Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A trader is like...

A trader is like a rodeo rider. The market gets violent and shakes everyone but the most determined and convicted trader off its back.

A trader is like a surfer. He analyses wind conditions and tide levels and catches the waves just as they are about to form.

A trader is like a midnight clubber. The booze is on, the music is playing, there are hundreds of people dancing, but everybody has his eye on the exit door.

A trader is like a hunter. He waits in stealth, locks in on his target, goes for the kill, and gets out fast. He lives by the motto "one shot, one kill".

A trader is like a coin-picker. The coins are littered all over the road. They seem easy pickings but a bulldozer is parked right there.

A trader is like a poker player. The market always acts like it has a hand. He either plays along with it or calls a bluff. And he has a trump card--stay out.

A trader is like a trench soldier. 90% sheer boredom, and 10% sheer terror.

A trader is like a daredevil. He makes his judgment of the braking distance, and stands in front of the locomotive train. Get it right, and he lives, but only if he gets it right.

A trader is like a doctor. He monitors the pulse of the market with the EEG, and when the market goes into cardiac arrest, he performs elaborate maneuvers to rescue the health of his portfolio--calmly.

A trader is like an alchemist. He transmutes what is essentially trading noise into the most precious resource of all--gold.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Katahdin (Part 1)

Mount Katahdin is the northernmost peak of the Appalachian mountains that stretch from as far south as Georgia to Maine, and some say, to Canada too, depending on how pedantic you are on cartographing the mountain peaks. It has inspired hikes, climbs, poetry, paintings, a piano sonata and most notably, the writings of Henry Thoreau, who wrote of Katahdin:

"The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, such as savages, do not climb mountains -- their tops are sacred and mysterious tracts never visited by them. Pomola is always angry with those who climb to the summit of Ktaadn".

Katahdin actually means the Greatest Mountain in native Indian language. The Indians are obviously not well-travelled. Katahdin is by no means the greatest mountain in the world, whose height (1600m, slightly taller than Cameron Highlands) would barely cause a ripple among the sheer enormity that is the Himalayas. But there must be something about this particular Maine mountain that so inspired such dramatic prose. So it was not mere coincidence that I decided to embark on this pilgramage in the summer of 2009 to Katahdin, having been acquainted with both the Appalachian mountains and Henry Thoreau before.

I took off on a 330-mile drive via Interstate 95 from Boston to Milinocket, the nearest town to Mount Katahdin. Car rental is costly, especially if you are travelling alone, so you can be sure that I had overturned every timetable in every single bus company (Greyhound, Vermont, Concord) that ply on the Maine roads before deciding to go rental. I keep telling myself, how much would I pay to see Katahdin, and the practicalities of financial matters paled into insignificance.

Interstate 95

The mountain ranges loom far ahead , up among the clouds.

Welcome to Baxter State Park

Katahdin lies inside Baxter State Park. The story goes that Governor Percival Baxter was so spellbound by Katahdin that in order to prevent loggers from mining the surrounding area that he bought over the entire piece of land around the mountain, and entrusted it to the care of the state of Maine. That was how it became a state park. For the record, 204733 acres is slightly bigger than the island of Singapore.

The infrastrature of Baxter Park is laid out in this way: there is only one road leading into the Baxter Park, via an entrance. The nearest town, Milinocket, is probably 20 miles away. The base camps scattered around the main mountain ranges are located about 5 miles away from the entrance. You can elect to drive your vehicles to some of the base camps (like Roaring Brooks, Katahdin Stream and Abol), and you pay $24 per day for vehicle+man, or you park your car at the entrance and hike your way into the base camps--for $11 a night. At no time are you allowed to spend the night anywhere else in the park, so basically it means every night spent in Baxter State Park costs at least $11 per head.

I parked my car beside a lake, which was near the entrance. Seemingly tranquil and serene, but who knows what lurks beneath.

Since i would be away for a few days at least, thought it would be prudent to have the number plate recorded just in case the car gets stolen. But it was remarked to me (later of course) "nobody would come here to steal cars one lor." True.

Recording the numbers for security, not for 4D.

Spread out my barang-barang. From left to right:
Insect repellent (25% deet), Crumpler camera bag with D70, 17-70mm auto and 70-200 manual lens, a dozen toblerones and snickers, peanut butter, guide book with map of Baxter state Park, note book, Paul Theroux reading material and pencil, a pack of organic carrots, torch light, bread, Campbell soup tin can, 2 toggle ropes, rain coat, groundsheet, and an Adidas backpack.

