Wednesday, June 29, 2016

OPD, (somewhat) explained

If you're as baffled by the Oakland Police Department situation as I am, try this Slate explainer: The Oakland Police Department Mess, Explained

The story starts with a young Oakland police officer named Brendan O’Brien. O’Brien joined the department in 2013 and was married to a woman named Irma Huerta Lopez, who died in June 2014 of an apparent suicide. A little over a year after Lopez’s death—on Sept. 25, 2015, to be exact—O’Brien shot himself. The suicide note he left behind triggered the series of events that brought us to where we are today.

Well, actually, after we get through a lot more explaining, it turns out that no, the story doesn't actually start there.

The agreement—known formally as a consent decree—was the result of an earlier scandal, which centered around a group of four officers who called themselves the “Rough Riders” and were accused of beating, robbing, and planting evidence on people while they were on patrol in West Oakland.

Moreover, it appears that it's not just about Oakland, either.

According to ABC7, there have also been investigations opened in at least six other area police departments. And according to the Bay Area News Group, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office is conducting an independent review

It's complicated.

It's important.

It's going to take some time to figure out.

I'm not sure if you can really call this an "explainer" if, in the end, there seems to be more that is left unexplained than is explained.

But thank you, Slate, for at least giving it a go.

The Moral Economy of Tech

On his website, Maciej Ceglowski posted the text of his address to the panel on The Moral Economy of Tech at the 28th Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics conference this last weekend.

Ceglowski's address is honest and hard-hitting:

The first step towards a better tech economy is humility and recognition of limits. It's time to hold technology politically accountable for its promises. I am very suspicious of attempts to change the world that can't first work on a local scale. If after decades we can't improve quality of life in places where the tech élite actually lives, why would we possibly make life better anywhere else?

We should not listen to people who promise to make Mars safe for human habitation, until we have seen them make Oakland safe for human habitation. We should be skeptical of promises to revolutionize transportation from people who can't fix BART, or have never taken BART. And if Google offers to make us immortal, we should check first to make sure we'll have someplace to live.

Techies will complain that trivial problems of life in the Bay Area are hard because they involve politics. But they should involve politics. Politics is the thing we do to keep ourselves from murdering each other. In a world where everyone uses computers and software, we need to exercise democratic control over that software.

Ceglowski is a superb writer, and it's a very powerful speech; every word is worth reading.

Meanwhile, on the topic of morality, economy, politics, and technology, it's worth also spending some time with Mark Thoma's recent article in The Financial Times: Why the Public Has Stopped Paying Attention to Economists

The predictions from economists about the consequences of Brexit were widely ignored. That shouldn’t be surprising. In recent years the public has lost faith the in the economics profession.

One reason for the lack of faith is the failure to predict the Great Recession, but the public’s dismissal of macroeconomists is based upon more than the failure to foresee the dangers the housing bubble posed for the economy. It is also due to false promises about the benefits to the working class from globalization, tax cuts for the wealthy, and trade agreements – promises that were often used to support ideological and political goals or to serve special interests.

In retrospect the evidence for the housing bubble was easy to see and a few people tried to sound the alarm but they were widely dismissed. Even when the warnings were taken seriously the belief was that the consequences from a housing bubble collapse would be relatively minor and confined to the housing sector. Very few people believed there would be a deep and long-lasting recession.

Thoma's article isn't as incisive as Ceglowski's but it does share the same appeal for humility:

much like weather forecasters, we can provide information about the chances of good or bad weather in the near future even if those forecasts are highly uncertain.

But we do need more humility about what we do and do not know, more willingness to change our minds when the evidence disagrees with our favorite theoretical model, and the willingness to acknowledge disagreement within the profession. But most of all we need to take a strong stand against those inside and outside the profession who misuse economic theory and empirical results for political and ideological purposes.

Hear, hear.

UPDATE: Another of the panelists, Kieran Healy, has also published his address to the panel.

Monday, June 27, 2016

More footie speculation

It will be a LONG time before we see another weekend of football like we just had, capped off by that ASTONISHING Copa Final in which Chile and Argentina battled ferociously until, as in some epic Shakespearean tragedy, all that were left on the field were stumbling, shattered hulks, begging to be released from their torment.

And so, to their credit, Chile nobly defend and retain their Copa title.

Meanwhile, across the pond, we're down to just 8 teams left, and even though our heads are still spinning from all the upheaval and chaos, the next round of Footie Predictions simply must be made!

