Conspiracy & Guy Lawson’s Octopus

I finished reading Guy Lawson’s Octopus: Sam Israel, the Secret Market, and Wall Street’s Wildest Con last night. It’s a fascinating and thrilling book. I would definitely recommend checking it out. Lawson follows the career of convicted hedge fund manager/Ponzi scheme operator Sam Israel. The Israel’s are a famously rich family of commodity traders from New Orleans, but Sam Israel III wanted to prove that he could be his own man, so rather than sliding into a nepotistic career as an employee at his family’s business he went to Wall Street. Eventually Israel opened his own hedge fund, called Bayou, using a computer program/algorithm he called Forward Propagation. The program, according to Israel when he was selling investors on his fund, accurately predicted market trends 86% of the time. Unfortunately the program apparently didn’t work and the fund eventually descended into a Ponzi scheme. Israel always seems to have believe that he would make the fund legitimate and solvent, but he never managed to. That story, while somewhat interesting, wouldn’t make me recommend a book to you. That’s the set up, if you will, and the story that follows could be lifted right from a spy novel. Lawson writes with clear, active language that only encourages the comparison, but that’s the beauty of the book. The story is good enough for a novel and is written by a journalist with the skill to translate the narrative to text nearly flawlessly.

Sam Israel found himself in pain and under intense stress while trying to manage his fund. He had suffered serious medical problems that left him on pain killers, his marriage was falling apart, and he had to maintain the image of running an honest fund. Through an odd series of events Sam eventually met a man named Robert Booth Nichols. If you google Robert Booth Nichols, as Sam did, you find his name connected to a variety of conspiracies, murders, and the CIA. According the internet Nichols is, or was, a CIA agent involved in a number of different conspiracies, including the assassination of JFK and Iran-Contra. Nichols proceeds to convince Sam that there is a secret bond market that only lets the wealthiest and most powerful members of society invest in them; all with essentially no risk. Sam, struggling and already predisposed to believing in the tale Nichols spun agrees to invest the $100 million real dollars in his fund in this secret bond market. The rest of the book follows the amazing story of Sam trying to invest his money in the secret bond market. Eventually Nichols convinces Sam to lend him $10 million. The story is great, the writing fitting for the story, and it’s overall an interesting book that’s worth the read.

When I decided to write a review of this book I looked up some reviews online and found an interesting divergence in the reviews. Most reviews seemed to like the book, though they didn’t care the writing as much as I did. The difference is how they processed the story. One side, the New York Times book review (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/01/business/octopus-looks-at-bayou-hedge-funds-collapse-review.html?_r=0), wrote, “He paints a picture of rampant criminality all around him — insider trading, front-running, bags of cash — and contends that all of Wall Street was similarly corrupt, a transparent bit of rationalization.” From the perspective of the New York Times writer, Bryan Burrough, Sam Israel was a crazy bastard. “Like I said, Crazy Town. Mr. Nichols, of course, is a con man — and a very capable one at that.” Compare that to Matt Taibbi’s review (http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/octopus-read-this-book-to-understand-wall-street-20120724), posted with the subtitle “Read This Book to Understand Wall Street.” Taibbi explains, “this is also an important book because the reason Israel fell for this extraordinary con was based entirely upon his real experiences on Wall Street. Israel had grown up among some of the biggest movers and shakers on the street, including his first hedge fund boss in the early eighties, Fred Graber. Israel started essentially as a gopher for Graber, who had built a very successful hedge fund that was based, it turns out, almost entirely on front-running, insider trading, and other easy money schemes.” Taibbi’s view is that the ‘shadow market’ that Sam was trying to invest in is the real market. The market is manipulated by the Fed and over-sized banks and corporations.

I think Taibbi has a point, but I think there’s more to it than Sam Israel merely being prepared to be conned because of his experience and understanding of Wall Street. Before Sam Israel met with Nichols he Googled him. Googling Nichols leds you down some crazy holes of the internet. Sam found a book, titled The Last Circle (http://wikispooks.com/wiki/File:The_last_circle.pdf), that explains all the ways Nichols is tied to a wide variety of conspiracies. It even claims that Nichols possesses the original ‘unedited’ Zapruder tape; the famous tape that shows the assassination of JFK. At this point, Sam already believes that the Fed holds up the entire American and world economies on deceit, he also believes that the assassination of JFK was a conspiracy. To my mind, that preconditioning combined with the stress he was under explains why Sam Israel fell for NIchols. Taibbi shows one side of the preconditioning, but the prior belief in conspiracies also played an essential role.

While I think there are a number of reasons Sam Israel fell victim to Robert Nichols’ con, perhaps the most important reason is the predisposition of Sam, along with many other people, to believe there is some greater force running the world. He felt he had multiple strands of evidence for this conviction, from his experience with Wall Street and the Fed, to the documents he found online, to the stories Nichols told. We tend to believe that the amount of evidence correlates to the accuracy of a claim, but in fact there is plenty of bad evidence for a number of beliefs. In the realm of evidence, quality is absolutely more important that quantity.

