Monday, October 14, 2013

The Bell Curve

Looks like the universe is speaking to me.

I was reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's tirade against the Bell Curve earlier today. Then as it often happens to me, while reading about something completely unrelated, I wound up on the web. One thing lead to another, and I was reading an article on the New York Times. Don't ask me how.

The article read more an ad hominem onslaught than journalism directed against the social scientist (or Klan member, depending on how you view him) Charles Murray. Apparently, he wrote a book called the "Bell Curve" that allegedly imputes the struggles of a significant section of society (particularly, low-income blacks and other non-white races) to bad genes. No kidding.

Actually, the argument isn't as direct: his assertion is that poor standing in life of a certain section of the population can be chalked up to an inherent lack of intelligence, as measured by IQ, which is, in turn, is engendered due to genetically non-intelligent (inferior) parents. He argues that the less intelligent don't make as much money, and consequently can only attract and mate with other less-intelligent partners, while the more intelligent interbreed with other geniuses to produce the Ubermensch. The brainy (rich) get brainier (richer), while the have-nots (non-brainy / non-rich) get more so (non-brainy / poorer).

The racial link brought to mind a certain ruthlessly funny and pointedly poignant African American comedian (philosopher?) by the name of Walter Kamau Bell whose program "the Walter Kamau Bell Curve" aims to "End Racism in about an Hour".

Kudos W. Kamu Bell, I now understand (or at least pretend to understand) why you chose to name your show "the Walter Kamau Bell Curve". Kudos.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Six degrees of separation from Bernard Madoff

Just to be clear, I'm in no way shape or form related to or anything that Bernard Madoff perpetrated. He Made-off with peoples' money. I do nothing of the sort. at all. ever.

I was researching First Solar Inc (FSLR) for a class project. I noticed something very weird: FSLR paid USD 54 million in TAXES on NET LOSS of USD 96MM. This simply boggled my mind: typically, companies making losses don't pay tax (because they didn't have any INCOME). Actually most companies can extend their losses to reduce their net income (and consequently taxes paid) to future years! in some cases, they can also extend them backwards to claw back taxes already paid. So this makes no sense at all. at least not readily.

So to determine the strength of their business, which includes making photo-voltaic solar panels and using those panels to build and sell complete solar power plants, i wanted to see how FSLR maintains its competitive edge. One of the ways of doing so is to make a better PV cell, cheaper than others. This typically translates to technical innovation, which is normally enshrined in enforceable patents. So off I headed to search for "FSLR patents".

The first few results to comeback surprised me: they included patents for determining the value of tradeable securities. When I saw the inventors, I was in for a bigger surprise: Peter Madoff. The patent assignee is Primex Holdings, LLC. 

For those just tuning in, Peter Madoff is Bernard Madoff's brother. The same Bernard Madoff who purportedly ran the world's largest Ponzi scheme (initial estimates were around USD 65 BILLION). Bernard Madoff single handedly made the words "Ponzi scheme" a household name during the 2009 economic meltdown. Well, maybe not single handed, but with help from his brother Peter, and two sons, Mark and Andrew. Mark eventually committed suicide. Bernard is serving 120 years in prison for defrauding the likes of Steven Spielberg, Bon Jovi and Kyra Sedjwick, and many other Jewish charities.

Here's a Bloomberg news report of Peter Madoff, Primex Holdings LLC and others related to Bernie Madoff being sued by several investors. The article also includes a brief history of the scam, and the main participants.

Here are a couple of the patent search results:

Opening price process for trading system
Grant - Filed Aug 29, 2006 - Issued Sep 20, 2011 - Peter B. Madoff - Primex Holdings LLC
Branch, “91 CCH Dec., FSLR 1I79,804, Exchange Services, Inc. Inquiry Letter”, No-Act, NAFT WSB File ... Hood, “91-92 CCH Dec., FSLR 1)76,093, Instinet Corp.

