Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Einstellung effect: simple truths we cannot see.

Epistemic closure (in political thought). Confirmation bias [6]. Availability heuristic (Kahneman System 1). Premature cognitive commitment. Even, perhaps [5], delusion. These are all forms of cognitive bias [1].

They drive me nuts [7]. Not because I have a problem with the concept of cognitive bias, but because I always know I’m missing something obvious.

It’s just out there. A better solution to a problem, something I’m doing wrong and can’t see it, a problem I don’t even know I have. Something in my blind spot that’s closing fast. An opportunity, a threat an ….. argggggggghhh!

Ok, I’m back. Do you know how hard it is to find a paper bag in 2014?

Cognitive bias is why, more than most people I know, I’m always seeking criticism. That includes anybody, often not a friend [2], who is happy to tell me why I’m an idiot. Every so often see what I missed, and the joy of that correction more than compensates for minor tweaks of my thick skin.

So I’m happy to point to a new entry in the ‘what am I missing’ category — the Einstellung Effect. This is best described in a SciAm article that’s available from the 1st author’s web site (pdf, see also 2008 academic pub). Bilalić and McLeod’s work adds neurophysiology to one version of premature cognitive closure; a tantalizing connection given how much we seem to think with our bodies [3].

Their recent research has explored cognitive error in expert chess players whose very expertise leads them to errors more naive players would avoid. They seem to have adopted their visual cortex to solve certain thinking problems [4], and thus to be afflicted by the visual processing adaptations that evolved for the physical world (emphases mine)…

Why Good Thoughts Block Better Ones, Bilalić and McLeod, SciAm March 2014

…  Building on Luchins’s early work, psychologists replicated the Einstellung effect in many different laboratory studies with both novices and experts exercising a range of mental abilities, but exactly how and why it happened was never clear. Recently, by recording the eye movements of highly skilled chess players, we have solved the mystery. It turns out that people under the influence of this cognitive shortcut are literally blind to certain details in their environment that could provide them with a more effective solution. New research also suggests that many different cognitive biases discovered by psychologists over the years—those in the courtroom and the hospital, for instance— are in fact variations of the Einstellung effect.

… the mere possibility of the smothered mate move was stubbornly masking alternative solutions… infrared camera revealed that even when the players said they were looking for a faster solution—and indeed believed they were doing so—they did not actually shift their gaze away from the squares they had already identified as part of the smothered mate move.

I think of Delusion as an extreme manifestation of the Einstellung effect. Given our emerging understanding of autism and schizophrenia as similar manifestations of a neural network injury, I wonder if we’ll find connections between delusional beliefs and visual networks…

- fn -

[1] I love Wikipedia’s “List” articles; I suspect Google’s Knowledge Graph loves ‘em too. See also Wikipedia’s recursive Lists of Lists of Lists

[2] My favorite corrector is an correspondent who I don’t know enough to claim as a friend, but who is a wonderfully cordial correspondent. That’s the best of all.

[3] An extraordinarily brilliant college roommate, who was later disabled by a schizophrenia like disorder, first suggested this to me in 1981. So the modern literature did not surprise me. Incidentally, he subsequently acquired a PhD and joined a NASA research facility. He found a way around his disorder.

[4] No, I cannot resist thinking of using GPUs to solve parallelism problems faster than CPUs.

[5] I personally think of delusion as an extreme form of cognitive closure; and I think it’s far more common than the psychotic disorders. An area ripe for research.

[6] Via the Einstellung article, a fantastic quote from one Francis Bacon’s 1620 Novum Organum:

“The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion . . . draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects or despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects.... Men ... mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happen much oftener, neglect and pass them by. But with far more subtlety does this mischief insinuate itself into philosophy and the sciences, in which the first conclusion colours and brings into conformity with itself all that comes after.”

Bacon always amazes. I’d declare him “father of cognitive science” for this quote alone. “Epistemic closure” is not new …

[7] This isn’t a new obsession. As a first year med student @1982 I devoured a 1970s text on clinical diagnosis that listed common cognitive errors, beginning with confirmation bias. This book has been rewritten many times since, alas the title and author are lost to my memory.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Beijing Genomics Institute - the second coming of eugenics

Via Funny Times [1], I came across allegations of a confident eugenics program (emphases mine):

NEWS of the WEIRD - Current News

Beijing Genomics Institute scientists are closing in on a technology to allow parents to choose, from several embryos, the one most likely to yield the smartest offspring. London’s Daily Mail (in January, referencing recent work in Wired, The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker) explained that BGI will have identified high-potential mathematics genes (by mapping the cells of geniuses) so that researchers can search for those among a couple’s array of embryos...