  • Poland v Portugal. Frankly, neither of these teams deserved to advance. Poland played uninspired football against a delightful Swiss side, while Portugal showed little of the brilliance we all know they're capable of. Both teams played into extra time in their victories, and may well be exhausted at this point, but: next weekend, in the next Euro shocker, Poland stun Portugal 1-0.
  • Wales v Belgium. Two delightful teams, continuing to play joyous and entertaining football. Why can't they both win?!! Sadly, one must advance, and Wales come to the end of their beautiful run; Belgium win, 2-1.
  • Germany v Italy. This is truly football royalty. As everyone knows, Germany and Italy have 4 World Cup championships each; only Brazil (with 5) have more. They've played each other dozens of times, and each time is epic. This will be another epic battle, even though it is likely to be cautious, tentative, tensely-contested, and nail-biting. After 120 long minutes, the 1-1 tie cannot be broken, and Italy advance by prevailing in the shootout.
  • France v Iceland. Iceland, glorious Iceland! Slayer of dragons and of The Three Lions, fielder of the mighty Thor himself. If you want to see why Iceland is such a wonderful story, spend a minute to watch the following video, from the end of their historic upset of England. Long after the match was over, in the far corner of the stadium in Nice, thousands of Iceland fans still stood and cheered and sang. Then the team, in unison, join in, and lead the fans in a synchronized clapping cheer. Sadly, Iceland, having come MUCH farther than anyone expect, now encounter a talented French host squad that is finally playing to their skill level, and their magnificent run ends. 3-1, France advance.

Journalism in our modern age

Here's a quick quiz: what publication is this excerpted from:

[...] is not really a man; he is a manifestation of public acclamation, an entity made by technology, and a myth. Old-fashioned journalism might bring you to him, or cause you to miss him altogether - but he was born of relationships that depend on concealment. A reporter was once a person who could rely on visible evidence, recordings, notes, statements of fact, and I gathered these assiduously, but this was a story that challenged the foundations on which reporting depends. I fought to uphold familiar standards of truth, and fought to discover new ways to uncover it in this underworld of companies with a vested interest in disclosing some things but not others, but it felt like the walls of virtual reality were forever pressing in on my notepad. It is standard practice in Silicon Valley for everyone, from bagel boy to research chief, to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. This is because every company - Apple or Microsoft or Google or Facebook - has a mission not only to make money but to control the narrative of who they are.

Is this from:

  • A new unauthorized biography of Steve Jobs?
  • An upcoming book on Julian Assange?
  • Larry Ellison's autobiography?
  • A report on Edward Snowden?
  • A new science fiction novel loosely based on the life of Mark Zuckerberg?

Actually, it's none of the above.

Rather, it's a snip from the epic thirty five thousand word article by Andrew O'Hagan on Craig Wright in this summer's London Review of Books: The Satoshi Affair.

It's an essay about Satoshi.

It's an essay about Craig Wright.

And, mostly, it's an essay about our modern age, for, as O'Hagan puts it,

I was a willing stenographer, thinking Wright was something perhaps bigger than Satoshi. He was the internet’s habit of self-dramatisation and self-concealment all at once; its new sort of persona. What he actually did may never be known. Either he’s one of the greatest computer scientists of his generation, or he’s a reckless opportunist, or he’s both. We can’t be sure. But there he was, standing in Old Compton Street in the pouring rain, saying sorry.

A lot of people have expressed frustration with O'Hagan's essay, which tantalizes us with the hope that we'll finally Get The Answer, but in the end deposits us back at the same basic mystery, perhaps knowing more of the details of Wright's strange behavior, yet still in the dark about the Satoshi enigma.

I have a friend, who is in the know about these things, who (last time I saw him) expressed confidence that, eventually, we will know.

But, for now, we still do not know.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

I propose a new rule ...

... if, after 90 minutes have elapsed, neither team has managed even a single shot on goal, ...

... then, the match shall be halted, and both teams shall be declared to have lost, and are disqualified from the tournament.


Friday, June 24, 2016

Footie speculation

So, this weekend promises to be the best weekend of top-level football (soccer, that is) in at least two years, maybe more.

Therefore, it's time for me to make some Entirely Unfounded, Thoroughly Personal predictions:

  • Copa final, Sunday @ 6 PM California time, Chile vs Argentina.

    Argentina will win, on penalty shootout, after an extremely exciting 2-2 conclusion in regular time. This match features the No. 1 and No. 5 teams in the entire world, both of which are playing at peak level in recent weeks.

  • Euro Round of 16 predictions:
    • Switzerland v Poland. Go Poland! They win 1-0.
    • Croatia v Portugal. Portugal return to their previous poor form, and Croatia win 2-0.
    • Wales v Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland had a tough first group, and meet a Welsh team playing very well. Wales win, 2-1
    • Hungary v Belgium. Which Belgian team will show up? Hungary took first in the weakest group, while Belgium survived the toughest group. Belgium 3-1 in a sparkler of a game.
    • Germany v Slovakia. Germany are superb, but Slovakia know how to frustrate opponents. Germany survive, 1-0, after a nail-biting 90 minutes
    • Italy v Spain. What a great match for the round of 16! Both teams were favorites to be in the finals at the start of the tournament. Italy won the toughest group while Spain were exposed by Croatia. Still, Spain return to form in this game and defeat Italy in a painfully ugly 0-0 battle decided on a Spanish goal in extra time.
    • France v Republic of Ireland. Ireland's miracle victory over Italy got them here, but they have no such luck against the hosts. France win 2-0.
    • England v Iceland. In an astounding course of events, England leave the Euros twice in just 4 days, first at the election polls, and then again on Monday in a 2-1 victory by Iceland that leaves the entire British Isles agog in dismay.

