Friday, September 18, 2009

Jump the Hybrid!

Actually, jump from the hybrid. Nathan left the lights on in the old Altima, and the battery (a brand new battery) couldn't start the car, plus the alarm was tripped. (This is the second time that running down the battery has tripped the alarm.)

Because of the alarm issue, Nathan couldn't get a jump from helpful strangers. They tried, but the engine wouldn't start, just beep, beep, beep. Dad to the rescue.

I had researched the alarm system of the 98 Altima on the web, and tried the secret handshake with the key in the driver's door, two lefts, then two rights. That seemed to have cleared the alarm issue.

Now for jumping - the new Altima is a hybrid. We looked in the owners manual and you can indeed jump start a hybrid from another 12 volt battery. The manual said nothing about jumping another car from the Altima, but we decided to give it a shot.

Open the hood. Under the hood are some large boxes. I'm stumped. Henry Ford would be stumped. Saved by the owner's manual. It has an illustration of where to attach the cables. Negative to ground, positive to a bolt exposed in what otherwise looks like the fuse box.

The moment of truth. I push the button to start the hybrid - which starts in all electric mode. No sparks, flames, or explosions. I take this as a positive sign. Finally the gas engine starts, and I rev the engine like normal and tell my son to try to start the other car.

It works!

OK, maybe a blog entry about jumpstarting a car is thin gruel for you. But at the time, it felt pretty cool.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Review: G.I. Joe The Rise of COBRA

Let's get this out of the way - this is one silly film. Silly in the way of '60s era films deconstructed by The Incredibles, played straight. It reminds me strongly of the story lines constructed by seven-year olds when they are playing on the floor with their toys -

"Bang! You're dead!"
"You missed so my guy is still alive!"
"OK, but then the whole place explodes! Whoosh!"

Now some people might say that this is appropriate for a GI Joe film, but with ticket prices what they are, I was hoping for something more. Alas.

Deep silliness. When the ebbil viwans (BWAHAHAHA!) blow up the ice pack over their undersea lair, the huge chunks of ice fall ponderously through the water to crush the base. Falls. Through. The. Water. ICE!!

I have to admit that by the time this happens in the film, you are ready for silliness. So much silliness has preceded it.

  • In the future, Jonathan Pryce will be President.
  • breast accentuating bodysuits
  • decolletage to China for the bad girl
  • kissing (in a film meant for small boys)
  • Dennis Quaid striking poses last seen in green plastic figures


  • Undersea battle as WWII dogfight
  • dialog delivery last seen during the silent film era
  • dodging rocket fire in slo mo
  • Mach 6 aircraft chases down missile over Moscow and then catches missile over Washington DC!
  • trashing Paris

Interestingly, the only intelligent line in the film is delivered by one of the villains, over the issue of human jealousy. Homer did a pretty good job with that, but in this film it just gets blown away. Wait for the DVD, and then don't buy it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

District 9 review

Peter Jackson employs his awesome CGI talent to bring us a wicked satire and cautionary, somber tale about race and discrimination, constructed a very new cast and director. However, the story is told in a mixture of cinema verite clips from the cameras ever present in our society and traditional storytelling that I found to be an uneasy blend.

Twenty years ago, a giant spaceship coasted to a stop over Johannesburg, South Africa. It did nothing for a month. and humans cut their way in after getting impatient. They found the prawns, slightly more than man sized aliens, mostly dazed, confused, sick, and malnourished. First contact immediately became a disaster relief effort. The million odd prawns were transfered down to a sprawling tent city that quickly became a slum, with an especially nasty Nigerian crime lord preying on the Prawns as they pick over mountains of garbage and squabble over cow heads and cans of cat food. Human/alien tensions are constant and high. Now the relief agency MNU wants to relocate the prawns of District 9 to a new area, further away from Jo'burg.

The public face of the relocation effort is chosen to be a hapless civil servant, Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copely), a clueless bureaucrat whose main qualification seems to be his marriage to the daughter of the head of the agency. While he is casually racist and ignorant himself, he seems to be honestly unaware of the darker death squad/concentration camp guard mentality of the armed forces who regularly confront the prawns.

Things never go right as our antihero is filmed going door to door through the slum, knocking on the doors of shanties and trying to get uncomprehending aliens to sign away their civil rights in a forced relocation. For an American, a lot will resonate with our government's repeated treatment native Americans.

He finds gun caches, an illegal egg hatchery (which is casually incinerated), and stumbles finally into the shanty of the only intelligent prawns around, who have been trying to cobble together a repair for their ship for the last twenty years. Wikus confiscates their fuel source, in the process exposing himself to a powerful mutagen that begins to turn him into a prawn.

