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Archive for May, 2010

Another bet

The other day, myself and a friend were discussing ways for me to get him kicked out of the country.  We ended up settling on two different options.

  1. If I become the Attorney General of the United States, he has to leave the country forever and turn in his passport at a foreign embassy.
  2. If I become the Secretary of Homeland Security of the United States, he has to do the same thing.

My first act as office holder of either of those two offices would be to get him kicked out of the country and get him placed onto a terrorist watch list. 

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I then tried to get a third title added, the directory of cyber security (sometimes referred to as the cyber czar, this is a new position created by President Obama).  He said to this “No, I’m not going to go for that one.”

I then replied “You’re not going for that because you think that I might actually be able to get the position!”

“I know!” he answered.

Well, if I do ever get it, I’m still going to attempt to get him booted out of the country.

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Sometimes, my reputation proceeds me.

  1. A few weeks ago, I had a slight change in my reporting structure at work.  In the very first meeting with my new team, it was said of me “Terry, we hear that you hate spam more than anyone else in the world.”
  2. A couple of days ago, I was having a chat with a potential new manager for me (my fourth one this year), and when he entered my office, he said to me “Oh, I’ve heard a lot about you and how much you know about spam.”
  3. This past weekend, I saw the Lost season finale.  Another couple was there whom I hadn’t met before.  Apparently some other friends had been chatting me up a bit (you know who you are, thanks for that) because they said “Terry… magician?”

It’s nice to have an impact before I’ve even arrived.

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I’m not much of a fan of soccer, but I do enjoy watching the World Cup.  Even though they are perennial losers, I still enjoy cheering for England, the country where I used to live.  There’s no point in cheering for the United States, they have no chance of winning.

Anyhow, I came across this video created by Nike.  It’s entertaining, especially the part from 2:20 – 2:25.

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I can hear my neighbor beneath me snoring every single night.  It’s loud.  And it comes through the floor.  I’ve decided to nickname “Baron von Snores-a-lot”, or the Red Baron for short.

I have only seen him twice.  He seems to be a guy in his 40’s or 50’s, not particularly overweight but smokes.  I saw him as I was coming back from getting my mail, and as I passed him I thought to myself “There’s the Baron.”  How can one person make so much noise unconsciously?  It’s unbelievable! Ohhhh!

I decided to sleep on my couch one evening.  I just couldn’t be bothered to go to bed because the Red Baron goes to bed earlier than I do. He switches on his nocturnal chainsaw and keeps me up.  Why is it my neighbors just can’t leave me be in peace?  Like the ones to south of me?

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I closed another option position today using my paranoid strategy.  I bought put options on Owens Corning on May 6.  They were up, then down, and now up again.  Since they expire in 2 days and are now making money for me, and since the market is now oversold, I decided to close them down.  I can’t take the heat.

However, I closed them for a nice 67% gain in two weeks.  Counting all of my open positions as of this minute, then trading options I am up 45% on the capital I have expended in two weeks.  That includes 5 winners and 3 losers.  I have made more on my active trading in two weeks than I did in my Lazy Portfolio in 5 months (before the correction).  I’m not ready to switch to options trading, but I have been proven right over the past little while.  The only times I have been wrong is when I have gone long on the market (ie, bought calls).  In fact, all of my losers are call options.  I need to stick to my downside strategy.

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Performances

This past weekend I did another dance performance (video to be posted sometime, I forgot to take my own camera along).  The idea for this performance, however, differed from previous ones.  Whereas in previous ones it was about the dance and my own personality took a bit more of a back seat, this was the reverse.

This time around, my goal was to do a dance performance blind-folded.  Thus, the goal was to do a routine without sight and thus incorporate a little bit of magic into it.  As I explained, I had been thinking about how to do this for a while.  The effect is that I am doing something that appears nearly impossible.

It’s essentially a memory effect.  After doing the routine over and over again with my instructor, I started to get a “feel” for things.  I memorized how many steps each pattern took, the relative position of rotations (ie, when we turned, I knew which direction I was pointed) and then on Fridays when I would go and do regular dancing, I got a feel for how big the ballroom would be.  Then, when doing the dance performance, the first 1/3 of the routine was done normally, and I then put on a blindfold for the next 1/3. 

The trick works wherein I establish a series of counting steps using a mnemonic technique.  Each sequence of steps is assigned a piece of furniture in my living room where I would practice.  The number of steps in each sequence corresponds to a series of objects on each piece of furniture.  So, when I did a couple of turns, I visualized four of my juggling balls on the left side of the couch and each pattern I would pick up one juggling ball and remove it.  On the rocking chair were some of my favorite decks of cards.  It’s a bit more complicated than that but the angles of the turns work the same way.  The rocking chair is at a 60 degree angle so I knew which way to turn.  For the actual performance, at a run through, I would simply move the angle of the furniture in my mind.

The part with the blindfold is something that I am very proud of.  The blindfold is one of my handkerchiefs, and they are quite opaque.  I genuinely cannot see through them.  But I have to get it on very quickly.  There’s a part where my partner and I rotate around each other, I take out the handkerchief, roll it up, tie it around my head and then kind of finesse it so that it looks flat rather than triangular due to the center portion hanging down.  This was important to me because I wanted it to look aesthetically pleasing.