So, there you go.

Please don't race down to William Hill and wager your life savings on any of these predictions, of course...

Binge watching myself

As always, I'm rather late to the party.

But, anyhow, I've finally got around to starting to watch HBO's superb new comedy, Silicon Valley.

In addition to being flat-out laugh-out-loud funny, it's also accurate.

Really, really, painfully, accurate.

I'm only finishing up the first season (they're working on the 4th season now), so I'm rather behind, but it's already amazing how many moments, in every single episode, ring true: "yes, yes! I remember when that exact thing happened to me!"

One downside of the show is that if it isn't actually a show about you (that is, if you're not actually a software developer who lives in Silicon Valley), many of the topical references and inside jokes may go right past you.

So if you're a newcomer to the show, and trying to get grounded, or if you've been watching it and wondering: "what they heck are they talking about? Who, exactly, are they parodying this time?", you might find this helpful: Uncanny Silicon Valley: The absolutely definitive, supremely authoritative, person-to-person mapping of “Silicon Valley” characters to real tech world personalities..

Nearly anyone in west coast tech will attest to the show’s eerie verisimilitude, even when (or especially when) the fictional characters embody the worst traits of brogrammers, wantrepreneurs, and VC sociopaths. Silicon Valley is nearly a simulacrum of Sand Hill Road, or as the CEO of Snapchat described it, “basically a documentary.”


Clearly, we need a cheat sheet to decode this farrago of fact and fiction. So here it is, The Official Guide to SVCU (Silicon Valley Cinematic Universe)

Or, perhaps, maybe you just had to have lived it, in order to "get" it.

Monday, June 20, 2016


Don't worry, all those acronyms may (eventually) make sense.

With the recent news that IEX is approved to change from an ATS to an NSE under NMS in the face of persistent objections from other HFTs, we need to see what we can do to unpack this all.

So, let's go back a little more than 10 years, to 2005, when Regulation NMS was established. As a regulation, it is a set of rules:

National Market System (NMS) is a set of rules passed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which looks to improve the U.S. exchanges through improved fairness in price execution as well as improve the displaying of quotes and amount and access to market data.

One of those rules, in particular, is Rule 611, commonly known as the Order Protection Rule:

Rule 611, among other things, requires trading centers to establish, maintain, and enforce written policies and procedures reasonably designed to prevent "trade-throughs" -- the execution of trades at prices inferior to protected quotations. To be protected, a quotation must, among other things, be immediately and automatically accessible and be the best bid or best offer of a national securities exchange or national securities association

As I understand it, the basic idea of Regulation NMS is to modernize the system, to enable greater efficiency but also to improve the access to the market by encouraging competition.

Competitors can be of several types. Nearly 20 years ago, the SEC introduced the notion of Alternative Trading Systems: SEC Modernizes Regulations for Alternative Trading Systems

The Commission adopted a new regulatory framework for alternative trading systems. The low cost of technology has allowed new, automated markets -- or alternative trading systems -- to develop. These systems compete directly with the more traditional exchanges, and now account for about 20% of transactions in Nasdaq securities and 4% of transactions in listed securities. Although these alternative trading systems are markets, they have been regulated as traditional broker- dealers, resulting in certain regulatory gaps. The framework adopted by the Commission today, better integrates alternative trading systems into the regulatory framework for markets, and is flexible enough to accommodate the business objectives of, and the benefits provided by, alternative trading systems.

That competitive framework apparently worked, for as of 2014 there were hundreds of Alternative Trading Systems known to the SEC.

Down in the middle of that list, you may see: IEX ATS / IEX Services LLC, which is the particular Alternative Trading System that we're interested in.

Why are we interested in IEX? Well, for that, we need to give credit to the well-known writer, Michael Lewis, whose book, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt dragged IEX out of the depths of obscurity and into the media spotlight.

Who knew that High Frequency Trading could be that sexy?

Michael Lewis just has that effect on people, and organizations.

Anyway, many people think Flash Boys was a wonderful book, while others, including the sober and well-informed Felix Salmon, are not so impressed, but the bottom line is that all of a sudden the people and organizations in the book got a LOT of attention.

The people and organizations in the book include, in particular, Brad Katsuyama, founder of IEX. Yes, that IEX, the Alternative Trading System.

So once Lewis's book was out, and once 60 Minutes aired Katsuyama's story, people started to pay attention to his ideas about what an "alternative" trading system might look like. Which, as Matt Levine explains, is something like this:

The idea is that if you're a big mutual fund and you submit an order on IEX, that order will not provide any information to high-frequency traders for almost a whole millisecond. (A shoebox full of wires is involved, which everyone else seems to find more interesting than I do.) The result is that HFTs won't be able to react to your order by moving up prices on other exchanges, and you'll be able to execute more shares at the displayed price.

