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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Tuesday (8/21/12) 3:36am - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

[Missed many weeks.  I've been busy.]

Movies:  <none>
TV:  Misfits [1x05-1x06] [spoilers], Doctor Who [series six Christmas special]
Books:  The Big Short, Switch

Misfits [1x05-1x06] [spoilers]
This is the British dramedy about a group of young petty criminals who get endowed with super-powers.

I don't have much more to say about this than I did a month ago -- the last two episodes finish off series one in the same style as the previous four.  I was kind of thrown by the end of episode five, though.  It had felt like the storyline that began with the kids killing Tony in self-defense had only gotten more and more complicated over the course of the season.  It was almost a noir storyline, where these essentially-not-that-bad people do the wrong thing early on (never tell the police what happened to Tony), and no matter how they struggle, they can't quite put it behind them.  This made the moment where Simon kills Sally feel almost like a cop-out -- wouldn't it have made much more of a wonderful mess to have her go to the police?  Then escape seems impossible, and regardless of what happens, the kids are now in a gigantic imbroglio.  But no, instead we have Sally wind up dead.  It was a tragic, powerful, and affecting fight scene, but then afterwards it felt a bit like (apart from the requisite creepy shots of Simon standing by the freezer) it gets dropped afterwards.  It's like the writers neatly dust off their hands and say, "Okay, that bit is done.  Now let's have a normal superhero story!"

And indeed, for the finale, they're not dealing with the Sword of Damocles (corpse of Damocles?) that's been hanging over them since episode one.  Instead, there's a new villain out of nowhere, with the power of mind control, and a rapidly-growing cult of followers.  While this works out thematically -- the cult are neatly-dressed conservatives, the exact opposite of our messy ASBO kids[1] -- I'm left feeling like series one has a five-episode arc, and then a neat epilog.  That said, I'm sure I'll see more of the consequences of series one when I start in on season two.

Doctor Who [series six Christmas special]
As preparation for some upcoming Professor shows, I re-activated my netflix account and queued up Doctor Who.  To my surprise, they now had "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe", AKA the season-six Christmas special.  I'd heard nothing but "meh" things about it, so I set my expectations accordingly.

I was pleasantly surprised.  It was just a trifle, sure, and even the emotional weight of the dead husband didn't seem to counter the general vibe of "OMG funny people on the Christmas planet!"  The attempts at comedy were well-intentioned, but mostly fell flat.  The fantastical "upgrades" the Doctor made to the estate didn't really fill me with wonder ("Oh.  Right.  Set design and special effects.  Got it."), and the bumbling Androzanian soldiers felt like they belonged in the wacky-sitcom-with-a-laugh-track version of Doctor Who.  The plot is predictable but solid.  The characters are unsurprising but consistent.

All in all, it's a nice, slight bit of fun.  I enjoyed watching it; I doubt I'll see it again.

The Big Short by Michael Lewis
This wildly-popular nonfiction book follows the dozen or so investors in the world who foresaw -- and bet heavily on -- the collapse of the subprime mortgage market.  Its author, Michael Lewis, is well-known for such economics-heavy bestsellers as Liar's Poker and Moneyball.

For the most part, Mr. Lewis makes sense of the giant mess, guiding the readers carefully through "mezzanine tranches" and "credit default swaps".  One of the problems with talking about this economic bubble is that it was deliberately designed to be hard to understand.  If investors had *understood* what they were buying -- "Wait, we're taking on the risk for homeowners who are definitely going to default?" -- they wouldn't have bought any of it, and all these subprime-mortgage financiers would have been out of a job.  Apart from a few rapid & incomprehensible explanations of basic economic concepts, the book does a good job of sorting out all these byzantine financial setups.

The book kind of reminded me of The Omnivore's Dilemma, in that I got the sense I was supposed to be repulsed by the people behind the scenes, but instead I was just intrigued.  It's interesting when an economic system manages to provide its population with something they don't want.  In Pollack's book, the unwanted product is addictive, flavorless, and deleterious food; in Lewis's book, it's the worthless mortgage-backed securities.  In both cases, instead of hating the characters held up as the bad actors in the system, I find myself looking at the overall system, trying to figure out what perverted incentives made this global disaster come about.

