Wednesday, April 18, 2012

middle-school chess team wins national high-school championship

NYTimes | The chess team at Intermediate School 318 Eugenia Maria de Hostos in Williamsburg, a perennial powerhouse that has won so many championships that its coach can’t remember the number, managed to top its already-impressive record on Sunday by winning the National High School Championships.

The team’s victory is the chess-world equivalent of a scenario that was frequently tossed around by college basketball pundits several weeks ago: that the University of Kentucky Wildcats might be so good they could beat the Toronto Raptors or another of the worst N.B.A. teams. If anything, I.S. 318’s victory is even more impressive: they beat the best high school teams in the country.

“This is the greatest achievement we’ve ever had, and probably ever will have,” John Galvin, one of the coaches, said in a telephone interview from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The victory might be a first for a middle school chess team.

Bill Hall, the executive director of the United States Chess Federation, which organized the championships, said he had never heard of a middle school winning the high school championships. “To my knowledge, it has never happened before,” he said.

Officially, I.S. 318 and Hunter College High School are co-champions. They tied for first place, but I.S. 318 was able to take home the first place trophy because its team had better tie-breaker scores.

To achieve the co-championship, I.S. 318 beat several other city chess teams this weekend, including Stuyvesant High School and Edward R. Murrow High School.

The I.S. 318 team has won at least two dozen national championships of various types in the last 12 years, Mr. Galvin said. Two team members — Justus Williams and James Black, both 13 — are rated as masters. And the team is the subject of a new documentary, “Brooklyn Castle,” which had its debut last month at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where it won the audience award.

cooperation and the evolution of intelligence

Royal Society | The high levels of intelligence seen in humans, other primates, certain cetaceans and birds remain a major puzzle for evolutionary biologists, anthropologists and psychologists. It has long been held that social interactions provide the selection pressures necessary for the evolution of advanced cognitive abilities (the ‘social intelligence hypothesis’), and in recent years decision-making in the context of cooperative social interactions has been conjectured to be of particular importance. Here we use an artificial neural network model to show that selection for efficient decision-making in cooperative dilemmas can give rise to selection pressures for greater cognitive abilities, and that intelligent strategies can themselves select for greater intelligence, leading to a Machiavellian arms race. Our results provide mechanistic support for the social intelligence hypothesis, highlight the potential importance of cooperative behaviour in the evolution of intelligence and may help us to explain the distribution of cooperation with intelligence across taxa.

political divides begin in the brain

NewScientist | JOHN HIBBING used to be a traditional political scientist. He studied elections, ran opinion polls and researched why some politicians opt to retire rather than wait around to be defeated by challengers. "About as traditional as it gets," he says.

Roughly a decade ago, though, Hibbing shifted to a new approach that is starting to revolutionise how we think about politics. He began to explore whether political preferences might be partly based in biology. The idea initially met with great scepticism from his peers. But Hibbing and his collaborators at the Political Physiology Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln now have a stack of scientific publications backing the idea.

For example, when they measure the physical reactions of liberals and conservatives to aversive stimuli, they find major differences. Tough-on-crime, pro-military conservatives have a more pronounced startle reflex after hearing a sudden loud noise. They also show stronger skin responses when shown threatening images and look at them more rapidly and for longer.

It is conventional to think about political ideology as a set of ideas people consciously hold about the way society should be ordered. A tacit assumption is that we come to these beliefs rationally, by reading and thinking about the issues. If we differ, it is because we reason to different conclusions.

Hibbing's results suggest otherwise. "One of the things we're trying to get people to realise is that those who disagree with them politically really do experience the world in a different fashion," he says.

Many other seemingly apolitical differences between liberals and conservatives have also been discovered. For example, they tend to organise their living spaces differently, with conservatives favouring tidiness and conventionality, and liberals more tolerant of clutter. They also seem to have different art preferences and even senses of humour.

Most recently, and controversially, focus has shifted to differences in brain structures and functions. In one experiment, conservatives on average had a larger right amygdala, a region of the brain that processes responses to fear and threat. Liberals, in contrast, had more grey matter in the anterior cingulate cortex, an error-detecting region that is thought to be involved in causing us to stop repeated patterns of behaviour and change course.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

stiglitz: is mercantilism doomed to fail?

The basic idea is: A few powerhouses like China, Germany, and Japan, plus some commodity based economies, have thrived in a system where they do all the exporting, and a few countries like the US run massive trade deficits.

But that system is coming to an end, as countries realize that their trade deficits are unsustainable, and seek to become trade surplus countries at the same time. Of course, not everyone can run surpluses, so this becomes a game of hot potato, with everyone pushing the deficit to someone else, via currency devaluation and other aggressive trade moves.

In this presentation, Stiglitz explains why the system is heading towards collapse.

Stiglitz hints a globalist solution, with a non-dollar reserve currency, and more coordination of monetary policy to avoid currency wars and competitive devaluations.

inside chernobyl

Stern | inside the Sarcophagus the radiation levels are as high as 3400 Roentgen per hour [1 R = 2.58 * 10^-4 C/kg]. The working time of the engineers is determined by the radioactivity they are exposed to. When the dosimeter each of them carries starts to beep alarmingly, they need to leave the reactor immediately.

Sergeij K. who recorded this footage usually stays a little longer. The white dots that can bee seen on the pictures that look like snow are also caused by the radiation which the digital cameras are quite prone to.

