Books and Book Reviews: February 2005 Archives

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets


You have seen sufficient excerpts of this book on and off at this blog, so that I need say little more about it except to emphasize how very accessible and interesting this whole study is. Mandelbrot is attempting to define a new science of economics and the stock market and admits that he is far from being there; however, the problems he unearths are significant and should give pause to those who argue loudly (and at length) about the privatization of Social Security. The risks involved in even the most conservative stock/bond/cash portfolio far outweigh the perceived advantages until there is a better way of managing risk.

That is largely what the book is about--how does the market really run and how can you best assemble investments to minimize risk and maximize profits. In the process of this discuss Mandelbrot touches on invariant and scalable phenomena in markets, in language, and in the annual flooding of the Nile. That so many disparate phenomena can be looked at through multifractals and brownian motion is interesting in itself. That the common practice of Monte Carlo simulation based on Gaussian rather than Cauchy distributions is a dangerous misstep is made evident throughout.

The main difference between the simple bell curve (Gaussian) and the Cauchy curve is that in a bell-curve an additional bundle of data will not particularly disturb a heavily weighted center. That is, if enough data has been collected, then additional data will not appreciably affect the "center of gravity" of the curve. Large outliers will not affect averages.

With the Cauchy curve it is these large outliers that define the essence of the curve. It is a better measure of rapidly fluctuating environments with inherent turbulence (at least so Mandelbrot implies, and I certainly am not one with the least ability to naysay). As a result, additional data added to the Cauchy distribution will result in significant differences in the measures of central tendency.

Another interesting idea uncovered by Mandelbrot is that it is not only the fluctuations in prices that are important, but also the order in which they occur. And this extends to the study of floods on rivers as well. He pointed out that if the data is entered randomly and stirred together, you end up with a nice well-behaved bell curve distribution. But if the data are analyzed in order, what you find instead are a series of parallel curves that reveal a scalability in the phenomenon that is otherwise invisible.

Mandelbrot argues that as long as outdated means are used to evaluate the market, events like October 1987, and the entire year of 2001, but particularly 9/11 (we're speaking here only of market effects) are inevitable. Bubbles will arise and burst based on old means of buying, holding, and selling stocks. Portfolios will continue to experience rapid fluctuations, even based on very conservative, very deliberate buying and selling. Anyone who went through 2001 realizes what this can mean in a very, very short time.

Mandelbrot's book is required reading for all of those who will propose a means whereby social security will be partially privatized. It is recommended reading for everyone else. Despite Mandelbrot's annoying, but slight, tendency toward focusing the spotlight on himself, the book is quite good. It is one of those eye-opening works where many phenomena of the natural world are brought together and part of the pattern underlying them revealed.


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St. Dale

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I like the works of Sharyn McCrumb. From the great science fiction convention send-ups of Bimbos of the Death Sun and Zombies of the Gene Pool to the marvelous atmospheric mysteries The Rosewood Casket and The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, Sharyn McCrumb weaves a fine story with interesting, realistic characters.

She has done so once again with this off-beat story about a tour group going on a Dale Earnhardt memorial tour. McCrumb is at her most comfortable dealing with the people of the southern Appalachians and adjacent territories, and the structure of this story gives her a chance to exercise her gifts in full.

The tour is hosted by an ex-NASCAR driver who leads the party of about fourteen pilgrims through a variety of sites from the Bristol Speedway in Tennessee to "The Lady in Black"--the Darlington Speedway in South Carolina. Along the way the reader learns far more than he or she ever dreamed possible about NASCAR drivers, history, strategy, and fans. From the waitress in New Hampshire who counts her change "One, two, Dale, four, five" to the size and banking in each of the major speedways, to the deaths of NASCAR's major figures, to the meaning of these secular saints.

And that is the theme that McCrumb explores in detail as we traverse the book. Why are some people (Elvis springs to mind) embraced by the populace and made a kind of "secular saint" even though the conduct of their lives is hardly exemplary? In this case, we explore the Dale Earnhardt phenomenon. Killed in February 2001 in a horrific crash at the Daytona Speedway, Earnhardt rapidly became the stuff of legends as there were battles fought over his autopsy and photographs from it. Know as "The Intimidator" because of his driving tactics, Earnhardt appears to have been the kind of person about whom there are no "middle opinions." Either revered or loathed, Earnhardt occupied center stage for a great many people. St. Dale attempts to explore why that might be in several cases.

Interestingly, although McCrumb provides plausible explanations for the people in her tour group, she fails to really get at the core of why Elvis, Marilyn, and Princess Diana make such a huge impression with their thousands of admiring fans. We know why Earnhardt spoke to these individuals, but surely that doesn't explain all of the appeal.

Aside from this single miscue, the book is wonderful. I learned more about NASCAR and things like "restrictor plates" than I ever cared to know--I also learned how very dicey it might be to engage a die-hard fan in any sort of discussion that might question the value or integrity of the sport or any of its adherents.

A surprising and by turns amusing and sad book--most sad in its theological speculations and absurdities, it is well worth the time it takes to read and enjoy. And it gives us insight into our need for heroes and how, where they are lacking, we build up new and unlikely ones.

