Sunday, March 13, 2016

If you could bend time..

These days it is so easy to  capture everything that amuses and all that amaze us with our digital cameras or by a tap on our smart phones. Photographs bring back memories of sorts. Sometimes we are reminded of the past that we wish we could change or right the wrongs we feel we have made. If time travel were possible, do we really want to undo some things in the past or relive the fabulous moments we had?

Ideally we should all let go of the past as what is past is past, good or bad decisions have been made, we are where we are. Even if we are allowed to travel back to the past, we cannot recapture the feelings we had nor revisit the wonderful experience we  had in our youth when we are no longer the youths we once were. If we believe that things happen for a reason, do we really want to rewind the past ? Everything is transient and it is necessary for us to be present at every moment of our being.  Easier said than done as we carry our past with us and they become part of the emotional baggage  we carry and if we do not handle them  properly, they haunt us and even stunt our growth.

Every Anxious Wave , the debut novel by Mo Daviau is an engaging read for those who like the concept of time travel.  Ms Daviau cleverly weaves a story that centres on the theme of time travel where the characters are able to  make trips to not only their past but their future as well and in the course of undoing certain traumatic incidents that have scarred them for life, they face a new kind of challenge.

One of the main characters, Karl Bender has just turned 40. Karl feels miserable as  he clings on his memories of his ex-girlfriend and the Axis, an Indie rock band he played in throughout the 90s. He owns the Dictator’s Club, a bar in Chicago and his life revolves between his dingy apartment and his bar. One day he stumbles upon a wormhole in the closet of his abode. He starts using the wormhole for selling trips to the past to fellow music fans and he accidentally sends his buddy Wayne to Manhatta in the year 980  when the latter wants to travel to Manhattan in 1980 to save John Lennon’s life. Reentry requires an electrical power source  and Wayne would have to be in a place with many electromagnetic fields. Karl finds Lena Geduldig, a PhD student in astrophysics and in the course of  working on ways to get Wayne back , they end up finding themselves falling in love, entangled with their own pasts and somehow their meddling around with time travel threaten their future together. Meanwhile as they find a way to get Wayne back, Wayne is comfortable where he is and although he misses Karl, the bar and his mom, he does not miss Chicago or his job. Where he is, the sunsets are too beautiful and the people whom he has met don’t hate or compete and they find food, they eat and they share everything, ‘and they all seem  to love each other in this really magical, uncomplicated way.’

Ms Daviau writes:
I RECEIVED A long –email from Wayne :
 The native tribe I have hooked up with has names. I wrote them down with ash on a leaf. Would it be wrong to teach them written English ? They are long and complicated names, names that contort the tongue in new and stretchy ways. They gave me a name that sounds like Honnakuit. It probably means “ tall pasty white guy.” They are not armed and seem to be very concerned with oen another. They sit very close to each other in a circle to eat. They all have long hair, even the men, and spend a lot of time doing each other’s hair…………………………………

The story is hilarious and as they bounce around time, the characters realize that when they try to change their  pasts, they might mess up the present as well. The novel asks the question : who would we become if we were to rewrite our pasts? Ultimately love is what propels the characters to hold on to across time. click

Saturday, March 5, 2016

It's a mad-cap world

Venice September 2014
I cannot seem to stop buying books so I am always in a race to plough through them. When I started on The Big Short inside the doomsday machine, a non-fiction written by Michael Lewis, I could not read it fast enough because to me, reading a non-fiction about finance and economics is akin to reading a fiction in French. I have zilch knowledge about trading and the financial market thus I consider finance and economics foreign and complex subjects. I only have a hunch that the entire financial system is a bubble and the market is basically gaming.

One senior lawyer whom I used to work with passed away last Thursday. At the wake, eulogies were made by his beloved wife, his youngest son, a good friend and a young lawyer. His wife talked about how he never wanted a big car or a big house and his material needs were modest. He was an avid tennis player and that went beyond any doubt. I remember how  he used to quip that he had spent more time on court than in court. Apparently the conversations he used to hold with his youngest son were invariably about how to manage money and invest well. His wife, a committed Christian, told those present that towards his last couple years, he had spent his days reading and understanding the Bible and he appeared at peace in his final  days.  May Mr Lim rest in peace.

The Big Short is about a few odd balls who were savvy and possessed  the prescience about the flaws in the mad-cap finance world and they  were the smart hedge fund guys who made colossal sums of money for their clients and themselves.It is apparent  from the book that  the financial system is riggable and trading  is a form of gaming. The book exposes the folly of the system and tell how some of the insiders who work in banking industry had no clue about what was going on while it was going on. Lewis tells the story through the eyes of people who pay attention and who knew that a financial disaster was inevitable. These are smart people who knew how to make a lot of money with the system that is screwed up. But is it wrong for these smart people to game the system and ultimately made a fortune off what they foresaw was a financial disaster ? The  amounts of money that these hedge fund guys were betting were mind-bogging. The idea of  a credit default swap on what amounted to a timeless pool of subprime loans seemed delusional. Credit default swaps on subprime mortgage bonds were openly traded and standardized and in turn these bond traders could make money out of credit default swaps by betting massively that subprime loans would go bad. To defray and offset the running cost that were essentially hefty insurance premiums, the Wall Street bond traders sold  triple A –rated  subprime CDOs. The problem was what would happen if subprime mortgage borrowers begin to default in greater than expected numbers as even these so called triple A-rated subprime loans were actually bad ones.

The most compelling character of all is Dr Michael Burry, a trained neurologist with Asperger’s syndrome and one eye. Dr Burry had quitted the medical profession to start Scion Capital, an investment firm. Burry made his money by making huge bets against the Subprime Mortgage market. When his investors lost faith in his strategy to short the housing market and began demanding their money back, Dr Burry struggled to keep his fund alive in 2007  and early 2008.  

The other compelling character is Steve Eisman who hated being a corporate lawyer, he became an equity analyst  and quickly established himself as one  of the  few analysts whose opinions might stir the market. Greg Lippmann , the Deutche Bank hedge fund trader and Howie Hubler a bond trader also saw the folly and fraud behind the subprime mortgage industry. For nearly a decade, Howie Hubler had made money trading bonds for Morgan Stanley. 
In one of the footnotes, Lewis writes,
It’s too much to expect the people who run big Wall Street firms to speak plain English, since so much of their livelihood depends on people believing that what they do cannot be translated into plain English. What John Mack’s trying to say, without coming right out and saying that no one else at Morgan Stanley had a clue what risks Howie Hubler was running, is that no one else at Morgan Stanley had a clue what risks Howie Hubler was running – and neither did Howie Hubler.
Another way to put the same question: How could Howie Hubler’s bonds plunge from 100 to 7 and the reports you received still suggest that they were incapable of dramatic movement ?"

Michael Lewis  has certainly tried to narrate the stories in a way that the lay readers can understand, nonetheless I still have trouble figuring out the entire financial system except that there are a lot of manipulations and inaccurate ratings. From  The Big Short, we learn about how Wall Street has no qualms about stealing the trading strategies of their clients and peddling them to other customers. We learn about how the bankers hide the reality from ratings agencies and investors about the rising default rate on subprime mortgages. We conclude that  the entire financial system is a bubble and those interested go and figure. Meanwhile I cannot wait to get my hand on the copy of the Existentialist cafĂ© that I have reserved  with the local Kinokuniya bookstore.  It is by Sarah Bakewell, the next non-fiction book that  I plan to read.