Friday, July 20, 2007


This morning I saw queues forming outside the Bookstores that line my road to work. Since I go to work an hour or two before these stores open, I realized they must be Harry Potter fans waiting to buy the last installment of their favorite series. Only when scouring the news, later in the day, did I read that this highly awaited book is being released at midnight tonight, at which point these devoted fans will have been in line for over 15 hours.

This leads to a confession I have to make: I have never read a word of any Harry Potter book.

Nor, for that matter, have I watched any of the movies. I realize this makes me sound like a contemporary literature snob, but I thought I should redeem myself by confessing it, as well as discussing Harry Potter in this post. Not knowing anything about the story, however, it will probably be a very short post.

I can start by surmising that Harry Potter will survive at the end. I do this by combining my faith in futures markets (which I have previously discussed here and here) with the fact that lists the chances of Harry Potter’s survival at 75% (as of this writing. The chart below updates automatically so it may show a different number).

© NewsFutures

By just past midnight tonight we should know if this is correct, but I will be following the numbers very closely until then because the last minute changes tend to show the direction the ending will go in more precisely.

There, are, however, some caveats. First, there needs to be enough liquidity. The NewsFutures site lists 20,354 contracts held by players. Since one player can buy in excess of 1,000 contracts, however (once you sign up they award you 200 contracts for free), this is a very low level of liquidity.
Secondly, when I first looked at the site there was a 91% chance that he would survive. This could mean one of three things:

1. The trends have started reversing towards Harry Potter dying and therefore he will not survive.
2. There is not enough liquidity, as I mentioned before, and therefore few trades can skew the market.
3. These being the final hours of trading, there is just a great amount of volatility in the market.

Despite these caveats I'm standing by the theory and betting that Harry Potter lives.

Update (9:20 pm): Harry Potter now has a 99% chance of survival. It looks like he'll pull through.

Update (12:20 am): It looks like I was right, the theory worked, and good ol' Harry Potter made it in one piece.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Terrorism is Vulgar

As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular.
Oscar Wilde - The Critic as Artist, Pt II

The ‘War on Terror’, while embraced by some, is ridiculed by others. Those who embrace it tend to call for war against the terrorists “on their turf” (in other words, the battlefield), those who do not condone it tend to prefer dialogue with presumed representatives of terrorist factions. Both of these views are flawed.

Terror is, by definition, a state of mind. A Terrorist is someone who utilizes systematic violence and intimidation to perpetuate this terror. As real-life examples, 22 theater-goers are killed when a bomb goes off on the first night of the season, or an airport is attacked with assault rifles and grenades, with 24 people killed and 80 more injured. These, however, were not acts performed by Al-Qaeda, its sympathizers or even, for that matter, Muslims. The first was performed by anarchists in Bologna in 1893, the second by members of the Japanese Red Army faction in the Lod Airport Massacre of 1972. In fact, long before Bin-Laden ever picked up a rifle, many terrorist organizations had brought about widespread havoc.

The anarchists of the late 19th century utilized the telegraph and newspaper as a means of modernizing their terror. Focusing on targeted killings, they were able to assassinate President Carnot of France (1894), King Umberto I of Italy (1900), United States President William Mckinley (1901) and Spanish Prime Minister José Canalejas (1912), among the most well-known. This, in addition to many violent acts and threats throughout Europe and the United States, as well as the calls to violence by several anarchist publications, made the Anarchist movement, or at least its violent wing, a full-fledged terrorist organization.

The RAF (also known as the Baader-Meinhof group) of Germany, the Red Brigades and Ordine Nuovo in Italy, the Japanese Red Army (JRA) and the Communist Combatant Cells (CCC) in Belgium all contributed to the terrorist attacks some older generations may still remember. These groups would at times work in conjunction with the PLO and Carlos the Jackal, among others, and they contributed to a multitude of terrorist attacks throughout Europe, Japan and North Africa. These led to the Lod Airport Massacre (1972), the German Autumn (1977), the assassination of Aldo Moro (1978), the attempted assassination of Alexander Haig in Belgium (1979) and the Bologna Massacre (1980), among many others.

