Jeré Longman recently ran a marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea. He was one of several hundred foreign tourists allowed to participate in the spectacle. Writing for The New York Times, he reflects on the experience:
We could not leave the loop course, but we could leave our minders for an hour or two or four. Maybe we could make a personal connection that seemed less scripted than the opening ceremony: a brief smile, a wave, a hello, a thank you, a small encouragement.
Or would it all be staged, a Potemkin race in an authoritarian capital for the elite and loyal, our perceptions influenced by stories in the West, true or not, that Kim Jong-il scored a perfect 300 in his first bowling match and five holes in one on his maiden round of golf?
An early uphill stretch carried us past modest but encouraging crowds along a wide street of apricot blossoms. A soldier high-fived a few runners. A woman waved from the window of her apartment building. Other women in red jackets poured water into cups at small hydration tables.
The 6.2-mile loop brought us back and forth across the Taedong River via bridge and tunnel, the roads decorated with clusters of North Korean flags, their red star and red field meant to symbolize the spilled blood of liberation in a military-first nation.
For the natives, the marathon may have been a chance to act rebelliously:
During his half-marathon, Hank Mannen, 36, of the Netherlands, was startled to see a young woman blow him a kiss. He said he reciprocated, then thought for a moment, “She’s in big trouble now.”
The Passport Index is a very clever websites that shows you thumbnails of all the passports in the world. Even better, there is a Passport Power Index, which shows you, in order, the most powerful passports in the world. The power is based on how many countries one could visit with said password without applying for a visa (or where a visa would be granted upon arrival to the destination).
The top passports in the world are:
1) United States (147 countries visited without a visa)
1) United Kingdom (147)
3) France (145)
3) Germany (145)
3) South Korea (145)
6) Italy (144)
6) Sweden (144)
At the very bottom of the Passport Power Index, we have: Solomon Islands (28), Myanmar (28), South Sudan (28), Sao Tome and Principe (28), and Palestinian Territories (28).
Also, you can see the passports organized by color, such as red and blue:
What a great site! And the passport index was exactly what I was wondering about on my recent trip to Costa Rica.
Hat tip: The Washington Post
The New Yorker has an interesting feature on what it would take to successful man a mission to Mars. The piece focuses on a University of Hawaii computer-science professor named Kim Binsted and the Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, or HI-SEAS program. A dome is set up near the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii:
The dome has a porthole, looking across the saddle at Mauna Kea—a legacy of the first study there, during which the benefit of a windowless exterior (protection from radiation) was found to be less significant than the drawback (the crew hated it). For our visit, the porthole had been covered over to keep the crew’s isolation complete. Quiet as parents on Christmas Eve, we ferried tubs of rice cakes and wet wipes from Costco into a back entry porch. Menus had been worked up during two previous missions in the dome, lasting four months each, during which food cooked ad libitum, even from reconstituted ingredients, rated much higher than the kind of meals-in-a-pouch necessary during zero-gravity travel. Back into the truck went black plastic bags of trash and boxes of saltines that had passed their shelf date. “ ‘Principal investigator’ sounds pretty glamorous,” Binsted said, as she climbed behind the wheel. “But a lot of what I do is space janitor.”
The portions describing their exercise routines caught my attention:
Exercise is built into their routine, as it would be for astronauts trying to maintain muscle mass in low gravity (Mars has three-eighths the gravity of Earth), and the chatty exhortations of Tony Horton, the self-described “fitness clown” who devised the P90X workout routine, permeate their conversations. The communication lag means no surfing the Internet, but Zak Wilson, who is twenty-eight, speculated that e-mail, even if it’s time-delayed, will help astronauts feel less isolated than old-time sailors trapped in the Antarctic ice. Wilson brought a 3-D printer, and as he finds himself casting about for useful items to make—iPad wall mounts, a Scotch-tape dispenser—he concedes that watching the extruder swing back and forth, depositing tiny bits of material with each pass, is “maybe not a terrible analogy for our stay here.”
The team even made a video of them doing p90x:
Worth reading in its entirety.
Further reading from the HI-SEAS participants: Jocelyn’s blog, Zak’s blog, and Martha’s blog.
Falling interest rates in Europe have put some banks in an interesting position: owing money on loans to borrowers.The Wall Street Journal reports on the curiosity:
At least one Spanish bank, Bankinter SA, the country’s seventh-largest lender by market value, has been paying some customers interest on mortgages by deducting that amount from the principal the borrower owes.
The problem is just one of many challenges caused by interest rates falling below zero, known as a negative interest rate. All over Europe, banks are being compelled to rebuild computer programs, update legal documents and redo spreadsheets to account for negative rates.