For Wikus, things go downhill from there. The last half of the film is a lot ordnance exploding, a lot of bodies and heads exploding, as Wikus tries to save himself and make the switch from antihero to hero, which will necessitate the choice to save someone besides himself. There is humor and it is black. The film owes much to our experience of Uprisings, Intifada, and Iraq on TV and in previous movies.

There are issues of course. Aficionados of the X Files will be muttering "Black oil" to themselves before their popcorn is cold. A major plot point is forcing Wikus to fire alien weapons that only respond to prawn DNA, why this never was done with prawns themselves is unexplained. Why the mothership is not full of human scientists is never explained.

As a morality tale, Peter Jackson' team is working the same ground as JK Rowling. His tale is a far more adult, violent, bloodier version, of course. Pureblood and mudblood, wizard and Muggle, human and Prawn, why can't we all just get along? See it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review - I Sell The Dead

My son Daniel and I went see this at the Quad Cinema on 13th St., the only place it was showing in NYC.

This film was a lot of fun!

A real horror/comedy with a good script and many funny moments. The movie is told as a series of flashbacks interspersed with present time dialogue. The dialogue is a bit slow, and had the filmmakers had more money, would have done better and quickened the pace as voice over narration. The take on many tropes of horror is quirky and funny. The ending ties up many story threads in a satisfying way. I was worried while watching the film that the anecdotes would be simply disconnected short stories, but the script brings most of them together by the end.

The main characters are interesting and sympathetic enough, and enough of the cast is still around by the end that a sequel would be doable. If you are in New York, go see it while you can, otherwise look for it on video. A worthwhile diversion.

It's a HYBRID!!!

How time flies. Just yesterday, it seems, I was seeing my son Nathan for the first time, a pudgy five month old straight off the plane from South Korea. Now he's starting college in September.

Since he has to drive to school, I'm giving him my old car, an Altima with over 100,000 miles on it. Still works fine, but definitely old. So I got a new car for myself.

Normally, I would never buy a new car, I'd buy a newer used car. I hate the car buying/selling experience. My father taught me to buy from a fleet owner - the price is fixed, the car is well maintained. No hassle. That's how I got my old car.

But I wanted to reduce my carbon footprint, and after reading The Weathermakers I was convinced that the best way to do that was to make my next car a hybrid. So I bought one.

Softening the blow is that the Altima hybrid still qualifies for a tax credit. It is not sold everywhere, only six states in the US. Since I wasn't trading in, I couldn't get the cash for clunkers incentive also, but that was ok. (I know, a big part of the carbon reduction is supposed to be taking the old car off the road. Ooops.)

Anyway, after 3 weeks of new car ownership, I have to say that I love this car. The hybrid engine is very powerful on acceleration, the regenerative system contributes to powerful braking also. My average MPG is now up to 32. The instantaneous MPG feedback is helping me to learn to drive "greener".

The nice folks at Hackensack Nissan sold me a great car. Thank you!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Review: Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

I was thinking of a snarky title for this, like "Harry Potter and the Half Dead Series", but decided against it. Yes, it was that hard to generate any enthusiasm for the film.

It is impossible to consider any HP film on its own merits. They will always stand in reference to the books that spawned them as derivative media properties. In this case, the film comes off as a Cliff Notes/ADD (Shiny!) version of the book.

Details, details:

  • The Weasley twins' joke shop seems to have taken over the Gringotts Bank space on the Diagon Alley set. The twins speak in unison, which is less amusing than their previous style, but in the rush-rush pace of the movie probably saves a few seconds. A poor trade-off.
  • Much of the film has the same washed out, over-exposed color palette and photography that marked Terminator Salvation and bits of Star Trek. I hope this is a fashion that soon passes in Hollywood.
  • (I just realized that Twilight had a good bit of this also. As a film, it is really sad that HP6 is closer to Twilight than anything else.)
  • JK Rowling invented a huge number of interesting characters, and even the books had a hard time fitting them in. Now even substantial characters such as Neville Longbottom are reduced to cameos. Luna Lovegood comes off much better and has some of the funniest lines and deliveries. (Her name has that James Bond female sidekick quality, is there any Bond/Potter fanfic out there?)
  • Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe both have a chance to chew the scenery, which they never had before. The audience greatly enjoyed both. Emma Watson (grrr) had less opportunity to shine, being reduced to crying, hitting Harry over the head and staring into the sunset. Her arch comments of previous films and great talent with magic are sorely missed. I can only hope that the next two films, based on the last book, will give her more space (since Ron Weasley is offstage for a good bit of time).
  • Quidditch scenes are handled very well. 'nuf said.
  • Helena Bonham Carter, another standout scene chewer as the psychotic Bellatrix Lestrange. She is given screen time instead of the character Rufus Scrimgeour. So the whole political subplot is lost, sadly.
  • Alan Rickman has been one of the most reliable actors in the HP stable, but his delivery of the revelatory "I am the half blood Prince." line is a major disappointment. The counterspell to Sectumsempra was also supposed to sound like singing, if I recall the book correctly, but Rickman doesn't come close to that.
  • The Muggle waitress in the opening subway sequence was a nice innovation. Just eye candy, but welcome nonetheless. (And yes, there is such a thing as product placement in an HP film!)