… One Chinese researcher acknowledged the “controversial" nature of the work, "especially in the West," but added, "That's not the case in China."

Eugenics is more accepted in Asia and Eastern Europe than in the west, but eugenics acceptance is growing quickly here. On the other hand, “Funny Times” and “News of the Weird” are not exactly the New York Times.

Tracing the sources I came across an article I read a year ago on Zhao Bowen, a young genius who dropped out to join China’s prestigious Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI)…

Why Are Some People So Smart? The Answer Could Spawn a Generation of Superbabies | Science | WIRED

… Zhao’s goal is to use those machines to examine the genetic underpinnings of genius like his own. He wants nothing less than to crack the code for intelligence by studying the genomes of thousands of prodigies, not just from China but around the world. He and his collaborators, a transnational group of intelligence researchers, fully expect they will succeed in identifying a genetic basis for IQ. They also expect that within a decade their research will be used to screen embryos during in vitro fertilization, boosting the IQ of unborn children by up to 20 points. In theory, that’s the difference between a kid who struggles through high school and one who sails into college….

Hmmm. I suppose “closing in” is only a bit of a stretch on “within a decade” - within allowable parameters of a comic news site. So it’s not surprising the BGI web site doesn’t yet have an explicit page on embryo selection (termination of the inadequate) for higher IQ.

It’s an interesting site to browse though. The English and Japanese pages feature Euro models — including an array of Aryan blondes. (They don’t know you’re not supposed to use blondes in eugenics programs.) I couldn’t find any retail services on the Chinese site — that’s curious. Maybe wealthy Chinese like to use English language web sites?

BGI does market one screening test that sounds ominous on first glance …

Genetic Testing for Reproductive Health | BGI Health

… Hearing impairment is a common disease in which the congenital form accounts for approximately 60% of the cases. Conventional hearing tests exhibit low coverage and low accuracy. Genetic Testing for hearing impairment allows timely and accurate identification of newborns or adults carrying the susceptibility genes of hearing impairment and late-onset hearing loss…

Except they claim this is “neonatal” testing. China might be (for the moment) good with selective abortion, but infanticide is another matter.  Their most suspicious publicly available page shows in my browser with an IP address rather than a text url:

Preimplantation Genetic Screening/Diagnosis (PGS/PGD) | BGI Health

… Preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) detects and avoids the transfer of embryos with genetic abnormalities with the aim of increasing the IVF pregnancy and delivery rates…

… reduce the risk of miscarriage increasing the likelihood of success which benefits the patients emotionally and can help them to avoid costly efforts for repeat in vitro fertilization attempts should failure occur

…. Rigghhhtt. This one is winking so hard it’s gonna sprain an eyelid.

The second eugenics age is well underway.

[1] Comic relief for commie collectivists. It’s always funnier when the GOP is in power.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Exercising hard as an old person - one year of CrossFit

Dave Foley, who is 67 to my 55, describes what it’s like to run hard as a senior citizen …

Silent Sports: Getting along with getting old Part II

… Age tends to level the competitive playing field. Guys who trained fanatically 20 years ago, logging 100 miles a week, may not be able to run 50 miles over a seven day period now. Years of hard running does take a toll.

However, if you put in 40 miles weekly at a comfortable pace in the 1980s, it is quite likely you can still log about the same weekly mileage.

Those tortoises, who routinely got bested by the hares they faced in their youth, may now find themselves shooting past those one-time speedsters. And those newcomers, who didn’t even start running until they were in their 40s, they’ve got fresh legs and may now be racing past the ancient tortoises and hares.

… Stretching is optional, but the first steps of a run must be gentle ones. If timing a run is important, then slowly jog a half mile before clicking the watch on…

… No running at all for the last two or three days before a competition. In this way you actually may arrive at a race site with absolutely no muscle stiffness. Don’t be deceived. No matter what your brain tells you, you are still as old as the Rolling Stones…

… Banish all thoughts of “No woman is gonna beat me” because they can and they will.

… the leg muscles of senior runners fatigue before their lungs. That means that when your aching quads won’t push you any faster, you’re likely still able to easily converse with other runners….