Interest rates have been falling sharply, in some cases into negative territory, since the European Central Bank last year introduced measures meant to spur the economy in the eurozone, including cutting its own deposit rate. The ECB in March also launched a bond-buying program, driving down yields on eurozone debt in hopes of fostering lending.
So in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, the base interest rate used for many loans, especially mortgages, is the euro interbank offered rate, or Euribor. The rate is based on how much it costs European banks to borrow from each other. Banks set interest rates on many loans as a small percentage above or below a benchmark such as Euribor. If the spread plus the Euribor is below 0, the Bank pays the borrower.
This afternoon, I spent some time reviewing the annual shareholder letter from JPMorgan Chase. The most interesting bit to me was this section on Model Risk Management (“Model review”) at the Bank:
More than 300 employees are working in Model Risk and Development. In 2014, this highly specialized team completed over 500 model reviews, implemented a system to assess the ongoing performance of the 1,000+ most complex models in the firm, and continued to enhance capital and loss models for our company.
So there at least 1,000 models currently in production at JPMorgan Chase, which doesn’t include the non-complex models…
I also thought Jamie Dimon’s comments on the Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR) were illuminating:
We believe that we would perform far better under the Fed’s stress scenario than the Fed’s stress test implies. Let me be perfectly clear – I support the Fed’s stress test, and we at JPMorgan Chase think that it is important that the Fed stress test each bank the way it does. But it also is important for our shareholders to understand the difference between the Fed’s stress test and what we think actually would happen. Here are a few examples of where we are fairly sure we would do better than the stress test would imply:
- We would be far more aggressive on cutting expenses, particularly compensation, than the stress test allows.
- We would quickly cut our dividend and stock buyback programs to conserve capital. In fact, we reduced our dividend dramatically in the first quarter of 2009 and stopped all stock buybacks in the first quarter of 2008.
- We would not let our balance sheet grow quickly. And if we made an acquisition, we would make sure we were properly capitalized for it. When we bought Washington Mutual (WaMu) in September of 2008, we immediately raised $11.5 billion in common equity to protect our capital position. There is no way we would make an acquisition that would leave us in a precarious capital position.
- And last, our trading losses would unlikely be $20 billion as the stress test shows. The stress test assumes that dramatic market moves all take place on one day and that there is very little recovery of values. In the real world, prices drop over time, and the volatility of prices causes bid/ask spreads to widen – which helps marketmakers. In a real-world example, in the six months after the Lehman Brothers crisis, J.P. Morgan’s actual trading results were $4 billion of losses – a significant portion of which related to the Bear Stearns acquisition – which would not be repeated. We also believe that our trading exposures are much more conservative today than they were during the crisis.
The last point is important because the way the scenarios have worked in the recent years for CCAR, the assumption was that there was a one-time (one day to less than a month-long), massive shock to the equity markets (50 to 60% drop in the severely adverse case).
In a piece titled “Dream Teams,” Ben McGrath recounts the story of how fantasy sports were started. It began with a man named Daniel Okrent, who met with some friends at La Rotisserie Française, an eatery on East Fifty-Second Street in New York City, from which, of course, we get Rotisserie baseball.
I think this paragraph about how fantasy baseball (or perhaps all fantasy sports) lose their allure over time:
“In the first year or two you’re playing, you are much more engaged with baseball than you’ve been since you were seven years old,” Okrent said. “And then, by your fourth or fifth year, the actual game has lost meaning for you. You’re engaged in the numbers that the game spins out and engaged with millions of others in the same way. It has no relationship not just to the fan attachment that you may have had to a particular team but to the physical thing that’s taking place on the field. It’s the representation of it in a number that’s what’s important. I’m thinking of our original group. A couple of them really don’t give a shit about baseball at all anymore.” He added, “When people say, ‘How do you feel, having invented this?’ I say, ‘I feel the way that J. Robert Oppenheimer felt having invented the atomic bomb.’ I really do. I mean, pretty terrible!”
As for myself, I was an avid fantasy baseball player in the early 2000s. But after four to five years, I lost majority of my interest.
I am currently on vacation in Costa Rica, and right at the beginning of my trip, I found out that the entire country is now running on 100% renewable energy:
Thanks to some heavy rainfall this year, Costa Rica’s hydropower plants alone are generating nearly enough electricity to power the entire country. With a boost from geothermal, solar, and wind energy sources, the country doesn’t need an ounce of coal or petroleum to keep the lights on. Of course, the country has a lot of things going in its favor. Costa Rica is a small nation, has less than 5 million people, doesn’t have much of a manufacturing industry that would require a lot of energy, and is filled with volcanoes and other topographical features that lend themselves to renewable energy.
That is pretty remarkable.
Here is the press release (in Spanish) from ICE, Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE).
(via Science Alert)