January 2009 Archives

Trent Reznor has released 404gb of raw, unedited HD tour footage from three shows on Nine Inch Nails' 2008 Lights In The Sky tour.  The footage is available as a peer-to-peer BitTorrent file.

An interesting pattern emerges about the reasons for Reznor's BitTorrent tactics and Christmas gifts to fans.  Several weeks ago Reznor indicated to fans that an official DVD project for the tour had fallen through after a negotiation breakdown with a production company.  Whilst researching this 2008 conference paper and presentation I found out that Reznor knew in December 2006 about the Pirate Bay leak of NIN's unreleased Closure DVD (Halo 12), a project still held up by licensing negotiations.

As I suggested in the paper, Reznor is using BitTorrent hyperdistribution to side-step negotiation breakdowns.  You can visualise the backward induction of decision tree payoffs or the real options analysis.  It's a win-win situation for Reznor and NIN's fans: Reznor breaks the deadlock and releases 'unreleasable' projects which probably have significant, unrecoverable sunk costs.  Fans get the raw, unedited material for user-generated content.  Behind this strategic rationale is a positive feedback loop that keeps NIN and Reznor relevant, generates buzz marketing and media coverage, and enhances Reznor's bargaining power in negotiations.  The losers in this reshaped value net are the traditional record companies, their retail distributors and music industry lawyers.
The debate about the Obama administration's nomination of Leon Panetta as the Central Intelligence Agency's next director highlights the greater visibility of the United States intelligence community.

Media pundits diverge in their opinions about Panetta's suitability for the role.  In doing so, they reveal how each makes assumptions about the CIA's institutional function, the CIA's relationship to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the budget process, and the experience of political outsiders in assessing the quality of analytical product.

In the sample I looked at The Nation's Robert Dreyfuss reflects the consensus view that Panetta is a "doomed" appointee as a political outsider.  Dreyfuss makes four key arguments:

(1) Dreyfuss is a political appointee to a non-political organisation.

(2) As a "consumer of intelligence" Panetta is passive and unable to spearhead the operational transformation that the CIA needs.

(3) Panetta opposed the Bush administration's interrogation techniques yet a CIA insider would have been a better choice.

(4) As "a relentless centrist and a conciliator" Panetta will be outwitted by the Pentagon, the DNI and private military contractors, even though Dreyfuss opines, "the very office of the DNI is a useless post, and the entire office ought to be abolished by Obama on day one. Who needs it?"

Dreyfuss writes great, sarcastic op-ed commentary but the limitations of his arguments becomes clear when you compare his analysis with two columnists who actually know about the intelligence bureaucracy and its function: Slate's Fred Kaplan and The New Yorker's Steve Coll.  Each show for different reasons why Dreyfuss's arguments are interwoven.

Political appointees to the CIA have a poor track record, Kaplan and Coll agree.  Coll finds Panetta's nomination "unconvincing".  Kaplan suggests that Obama's priority was to distance his incoming administration from Bush's perceived politicisation, and in the absence of other candidates, Panetta was the best choice.

This priority also discounts Dreyfuss's third argument on why a CIA insider would be inappropriate.  "He seems to have been selected as a kind of political auditor and consensus builder," Coll suggests, in agreement with one premise of Dreyfuss's fourth argument.  Coll however does not write-off DNI and suggests Panetta's limitations: his lack of foreign policy experience, and his lack of direct experience in managing the CIA's operations and relationships "with other spy chiefs, friendly and unfriendly."

Dreyfuss believes that Panetta would therefore be under the control of Admiral Dennis Blair, who is Obama's DNI appointee, and thus undermine the CIA's civilian status.  Kaplan has a more nuanced view of the DNI-CIA relationship and Panetta's leadership style.  He suggests Panetta could retain the CIA's deputy director Steven Kappes, a move that would please insiders and consolidate his position.

Kaplan also reveals that Panchetta knew more about the CIA's intelligence programs than Dreyfuss's write-off suggests.  As the Clinton administration's Office of Budget and Management "director and White House chief of staff, he was not just passively exposed to intelligence issue," Kaplan counters.  He then quotes an email from former counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke which reveals that Panchetta "knew about all of the covert and special-access programs."  This experience gives Panchetta the budget skills, special knowledge, and high-level overview of CIA activities that few insiders would have, and that is a close fit with operational transformation methodologies.