The Pixies – Where is my Mind?

The Pixies - Where is my Mind?

Inspired by the Pixies song and being strung out.

Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrdpliMfoAM

lyrics

With your feet in the air and your head on the ground
You try this trick and spin it, yeah
But your head will collapse and there’s nothing in it and you’ll ask yourself

Chours-
Where is my mind
Where is my mind
Where is my mind
Way out in the water
See it swimming

I was swimming in the Carribean
Animals were hiding behind the rock
Except the little fish
But he told me he swears he tried to talk to me

Chours

With your feet in the air and your head on the ground
Try this trick and spin it, yeah
Your head will collapse and there’s nothing in it and you’ll ask yourself

Chours

With your feet in the air and your feet on the ground
Try this tring and spin it, yeah

HL Mencken – Newspaper

HL Mencken - Newspaper

I made this because I saw the quote and liked it. I think there’s a lot of truth in it. Reading a newspaper doesn’t make you smarter it only reinforces your preconceptions, smart, ignorant, or crazy. Mencken was always witty and was one third of what made the Scopes trial famous. He covered the trial as a newspaper reporter, so the point isn’t to condemn news it’s condemns us as readers. We can’t really help ourselves, it’s a natural psychological effect to want to prove ourselves right. We all do it. 

Bored

Bored

So I’ve been really, really bored lately. I don’t feel like doing much, but I did manage to make this monstrosity. It’s not particularly appealing, but it’s what I’ve got in me right now. I normally wouldn’t post something I dislike this much, but I haven’t posted anything for a while so here’s this.

Terror

Terror

Another in my ongoing series inspired by money. Image is 2560×1440, full album http://imgur.com/a/l0Ikv

The picture using a 50 mil Colombian pesos bill, Christian iconography, Arabic script, and an old world map.

Reflections on Color

13-10-31-1I’ve been working on a picture today. It’s just a kind of nice blob of color with a paint can and a quote from Oscar Wilde about color. I think it kind of works. It’s not the best thing I’ve ever done, but I’ve spent some time thinking about how I have each element arranged. I’ve adjusted pretty much every setting down in detail. I’m still not completely satisfied with it, but I think it works because it doesn’t quite fit right. The fonts I used don’t really seem to work with the quote, but I like the contrast. I post most of these wallpapers I make that have quotes on them to reddit on a subreddit called /r/quotesporn which is basically just pictures with quotes on them. I like this quote because it kind of feels like jab at them. They take their quotes and the meaning in them pretty seriously, but this basically makes you just think about the colors; there are some ugly colors in there too, which I find kind of funny. I don’t know, it just seems right but wrong, which either means it’s good and I’m being overly critical or it’s shit and I’m too in love with the humor I find in it. I guess I’ll find out, maybe, I don’t really have a good means of actually judging my own work other than my own sense of it, so in instances like this it’s kind of up in the air. You can’t really trust a site like reddit because so much of the possibility that it’s successful depends on extraneous factors. Things like the time you post it and the title, but also the content that is posted around the same time as yours. I’ll be honest, I have reddit reasonably well gamed. I know when to post, I have good idea of what titles should be like, and my content, especially the quotes things, essentially reinforce the pseudo-intellectual, white, middle-class, atheists on reddit. They’re an easy crowd for me since I have so much in common, but still, just reading through the top quotes posts gives you a good idea of what will work and what won’t. I guess maybe I’m just arrogant about my skill in understanding the dynamics of reddit, but I do have more karma than I probably should considering the quality of the content I post; mostly my own work. I guess I judge my content by the fact that it never gets reposted, or almost never does, which seems to indicate that it’s not good enough for people cherish to point of wanting to share it. I can’t say I’m surprised, but then again, I don’t like much anything I do. I see flaws everywhere. The real lesson to learn in life is to quit when you’re ahead so the result will be passably good. I’ve spent many hours destroying perfectly good work with pointless perfectionism. I’m not even a perfectionist really, I see broad strokes pretty well but I’m not much concerned with details. I still see little errors, so maybe I do think about details more than I think I do, who knows. I’ve never really felt like a perfectionist though, just a critic. I know something’s wrong, but I have no fucking clue what it is. I can just tell. I don’t see the details to change usually, so I mess with a bunch of different ones until I find a combination that seems to work. I always feel like a fraud for that. I don’t go into projects with some grand plan of what I’m going to do, I usually have no idea. I just throw a few pictures into GIMP and start to mess around. I do know what I’m doing, but I don’t have a goal; just like my life, weirdly. The few things I’ve actually planned out and executed aren’t terrible, but they’re not my best work either. My best work comes from creating some level of chaos then trying to reign in the chaos in some semi-coherent fashion. I guess for the first half hour to hour I’m working I have no idea what the end result will be. Then I see something in the chaos and after that it’s a matter of putting on finishing touches, which can take from another hour or so to multiple hours depending on how enthralled I am with the project. To me, I have a decent eye and a tiny amount of creativity. So you let me mess around long enough I’ll make something that looks half-decent just because I can tell when it’s too early to stop. I don’t feel like I have the level of creativity to legitimately call myself any kind of artist. I guess that’s just my process. I have noticed recently that when a picture really starts to come together in a way that I like I almost hear music. I guess that’s why they say pictures have rhythm. It is weird to suddenly be thinking of music just from looking at a picture. I don’t actually listen to music very often while I work, usually just podcasts and comedy albums. I find that distracting the part of my brain that’s interested in listening to people talk allows me to work better. Then again, I barely listen to music at all anymore. I’ve spent a lot of my life listening to music. I had headphones on practically every waking hour through high school. I know this is kind of weird thing to say, but I find it’s kind of true, I’m kinda bored with music. I know there are tons of different types of music, enough to where someone should never get bored but I kinda am. I feel the same thing about games. I rather read a book or listen to something informative or at least funny. Listening to people talk while you’re focused on something else is a weird experience. I’m never able to just sit down and listen to something, not really, not for more than maybe twenty minutes, but I can focus on podcasts and comedy if I’m playing a simple game so I do that if I’m actually interested. Otherwise, if I’m just trying to numb or distract part of my brain, I barely hear anything that’s said. Not consciously at least, if I re-listen I do remember a decent amount though. My point is that going in and out of someone talking is kind of weird, like I just hear punchlines to lots of comedy and I just pause and listen to a podcast if I happen to catch something interesting.