The problem is that taking out the handkerchief and tying it up, best case, took about 16 seconds. That’s a long time in a performance and left little room for error as I only had 20 before I had to re-engage with my partner, do a quick grapevine move, and then continue.  It simply wasn’t working.  The solution, then, was to use two handkerchiefs.  One was prepared ahead of time where I rolled it up and sewed it down with thread so that the center piece wouldn’t stick out.  I also sewed down other parts to ensure that it looked “flat”.  I then put it into my right pocket.

At the beginning of the routine, I took advantage of a piece of misdirection.  I walked out to the middle of the floor with my unprepared handkerchief and started waving it around the way a magician might.  I folded it once, twice, three times, and then a fourth time.  I looked up at the audience, put it into my pocket, grinned, shrugged my shoulders and extended my palms as if to say “That’s it.  I don’t actually have anything for you! <sheepish grin>”  Later on in the routine, rather than grabbing the unprepared handkerchief, I remove the prepared handkerchief (which is still opaque, just looks nicer folded up that way) that has had its ends tied together ahead of time.  I pretend to tie it together, place it around my head, get it into the correct position, find my partner, and continue.

Note that this doesn’t actually add anything to the routine other than to make it go more smoothly.  Rather than taking 16-20 seconds, this one only takes 7 seconds including the playacting of tying it together.  But the idea I have implanted into my audiences mind is that I showed an unprepared handkerchief at the beginning and the assumption later on is the one I pull out to blindfold myself is the same one that I displayed at the very beginning.  The audience’s original memory is the one that fills in the gap later on.  And the motivation for that is to deceive the audience into getting them to think what I want them to think if for no other reason than I am a magician and that’s the kind of stuff I do.

I thought that was a nice psychological subtlety to add to the routine.  It’s a unique value-add that only I can bring to the table.

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Trading tidbits

I have a number of pieces of advice I give when it comes to investing in the market.  Investing is something you do long term, my Lazy Portfolio is something I consider investing.  It is not active, it is passive except once per year when you rebalance.  For most people, I recommend a Lazy Portfolio as a way to gain the markets.

Trading, or speculating, is different.  Your time frame is shorter.  You holding period could be minutes, hours, days, weeks or something months.  Months is bordering on investing, though.  Anyhow, trading is far more difficult than investing and requires far more psychological discipline than investing.  The reason is that the market is a difficult place to earn a living.  Yet trading is incredibly rewarding when it works out for you and is a thrilling place to be.  So without further ado, here are some of my pieces of trading tips that I live by:

  1. The four most dangerous words on the market are “This time it’s different.” 

    Jesse Livermore, a famous speculator, once said that human nature never changes, and never will the stock market.  By this he means that there will always be asset bubbles and busts.  During 2003-2007, the real estate market kept climbing, and so did the markets.  There were many people who assumed that this time it was different.  The market cannot keep climbing so there must be a correction.  But the market never did correct.  Why?  Well, maybe it really was different.  Due to technology, the entire world was participating in a boom cycle for the first time, not just the developed world.  Prosperity was around the corner; indeed, upon us.  The survival rate of the human population was increasing and therefore it was logical to assume that real estate could only keep climbing.

    But it didn’t.

    Eventually, the bubble burst.  The market entered into a 2-year bear market.  Just like every single other boom cycle, the bubble burst and we came crashing down to reality.  The real reality?  It’s never different.  History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.  If you’re ever in a stock and believe it will go up because it’s a different kind of company (like Apple or Google), trust me, it’s not different.  Believing so will cost you money.

  2. Hope is a four letter word.

    Hope is generally assumed to be positive, but not on the markets.  The term “Four letter word” is a euphemism for a dirty phrase.  When some people buy stocks, they buy at the wrong time and start sitting on a loss.  First it’s small and people hope for it to come back.  Then it gets a bit larger and they hope that things will turn around.  Then the stock really starts to tank and then people are resigned to thinking it’s a long term investment, hoping that it will return to its peak.

    A lot of people bought Lucent, Cisco and Microsoft hoping that they would either go up or will return to its glory days.  On the markets, there is no room for hope.  Either you cut your losses or you wait forever, hoping for an event that may never come and ties up your capital such that you can’t make a profit elsewhere. 

  3. Stay liquid.

    This is one of my favorites.  Liquidity refers to the ease at which you can get into and out of a position.  On the stock markets, liquidity is abundant.  I can log in to my broker’s website and buy stocks and sell options with relative ease.  It’s easy to execute stocks that have a lot of volume.  By contrast, real estate is very illiquid (as I am finding out).  There are only limited buyers and sellers and it takes forever to get into and out of a position.  If you are going to tie yourself to a long term position, make sure that it’s a good one.

    I kind of liken trading stocks to going out on a coffee date with someone.  Buying real estate is like getting married.  One’s liquid, one’s not.  Be careful about the liquidity of your relationships, too.