… The race to the finish is no longer a venue for heroic sprints. If you haven’t been practicing sprinting, don’t try or your hamstring is apt to split open like the skin of bratwurst on a hot grill…

… Seconds after crossing the finish line, expect to have a race official hovering next to you saying, “Are you O.K.?” Apparently old guys who race hard look awful….

… we can avoid most injuries by listening to our bodies. And since those daily runs burn up calories, we can eat more than our sedentary peers and still stay trim. Although our bodies may ache a little, most days it feels good to be out running. And if the science is correct, we are going to enjoy longer, healthier lives as runners.

… sone days I feel young and my feet seem to fly down the road. A nine-minute mile on these days feels no different then the sixes I once ran…

I suspect Dave still felt kind of middle-aged at 55. Me, my kids tell me I’m already ancient. Even so, my routine exercise intensity has never been higher. Sure, I’ve been stronger and faster — but even at my most active I didn’t do CrossFit level intensity week after week. Unlike Dave, because I was less active previously,  I can keep setting “personal bests” even as I get older. It’s not that time is running backwards, it’s that I’m getting closer to my biological potential even as it declines. I’ll probably hit the limit this coming year, but  think I can manage that. For now it’s good to be stronger and faster than I was 10 years ago. I’m even learning to run - an activity I avoided in favor of everything else.

I can’t speak for the incredibles who compete in CrossFit Masters (starts at 45, 60+ is all one group), but there are a few rules that I follow to try to stay out of trouble. For exercises that specify “Rx" weights, I aim for 70-80% of the women’s Rx. Years ago I had a bad back, so I’m careful with technique and deadliest; I’ll add reps if I feel too strong. I’m not embarrassed to use the women’s bar when that makes sense, and “no woman is gonna beat me” is laughable. I’m regularly beaten by some women who are themselves over 40.

Most of all I pay attention to what hurts. I’ve been nursing a right medial tendon ache for a couple of months, so I go easy on that one. On chin-ups I’ll “band up” and do more with my left arm - go for more reps with more bands.

There are some things I can’t dodge. I’m lucky to have good knees, but when those go I’ll have to pass on to something else. It’s  hard to do CrossFit without squats (it should be called SquatFit).

Not yet though. Maybe I’ll get another year …

Monday, March 24, 2014

Encyclopedia Britannica lives - at least on iOS

As a kid I wanted to read the encyclopedia - from A to Z. We couldn’t afford an encyclopedia though, so I had to make do with the dictionary [3]. 

So when Britannica, which had more or less skipped the CD era [1], went on the web I was an early customer [2]. They struggled technically though, and by 2006 I dropped my subscription. After 2008 I mostly forgot about them.

It turns out they’re still around, supposedly making money [7] and still charging a $70 subscription for access to most articles (current news topics are often free). That’s a bit steep, especially since a link from our kids school gives me full access to the “High School” version. [5] (Alas, my ancient Britannica Dashboard widget [4] can’t be configured to use that URL.)

On the other hand, the iOS app subscription is only $15/year, and all devices for the purchaser’s Apple ID can use the subscription. On my kid’s parental controlled iPhones the entire content is accessible without authentication needed [8].

So I signed up [6]. For now I’m an EB subscriber/user again; hope they last a few more years.

see also

- fn -

[1] MacKiev World Book, by the way, is $30 on the App Store. I bought the DVD for $40 in 2012 - but I have to confess kids have not used it as much as I’d hoped.

[2] According to a 2005 post of mine, I used to prefer 1990s Britannica’s manually maintained index of web sites to Yahoo’s. This was back in the Alta Vista era. I know I was a paying customer from at least 2001-2006 - at about $70 a year.

[3] Much later I bought a complete set of the 1911 Edition. That is very cool browsing.

[4] Mavericks lets me assign multiple desktops to my secondary vertical display, so that’s where my Dashboard sits. When I want to park a doc in that display I swipe Dashboard away.

[5] I wonder if the school is supposed to post that redirect publicly. I don’t want to get them in trouble, so you’ll have to explore on your own. I can’t see any difference between High School version and public version.

[6] Auto-renews. Note you can manage these subscriptions from your iPhone - go Settings - Store and then Apple ID and tap around.

[7] Given the amount of broken stuff on their web site that can’t be a ton of money.

[8] I found some links that would take me to the web; those opened in Safari and were blocked. So no obvious backdoor.