The clock in this control room stopped at the exact time the incident took place: 1:23 am, april 26th, 1986

Despite the strongly limited time, work is done without hurry to avoid mistakes. The mounting teams know exactly where the other ones interrupted their repairing right there.

Inside the exploded reactor block, additional staircases were installed to reach most of the locations but this isn't possible. Totally, only one third of the entire reactor block has been explored. The sectors have names and numbers which the workers shout out to one another.

Every now and then men can be heard wading through water. Rain and melting water are the biggest enemy of the Sarcophagus. These caused gradual decay during the past 20 years.

Sergeij likes to compare the inside of the Sarcophagus to a mine field. Each step can decide upon what radiation dose one is exposed to. At this place it is really dirty as can be seen by the black speckles on the yellow gloves.

"dirty" is what the workers call the radiation reaching extreme levels. The cotton dress and the plastic overall offer only limited protection against (alpha) radiation. The helmets are considered much more important because pieces of stone could fall down from the ceiling. The once molten, highly radioactive material has been cast to bizarre forms.Temperatures exceeded 1000 degrees Celsius at the time of the disaster. Sergeij gave names to these lumps. This one he calls "elephant's foot".

Sergeij is now right underneath the ceiling of the Sarcophagus. It's cracked, corroded and full of holes. it's area measures 100 square meters. The extent can be by the light shining inside.

Should The Sarcophagus one day collapse, a large nuclear dust cloud would be generated. Experts consider it the safest way to build another Sarcophagus around the first, older one. A hall larger than the Statue of Liberty, called "Arche", that would cost about 650.000.000 Euros.

Here, the white dots caused by radioactivity can be seen again. This sprinklers were
installed to bind the floating, radioactive dust particles. At least a little protection in this hazardous job.

Monday, April 16, 2012

their worst sin is obliviousness?

The Atlantic | Randy Barnett says that I have ignored his argument about why Justice Scalia's opinion in Raich "in no way bound[s]" him in the Obamacare.

That's not true.

Randy made two "legal arguments": (1) That the Court could create a new constraint, emanating from the Necessary and Proper Clause, that limits legitimate Necessary and Proper Clause legislation to laws that "carry into execution" other laws. (2) That mandates are an improper means to carry Congress's laws into effect.

But I explicitly said that "Scalia could change his test" -- which is what recognizing "a new constraint is." And the whole point of my piece was to underline the significance of statutes that created mandates at the founding -- specifically, that they negate the suggestion that such "means" were "improper." Randy calls this mandate "unprecedented." Except, of course, for these precedents.

Randy also says that for the Court to take account of the mix of laws that it strikes down -- assuring that the mix would not lead reasonable observers to believe they only found unconstitutional laws they don't like -- "would be acting entirely politically."

That too is not true.

"Political" in this context means partisan. It is perfectly appropriate (and not in this sense "political") for the Court to account for how its behavior weakens or strengthens its own institutional integrity. As I've described it elsewhere (my own "legal arguments" that Randy is "skipping over") there is a fidelity to mean-ing and a fidelity to institutional role. A Court that ignores either is not behaving properly.

Finally, Randy says (or his title says) that I argued: "If the Republican Justices Do Not Agree With Me They Will Be Acting Politically."

That too is untrue, as Randy in his very first sentence almost acknowledges, but even that take back isn't complete. For this is the last sentence in my piece
Even I would have to concede the appearance that it's just politics, even if I don't believe I could ever believe it.
What that sentence says is that "I don't believe" the Court is acting politically -- precisely the contrary of Randy's title. I don't believe that the Court is political in the sense most seem to think it is -- i.e., partisan. Their worst sin is obliviousness -- which is precisely what a pattern of intervening exclusively on the Right would be.

if the republican justices do not agree with me they will be acting politically

volokh | Well, that is not exactly what he says. Instead, in Why Scalia Could Uphold Obamacare, Larry Lessig actually says that if the “conservative” Justices do not accept his reading of their prior decisions, his students and other cynics would think the justices were acting politically, and he would be powerless to defend the Court, which would sadden him greatly.
Most non-lawyers have been bemused by the confidence that constitutional lawyers once had about the Supreme Court’s likely decision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka, the Obamacare) case. The idea that this Republican Court would not give the Republicans their victory seemed silly to most, or at least naive. What possible reason would there be to imagine the Court would hold its punches?

But indeed, there was a confidence, at least among those whose career is focused upon the intricacies of commerce clause jurisprudence, that the Court would uphold the statute. When I read that my colleague Charles Fried – Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general — said that he would eat his hat if the Court struck the statute, I didn’t think Fried was being brave or reckless: the point seemed too obvious to remark. Whether wise or not, Obamacare is plainly constitutional under the Court’s existing precedents. That’s not to say the Court couldn’t make up a new rule by which the law was deemed unconstitutional. But against the history of the repeated embarrassments that the Court has suffered as it has tried to police Congress’ commerce authority, it seemed genuinely unimaginable that it would again make the same mistake. [My bold added.]
For my pre-argument analysis of why Justice Scalia’s Raich concurrence in no way bound him to uphold the insurance mandate in this case of first impression see Understanding Justice Scalia’s Concurring Opinion in Raich. Skipping over Lessig’s analysis of this Raich decision (in which he considers none of these contrary legal arguments, while he relies uncritically on Einer Elhauge’s questionable examples of previous “purchase mandates”), Lessig offers this reason why he is pained by the thought that the Court might strike down the mandate
So to say Scalia’s Raich test should yield an obvious and clear answer is not necessarily to say that five justices will vote to uphold the law. Scalia could change his test. The Court could launch itself on a new mission to supervise the scope of Congress’s economic authority.

