Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Loitering: a very short review

Oddly, I came across Charles D'Ambrosio's Loitering via the Acrostics puzzle in the Sunday New York Times.

However it arrived on my desk, it was truly a wonderful find!

Loitering is somewhat a re-issue: apparently D'Ambrosio had released many of these essays 15 years ago, in an alternate collection that is now out of print. So many of the essays are nearly two decades old; others are newer.

Old, new, or in-between: these are phenomenally good essays, and D'Ambrosio is a writer of startling skill.

As the greatest writers do, D'Ambrosio sees everything through the lens of language.

This can be a disconcerting experience. For example, here is D'Ambrosio, who has become interested in how mobile homes are constructed, marketed, deployed, and lived-in (perhaps he is thinking of buying one?), visiting a suburban town where a number of these homes are in use:

I stopped a couple of places to look through a few more completed houses. All along I'd been intrigued by the lack of language inside these model homes. There were no words, spoken or written, and even the few decorative books seemed mute on the shelves -- not words, but things. Language in the modular industry belongs largely to the manufacturing end of the business, and there, in technical brochures and spec sheets, it's thick and arcane, made up of portmanteaus and other odd hybrids that are practically Linnaean in their specificity. You get Congoleum and Hardipanel Siding and Nicrome Elements. At the factory all that language is assembled and given narrative development in the tightly plotted path the house takes as it progresses from chassis to truck. But once inside the finished home it ends, there's a kind of white hush, a held breath, and all narrative, defined simply as a sequence of events in time, is gone. Silence and timelessness take over so that when the door opens and you cross the threshold you feel you've stepped out of life itself.

Who tries to interpret a mobile home in terms of its language? Who contemplates "Language in the modular industry?" Who visits a mobile home assembly line and observes that "language is assembled and given narrative development?"

A writer does.

At least, a writer of D'Ambrosio's bent does.

But what is this "language inside these model homes" that he is so interested in?

As he explains, it's truly there, if you just know how to look:

In house #19 I find an icy aspect to the arrangement of family artifacts and like Keats before the Grecian Urn I can't quite puzzle out the story. Photos have been framed and set out on tables and shelves but the pictures are of those same corny people who haven't aged a bit since they came with your first cheap wallet. Who are these blonde women with unfading smiles? Whose bright kids are these? What happy family is this? In the kitchen two ice cream sundaes sit on the counter. Those sundaes will never melt, nor will they be eaten. The cookbook in the kitchen is open to a recipe for blueberry pancakes but in the living room a bottle of wine and two glasses wait on a coffee table. What time of day is it?

Yes, indeed, there is language here, and D'Ambrosio has found it.

(By the way, I love the gentle allusion to the famous first sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.")

Loitering continues along like this, nearly every essay a gem of blinding clarity that wastes nary a word, aiming directly and unerringly to the heart of the matter.

Not everything is perfect: I got very little out of the essay Hell House, except to admire its skill in execution; and the essay Misreading was a complete miss for me.

But when D'Ambrosio is on, oh boy is he on.

Take, for just one more instance, since I can't bear to let this pass un-celebrated:

... the difficulty of writing ... of capturing the sound of the sentences, a sound that isn't precious, by eliminating, as much as possible, the emotional fussiness of commas -- instead using hard consonants and the natural stresses of our largely iambic language to create the rhythm.

I mean, do you see what he just did there?

Along the way, there is plenty more. The best of the lot, I think, is an epic essay that starts with a wounded robin, spends pages in the most complex literary analysis of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye that I think I've ever read, and ends up being not an exegesis, or at least not only an exegesis, but really an investigation of the loss of D'Ambrosio's younger brother to suicide as a child.

Loitering is a book for the ages; I will surely pay attention to D'Ambrosio's other work, when I encounter it.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Oh my goodness this is complicated

I'm not in finance.

I'm a software engineer.

But, really, the two professions are not all that far apart.

So I feel like I ought to be able to grasp some of the most basic aspects of finance.

But this baffles me: Volatility Jump Has Traders Asking About VIX Note Poison Pill:

An ETP meant to mirror moves in the front of the VIX’s futures curve plunged more than 75 percent in after-hours trading following an 80 percent spike in contracts that comprise its underlying index during the trading day, potentially putting in play triggers that would enable the fund’s owners to liquidate it to avoid losses.

