Insights from Daily Speculations

I’d like to share two interesting pieces from Daily Speculations.

In the first piece, Jim Sogi looks at the story of the Whaleship Essex:


In the Heart of the Sea, The Tragedy of the Whale Ship Essex, by Nathaniel Philbrick, is a heartbreaking account of the attack by a sperm whale against the Essex, its sinking, and the devastating 87 days at sea in small whale boats and the suffering and struggle of the diminishing crew. As with many tragedies, though perhaps precipitated by some random event, a series of miscalculations, errors of judgement, both before and after led to creating a much worse situation.

In the case of the Essex, it was an older ship and the owners may have skimped on some repairs leaving it weakened structurally allowing the whale to stove its sides. The new young captain through bad sailing allowed a knockdown near the beginning of the voyage leaving them short of whaleboats. They were unprepared for a sinking.

After the sinking, rather than head for the Society Islands a few hundred miles away as the Captain first decided, he succumbed to the opinion of the mate and crew to go up wind, thousands of miles to South America. This example of poor leadership resulted in suffering and death. The horrific plight of the starving sailors on the small boats and who survived and who died and why in the social order gives much food for thought. It is notable that Captain Pollard eventually sunk a second ship by crashing it on a reef. Was it random? Bad luck? Or something else at work. The story reminds me of the feelings of a trader stuck in a bad trade or drawdown, starving for days and weeks and months on end but eventually making it back. Some even go on to live out their lives, but for some reason, the characters in this book seem to attract the plague of the fates. In this case, were correlation and causation related? That is an important question.

This got me thinking about the importance of preparation and caution when trading. Bad things will happen, of this there is no doubt, but preparedness can play a decisive role in determining the extent of the damage. Furthermore, this story also provides a lesson in how the rational decision making process can fall apart in times of crisis and pressure, when people’s backs are really against the wall. I’ve experienced this feeling in trading: during these times of confusion, my rational compass has stopped working and I’ve succumbed to a kind of madness of not just taking desperate measures, but of acting without thinking. I’ve been lucky to survive this experience, but it sure felt like a final pre-death frenzy. In appreciating the extent to which our thinking becomes clouded in times of crisis, so we realise the importance of guarding against these times in the first place.

The second piece on Daily Speculations concerns the role of fun in sports. ‘No Fun at All‘ comes from Victor Niederhoffer:

There is a point of view out there that the best performance comes when you’re having fun. In my lifetime I have played in more than 10,000 refereed squash matches, and won at least 50 national tournaments, and I never had fun in any of my matches. When I tried to have fun, it was disastrous, and I shudder at what a horse’s ass I was on those occasions.

To someone who’s a serious competitor, the idea of having fun in a tournament is ridiculous. There’s so much work, and so many better athletes that you have to beat. So many officials working to do you in, and so much equipment to properly deploy. So much practice and preparation before and during the event. You might think that this is a matter of individual differences or different sports, and I grant that there are some so great that they can soar so high and so much better that it’s possible for them to have fun.

I believe that Sharif Khan and Hashim Khan had fun when they beat me, but they didn’t have that much fun when I beat them, on those much too rare occasions.

I do know it’s totally wrong to try to have fun in the market — it’s much too hard, and there are no naturals. The cycles are always changing.

One of the best things I’ve done in my operation is to make sure that no one has fun in my office. Every now and then, I catch someone who doesn’t get the joke, and I upbraid them. 

I try to suppress all exuberance, and when I hear of some former trader who loves to have fun by trading I know he’s a straw man waiting to be exposed, and I only wish I could short his fund. Normally I wouldn’t comment on a subject like this but I am sure that all frivolity should forever be knocked out of the speculative arena, especially when even an iota of other people’s money is involved. They should have their own fun with money you make for them through serious and scholarly discipline and improvement, with no fun whatsoever.

See the original article for additional contributions from others, including a chess grand master and a marathon runner.


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