The big news, of course, is how different the denouement sequence is from the book. In one sense it is actually better, since it demands that Harry actively trust Dumbledore rather than just being a witness. But it has many other failings, including failing to be the "trash the Hogwarts set" that it should have been. This does not bode well for the final movie. But the real flaming mutual hatred of Harry and Snape does not come to the surface. That will greatly diminish the next films.

With an extra six months from the delayed release date, they could have done a lot. I'm disappointed if all they did was 12 minutes of IMAX 3D work.

The film is state of the art Hollywood, meaning high production values and absolutely formulaic. It will be a hit with its fan base.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Taking Input From Depositors

A long time ago, I had the idea that a new form should be added to the income tax return. Rather than being a burden on the individual, it would be an opportunity to provide input on how they wanted their money spent.

It would basically expose the top categories of the federal budget and allow the taxpayer to allocate, by percent, how they want their money spent. At least in the beginning, it might be non-binding, just an informational tool. It would help our government know what we the people really wanted our money spent on.

Even if some people put down 100% of their taxes to spent towards the Defense Department, you'd have another person who might allocate 100% for HHS, or for paying down the national debt. Other people might be more nuanced and thoughtful in their choices.

The IRS obviously has the technology to handle this sort of thing. It is just a question of the government actually wanting detailed feedback directly from the public.

If it looked like it was working (not leading to huge skews in the budget from year to year, or only making up a fraction of the overall budget in size) then it actually could be made binding. Then people who made allocations would actually feel much happier about their tax payments.

I recently had an update of this idea while driving to work. Something similar could be done by banks for depositors. Listen to depositors about how they want their money put to use. Do they want it left in the vault? Do they want it lent to persons or businesses, locally or globally? Do they it used to buy or create derivative instruments?

Just listen, for a start. Any bank could do this without a regulator forcing them. It would make that bank seem to be a much more responsive and concerned institution.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Terminator Salvation Review

I saw the new Terminator movie last night in Manhattan. The theater was sold out, several showings were sold out that night. Memorial Day, Fleet Week, and you are surprised?

Much of the movie is shot in this overexposed, greyed out palette that is supposed to suggest the whitening bones of the human future. or whatever. I took it as evidence of just how much of the movie was done in front of a green screen. It had a very PS3/Final Fantasy quality to it.

Christian Bale plays John Connor, resistance leader. Somehow, between the end of the previous movie and the start of this one, the remaining professional soldiers have taken over organizing and leading the resistance to the machines, and Connor is just a small unit commander.

Sam Worthington is Marcus, a Death Row murderer who donates his body to science in exchange for a kiss from scientist Helena Bonham Carter. Marcus wakes up in the future, takes clothes off of a corpse, and wanders into LA. (By the magic of cinema, the VLA radio telescope is now walking distance from the LA basin.)

Wandering into LA, Marcus almost gets cut down by a Terminator, but is saved by Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin) and a mute girl, who are the LA branch of the resistance. As it happens, Skynet is looking for Kyle. Somehow, Skynet knows that Kyle is the one that will draw out John Connor.

Much shooting of things later, we finally learn that Marcus is a new kind of Terminator. Kyle has been taken by Skynet to its headquarters in San Francisco. Why does a self aware computer network build a 200 story headquarters skyscraper and major industrial complex on the San Andreas Fault? Dunno.

Connor goes in to rescue Kyle singlehandedly, 'cuz thats heroic, after letting Marcus go in and find him. In the process he gets beaten up by a voiceless CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger. Doing a convincing, moving Ahnuld was obviously too difficult/expensive, so the film burns his skin off, allowing them to go back to animatronic/shiny metal that is much easier to render.

The film ends with Kyle rescued, Connor mortally wounded, and Marcus feeling bad about being a murderer saved and turned into killing machine. Marcus donates his heart to save Connor, which transplant is done in a field hospital by Connor's pregnant wife (who you recall from the previous movie is a veterinarian).