Monday, March 17, 2014

What you sign up for when you pay Virgin Mobile Canada for phone services

I've once again gone through the tricky process of setting up a Virgin Mobile Canada prepaid account on an unlocked AT&T iPhone. This time I paid more attention to the contract I signed. It was remarkable what rights I've given Virgin Mobile:
... Unless you decline or withdraw your consent at a later date, you agree that Virgin Mobile, Bell Mobility, Bell Canada, Bell ExpressVu, Bell Media, Bell Aliant, The Source and their affiliates may .... send you communications by any means, including electronically ... products and services of our third party marketing partners
(b) Telemarketing and Automatic Dialers: Unless you decline or withdraw your consent at a later date, you agree that Virgin Mobile may contact you by phone at your mobile number (and/or at any other contact numbers which you provide from time to time), and using automated dialing and/or announcing devices, to inform you of new offers and promotions, including but not limited to telemarketing messages. If you do not wish to receive such communications or allow the use of your information for these purposes, please call 1-866-580-3625 to change your preferences. 
... for further information or to block premium short code messages.
So in addition to paying for these services, we also agree to be spammed, texted, and telemarketed to. If you provide your landline number when asked for contact information [1] needed to verify the account, then that's fair game for telemarketing as well.

And the carriers wonder why we hate them ... (ok, so they don't wonder.)

[1] I didn't, and I gave them my Yahoo pure-spam(r) account. But I still need to turn off the texting spam and the telemarketing on the mobile number. Some of this may not be legal in the US, Canada is not famed for consumer protection.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Late revelation -- Doom of the Face

I have the face of a Disney villain.

This came to me as a slowly unfolding personal revelation after reading Emily Matchar’s humorous essay on “Bitchy Resting Face” …

Memoirs of an Un-Smiling Woman - Emily Matchar June 2013

… I struggle with what comedic YouTube-ers Broken People recently termed “Bitchy Resting Face" (hereafter known as BRF). Their PSA-style video introduces us to the plight of women who look sad or pissed off for no reason. Women whose boyfriends always ask them "what's wrong?" Women whose apparent unfriendliness earns raised eyebrows from store clerks. Women who just look, well, bitchy. Even though they’re not…

… My eyes, naturally almond-shaped, can look as if I'm narrowing them in suspicion. My mouth, when not actively smiling, settles into a rather grim line…

… At one of my first jobs, a more senior co-worker pulled me aside to ask why I looked so unhappy. "If you're having an issue, this office is a safe space for you to talk," he said.

I wasn't having an issue. I was just thinking about getting a cup of coffee…

… BRF, I've discovered, has its advantages. I've traveled the world solo, and very rarely been bothered. While female friends with more friendly, open faces report the standard street harassment - cat calls, men badgering them for dates, butt pinching - I float along in my own bitch-face bubble…

… I live in Hong Kong, one of the densest cities on earth, where turning your face into a blank mask is simply a tool of urban survival…

The first person I thought of while reading Emily’s story was a female friend and colleague who I’d once thought of as unhappy and disapproving. When she smiled it was a great pleasure; which is probably why her friends and colleagues often looked for ways to make her smile. Because, despite the first impressions, she was and is a kind, thoughtful and compassionate person.

Orwell and Lincoln were wrong, we don’t get the faces we deserve — at least not entirely. But I’ll get to that part.

The second person I thought of was me, and over the course of a few weeks I enjoyed the agreeable experience of having another piece of the puzzle of mortal existence fall into place. Of course this was not entirely good news, and it would have been better to have figured this out twenty years ago, but solving the puzzle of life is a hobby of mine. After 50 new discoveries are rare, so I particularly appreciated this one.

Of course I’m a guy, so I can’t call it BRF. I’ll have to call it VRF - for villainous resting face (ARF is not quite right - I think I look stern, harsh and disapproving rather than angry). Close set narrow and sunken eyes, small mouth and weak chin, post-CrossFit lean and hungry … yeah, kinda scary. Villainous. No wonder airport security always looks twice.

I wasn’t always this way. As a young adult I was a magnet for cult recruiters — innocent and gullible (though I was neither - faces mislead). Now, though I’m less harsh than my childhood self, no cultist would give me a second look. Over the years photos show my face changing, much as the NYT described.

Faces, as we know, bring a certain kind of destiny. Many a (sometimes disastrous) political career has been made by a strong jaw. There are few lean, beaky and weak jawed faces running publicly traded corporations or nations (Tyler?). So there’s something to be said for knowing one’s face — denial has its advantages, but I prefer to see things as they are.