It's actually slightly more than "a shoebox full of wires," it's "a coil of fiber-optic cable 38 miles long that slows quotes and trades by 350 millionths of a second," but that's really just a nit. Conceptually, it's just a mechanism, and the more interesting thing is the concept behind IEX.

And that underlying concept is all about High Frequency Traders. As Levine points out, HFT is a matter of quite some controversy:

There are two ways of characterizing high frequency trading. In one, HFTs are front-running big investors, rigging the game against them and making the stock market illusory. In the other, HFTs are reacting instantly to demand, avoiding being picked off by informed investors and making the stock market more efficient.
but, moreover, says Levine,
You don't have to be absolutist about this either way. Whether or not HFTs' behavior of quickly adjusting quotes to market conditions is "predatory" in some moral sense -- and whether or not it ultimately makes markets more or less efficient on balance -- it is clearly annoying to a lot of institutional investors. So those investors like having the option of trading on IEX. And there's no obvious reason to think that the current market structures and rules are the "right" rules, or that high-frequency traders aren't sometimes gaming those rules in not-so-socially-optimal ways.

That is, there is a strong argument to be made for choice, and for options, and for competition: if we don't know, and can't prove, which exact way of operating a trading system is the One True Right Way, then why not allow competitive approaches, and gain some experimental evidence.

That's clearly how the SEC felt, back in 1998, and hence the establishment of IEX in 2013.

IEX proceeded along for a couple years as an ATS, but then, about a year ago, IEX announced that they wanted to change from being an ATS to being a national securities exchange. What does that mean? Dani Burger and Jeremy Kahn of Bloomberge describe it this way: ‘Flash Boys’ Heroes Ask For Stock Exchange Status:

When an exchange has the best price for a stock at any given moment, orders must be routed its way. Lightly regulated alternative platforms, which is what IEX legally is today, don’t enjoy that same advantage. Even with that headwind, IEX has won about 1.4 percent of U.S. equities trading less than two years after launching.

"Right now, IEX is a choice that people may or may not make," Katsuyama said. "As an exchange, you’re part of the National Market System. It becomes an obligation if you’re the best price to send the order. It goes from optional to mandatory."

That is, it's all about Rule 611 (the "Order Protection Rule"). Remember that bit back at the beginning, about how Rule 611 involves " a national securities exchange or national securities association?".

Well, if IEX is an Alternative Trading System, then Rule 611 does not apply, but if IEX is a national securities exchange, then Rule 611 DOES apply.

Time for Matt Levine to spell it out for us again: The 'Flash Boys' Exchange Is Growing Up

I should say that this rule, the "order protection rule," annoys a lot of people. It is sometimes blamed for the market's current fragmentation and opacity. Instead of everyone choosing what market(s) they want to trade in, investors are forced to route their orders to a bunch of smaller venues, giving an advantage to traders with fast computers and a deep understanding of market architecture. But it's the rule: If you're an exchange, and you display the best price, everyone else has to route to you.

In other words, it's competition between exchanges, except that Rule 611 rather strictly constrains the competition.


Matt, can we please have a little bit more detail?:

IEX's quotes, which are effectively 350 microseconds in the past, would be protected along with other exchanges' quotes, which are ... well, they're not exactly in the present. They're some variable amount of time in the past. Every exchange has some delay in processing orders; nothing happens instantaneously, and it's hard to synchronize anything to the microsecond. If IEX is faster at other operations than other exchanges are, then its quotes may be more current than theirs. Its intentional delay might be shorter than their accidental delay.


Other exchanges also have delays between receipt and execution of orders; that is just how physics works. And those delays might be comparable to, or even longer than, IEX's. But they're not intentional.

So, uhm, it's complicated. And controversial.

And, so, the SEC invited comments, and discussion.

Which went on, and then went on some more.

And some of this was a discussion about Rule 611, but other parts of it, as Robin Wigglesworth observes, was a broader discussion about what we know, and still don't know, about High Frequency Trading:

the latest study, by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority, is not so sure. It looked specifically at the latency arbitrage/front-running issue, and here is what they concluded.
We do not find evidence that HFTs systematically anticipate near-simultaneous marketable orders sent to different trading venues by pure non-HFTs. But when analysing longer time periods (measured in seconds or tens of seconds), we do find patterns consistent with HFTs anticipating the order flow of pure non-HFTs. However, we cannot say whether this is due to HFTs reacting more rapidly to new information, or to order-flow anticipation.


It doesn't appear that that it will be Science To The Rescue here, because this is not science, exactly: it's politics, and society, and Rules and Regulations.

So time passed, and comments were received, and discussion happened.

And time passed.

And, after nine months of this, the SEC apparently decided that, well, the whole point of Regulation NMS was to encourage competition, and innovation, and well, here was some competition, and some innovation, after all.

So, in a 122 page announcement the SEC explained that

For the reasons set forth below, and based on the representations set forth in IEX’s Form 1, as amended, as supplemented in IEX’s responses to comments included in the public comment file, this order approves IEX’s Form 1 application, as amended, for registration as a national securities exchange.