Having never hiked overnight before in my life and lacking necessary experience, packing up has been a woeful hit-and-miss affair on hindsight. Why in the world would I want to carry reading materials up there? I realised my folly halfway up the mountain, with the weight of the books digging into my flesh. And what's with the 70-200mm lens? I had thought about it, and thought that I will never forgive myself if I come face to face with a bear and do not have a good zoom lens with which to shoot the bear with. Incredulously naive, because the first thing I should do is to make as much noise as possible to drive the bear away, and then run in the opposite direction--for dear life. On the other hand, the toggle ropes proved to be very useful later when the hikes turned to climbs. Finally, I can never overstate the importance of that humble groundsheet, without which, hmm, I could not contemplate beyond.

After packing my stuffs, remembering specifically to lock my car, and paying my dues to the rangers on duty at the entrance, I began to hike my way into Roaring Brooks camp with a spring in my steps. Loved every minute of it, but a very friendly ranger driving by insisted on picking me up along the way. Learnt from the ranger that Baxter State Park is a very well-policed park, with over 40 rangers on duty at any one time, unlike his last call of work, Denali National Park in Alaska, while 10 times larger in area, had only 4 rangers working in it. I guess he must have had a back-breaking time in Alaska. But I was getting excited too, because Denali (McKinlay) was also where Christoper Mccandles perished, and he must surely have heard of him, but I was careful to keep mum. I didn't want him to think of me as another silly college boy trying to tempt fate just because he watched "Into the Wild" on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Instead I joked about his workload being cut up by 40 times, which would otherwise never happen in the corporate world, and he beamed, "It certainly is!".

At this point in time doubts began to creep in. I had wanted this trip to be wild, but not so wild that I would lose my life, nor so mild to be like a walk in the park either. And with over 40 rangers policing every aspect of life in Baxter, it certainly sounded like a trip to Central Park indeed.

Spent a night inside one of the huts at Roaring Brooks camp. It is primitive, with wooden planks for bed and candles for light. "I am the noble savage, living in the primitive age of the world." It's always cool to be able to quote Thoreau and actually mean it. When darkness descends upon the land, the woods comes alive with fireflies dancing in the trees and the river sparkling with moonlight. These are enchanting moments that will remain in the deep recesses of my soul for long to come.

The morning after. Washing up beside Roaring Brooks, the icy-cold water stings me awake and hydrates me for what is going to a gruelling day.

I was carrying a few nigging fears with me at this point. I had forgotten about buying iodine pills in Boston, and was obsessed with the fear of drinking from the streams, until a fellow hiker said,"Just drink it up, let's worry about the ringworms later." Also, I had read that summertime was black fly season, and had heard stories from a Canadian traveller earlier that his face got stung so bad that it swelled for a few hours. So there, my 2 obsessions coming at the start of the hike, fear of black flies and fear of drinking poisoned water.

To get to the mountain proper, I had to cross a few miles of thick forest, but rest assured, paths have already been cleared for us. There is no need to trailblaze through. And, temperate forests, with their sparse undergrowth of soft lichen and moss, are a joy to walk in.

Into the wild...

Started the trail around 5am, with the sky already quite bright. I had elected to do the Helon Taylor trail, which is a hike with only a few climbs, after which it should adjourn to the infamous Knife Edge before reaching Baxter Peak, the tallest peak of Mount Katahdin.

This is the Helon Taylor trail, which involves jumping along these boulders.

Oh yea, and one more fear, the fear of getting my boots wet. So this stream was a considerable challenge in keeping my boots dry. My Timberland Gore-Tex held up nicely, and passed the test with flying colours. Of course I replenished my water supply here too. River streams don't come by so often in the wilderness.

A 2-m tall boulder, one of the few climbing challenges along the trail, facing me.

Easily done--looking down.

This is getting fun. At this point, I had still thought of Baxter State somewhat like a more rugged Sunday climb at the gym. I recalled the joke in the Peep Show, where Jeremy mentioned that "the world is his gym, the mountains, the rivers.", whereupon Mark concurred, "The world is my gym too, well, just that little bit where it is actually a gym." That's the polarity between country and city life.