OK, so an "ETP" is an "Exchange Traded Product":

Exchange-traded products (ETP) are a type of security that is derivatively priced and trades intra-day on a national securities exchange. ETPs are priced so the value is derived from other investment instruments, such as a commodity, a currency, a share price or an interest rate. Generally, ETPs are benchmarked to stocks, commodities or indices. They can also be actively managed funds. ETPs include exchange-traded funds (ETFs), exchange-traded vehicles (ETVs), exchange-traded notes (ETNs) and certificates.

(Please ignore the acronym defined in terms of other acronyms, for now)

And the VIX is the "Volatility Index":

VIX is the ticker symbol for the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE) Volatility Index, which shows the market's expectation of 30-day volatility. It is constructed using the implied volatilities of a wide range of S&P 500 index options. This volatility is meant to be forward looking, is calculated from both calls and puts, and is a widely used measure of market risk, often referred to as the "investor fear gauge."

But what actual ETP's are we talking about, here? Well, here they are: Comparing VIX ETFs/ETNs (XIV, SVXY)

The VIX (CBOE Volatility Index) was created in 1993 to measure the 30-day implied volatility using at-the-money S&P 100 Index option prices. In 2003, the VIX was calculated based on the S&P 500 Index, and it seeks to estimate future volatility by averaging the weighted prices of S&P 500 options over an array of strike prices. Rather than trading options or futures on VIX, sophisticated investors may consider exchange-traded products (ETPs) linked to the VIX, such as the VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN (NYSEARCA: XIV) and the ProShares Short VIX Short-Term Futures ETF (NYSEARCA: SVXY).

Uhm, er, ok. All clear now?

Well, some people weren't: Volatility Inc.: Inside Wall Street’s $8 Billion Mess

The fallout from the implosion of this vast array of arcane bets mounted quickly on Tuesday. Credit Suisse moved to liquidate one investment product and more than a dozen others were halted after their values sunk toward zero.

The meltdown began last week when stocks started to plunge and volatility spiked to levels not seen since 2015. The VIX -- officially, the Cboe Volatility Index -- surged to 50 on Tuesday, before dropping to 30.

Well, don't feel bad. This is hard for everyone, I think.

Matt Levine takes a swing at it: People Are Worried About the Stock Market

The CBOE Volatility Index, the VIX, is a measure of short-term expected volatility in the S&P 500 Index; it closed at 17.31 on Friday and 37.32 on Monday. That is a 115.6 percent move, but, eh, you know, it is also a 20 percentage point move, and off a pretty low base.

But the great thing about modern finance is that it inexorably turns abstract quantities into prices. The VIX is not investable -- you can't buy the VIX for $17.31 or whatever -- but you can get pretty close. For instance there are VIX futures, and exchange-traded products based on those futures that attempt to capture the daily changes in the level of the VIX. If you owned the iPath S&P 500 VIX Short-Term Futures exchange-traded note (ticker VXX), then you were up ... huh, well, 33.5 percent yesterday, a nice day but not quite the 115.6 percent gains you might have hoped for. (The VXX "continued to climb in post-market trading, shooting up as much as 48 percent since the close.").

If on the other hand you owned the VelocityShares Daily Inverse VIX Short-Term ETN (ticker XIV), or the ProShares Short VIX Short-Term Futures exchange-traded fund, which are meant to provide the inverse of the daily VIX performance, then you were ... hmm ... [rechecks calculations] ... yes it says here you were down 115.6 percent yesterday? I mean, you weren't. For one thing your downside is limited to 100 percent; you can't owe the ETN more money than you invested.

"Your downside is limited to 100 percent."

OK, that part I understand.

It's still pretty complicated, though.

Pseudonymous blogger Kid Dynamite takes a swing at it, too: $XIV Volpocalypse – A Sea of Disinformation and Misunderstanding

There are multiple kinds of ETPs (Exchange Traded Products).

ETFs (Exchange Traded Funds) are generally easy to understand: the ETF holds a basket of stocks (or something else), and there are APs (Authorized Participants) who can bring that basket of stuff to the issuer in exchange for new ETF shares, or bring the shares of the ETF to the issuer in exchange for the basket of stuff. This “creation/redemption” mechanism allows arbitrageurs to keep the trading price of the ETF very close to its NAV (net asset value). If the ETF trades rich (above NAV), the arbs will short the ETF, buy the basket of stuff, and create new shares by delivering the stuff to the ETF, closing out their short. If the ETF trades cheap (below NAV), arbs will buy the ETF, short the basket of stuff, and bring the ETF to the manager, receiving the basket of stuff to close out their short. Simple, right?