Of the three male leads, Marcus is the most interesting, followed by Reese, followed by Connor. Marcus is Frankenstein's Monster, updated. He is wonderfully conflicted in his history and motivations, far more interesting than the G.I. Jesus that John Connor is supposed to be. It is really too bad his character is dead at film's end, he would have been a valuable franchise character.

I enjoyed the film, especially so because my son Daniel paid for my ticket! But seriously. when the film is exploring the Frankenstein angle, its very good. When the focus is on Connor, its flat. Lots of robots, lots of things exploding, lots of inexplicable puddles of fire. A summer movie for men.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

State of Play (BBC production) DVD review

I don't buy a lot of TV series on DVD (read, any). Dang, that's not true. On the back of a pleasant evening in the theater with State of Play, I bought the BBC mini-series on which it is based.

All I can say is, wow. A much better all around production. Six hours gives a lot of time to develop characters. The series is much more journalistic-procedural than the film, which is good. Excellent music. I love Kelly Macdonald's accent. Bill Nighy is amazing as usual.

Solid drama, worth your money over the film version. The film has some elements in its favor, such as the old media/new media tension, and Helen Mirren. That's not enough in the end. The original is better.

Angels and Demons - movie review

Last night I wandered into a showing of Angels and Demons, not expecting much. I was not disappointed.

Good points:
  • Large Hadron Collider - you sexy beast!
  • some cool CGI
  • Ayelet Zurer as strong woman scientist
  • Rome

Bad points

  • Science and Religion as non-overlapping magisteria
  • Ayelet Zurer demoted to female sidekick of Tom Hanks
  • Idiotic plot

I do like the combination of Illuminati and antimatter. The problem is that the whole film is built on the bait-and-switch. Don't filmakers as practiced as Ron Howard know that audiences hate this? This is an entirely separate point from a final plot twist. This is the kind of audience trickery of "and it was all a dream" variety. No excuse that Dan Brown makes the same mistake in his novel. The same mistake is not made in Da Vinci Code.

Oh, yes, and the physicist turns out to be a toxicology expert also, how convenient. And that car bomb? Completely obvious. And who set it BTW? It seems you've just traded one conspirator for another.

The film almost acheives the quality of a Woody Allen film about New York, where the city becomes a character. If only they had gone that direction!

If you follow the evo-creo wars, the editorializing on the proper relations of science and religion will all be sadly familiar. Yawn.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Whither Stress Testing?

OK, the stress of stress testing has come and gone, now what? If that is the first and last time we do this, it was a meaningless PR exercise.

Stress testing needs to be put on a solid, repeatable, and repeated basis.

First - Publish the stressors. What was the formula used to compute capital adequacy? Can I have that in XBRL, please?

Second - This is fun, let's do it every quarter! How long have people been complaining about financial statements being retrospective instruments? We need to embrace forecasting fully. We need to build up a body of time series of these things. Published in XBRL with no tweaking by the Fed. Transparency rocks!

Third - What's the error bar? Let's say I got my wish, and every quarter every bank in the US reported a matrix of capital adequacy forecasts across some increments of inflation and unemployment. Is that enough? No. We also want the probability assigned by the bank to each cell, and the uncertainty band around their reported figure.

Fourth - Why stop at banks? In this era of large companies sucking at the government teat to survive, we should be able to demand similar forecasts of other recipients. The capital market needs to eventually take up the responsibility of holding public companies up to a requirement of disclosure, not the regulators. In the meantime, regulators should prime the pump, and establish the set of data items to be provided. Standard setters, make some standards for prospective disclosures, please.

Capsule Reviews

Seen recently:

Inkheart - Good solid fantasy fare. What Brendan Fraser gets paid to do nowadays. Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent should have gotten more screen time, and their characters should have wound up together at the end, a missed opportunity IMHO. Some potential sequel material.

Twilight - Why did I bother? SFX pretty cheesy, but the target audience won't notice. A very good teen angst romantic vegetarian vampire movie. A little unclear if Edward, who vamped out in 1918, has actually killed people, not really motivated to find out.

Transporter 3 - my first view of the series. Anti-hero with a heart of gold Frank Martin is forced to break his rules, transport skanky Ukrainian teenager across Europe, a trip with curiously few difficulties at border crossings. Car/train sequences at the end are fun.