Wildlife--I mustn't forget to photograph the wildlife I encountered along the way.

Slowly the treeline becomes more exposed. I think I am halfway up the mountain already.

The scenery gets more breathtaking as I go higher up.

More wildlife.

I am soon up among the clouds. I expended approximately 5 hours of non-stop hiking to get to this far. Everything goes to plan. This is still a stroll in Central Park.

Steep climb

Uh-oh. The steepest climb yet. I think it was a 2.5-m climb here. There was no other way but to somehow haul myself up. After much difficulty, including throwing my 2 baggages over the top, could I actually overcome the boulders here.

After doing a few more 2-m haul-ups, I soon realised that its not so easy after all. Looking down, I was thinking, oh my gosh, I am actually CLIMBING now! Quelling my fears, I keep telling myself, "Comon, you've done all these before at the Kallang gym."

One advice they always give...

...Don't look down.

And a new fear supplanted the old ones--the fear of falling. This particular fear of falling is quite unlike that encountered in roller-coaster rides. It is as if the sheer intensity of a roller-coaster ride gets diffused across time, resulting in a less acute but no less palpable throbbing of the heart. It doesn't matter how high you go, because by the time you climb to a certain height, it doesn't make a difference to your brittle sack of flesh anymore. I was thinking, the Helon Taylor "Central Park" trail must have ended, and I must be on this so-called Knife Edge already. If so, then I must be near the peak already.

Is over yonder the peak? No it isn't.

Sometimes you couldn't see over yonder, and you thought that what you saw was the peak. You hastily scramble up, only to see yet another of such mound, and yet another, and yet another. Its beginning to take a toll on my physique.

Taking a break. I'm not alone in getting tired from all these humps.


Wildlife shots indicate my generally high state of morale for I still have it in me to find the mood, not to mention energy, to observe wildlife (mostly insects unfortunately) around me. For a while, I was worried about snakes lurking beneath the undergrowths. But bah...none whatsoever.

This is getting a bit hardcore now. Not unlike one of those fearsome obstacles you have to overcome in those Nintendo games in order to progress to the next stage. I was thinking, hmm, should I just give up and turn back? At this moment, the choice still lies with me, because I had hiked over what is not too difficult to backtrack--a gentle slope punctuated by some large boulder climbs.

It was really tough getting up that wall, but I kept telling myself, this must be the Knife Edge, and I must be nearing my journey. I was elated to see a signpost upon scaling that final rockface, only to realise its not Knife Edge. It was only the Helon Taylor Trail that I had done, and its already 11am now. I had taken 6 hours to trek just 3.2 miles? That must be terribly slow by anybody's standards. And in order to get to the real peak, Katahdin Peak, I have to trek through a 1.5 mile long ridge called the Knife Edge.

Signpost that says Pamola Peak (not Katahdin), and gently points Katahdin-bound hikers to what lies to their left...

...the Knife Edge.

to be continued...soon...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

BNP Nick Griffin on BBC Question Time

I don't know anything about British politics, never heard of the British National Party (BNP), and much less of their leader Nick Griffin and his extremist views that Britain should remain fundamentally white. While white supremacy is nothing new, what is refreshing is that BBC has given him an opportunity to air his views in public. Giving white supremacy any sort of attention, much less on prime time television, is a very dangerous affair, and the controversy was brewing for some time on Financial Times, so I decided to check out what's the whole deal about.

And what transpired from the video I watched was, in my opinion, a triumph of free speech and democracy, where ideologies and arguments are allowed to stand or fall on their own merits. Against a panel of admittedly very illustrious opponents, Nick Griffin, a more oratically gifted one perhaps(an Obama with that Hitler moustache?) could have grasped control of the stage and turned the table against the incumbents. Instead he hemed and hawed, backtracked many times and and was reduced to nervous laughter, which drew swift and sharp rebuttals ("Why are you smiling? It's not a particularly funny matter."). The straw men he built over the course of his political career, denying the Holocaust for example, cosying up to the Ku Klax Clan for example, were admittedly his major liabilities. His rambling ways betrayed a complete lack of clarity of thoughts.