Then we have CEFs (Closed End Funds), which don’t have this creation/redemption mechanism. Some of them have a provision where shares can be redeemed, sometimes only at specific fractions of NAV, but with CEFs there are no Authorized Participants who can create new shares to arb situations where the CEF trades rich to its NAV.

Finally we have ETNs (Exchange Traded Notes), which are debt instruments of an issuer, whose value is tied to some underlying formula based on the performance of specific assets. With ETNs, as with CEFs, it is often only the issuer who can create new shares to arbitrage situations where the ETN is trading rich. Many ETNs also have redemption mechanisms where holders can deliver shares (in minimum block sizes) to the ETN in exchange for the underlying assets or value thereof.

Is this helping? I dunno.

Kid Dynamite himself acknowledges that this is some pretty abstract stuff, and suggests that you might have an easier go of it with an older article that he wrote: A Leveraged ETF Trading Flow Case Study: Gold Miners – $GDX $NUGT $DUST

There’s a triple leveraged INVERSE ETF – $DUST (no positions) – which seeks to deliver negative 3 times the daily return of the same index. Here’s another confusing part for some people – its rebalance flows are in the same direction, even though it’s leveraged short. Let’s walk through it, shall we?

$DUST had $209 MM in assets as of 9/30/14. That means they’d need -3*209 = -$627 MM in (short) exposure to the GDX. Today, GDX was up 6.7%, so their short hedge portfolio is now worth $42 MM more (a loss of $42 MM for $DUST), or -$669 MM (their short went up in gross notional value). Their assets are now $209 MM – $42 MM = $167 MM. For the new (tomorrow) assets number of $167 MM, they’d need -3*167 = -$501 MM in exposure – so they need to COVER $168 MM in short exposure. In other words, the leveraged short ETF ends up short too much exposure when the underlying index goes higher, so they need to cover some of their short.

"Triple-leveraged inverse ETF".


And I've studied mathematics most of my life!

OK, one more time, back to the ever-patient, ever-accurate, ever-useful Matt Levine, the best financial writer ever to write a daily blog: Are Banks Worthless?

the XIV is just, you know, it is complicated, there are formulas in the prospectus, etc. Another complaint is that its complication might have caused it to blow up. Actually "might" is too weak a word; as Charles Forelle pointed out, the prospectus says, bold and underlined, that "the long term expected value of your ETNs is zero." Even if the VIX goes down, the XIV -- which is a bet on the VIX going down! -- will also lose money over time. If you bought XIV to bet on vol going down, and vol went down, and you lost money anyway, you might be aggrieved. "What a complicated product," you might complain, correctly, even though you were warned.

But what actually happened is that on Monday the VIX went up by 116 percent, and the XIV went down by 93 percent, and Credit Suisse AG, XIV's sponsor, announced that it would usher XIV off into the great financial-products hereafter. If you bought XIV to bet on vol going down, and vol more than doubled in a day, then you get up from the table, you shake everyone's hand, you say "well played XIV," and you walk away with dignity. You did that! That's on you. Perhaps you didn't understand the intricacies of the formulas in the prospectus, but the intricacies of the formulas didn't matter. You made a bet on the VIX going down, the VIX went up by 116 percent, you lost. That is that.

Let's see if I got this:

  1. Stock prices were remarkably stable, mostly going up, but basically not going up or down very much.
  2. People figured out a way to speculate on stock prices continuing to go up, or at least on stock prices not going up or down very much
  3. They made money on those speculative trades, enough money that they went and borrowed large amounts of additional money, in order to make more money.
  4. Then stock prices went down. A lot.
  5. And those people were sad.

You know, in some ways I think I'm smarter after all of this.

In other ways, I think, not.

Rock with Wings: a very short review

Continuing on from her promising first effort, Anne Hillerman continues developing the tale of the Navajo Tribal Police characters created by her father, Tony, in Rock With Wings.

