If you really want to know why the financial system nearly collapsed in the fall of 2008, I can tell you in one simple sentence…

That sentence, paraphrased: smart people started working on Wall Street. For most of its existence, Wall Street was mundane, run by Ivy League jocks with old money. It wasn’t run by idiots, but it also wasn’t run by geniuses. Then, with the rise in college costs and Wall Street income, truly smart people started showing up—the kind of people who would otherwise be doing precedent-setting legal work or breakthrough physics research. These geniuses weren’t content with the easy wealth old Wall Street afforded—they wanted to experiment, they wanted to use their tremendous brainpower. And if they made boatloads of money in the process, that was just an added bonus.

The problem came when all that complicated math started collapsing under the weight of excessive greed and ignorant bosses.1 An already complex global financial system become a tangled web of math which eventually unraveled. Some things, particularly economic and physical infrastructures, are best run by conservatively intelligent people who won’t experiment. I don’t want a genius doing my plumbing and I don’t want one doing my taxes.

This excellent Op-Ed from the New York Times was recommended by Jason Kottke.

What follows is a poorly written exposition of my recent activity. If you’re not in the mood for self-congratulatory bullshit, here’s the gist: I made morgante.net. It’s cool. It’s me.

I made myself last month. Rather, I made the online version of myself: morgante.net. I’d been meaning to do this for months, but #sitesprint finally gave me the motivation to do so.

Before doing so, I created numerous designs, from the gaudy to the overly-subdued. One was entirely primary colors, another was pure black-and-white. With respect to the design, I feel I’ve reached the ideal equilibrium with respect to the Goldilocks Principle: interesting, but not garish.

As my online home on the web, it of course links to all my profiles on various sites (I have too many). Most notably, I’ve added a link to Lemnos, my lab. Its name comes from the island upon which the great engineer-god Hephaestus wrought his creations. Within the lab are all my various technical projects. Its powered by Habari and a plugin of my own devising. The project pages are almost entirely automated: metadata is extracted from the plugin source, downloads are built from the subversion repository, and support is powered by the Habari Forums. Overall, I’m quite satisfied with the result.

Back on my hub, I did my best to keep things jovial. Building a website entirely devoted to myself is inherently rather pompous, so I was sure to have a healthy dose of self-mockery. The about page is a tongue-in-cheek tale of my life, while the Twitter widget in the sidebar features my occasionally whimsical wordplay. Meanwhile, the contact page is fully AJAXified, using my AlienContact plugin.

In the future, I plan to have a fully integrated lifesteam, à la Sweetcron. It will have all my activity from various places around the web, in addition to random life achievement bits: school awards, projects I start, etc. — the idea is that I will be able to programmatically generate a resume from the data. Though I currently have something similar here, I would like to eliminate a lot of the superfluous material from Newy Ancient and move it to my hub. The next iteration of my blog will put my best content up front, while also integrating newer (short) link posts.

Stay tuned for more exciting things as I finally get some priorities straightened out. My goal is to write at least one article a week, when the hellish load of AP English allows it.

Every day, the news media confronts us with enormous budgets: $3,000,000,000,000 for the Iraq war, $2,800,000,000,000 for the financial recovery, $16,000,000,000 for Facebook. Except they’re usually reported with the ambiguous numerical categories of trillion and billion. When your daily budget is a dollar, $10 billion and $10 trillion both look astronomically large — but difficult to compare. While I think listing out zeroes is helpful, despite the added space required (Hey, everything is online now anyways!), visualizations can make that comparison even easier. David McCandless has put together a good visualization of various world budgets. Though I would disagree about some of the categorizations, since government stimulus money is not actually lost, the boxes themselves are relatively useful.

Visualization of Billions

Right: Visualization of budgets and other big numbers.

(Via John Gruber)

My friend Joe Thibault recently emailed me about a new site he has started with Sean Behan (a crackerjack Ruby programmer). Their site, called PostLearn, is essentially an affiliate job board for education. While I wish them success in their endeavor, I won’t be joining as I believe this model suffers from a couple of major flaws.

PostLearn affiliate graph

Right: Graph of PostLearn affiliate traffic, lead by freetech4teachers.

The greatest flaw is immediately visible from the affiliate graph: one site drives a vastly disproportionate amount of the traffic; Free Technology for Teachers alone accounts for over 90% of the traffic, and consequently will receive far more affiliate revenue. Except it will probably receive all of the revenue. In an affiliate model, there is a certain base amount of traffic required before you can get a single sale, a minimum that I doubt many of the others on the long tail (including yours truly) would reach. Effectively, the entire pot of affiliate money is controlled by a tiny oligarchy of sites.

This would be acceptable (it’s a free market, after all) were it not for the fundamental flaws in the Internet economy. This flawed economy is controlled by a small oligarchy of noisemakers. This oligarchy isn’t particularly hard to enter: just abandon journalistic ethics and post lists of the top n ways to write lists.1 Boom! Traffic.

Unsurprisingly, just as in the larger Internet, the most popular PostLearn affiliate simply rehashes merit-less news stories and tips.2 Looking down the page, lo and behold, we find a list of the aforementioned variety. Sadly, this content is rewarded far more generously than potentially more deserving comment.

Google AdSense grants us some slight freedom from this paradigm by democratizing advertising. Though the most trafficked sites still receive the vast majority of the revenue, smaller sites do share in some of the revenue, potentially enough to offset minimal publishing expenses. In this way, Google AdSense resembles most modern democracies: while the elite still maintain most of the power, the little guy does get a small voice. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than an oligarchy of the unthinking elite.

Fusion Ads

Above: The exemplary Fusion Ads logo.

However, we can do one better with a meritocracy. Rather than being a detriment, advertising can be a force for good on the web. Fusion Ads and The Deck are prime examples of this. Instead of rewarding breadth of content, these networks focus on finding blogs which consistently post material with depth. By handpicking their members these networks ironically end up leveling the playing field and giving quality content a chance to shine. I truly believe this is the advertising model that will save the web.3

With that in mind, I offer this challenge to Joe and Sean: devise an advertising platform which will improve the quality of the edublogosphere. In my opinion, such a model should observe three crucial principles:

  1. Popularity doesn’t necessarily correlate with merit. Meaningful blogs with strong reader relationships will, in the end, provide greater long-term benefit.
  2. Be selective. The quality of small, niche groups is more easily controllable, making them more marketable.
  3. Know the audience. Most readers are going to be job seekers (teachers) not job posters. The billing and payment strategy should reflect this.

Whether they choose to implement these ideas or not, I wish Joe and Sean the best of luck and look forward to their response.

Jack Cheng elaborates on a learning method developed by Paul Pimsleur for memorizing language vocabulary:

[Pimsleur] observed that the first time you learned a new word, you’d forget it almost immediately. But if you reviewed it again as you were about to forget it, each subsequent review would exponentially increase the staying power of the word. To put it another way, if you could only remember the word for 5 seconds at first, reviewing it after those five seconds would boost your retention time to 25 seconds, then 2 minutes, 10 minutes, and so on. At this rate, the tenth review wouldn’t have to take place until about four months after the first.

I’ve been employing a similar method for building my vocabulary (in preparation for the unavoidable SAT). Essentially, whenever I run across an unfamiliar word, I note it as an alarm in iCal set to go off 5 minutes later. Once prompted, I try to recall the word (and look it up if I forgot), then change the alarm to go off in 10 minutes, gradually increasing until it’s up to a year. Right now, I’m working on writing some software to automate this process, including the ability to add words from my iPhone.