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Things 94: Black Swan, Vampire Squid, Stock Market Returns

I saw Black Swan recently and recommend it to anyone that likes the look of the trailer, so long as you’re not squeamish as that’s a whole side of the movie the trailer skims over:


With a reported production budget of $13m (which, as I never tire of telling people, would be just enough to cover Tron Legacy’s costume budget, and was also so restrictive that Natalie Portman opted to forego her trailer in order to afford an on-set medic), I was particularly fascinated by the beautifully subtle (and some not-so-subtle) digital effects they nonetheless managed to achieve. Most excellently, you can see a showreel of how these effects were put together on Look Effects’ website, although if you haven’t seen the film you should steer well clear as it will completely ruin the film for you.

Have Instapaper or Read It Later at the ready because I’m about to flag up some serious long-form content. I don’t think it was available online when it was first published, but you can now read Matt Taibbi’s dilligently researched yet seething explanation of quite what Goldman Sachs does over at Rolling Stone, in which he memorably begins:

The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

Over a year later even publications like The Week will casually refer to them as “Giant vampire squid Goldman Sachs”, which is I think excellent. It’s long, but well worth it, and it has a great twist ending.

As a nice follow-up (or much shorter way of cutting to the heart of the matter), Charlie Stross explains how we got to this point. Or if you want the whole thing in one pithy excerpt:

Corporations have a mean life expectancy of around 30 years, but are potentially immortal; they live only in the present, having little regard for past or (thanks to short term accounting regulations) the deep future: and they generally exhibit a sociopathic lack of empathy.

I think the way we tend to automatically expect groups of humans to behave like individual humans is one of the most disastrous mistakes we make on a daily basis.

All ovens that I’ve seen have some kind of temperature ‘input’ dial, but why do so few have any kind of readout of the actual internal temperature, to the point that there is a market for independently purchased oven thermometers? Shouldn’t market forces guide the manufacturers to include such a feature themselves?

I see a lot of data visualisations that make me angry because they do little more than treat data as almost random input for some kind of procedural image generation process (which is actually very cool when it doesn’t claim to be something it isn’t). This New York Times visualisation of stock market returns over the past 90 years, on the other hand, is actually quite practical at giving you both an overall sense of the patterns while still making each data point quite clear.

I'd just like to make it clear that I'm using the 'ragged edge' functionality of FS capture to show that this is only part of the image. A while ago, when everyone at work had just got in to FS Capture, it was used on just about every image you saw. Those were dark days.

Last Week’s Puzzle
Last week I asked why we seem to be so intolerant of variation in things like driving speed or grammar pedantry.

Angela suggests it’s all to do with herd instinct:

We are constantly (often subconsciously) comparing ourselves with others around us and balancing the desire to fit in (be part of the herd) with our desire to ‘self-express’ (stand out). Even small differences between us and others in the herd could potentially threaten us if they lead us to be ostracised or confer upon others some advantage in terms of survival or reproduction. I think that’s one of the reasons we a) notice and b) are so perturbed by even slight differences – they could signify a real risk to our deepest interests.

I think that’s part of the answer, although it doesn’t explain why we’re more tolerant of a lot of other things, or at least tolerant of variation in one direction (such as how we judge others’ use of free time).

I initially thought it covered those particular areas of life because we recognise them as prisoner’s dilemma / tragedy-of-the-commons areas, where a few people taking the easy way risk leading society to a collectively suboptimal Nash equilibrium.

However, I now think there’s two separate factors at work. In driving, even slight differences in speed add up to one car overtaking another, which we can’t help but read as a social signal that one is ‘doing it wrong’ (and we see the same thing with walking speed).

On the other hand, things like specific bits of grammar pedantry or household hygiene fall into a category of behaviours drummed into us as children, which we then cling on to tenaciously through a combination of Anchoring and Status Quo Bias. Deviation from these things is more on a sub-task basis (“I can’t believe they don’t clean their skirting boards!”) rather than a spectrum, as we adhere to whichever specific rules we were taught.

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