2009-09-13

The Supper Club

Miles Fisher is a new favorite of mine. I know I don't normally have favorites, especially people, but I've taken to putting the label favorite on anything I can plausibly defend my affection towards, and of which I have not yet had enough. I've lowered the bar for favoritism, you might say. But Miles Fisher deserves it.

My introduction to him came through the omniscient website Facebook, when a friend sent me the video for the Miles Fisher cover single This Must be the Place, which I wrote about here.

Only a few days later, I recognize him as a new character (not sure if it's recurring) in my current favorite TV show, Mad Men.

Then, I make the obligatory rounds, when you discover something new: I found Miles Fisher on Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, and his personal web site. Now I'm in the Miles Fisher loop. Keep in mind I hardly know anything about the guy, but I love a couple of things he's done, so I'm fully prepared to drop my fanship at a moment's notice if something goes awry.

Then I read this article, which Miles Fisher posted himself on Facebook and elsewhere, and I'm not sure how to interpret it. He himself calls the article "a bit silly" (Twitter, Sept 8th), but what else could you write, when people pay $5000 per year to be a member of a highbrow fraternity for grown-ups?

The organizer of the Supper Club has the right idea. This kind of thing was popular in Anna Karenina's 19th-century Petersburg and Moscow, and there's no reason it shouldn't be popular today. People like to belong to something, and even more than that, they want to belong to something meaningful, or important, or both. Belonging to something, no matter how superficial the connection you share is, people open up a bit more when there is a connection, and even more than that, when someone else says this person is worth knowing.

And, practially speaking, this would be a very good way to branch out. The planners take care of the arrangements, and the art of what I can only call "Society" conversation. (I think it's also an awesome sociological study.) Think of it like Facebook, except without a computer. Computerless Facebook, where only cool people are invited. You could spend hours online looking for people who do things you are interested in, or you could pay a woman to sit you next to someone interesting at a friendly dinner. It's a closer connection, without the desperation. I'd do it, if they'd let me in.

Seriously, I am constantly on the lookout for people who are interesting to talk to, or who do something that interests me, either personally or professionally. If the Supper Club planners do it well, I'd be meeting "good matches" a couple of times per month. My current modus operandi is to write random people on Facebook and wait for them not to write me back. I guess they don't want to meet people, or they think I'm weird.

If I'm going to turn the conversation to me, which apparently I am, I'd like to think that if you plop me down at a dinner table with the Miles Fishers of the world, I'd fit right in, if you bought me a new suit first. And come to think of it, is that the problem? I mean, I can talk, film, art, music, literature, food, wine, Europe, ballet, whatever. Do I not look the part, maybe? Have I not done anything great enough yet? Or is it about the money? There's no way to know, really, or, rather, it's obvious it's a combination of all of them. And you have to be lucky, and know people.

Some people are really good; some people are really lucky. I can't help but think that I'm not that far away from Miles Fisher and his Supper Club, but I can't prove that. It's not even that I want to be like him, either; I just envy his accomplishments and his access to the lifestyle and resources that I would like to have. I don't like being excluded from anything.

But keep doing your thing, Miles. I'll be there some day.

2009-09-10

Surprise: Like our cars, our markets are not efficient

This is an awesome writeup from the NY Times by Nobel Memorial Prize winner Paul Krugman about the state of macroeconomics today. It's long, but really good, if you're interested in this sort of thing.

I'll admit that I've never been fully "in the loop" with macroeconomics. I think you have to study the subject regularly to do so, but the way Krugman describes the situation is very compelling. He lumps American economists primarily into two groups: "freshwater" and "saltwater". The freshwater economists (sometimes loosely called the Chicago School) love Friedman and the efficient market hypothesis, while the saltwater guys lean towards Keynes and possibly more government intervention.

I wish I knew more about the subject; if you're interested, read the article. One thing I do know is that my first few finance classes (I have minors in finance, and economics) focused on the efficient market hypothesis. Everyone likes to think that competition, rational investing, and arbitrage cause every price in the market to be where it should be, employment/unemployment included. Yet somehow they all want to find the "best" investments in the stock market or wherever. If pricing was perfect, all investments would be equally good, given the risk involved.

That's why I never bought the efficient market hypothesis. Being a methematician, I can prove this. Let's assume a stock appears on the market, perfectly priced. Several smart traders trade the stock, keeping it perfectly priced as news and developments of the underlying company become known. Then, one not-so-smart investor---let's call him "I Know This guy Who's a Stockbroker"---he starts trading the stock. If Mr. Stockborker is not listening to the news, or if he's just stupid, he makes the wrong trade at the wrong time, and all of the sudden, the pricing of the stock is not perfect any more. Bingo. No more efficient market.

Yeah, yeah... I know; it's all a question of scale. One guy won't change the market, but a thousand people with the same or similar idea might, and that's the kind of things that develop over time, creating a bubble. All it takes are a few people who buy houses simply because their parents told them "a house is the best investment you'll ever make", and the modest price increase caused by these people makes housing look like a better investment to more people, and the chain continues.

Maybe this particular example is circumstantial, but there's nothing keeping the prices grounded to the truth when people are ignoring investment fundamentals and are participating in what Krugman calls "ketchup economics", which is when people see that a half-liter bottle of ketchup costs half as much as a one-liter bottle, and assume that pricing is efficient. No one knows how much ketchup should cost, without looking at a ketchup bottle of a different size.

There are a lot of investors who buy the most undervalued stocks in the market. This works well until all stocks are overpriced. One guy who never forgot that, who never got caught up in the efficient market hypothesis despite its tremendous popularity, is Warren Buffett. He pulled completely out of the stock market during the 1972-73 boom, and people called him crazy for missing out on the gains that other popular investors of the day were making. Then everything crashed, and no one was laughing, not even Buffett, because he knows it's not a game.

Buffett steadily climbed Forbes' World's Richest list, and appeared second on the list for a few years before finally claiming the number one spot. When? In 2008, as the market again took a spill.

I'm going to have to read Keynes.