But of course, BBC must have known the outcome in advance. They strategised right down to the last detail--why else invite an American black woman on the panel, who would be both an academic and moral authority to speak on the Ku Klax Clan--to milk maximum humiliation for all Nick Griffin was worth. The trojan horse was delivered, and the bait was taken. The only person there to defray the heat was hapless Jack Straw, UK Home Affairs Minister, who was being blamed for giving birth to the BNP through 12 years of lax immigration laws. So we have a curious case of unwilling father and bastard son, sitting uncomfortably side by side. The 2 women panelists came off with their reputations enhanced. You wouldn't want Sayeeda Warsi sitting opposite you in any debate competition. Eloquent and displaying a sort of economic rationale that is difficult to refute--"this is no longer a race issue, but a resources issue"--she is one daunting opponent. Bonnie Greer, disarmingly humourous and chummy with her snide comments, is just danger.

Add to the mix an engaging and at times emotional audience, and a sprinkling of beautiful people, this is as fun as politics can ever be.

Last note, if the programme had set out to humiliate Nick Griffin, it would have comfortably met its objectives. But I don't think anybody from either side of the ideological divide--liberals and supremists alike--would be convinced to switch camp on the sole basis of a TV programme. Thoughts are entrenched in people over the course of a lifetime. The brain entertains a million thoughts a day, but most of them are just repetitions in various guises, and only reinforce the structure of the brain, compelling the next thought that comes along to travel along well-worn synapses. It is less a philosophical problem than a biological one. It takes enormous commitment and intellectual honesty to come clean with oneself and reorganise our own house of thoughts. Far easier to let the cobwebs manifest themselves in their own ways, rightly or wrongly, and allow ourselves to be forever entangled in our own convoluted web of thoughts.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

On Mr Market

I used to think Mr Market was some kind of omnipotent masters of the universe, and we are mere slave to his whims and fancy. But as long as we fear him accordingly and give him the due respect, we would be shown mercy. The streets are littered with the bodies--hang, drawn and quartered no less-- of those who have been victims to his occasional but unspeakable wrath. They serve as stark warnings to the survivors.

But Mr Market is an elusive one. Nobody knows who he is, or has even looked him in the eye before. Some claim to be able to communicate with him through tongues. We call these people chartists. Those who are unable to comprehend these strange languages resort to vague ideas of superstition. So superstitious was I about Mr Market that I worship him in my mind, and refused to even mutter anything that would be construed as disrespect to Mr Market, much like how people do not speak ill of the dead, or of deities. A book I read warned just that, that we shouldn't speak of "fighting the market", for it will hit back, and hit hard. You should think of Mr Market in more benevolent terms, as a figure who will conspire to fulfill your wishes so long as you go with the flow. It's more Zen than biblical.

But now I know better. Mr Market is just indifferent. You can say anything you want, you can do anything you want. It doesn't matter. You can bet against the Black Swans all your life and retire rich. Others blow up even before they start. Go ahead, be so mighty impudent once in a while and remove your stop-losses just before it hits. Don't worry. Nobody is going to come up to you with some sort of a probability bill to pay afterwards, and certainly not Mr Market. He is just a psychological construct. He is just like God.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fighting the world is tough

a great story on the struggles of a molecular scientist Ted Steele, who seem to suffer setbacks after setbacks in his quest to convince the world of his ideas.

...and a few thoughts flashed through my mind while watching the vid.

1) Science acts as a very strict gatekeeper between mainstream ideas and everything else on the fringes. With the modern-day rigour now demanded on all research, it is not easy for any new ideas to gain membership. And that is good. If not, we would be wasting valuable resources entertaining all sort of drivels from flat earthers and creationists.

2) If you want to fight the world, be prepared to get hurt. Perhaps a lifetime of torment, and then be cast into oblivion.

3) Not all scientists had it so tough as Ted Steele. Perhaps this is the difference between true geniuses and mere mortals. Geniuses are always recognised early, and worshipped accordingly. Look at Richard Feynman, whose ideas had always tended to be accepted willingly by the scientific community. At age 20, he was already invited to participate in the Manhattan Project. And by age 47, he was already a world famous nobel laureate. That's the mark of a true genius--a blessed life. Einstein had it very tough with his theory of relativity. Perhaps Einstein was right when he said he wasn't a genius, merely someone who thought a lot.

4) Sometimes you bring trouble onto yourself. Ted Steele's uncompromising stance and controversial headlines may have invited the vitrol directed personally at him. In his quest to convince the world of his ideas, he may have allowed his ego to take control of the proceedings. If the key word here is convince, he may do well to adopt a softer approach.