Katsuyama, naturally, is ecstatic:

This is a milestone for all of those who have supported IEX and we look forward to becoming a stock exchange, which will provide us the opportunity to have an even greater impact on the markets.

Meanwhile, existing exchanges such as Citadel and the NYSE are furious:

"Our markets work extraordinarily well for retail and institutional investors, and we need to be vigilant in identifying any unintended consequences of the approval," Jamil Nazarali, head of execution services at Citadel Securities, said in an interview.

Stacey Cunningham, chief operating officer of NYSE Group Inc., said the exchange objected to IEX’s proposal because they were "looking for exemptions to existing rules."

BATS, meanwhile, was initially happy, then was mad, but maybe is feeling a bit more accomodating now:

BATS Global Markets, initially supported the IEX application, but earlier this year withdrew its support, pointing to "gross omissions of fact" by IEX. BATS wrote that the problems "call into question the applicant’s professional judgment."

On Friday, a BATS spokesman, Randy Williams, said that the company "congratulates IEX and appreciates the significant changes they made to their application to address industry concerns."

And some traders are downright delighted: Flash Boys Hero Wins, Wealth Funds Rejoice

Sovereign wealth funds, which own large portfolios of listed equities, are eager to work with platforms like IEX given their concerns with high-frequency trading (HFI). For example, in a comment letter to the SEC, Norges Bank Investment Management (NBIM), the manager of Norway’s sovereign wealth fund stated, "We would expect that the ‘speed bump’ as well as other proposed features of IEX, such as the relative simplicity of available order types, would mitigate the potential for such rent extraction."

In some ways, the reactions are about as you would have predicted, observes Ben Popper at The Verge: The startup trying to clean up Wall Street just became an official stock exchange

The comment letters for and against IEX are telling. In favor are individual investors, academics, former market regulators, and even some large brokers and high-frequency trading shops. In opposition you find only the high-frequency traders who have been profiting off the current state of affairs and the exchanges that would compete directly with IEX for business.

There are a lot of well-funded, high-strung, complicated institutions here: stock exchanges, sovereign wealth funds, institutional investors, high frequency traders. All of them are extremely wealthy, all of them are interested in making themselves more wealthy, and none of them are particularly known for charitably lending a helping hand to the little guy, nor for explaining in Plain Language what it is they are doing and why they are doing it.

Of course, that is nothing new; that is the way of capitalism, I'm afraid.

For my own part, I am hopeful that the SEC know what they are doing. They certainly know much more then me. So when they say

Within two years of the Commission’s interpretation, staff will conduct a study regarding the effects of any intentional access delays on market quality, including asset pricing and report back to the Commission with the results of any recommendations. Based on the results of that study, or earlier as it determines, the Commission will reassess whether further action is appropriate.
I feel like I'm willing to extend to them the trust to keep that promise.

High frequency trading is fascinating, and bizarre. Is it becoming any less bizarre?

Apparently not.

But at least it is also still remaining fascinating.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Euro 2016, midway through

We're roughly halfway through the 2016 European Championship, and it seems fair to say we've learned a few things.

The French team, playing on home soil, has done predictably well, and clearly remain favorites. Germany, Italy, Spain, and England have all looked about as strong as you would expect, too. So that's all about par for the course.

Among the upstarts, you'd have to say that Poland are performing quite well, as are Belgium. And hats off to both Iceland and Northern Ireland for each playing well above what most would have expected.

Croatia have a strong result, but how are they not disqualified? That incident with the fireworks was astounding! Surely that calls for an immediate ejection from the tournament. Between that and the ugly incidents involving Russian fans, there's been more controversy than one would hope.

But let's not dwell on that; let's try to look to the good.

For one thing, I think it's abundantly clear that increasing the number of assistant referees from 2 to 4 has been a clear and comprehensive success. Managing a soccer match at this level is a very challenging task, and there can be no doubt that giving the head referee twice as many assistants has changed things substantially. There have been many fewer refereeing mistakes, the emotion and contention on the field has been kept well in hand, and, to put it simply, nobody is complaining about the refs. Wonderful!

For another thing, I'm thrilled to see UEFA deploying the new head injury protocol:

Article 46bis has been added to the regulations and states that the referee will stop a game in the event of a suspected concussion, allowing the player to be assessed by their team doctor.

Any player suffering a head injury that requires assessment for potential concussion will only be allowed to continue playing after the assessment, upon confirmation by the team doctor to the referee of the player's fitness.

I've already seen these stoppages twice in the matches I've watched, and I felt they were entirely appropriate and did not detract in any way from the game underway. This is a VERY important issue, and I'm glad that UEFA are giving it the serious attention it deserves.

There's still lots more soccer to watch, as well as the remaining action in Copa America. Even though it will be over all to soon, I've thoroughly enjoyed both tournaments, and can't wait to see how they turn out.

Go Poland! Go Iceland! Go Chile! Go Argentina! Go Team USA!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

High School

Way back when, some 40 years ago now, when I was in high school, there was a boy who was a year younger than me, a grade below me.