But here, then, is a second recognition that leads both scholars on the right (like Fried) and scholars on the left (like Laurence Tribe) to pray that the Court doesn’t take this disastrous step. Fried and Tribe (and I and many others) want the ability to present the work of the Court in a way that belies the common but (we believe) uninformed view that all law, especially constitutional law, is just politics. If the Court strikes this law, then that hope fades. . . .

When the Frieds, or Tribes (or Lessigs) of the world want to insist that “it’s not all just politics,” the cynics (including most forcefully, our students) will insist the facts just don’t support the theory. Even I would have to concede the appearance that it’s just politics, even if I don’t believe I could ever believe it.

Larry Lessig became a hero of mine with his stalwart and brilliant defense of finding judicially-imposed limits on the Copyright Clause.

why scalia could uphold obamacare

The Atlantic | Most non-lawyers have been bemused by the confidence that constitutional lawyers once had about the Supreme Court's likely decision in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka, the Obamacare) case. The idea that this Republican Court would not give the Republicans their victory seemed silly to most, or at least naive. What possible reason would there be to imagine the Court would hold its punches?

But indeed, there was a confidence, at least among those whose career is focused upon the intricacies of commerce clause jurisprudence, that the Court would uphold the statute. When I read that my colleague Charles Fried -- Ronald Reagan's solicitor general -- said that he would eat his hat if the Court struck the statute, I didn't think Fried was being brave or reckless: the point seemed too obvious to remark. Whether wise or not, Obamacare is plainly constitutional under the Court's existing precedents. That's not to say the Court couldn't make up a new rule by which the law was deemed unconstitutional. But against the history of the repeated embarrassments that the Court has suffered as it has tried to police Congress' commerce authority, it seemed genuinely unimaginable that it would again make the same mistake.

The simplest way to see this point is to focus on the jurisprudence of a key vote in any hypothetical 5-4 decision to strike the law -- Justice Antonin Scalia.

Scalia's commerce clause jurisprudence is among the most careful, and, in my view, precise among the justices likely to impose a constitutional limit on Congress' authority. His concurring opinion in Gonzales v. Raich, a case about whether Congress had the power to regulate home-grown marijuana, maps a very clear formula for testing Congress's authority. If you apply that test to Obamacare -- especially in light of the evidence just published by my colleague Einer Elhauge -- there can be little doubt about the answer.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

tyrant banks is a slave-catching pimp caricature...,

zap2it | On "America's Next Top Model," Azmarie Livingston was eliminated after her refusal to don the butt pad in Tyra's booty tooch teaching seminar. She tells Zap2it that she knew it was coming and she doesn't regret her decision.

Were you surprised you were the one to go?

"No. I knew the minute I told Tyra no, I wasn't gonna wear the butt pad, that I was gonna get sent home, especially when she said you can't participate in the booty tooch session."

The show is pretty infamous for putting the models through some kind of ridiculous stuff. Did you expect that going in?

"I was aware of it. Going in, I knew if there was anything I wasn't comfortable with doing, I had the right to say that I didn't want to do it, even though it could jeopardize me being a part of it. And that was the situation I ended up in ... I wasn't getting eliminated for my body of work."

What exactly about the butt pad was off-putting to you? Or was it the booty tooch exercise in general?

"It wasn't the tooching in general, it was just the pad. I don't know. I didn't feel comfortable. In my mind, I'm like, 'I don't mind tooching, I tooched the other day in the syrup shoot.' But when she was like you gotta wear the pad, I don't know, everything in me just kind of shied up and I backed away. I was like, no, I'm not gonna do this."

Do you regret your decision?

"No. No, I don't. It was something I believed in not doing. I wasn't comfortable. Everything else was fine for me, I just felt like at that point -- I don't know what this has to do with modeling, as far as using a pad, not so much learning the positioning ... Then I got shown in a whole other light 'cause I said no ... I'm glad they showed me apologizing to Tyra, 'cause it had nothing to do with me trying to make her look bad, or say anything towards Tyra or the opportunity she was giving me."

What's next for you?

"Since the show wrapped, I've kind of been low key. Now I've had a lot of offers come in, scripts for TV and for film, as far as the music side of things, I've met some really awesome producers that I've had the opportunity to play them some stuff.

I plan to continue modeling. I'm not represented by anyone at the moment, but I do plan on going back out an seeking representation so I can continue moving forward with my career."

the wealth defense industry

alternet | In 2005, Citigroup offered its high net-worth clients in the United States a concise statement of the threats they and their money faced.

The report told them they were the leaders of a “plutonomy,” an economy driven by the spending of its ultra-rich citizens. “At the heart of plutonomy is income inequality,” which is made possible by “capitalist-friendly governments and tax regimes.”

The danger, according to Citigroup’s analysts, is that “personal taxation rates could rise – dividends, capital gains, and inheritance taxes would hurt the plutonomy.”

