Monday, March 31, 2014

Undergraduate Upsets Wall Street

A college student is the most fascinating character in Michael Lewis’ new book claiming the US stock market is “rigged” by computers trading in nanoseconds.

On “Sixty Seconds” (an old-media eternity) this weekend, the author of “Flash Boys” explains how it works: “The complexity disguises what is happening. If it's so complicated you can't understand it, then you can't question it.”

In countering this “dark market” that serves brokers rather than customers, opponents found a key ally in the resume of a Stanford junior named Dan Aisen, “Winner of Microsoft’s College Puzzle Challenge,” an annual contest in 2007.

“There’s some element of mechanical work and some element of ‘Aha!’ ” says Aisen, who got a job and a nickname, the Puzzle Master, soon shortened to Puz, who helped dissidents create their own stock exchange powered by a system called Thor.

It takes patience and concentration to read through Lewis’ narrative and its compelling conclusion that, when it comes to protecting customer interests and their own, the most trusted names on Wall Street don’t hesitate.

Yet embedded in its tortuous tale of cables twisting through a crucial few miles in suburban New Jersey is more than another story about how in our society, speed can not only kill but steal big.

“Taking advantage of loopholes in some well-meaning regulation introduced in the mid-2000s,” Lewis concludes, “some large amount of what Wall Street had been doing with technology was simply so someone inside the financial markets would know something that the outside world did not. The same system that once gave us subprime-mortgage collateralized debt obligations no investor could possibly truly understand now gave us stock-market trades involving fractions of a penny that occurred at unsafe speeds using order types that no investor could possibly truly understand.”

His book is unlikely to bring down Wall Street’s rich and powerful, but it’s comforting to know that the brain power of a college undergraduate is giving them some anxious moments.

Fear of Flying

Endless fascination with the Malaysian airliner goes on, rippling out to TV commercials unseen now for decades: courses for those afraid to fly.

The condition has a scientific name, pteromerhanophobia, afflicting the famous from football commentator John Madden to comic Whoopi Goldberg, and bringing back memories of my own struggles with the condition.

Briefly in World War II, when I was doing clerical work on a B-17 bomber base, my best friend was a gunnery instructor who arranged for my first flight ever on a practice run. At the last minute, he took me off one of the four planes and put me on another for a three-hour boring night flight.

The next morning, he shook me awake to tell me the first plane had crashed, killing four. He had taken me off because it didn’t have an instructor pilot aboard.

Such initiation aside, my postwar job as a writer and editor put me in the air often without a qualm (including a flight to Puerto Rico where they weighed me along with my luggage) until one day on a pre-jet trip to Washington I found myself with a tray in my lap and the thought suddenly struck, “What am I doing up here eating?”

Flying was never the same again. My strategies for coping included Scotch before boarding, a flask for the flight and the discovery that anxiety soaks up whiskey like water, leaving me cold sober and ready to work after landing.

During that time, one airline had the brilliant idea of putting monitors next to seats to show takeoffs and landings. I told the flight attendant I wasn’t interested in seeing myself go down in flames, ordered another drink and buried myself in a book.

On a helicopter in California, taking off westward according to standing orders, I told the pilot, “We’re not looking for Amelia Earhart, right? Can we go back?”

Now in an age where almost everyone flies without thinking twice, the mystery of the Malaysian plane’s disappearance brings back those old days and recalls the human mind’s ability to adapt but not without a price.

At 24 days and counting, will a new generation of frequent fliers ever rest easy until an answer is found?

Meanwhile, I’ll be in the back of the bus with Madden and Whoopi.   

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Putin/Tea Party Axis

Bill Maher targeted two right-wing Congressmen for defeat this weekend, but the candidate he really nailed was in a spoof on a potential GOP 2016 primary winner, Vladimir Putin.

As they unroll this year’s cuckoo’s-nest equivalents of Bachmann, Cain, Perry et al to contrast with Obama, the Russian premier is really getting under Democrats’ skin, first by bailing out Assad in the debate over attacking Syria and now by moving in on Crimea.

In headlines unsettling Americans, he has made the White House look impotent, giving Tea Party warriors ammunition while risking little in his own campaign to outmuscle Obama on the world stage.

Putin’s moves have made foreign policy the center of attention, drawing attention away from the President’s campaign to boost Obamacare enrollment, allowing even old Cold War warrior Lindsey Graham some hope in his primary fight against accusations of being “ambiguously gay.”   

Yet overall, the Russian media takeover is providing help to the Tea Party by making even sane voters jittery, reinforcing attacks on “moderate” Republicans like Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran for not being enough like Ted Cruz or Mike Lee.

What we have now is Vladimir Putin, who pocketed a diamond Super Bowl ring from an American capitalist years ago, now making mischief on our domestic political scene and stealing the spotlight from an already beleaguered White House.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Far End of Obamacare

After 80, we all become MDs with one patient. Most waking hours are spent on medical appointments, taking pills, checking out symptoms—-in short, maintaining bodies morphing from a two-way connection with the real world into what Paul Ryan would call, in the words of his former mentor Ayn Rand, “takers.”

As one of those aged, I sympathize with Ryan and his Tea Party colleagues in their unhappiness over such dependence; I deplore it in myself and am shamed, after a lifetime of caring for others, to need so much assistance in just staying alive. Should it really take an MD to cut our toenails?

But short of setting up Sarah Palin death panels (it was never clear whether she was accusing Democrats of planning them or advocating them herself), what are we as a “Christian,” humane society to do with people who paid their dues and unexpectedly outlived everybody’s expectations, including their own?