  4. The markets are expensive place to buy a thrill.

    I say in my introduction that trading is thrilling, but if you’re in it for the thrills, it’s going to cost you a lot of money. The reason is that the markets are related to money, and money is an emotional subject.  But it should be an emotional subject because of what it represents – you can use money for food and shelter (ie, basic survival) and also luxuries (ie, stuff you like to do).  We need money in order to live and therefore it goes right to our limbic brains.

    Unfortunately, our limbic brains are not necessarily the best allocators of capital.  When we get a lot of it, we feel a rush of energy.  But when we lose a lot of it, we start to panic.  And trying to get it back doesn’t necessarily mean we will get it back.  Most people often follow it up with a series of mistakes.

    So, if you’re in the markets for the thrill, you’ll get it.  But the emotional rollercoaster can also be very draining.  Trading for thrills will send a trader into premature retirement.

  5. The market is like the Lord, in that it helps those who help themselves.  The market is unlike the Lord, in that it does not forgive those who know not what they do.

    This is a quote from Warren Buffett and I chuckle every time I read it.  The idea behind it is that the market is an expensive place to get an education.

    There is plenty of money to be made from trading the markets.  But it’s difficult to do it.  And if you don’t have a trading plan or understand what you are doing – and really understand it – you will lose money over the long term.  That’s why I recommend a Lazy Portfolio, because the general trend of the market is up and you want to participate in it.  If you are going to trade, you are likely to get spooked and miss out on the best trends because it is hard to time the market.

    A good trader expects to outperform the market.  A poor trader can expect to perform much worse.

Those are some of my top trading tips.  I would consider myself an average trader, at best.  But yet I continue to try and will continue to try.  I’ve now lived through a bear market so that’s kind of exciting to me.  I always said that I wouldn’t switch to becoming a full time trader until after I had lived through a bear market.  Now that I’m learning options, we’ll see where this current strategy takes me.

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Now that I’m single again, I’m finding myself with a lot more time on my hands.  While my blogging has picked up recently, it also picked up in February and March before I was single so I haven’t been filling my time with additional writing.  Instead, especially over the past couple of weeks, I’ve started to get more actively involved in trading again.

This has been a double-edged sword.

I just started fooling around with options again.  While some of my trades have been profitable, I’m currently sitting on a position that is several hundred dollars underwater (and was the opposite the week before) that I still think will be profitable in a week.  Next Friday is the deadline because that is when they expire.  I probably should have sold them last Friday but I am certain that they are going to go up in value.  I am fighting my impulse to cut my losses because I have a belief in my own analysis.

The good thing about options trading is that I am learning to trust my instincts and pattern recognition from years of having a feeling that I can’t describe.  I’ve felt the market do stuff like this before and I feel like I know what is going to happen.  Yet I can’t be sure because I don’t have a good strategy.  It turns out I am profitable more often than not, and that’s because I know that my trades are often profitable for a short period of time and then turn around.  Because I am currently forcing myself to get out of positions quickly, this is working.

The problem is that I feel that I am only as good as my last trade.  And my last trade isn’t the one I closed, it’s the one I closed but shouldn’t have.  I made 7% in one day yesterday.  But had I held on, I could have made 30% in two days.  That makes me feel terrible on the inside.  But yet I can’t stop trading, it is a feeling that I don’t understand.

Jim Cramer, of Mad Money fame, has a book called Confessions of a Street Addict.  It’s one of my favorite books because he tells the story of his day-to-day nature of hedge fund trading and the emotional swings that he went through.  He wrote a column last year describing how he “hates” himself.  I thought he was being melodramatic, but I completely understand what he means.  The term “hate” is not the best way to describe it.  I don’t know how to use words to describe the emotion that goes along with it, but I get it.

I used to think that in the markets, emotions can be a detriment.  I know longer think that.  People who have had brain damage where their intellect is intact but their emotional processing centers have been damaged have serious problems doing basic tasks.  They can organize things but they cannot prioritize and take action.  They can figure out that certain things are risky and dangerous to their well being but keep doing them in spite of knowing this.  This suggests that emotions are still a center of our well being and we need them in order to function normally.

These emotional swings, highs and lows, are things that I experience.  I feel so much regret when I see a trade go up further still when I sold it earlier.  And I have a lump in the pit of my stomach with these other option positions that are so much in the hole.  And I feel elation when I make 100% in one day.  And I have to fight every ounce of my desire that wants to close my current position in natural gas even though it’s up 10% in two days.

I cannot tell you why I just don’t stop trading.  Well, maybe I can – I don’t stop trading because I don’t want to.  I  have stop losses.  I restrict options trading to less than 10% of my portfolio.  I trade reversals and short term momentum so I think I know what I am doing.  But I still experience that emotional anxiety that I thought I had cured myself of when I went to a lazy portfolio.  That little bit of active trading part is a powerful elixir.

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I’ve started trading in options a bit and I find myself panicking and doing the wrong thing for lack of knowledge in this crazy market.