But the ultra-rich already knew that. In fact, even as America’s income distribution has skewed to favor the upper classes, the very richest have successfully managed to reduce their overall tax burden. Look no further than Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney, who in 2010 paid 13.9 percent of his $21.6 million income in taxes that year, the same tax rate as an individual who earned a mere $8,500 to $34,500.

How is that possible? How can a country make so much progress toward equality on other fronts – race, gender, sexual orientation and disability – but run the opposite way in its policy on taxing the rich?

In 2004, the American Political Science Association (APSA) tried to answer that very question. The explanation they came up with viewed the problem as a classic case of democratic participation: While the poor have overwhelming numbers, the wealthy have higher rates of political participation, more advanced skills and greater access to resources and information. In short, APSA said, the wealthy use their social capital to offset their minority status at the ballot box.

But this explanation has one major flaw. Regardless of the Occupy movement’s rhetoric, most of the growth in the wealth gap has actually gone to a tiny sliver of the 1% – one-tenth of it, or even one-one-hundredth.

Even more shockingly, that 1 percent of the 1% has shifted its tax burden not to the middle class or poor, but to rich households in the 85th to 99th percentile range. In 2007, the effective income tax rate for the richest 400 Americans was below 17 percent, while the “mass affluent” 1% paid nearly 24 percent. Disparities in Social Security taxes were even greater, with the merely rich paying 12.4 percent of their income, while the super-rich paid only one-one-thousandth of a percent.

It’s one thing for the poor to lose the democratic participation game, but APSA has no explanation for why the majority of the upper class – which has no shortage of government-influencing social capital – should fall so far behind the very top earners. (Of course, relative to middle- and lower-class earners, they’ve done just fine.)

For a better explanation, we need to look more closely at the relationship between wealth and political power. I propose an updated theory of “oligarchy,” the same lens developed by Plato and Aristotle when they studied the same problem in their own times.

A quick review

First, let’s review what we think we know about power in America.

We begin with a theory of “democratic pluralism,” which posits that democracy is basically a tug-of-war with different interest groups trying to pull government policy toward an outcome. In this framework, the rich are just one group among many competing “special interests.”

Of course, it’s hard not to notice that some groups can tug better than others. So in the 1950s, social scientists, like C. Wright Mills, author of The Power Elite, developed another theory of “elites” – those who wield more pull thanks to factors like education, social networks and ethnicity. In this view, wealth is just one of many factors that might help someone become the leader of a major business or gain a government position, thereby joining the elite.

But neither theory explains how the super-rich are turning public policy to their benefit even at the expense of the moderately rich. The mass affluent vastly outnumber the super-rich, and the super-rich aren’t necessarily better-educated, more skilled or more able to participate in politics; nor do the super-rich dominate the top posts of American government – our representatives tend to be among the slightly lower rungs of the upper class who are losing the tax battle.

Also, neither theory takes into account the unique power that comes with enormous wealth – the kind found in that one-tenth of the 1%. Whether or not the super-rich hold any official position in business or government, they remain powerful.

Only when we separate wealth from all other kinds of power can we begin to understand why our tax system looks the way it does – and, by extension, how the top one-tenth of 1% of the income distribution has distorted American democracy.

Enormous wealth is the heart of oligarchy.

So what’s an oligarchy?

Across all political spectrums, oligarchs are people (never corporations or other organizations) who command massive concentrations of material resources (that is, wealth) that can be deployed to defend or enhance their own property and interests, even if they don’t own those resources personally. Without this massive concentration of wealth, there are no oligarchs.

In any society, of course, an extremely unequal wealth distribution provokes conflict. Oligarchy is the politics of the defense of this wealth, propagated by the richest members of society.

Wealth defense can take many forms. In ancient Greece and Rome, the wealthiest citizens cooperated to run institutionalized states that defended their property rights. In Suharto’s Indonesia, a single oligarch led a despotic regime that mostly used state power to support other oligarchs. In medieval Europe, the rich built castles and raised private armies to defend themselves against each other and deter peasants tempted by their masters’ vaults. In all of these cases oligarchs are directly engaged in rule. They literally embody the law and play an active role in coercion as part of their wealth defense strategy.

Contemporary America (along with other capitalist states) instead houses a kind of “civil oligarchy.” The big difference is that property rights are now guaranteed by the impersonal laws of an armed state. Even oligarchs, who can be disarmed for the first time in history and no longer need to rule directly, must submit to the rule of law for this modern “civil” arrangement to work. When oligarchs do enter government, it is more for vanity than to rule as or for oligarchs. Good examples are New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former presidential candidate Ross Perot and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.

Another feature of American oligarchy is that it allows oligarchs to hire skilled professionals, middle- and upper-class worker bees, to labor year-round as salaried, full-time political advocates and defenders of the oligarchy. Unlike those backing ordinary politicians, the oligarchs’ professional forces require no ideological invigoration to keep going. In other words, they function as a very well-paid mercenary army.

Whatever views and interests may divide the very rich, they are united in being materially focused and materially empowered. The social and political tensions associated with extreme wealth bond oligarchs together even if they never meet, and sets in motion the complex dynamics of wealth defense. Oligarchs do overlap with each other in certain social circles that theorists of the elite worked hard to map. But such networks are not vital to their power and effectiveness. Oligarchic theory requires no conspiracies or backroom deals. It is the minions oligarchs hire who provide structure and continuity to America’s civil oligarchy.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

pool near U.S. city contains more radioactive cesium than released by fukushima, chernobyl and all nuclear bomb tests COMBINED

zerohedge | The spent fuel pools at Fukushima are currently the top short-term threat to humanity.