Auction market with price improvement mechanism 
Grant - Filed Mar 19, 1999 - Issued Nov 10, 2009 - Peter B. Madoff - Primex Holdings LLC

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Zen and the art of municipal codes

Every once in a while, I come across something weirdly strange on the interwebs that surprises me. Imagine my surprise when I experienced a moment of Zen when reading through the definition of municipal codes. The universe is trying to speak to me!

Excerpted and adapted from generally insipid municipal code:

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Special 22.50

Bollywood has been surprising me of late: I have seen more good movies come out in the past few years, and more frequently than I can remember. And my mental library of movies, foreign and domestic, spans several decades; if not by the dint of my years on this planet, then by the sheer man hours I've spent watching movies. Ludwig Eduard Boltzmann's epitaph is s = log w. Mine might be, "tried to spend life watching only good movies" (Now that's a scary thought. I hope my life amounts to more and those that I leave behind are considerate enough to enshrine their kind lies in my eulogy. On a practical note, what happens if one is cremated? Do they still get an epitaph? if so, what piece of land survives their memory?)

Flash forward to the current topic:  I recently enjoyed the morally ambivalent heist caper "Special 26" (स्पेशल छब्बिस ) starring Akshay Kumar (अक्षय कुमार ), Manoj Bajpai (मनोज बाजपयी ), Anupum Kher (अनुपम खेर ) and Jimmy Shergil (जिम्मी शेरगिल ). It is perhaps a sign of the times that this movie resonates so well with paying audiences. Honest folk are portrayed as hapless, impecunious, wretched beings suffering the daily atrocities and injustices of a cruel society, while desperadoes who disrespect the rules and plunder the ill-gotten riches of the privileged corrupt are projected as paragons of success. The "system" shackles and extorts those that dare possess a moral compass, while audacious outlaws pervert the system and rule the roost. The fact that some of the movie's capers draw inspiration from India's crime history serves only to bolster the disconcerting and depressing hypothesis. 

At face value, Special 26 is a heist comedy drama that is taut, at times intense, and almost always, engaging. The lead characters are not one-dimensional, but are carefully and artfully imparted depth and credence. They have distinct personalities and roles. The Thespians Anupam Kher and Manoj Bajpai morph beautifully into their respective characters: their characters' excitement, intensity, gravitas, vulnerability, determination, joy, and despair are brilliantly subtle, and because of that, supremely evocative. Akshay Kumar tones down his goofiness and brings forth a Clooney-isqe pizzazz that is equal measure Dean Martin's Danny Ocean, and Cary Grant's Roger Thornhill.

(image source:

The petulant arm chair movie critic me detected smoky undertones of the Edward Burns, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, and Andy Garcia starrer "Confidence", and noticed hints of cinematic inspiration from the masterpiece that is The Illusionist (starring Edward Norton, Jessical Biel, Paul Giamatti, Rufus Sewell), and the subtle after taste of the original Ocean's Eleven (starring Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis. Jr). But the overall brew is definitely as Indian and robust as Masala Chai, Bhel Puri, Paapdi Chaat and Chana Masala (though thankfully, not all at once). The locales, the sub-stories, and the action sequences are decidedly Indian: you won't get to see a stunt involving a toppling auto rickshaw and an over-crowded bus elsewhere (Vijay Amritraj driven auto-rickshaws carrying womanizing British uber-spies needn't apply. Thai Tutktuk's conveying newer incarnation of said spies through sewer tube wormholes are excluded as well).

 (image source:

The fact that the story is set back in 1987, a time when land-line telephones were a concept still unknown to a large majority of the Indian populace, and when the hegemony of a socialist government ran unchecked, is made utterly believable by the use of appropriate props (clunky cars, bulky rotary dial phones, just to name a few) and relevantly dated attire. Clever use of computer graphics wizardry helps carry the suspension of disbelief a little further. CG is jarringly perceptible in only one instance, but mercifully it is in the one and only song, and thus the concomitant distraction is limited too.