If Panchetta's nomination doesn't work out I have a Team B that could probably do the job of cleaning up the CIA's black budget programs, or at least make an Open Source Intelligence attempt.  It would include award-winning journalist James Bamford whose book The Puzzle Palace (1982) features revelations about the National Security Agency; anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom whose book Shadows of War (2005) revealed the new contours of global conflicts; and Economic Gangsters (2008) authors Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, who use publicly available information such as diplomats' parking tickets to uncover potential corruption.  Add Kaplan, Coll and their New Yorker colleague Lawrence Wright, and that's a pretty substantial investigative team with foreign policy and intelligence community experience.

Kuznets' Remakes

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Why does Hollywood's upcoming production slate have so many remakes of classic science fiction, horror and fantasy films?  Depending on your viewpoint, several reasons.

The Writer's Guild of America's 2008 strike affected the 'deal flow' of new scripts that Hollywood's studios may have purchased and fast-tracked out of development hell and into pre-production.  In the language of managerial economics the studios lacked the willingness to pay (WTP) the willingness to sell (WTS) price demanded by WGA members for their services.  Faced with months of industrial action the studios pursued a fallback option: remakes of existing properties.

WGA's delay tactics have given the studios a potential financial windfall in the near-term future.  The studios often already own the intellectual property rights for the remakes.  Demographics such as inter-generational shifts creates two consumer segments: people who remember the original films, and Gen X and Gen-Y viewers who are new.  Ancillary markets can be tapped, from cable television re-runs of the original films to DVD repackages/re-releases, 'versioned' editions for collectors, and 'bundled' packs of both films.  The studios' windfall is a short-term boost in cashflow which can be used for working capital management or debt-equity leverage.  New Zealand's Weta Digital also benefits as the films require its expertise in digital special effects; the studios can minimise their production costs through currency hedging and business process outsourcing.

The global financial crisis also benefits the studios through a market timing strategy for film portfolio management.  The production slate announced so far for 2009-2010 is heavily weighted towards dystopian science fiction films from the turbulent late 1960s and the energy crisis/stagflation early 1970s.  There's also a few 1930s Depression era monster films and 1950s Cold War science fiction.  American journalist Annalee Newitz, amongst others, has observed that Hollywood studios turn to genre films during times of social dislocation; this thesis is central to 1950s film noir and its neo-noir remanifestation in the early 1990s recession, and may also fit the micro-trend of counterterrorism films in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Cinema Studies scholar Geoff Mayer has also explored this thesis in Pre-Code Hollywood cinema and the Western genre.

However, there's another potential pattern here that might be worth further research, even though correlation is not causation.  The 1930s Depression era films appear to fit the 54-to-70 year long macroeconomic cycle (aka the KWave) that Soviet mathematician Nikolai Kondratieff proposed, particularly the Fall and Winter periods of stagnation and recession/depression.  The time period between the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s films also roughly fits the 18-year Kuznets Wave identified by Simon Kuznets, and which might explain the deeper/unconscious interest in 1970s film properties.  Add a mid-1990s wave of films (perhaps neo-noir or the heroin chic of My Own Private Idaho and Trainspotting), and you have a series of macreconomic cycles that span film genres, subcultural imagery, inter-generational audiences and new cohorts of film actors, directors, scriptwriters and producers.

It may be a neat backtesting/retrospective explanation of how Hollywood studios can revitalise their institutional power.  Or, it just may be the theoretical framework for the Entourage crew to shed their up-and-coming careers and achieve some real deal-making longevity.
Ron Howard's film adaptation of Frost/Nixon (2008) adopts a thriller format in contrast with the Melbourne Theatre Company's stage production which I saw several months ago.  Salvatore Totino's cinematography turns David Frost's interview into a claustrophobic tit for tat whilst editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill linger on the emotional aftermath of Richard Nixon's elicited, emotional self-disclosure.

For me the MTC's version suffered from a first act which established the interview's circumstances, obscured the dual track negotiations between Frost and Nixon's advisers, and veered into comedy, before ratcheting up the second act.  Howard avoids this dilemma through taut pacing that has a semi-documentary feel heightened when the characters deliver their monologues straight to the camera.

