December 03, 2014

Crónica de un Día Diferente

Era 1996. Mi universo giraba alrededor de ese experimento social (la Universidad) en donde juegan contigo a que te dan responsabilidades, tú te estresas por cumplirlas, y al cabo de 4 años y medio te hacen creer --quizás sea éste el elemento más valioso del experimento-- que estás preparado para conquistar el mundo. Redacción Avanzada era una de esas clases aburridas que te imponen para "pulir tu capacidad de escritura." Nada qué ver con tu área de estudio, pero para poder salir con el "sello de calidad" de graduado de esa Universidad había que llevarla --nada como "sellar" a los educandos cual producto ensamblado en línea de producción industrial para emular la moda de cultura organizacional de la época. La de los 90's era el "Control de Calidad." La meta era producir graduados de homogeneidad robótica: Licenciados e Ingenieros ISO 9000

En medio de esta estructura de rígida monotonía, una tarea trivial. Escrito de 500 palabras donde usen verbos conjugados. No es broma. Las enseñanzas de cuarto año de primaria de la Profe Esther (tranquilos, no la asesina) serían utilizadas después de todo. 

Entonces, algo raro pasó. La tarea más ordinaria en la clase más aburrida de mis 4 años y medio de Universidad se convirtió en un vehículo para desalojar una espina que traía encajada muy hondo. No sé exactamente qué lo detonó. Dicen que la mente incuba ideas en el subconsciente por un tiempo largo, y elige escupirlas (hacerlas conscientes) en momentos en que estás haciendo tareas rutinarias y aburridas (por eso las ideas brillantes vienen en la regadera). El caso es que tomé un pedazo de papel en blanco y empecé:

Crónica de un Día Diferente

Era un día como cualquier otro, al menos en principio. De esos en los que te das cuenta que no pasarán cosas importantes: me había levantado, como siempre, con 25 minutos de anticipación a la hora de entrar a la escuela. Mi madre, en bata, taconeaba por toda la casa preparándonos el desayuno. Y yo me levantaba con sopor. Mientras, mi padre, regañándome, me decía que para esa hora la escuela ya habría empezado, y que si seguía así muy pronto reprobaría. 
Al llegar a la escuela, la misma monotonía: yo, pidiéndole a mis compañeros que me prestaran la tarea para copiarla; el maestro, con sus clásicas frases condenatorias como "espero que esta vez  hayan hecho la tarea." o "si me hubieran hecho caso, no estarían haciendo la tarea en clase." 

La verdad, en general pensaba que toda mi vida, y la de mis amigos, transcurría normalmente, sin dificultades. Es más: pensaba que era afortunado de vivir en un país como éste. 
De hecho me sentía como tocado por algo divino, cuando, por televisión, me daba cuenta de todas las dificultades que circundaban en el mundo, como guerras, revoluciones, hambrunas, asesinatos, luchas, malos entendidos, y nada de eso sucedía en mi país (al menos significativamente).
Pero ese día, tan monótono y simple, sucedió algo. Esa aureola divina por la que me sentía protegido se rompió súbitamente, abriéndome los ojos ante la realidad del país. Noticias alarmantes rondaban por todos los medios, levantando cualquier cantidad de comentarios. Unos dando poca importancia a los hechos, otros sentenciando al país a una vida como la de los noticieros, llena de problemas. Después, estos hechos despertarían en mi gran cantidad de sentimientos, desde temor hasta pavor.
Desde aquel día, voy a la cama triste, sabedor de que Dios nos ha quitado de su preferencia y nos ha convertido en un país como los que me entristecía ver en los noticieros. 

Habían pasado 3 años de eventos que convulsionaron el país. México se recuperaba de los espasmos provocados por el asesinato del virtual presidente electo y el levantamiento de una revolución armada

20 años después, a México lo sacuden de nuevo convulsiones que no veía desde aquél tiempo. El cáncer de la impunidad y la ausencia absoluta de estado de derecho en muchas zonas del país cobran con rabia una deuda que se emitió años anteriores, cuando la complacencia de una sociedad dejó que alguien más solucionara problemas que no vieron como suyos. Inútil señalar con el dedo a un sector de la población. Los políticos son producto de las sociedades que los educan y los eligen. Por mucho repudio que podamos externar por un presidente corrupto que llegó al poder impulsado por los medios de comunicación, la aplastante realidad es que la gente vendió su voto --a final de cuentas, muy de ellos-- y lo eligió. No hay soluciones fáciles, ni de corto plazo. 

Hoy, una nueva generación de jóvenes despierta para ver cómo esa aureola divina por la que se veían protegidos se rompe súbitamente. Hoy, millones viven día a día su propia Crónica de un Día Diferente.