For the most part, detective novels follow a certain overall structure:

  1. A crime occurs, and our detective is on the job
  2. Clues are introduced, sleuthing is undertaken
  3. Obstacles arise, and blind alleys are traversed
  4. The solution is revealed, closure is achieved

Anne Hillerman, however, is walking a different path.

Clearly (and rather justifiably), Hillerman has different priorities; I suspect they go something along the lines of:

  1. Check in on Chee, Manuelito, and Leaphorn, and see how they are doing.
  2. Keep an eye on the Navajo Reservation, see what's happening
  3. Take care of the day-to-day maintenance that's part of ordinary Tribal Police life
  4. Oh, and if a crime occurs, well, that will need some attention.

If you're going to enjoy Rock With Wings (and you should), you'll need to settle into a different way of looking at the world, a way that's more aligned with the way that Officer Bernie Manuelito looks at the world.

Sure enough, there is a crime: it's something having to do with money laundering, securities fraud, and Las Vegas.

Yet we barely even hear about that crime! It figures in, here and there, and in the end the proper authorities are informed.

Meanwhile, back in the part of the world that actually matters to Hillerman:

  • A mystery involving protected and endangered miniature barrel cacti is resolved
  • A lost necklace is restored to its rightful heir
  • The complications of integrating solar panel power generators into the high desert are depicted
  • An elderly couple are educated about the complexities of tribal lands, and helped to understand how burial customs differ among cultures

And all of these tales are woven through the movies of John Ford, the mesas of Monument Valley, and, of course, the Rock With Wings itself, Tse Bit a i, Ship Rock.

You won't find pulse-pounding entertainment here.

You won't even find out who the money launderers are, and why they got into such a dispute.

What you will find, however, is a commitment to place, to character, and to time.

Sunday, January 28, 2018


It was a busy weekend.

My marvelous wife arranged a small family reunion for my parents' SIXTIETH wedding anniversary (!!).

People came from all over: Albuquerque, NM; Richmond, VA; San Diego, CA; Sonora, CA; San Antonio, TX.

The weather complied and we got some great pictures.

It was a wonderful day.

Thank you, one and all!

But especially thank you to my wonderful wife.

Cibola Burn: a very short review

Cibola Burn is Book 4 of The Expanse.

Cibola, a word not previously known to me, is a name of the location visited by Coronado's disastrous expedition to find the city of gold.

This being The Expanse, however, we're far, far away from New Mexico; our expedition to find the city of gold has taken us to New Terra, a.k.a. Ilus, a.k.a. another planet that we get to through the gate.

We're now deep into The Expanse, of course, and many aspects have become familiar, but Cibola Burn does not flag, and picks up from the slightly-disappointing third volume to return to the excitement and thrills that the series is famous for.

As any thriller must, we need a good villain, and Cibola Burn's Murtry is as foul and despicable as you could possibly want.

And there are many other great new characters, including Elvi, the best biologist-nerd-heroine to come along in quite some time:

Scientific nomenclature was always difficult. Naming a new organism on Earth and even in the greater Sol system had a lengthy, tedious process, and the sudden massive influx of samples from New Terra would probably clog the scientific literature for decades. It wasn't just the mimic lizards or the insectlike fliers. Every bacterial analog would be new. Every single-celled organism would be unfamiliar. Earth alone had managed five kingdoms of life. Six, if you agreed with the Fityani hypothesis. She couldn't imagine that the ecosphere of New Terra would turn out to be much simpler.

But in the meantime, the thing living in her eyes -- in all their eyes, except Holden's -- wouldn't even officially be a known organism for years. Maybe decades. It would be officially nameless until it was placed within the larger context of life.

Until then, she'd decided to call it Skippy. Somehow it seemed less frightening when it had a silly nickname. Not that she'd be any less dead if she bumbled into a death-slug, but at this point anything helped. And she was getting a little punchy.

You know you're reading The Expanse when we get to "the thing living in her eyes". I'm doing my best not to spoil it any more.

By this point, I guess, you either love The Expanse, or you have no interest at all, but if you're in that first category, Cibola Burn delivers.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Up, up, and away

OK, sports fans, here we go!

A Look Inside Salesforce Tower

Get an inside look through the eyes of an employee working in the building!

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Oh this is a shame

For the last few years my favorite web site had become The Awl.

And now, no more.


I hope all those EXTREMELY talented writers and editors find good new locations elsewhere.