But fuel pools in the United States store an average of ten times more radioactive fuel than stored at Fukushima, have virtually no safety features, and are vulnerable to accidents and terrorist attacks.

If the water drains out for any reason, it will cause a fire in the fuel rods, as the zirconium metal jacket on the outside of the fuel rods could very well catch fire within hours or days after being exposed to air. See this, this, this and this. (Even a large solar flare could knock out the water-circulation systems for the pools.)

The pools are also filling up fast, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The New York Times notes that squeezing more rods into pools may increase the risk of fire:

The reactor operators have squeezed spent fuel more tightly into the pools, raising the heat load and, according to some analyses, raising the risk of fire if the pools were ever drained.

Indeed, the fuel pools and rods at Fukushima appear to have “boiled”, caught fire and/or exploded soon after the earthquake knocked out power systems. See this, this, this, this and this.

Robert Alvarez – a nuclear expert and a former special assistant to the United States Secretary of Energy – notes that there have also been many incidents within the U.S. involving fuel pools

Friday, April 13, 2012

hide not slide...,

WSJ | U.S. securities regulators are conducting a wide-ranging investigation into the complex relationships between rapid-fire trading firms and stock exchanges, according to the official overseeing some 20 probes into computerized trading.

The inquiry into ownership and other ties is part of a broader probe into whether high-speed traders have unfair advantages over other investors, according to people familiar with the matter.

"We're interested in understanding the ownership structure and history" of the firms, said Daniel Hawke, head of the Securities and Exchange Commission's market abuse enforcement unit, in an interview. "How the firm got started, who was behind it and who wrote the [computer] code that might be at issue."

One such area under SEC scrutiny is the use of routing and trading instructions, known as order types. Many investors use relatively simple order types, such as limit orders, which specify a price at which an investor is willing to buy or sell a stock.

But exchanges also offer more sophisticated order types commonly used by rapid-fire traders that could potentially give them an edge over other investors, according to industry experts. Some allow computer-driven traders to hide orders and prevent them from routing to other exchanges, where the traders may have less control over the order execution.

One order type, called "Hide Not Slide" and offered by the exchange operator Direct Edge Holdings LLC, is among those being scrutinized by the SEC, according to people familiar with the matter. The agency is also looking at a similar order type offered by computerized stock exchange BATS Global Markets Inc., the people said.

Other exchanges also offer order types that share similar characteristics. Representatives of Direct Edge and BATS declined to comment.

The SEC is examining whether such order types unfairly allow high-speed traders to jump ahead of other investors in an exchange's "order book," or the queue of buy and sell orders that are typically ranked by price and when they were received, according to people familiar with the matter.

Another area of focus for the SEC are the rebates some traders earn from exchanges even as other investors pay fees to complete trades, say people familiar with exchange operations and the SEC probes.

The SEC stepped up its scrutiny of these high-speed trading firms and exchanges after the May 6, 2010 "flash crash," when computerized trading triggered a 9% selloff within minutes.

Some aspects of the SEC's inquiry are tied to at least one whistleblower, according to people familiar with the matter.

One of the most prominent lines of inquiry involves BATS, which last month pulled its initial public offering after halting trading due to what it described as a software glitch. On the morning BATS shares began trading, The Wall Street Journal disclosed details of the SEC's investigation into whether superfast-trading firms have exploited their links to BATS and other exchanges to gain an unfair advantage over other investors.

high frequency trading is cuckoo

BusinessSpectator | In the Australian Stock Exchange’s Sydney data room, which is about the size of a big lounge room, there are six “cuckoos”. These are the banks of servers installed by high frequency traders.

They sit against the wall opposite the ASX servers and each is connected directly into the host by a fat fibre optic pipe. Each cable is precisely the same length by agreement with the ASX so that none gets an advantage; if one server is closer to the input, its cable is looped around to lengthen it.

Think about that: one less metre of optic fibre carrying data at 299.8 million metres per second would give one share trader an unfair advantage over the rest. It suggests that something pretty quick is going on.

The question is whether it’s fair to the rest of us; whether those six parasites with their suckers fastened directly into the heart of the ASX should be allowed to get away with it.

The ASX is no longer a regulator, just a business, so it says that if the practice is legal and it pays a fee – not to mention a handy rent in the data room – then it can’t and won’t stop them.

For global regulators it’s actually too late: high-frequency trading accounts for as much as 70 per cent of the volume on American stock exchanges, including the NYSE; the time to control it was ten years ago.

What do the computers and their algorithms do? Well, as my relatively low-frequency brain can understand it, these machines constantly monitor order flow into the ASX servers and the sophisticated programs can pick up patterns that indicate when a reasonably large order has been placed. What they then do, in effect, is “front-run” – that is, they buy ahead of the order and make a small spread selling into it.

In other words, by operating at the speed of light they can “feel” a buy order coming and can dart in front of them and ensure that the buyers pay a little bit more than they were going to, without noticing a thing.

These operators begin each day owning no shares and end each day in the same position but they make a lot of money by doing thousands of trades every day: it’s a high volume, low margin business.

It’s not known how much money the HFT traders make, but whatever it is they weren’t making it 10-15 years ago, and stockmarket returns have not gone up in that time, so whatever they make has come out of someone else’s pocket.