And now, back to the world of Shakespeare and Mandelbrot.


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Particularly among the ladies. I laughed out loud when I first read this because of the non sequitur and needlessness of the final line. I think misogynist is the word one might use, except that Mr. Waugh didn't particularly LIKE anyone. So he was an equal-opportunity disdainer. Note the source.

from Msgr. Ronald Knox
Evelyn Waugh

At the time there was a limited but eager public for these puzzles. Fashion has turned from them, as from acrostics. When they come back into fashion, Ronald's stories, because of their austerity, may seem less dated than those of his more romantic and dramatic rivals. None was more ingenious than he, more scrupulous in the provision of clues, more logically complete in his solutions. Very few women have ever enjoyed them.

Add to that the fact that Mr. Knox's mysteries are, quite simply, not enjoyable. There isn't so much as a thread of personality on which to hand a hope of a real story--you get in essence the outline of a mystery with the skeleton fully exposed. Mr. Waugh's prediction is sadly unrealistic. And his venom gratuitous. Nevertheless, I think it was the shock of juxtaposition that forced a guffaw out of me. And then gave me pause, because I certainly fall into the class of those who cannot read Mr. Knox's mysteries with any pleasure at all. If I'm to read fiction by clergy, I'll hold with Robert Hugh Benson's wonderful novels. You want to read some good stuff try The Necromancers or Lord of the World.

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You may think the title above a joke, but it is not. And I right this in thanks for the kindness of the St. Blog's Community in nominating Flos Carmeli for best devotional blog. Heaven knows, I don't really deserve it--Quenta Nârwenion, Laudem Gloriae, Ever New, and a host of other deserve the recognition far more than I do. But I am very grateful, thank you. And now--on with the post.

While wasting some time indulging a vice acquired at a very young age--the reading of H. P. Lovecraft and materials inspired by him--something odd occurred to me. In the course of reading The Children of Cthulhu, an updating of the old Mythos, I recognized what I saw in these works.

H.P. Lovecraft is great Christian devotional reading because he gives the other side of the coin--what is the Universe without God? In many ways the arguments of H.P. Lovecraft and others in this realm were really the first fruits of modernism and atheism. These fruits were to develop into the nihilists, the absurdists, and ultimately the Post-Modernists. This is not to say that Lovecraft in any way influenced Beckett, Ionesco, or de Man (though some of his attitudes would have found good company in the latter). Rather, they were part of the zeitgeist, the "spirit of the times" that gave rise to these other things.

Why do I say this? Well, Lovecraft himself was a dedicated atheist. Some of his letters suggest some contempt for theism as a whole and for individuals in particular. His vision is of a world in which at any moment there can intrude utter chaos, randomness, and complete disorder. These are figured in the Great Old Ones and in the Elder Gods he conjures up in his prose. The effects of these entities are chaos, madness, and destruction for those who experience them. And yet, while the threat of universal destruction is always suggested or implied, the reality never occurs. Small townships are affected by interbreeding with the spawn of Dagon--a scientific investigation in Antarctica is disrupted by the Great Old Ones. One or two people experience the rising of R'lyeh. But in fact, Lovecraft's visitations of the Great Old Ones affect remarkably few people considering the hideous power and the great might and the eldritch evil that drips off of every page. If we bother to examine Lovecraft closely it appears that the doom visits only some.

I would suggest that these some represent those "brave" enough to cast off the bonds of traditional religion and thought and to walk without God. Lovecraft's visitations are, in fact, the vision of life without God. They spell out Yeats's famous dictum, "Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold/mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." When God slides out of the picture, we slide into the madness of fallen nature. Everything is hostile and potentially deadly--the world is filled with fear and with the things that cause fear. Moreover, life does not make sense. Things intrude that make life a horror, a nightmare, lunacy. There is simply no explanation and so we run from one opiate to another seeking to dull the pain that is living in stark reality.

Now there are those who would contend that theism is a flight from that reality. But I think that theism imposes upon that reality the truth of the matter and begins to sort out that most things do make sense. There is still the intrusion of the uncertain and the insane, but not nearly to the degree that there is without God.

The horrors of Lovecraft are an acute example of writing what you know. Metaphorically, Lovecraft spelled out his horror of the world--a horror, I believe formed from his inability to believe in any connecting order, any system, any Creator.

The perils of atheism are given ample play in the works of Lovecraft and his successors, and they provide a good ground even for the Catholic artist to indulge his or her imagination. What is the world like without an underlying order--when even the law of gravity is view as a hegemonic oppressive construct? (As in the famous pastiche of Post Modernist thought-- Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity)

There is much to be gained by looking into the mirror Lovecraft holds up--do we see our own reflections, or do we see the truth and thus see the the mythos for the mask of anxiety, pain, and unease that it is? God is where you look for Him, even in those places that the authors and artists struggled most assiduously to keep Him out. After all, Art is at last, only an action of co-creation. We cannot do anything that is not already possible--we cannot create ex nihilo and so every inventive work is the artist in collaboration with his God-given talent whether or not the artist wishes to believe it.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from February 2005.

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