I opened up two positions yesterday – call options in IBB (Nasdaq biotech) and UYM (building materials).  I made a bit of money in the former and lost a bit on the latter.  I really should have let them ride but decided to close them today even though I think they have more to go.  But not having a good options trading strategy, I’ve decided to go in and out relatively quickly until such time as I feel comfortable letting them ride.

I made a net gain of 7% ($122) in one day.  Not bad, I would say.  Not great, I think that I can get triple digit returns trading options but I saw that the SP-500 reached its 50 day and encountered resistance.  To me, that suggested that the rally was not looking as good as it once did and that the risk/reward ratio was not in my favor anymore.  I fully expect maybe a slight advancement and then a collapse in some other positions that I am not in and then pick up some put options.

I fully expected my position in IBB to keep rallying even more, but now I am not so sure.  The market isn’t oversold anymore (only slightly) and so because my preferred holding period in options is so short, I decided to abandon my positions and keep my tight profits.  I realize that this is not a great idea, but not having a strategy means get in and get out quickly.

Mind you, 7% return in one day is better than the 1.5% it would have earned in a savings account in a year.  So I guess I should be proud of that.  In order to get $122 return in a savings account, I would have needed to tie up $8133 for a year.  This way, I only tied up $1742 for one day (includes commissions).  That’s a better way to get a return on investment, I think.

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Tonight, I had the opportunity to perform my effect that I call “Number, Please.”  Basically, it’s a numerical trick that works on the premise that a spectator calls out a number and I turn around a piece of paper to reveal a sequence of numbers, all of which add up to their chosen number.  It actually gets pretty good reactions from people.  As a magician, I would have initially dismissed it as not having that much of an impact, but people seem to like it.

I performed that effect tonight for a girl who was at the dance studio.  She’s seen me perform before and whenever she sees me, she actively asks to perform something new.  Tonight was no different, so I performed this one.  I grabbed a pencil and a note pad, did the effect and then gave her the Post-It note.

I walked away and came back to me later with all sorts of questions and theories.  Now, when it comes to magic, I am dishonest.  But I am honest about being dishonest.  In other words, I openly claim that my performances are a blended fusion of magic, suggestion, psychology, showmanship and misdirection.  It’s not real.  But at no time will I give away my effects.  And to misdirect away from how the effect is done, I continue performing even after the trick is done.

She asked me a question that was sort of leading in the direction as to how it is achieved.  It wasn’t quite correct but it wasn’t wrong.  It was probably more right than wrong.  She said “Did you do <this>?”  What could I do in this situation?  I could admit it and weaken the effect.  Or, I could do my new policy – I lied.  I said no.  “Really?” she asked.  Again I said no.  She then rephrased it again, and once again I said no, that’s not what I did.  In each instance I did not tell the truth.

It used to be that I would neither confirm nor deny anything.  I still do that, but sometimes I lie.  Sometimes I tell the truth, but often to misdirect away from something else.  I figure that my secrets are my own to divulge and even when the trick is done I am still in my persona.  Being an expert in body language, I made body language motions that signal confidence and not ones that signal mental duress.  I made eye contact and put my palm down on the counter, shaking my head as I said “no” (as opposed to shrugging my shoulders).  You can see that I was laying it on thick.

When it comes to magic, if you’re a muggle, you won’t get much out of me.

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Today, the market pounded everybody really, really hard.  It started off as a slow decline and at around 2:40 pm Eastern, it fell off the table and started selling off massively.  Everyone who’s portfolio was exposed to the long side of the market took a hit today, including my own.  It was a complete beating.

Except it wasn’t a complete beating.

As I have explained before, I have a lazy portfolio which is composed of ETFs that track various markets.  However, I also have an active trading component.  One of those is RSW which is an inverse ETF.  Whenever the market goes down, that one goes up.  So, I made a little bit of money in RSW, selling too early but still locking in a gain.

That’s not the good part, though.  I don’t normally boast about all of my trades, but this one is special.  Last night, I went home and made a list of all of the stocks in my watchlists that were trading near their 52-week highs.  For you see, I had a theory – all of my good stocks were getting stopped out after large down moves but all of these other ones were bucking the trend.  I’ve had stocks buck trends before and they hold up for a while but eventually collapse and get dragged down under the weight of the rest of the market.  I ended up with a list of five stocks.  Among them was Baidu, my all time best trade.

I decided that I was going to buy a put option on Baidu.  A put option gives you the right to sell a stock at a particular price.  So, if the price goes down, the value of the option goes up.  I woke up early and put on a trade 7:13 am this morning.  I closed my position at 11:53 am, 4 and a half hours later.  I made a gain of 108%.  That is not a typo, I shall type it again – I made a gain of 108% in one day.

This represents my all-time best trade ever.  I have never come anywhere close to that, and it is unlikely I will ever come anywhere close ever again.  It was a lot of luck.  I had no idea that the market would sell off that hard.  I watched it go up, come down and go up.  And then it went up more.  And some more.  And then some more!  At that point, things started to get ridiculous and I decided to close my position because I had doubled my money in one day.  And I was lucky I did because the market had a huge sell off and then made a V-shaped recovery.  Had I waited to sell at the end of the day I would have surrendered 1/4 of my gain.