Body of Lies - Crowe and DiCaprio. Not as noir as a spy thriller should be, too much an actioner. Crowe is Mr Ugly American, action at a distance puppeteer. DiCaprio is the humint, constantly frustrated by his handler's ham handedness. Every bit of local color that DiCaprio befriends dies for their trouble, except the beautiful, saintly Iranian nurse (Golshifteh Farahani). If this was a real spy film, she would have bought it. Upbeat ending = torture is worth it? Maybe in the Bush Era. Actually, the torture in the film never works, but somehow that doesn't stop the people using it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Star Trek movie review

Yes, I was going to go eventually, but my son Daniel deserves the credit for pestering me to go this weekend to an IMAX showing of Star Trek. It was an 11 PM show, so it was almost the full geek experience possible.

I agree with a lot of other people, this is definitely worth your popcorn money, and IMAX is the way to go.

  • mix of old and new
  • plenty of homage to TOS (the original series, for the non-Trekker), to the level of some audio cues
  • humor
  • Zoe Saldana's way retro outfit
  • Zoe in general
  • Zoe in specific
  • Zoe Zoe in a bar
  • Zoe Zoe in a car
  • Zoe and Green Eggs and Ham (or whatever that girl's name was)


  • way too much lens flare
  • naval tactics of the WWI era
  • Romulan mining vessels that look like goose roadkill
  • destroy two planets (Vulcan and Romulus) and stick us in an alternate universe
  • Scotty's mascot - should get an award for Establishing Annoying Alien Sidekick Persona In the Fewest Scenes
  • all the Star Wars homage, i.e. Ice Planet, there's always a bigger fish, Kirk as Han Solo punching bag, planet destroying ship, older Spock as Obi Wan

I don't think the big open sets made sense as the machinery spaces of the Enterprise. No one would build a military spaceship that way.

By far, the best line in the film is "Your father was captain of a starship for twelve minutes, and saved 800 lives."

I like the set up of the Kirk/Spock/Uhura triangle. As a reboot, I would have been happier if the creative team had just established that much in this film. The film crowds in all of the basic characters, and is a bit too hyperactive in doing so. In comparison, the Bond reboot is two films old and we still haven't met Moneypenny and Q.

Bottom line: Go!

Saturday, May 2, 2009

State of Play movie review

An enjoyable journalist-politician potboiler in which Ben Affleck does not suck. Helen Mirren and Russel Crowe are not overshadowed by the lack of suckage from Affleck. A good updating of the old newspaper flick tropes which I remember best from All the President's Men. Now mentioning that movie will bring up inevitable comparisons. To my mind one of the failures of State of Play is the willingness to kill people. We can't motivate viewers with anything less???

I suppose I'm going to have to watch the BBC TV mini-series now.

Wolverine movie review

I saw the new X-Men Origins: Wolverine movie last night, an early Friday night show. My showing was half full, later shows looked much more full.

I enjoyed the movie, and felt I got my money's worth of entertainment. The opening credits reminded me of the opening of Watchmen.

I am not a Marvel fanboy by any means. The anti-military tropes of the Cold War and the Viet Nam war are really really dated. Last year's Iron Man was a good attempt to move on from these.

Deadpool as a wiseass was better than the finale's Deadpool-I-Have-No-Mouth-And-I-Must-Scream.

Why oh why does Wolverine have to stop and monologue in New Orleans before offing Creed? Oh, I forgot, its a superhero movie.

Professor X showing up at the end was a bit creepy. 'Nuff said.

What do I want next from Marvel? A Magneto/Iron Man team up. The two best acted roles in the Marvel film universe. Its such a natural! But it has to include Mystique, because, well, do I have to explain?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Death By Success - A Threat To XBRL?

Talking to my friend and co-worker Yossi Newman, he brought up an interesting concern. Would the increasing use of XBRL cause a chorus of nay-sayers to form that could seriously threaten XBRL's path to world domination ubiquity?

Umm, no.

I think the number of applications of XBRL around the world has already put us past that possibility. Failure in one market could affect acceptance in that market, but that will only put that market behind others, which will eventually put pressure on them to catch up.

My larger concern along similar lines relates to asset bubbles. Our long run of good news ( no nuclear war, pandemic, global famine, etc.) has created a huge amount of investment funds chasing investments. This leads to asset bubbles. Any advantage will be pounced upon in the search for 'alpha'. XBRL is just such an advantage. The result could be that enormous pressure could be put on the vendors and supply chain of XBRL quite suddenly, too suddenly for them to adjust. A classic case of 'be careful what you wish for'.

The Great Taxonomy Landgrab

With the SEC mandate on the use of XBRL arriving in June, it is almost time for XBRL's 15 minutes of fame and buzzword status.

One aspect of that moment in the sun that I anticipate is an outpouring of taxonomies foisted on an unsuspecting public, by organizations with tenuous-at-best connections to the subject matter of the taxonomy. I believe this will follow the pattern of the flowering of XML Schemas earlier in the history of the web.