I didn't know him very well; high school is a very stratified society. Twelfth graders don't consort with eleventh graders; eleventh graders ignore tenth graders, and so on.

But I knew him; we crossed paths often; he was, in a way, my neighbor (we were in boarding school, so this is literally true).

And, about all I remember, is that I was rather cruel to him, teased him, made rude jokes. For absolutely no reason at all.

You know, the way boys are.

In high school.

Anyway, I was struck the other week to see that his latest book is now number 1 on the national best-seller lists!

So, congratulations, Justin! I'm thrilled to see how well you've done.

And I'm sorry I was such a jerk, back then.

Perhaps we'll cross paths some day, and I'll get to tell you that, in person.

But for now, I suppose this will have to do.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Burglar's Guide to the City: a very short review

My life-long interest in architecture dates back to my college years in Chicago.

Chicago, of course, is well-known as a hotspot of architectural thought and innovative buildings, and has been thus for more than a century; the city is often given the title as "Birthplace of the Skyscraper."

But it was a happen-stance selection of "Introduction to Architecture" as an undergraduate that lit some spark in me that has stayed alive ever since.

At some point, years ago, I stumbled across Geoff Manaugh's fascinating BldgBlog web site, and immediately became a loyal reader of his always-fasinating essays.

So it was pretty-much a "no brainer" that when Manaugh decided to write a book, I was one of the first on the pre-order list, and hence I found myself reading A Burglar's Guide to the City this spring.

Although this is his second time doing so, writing a book is clearly a bit of an experiment for Manaugh, who is better known as an essayist, a magazine contributor, and a lecturer. On his blog, his essays are lavishly illustrated, filled with hyperlinks to additional resources, and occasionally are interactive; all of these techniques are a luxury not easily available on the printed page.

But I do not wish to be nit-picky: Manaugh is a fine writer, and in Burglar's Guide he has a fine story to tell.

Manaugh's approach is to weave a modern story through a historical context, and he does it well, interleaving anecdotes about famous historical characters such as George Leonidas Leslie and Bill Mason with descriptions of state-of-the-art questions such as the use of helicopter-mounted forward-looking infrared cameras in urban law enforcement, or the accuracy of level design in the espionage-oriented video game series, Thief.

It's all, actually, quite a bit more interesting than I've made it sound, and it helps that Manaugh is good at moving the story along.

So, is this a book you'd be interested in?

Well, you can certainly decide for yourself, but if it helps, you might consider whether you find the following paragraph tedious and stale, or intriguing and startling.

Anyone's geographic understanding of a city can be profoundly improved when given access to an aerial view - when the city is laid out below you like a diagram - and this is all the more true when your job requires you to survey the city from above, imagining getaway routes and potential hideaways, possible next turns and preemptive roadblocks. The officers have uniquely unfettered access to a fundamentally different experience of the city, in which Los Angeles must constantly be reinterpreted from above with the intention of locating, tracking, or interrupting criminal activity. This perspective reveals not only over-looked connections between distant neighborhoods but distinct possibilities for committing - or preventing - crime on a city scale. Police helicopters also come with special optical technologies, often borrowed from the military, including dynamic-mapping software and forward looking infrared cameras. Seeing the city through this literal new lens can be transformative.

I suspect that Manaugh's fascinating, though quite laser-focused, perspective on the world is likely to remain mostly a niche taste, appealing mostly to oddballs like me who enjoy that funny space where architecture, geography, technology, and social studies intersect, forming a distinctive perspective of: "my, look at the unusual way that we humans have constructed this strange world we live in."

Still, I hope that Manaugh's work finds a wider audience, over time, for he is certainly an interesting fellow with quite interesting things to say.

Monday, June 13, 2016


So, for the second time in as many years, mighty Brazil has been knocked out of a world soccer tournament without reaching the finals.

Time was, that never happened; the finals of any world soccer tournament which included Brazil were always: Brazil, and somebody else.

But, times change.

Peru may have been lucky, but they certainly played hard.

Onward to the Copa America quarter-finals!

Sunday, June 12, 2016

It's footie time!

Across the world, there are major soccer tournaments underway:

Here in the states, we're enjoying the Copa America Centenario, a 16 team tournament featuring the top national teams from throughout the New World:

  • North America
    • United States
  • South America
    • Argentina
    • Brazil
    • Bolivia
    • Chile
    • Colombia
    • Ecuador
    • Paraguay
    • Peru
    • Uruguay
    • Venezuela
  • Central America
    • Mexico
    • Costa Rica
    • Panama
  • and the Caribbean
    • Haiti
    • Jamaica

The Copa America is being hosted by the United States this year, so I think we may have automatically qualified as the host country, but the United States team is strong enough that we would have qualified on our merits as well.