What is perhaps more striking, to me, is the production value and the overall message, intended or not, of the film. That CBS media conglomerate (think MTV, Nickelodeon, Dora the Explorer, and Spongebob Sqaurepants) seems to be the lead producer, is in itself telling: the developing world is where the Occident find itself yet again, seeking untold riches.

What bothered me a little about the movie though, is the apparent pandering of lawlessness to the masses. An ivory tower commentator might be tempted to deride and chide the nexus of foreign media-conglomerates and Bollywood for eulogizing anarchy and crime through the lionization of crooks and con-men. A casual observer might argue that such depictions are, in the net, harmful to society since they seem to encourage desperadoes, while demoralizing the law-abiding, educated masses. 

Contrary to the above, I am convinced that the success of such capers is more a result of art imitating life; more a result of popular demand than a concerted push to demoralize a country. 

Truth be told, there is already plenty wrong to be dispirited about the Indian dream. The continuing social outrages, be they the unimaginably cruel rape of innocents on city streets, or the daily terrorist attacks, or the brazen murder of well heeled builders in broad daylight, or the perpetual pillaging of the entire country by corrupt politicians, have desensitized the general population. I contend that the reason such movies do well is because they appeal to the sub-conscious helplessness of each and every Indian. I believe Indians are innately aware of the law of the jungle: every one is Mowgli, the sole human child amongst animals, and is constantly struggling to ward off the Sher Khan of a predatory society. Amidst the decay and unsanitary environs, it is quite literally, the Lord of the Flies. 

Any fantasy that shelters the weary souls, even momentarily, from the despair is reflexively appealing. Any nostrum that promises escape from an unjust and stifling system is accepted as elixir. It is not the movie that promulgates law-breaking, but rather the yearning of the masses to be free to live their lives in peace and security. 

Yeah, it was a good movie.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Got Milk? Laissez faire be damned!

I'm confused.

Isn't Louisiana supposed to be a normally conservative Republican state? And don't Republicans portray themselves as the stalwarts of free-market capitalism? And aren't the Republicans currently beset with the Tea-Party, the same Tea-Party that champions self-determination and derides intervention by government in business?

Then why is the Louisiana government preventing a super-market from selling milk below cost? Why aren't the conservative zealots all over this case? Why aren't the Republicans shouting themselves hoarse pontificating the ills of the coercive authority of the government?

What happened?
A Louisiana supermarket was forced to yank its low-cost milk special after state auditors objected to the price.

Fresh Markets in Perkins Rowe was selling milk for $2.99 a gallon as part of a weekly promotion deal, but Louisiana requires that retailer markups be at least 6 percent above invoice and shipping costs, The Advocate reports.

State Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain said Fresh Market violated state regulations by selling milk below cost as part of a promotion.

The supermarket routinely sells a gallon of skim, 1 percent, 2 percent or whole milk for $2.99 on Tuesdays, limiting the quantity to four per customer, according to The Advocate.

“They can sell it 6 percent over cost all day long. It’s when they sell it below cost that it becomes a problem,” Strain told the paper.
Seriously, what happened? Is it an anti-trust thing? How is the super-market being anti-competitive?

If the fact that the above article is from Fox News, here're some more sources (are all these sources owned by Fox? I don't know)
BRAVE released a prepared statement from Drewry Sackett, Fresh Market’s marketing, public relations and community relations manager.

“Because milk is a commodity product with regulated costs that are subject to change, at the current cost, due to Louisiana state law, we are unable to honor the $2.99 Tuesday deal for (Fresh Market) milk ... Because the cost of milk fluctuates, it is possible that we will be able to offer the $2.99 deal on milk again in the future,” Sackett said.
To make things even more confusing, the “price floor” doesn’t represent a set price – it’s based on a percentage of what the retailer paid for it. That explains why Winn-Dixie was able to sell milk for $3 in Louisiana last week, while Fresh Market couldn’t sell it for $2.99. If Winn-Dixie (orWalmart, or ALDI) can acquire it for less than the Fresh Market does, it can sell it for less than the Fresh Market.