October 10, 2014

The Subtle Crack

The dollar. The intangible monetary construct concocted in its paper form in 1861 to finance the civil war is arguably the United States' most precious asset. Its solidity is underpinned by an enviable rule of law. It gives good ol' U.S. of A the blessing of perennially low interest rates (which elevates the standard of living of Americans to the tune of $100bn annually), and the ability to throw in the trash can any resemblance of fiscal restrain. Why be frugal when normal market rules don't apply to you? After all, there is no such thing as a U.S. Treasury bond market "vigilante." Not in the same way they exist for any other --more normal-- sovereign bond markets, anyway.

We live under a de facto Dollar Standard. Nations hoard greenbacks to bulk up reserves (save some very wacky exceptions) to have dry powder to prop up (or push down, as recently seen) their currencies when they're under attack, or to buy imported goods. It is a very exorbitant privilege for the U.S. indeed.

The anointment of the Dollar as the standard has granted the U.S. much of its economic stability. You'd expect that the political class of the U.S. would realize how incredibly beneficial this is for their country, and do their best to keep the status quo... and you would be wrong. Despite their best efforts to self-sabotage the Dollar's status as the main reserve currency in the world, every time there's a crisis concerning the very solidity of the Dollar, a run to the greenback ensues.

And as if this privilege was not exorbitant enough, the Dollar Standard gives the U.S. yet another (much less trumpeted) power: the capacity to rule over other sovereign nations on matters of national interest. Once a country signs the Faustian indenture that allows it access to Dollar debt markets, it surreptitiously surrenders its self-determination as a State over to the U.S. legal system. Don't believe me? Ask Argentina.

Pegging your financial fate to a currency other than the one produced by your own printing press should naturally place you at a disadvantage right out of the gate. But what does not get talked about is the fact that by accepting to participate in the Dollar standard, countries (or any foreign issuer) are tacitly subjecting themselves to the fundamental flaws of the institutions that underpin the greenback.

I am talking about regulatory and legal capture. I assure you few international issuers looking to get financing in Dollars stopped for a moment to question the effectiveness (or fairness) of the rule of law that would govern the contractual obligations they were about to be bound to. The Dollar's prestige is (or was, at least) that good. But after Judge Griesa's asinine ruling (that hedge funds who bought defaulted, non restructured debt for cents on the dollar are entitled to par repayment because the issuer is paying those other who did restructure), many definitely will. The U.S. legal system has de facto been hijacked by the same institutionalized shenanigans that afflict the political system of that country, and now, thanks to precedence, this whole charade will corrode future default procedures.

The global markets can't function when the legal institutions that underpin what should be the most solid currency in the world are hijacked by narrow economic interests. As mentioned in an earlier post, the consequences of the loss of confidence in the world's reserve currency cannot be overstated. It seems that yet another structural crack has appeared in the global financial system, and although subtle, this one may be even more important than the one that occupies headlines every six months.

July 25, 2014

The Subsistence Trap

Technology has always been feared and revered at the same time. It has always been this dual destructive/liberating boogieman/hero that divides people. And with good reason. The way it eases human life can be addictive --sometimes pathologically so. But also disruptive (the word has been used --and abused-- ad-nauseam lately). We know what happens when new things disrupt the way we live our lives. Our conservatism bias (that miniature devil who sits on our shoulder and keeps us stuck at the same jobs for years and years) fights the heck out of it.

These days there's been a plethora of analyses about the way technology will reshape jobs around the world. The topic is ripe with speculation. Will it create an army of destitute willing to wage revolutions to fight to get their stolen livelihoods back? Will it save us from the planet's resource depletion? Will it allow for people to adapt and learn new skills to complement the technologies that will automatize (i.e. render redundant) their erstwhile cozy 9-to-5 jobs?

The debate on disruptive technologies has naturally gravitated to a lonely (but important) island of capitalism in the middle of a sea of anti-capitalist folks: Sillicon Valley. Its critics charge that the current tech bubble is narrow-minded, and only focuses on the things that affect the same 20-somethings who are building those start-ups. They have a good point. Solving the world's real problems --like Gate's new toilet or bringing clean water to Africa-- should take precedent to spending energy, money, and time on an app that does nothing more than send the text Yo (notwithstanding how pretentiously cool it sounds). Unfortunately, it doesn't. Why?

The argument of technology allowing us a better standard of life is strong. After all, it is technology which has historically allowed us to reduce the average workweek since the dawn of the industrial revolution: from 64 hours in 1850, to 53 in 1900, to 42 nowadays. We should assume that our liberation from the concerns of subsistence (at least in the developed world) should allow us to devote energy in really important matters --purposeful matters. Keynes certainly thought so in 1930. Larry Page nowadays recognizes the conundrum: What do we do with the extra time we get from increased productivity? We spend it overworking, overstressing, and inherently unhappy about our own choices.

Alas, we are irrational animals. We certifiably prefer electric shocks (which we will happily self-administer) over being left alone in silence with our own thoughts. Even the brightest minds fall pray of the reputational-egotism trap and hoard insane amounts of money as a signalling mechanism to perpetuate their own perception of prestige, instead of using those resources to do more meaningful things --as Keynes mused we would do in 1930.