The cast needs to be stellar for this ensemble film and it delivers.  Frank Langella's Nixon is a self-tortured leader with feet of clay; I have to now revisit Anthony Hopkins' portrayal in Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995) for a comparison.  Michael Sheen's Frost adopts a chutzpah mask which hides a risk-taking gambit to avoid career demise and the compromises made to financiers.  Kevin Bacon's Jack Brennan is prepared to take the flak for Nixon.  Sam Rockwell's James Reston Jr. evokes how research can become an all-consuming quest when your beliefs and passions are on the line, deftly counterpointed by Oliver Platt's Bob Zelnick who zigs and zags between self-depracating humour and conscientious objector angst.  Matthew Macfayden's John Birt updates the role he played in Spooks (aka MI5) as a nuanced political operator who must counterbalance Frost's chutzpah and the resistance it creates for Reston Jr. and Zelnick with keeping the team together, and getting the interview planning, negotiations and logistics done.  Rebecca Hall's Caroline Cushing and Toby Jones' Swifty Lazar provide comic relief from the tension and function to advance the film's plot points.  Langella gets the spotlight for his Nixon portrayal yet the rest of the cast are vital because the plot needs everyone to be a coherent whole.

Playwright and scriptwriter Peter Morgan's previous films have explored weighty themes: self-willed blindness to the dark side of charismatic leadership in The Last King of Scotland (2006) and leadership judgment during crisis-driven events in The Queen (2006).  Set after Watergate and Nixon's presidential pardon, Frost/Nixon explores the commitment costs for a research group that sets out to achieve public justice and the ploys in a complex multi-party negotiation.  There's far more beyond the heart-to-heart phone call between Nixon and Frost, and Nixon's final self-disclosure, just as there was more to Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987) than Gordon Gecko's 'greed is good' sound-bite.  All sides use psychological tactics to gain momentary bargaining advantages and to leverage power imbalances, from Swifty Lazar's late night reply on Frost's opening bid to Birt, Reston Jr. and Brennan's interruptions of the interview taping at strategic points that are beneficial to their teams.  Frost opts to 'lure the tiger from the mountain' (36 Strategies) for Nixon to self-disclose, enraging Reston Jr. and Zelnick who want a front-on attack about Watergate and the Vietnam War.  Nixon uses sleight of mouth patterns to interrupt, stall and throw Frost off guard.  Birt is caught in a position akin to a consultant or line manager: responsible for logistics and having to persuade all parties to move forward.  Anyone who has had to raise money against the odds for a project will wince with familiarity at Frost's desparate meetings with television network chiefs and advertising agencies.  It's this pointillism which makes Frost/Nixon even richer than the interview's climatic revelations and why the film will be perfect for an MBA class on mergers and acquisitions, negotiation and game theory.

Now all I need to see are the Frost/Nixon original interviews . . .

Trading Chaos

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Williams, Bill & Justine Gregory-Williams.  Trading Chaos: Maximise Profits With Proven Technical Techniques (2nd ed.), John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2004.

The father-daughter authors summarise a personal methodology based primarily on: (1) the technical analysis of oscillations in market securities; and (2) the opportunities for day traders and swing traders to appropriate value from institutional funds through 'countertrend' signals which occur in commodities futures and currency/foreign exchange (forex) markets.  The first (1995) and second (2004) editions coincided with the IT and subprime bubbles which created day trading subcultures and market volatility, so it would be interesting to see how the authors have fared during the 2007-08 global financial crisis.

The book's first half synthesises various ideas on formulating a trading plan and the psychology of market trading.  The ideas include a social constructionist view of money as a holder of value (John Searle); crowd psychology and rational herds in markets (Gustave Le Bon, Charles Mackay); the new paradigm of chaos theory in markets and how fractals and self-similarity create new trading perceptions about pricing and signals (Benoit Mandelbrot), and the popularity of Eastern belief systems amongst traders as models for skills acquisition and stress management (notably Western popularisations of Zen and Taoism).  Thus an awareness of broader intellectual trends can be useful to unpack the building blocks of a system and for comparative analysis with other theorists and models.