This is one of those times when things worked out well.  I bought the option at the perfect time because the stock moved up in the first hour of trading, which is when the option would be cheapest.  I then sold it about 10 minutes after the market swooned; had I sold 10 minutes earlier I could have tripled my money… but I’m not complaining.  I’ll take a 100% in one day, any day.  Yes, there was a lot of luck involved, but it was also pattern recognition.  I recognized the pattern of seeing stocks hold up and I bet that they were probably going to fall.

So yes, today was a terrible day on the market.  But it wasn’t that terrible.

Incidentally, I had another smaller position that was also up 100% but I held onto it and it surrendered 90% of those gains (from a technical perspective the underlying stock should fall another 3-4 points).  Like the rest of the market, this stock also formed a sharp V-shaped recovery.  Even though I made a huge gain in Baidu, I still feel like I missed out on this one.  I was thinking at the time I should have sold, although my web broker account was frozen so I guess everyone was trying to get out.  Maybe tomorrow it will continue the collapse.  Here’s hoping.

Finally, every single stock on my watchlist moved down huge today.  I could have bought put options on any of them and made money.  I didn’t go all out because I don’t have a good options trading strategy (yet).  But perhaps 2010 is the year I change that.

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Remember that stock I was talking about last week that was up 10% for me in a few days?  Well, it swung around and fell 20% from that.  It gapped down and I decided to close the position because it releases earnings tomorrow.  It’s either going to gap up or gap down but from a technical perspective, the trend has changed.  I kind of wanted to hold out in hopes of getting a good earnings report and a reversal, but on the markets, “hope” is a 4-letter word.

My trading this year in individual stocks has been awful.  I am right temporarily… and then the market turns around.  My stocks tend to correct much harder than the rest of the market which is irritating.  My timing is always either right and then wrong, or early.  The only good news in all of this is that I bought an inverse ETF (RSW again) and I am catching back some of my losses for the first time in forever.

The redeeming feature in all of this is that while the market is correcting, it will be a good time to add to some shares.  The other redeeming feature is that I played my hand properly, restricting my active trading to only a narrow portion of my portfolio.  I am wondering whether or not I should close my other position and lock in my gain while I am still showing a profit.  Or maybe I should buy some put options and hedge against future losses.

Hmm, options… Might be time to fork out a strategy.

Oh yes, one more thing – I need to adjust Terry Zink’s Lazy Portfolio to include Emerging Markets.  This means a reduction in exposure to EFA and buying more EEM or VWO.  I don’t really need a big position in underachieving Japan, do I?  No, I think not.

Update

Ok, so I have been thinking.  I really need to get an automated system in place to execute my trade exits.  I seem to lose that discipline in trading when it comes to taking profits/cutting losses until those losses are either much larger than I planned or the gains have vanished.  This happens to me over and over.

I have been thinking that I have a few technical systems I could implement.  I could easily write a software program that connects to the web, downloads market data and does some technical analysis.  If it meets a sell point, it should sell the stock.  I think it’d be difficult for me (personally) to do this coding, but I could have it send me an email alert instead.  Once I get it, I could execute the trade.

The one problem is that my second thoughts might get in a way.  What I really need is a trained monkey who can understand a cell phone and log into my account and do the trades for me.  That cuts out my own emotions of second guessing.  The reason I don’t sell these stocks is because I want to hold them for the long term (this greatly improved my trading 3 years ago).  But I don’t have to do that anymore since I now have a lazy portfolio.  So maybe swing trading is the way to be for me that uses a variety of exit signals.  I still have to enter them manually, but getting out should be done using a strict set of criteria.

Update 2

Ok.  So, I’ve been reviewing strategies for making money in a down market.  I went and looked for stocks that have been holding up well and have moved in a single direction (up) without collapsing yet.  I’ve been toying around with the idea of either going short on them or picking up some put options.

Options are difficult to trade because they are so volatile.  If I did buy some, I’d have to be right and be right fast.  The gains are smaller but the amount of capital you expend is also smaller.  For example, it’s possible to make $100 on a $500 investment, a gain of 20% in only a few days.  That’s if you’re right. 

I am going to wake up early tomorrow and pick up some short term options on the stocks I have identified and see if I can pull out some gains.  My capital in my account is starting to deplete (down 7% in 3 weeks) so maybe I can make myself feel better by making some of it back.

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I have never really watched the television series The Amazing Race until this past season.  I caught parts of episodes before and watched a couple last year but it never really caught my attention until this year.  I’m not sure what changed but now I’ve been watching it fairly consistently.

This past episode, they were in the city of Shanghai, a place that I have been to before.  They went to a little shopping complex and I thought it looked familiar.  It then cut to a scene and there was a Starbucks in the background.  Suddenly, I jumped up and pointed at the screen.  "Hey! I was there! I was there!" I shouted.  And I totally was, I recognized the Starbucks totally due to the angle and the shopping complex architecture.  I then did my Happy Dance.

It was just like being on the show.