These similarities may well be interesting, but what do they have to contribute to solving current problems and with today’s terrorists? Well, for starters, these groups no longer exist. The ones that do are now either mainly peaceful, such as the anarchists, or simply irrelevant, such as with the Red Brigades. How did these groups dissipate? Was it through tough military action, or through two-way dialogue? The truth is that it was neither. They merely went out of style, so to speak.

The world forgot about anarchism with the advent of the First World War, while most pro-communist terrorists lost their raison d’être with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Does this mean that Islamist terrorists will cease to exist only when a great historical event occurs? Possibly. The fact is, these historical events also made people less enthralled with the movements (the Ordine Nuovo was a far right-wing movement and should have therefore strengthened with the collapse of communism, but it died out like the rest). Therefore, it stands to reason that Oscar Wilde may have been right. Only when people stop viewing them as fierce freedom fighters and start seeing them as vulgar street thugs will terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda lose their appeal, and the world will be ready to move on. Unfortunately we cannot know when that will happen nor, more importantly, what will happen in the meantime.

This article can be found on the helium website.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Bon Anniversaire!

Today is Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, and a day which always reminds me of my childhood. Growing up in Europe with an American father I knew that the United States’ Independence day came 10 days before the French national holiday, and imagined them to be more or less the same. As I grew some more, however, I learned more of the differences, as well as the similarities, between the two; and how two insurrections that had occurred for much the same reason could have such different outcomes.

On July 4th, 1776, fifty six men signed the Declaration of Independence, which made official the American Revolution, where we all know the Americans defeated the British and with it, the yoke of monarchy.
It was what happened after this that is unique. The Americans had said theirs would be a country with elected leaders, who would represent the populace and be voted out of office after their terms had finished. What seems to us to be such a natural form of government had never been accomplished before. It was like saying we would be living in Thomas More’s Utopia, or the lost civilization of Atlantis.

When George Washington finished his second term almost all citizens expected him to find a pretense to continue his presidency. In fact, even after John Adams took office, senators would continue seeking George Washington’s approval and favor (which he would respectfully decline) and rather than listening to President Adams, people would heed George Washington’s opinions (until Adams asked him to please stop making public speeches). The fact that democracy endured is, in many ways, more incredible than the military victory against the British.

On July 14th, 1789, insurgents stormed the Bastille in Paris in order to attain the ammunition and weapons stored inside.
Once again, this was done for the purpose of shaking off the “yoke of monarchy”. The insurgents were, of course, successful, monarchy was abolished and a republic was proclaimed. Here, however, is where the story differed. The revolutionaries still did not feel satisfied. The sentiments of revolution had to be appeased through blood sacrifices by the thousands to La Sainte Guillotine. Victims upon victims were found, seldom with any chance to defend themselves, until just an accusation would be enough to have one’s head chopped off. Many personal scores were settled during this time.

What followed was a reaction that we can now say, with the benefit of hindsight, was inevitable. A Counter-revolution broke out, with people wanting to return to normal lives on one side (secretly missing the days of monarchy), and the Jacobins commanding strict loyalty to the republic (by means of supporting the executions) on the other. By the time Robespierre, Deputy for Paris and de-facto leader of the republic, was himself beheaded, around 18,000 souls had been lost to the guillotine.

Then, of course, came the Napoleonic era, the restored monarchy, the Third Republic, two World Wars, a Cold war, and the France we know today. So should the poor French be forever stigmatized because Le quatorze juillet commemorates the spark of an extremely violent, calamitous and ultimately unsuccessful revolution? The fact is, officially speaking, it does not. Officially it commemorates July 14, 1790. This was the date of the Fête de la Fédération, a feast commemorating the events from a year earlier. The French senate decided that this day, as opposed to that in 1789, "cannot be blamed for having shed a drop of blood".

Vive la France!