Of course “seeing things as they are” is the kind of thing we villains do. We make the hard choices others avoid, walk the shadows that must be walked, accept the responsibility for the greater good, grasp the … 

Hmm. Maybe I do deserve this face. Truth to tell, I do have some villainous henchman potential, and the usual weathered and worn experiences.

Deserved or not, we must either adjust to our faces or get plastic surgery (My Emily would laugh at that one — and then have me committed). Emily Matchar moved to Hong Kong, where her face worked for her. In my case there’s something to be said for teleconferences and working remotely. I do better as the Vizier and Henchman in the corporate shadows than as the face of the company. If I go the entrepreneurial route I would need a money-raising partner or avoid VCs and banks. When I lead teams I have to opt for “stern but fair” rather than “noble and true”. When I talk I have to find ways to laugh or smile — hopefully without the maniacal bit. That’s especially true with my kids — they tell me my “mildly disapproving look” is the glare of doom. 

If I have to find a job … well, the interview is a bit of an uphill battle. Not quite sure what to do about that.

On the bright side, solicitors leave my doorstep quickly.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

I need a word for the willful failure of reason

Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow is a brain dump of his research career and speculations about mind. The Wikipedia description isn't bad ...

... dichotomy between two modes of thought : System 1 is fast, instinctive and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The book delineates cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking, starting with Kahneman's own research on loss aversion. From framing choices to substitution, the book highlights several decades of academic research to suggest that people place too much confidence in human judgment...

The thing I like about Kahneman's framework is that it explains how smart people can do "dumb' things. System 1, for example, correlates well with IQ test results; people with a strong System 1 answer quickly and correctly. System 1 is snappy, fun, and easy. It's snap judgment and gut instinct.

System 2 though, System 2 is hard work. It takes time to train it. System 2 is graphics software without hardware acceleration; it's no fun.

Both Systems can give correct answers, but while Kahneman recognizes the power of System 1, his true love is the plodding logic of System 2. One of the more interesting chapters of the book is a rough heuristic for making predictions using System 1 instinct adjusted by Systems 2 logic.

For what it's worth, I think of myself as having a reasonable System 1, but a really good System 2.

Which brings me to the word I want; a word for people who have a strong System 1 but a weak System 2. I want a word for the Paul Ryans and GWBs of the world.

The word isn't "dumb" or "stupid". It's a word for a character flaw rather than a cognitive limitation, a word for someone who has the power to reason well but chooses not to practice it. It's a word for willful intellectual laziness.

Anyone have a good word? A knowledge of Latin might help...

How could we create an evidence-based classification of disorders of the mind?

The software/hardware metaphor is usually considered as misleading as every other model of mind we've come up with.

I don't agree. My guess is it's an unusually good model -- one rooted in the physics of computation. Anything sufficiently complex can compute, which is, souls aside, the same as running a mind...

... in an alternative abstract universe closely related to the one described by the Navier-Stokes equations, it is possible for a body of fluid to form a sort of computer, which can build a self-replicating fluid robot ...

... A central insight of computer science is that, whenever a physical phenomenon is complex enough, it should be possible to use it to build a universal computer ...

Our minds have emerged to run on our desperately hacked and half-broken brains - in hundreds if not tens of thousands of years. In evolutionary terms that's insanely fast (and did it really never happen before?). Minds route around damage and adapt, as much as they can, to both adolescent transformation and adult senescence; they run and run until they slowly fade like a degraded hologram. It's no wonder minds are so diverse.

When that diversity intersects with the peculiar demands of our technocentric world we get "Traits that Reduce Relative Economic Productivity" -- and we get poverty and suffering. We get disease, and so we need names.

We need names because our minds can't reason with pure patterns -- we're not that smart. With names we can do studies, make predictions, select and test treatments.

Names are treacherous though. Once our minds create a category, it frames  our thinking. We choose a path, and it becomes the only path. It might be a good path for a time, but eventually we have to start over. Over the past ten years researchers and psychiatrists have realized that our old "DSM" categories are obsolete.

So how could we start over? One approach, informed by the history of early 20th century medicine, is to classify disorders by underlying physiology. That's where terms like 'connectopathy' come from, and why we try to define mind disorders by gene patterns.

We need to do that, but lately I've wondered if it's the wrong direction. If minds really are somewhat independent of the substrate brain, then we may find that disorders of the substrate only loosely predict the outcomes of the mind. Very similar physiological disorders, for example, might produce disabling delusions in one mind and mere idiosyncrasies in another.

