The Weekly Standard.” It has got a lot of other interests. It has got “The New York Post.” Would you break it up?
       DEAN: On ideological grounds, absolutely yes, but…
       MATTHEWS: No, seriously. As a public policy, would you bring industrial policy to bear and break up these conglomerations of power?
       DEAN: I don’t want to answer whether I would break up Fox or not,
       because, obviously
       MATTHEWS: Well, how about large media enterprises?
       DEAN: Let me-yes, let me get…
       DEAN: The answer to that is yes.
       I would say that there is too much penetration by single corporations in media markets all over this country. We need locally-owned radio stations. There are only two or three radio stations left in the state of Vermont where you can get local news anymore. The rest of it is read and ripped from the AP.
       MATTHEWS: So what are you going to do about it? You’re going to be president of the United States, what are you going to do?
       DEAN: What I’m going to do is appoint people to the FCC that believe democracy depends on getting information from all portions of the political spectrum, not just one.

When you see the whole context it’s clear that “no detectable sense of humor” Dean was joking when he said he would break up Fox — obvious when you leave in the audience laughter and Matthews’ comments of “no, seriously.” More importantly, Dean wasn’t answering the question “would you break up Fox” but the more general question “would you break up large media companies,” a question that conveniently fell between Krauthammer’s ellipses. What Krauthammer paints as a liberal conspiracy-theory answer is actually a plainly-stated position on the media consolidation limits currently being debated in Congress. Krauthammer could have honestly argued with Dean’s position, as did Chris Matthews, but instead he chose to pretend Dean was answering a different question and then make fun of him.

Krauthammer leads the column with his other quote:

Diane Rehm: “Why do you think he [Bush] is suppressing that [Sept. 11] report?”

Howard Dean: “I don’t know. There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I’ve heard so far — which is nothing more than a theory, it can’t be proved — is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Now who knows what the real situation is?”

— “The Diane Rehm Show,” NPR, Dec. 1

He then builds from the quote to his core accusation:

…When he avers, however, that “the most interesting” theory as to why the president is “suppressing” the Sept. 11 report is that Bush knew about Sept. 11 in advance, it’s time to check on thorazine supplies. When Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) first broached this idea before the 2002 primary election, it was considered so nutty it helped make her former representative McKinney. Today the Democratic presidential front-runner professes agnosticism as to whether the president of the United States was tipped off about 9/11 by the Saudis, and it goes unnoticed. The virus is spreading.

Unlike Hardball, The Diane Rehm Show doesn’t have an online transcript, but it does have a streaming audio link. The quote in question is between 42:00 and 43:30 (or just listen to the whole interview, it’s interesting). Again, here’s the full context:

Diane Rehm: “Why do you think he [Bush] is suppressing that [Sept. 11] report?”

Howard Dean: “I don’t know. There are many theories about it. The most interesting theory that I’ve heard so far — which is nothing more than a theory, it can’t be proved — is that he was warned ahead of time by the Saudis. Now who knows what the real situation is, but the trouble is by suppressing that kind of information you lead to those kinds of theories, whether they have any truth to them or not. And eventually they get repeated as fact. So I think the president is taking a great risk by suppressing the key information that needs to go to the Kean Commission.

Now it may be that three years in California’s liberal environment has addled my brain, but to me it looks like Dean isn’t defending the Saudi tip-off theory at all, but is rather saying that even outlandish theories like this one are getting bandied about because Bush hasn’t been forthcoming with the evidence of what really did happen.

One might wonder why a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist would use these at best negligent and at worst deliberately deceitful quotes, but donning my own psychologist’s lab coat I think I have the answer. If you carefully re-reading Krauthammer’s column, it’s clear that he has he has subconsciously embedded the true cause of these journalistic lapses:

It has been 25 years since I… was considered so nutty… the very sight of… Thanksgiving turkey… caused dozens of cases of apoplexy. What is worrying… is… the… neurologically hazardous punditry… of… Murdoch… in which otherwise normal people… can get their news from only one part of the political spectrum.

Clearly this column was the product of a disturbed mind, with the psychotic episode triggered by a combination of holiday feasting and too much Fox News.

Actually, scratch my last quote and comment — it was childish and cruel of me to distort Krauthammer’s words that way. If I were a professional columnist and not just a blogger, I hope I would be ashamed of myself.


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Music fake-books as a pre-history of sampling

Just read an interesting paper: Pop Song Piracy, Fake Books, and a Pre-history of Sampling by Barry Kernfeld, presented at the Copyright and the Networked Computer: A Stakeholder’s Congress conference. Kernfeld gives a brief history of bootleg fake books (books of lyrics and chord progressions that musicians use to get the gist of a song) and draws comparison to the music industry’s current jihad against file-sharing. From the intro:

I’d like to give a quick soup-to-nuts tour through the second half of a book in progress entitled Pop Song Piracy: Bootleg Song Sheets, Fake Books, and America’s First Criminal Copyright Trials. The first half of my book might be called “Napster in the 1930s.” It resurrects the forgotten story of bootleg song sheets (initially, newspaper-sized sheets of pop-song lyrics, and then, from the mid-1930s, song-lyric magazines). The bootleg sheets, which emerged in 1929, elicited a hysterical response from the music industry, which fought vigorously against these products for roughly a decade, using every legal ploy available, before discovering, extremely reluctantly and somewhat inadvertently, that assimilation was a much more successful policy than prohibition. The simple and obvious historical lesson to be drawn from this story, is that the essential nature of the American music industry is to defend deeply entrenched interests, without regard for change, and in its current-day reactions to Napster and Kazaa, the industry is re-living an expected and already well-established mode of behavior.

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