This will all shake itself out in a few years, but for a while it will be a rough ride. I'd like to think that this will make XBRL acknowledgement by XII process more valuable, but at the same time it challenges the meaning and governance around that process.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

FreeRisk Bait and Switch

Thanks to my friend John Turner, I just watched the video of a presentation about FreeRisk at O'Reilly's ETech conference.

The presentation listed a few problems in our current system of rating credit and investing in debt.
  • grade inflation in debt rating as NRSROs attract business with generous ratings
  • funds forced by law to invest according to ratings from only a few agencies
  • meaninglessness of the rating itself
  • opacity of the rating model
  • lack of diversity in modeling

They propose FreeRisk as a solution to the problems, which they have flipped into a set of requirements.

  • accessible
  • open
  • diverse
  • transparent

Cool, but how does that actually solve all of those problems identified earlier?

  • Grade inflation - FreeRisk models are still opaque, so we don't know if a company has bought special preference or not.
  • Forced acceptance - FreeRisk needs legislation to eliminate the privileged position of established NRSROs, and/or privilege some part of its own leaderboard as an NRSRO.
  • Meaninglessness - Models are still opaque, so scores are still meaningless.
  • Opacity - Continues.
  • Diversity - With continued opacity, we have no clue whether models are diverse or not.

So on my analysis, FreeRisk isn't doing to well at solving the problems it wants to solve, mainly due to model opacity. Solving model opacity isn't easy.

The first problem is that the market will pay handsomely for good models, so there is a clear incentive to keeping them opaque. FreeRisk must be assuming the OSS model will transfer to finance, a big assumption.

The second problem is knowing where to stop in the desire for transparency. Let's take a simple model such as the Altman Z-Score as an example. I'm not happy just getting a real number in a certain range for an answer. I ask for the model. I get a formula using certain financial accounts and weights. Where did the weights come from? Why those accounts and not others? I need to know the design methodology of the model, and the database used to derive the parameters.

FreeRisk currently supports an API that allows for scoring based on a single period's data. Even the Piotroski Score needs two periods of data to work. More troubling, the simple Piotroski and Altman Z methods touted during the presentation are methods for evaluating the corporate entity, not the debt instrument. The debt instrument has to be evaluated for its terms and conditions. We are still very far away from having public T&C databases available in XBRL and Common Logic.

More troubling still is the belief that all credit scoring is model based. This is certainly not true today. It won't be true even when T&Cs are in XBRL and CL. There is still an element of judgement, of interviewing senior management, of reading the news on a company, that comes into play.

There is a lot of free floating moral outrage powering the FreeRisk presentation. But we should step back from that and think dispassionately about changes to our financial system. Should NRSROs really be expected to be aware of bankruptcy before it is announced? To whom do NRSROs owe a fiduciary obligation to force companies into bankruptcy by downgrading their debt? Do we really want debt market volatility similar to equity market volatility based on quicksilver changes in ratings?

Here are some of the things I took away, even if they were unsaid.

  • we need finer grained ratings than the current scales provided
  • we need to take named NRSROs out of legislation
  • some funds should create softer cutoffs for investing
  • the buy side should fund the NRSROs, not the issuers

The last is the most important. It removes one of the largest reasons for distortion of ratings. It aligns the interests of the NRSROs with the capital markets.

It would be great if the buy side funded the public company financial statement audit as well!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Bell, Book, and Candle

I watched Bell, Book, and Candle this weekend on DVD. I thought is was a fun film. I liked the interplay between Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart. The supporting cast was a lot of fun also.

You can see how this movie was an inspiration for Bewitched on TV, but it all seems to go back to Thorne Smith's Passionate Witch. I've got a copy on order!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

IEEE Computational Intelligence Symposium

I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week in Nashville, Tennessee. Well, not really. In a hotel just off the runway is more like it, the Sheraton Music City was the venue for the IEEE symposium of the title. It was OK, but the food was terrible. Since we weren't downtown there was not a good chance to get out and experience more of Nashville.

But the science was great! I was there to speak on two panel discussions in the financial engineering track. I actually spent most of my free time in the A-Life track. By pure coincidence, I met up with Wes Elsberry of MSU. Wes is a key figure in the fight against intelligent design and anti-evolutionary creationism.

I thought Wes' talk on his research using Avida to explore the evolution of motion strategies was very interesting.