Actually, I’ve been to a few places they’ve been to this year – France, Singapore, Shanghai and San Francisco (next week).  It makes me feel important.

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I have a number of types of spontaneous dances.  If you hang around me long enough, you’ll be sure to see me break out in one of them in response to a various event.  Let me go over the three types:

  1. The Happy Dance – The Happy Dance is the most common, and the least structured.  This dance is when something really good happens to me, or something just really good in general, or I’m trying to get someone else in a good mood.  It’s more or less the same dance as my trip to Australia.  Basically, you kind of hop back and forth from foot to foot very quickly, and you swing your arms out-and-in with your elbows bent.  Speed of movement is not crucial but it cannot be slow.
  2. The Victory Dance – The Victory Dance is the dance of champions.  The beginning of it is structured.  You start off by verbally humming (loud enough so that people can hear you) the Final Fantasy victory music and raise your arms in the air.  You then start moving your arms up and down like the characters from the original NES Final Fantasy.  You continue humming the music and at this point you can either stop moving your arms or continue, or you can add steps to it.  The key part is the opening.  The Victory Dance is reserved for when I make a good trade or I achieve a financial victory, or a competitive victory such as beating somebody in a game of mini-golf.
  3. The I-Was-Right Dance – This is the dance of smugness.  If ever I have tried to make a point and someone tried to disagree with me, and then we later on find out that I was right (as usual), I do the “I-Was-Right” dance.  This dance has the least movement and is done somewhat slowly.  It involves raising arms straight out at shoulder length and then then swaying from side-to-side.  Your arms kind of dip up and down a little as you sway, and your head sways as well as your shoulders.  Your eyes should also be closed.  This dance has an air of smugness reserved for it and it is designed to rub it in a little.

Now, these types of dances cannot be done on the spot.  They must be associated with a specific event (like a genuine smile).  But rest assured, eventually you will see me do one of them.

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Ugh.

I’m currently working on a paper entitled The Psychology of Spamming.  And, I’ve got a major case of writer’s block.  I’m currently at 2200 words and I have been working on it for two weeks.  But in the past two days, my posts on spirituality are a combined total of 3000 words!

I have lots of material to work with… I just can’t seem to write it down.

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This is my second post in a row on matters of faith and spirituality.  I do so with trepidation because I am breaking my vow to not write about it publically, but here I am.  I have no real desire to convert anyone to my views, but I suppose I have had thoughts welling up in my head for a while now and it’s time to put them into cyberspace.

My own personal views fuse conservative Protestantism, liberal Protestantism, Judaism (mostly reformed), skepticism and science.  Those last two are especially important in guiding how I think about things.  One of the things I have been working on for the past month is looking at how emotion influences our decision making process.  Specifically, I want to look at how our brains work and where emotions originate from.  I used to think that emotions were “bad” and that a cool, logical head was how we should interact with the world most of the time.  Because of my research, I have been forced to change my position.  As it turns out, emotions are good because without them, we wouldn’t be able to function in many of our daily tasks.

One example area with (Christian) religion that I interpret differently is where the apostle Paul talks about the flesh, or the sinful nature as it is referred to in some translations.  Various denominations have their own interpretations as well.  Some strands of Christianity view the flesh, our own human nature, as a natural propensity biased to sin but that it is not inherently evil.  It is only when action is taken that this is bad.  This tends to be a less mainline view.  Other strands of (mostly conservative) Christianity tend to view the flesh as an external entity within ourselves that is constantly engaged in battle with the good part of ourselves.  We have a sinful nature that wants to sin (or do evil) and we must struggle against it.  This is taken further in that apart from God who (supernaturally?) enables us to fight against the flesh, we can do no good thing.  In other words, it is God who enables us to do good things and fight the flesh/sinful nature and that without God, all we would ever do is evil.  Some denominations claim that God is behind every good work because humans are inclined to do nothing but evil.  It was because of the Fall in the Garden of Evil that we inherited this sinful nature.  Some take it one step further in that we are all guilty of Adam’s sin in the garden.  Others claim we inherited Adam’s weakness but not his guilt.

Regardless of which position you take, this is highlighted in Paul’s letter to the Romans, especially in chapter 7 where he talks about the flesh/sinful nature as a battle against his (God enlightened?) good nature.  The key thing here is that this nature is an external entity of which he is aware but is too weak to fight against, absent of God.

This is not a view I subscribe to.  Don’t misunderstand, it’s not that I don’t understand this point of view.  In fact, I believe I understand it quite well. I just think that there are other scientific interpretations that make more sense.  As I have been learning about emotion and decision theory, I have discovered that there are three parts to our brain:

1. The brain stem (or reptilian brain) – this regulates essential survival like hunger and breathing.

2. The limbic brain (or mammalian brain) – this part of our brain is responsible for much of our basic survival. It is the part of our brain that is designed to react, not reason. It governs our emotions like desire, fear, happiness, anger, and so forth. This part of our brain response is hardwired into our physiology. It has been developing for millions of years.

3. The neocortex brain (or human brain) – this is the part of our brain that is responsible for all of our creative processes and is responsible for logic and advanced thinking. The reason that we as humans are at the top of the evolutionary ladder is because we have the largest and most developed neocortexes of any species.