Ben Williams' original contribution is to explain how his background as a psychologist informs his trading approach.  Chapter 7 outlines a generic model of skills acquisition --- novice, advance beginner, competent, proficient and expert --- that was explored in the book's first edition, and can be integrated with Agile, CMMI and other frameworks for integrating operations and strategy.  Williams summarises exercises from autogenic training for stress control in the face of market volatility, symbolic interactionist approaches to align the trader's individual psyche with the market, and cognitive psychology techniques such as cognitive chaining for surfacing deeply held beliefs which lead to self-sabotage and trying to trade out of a losing position without stop losses.  The cognitive psychology approach reminds me of physician John Lilly's mid-career work on meta-beliefs and it also parallels recent work in behavioural finance.  However, some descriptions --- such as a section on Taoism, Zen and visualising the market as a river which follows the path of least resistance --- seem to be closer to New Age beliefs about zero point fields which integrate consciousness and matter than the original metaphysical systems.  I agree these systems can be applied to training however they need far more grounding than detailed here.

From the earlier material on trading approaches, the book's second half develops a trading system to anticipate the price movements in market securities through fractals and self-similarity which occur in volatility.  It's always interesting to see how traders justify their approaches and the example trades given.  I'm closer to the adaptive markets, event arbitrage and behavioural finance schools of investing and remain to be convinced about the validity of technical analysis that the Williams propose, beyond the obvious role of pattern recognition.  Actually perceiving nonlinear dynamics and turbulence can be very different to the language and paradigmatic thought that makes chaos theory a popular explanation.

I did experience some perception changes after reading Trading Chaos: (1) charts might be interpreted in a different psychological frame using fractal, self-similarity and volatility metaphors; (2) viewing charts at different timescales (e.g. 1 hour, 1 day, 1 week) might develop the cognition skills to quickly scan signals in a real-time environment; and (3) the juxtaposition of lead and lag signals for trading decisions and triggers has potential, particularly if combined with game theoretic modelling of the market and volatility effects from institutional investors, monetary policy and rational herds.  It remains to be seen if these perceptions are sustainable and verifiable in trading conditions, and not just subjective reactions based on past research about chaos theory models.

That said, the trading system may also have several criticisms and weaknesses. Finding signals in oscillations and nonlinear dynamics may be difficult in a volatile market.  Analysts can be subjective particularly if de-leveraging and other actions by institutional investors are not factored in.  Swing traders may be exposed to market sensitivities (aka the Greeks): Gamma (the rate of change in the underlying security's price), Vega (sensitivity to volatility), Theta (time-decay) and Rho (time-decay of interest rates).  Finally, modelling turbulence and uncertainty in a grey or white box system remains a major challenge for financial engineers in new market environments.

Threaded throughout Trading Chaos are the mix of useful insights and shibboleths in day trading subcultures.  CNBC, investment experts, and the plethora of courses and newsletters thrive on investor insecurity yet create noise (pp. 34, 42, 56).  Trading decisions, trading volume, and speed and type of momentum may be lead indicators of price volatility (p. 126).  Broad market knowledge purports to trump expert/specialist understanding (p. 135).  Market facts must be distinguished from opinions and beliefs (pp. 8-11).  Trader personalities shape risk tolerance, time horizon, the asset allocation process and types of controls (pp. 92, 155), a factor relevant to human resources consultants and the 'transition in' process for trading desks in investment banks.  Analysis risk involves emotions and perceptions of a signal (pp. 52-53).  The interest in Fibonacci numbers and Golden ratios are partly because they are iterative, geometric structures applicable to price movement forecasting (pp. 22-23).  Grey and white box systems with transparent, programmable rules are preferable to expensive, high-end black box systems which use artificial intelligence and neural net algorithms (pp. 53, 56).  A useful bibliography highlights the Santa Fe Institute's influence on chaos theory applications in finance and macroeconomics.  It suggests this area needs far more research to verify the claims and provisional findings in this book, to separate the gold from the dross.

Perhaps the most pivotal insight of Trading Chaos is buried in the text.  "We all trade our belief systems.  When some of you think about this, it produces a crisis," the authors assert.  Now that could be the basis for a 'contrarian' trading system --- probably the one that hedge funds with a short/event arbitrage approach use to scalp day traders in currency/forex and commodities futures markets.

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