That someone, of course, is you.

where has all the trading gone?

cnbc | It’s one of the biggest mysteries on Wall Street. How can stocks be in their fourth year of a bull market and trading activity be so low?

During March, average daily volume in equity shares was at their lowest level since December 2007, according to new data from Credit Suisse. This is the same month that marked the three-year anniversary of the bull market that caused the Standard & Poor's 500 to double from its March 2009 credit-crisis low.

Credit Suisse tried to solve the riddle by blaming the growing popularity of options and futures markets, a drop in high frequency trading and stock splits.

“There’s no way to sugar-coat it: Volumes are down and trending lower,” wrote Ana Avramovic of Credit Suisse, in a note to clients. “A growing preference for other asset classes may be drawing money away from equities.”

Daily equity volume in March was 6.59 billion shares a day, the lowest since a sub-6 billion volume month in December 2007, according to Credit Suisse. (The firm adjusted December 2011’s low figures to account for the holiday-skewed week.)

Avramovic noted that options and futures volume set a record in 2011, as investors hungry to add risk looked for a place where they could use leverage.

“The options market has been breaking records for nine straight years and the shift has been a growing field that provides protection and leverage,” said Pete Najarian, co-founder of, an options and equity brokerage.

The Credit Suisse analyst also notes that high-frequency trading, which accounts for half of all market activity, has been on the decline since last summer. What’s more, Citigroup alone accounted for 7 percent of all volume in the second half of 2009 before its 10 for 1 reverse split, according to the report.

But the answer may be simpler than this. After two vicious bear markets in a decade, the average investor simply doesn’t trust this market anymore.

“There is no fresh money going into the markets,” said Doug Kass of Seabreeze Partners. “Why should we be surprised the retail investor is not there? We’ve had two huge drawdowns in stocks since 2000, a flash crash two years ago and real incomes are stagnating.”

Thursday, April 12, 2012

fear of a black republican..,

aljazeera | In the southern US state of Mississippi nearly 40 per cent of the population is black. But during the state's March 13 Republican primary, only two per cent of the voters were African Americans - and it was a similar picture throughout other Republican contests.

For years Republican leaders have said they would work hard to increase African American support for their party, but so far, those efforts appear to be a failure.

When asked during an interview why the Republican party is poison for so many African Americans the only black candidate to run for the 2012 Republican ticket, Herman Cain, said it was because "...they have been brainwashed into not being open-minded, not even considering a conservative point of view."

A documentary titled Fear of A Black Republican was just released here in Washington DC and it posed a similar question: Does the Republican party really want more black people?

So why has the Republican party not been successful in reaching out to black voters? And why are they also losing the hispanic voters?

To discuss these issues, we are joined by James Braxton Peterson, the director of Africana studies at Lehigh University; Ana Navarro, the National Hispanic co-chair for both John McCain and John Huntsman; and Kevin Williams, the director of the film, Fear of a Black Republican.

"I think there is a core cultural competency challenge here that the Republican party... has lost it's sense and its ability to connect with communities of colour. You've got to be competent about the cultural issues that are important to these communities and then we can talk about the different strategies for trying to secure their votes."

James Braxton Peterson, analyst on black politics


  • The Republican party has currently little support among black voters
  • Since the early 1960's black voters have overwhelmingly voted the Democratic party
  • Richard Nixon was the last Republican candidate to get significant black support
  • Nixon got 32 per cent of black vote in his loss to John F Kennedy in 1960
  • President Lyndon Johnson got 94 per cent support from black voters after he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964
  • Republicans promoted the abolition of slavery, gaining black votes
  • President Dwight Eisenhower got 39 per cent of black vote in 1956
  • In the 2008 election John McCain received just 4 per cent of black votes
  • In the 2008 US presidential election 95 per cent of African Americans voted for Obama

the taint of social darwinism

NYTimes | Given the well-known Republican antipathy to evolution, President Obama’s recent description of the Republican budget as an example of “social Darwinism” may be a canny piece of political labeling. In the interests of historical accuracy, however, it should be clearly recognized that “social Darwinism” has very little to do with the ideas developed by Charles Darwin in “On the Origin of Species.” Social Darwinism emerged as a movement in the late 19th-century, and has had waves of popularity ever since, but its central ideas owe more to the thought of a luminary of that time, Herbert Spencer, whose writings are (to understate) no longer widely read.

Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” thought about natural selection on a grand scale. Conceiving selection in pre-Darwinian terms — as a ruthless process, “red in tooth and claw” — he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve. Late 19th-century dynastic capitalists, especially the American “robber barons,” found this vision profoundly congenial. Their contemporary successors like it for much the same reasons, just as some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand .

Although social Darwinism has often been closely connected with ideas in eugenics (pampering the weak will lead to the “decline of the race”) and with theories of racial superiority (the economic and political dominance of people of North European extraction is a sign that some racial groups are intrinsically better than others), these are not central to the position.