A good chunk of sin can be seen as excesses of emotion – we need to eat in order to satisfy hunger, but too much food is gluttony.  Lashing out in anger is bad for us.  We seek out sexual partners in order to keep the species going, but excess promiscuity is bad for us.  Ditto desire, and so forth.  Yet all of these emotions – desire, hunger, fear, happiness, anger – are controlled by our limbic system.  The limbic system is a very honest part of our brain.  It evolved in order to keep us alive.  That’s why we have emotions, because without them we couldn’t function (people who have suffered brain damage that left their intellect intact but damaged the parts of the brain that control emotion cannot do simple tasks; they do things like sort papers, organize stuff but never make actionable decisions).  The desire to have sexual partners is governed by the limbic system (specifically, the amygdala) because if our historic ancestors didn’t have this drive, we wouldn’t be here today.  Similarly for hunger, we need food in order to eat.  Without the emotion of hunger (actually, a blend between the limbic and reptilian system), we wouldn’t be able to survive.

Our neocortexes and our limbic brains are always battling to guide our behaviors.  The limbic system is kind of like a continual hypochondriac whereas the neocortex wants to build stuff, create stuff, write stuff, and so forth.  Animals live by their limbic systems but humans try to live by their neocortexes.  So why the “problem of sin”?  To quote Alvin Toffler:

Man has a limited biological capacity for change. When this capacity is overwhelmed, the capacity is in future shock.

Future shock is the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.

We humans had Stone Age ancestors for a long time and our limbic systems kept us alive; when we feel afraid of something, say snakes, it is because our brains are hard wired to avoid things that could harm us.  The fear response is actually a good thing.  But eventually our neocortexes evolved.  And when they did, civilization advanced.  Unfortunately, our limbic system was ill-prepared to deal with all of the change.  We used to eat in order to survive, and survival was difficult.  Now, we have all sorts of temptations like chocolate, fatty fried foods, excess sugar, and the like.  And our brains tell us that food is good and we need it to survive, and our emotions of desire tell us that it will taste good.  Similarly, back in the Stone Age, and when we were still prior to the missing link, species had to engage in sexual behavior in order to keep the species alive.  Sexual desire is built into our brains because it was a survival necessity.  Yet now, the population is not in any need of propagation.  Better nutrition and medical advances (all because of our neocortexes, the same as fatty foods) has prolonged our lives.  But the desire for sexual contact is still there (and has to remain there otherwise we’d all disappear within a generation).   Our limbic systems have not caught up to the scope of change, and we, as a civilization, are in future shock.

Thus, much of what Paul calls the flesh or the sinful nature is, in my mind, often explained by this battle between our neocortexes and our limbic systems.  The limbic system was designed to keep us alive.  And it still keeps us alive today.  It is not inherently bad but it can manifest itself in behaviors that are not good for us.  Indeed, immediate emotions (as opposed to expected emotions) have been known to drive people to act in ways contrary to their own self-interests.  The ancient philosophers (Aristotle, for example) took a negative view of emotion, but in recent times they have been staging a comeback.  Note that Paul says that it is not him, but the sinful nature that causes him to do the things he does not want to do.  Scientifically, I think that’s wrong.  It is him that is causing him to do the things he does not want to do.  He does it because his stone age brain (we all still have stone age brains) is firing and telling him to do stuff to keep him alive.  I also think that his desire to suppress the flesh (the limbic system) is probably not the ideal goal because it’s useful to keeping us alive.  We need it.  Had Paul been aware of future shock, he may have changed his tune.

Suppressing emotion is not desirable.  I don’t really know what the answer is to Paul’s argument but I would definitely go off in another tangent from the one he goes down towards.  That the flesh is inherently bad is not a position that I would take, and that it is an external entity is certainly not one that I adhere to.

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Long time readers of this blog (all seven of you) will no doubt have noticed by now that I rarely write anything having to do with matters of faith and spirituality on this blog.  I think I can only think of two posts off of the top of my head and it would take you a while to dig through my archives of posts in order to find them.

That is by design.  It also represents a reversal from things I used to write upon, a little less than a decade ago.  You see, from 2001-2004, I used to write about matters of faith and spirituality quite regularly (I spent a lot of time reading and writing articles in the years between 1998 and 2000).  Especially in 2001 and 2003, I would spend countless hours on Internet discussion forums, wrote 20-30 articles on my personal web page (now all lost), read lots, chat with people in person, etc.  My views evolved over time and the things I believe today are not the things I believed 10 years ago.  I would say that my views started to converge somewhat about 5 years ago.  I would say that I devoted more of my spare time to studying faith and spirituality during that time frame then any other extracurricular activity.  Today, neither dancing, nor magic, nor blogging about spam in my spare time – none of these activities eclipses the amount of time I devoted to that other activity.  Even today, I still like to read books about biblical history though my time spent doing it is much less compared to what it was before.  So you see, that represented a good chunk of around 6 1/2 years.