I made two points I think are worth repeating here. The research opportunities I think will be most helpful to the financial world are ontologies for law, accounting, and financial regulation, and agent based modeling as a way to escape the failed Rational Man hypothesis. One point raised by an audience member was that US federal level financial regulators should be supporting more academic research. I completely agree. Given the billions that are being thrown at problems, it wouldn't hurt to support some hard thinking.

Deceptive genomes

Having worked out the kinks in my BinInt problem, I got my Deception code working also. As with BinInt, I've now scaled the output fitness to adapt to the number and size of subproblems. This isn't important in any one run, or averaging runs with constant parameters, but it does make it easier to compare runs with different parameter choices. I'm happy!

Jean Renoir - Whirlpool of Fate

I took advantage recently of a Barnes and Noble sale on art films, and picked up a boxed set of Jean Renoir. The first one I've watched is his 1925 silent film, Whirlpool of Fate (English title). The film was interesting on a few levels. One was the view of contemporary French life. Horsedrawn barges cross the countryside, and the rich play with motorcars. The second level wsa the mechanics of the film-making. Renoir used many storytelling techniques, and there is a delightful special effects sequence in the middle of the film.

By modern standards, the final resolution might not seem very cathartic. The foul uncle of the damsel in distress is knocked into the river and swept off shaking his fist, and said damsel is taken along on a trip to Algeria by the family of her wealthy benefactors. But has she actually married the handsome young scion? To me it is unclear. Perhaps to contemporary audiences, her change of dress, and riding with the family in their carriage are sufficient clues that she is now a part of the family by marriage. To me, the fact that the film skips any explicit symbols of marriage, even a swinging church bell, leaves it ambiguous whether love has successfully bridged class differences.

While I greatly enjoyed the special effects sequence, for me the greatest enjoyment in the first few seconds of the film after the titles. Leaves flashing on the trees just out of sych with the film rate create this impressionistic shimmer on the screen that immediately transported me to another place and time, not only of story, but of story-telling.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

BinInt, finally!

After much delay, I finally got my BinInt GA problem running successfully in ECJ. Part of the issue was setting everything up again on a new laptop, part also was moving to ECJ 18, and part was my own stupidity. But it looks like it is all working now.

BinInt takes the same bit vector as MaxOnes and divides it into several subproblems. Each subproblem is treated as a binary integer, hence the name. The key new feature of this problem is the introduction of exponential scaling. Some bits are worth a lot more than others.

I wrote the fitness function so that it scales the fitness according to the size and number of subproblems. Best fitness is always 1. this way, we can vary the size and number of the subproblems and directly compare the trajectory of different parameter choices in solving the problem.

Watchmen Re-review

OK, so now I've read the complete graphic novel of Watchmen, and I'll try to do the fanboy comparison of the book and the movie.

Overall, the movie is a pretty fanboy-ish production. The dialog, a lot of the visual blocking is taken straight from the panels of the novel. What's changed is the double layer of subtext in the newstand/Black Freighter plot, the chapter breaking texts, and the final plot device. As for the first two, that's the price of going from one medium to another. The final plot device (FPD) is actually an improvement. The material in the book supporting the FPD is weak, tenuous, and undercuts some of the suspension of disbelief. The movie's FPD is a tighter construction that helps motivate the self-exile of Jon Osterman, which is still the major plot problem of the whole story.

Watchmen is a wonderful comic book that is in love with the American comic book tradition and is speaking to it, playing with its conventions, and retelling its history. There is no way a movie can do all of that and still be a commercial success. However, the deep ethical question still shines through. Because they operate outside the law, are vigilantes in danger of becoming outlaws? Do they, in the end, become outlaws necessarily?

Ozymandias subscribes to the "shock and awe" theory that led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To this, Watchmen adds the Big Lie and Orwellian Memory Hole. How many of us would choose that combination over the unflinching stance of Rorshach?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Watchmen review

I watched the film without having ever read the graphic novel, so I've tried to think about it simply as a film. As such, I prefer V for Vendetta, which covers most of the same points.

Nixon's makeup was awful. The initial shot of Nixon from a distance had the best voice impression, from there it went downhill. Even in 1985 we knew Nixon was much more obscene out of the public eye, so his dialogue was as rubbery as his makeup. This Nixon is still the anti-communist cold warrior of the 1960 election, not the President who went to China and toasted Chou En Lai.

I thought the movie was effective at trying to give the feeling of simultaneity of experience that Dr Manhattan felt, by cutting back and forth in time. It also did acheive the effect of convincing me that anyone with God like powers is going to be aloof and apathetic to the human condition, that vigilantism becomes thrill seeking too easily. The other supers were more then Batman-esque characters. I think the movie is pretty clear that Ozymandias is both super-smart and super-fast, for example. They all can take a lot more punishment than the normal folks they beat up.

