Instagram, Foursquare, Facebook: Ten Nyman on Packaged Lives

Ted Nyman hypothesizes in his post “The Horrible Future of Social” that our obsession with digital services is cheapening our lives:

We have begun to pollute and desecrate and cheapen all of our experiences. We are creating neat little life-boxes for everything, all tied up with a geo-tag, a photo, a check-in; our daily existence transformed into database entries in some NoSQL database on some spinning disk in some rack in suburban Virginia.

The end-game is this. Slowly, gradually, without realizing: we stop participating in our own lives. We become spectators, checking off life achievements for reasons we do not know. At some point, everything we do is done soley to broadcast these things to casual friends, stalkers, and sycophants.

It’s a profound observation.

Today, I got my first Mayorship badge on FourSquare. But I didn’t know how to feel about it. Was it an actual accomplishment? A momentary boost of ego, sure, but what does it matter a week from now? A month? A year?

On Oysters and Hurricanes

Paul Greenberg, writing for The New York Times op-ed, explains how oysters could have protected the New York harbor from the devastating storm surge caused by Hurricane (tropical storm) Sandy:

Until European colonists arrived, oysters took advantage of the spectacular estuarine algae blooms that resulted from all these nutrients and built themselves a kingdom. Generation after generation of oyster larvae rooted themselves on layers of mature oyster shells for more than 7,000 years until enormous underwater reefs were built up around nearly every shore of greater New York.

Just as corals protect tropical islands, these oyster beds created undulation and contour on the harbor bottom that broke up wave action before it could pound the shore with its full force. Beds closer to shore clarified the water through their assiduous filtration (a single oyster can filter as much as 50 gallons of water a day); this allowed marsh grasses to grow, which in turn held the shores together with their extensive root structure.

But 400 years of poor behavior on the part of humans have ruined all that. As Mark Kurlansky details in his fine book The Big Oyster, during their first 300 years on these shores colonists nearly ate the wild creatures out of existence. We mined the natural beds throughout the waterways of greater New York and burned them down for lime or crushed them up for road beds.

Interesting.

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Did you know the expression “The world is your oyster” derives from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor?

Profiting from Hurricane Sandy

Mark Gimein has a short post on Bloomberg, explaining that a typical investor doesn’t really have a chance to profit on Hurricane Sandy:

Another way to take advantage of the downside risk might be to put buy put options on the S&P 500 index. If a lot of folks were doing that, you might expect November put options with a strike price of 1350 or 1375 — that would represent a three or four percent decline in the S&P 500 — to spike upwards. They haven’t.

Recent years have been blockbusters for catastrophically deadly and expensive extreme weather events; Munich Re has some very useful data on this, which show 2011 as a record-setting year for costs of natural disasters (this includes Japan’s Tohoku quake). While a lot of ink has been spilled about the possibility of hedge funds betting on high-impact, low-but-meaningful-probability events like the storm, that’s easier said than done. It’s possible to make a fairly general bet against the insurance industry, or to bet on a sharp drop in the markets.

In practice, however, making a specific bet that would hedge against — or profit from — a weather disaster, is a lot more difficult. There’s not a substantial market for, say, put options on the insurance companies with exposure to Sandy.

If you want to hedge the financial risks of a hurricane, there are not a lot of market tools at your disposal. The main hurricane option for investors, whether ordinary stock pickers or hedge fund traders is the same as for other New Yorkers: shut the windows, turn on the news, and watch the storm’s progress on TV.

Not mentioned: even if you wanted to trade stocks or options, the entire stock market (NYSE, NASDAQ) is closed today and tomorrow. Good luck with that.

How Financial Crises are Like Hurricanes

Felix Salmon opines on how financial crises are similar to huge storms, such as the impending Hurricane Sandy barreling down on New York and the rest of the East Coast:

Financial crises are similar to storms: they require humility, not hubris. Being prepared can be helpful at the margin, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how good your liquidity management teams and risk ledgers and counterparty hedging operations are: if everybody else is blown over by forces beyond their control, then you will be too.

That’s why skyscrapers always used to be built well above the water level, and that’s why we used to have dumb regulations like Glass-Steagal and Basel I, which weren’t very sophisticated, but which generally did the trick. Buildings like 200 West are a bit like Basel III: they’re built with models, so that they can withstand certain forces. But if an unprecedented storm arises, they’re still more at risk than, say, Trinity Church, built more than 150 years earlier. Sometimes, simple common sense (high ground is safer, huge books of complex derivatives can blow up in unpredictable ways) does a lot more good than any amount of sophisticated preparation.

The gist of Felix’s post relates to how Goldman Sachs is protecting its multi-millionaire dollar headquarters with sandstorms, but the analogy can be expanded to all the big banks.

The “I Don’t Have Time” Myth

Matt Swanson, with a few examples, highlights the notion that “slow and steady” is the path to getting things done, perhaps even reaching mastery of a skill or concept:

How do you get the inertia to start when the finish line seems so far away?

                   I’d like to write a book, but I don’t have time to do all that work.

But do you have an hour to outline a table of contents? Could you write 500 words today? How about emailing five bloggers that might be interested in reviewing your book this week?