The reason I stopped is because of Internet discussion forums and evangelization of my ideas.  I used to read a lot of discussion forums and it took me a while to get involved in the discussions.  But eventually I dipped my toes and at first it was fun and exhilarating.  I used to get energized discussing ideas with people whom I “knew” were wrong.  I was also expanding my mind.  The problem is that my interests were focused on a few particular topics and after a while I got bored.  Really bored.  The arguments were the same and they were with the same people over and over again.  And I wasn’t learning anything.  After a while, the adversarial nature of the discussions started to get to me.  I definitely learned a lot in those first 10 months but I found I kind of plateaued.  There’s only so many times I can read a discussion on the Trinity and be able to recite both sides points from memory and predict who was going to say what.  I knew it was time to move on when I started to answer one poster’s argument and stopped – I was too bored to finish the response.  Eventually my favorite board topic was closed, the topic banned, but it didn’t bother me so much.  I was ready to move on.

I still played around on discussion boards for a while dipping my toes in and getting into heated debates.  I once had a discussion about the date of composition of the book of Revelation and I must have spent 25 hours doing research and writing my responses. I don’t mean I spent a day doing it, I mean over the course of a week I spent 25 non-consecutive hours doing the back legwork. This was all because I cared so much. 

The problem with doing Internet discussion forums is that when debates get heated, you start to take things personally.  Eventually, you can’t separate yourself from your arguments and when people start attacking you (and I got called lots of names from people calling themselves Christian), eventually it starts to wear you down.  At least, it wore me down.  I thought I could handle the name calling and character attacks, but it did get to me.  I justified it in my own mind by claiming that these people were misguided.  But notice that it was always everyone else who was misguided, never me.

I found it very curious that for people who claimed to be Christian, they sure seemed like some of the most angry people I had ever met.  It wasn’t everyone, of course.  Just like in real life, there are people who are warm and friendly, and people who are mean and nasty.  At first, I thought that the handful of Christians were too “conservative” in their approach and so their catcalls of “heretic” at me were narrow minded.  I figured the atheists would be more open minded.  Eventually, I discovered that many of the atheists, while intelligent, suffered from an intellectual arrogance and had their own version of faith.  They just replaced God with government.

All of this is over-generalizing, but it was my experience.  People straddle the whole spectrum in terms of personality, but neither being Christian (any denomination) nor atheist (any denomination) was a universal indicator of personality disposition.

The last straw for me was on another Christian discussion board with a group of people I had met at a different board where half of them got banned.  I wasn’t a prolific poster but had a different viewpoint from this particular denomination (they were more conservative and not considered Orthodox).  I was used to being different from them, but in this particular thread the discussion got heated.  Someone tossed out what I felt was an unjustified attack, claiming that I was spamming the board with my theories about things, seeing which ones stuck and that I didn’t have a position.  How ironic, because in 2003 I was not yet a spam fighter.  The point is that I got really hot about that comment.  Very angry.  I typed up a response so fast about how he was doing the same thing, using arguments that he learned a day earlier and thinking that they were answers to very serious problems in his position.

But I didn’t post it.

Instead, I looked back at myself.  I was surprised at how emotional I gotten.  Specifically, how angry I had gotten.  I realized then that I had allowed myself to get so tied to my position that any and all criticism was a personal attack.  I then looked back at all of my motivations for getting involved in discussions.  I had learned so much over the previous 5 years but I was starting to become like the people I had long criticized – they may have been smart but they weren’t treating people any better because of it.  All that engagement in discussions wasn’t making me a better person.  In fact, I think it was making me a worse person.

I withdrew from the debate.  I went silent for a few weeks while I allowed myself to cool down.  I disengaged and re-examined how, if ever, I would ever re-engage in discussion.  The fact of the matter is that I never did.  I would sometimes pop in and make a comment or two to let people know I was still around, but I never got involved in deep discussions again when it came to religious matters.  Eventually I would do the same for politics, another of my favorite topics.  On this blog, you see me posting about politics from time to time but not that often (except for criticizing hippies).

As I reflect back on those years where I learned so much, you really do expand your view of the world when you engage with people who don’t share the same views as you.  But there definitely is a sense of community with people who do share your views.  I would say that you grow most when you find people who are different, but you definitely want to retreat to safety with people who are the same.  I decided that I wouldn’t get into heated debates anymore.  I can appreciate people’s views for what they are, but I can honestly say that I don’t have the desire to share my own views with others.  More often than not, it doesn’t lead anywhere good.  I saw how many arguments people got into, and when I promised myself I would never do it, I did it.  And I didn’t really like where it was leading me.

And that’s why I don’t write much on topics about religion, faith and spirituality.  I learned a lot, but I find that most of it is best kept inside my head.  I don’t have that need to be right. I find that when you share the same views with people, the adversarial nature of the relationship tends to disappear.  I don’t handle adversarial stuff that well, I have observed within myself.  So rather than push my views upon others, I try to appreciate theirs for what they are and try to observe and encourage them to use their views to grow into better people.

Maybe that’s a good position to take, and maybe not.  I have found that this has worked for me.

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