So maybe we need another way to attach labels to patterns of mind. One way to do this would be to create a catalogue of testable traits for things like belief-persistence, anxiety-response, digit-span, trauma-persistence, novelty-seeking, obsessiveness, pattern-formation and the like. My guess is that we could identify 25-50 that would span traits that are currently loosely associated with both normal variation and TRREPs like low IQ, schizophrenia, and autism. Run those tests a range of humanity, then do cluster analysis and name the clusters.

Then start from there.

 See also:

Why geezers hit the gym (warning - for mature audiences only)

Today's CrossFit workout was open 14.2. With low weights and bands I sort of got through part of the 3rd round. The world record is over 21 rounds - without accommodations of course.

I don't think I'm gonna win the CrossFit games. Worse, at my age, the future trend is not positive.

So why do we newly-old folk do this kind of thing? 

I can only speak for Emily and me - and Judith Warner I suppose. We know the mean "ideal" human lifespan is about 88, and we know that the 2-3 years preceding death are often very difficult. A few years ago I figured, based on my current age and health and family history, that 85 was a pretty good target. 

A target, not a goal. A goal is something to exceed, a target is something to hit. Hitting that target, adjusted downwards over time by illness and chance, is my plan for dying well like my dog rather than badly like most Americans.

When I hit that target I won't be doing chest-to-bar, or overhead squat, or even running. Years before I'll have dropped out of CrossFit. Maybe I'll still be walking, swimming, and shuffling xc skies on artificial snow. The trick, which I'm working on, is figuring out how to die about then. Maybe I'll celebrate my 85th with some base jumping.

That's about 30 years from now, and 30 years doesn't feel very long at all. It's gonna go fast.

Which is why we do crazy stuff now -- because that door is closing. It's the way we play the great game.

See also:

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mobile carrier SMS pricing created the messaging lottery - and WhatsApp won it

If mobile carriers priced MMS/SMS messaging as a dumb pipe data service, there'd be no WhatsApp. But mobile carriers wanted short term revenues, and lack of competition and contract lock-in (inflated switching costs) meant individual carriers could generate enormous margins on simple texting. Network effects and Prisoners Dilemma (game theory) meant that if a significant number of carriers could make money that way many could do it.

Which in turn drove the creation of a data-only messaging service industry, and made WhatsApp the winner of the alt-MMS lottery (feels very late 90s, which ends in tears).

Markets are weird.

I wonder when Facebook's Messaging service will interoperate with WhatsApp's service - and if iMessage would ever play along. I've always assumed Apple used the threat of iMessage Unleashed to keep its mobile partners in line, but that may be less useful now.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Vanguard and Fidelity: When did civilization collapse again?

I must have been asleep when civilization collapsed. Anyone know the date?

I say this because I haven't done much with our mutual funds for a few years -- just tweaked 'em periodically. Most of the purchases have been through my employer -- 401K, ESPP, and so on. 

Recently though I decided to do some realignment and cleanup at Vanguard and Fidelity. The results were ... interesting.

At Fidelity I discovered two of our larger funds were now in some kind of semi-frozen legacy mode. Sometime in the past few years Fidelity switched from managing mutual funds to managing only brokerage funds. Our mutual funds can be sold and we can do exchanges, but I don't think we can buy new shares (or at least it's not obvious). We have to move them into new brokerage accounts -- presumably without a tax event.

I'm sure Fidelity sent us some kind of notification, and I'm sure it was intentionally obscure. Why did they do this? I presume to avoid regulation or increase fees. I'm very sure they didn't do it for our benefit.

Ok, over to Vanguard. I'll see if I can get some olf-fashioned deposit slips ... 

The page you're trying to reach is currently unavailable

Oookaayyy. I better report that ....

... hang....

Hmm, let's see what happens when I try to deposit ...

Screen Shot 2014 02 08 at 2 32 32 PM

Ahh, yes. The world financial collapse and the Zero Lower Bound. Vanguard (and Fidelity) don't earn any interest on US Treasuries, so they don't want me to buy any more. The "protection" is to prevent them losing so much money they have to "break the buck" and return less than $1/share.  That's probably what induced the non-reportable bug with deposit slips.

Between them Vanguard and Fidelity manage $3-4 trillion. A trillion isn't what it used to be, but it's still a fair amount of money. Enough money that our family investments are just noise. The megafunds don't work for us any more.

I guess we'll just have to wait for hackers to use our stolen credentials to empty our accounts. At least then we won't have to beg Vanguard and Fidelity for some attention.