On a different note, I actually started typing all of this because I was bored and waiting for my computer to finish rendering something, which has been done for a while, so I’m in-between both trains of thought right now, which might explain how that last paragraph ended up being so fucking incoherent. Luckily, I’ve been getting myself to do at least cursory edits before I post anything. By cursory I mean actually reading what I’ve written before I post it. In a similar manner to my pictures, I don’t care for my writing. I’ve had some outside confirmation that it is good at least; assuming I edit. I did pretty damn well writing upper division college history papers, so you know, that’s got to mean something. Though it has kind stilted my writing. I write in a clear technical manner or I write in a jumbled mess, there doesn’t seem to be much of anything in-between. This is a jumbled mess. Maybe if I spent more time editing, I could make my jumbled messes entertaining and easy to read, that would probably help me get ahead in life, but alas I have no love for editing. I do actually enjoy editing in the moment it’s just not something that’s enjoyable before hand. Just planning some things is enjoyable, but not planning to edit. It’s not that I’m too critical of myself, that’s actually the part I enjoy, fixing my errors, I hate looking stupid, I just don’t like the idea of reading something I’ve already thought. Literally, word for word. It’s just boring. I’m actually remembering now that I started that last paragraph by describing myself as being distracted from working on my picture, but then didn’t finish the thought by connecting it to the idea of my being easily distractable. Though I suppose that might be an example of showing rather than telling. Something I’ve never be good at.

I’ve always thought I could probably write some first person fiction, but I’ve never even really considered trying my hand at anything else. I did write one short science-fiction-y story that was kind of funny, but that’s all I’ve ever done outside of first person. Now I’m obsessed with first person non-fiction. People like David Sedaris, Jon Ronson, and others (I realize ‘and others’ is a cop out, improper use of cop out I know, though this note is a cop out, but I can’t remember the name of the guy I’m thinking of). This kind of mix of adventure, memoir, and journalism. That’s what I want to write. It just seems like the most fun. It seems to be the best modern reflection of an interesting life. This has meandered on from unrelated point to unrelated point, but I don’t get an itch to really write like this often so I’m taking advantage of it.

Turns out that rendering significantly improved my picture. Yes, I paused this to do that and now I’m back. I’ve turned something that didn’t fit together right into something with a good soft palette. I’ve really turned the saturation down a lot on this picture, which is something I’m learning is really important to adjust manually. Anyway, the background went from being this kind of plaster wall look that was rough to a kind of smooth, elegant surface. The only problem now is that the font went from kind of working to being seriously out-of-place, so I’ll have to spend another good half-hour, forty-five minutes trying to find the right font. I have 300mb’s of fonts, for reference a font is less than 1mb usually, so I have more than 300 to consider. Eventually I hope to have pretty much memorized most of them. I already remember a few of them, maybe ten or so, but that means I have a lot of memory work ahead of me. The issue now is that this is too much writing to attach to a picture, but without the picture it’s even less coherent. The only viable option is to attach the picture to this and post it separately, but I don’t like to duplicate things like that. Maybe I’ll just post the picture without the text for this. I’m honestly really excited to find a font for this, so I’m starting to get even more distracted than I normally am.

Oscar Wilde – Color

Oscar Wilde - Color

Image made with GIMP and is 2560×1440. I really like this quote because it pretty much perfectly enunciates my feelings about color. I love color. I love abstract patterns of color. It’s so easy to use them as a mirror of your feelings. Anyway, the quote is, “Mere color, unspoiled by meaning, and unallied with definite form, can speak to the soul in a thousand different ways,” Oscar Wilde