The heart of social Darwinism is a pair of theses: first, people have intrinsic abilities and talents (and, correspondingly, intrinsic weaknesses), which will be expressed in their actions and achievements, independently of the social, economic and cultural environments in which they develop; second, intensifying competition enables the most talented to develop their potential to the full, and thereby to provide resources for a society that make life better for all. It is not entirely implausible to think that doctrines like these stand behind a vast swath of Republican proposals, including the recent budget, with its emphasis on providing greater economic benefits to the rich, transferring the burden to the middle-classes and poor, and especially in its proposals for reducing public services. Fuzzier versions of the theses have pervaded Republican rhetoric for the past decade (and even longer).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

mitX aims to enhance education

MIT | Speaking to students in Simmons Hall on Wednesday evening, Provost L. Rafael Reif and Chancellor Eric Grimson explained how MITx — the Institute’s new initiative for online learning — could not only bring aspects of MIT’s education to the world at large, but also enhance and enrich the educational experience of students on campus.

“Our goal is to use this as a platform to strengthen the residential student experience,” Grimson said. The informal meeting was one of a series of sessions with undergraduates and graduate students to explain MITx, as well as to gather input and suggestions on “how you would imagine using this, and what you would like to see,” he said.

The MITx concept, Reif explained, grew out of a series of meetings over the last five years in which faculty, administrators and student representatives explored “ways we could use technology to enhance what we do on campus.”

MITx’s pilot class is now under way: 6.002x, Introduction to Circuits and Electronics. So far, more than 120,000 people worldwide have signed up for the course, which is now about halfway through its semester, Grimson said. At least 20,000 of those students have been actively keeping up with the course’s lectures, exercises and online tests.

For MIT’s own students, Reif said, materials developed for MITx classes will add an extra dimension to their on-campus experience. In some cases, he said, MITx might replace existing lecture components with online versions students could watch at their own pace, repeating segments if necessary to make sure they understand. Instead of a classroom experience defined by passive listening, MIT students might actually “experience increased face-to-face interactions” with each other and with instructors, Reif said.

When MIT students used online lectures and exercises, instructors would also have access to data about which sections students sailed through and which were more challenging. When students got to recitation sections, teaching assistants would have a clearer sense of which topics they needed to focus on, Grimson said.

MITx itself is an experiment, Reif said, and will be closely monitored so that course materials and the interactive experience can be improved as needed. The software platform developed for MITx is open-source and will eventually be released to the public: Beneficial modifications made or suggested by anyone around the world will be incorporated into the platform at any time.

“We believe this is the future,” Reif said of interactive online education as a supplement to campus learning. The software platform will be offered to other institutions for use in their classes — providing an alternative to a trend toward online educational materials developed by for-profit companies, he added. Fist tap Dale.

personal informatics for self-regulated learning

quantifiedself | Although the internet has fundamentally changed the speed and the scale of accessing information, that change has not seen such an impact in traditional forms of education. With popular new efforts like the video and exercise resource Khan Academy and online courses from Stanford (now spinning off into sites like Udemy and Coursera), people are talking about a revolution of personalized education – learners will be able to use computer-delivered content to learn at their own pace, whether supplementing schoolwork, developing job skills, or pursuing a hobby.

How personal informatics can help learning

There’s a problem here: learning on one’s own is not easy. Researchers have repeatedly found that people hold misconceptions about how to study well. For instance, rereading a passage gives the illusion of effective learning, but in reality quizzing oneself on the same material is far more effective for retention. Even then, people can misjudge the which items they will or will not be able to remember later.

The process of self-regulated learning works best when people accurately self-assess their learning and use that information to determine learning strategies and choose among resources. This reflective process fits well into the framework of personal informatics used already for applications like keeping up with one’s finances or making personal healthcare decisions.

For most people, their only experience quantifying learning is through grades on assignments and tests. While these can allow some level of reflection, the feedback loop is usually not tight enough. We are unable to fix our mistakes, making grades feel less like a opportunity for improvement and more like a final judgement.
How personal learning data can be collected

With computer-based practice, there is a great opportunity for timely personalized feedback. Several decades of research in the learning sciences have developed learner models for estimating a person’s knowledge of a topic based on their actions in a computer-based practice environment, often called an intelligent tutoring system. For example, a learner model for a physics tutor may predict the error rate of responses in defining the potential energy as a step in a physics problem — we see that the error rate decreases over the number of opportunities to use that skill, indicating learning (see below; from the PSLC DataShop). Such systems can not only track progress and give feedback but also make suggestions for effective learning strategies. Fist tap Dale.

3 major publishers sue open-education textbook startup

Chronicle | Open-education resources have been hailed as a trove of freely available information that can be used to build textbooks at virtually no cost. But a copyright lawsuit filed last month presents a potential roadblock for the burgeoning movement.

A group of three large academic publishers has sued the start-up Boundless Learning in federal court, alleging that the young company, which produces open-education alternatives to printed textbooks, has stolen the creative expression of their authors and editors, violating their intellectual-property rights. The publishers Pearson, Cengage Learning, and Macmillan Higher Education filed their joint complaint last month in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

The publishers’ complaint takes issue with the way the upstart produces its open-education textbooks, which Boundless bills as free substitutes for expensive printed material. To gain access to the digital alternatives, students select the traditional books assigned in their classes, and Boundless pulls content from an array of open-education sources to knit together a text that the company claims is as good as the designated book. The company calls this mapping of printed book to open material “alignment”—a tactic the complaint said creates a finished product that violates the publishers’ copyrights.

“Notwithstanding whatever use it claims to make of ‘open source educational content,’ Defendant distributes ‘replacement textbooks’ that are created from, based upon, and overwhelmingly similar to Plaintiffs’ textbooks,” the complaint reads.