Meanwhile, in France, the European Championship launched on Friday and has had a full slate of games this weekend. This is a larger tournament, featuring 24 teams from across Europe:

  • Albania
  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Croatia
  • Czech Republic
  • England
  • France
  • Germany
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • Italy
  • Northern Ireland
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Republic of Ireland
  • Romania
  • Russia
  • Slovakia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Turkey
  • Ukraine
  • Wales

Between the two tournaments, this is pretty much all the strongest teams in the world, so it's close to Nirvana for a footie fan.

Of course, they are two separate tournaments, so if you're longing for a re-match of the 2014 World Cup's 7-1 thrashing of hosts Brazil by eventual champions Germany, you are out of luck, but except for that minor disadvantage, the quality and quantity of soccer available during the month of June is astounding.

So, on to the results so far:

In the Copa America, the obvious favorites were Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, and they have all played up to expectations. Other strong teams in the early going have been Colombia and early surprise Venezuela. The United States, who have a distinctive advantage by being the host country and thus playing all their matches "at home", lost the tournament opener to Colombia, but bounced back well and are through to the next round of the tournament. Due to the complex tie-breaking rules of the tournament, the United States are counted as first in their group and so the privilege of facing Brazil will likely fall to Colombia, probably ending their otherwise promising start, unless something remarkable happens in the upcoming Brazil-Peru match.

The European Championship is only in its third day, so it's hard to tell what to expect. Hosts France will be extremely strong, of course, but there are a number of other strong favorites, including Germany, England, and Italy. I would like to see Poland progress deeply into the tournament, as I enjoy their style of play and they have fielded an exciting team. Belgium should also be threatening, even though they under-performed at the 2014 World Cup; their extremely young team is sure to have benefited substantially from the intervening two years of seasoning.

So, if you happen to be passing a pub, and hear a mighty roar, or if you are wondering through a town square and see a screen set up in the plaza with lots of people intently watching the action, it might actually not be the Warriors this time; it might be a bunch of footie fans taking in the international action!

Brett's Adventure

My co-worker went on quite the adventure last month.

Here's a brief summary, with a couple links:

Last year I stumbled across videos of Ben traveling from Chile to Alaska in a VW bus. When he came through California I had a chance to talk with him. He is sharing his adventures with everyone through a video blog.

Late in the Summer last year Ben's VW bus's transaxle went out. Stranding the VW in Haines Alaska, and ending travel for a while. It's a long story which you can follow on his facebook page.

Rancho Transaxles in LA donated a transaxle. I picked this up and eventually drove it North. In the mean time the VW bus had a small fire. So instead of trailering the VW back to Vancouver Island, a 4 day venture, we found a garage near Whitehorse in the Yukon.


Here is a quick montage on what I did for my Sabbatical, put together by Ben on his website.

If you are interested in following Ben's journey to Northern Alaska, past and present, he has a facebook page.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Queen's English

We're contemplating a trip to Quebec sometime later this year.

I happened to mention this to my daughter the other day, and she told me an amusing story.

It turns out that, at some entirely unrelated event, and having no idea I was hoping to travel to Quebec, she found herself talking to a woman from Quebec.

Well, my daughter is quite fluent in French, so she tried speaking to this woman in French.

Unfortunately, it turned out that whatever French my daughter knew, was completely of no use for speaking to her new friend: they could not understand each other at all, and they returned to speaking in English.

We're still planning to take our trip to Quebec.

But before we go, it's clear I'd better do a bit of preparation.

I think I'll start with these resources:

  • The Delightful Perversity of Québec's Catholic Swears
    Québec's swearing vocabulary is one of the weirdest and most entertaining in the entire world. It is almost entirely made up of everyday Catholic terminology—not alternate versions, but straight-up normal words that would be used in Mass to refer to objects or concepts—that have taken on a profane meaning.
  • What's Going On with the Way Canadians Say ‘About'?
    There are a few isolated quirks in Canadian English, like keeping the Britishism “zed” for the last letter of the alphabet, and keeping a hard “agh” sound where Americans would usually say “ah.” (In Canada, “pasta” rhymes with “Mt. Shasta”.) But aside from those quirks, there are two major defining trends in Canadian English: Canadian Raising and the Canadian Shift. The latter is known stateside as the California Shift, and it’s what makes Blink-182 singer Tom DeLonge sound so insane: a systematic migration of vowel sounds resulting in "kit" sounding like “ket,” “dress” sounding like "drass," and “trap" sounding like “trop.” The SoCal accent, basically, is being replicated almost entirely in Canada.

    But the Canadian Shift is minor compared to Canadian Raising, a phenomenon describing the altered sounds of two notable vowel sounds, that has much bigger consequences for the country’s identity, at least in the U.S. That's where we get all that “aboot” stuff.

That's better; now I feel I am ready to travel.

Local solutions to regional problems

Housing in the Bay Area is beyond ridiculous.

I'm not an expert in any of the policy areas surrounding housing and how to help improve it.

But, this election season, there is a lot of activity around housing issues. There are measures on the ballot, there are people petitioning, there are candidates making housing a major part of their platform.

Here in my town (Alameda), there has been a lot of activity. The City Council passed Ordinance 3148, making certain new rules.