Much of the subprime mortgage crisis can be traced, surprisingly, to the Internet.  Once sites like E*Trade made it possible for anybody to trade stocks directly, brokers lost all of their "just doing trades for people" business.  After that, their 'value add' was in working with more complicated and hard-to-understand financial instruments.  Once you had financial instruments that were so complicated that the buyers didn't even know what they were buying (and the rating agencies had no idea how to accurately rate their riskiness), the incentives for fraud were off-the-charts.  Without any regulation in place, essentially a giant Ponzi scheme was inevitable.

So of course the economy imploded.  If it hadn't been these particular people flying the plane into the ground, some other cabal of rich, doughy golfers would have done so.  You just can't expect better or more moral behavior from publicly-traded corporations.

Mr. Lewis also makes the interesting point that the stock market has long been regulated to a tee in order to avoid just this sort of problem.  Think about it: the stock market is so tightly and consistently regulated, we don't even consciously register it as regulation.  For example, for a given stock, anyone can look up the current price of that stock, and any two people will agree on what the price of that stock is.  You can get information about the company that stock is for.  People who assess risk can also get the information they need about the stock.

When these basic notions don't hold -- when your market is that unregulated -- well, then you get the mess that the bond market got into.  I'd be inclined to blame the young turks who created the whole mess, but c'mon.  These are Wall Street types; if they were decent people, they'd work elsewhere.  And the book explains that it's not really moustache-twirling villainy here.  If anything, for the people caught in the mortgage-crisis debacle, it was more like Wile E. Coyote walking off the cliff: for the longest time, everybody just kept going, because if they owned up to the basic insolvency of their product... well, then there would be nothing to do but hold up a small sign that says "Oops!" and then plunge precipitously downward towards the New Mexican desert.  So their beliefs became convoluted and counterintuitive -- they found bizarre ways to rationalize a market that didn't make sense, because, again, otherwise their jobs would disappear.  After a while, I was reminded of that South Park episode about Scientology, with its refrain of "This is what they *actually believe*."

Much has been said in reviews about the sharp characters in this nonfiction book.  I suppose they were engaging enough -- but my attention was always on the lead-up to the meltdown.  Yes, the one-eyed, paranoid medical doctor who was also an avid investor -- that's an interesting guy, but meanwhile, I'm watching this long, Mouse Trap-contraption of mortgages, mortgage-backed securities, and credit default swaps quietly tick towards disaster.

And the weird part is, because the book follows the people who bet *against* the subprime-mortage market, I felt kind of giddy about the economic destruction.  I thought about it in terms of the windfall it would bring our heroes, instead of its disastrous consequences for the entire world.

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath
This is the book by the authors of Made to Stick about how to effect change in organizations when you have limited resources at your disposal.  I had approached it thinking it was more of a self-help book -- i.e., how to effect difficult changes in your day-to-day life -- but no, this is more of a business book.  This means that, on the good side, it's full of examples; every recommendation has a few real-life business scenarios to back it up.  It also means that, being geared for MBAs, it's written at about an eighth-grade reading level.  So it's easy to read, but there is no joy in this drab, functional prose -- it's the essay version of a Power Point presentation.

Also, since it's a business-related book, its content can be summed up very succinctly.  If you want to make change happen, you have to make that change emotionally appealing, make the action items as clear as possible, and set up your work environment to make that change as easy as possible.  The metaphor they keep coming back to for these three elements is "an Elephant, with a Rider, on a Path".  The Elephant is the employee's "gut instincts", which are very strong and persistent, but easily frightened, easily tempted, and hard to steer.  The Rider is the employee's intelligence -- it knows which way it *should* go, but it can't really control the Elephant, and quickly gets exhausted when constantly trying to do so.  And finally the Path is the employee's environment -- regardless of what the Rider wants, the Path often defines the default direction for where the Elephant will go.  Beyond that, if there's no Path, the Rider will dither about which direction to go in until exhaustion sets in.

And that's pretty much it, for that book.  The material was well-presented, with plenty of clear examples and plenty of psychological research (including those studies about ego depletion that Lani keeps linking to).  But I doubt I'll have much practical use for it, because I doubt I'll be doing much in the way of management.

For next time:  I'm watching season two of Parks and Recreation, catching up on the last month of podcasts, and reading some H. P. Lovecraft for The Black Vault.

[1] Sure, Nathan's monolog about how youth is your time for being messed-up, making mistakes, and figuring out who you are was very *very* on-the-nose, but it was well-delivered, and it was nice to have a brief celebration of our antiheroes before that first series was over.

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