Thinking about this, I think it's a tiny artifact of the huge wealth concentration of the past thirty years.

When Emily and I first started putting money in mutual funds there was a market of self-managed investors. I'm guessing 5-10% of the population could put non-retirement money into mutual funds and wasn't wealthy enough to hire a full time professional money manager.

Flash forward to 2014. 0.5% of the population now holds most of our wealth -- and they almost all have professional money managers. About 98% is going to have money in home and retirement and cash. The fraction of the population that manages its own non-retirement mutual fund money is very small -- too small to be a market.


It's not the focus of this post, but for reference here's Fidelity's response on their reorg. Their response is not inconsistent with the hypothesis that ending their mutual fund accounts let them raise more fees (trading is a bad way to invest, but a good way to pay fees) and perhaps dodge regulations.

Fidelity started offering brokerage accounts, so customers can trade Fidelity and non-Fidelity mutual funds, stocks/ETFs, precious metals, CDs, and other fixed income products within the same account. In a mutual fund only account you can only trade Fidelity mutual funds.

You will not lose any benefits by moving your assets into a brokerage account, there are no fees to do that. There are also no account maintenance fees for brokerage accounts. Moving your assets in-kind from a mutual fund only account to a brokerage account is not a taxable event. We will continue to keep the cost basis of your positions.

FWIW, we decided to move the Fidelity US Treasury MM funds to a Vanguard Prime MM account -- mostly for sake of simplification and because the Treasury MM accounts look like they won't come back. We'll either move the S&P or liquidate and pay taxes. Overall we're continuing to slowly shift to Vanguard as the (slightly) lesser of the two evils.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

21st century market failure: what the rise and fall of Guitar Hero teaches about gamification

My oldest wants to learn to play drums. Learning is difficult for him, and the Smart Music program his school uses is obviously too sophisticated. We need something simpler, something more accessible, more like a game ...

Something like the Guitar Hero music education program I remember from a few years back. Fun, teach the basics, work with our Wii ... perfect!

Ok, I'll just Google that ....


Guitar Hero is gone. There is nothing like it any more.

Why Guitar Hero died News • News • (Feb 2011)

As the dust settles on Activision's decision to put an end to its world-famous peripheral-based music franchise Guitar Hero and the difficult work of sacking those who helped create it begins, one question remains: where did it all go wrong?

Only three years ago Guitar Hero shot through the $1 billion revenue mark – in the US alone.

Now, in what can only be described as a spectacular fall from grace, Guitar Hero is no more. Why? Why did Guitar Hero die?...

... "Guitar Hero was a victim of its success," said Wedbush Securities' Michael Pachter. "The game was incredibly well-conceived, the peripherals were great, and the music offering was deep and broad. All of those factors led to unprecedented success, and each contributed to its demise."

For Pachter, the fact gamers could play new Guitar Hero games with the peripherals they already owned proved to be the killer blow.

"Once people bought the band kit, for example, they didn't feel compelled to upgrade, as the one they bought was high quality and did the job well," he said. "Once people bought a game, they had 60 - 80 songs to master, and few mastered all of the songs offered...

... "There is absolutely nothing Activision nor anyone could have done to save the music genre. We should remember Guitar Hero for what it was, not where it's at now."...

... "It is possible that Guitar Hero will return, but a re-launch would have to be managed on a far smaller scale. Production costs would have to be minimized to enable profits on unit sales in the hundreds of thousands rather than in the millions."

Pachter's conclusion? "The franchise can support sales at the $200 million level annually, so it will still generate profits, but with license fees and manufacturing costs, margins are not that great, and certainly not enough to keep 200 - 250 people employed working on a new version each year."

So to recap - about 5-6 years ago we had a mini-cultural phenom -- a low cost high fun solution for music education. The Wikipedia article on gamification is written in 2010, around the peak of the Guitar Hero story. A few years later and it's all gone - the game, the console, the hardware, everything. In 2014 some replacements may slowly emerge on the iPad, but we're basically starting over again.

What's going on here -- besides our 21st century penchant for rapid cycles of creation, destruction, and recreation?

Maybe the root problem with gamification is that education doesn't have the economics, or the life cycle, of entertainment. Entertainment has visciously short lifecycles with massive floods of money. That can bring great products out quickly, but this amphetamine fueled growth has a cost. The entertainment products wipe out the weaker educational market -- and when Guitar Hero burns out there's nothing left to replace it. The education market has to be slowly grow back -- only to be wiped out again by the next cycle of the entertainment market.