There is now also a Rent Review Advisory Committee

The Rent Review Advisory Committee (RRAC) reviews complaints of significant rental increases, providing a neutral forum for renters and residential property owners to present their views. It evaluates increases, determines whether they are equitable, and, if not, attempts to mediate a resolution acceptable to all parties.

The Rent Review Advisory Committee does not provide legal advice. Each landlord and tenant is responsible for seeking the advice of legal counsel on any matters or document related to their specific circumstances. The Committee’s recommendations are not legally binding.

The ordinance has only been in effect for a few months, so it's very early days.

Meanwhile, there are already efforts underway to extend and amend the ordinance: Renter’s Coalition Submits Petition

And, as you might expect, there are also efforts underway to repeal the ordinance. It's not unusual to meet both sides collecting signatures on the same trip down the block to the market.

The activity has attracted a bit of media attention: Battle Over Rent Control Heating Up In Alameda

Last year, a raucous city council meeting over rent control in Alameda, population 75,000, resulted in two arrests. Farther north, city leaders of Sonoma County’s Healdsburg, population 11,000, approved voluntary guidelines to keep rent increases to 10 percent or less.

Tenant activists in Alameda and Richmond — a waterfront industrial town of nearly 110,000 — are fighting to place rent control on municipal ballots this fall. So are residents of Burlingame, a pricey, leafy city of 30,000 on the San Francisco Peninsula.

The burst of Bay Area suburban squabbles doesn’t surprise analysts. The median rental price in the five-county San Francisco metropolitan area for February was $3,350, up 10.5 percent from a year ago, according to Zillow. Wages, while high for Silicon Valley professionals, have not kept pace for many other people.

There's a broader discussion going on throughout the Bay Area, too, which is good. U.C. Berkeley Professor Emeritus Richard Walker has a piece in the East Bay Weekly: Why Is There a Housing Crisis?

The prime mover of housing prices is economic growth. The Bay Area has been booming for the last five years, creating more than 500,000 new jobs on a base of 3 million. This is the global capital of tech, the world's most dynamic industry, and all those jobs have drawn in thousands of newcomers looking for housing. Moreover, tech delivers huge profits and pays high salaries and wages, as do other key sectors, like biomedical and finance. The Bay Area's per capita income has long been one of the highest in the country, and high incomes give people the wherewithal to pay top dollar for housing.

Walker favors active local government policies in this area, and encourages regional governments to work on the issues:

It is absolutely necessary to question developers and city planners over what is to be built, how high, how big, and where. A livable city demands good design, historic preservation, neighborhood protections, mixed use, and social diversity, among other things, and figuring out what those things are should be a collective, democratic and, yes, conflictual process of politics and public debate. Nonetheless, opposing all new building, greater density, and neighborhood change is not a viable policy, and we cannot cling to the idea that our town or neighborhood will remain the same in a dynamic urban system.

Here's a thoughtful response, by U.C. Riverside Instructor Nicholas Warino: The Bay Area Housing Crisis is caused by and can be solved by local government

However, if supply cannot keep up with demand--perhaps because local zoning codes are designed to guarantee supply continuously falls further behind demand--then that increase in demand will not lead to those good things I mentioned, but will instead be captured by the owners of the existing supply of housing--landlords and property owners--in the form of higher prices. This is known as "rent seeking," and is closer to theft than honest profit-making. The resemblance to theft is because the increase returns on investment for these property owners is due to a failing of the market to increase competition to their business. Because no one can build new homes to compete with the homes already on the market, the existing landlords are PROTECTED FROM FAIR COMPETITION and can therefore jack up the price without improving what they are selling.

Here in Alameda, of course, one major complicating factor is the decades old "Measure A", which severely limits what types and quantities of housing are allowed to be built in the city.

But there are other complications as well; at least some of them are due to Alameda's nature as an Island City.

For example, consider this intricate arrangement: Council to Consider Taking Over Estuary

The Army Corps of Engineers wishes to split the Oakland Inner Harbor Tidal Canal and transfer half of the ownership to the city of Oakland and the other half to Alameda. The corps’ staff met the council on Sept. 2, 2014 and again on Feb. 3, in closed session to discuss whether the city would be interested in negotiating the transfer and if so, under what price and terms.


The transfer would include three parcels; the open water, commercial and residential parcels. The city will be responsible for the survey, mapping and maintenance of the commercial parcel.

There are various posters and placards posted around the city about upcoming open meetings; the project apparently is moving forward, and involves some complicated arrangement where the city will acquire ownership in the land and then, essentially simultaneously, turn around and sell that land to various private development companies which will in turn do the various things they want to do to develop the land (housing projects, marina projects, office projects, industrial projects, etc.)

I've heard it said that: "if you think the law of the land is complicated, it's nothing compared to the law of the sea".

Here in Alameda, we get them both.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Comma Queen

Did you know that The New Yorker has its own YouTube channel?

Check out: That vs Which.

Oh Comma Queen, please make more videos like this!