Friday, March 30, 2012

Here's a great app: Notability

So here is the first app endorsement on this blog: Notability, in the ITunes App store. It is a note-taking app for the iPad. And it is a revelation. It actually works better than pen and paper.

I've bought other stylus apps before, like Penultimate and Bamboo paper. But somehow they just felt difficult to use. I couldn't really imagine using them in place of a notepad. When I'm talking notes in a meeting or conference, I need to be able to write very fast without being slowed up by a program.

Then I was sitting in the first session of a conference in DC on Monday morning, and found I'd let my paper pad in the hotel room. I was resigned to scrawling notes on the conference program.

But I did have my stylus pen (stylus pens for the iPad have a special tip to make them work better; I use one made by Kingston). So I thought I'd give Notability a try, which I'd downloaded a few weeks earlier in the search for a viable note-taking app.

It worked. It just worked. I took over thirty pages of notes without difficulty during the conference. Now I'm a convert.

You write at the bottom of the screen, so there are no difficulties with palm rests or marking the screen. But it is easy and intuitive to move the box to enter handwritten text anywhere you like. I found I could write just as fast as on paper, and the results came out neater because the app kept lines constant. It also keeps notes arranged much better than accumulating dozens of scrawled notepads on my desk.

So it's a whole extra dimension of usability for the iPad.

Amartya Sen and Universalism

Amartya Sen spoke at John Jay College near the Time Warner Center last night, and I went along to listen. I read Sen's recent book, The Idea of Justice, and wrote about it here.

One reason Sen is so interesting is he argues against universal ideas of justice based on one perfect set of institutions or rules - in other words, very much against the prevailing mindset of liberalism, which David Goodhart was complaining about in my last post just below. Sen says we can compare different states of justice without having a perfect grounding conception of universal justice.

Ideas can take a generation to seep from faculty common rooms to the broad educated public. Broad elite opinion is still processing the sort of universal liberalism represented by Rawls in 1971. Approaches like Sen's could take many years to seep into received opinion as well - but it will be conventional wisdom a decade from now.

It is always interesting to see people in the flesh. He read his lecture, focusing last night on his indian ethical concepts of niti and naya, mostly with his head down in his notes hunched over the podium. He seemed a tiny figure for such an epic academic career and reputation. But he has an exquisite upper class Indian courtesy, with fifty years of high table conversation layered on top. He got his Ph.D in 1959, I believe, another era, another world, one many universes different from the auditorium at John Jay College.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Last Hope for the Left

David Goodhart, the editor of the respectable center-left British magazine Prospect, is transfixed by a new book. It is hard for secular liberal baby boomers to understand other points of view, he says. One group of American cultural psychologists calls the typical western Labour party member

.. WEIRD—they are from a sub-culture that is Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic. They are, as we have seen, universalists, suspicious of strong national loyalties. They also tend to be individualists committed to autonomy and self-realisation. Balancing that they are usually deeply concerned with social justice and unfairness and also suspicious of appeals to religion or to human nature to justify any departure from equal treatment—differences between men and women, for example, are regarded as cultural not biologic.

This is not a natural way for most people to think, even if it is almost univeral in parts of elite western culture. This helps explain why center-left parties are in such trouble in Europe and elsewhere, Goodhart says, when, according to their narrative, capitalism has disastrously failed, economies have degenerated into crisis and the time should be ripe for a shift to the left.

Instead, Labour party leader Ed Miliband is almost irrelevant.

Ed Miliband’s difficulty is not so much that he is weird but that he is WEIRD. Yet help is at hand in the shape of a truly seminal book—out of that remarkable Amerian popular-science-meets-political-speculation stable—called The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

We've come across Haidt before on this blog, because his ideas are genuinely fascinating. He is at root a liberal. But he is interested in how others think, Says Goodhart:

Like Steven Pinker, Haidt is a liberal who wants his political tribe to understand humans better ...
The thinking behind The Righteous Mind may be the last hope for European liberalism.


I'll get to reading his new book soon.


Deleveraging and Dalio

Here, with a little delay, is an article in the Economist about hedge fund boss Ray Dalio's views about deleveraging. His fund, Bridgewater, is possibly the most successful in markets at present. And that means it is worth giving a hearing to the ideas that help make it so (or at least those that he reveals).

Bridgewater also has a reputation for one of the strangest and most savage cultures in any company anywhere. But they do seem smart.

The Economist article links to some longer writing by Dalio on his own site here. He says:

The long-term debt cycle top occurs when 1) debt and debt service levels are high relative to incomesand/or 2) monetary policy doesn’t produce credit growth. From that point on, debt can’t rise relative toincomes, net worth and money supply. That is when deleveraging – i.e. bringing down these debt ratios –begins. All deleveragings start because there is a shortage of money relative to debtors’ needs for it. Thisleads to large numbers of businesses, households and financial institutions defaulting on their debts andcutting costs, which leads to higher unemployment and other problems. While these debt problems canoccur for many reasons, most classically they occur because investment assets are bought at high prices andwith leverage – i.e., because debt levels are set on the basis of overly optimistic assumptions about futurecash flows. As a result of this, actual cash flows fall short of what’s required for debtors to service theirdebts.

The economy follows a leverage cycle which can last decades. Serious problems really start when the central bank cannot reduce debt service ratios directly any more because interest rates hit zero.

It is an attractive and essentially quite simple analysis.

The most interesting thing is that he obviously starts with economic history, rather than with standard academics. The papers on the site are littered with examples of how the UK economy rose and fell over a period of more than a century, and a long view of the US economy over the same period of time.

This just has to be the right way to do things - bedding things in actual history rather than abstract rational choice and optimizing, i.e. the framework of academic economics. And maybe that is his secret - it is poring over history for multiple cross-cutting lessons, which he embeds in computer rules.

Give me the man credit (literally). But surely such outperformance can't go on forever, just by the law of averages.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Things change

I'm in DC today, sitting here at a table in the Cascade cafe downstairs in the National Gallery of Art. Sometimes it's nice to return to places that you've been a number of times over the years - like here - and have a sense of continuity and remembering the way you've come before.


And sometimes it's nice to have a change and do something new. I've chosen to make some changes in work circumstances before long. Time for a change. Time to stretch out a bit.