Ultimately, the entertainment bubble is destructive, and the end result is a peculiar form of market failure.

PS. Garage Band is an interesting exception. It was clearly driven by Steve Jobs passion rather than any kind of business logic. It endures as a monument to Jobs, and because Apple doesn't have to put much money into it. It works, it's done, and the Mac platform is far more stable than entertainment-oriented consoles.

See also:

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Bad backs: not necessarily hopeless

I set a Crossfit deadlift "PR" (personal record) today.

My best is not a big deal for anyone else. I'm among the weakest of the men; many of the non-competitive women are in a similar range (the competitive women are in a different universe).

The interesting bit, and the reason I put this in a blog post, is that six years ago I was rigging up a back support so I could be driven home on the bottom of a van. I'd had a pretty bad back since a body surfing accident in 1980 [1], but after 30 years it was getting worse. I definitely wasn't doing any deadlifts.

Until then, based on what I'd read and seen in my own patients, I was a therapeutic nihilist. Manage the acute pain, get back to work and activity asap. Nothing much to be done otherwise. By 2008 though, nihilism wasn't looking so good. I could see a bad future.

So I saw a doctor, a burned out dude with an attitude who'd helped create an aggressive evidence-based back therapy program in the Twin Cities. He wasn't the comforting sort, but I kind of like bad attitudes. Worked for me, I did the program, I got better. Five years later I do the stretches before I get out of bed. Every morning, without fail. And I work out ...

I'm now 8 months into crazy Crossfit stuff, which, were I my doctor, I'd say was stupid. Guaranteed to blow that back and put me back where it was. I didn't say I was smart.

I'm just one data point, but Intensive monitored exercise programs can work. Insurance companies should pay for 'em -- mine was a hell of a lot cheaper than surgery (which I never considered, that rarely works for more than 1-2 years except for atypical problems).

Back backs aren't hopeless -- at least not for everyone. 

After the Smart TV debacle: what we really want

Years after everyone else, I reluctantly retired our 25yo SONY Trinitron CRT and it's (free, subsidized) A/D converter box and naively bought a Samsung Smart TV (Wirecutter, you are dead to me.)

The crapware infested box and usability were bad enough, but an thread on intrusive ads overlayed on an Apple TV input brought the full horror home.

My Samsung experience, and the strange death of rabbit ear (OTA, "over the air") media recording in America [1] made me think more about what kind of TV we really want. I think it would be a set of modules like this:

  • Plain display with simple speakers, single HDMI input, no tuner, no remote.
  • Separate Tuner/DVR and switch control. 4-5 HDMI in, single HDMI out, digital audio and analog audio out, speaker connections, antenna connections.
  • Apple TV

I can imagine some permutations, but I think this is the right setup. Given the subsidies that support Smart TV prices [2] the way to build that today is to buy a Smart TV, don't connect it to the network, set the input to HDMI 1 and hide the remote. Then buy something like the (overpriced) $250 Channel Master DVR+ and an Apple TV.

Sure, Samsung could change their Smart TV so an internet connection was essential, but they won't. There aren't enough geek customers to bother with the customer complaints; we will get subsidized by Smart TV's victims.

- fn -

[1] After a 5-7 year hiatus solutions for recording OTA digital broadasts are reemerging -- albeit at $250 price points instead of the $80 one would expect given parts costs. Why is this? I think some mixture of bad patent law, DMCA, and probably illegal conspiracy and price fixing between cable companies and content owners.

[2] Revenue comes from the things that the Smart TV delivers.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Valerie Plame Wilson on the NSA, Keith Alexander, and Edward Snowden

Ten years ago Karl Rove, Richard Armitage and Lewis Libby took revenge on a man who'd exposed some of Bush/Cheney's Iraq lies. Their revenge was to blow the operational cover of his wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA covert agent. Scooter Libby was convicted of lying to investigators and sentenced to prison. Bush commuted his sentence.

Yeah, the Bush/Cheney years were like that.

Today I heard Valerie Plame speaking on the NSA, Keith Alexander ... and Edward Snowden. If you have any doubt that Snowden is a heroic figure in American history you should listen to the speech.

Plame's description of Keith Alexander is particularly memorable -- and chilling. There are always people like Alexander lurking in the shadows of American history, waiting for their main chance. Most miss out, but 2001 was a very good year for Alexander. He is now a terribly powerful man, and a much greater threat to American democracy than Bin Laden ever was.

We're all living in his shadow now, and he's not gone yet.