The complaint attempts to distance itself from attacking the legitimacy of open-education resources, but goes on to argue that Boundless is building its business model by stealing.

“Whether in the lecture hall or in a textbook, anyone is obviously free to teach the subjects biology, economics, or psychology, and can do so using, creating, and refining the pedagogical materials they think best, whether consisting of ‘open source educational content’ or otherwise,” it reads. “But by making unauthorized ‘shadow-versions’ of Plaintiffs’ copyrighted works, Defendant teaches only the age-old business model of theft.” Fist tap Dale.

let's not derail MIT from it's path to excellence!

The Tech | MIT is the finest research institution in the world, in no small part because of its unwavering commitment to recruiting, admitting, and hiring the best talent in the world, even if that talent comes from less-advantaged or atypical backgrounds. Periodically examining the mechanisms by which the Institute pursues its mission is essential, but those examinations must be grounded in both data and an understanding of the MIT ethos. Brandon Briscoe’s execrable and intellectually dishonest rant against diversity and inclusion at the Institute is neither, serving as a disheartening call to take MIT in precisely the wrong direction. By mischaracterizing MIT’s admission and hiring processes as a de facto quota system, Briscoe effects a brilliant takedown of a straw man of his own creation and manages to cast aspersions on the intellect of every MIT-affiliated woman and underrepresented minority, … all based on little more than a few sloppy citations and the courage of his own biased convictions.

Fundamentally, Briscoe draws a false dilemma between diversity and merit. Unlike wannabe peer institutions, the Institute neither kowtows to pedigree nor slavishly adheres to test scores and GPAs. Briscoe would have MIT break this tradition and emulate the admission process of second-rate institutions, namely by picking the best test scores, GPAs, and AP scores out of a hat. But what do these variables actually measure? An SAT score is a better measure of the wealth of one’s parents than eventual success in college or the labor market. And how can we honestly claim that GPA and AP classes are a fair measure of merit given the gross disparities across schools, which are more racially segregated today than they were before the Civil Rights legislation Briscoe applauds? In our broken and disparate system, the hardest-working, highest-achieving student in a terrible school wouldn’t stand a chance against a middle-of-the-road student in an exceptional school without the incorporation of context into admissions decisions. Similarly, what do we do about the application of the utterly-capable female student who is steered away from AP science classes by her counselors, teachers, and parents? Given these realities, it is clear that Briscoe’s idea of a blind meritocracy is antithetical to his simultaneous calls for fairness and equality. How would it be fair to discount the star student because he went to a bad school? How would it be equitable to ignore the potential of the young woman because societal forces told her she couldn’t be something?

Briscoe refers to discrimination as “past,” which is another egregious oversight. Silly claims of “post-racial” America notwithstanding, racial discrimination is still widespread, as is gender discrimination. We don’t have to look too hard to see evidence of bias. We know that blacks and Latinos were targeted for expensive, dangerous subprime loans during the housing boom and we know that black and Latino homeowners were targeted for foreclosure action during the bust. We know that because of the sad reality of racial segregation, black and Latino children are served by unsatisfactory schools. We know that women are penalized in the workplace for having children when men are not. We know that young girls are discouraged from pursuing careers in science and engineering. The idea that America solved all of these issues with the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement is a fantasy largely perpetuated by those who have something to gain by race and gender discrimination.

Even at MIT, discrimination persists: Briscoe’s article proves that ipso facto. We need not rely on his words, however. The 2011 Report on the Status of Women Faculty in the Schools of Science and Engineering at MIT, for example, is both a story of amazing strides in gender equality at MIT and a sobering report of the prejudice that female faculty face even in 2011. Yet, Briscoe uses the fact that in one year the engineering school hired more women than men as evidence of systematic discrimination against men. He supports this point by noting that women are a minority of MIT graduate students and engineers nationally. The questionable nature of this argument could not be more obvious. Comparing one year of data to the summed result of decades of systematic discrimination against women would be laughable if it were not such a perfect example of the cognitive dissonance driving much of sexism.

Unfortunately, this fallacious argument is just the tip of the iceberg in Briscoe’s article, which takes an intellectually ugly turn when Briscoe reimagines President Hockfield’s decidedly uncontroversial remarks at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration as a claim that MIT is “reserving job positions for certain racial groups” and acting “necessarily at the expense of white and Asian men.” These interpretations are, of course, both false and contrary to Hockfield’s meaning, yet Briscoe practically presents the latter as a direct quotation. Briscoe follows this up with a poor man’s legal analysis of affirmative action based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, declaring that MIT is flouting Federal law. Somehow Briscoe manages to leave out all of the modern case law (cf. Grutter v. Bollinger) that directly contradicts his claims.

At one point, the article brings up the aforementioned Report on the Status of Women Faculty, cherry-picks the one quotation within reasonable Hamming distance of supporting his argument, and distorts it until it does. He makes unfounded claims about women being overrepresented on committees and brazenly quotes a woman out of context, implying that she claimed that her gender is an advantage in certain fields at MIT. This is false. Upon actually reading the report, it’s clear that the person was not speaking about her experience within MIT. As a matter of fact, the very same paragraph contains a quote from another woman who says: “[My] field is brutal and sexist. You talk to senior colleagues and they want to talk about anything but science — life, how you look.”