I enjoyed Rorshach's voice overs and dialogue, but as I said earlier, preferred V doing the same schtick. So V for Vendetta will remain my favorite Alan Moore adaption for a while. until they make a trilogy out of Lost Girls!


I was just listening to some Cirque du Soleil again. I love the voice of Francesca Gagnon, the White Singer of Alegria. It's got that smoky quality that makes the performance very intimate. I wish more of her music was available through iTunes. Does she remind you of Edith Piaf?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Folding Progress

I'm quite enthusiastic about Folding@Home. My own folding just passed a milestone that means something, at least to me.

F@H awards points for finishing work units (WUs) on time. You can sign on with a user name, even join a team, and watch your individual contribution to science grow. Are points really pointless? Yes, but they appeal to our competitive urge, so they help keep people participating.

So my personal milestone - my number of points is now more than my standing on the leader board! Yes, comparing to different quantities, I know. It happened somewhere between 65,000 and 70,000. Since there are more than 1.2 million folders (not all active right now), I'm in the top 5% of contributors to F@H. Yeah, me! Also, Team Deloitte is in the top 5% of all folding teams. Pretty good for only three guys.

Actually, there are two other lessons you can draw from this progress. 1 - most people who do fold, fold anonymously. 2 - a lot of people tried folding, then forgot about it.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Wrestling with a superhero origins story

Since joining the SFABC and the excellent Writers of the Weird writing group, I've written two SF stories which I'm quite happy about. I've collected one polite rejection, which is also ok.

Now I'm thinking about a new story that is actually a comic book superhero story! I'm not a real spandex-clad fanboi, so this is something of a departure for me.

All I've got right now is the gimmick that creates Our Hero. Our Hero is actually a mild mannered nobody-in-particular until they die, and then are saved by an emergency heart transplant. The gimmick is that they receive the heart of a dead superhero!

So far the dead hero is named Aurion. I don't know much about him so far, except he has golden blood, psionic powers and he's dead. Oh, he's also from somewhere in the EU, because he's a member of a Euro supersquad. Other members
  • Bruit - think Thing, but French. "Bruit, le smash!"
  • Accelerondo - think Flash, but Italian.

Need more Euros, right?

ps - don't take this too seriously!

The Origami of Life

I just wanted to share my experience with this participatory science project.
Folding@Home is a protein folding research project that is part of Stanford University. While understanding how proteins fold up into their three dimensional shapes is very important, it is also very difficult. The process in the cell takes place in microseconds as the proteins are synthesized from the instructions in messenger RNA (copied from the DNA in the nucleus). Therefore the method of choice today is to simulate the motions of the atoms using computers.
Obviously, this takes a lot of computer power. More than even the largest supercomputer, in fact. So the only alternative is to reach out to thousands of PCs and borrow their spare CPU time. Modern computers are idle most of the time. Even when browsing the web and listening to music through your computer, its processor is just idling away. Distributed computing, also called grid computing, is a way to use those spare cycles to do some good.
Folding@Home is the largest distributed computing project in the world today. Anyone with a PC, laptop, or Sony PS3 and an internet connection can join. The joint efforts of hundreds of thousands of volunteers create a computing engine that is currently five times faster than the biggest supercomputer!
I recently joined, and it is very satisfying to know that for the cost of the electricity to leave my PC on, I am contributing in a significant way to curing Alzheimer's Disease, Mad Cow Disease, Huntington's Disease, studying cancer, and advancing basic science.
To join, I went to the F@H web page to download and install the right F@H client for my machine and operating system. Now F@H just sits in the background while I use the PC normally. Because F@H only uses the spare cycles on the machine, it never interferes with other uses. I can also pause F@H whenever I want.
As you might expect of a grid computing project, the security of the software is a top priority. The software has been downloaded over 800,000 times, and no one has ever gotten a computer virus from joining F@H.
Anyone reading this message probably has all that it takes to participate in F@H. Please try it. It's fun and rewarding to see the molecules your PC is working on, and to earn points for completing work. But the real reward is knowing that you are helping to make life better, one spare cycle at a time.

ps - SETI@Home is a similar project aimed at detecting signals in radio waves collected from the Arecibo radio telescope.
pps - This is not meant to be an internet chain letter, but obviously a volunteer grid computing project grows mostly by word of mouth. If you try F@H and like it, you have my permission to forward this message to your friends, or use parts of it to convince the powers that be at local school districts and college campuses that F@H is safe, fun, and something that can make kids excited about science. PCs in classrooms are exactly the kind of underutilized resource that would greatly benefit Folding@Home.