What is Finance For?

The financial collapse of 2008—centred on subprime mortgages—was my first real exposure to the insanity of the “financial sector.” Until then I’d been to young to really pay attention, but suddenly the preposterous games being played with the world’s economy came into sharp focus. When they lost, the world lost, but they didn’t.

So The Future of Finance, which briefly reviews John Kay’s Other People’s Money, gave voice to things I only had vaguely formed thoughts and/or anger about:

Kay goes back to first principles, asking what purposes the financial system is meant to serve, and measuring just how far the modern financial economy has moved from that ideal.

The point of finance, he argues, is to connect savers and borrowers — end-users, that is, not financial intermediaries. The test of a financial system is whether a household with surplus funds, say, and a company or government needing to borrow for investment can be connected at low cost and in a way that makes both parties better off. Correctly understood, all the institutions that lie between such end-users exist to serve this underlying purpose.

In Kay’s view, modern economies have lost sight of this vital point. Finance has come to be seen as an end in itself, as though the global economy exists to serve Wall Street and the City of London rather than the other way round. If you applied that mindset to electricity generation, for instance, the absurdity would be obvious: You don’t generate electricity for its own sake.

Nature or Nurture

As someone who recently became a parent, the nature vs nurture debate has ceased to have a merely academic interest. Is my son purely who he is because of the grab bag of genes my wife and I saddled him with? Or is he a tabula rasa awaiting the imprint of the right kind of upbringing?

Bringing up Genius is a fascinating look at this question, largely focused on the Polgár sisters, who were raised by their father to be geniuses:

By their first meeting, a dinner and walk around Budapest in 1965, Laszlo told Klara, his future bride, how his kids’ education would go. He had studied the lives of geniuses and divined a pattern: an adult singularly focused on the child’s success. He’d raise the kids outside school, with intense devotion to a subject, though he wasn’t sure what. “Every healthy child,” as he liked to say, “is a potential genius.” Genetics and talent would be no obstacle. And he’d do it with great love.

The Polgár sisters all became chess prodigies, but this doesn’t prove anything:

Intense practice and an early start may help, but they still involve making a bet with your children. For every Polgár, there are countless unknown chess players.

Gobet, who was once one of the best chess players in Switzerland — he played Judit twice — has seen it. “I know some people who tried to do the same thing as the Polgár family,” he says. “But most of them failed.”

I love that there’s an implicit free will vs determinism debate wrapped up in all of this and that we’re all probably screwed either way!

Jim Butcher’s New Series

Jim Butcher is one of my favourite authors. He’s most well known for The Dresden Files, a punchy mystery series that happens to involve wizards and various mythical creatures in modern day Chicago. Not only is it hilarious and well-written, it has gotten steadily better as the series has progressed to its current 15 book length.

He also wrote the excellent, but less well known, Codex Alara fantasy series, which was created in a bet:

The bet was actually centered around writing craft discussions being held on the then-new Del Rey Online Writers’ Workshop, I believe. The issue at hand was central story concepts. One side of the argument claimed that a good enough central premise would make a great book, even if you were a lousy writer. The other side contended that the central concept was far less important than the execution of the story, and that the most overused central concept in the world could have life breathed into by a skilled writer.

It raged back and forth in an ALL CAPITAL LETTERS FLAMEWAR between a bunch of unpublished writers, and finally some guy dared me to put my money where my mouth was, by letting him give me a cheesy central story concept, which I would then use in an original novel.

Me being an arrogant kid, I wrote him back saying, “Why don’t you give me TWO terrible ideas for a story, and I’ll use them BOTH.”

The core ideas he gave me were Lost Roman Legion and Pokémon… Thus was Alera formed.

Butcher definitely won. And now he’s obviously grown bored with only having one series on the go since Codex Alara was completed, since he recently published The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first book in the Cinder Spires series, which he described in a Reddit AMA:

It’s called “The Cinder Spires” right now. It’s kinda League of Extraordinary Gentlemen meets Sherlock meets Hornblower. There are goggles and airships and steam power and bizarre crystal technology and talking cats, who are horrid little bullies.

I’ve started reading it and the description is apt. The cats are definitely assholes.

The Space Doctor’s Big Idea

Randall Munroe is most famous for xkcd, but he’s also stepped into books, most recently with Thing Explainer, a fascinating attempt to explain complicated things with only the 1000 most common English words. He wrote about Albert Eintstein’s theories of relativity in the same style for the New Yorker with The Space Doctor’s Big Idea:

There once was a doctor with cool white hair. He was well known because he came up with some important ideas. He didn’t grow the cool hair until after he was done figuring that stuff out, but by the time everyone realized how good his ideas were, he had grown the hair, so that’s how everyone pictures him. He was so good at coming up with ideas that we use his name to mean “someone who’s good at thinking.”

As someone who’s generally aware of Einstein’s theories, but not that aware of them, this was actually really informative for me.

Bread is Broken?

The current trend of demonizing wheat tires me. Whether gluten or carbohydrates (or both) are bedevilling, people are probably healthier in avoiding them simply because wheat is so omnipresent in prepared foods that cooking from scratch is the only way to avoid it.

However, modern industrial agriculture has done us no favours when it comes to wheat. It’s less healthy and worse-tasting, according to Bread is Broken:

Before the advent of industrial agriculture, Americans enjoyed a wide range of regional flours milled from equally diverse wheats, which in turn could be used to make breads that were astonish­ingly flavorful and nutritious. For nearly a century, however, America has grown wheat tailored to an industrial system designed to produce nutrient-poor flour and insipid, spongy breads soaked in preservatives. For the sake of profit and expediency, we forfeited pleasure and health.

I learned a lot, particularly about whole grain flour. Now I want to try bread made from real whole grain flour, including the germ that is generally discarded because it shortens flour’s shelf life. I adore good bread, which is all the more painful because of how hard it is to find any of it in North America.