From this pain-filled old age that movie star icon Bette Davis characterized as “not for sissies,” a more mentally than physically competent nonagenarian would suggest that younger generations, now that Obamacare is legal and more or less in effect across the country, come to terms with what they consider its unfairness: that the young grit their teeth and deal with it, not only because it protects them against the unlikely chance that they will be stricken but because, imperfect as it is, it is their turn to pay a toll on the long road toward a fair life in a just society.

In an America that became the most powerful nation in the world by, however slowly and grudgingly, recognizing that race and gender should not overwhelm empathy, it would be foolhardy to sells others (and ourselves) short by not looking far enough ahead.

Sooner or later, if we live long enough, we all become physically dependent. It would be a shame if we couldn’t find some morally just ways to live with that inevitability. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Fire This Time

A building explodes in Harlem, leaving four dead so badly burned they cannot be identified, but we know they are not white.

At the same time, a leading GOP thinker Paul Ryan, who has been on government payrolls since college, proclaims that young “inner city” men are “not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work” because they rely on government assistance to survive.

In 1963, my high-school classmate James Baldwin wrote in “The Fire Next Time”  that “one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

The Harlem explosion brings back years of commuting through those streets with their decaying buildings that had stood for a century and still stand today, as symptoms of Americans inability to love one another as brothers.

In his lifetime, Baldwin was a brilliant writer who happened to be both gay and black, half a century before most Americans accepted him as fully human, but even with a biracial President in the White House, those Harlem tenements and Ryan’s clueless ignorance are still acceptable as part of normal life today.

After all the official backside-covering in New York and backpedaling in Washington, will we be any closer to facing the real pain in American life today or simply putting, to borrow Sarah Palin’s eloquence, more “lipstick on a pig?”

Sunday, March 09, 2014

The View from 90

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated. It was my ninth birthday.

In April 1945, I was a 21-year-old foot soldier on the floor of a German farmhouse when someone shook me awake to whisper that FDR had died.

Now, at 90, I am inevitably shaped by those years after a working lifetime as writer, editor and publisher trying to explain the world to others—-and myself.

The scenes around me today are filled with human folly, selfishness and shameless behavior, but that’s far from the whole story. My so-called Greatest Generation, which survived a Depression and World War, does not in retrospect seem so morally superior to those that succeeded it but only more limited in education, experience of the world and outlook.

Many of our virtues were rooted in ignorance: no TV, cable, computers, Internet, no electronics of any kind, only radios with music, soap operas and swatches of evening news lifted from newspapers (as a teenage copy boy, I wrote some of them.)

As a nation we were united, but in an innocence that also had its dark side—-racial ghettos, religious prejudice, rural isolation—-where only unseen white men, all Protestant, held power over our lives in government and business.

Women then lived no fuller a life than those in Nazi Germany: Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church). Our mothers patrolled homes in house dresses, with only one exception.

Although we knew her as Mrs. Goldstein, nothing went with that matronly name, not the shimmer of clothes clinging to her trim body, or the beauty-parlor hair, the high-heeled shoes and face painted with makeup even in daytime, or the sweet perfume cloud that came into the living room in late afternoons when she kissed her son goodnight and dazzled the rest of us playing there with a cupid’s bow smile on her way out.

She always seemed on the move to someplace exciting or, if my mother’s mutterings could be believed, sinful. I had no idea what nafka meant, but Mrs. Goldstein gave our pre-teen senses a whiff of hope that the night life on movie screens existed somewhere in the real world.

Jump cut through decades: a World War; prosperous but Man-in-the-Grey-Flannel-Suit Fifties; JFK, the Youthquake, Civil Rights awakening and Women’s Lib of the televised Sixties; a backlash of the Silent Majority and Watergate in the Nixon years; Reagan’s Morning-in-America to paper over growing economic and political gulfs followed by Clinton’s centrism and self-centeredness barely surviving Gingrich’s loopy Contract with America; and then almost a decade of W’s preemptive war and mindless tax cuts to bring us into the Obama years of almost total Tea Party collapse of the civility that held us together all that time, with Racism showing its naked face.

Yet, in perspective, what looks so grim now may only be the low point of another upward spiral to come. A year ago, the New York Times posted a symposium, “Are People Getting Dumber?” Harvard’s brilliant Steven Pinker anchored it with an essay, “To See Humans’ Progress, Zoom Out”:

“Can we see the fruits of superior reasoning in the world around us? The answer is yes.

“In recent decades the sciences have made vertiginous leaps in understanding, while technology has given us secular miracles like smartphones, genome scans and stunning photographs of outer planets and distant galaxies. No historian with a long view could miss the fact that we are living in a period of extraordinary intellectual accomplishment...

“Ideals that today’s educated people take for granted--equal rights, free speech, and the primacy of human life over tradition, tribal loyalty and intuitions about purity--are radical breaks with the sensibilities of the past. These too are gifts of a widening application of reason.”

Others point out a worldwide rise in IQ scores, innovations complicating our lives with “upgrade upon upgrade” that don’t “lower our native intelligence but "relentlessly burden it” and, perhaps most important of all, a blogger about stupidity notes:

“You can get a perfect score on your SATs and it will barely register in a world of 200 million tweets a day. But give just one stupid answer in a beauty pageant, and you’ll be the laughingstock of the world before you have time to clear your name on the next morning’s ‘Today’ show.

”And while watching something smart takes time, you can see something stupid in a flash. Today at work, when I had a spare moment, I didn’t try to learn a new language. I watched a video of a guy getting a tattoo removed with an air-blast sander. And now I know that’s not a very good idea.”

As I blew out a blast furnace of birthday candles on this weekend of  ominous headlines, I was silently repeating Dr. Pangloss’ mantra, that with a little courage—-and some luck--we may all soon be living again in “the best of all possible worlds.”