Nathan Barry, a normal guy from Idaho with a wife and kid, found the time to write his book inthousand word chunks.

                      I’d really like to start drawing, but I’m no good and don’t have time to learn.

Do you have time to draw one sketch today? And again tomorrow? Could you steal enough time to read a chapter in a book every week? To visit an art museum once a month?

Jonathan Hardesty, an aspiring artist who started at “rock bottom”, did one sketch or painting every day. It took him years of work, but he went from untrained to professional artist.

You really should follow the links above for some perspective of those people were able to accomplish.

I don’t believe in the “I don’t have the time” mantra. We all have the same amount of time every day. It’s how we choose to allocate our time that matters. What you choose to do with the limited time you have speaks of your priorities in life.

On Milk, Lactose Intolerance, and Mutations

Benjamin Phelan writes about the “most spectacular mutation” in human history in this Slate piece. He begins:

To repurpose a handy metaphor, let’s call two of the first Homo sapiens Adam and Eve. By the time they welcomed their firstborn, that rascal Cain, into the world, 2 million centuries of evolution had established how his infancy would play out. For the first few years of his life, he would take his nourishment from Eve’s breast. Once he reached about 4 or 5 years old, his body would begin to slow its production of lactase, the enzyme that allows mammals to digest the lactose in milk. Thereafter, nursing or drinking another animal’s milk would have given the little hell-raiser stomach cramps and potentially life-threatening diarrhea; in the absence of lactase, lactose simply rots in the guts. With Cain weaned, Abel could claim more of his mother’s attention and all of her milk. This kept a lid on sibling rivalry—though it didn’t quell the animus between these particular sibs—while allowing women to bear more young. The pattern was the same for all mammals: At the end of infancy, we became lactose-intolerant for life.

Two hundred thousand years later, around 10,000 B.C., this began to change. A genetic mutation appeared, somewhere near modern-day Turkey, that jammed the lactase-production gene permanently in the “on” position. The original mutant was probably a male who passed the gene on to his children. People carrying the mutation could drink milk their entire lives. Genomic analyses have shown that within a few thousand years, at a rate that evolutionary biologists had thought impossibly rapid, this mutation spread throughout Eurasia, to Great Britain, Scandinavia, the Mediterranean, India and all points in between, stopping only at the Himalayas. Independently, other mutations for lactose tolerance arose in Africa and the Middle East, though not in the Americas, Australia, or the Far East.

In an evolutionary eye-blink, 80 percent of Europeans became milk-drinkers; in some populations, the proportion is close to 100 percent. (Though globally, lactose intolerance is the norm; around two-thirds of humans cannot drink milk in adulthood.) The speed of this transformation is one of the weirder mysteries in the story of human evolution, more so because it’s not clear why anybody needed the mutation to begin with. Through their cleverness, our lactose-intolerant forebears had already found a way to consume dairy without getting sick, irrespective of genetics.

Why do humans keep drinking milk? And why is it such a mystery why the lactose-tolerance mutation has propagated?

Analysis of potsherds from Eurasia and parts of Africa have shown that humans were fermenting the lactose out of dairy for thousands of years before lactose tolerance was widespread. Here is the heart of the mystery: If we could consume dairy by simply letting it sit around for a few hours or days, it doesn’t appear to make much sense for evolution to have propagated the lactose-tolerance mutation at all, much less as vigorously as it did. Culture had already found a way around our biology. Various ideas are being kicked around to explain why natural selection promoted milk-drinking, but evolutionary biologists are still puzzled.

Fascinating.

Did Geoffrey Chaucer Coin the Word Twitter?

The Oxford English Online tweeted the word cloud below to showcase a few of Geoffrey Chaucer’s contributions to the English language, among them, womanhood, fattish, caterwaul, sluttish, poppet, dotard, and crude. But also, the word twitter:

Chaucer word cloud

The Atlantic Wire summarizes:

Chaucer provides our earliest ex. of twitter, verb: of a bird: to utter a succession of light tremulous notes; to chirp continuously.” On their Oxford Words blog they add that though Chaucer is frequently considered “the venerable but crude uncle of English poetry, always ready with an inappropriate story, quite likely, even when it seems as if his tale can’t get any funnier or more scurrilous”—that bawdy poet our high school English teachers assigned us to read—he was much more.

Dryden dubbed him ‘the Father of English Poetry,’ and while it’s debatable whether he really did invent English poetry as we know it, Chaucer remains considered one of the formidable, formative masters of English language and literature. He’s the man behind expressions like “Love is blind,” “Love conquers all,” “Time and tide wait for no man,” and “shaking like a leaf” or, Right as an aspen lefe she gan to quake. Also, “Marriage is a wonderful invention; but, then again, so is a bicycle repair kit.” Like Shakespeare, he was unafraid to play with words, and to create new ones: “There are around 2,000 words for which the works of Chaucer currently provide evidence of first use in the Oxford English Dictionary. Just over half of these borrowings are from French or Latin roots (mostly French), almost all the rest are new formations based on existing English words,” they write. We still use quite a lot of those words today, tweeting or not, and others are just kind of great: messagery, mishappy, whippletree, corny, poop, Martian, bodkin, bragget, vulgar, snort, scissors, and more.

Interesting.

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