In a system where the allocation of resources is driven by profitability (and capital is invested only in what is profitable) consumption --and our immediate desires-- rule. Even if that consumption only lasts 7 seconds. Money will chase that consumption as long as our desire to consume is there.

Keynes envisioned a world in which our über-efficient productivity would relieve us from the excrutiating burden of subsistence. He thought a time would come when we would have purpose; when we would transcend our basic, primal desires. Eighty-four years after his essay, we have become orders of magnitude more productive, but we have not moved on from our subsistence, consuming selves. Breaking this means dismantling deeply ingrained thought processes --it means conquering our perpetual wanting need.

But let's not fret about not being there yet. Keynes gave us one hundred years in 1930. We still have sixteen to get there.

March 06, 2014

The Battle for your Mind

It appears that "hacking" is in the news lately. Often. And I mean, big time. The meaning of the word is almost unanimously attached to an act of law-breaking with the clear, malicious intent of stealing someone else's property. But not everyone grants this buzzword a bad meaning, no. The Zuck is famous for turning its meaning around to make it appear something idealistic --grandiose even. "Hacking," he says, is the trade of heroic, altruistic visionaries who are doggedly determined to make the world a better place --for example, by attempting to bring internet to the entire Saharan Africa. Forget about the fact that starving people in poor countries and desolate refuge camps can't sustain on a kilobyte diet. Internet, the wacky technorati elite trumpets, is to become the end-all-be-all of human prosperity.

Hacking, the way I understand it, is gaining access to the inner workings ("the code") of something to be able to manipulate it for our benefit. That "code" are the instructions that tell the thing/product to be certain way, which ultimately makes it desirable for someone. This being a consumer society, being desirable is the most important thing a product can have, with all the moral dilemmas that this construct brings. The fact that someone else considers something desirable or appealing, and is willing to pay for it, is what makes taking control of (or at least copying) the code of something so alluring. It's a property rights issue.

But hacking doesn't always have to be a high-tech break-in. The Japanese hacked English motorcycles so they could develop theirs and could sell them cheaper. The Chinese are well-known for hacking everything there is to hack out there. And Samsung? Well, we know how they've thrived.

So, hacking implies gaining control of the code of something desirable so the person who is willing to pay for it sends his/her money the way of the hacker. He who controls the code, controls the money. It is our perception of desirability towards a product what drives people to spend money on it, which in turn makes controlling its code so tempting for hackers.

But what about perception itself? Do we always know what we want? Are our tastes static or do they shift? We know the answer to this one (they shift). And ultimately, do we have conscious control over what we deem desirable? In other words, is there a "code" that rules our perception of desirability?

What if our mind --the organ that controls desirability by conscientious choice--  is a hackable device?

Well, it turns out it might very well be. Look at these situations described by Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom:
  • College students who fill out a questionnaire about their political opinions when standing next to a dispenser of hand sanitizer become, at least for a moment, more politically conservative than those standing next to an empty wall.
  • Shoppers walking past a bakery are more likely than other shoppers to make change for a stranger.
  • Subjects favor job applicants whose résumés are presented to them on heavy clipboards.
  • Supposedly egalitarian white people who are under time pressure are more likely to misidentify a tool as a gun after being shown a photo of a black male face.
The implications of these patterns are not minor. This means that at some level, we are in fact only "soft machines." It means that we are beings with only the illusion of conscientious choice. If you ask professor Bloom, he'll tell you that we are much more than these quirky behaviors, and that we shouldn't overemphasize their importance on our daily lives. And he may be right about this --we may not be primarily automatons who derive our mood from the color of the wall in front of us. But what this definitely reveals is that, at some level, we are.

This is a major vulnerability in our "operating system", and as such, susceptible to hacking.

And the hacking has begun. Using algorithms applied to big data, consultants out of London are able to gauge the financial feasibility of a movie script (literally, assessing with numbers the likability of art), allowing Hollywood to weed out bad stories. It turns out, Hollywood has nailed down the formula for the perfect script. Every time is the same: the "theme stated," the "catalyst," the "midpoint," the "all-is-lost moment," the "false victory," the "confrontation," and the "resolution." My favorite is Moneyball: an algorithm-based script about the use of algorithms to win in baseball. Beautiful. They definitely know what buttons to press to herd us to the theater. 

The next step, Ray Kurzweil predicts, is not the hacking of our mind, but its takeover. "Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it", he says. "It will have read every email you've ever written, every document, every idle thought you've ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself."

The supplanting of the brain's cognitive skills to algorithms represents one of the most frightening aspects brought by the seemingly inexorable arrival of the technological singularity. The battle for your mind is being waged, and apparently not that many people seem to notice. Maybe not all is lost. After all, we have freedom of choice to shield us from the grip of algorithms. We can always consciously decide to unplug and refocus our attention away from technology.

Because, you know, we can. (Or can we?)