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Joshua Sharf

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« March 2007 | Main | May 2007 »

April 28, 2007

Fooled by Randomness

I've recognized myself in Nassim Taleb's superb Fooled by Randomness. Taleb has disdain for reporters, whose job it is to fit facts, post-hoc, into a coherent story. And he's right.

I cover a company called Brush Engineered Materials, BW. Take a look at that chart, especially the last day.

Several weeks ago, I had gotten a call from a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer who was working on a story about the company. Thursday was the Company's earnings call, and while they met their own guidance, many analysts (although not I) had expected them to beat them. The stock dropped 10 points. The story was scheduled to run Friday, and I got a post-close from the reporter, his editor explaining that they couldn't run something about the company and ignore a 17% drop in the price.

I said,

"Investors just got a little over-enthusiastic," said Joshua Sharf, a stock analyst with Wm. Smith & Co. in Denver. Thursday's stock close "is where Brush was a couple of weeks ago, probably about where it should be. People are disappointed," he joked, "that earnings didn't exceed their expectations."

In retrospect, this is exactly the kind of post-hoc explanation that does nobody any good. In the morning meetings, I never speculate on where a stock's going thast day, week, or month. I have a price target. If I like the stock, I like the stock. If I don't, I don't. But I - along with Taleb - have exacty no idea where the market or an individual stock is going that day, and it's silly to try to explain it after the fact.

In the future, when asked by a reporter why a stock is dropping, I'll probably say something like, "Who the hell knows? More sellers than buyers, I guess."

April 27, 2007

I, Voice Mail

I have just finished arguing with a voice mail system.

I was calling UPS. I have two books on order, scheduled to arrive at the office today. But the last scan is from last night, and it's the check-in scan to the warehouse in Commerce City. So I wanted to call, to see if it were on the truck, and if it weren't to do as I had done before and drop by the warehouse and pick the thing up for myself.


First, the voicemail asks me what it can do for me. (Heh.) It lists 4 items, beginning with "Track a Package."

Me: Customer Service
It (Slightly peeved at having been interrupted, and been asked for an item not on the menu): That's ok, and I can connect you with a customer service agent, but first, select one of the four options, "Track a..."
Me: Track a package
It (Breathing a slight sigh of relief): Please say your tracking number
Me (Breathing a slight sigh of annoyance): 1Z 189 093 04 505 38 HS
It: (Tells me what I already see on the web tracking screen)
It: Now, what else can I do for you? Track a package, ...
Me: Customer Service
It (Clearly annoyed at being asked to interrupt someone's coffee break): I can connect you with a customer service agent, but that is the most recent information available on your package. Would you still like me to connect you with a cusomer service agent? If so, say, "yes."
Me: Yes.
It: If so, say, "please."

No, I made that last part up, but you see where this sort of thing could lead you. I remember a science fiction story in Omni many years ago, about a game played by bureaucracies. The purpose of the game was to get the public very, very upset. Points were awarded on the basis of how ticked off individuals got, and how out of control they behaved. The real purpose of the game was to discourage public interaction by discouraging the public from showing up at all. I believe the beta version of the game is being tested now at various DMVs around the country.

Conference Call Etiquette

Earnings conference calls usually go on too long as it is.

Here's a suggestion.

When a conference call caller - like, say, an analyst - begins his call with, "Well guys, I really don't know what to say," the call moderator should disconnect him and tell him to get back in the queue when he figures it out.

April 15, 2007

Yom HaShoah

Tonight marks Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day. Its full name, though, is actually Yom HaZikaron HaShoan V'Hagvurah - translated as Day of Remembrance the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes. The difference is telling.

In shul on Shabbat, the rabbi's drash focused on Zionism, and tried to bridge the gap between the Zionist and the, ah, less-than-Zionist wings of Orthodoxy. More on that another time. But at the end of the drash, in the course of encouraging us to go to the community Yom HaShoah event this evening, he made reference to the notion of Hitler as a tool of God. Evil beyond measure to be sure, but still a tool of God. (I should point out that this is the younger rabbi, not the head of the school where the minyan meets.)

At the time, I wasn't quite sure how to go about discussing with him the reason this reference didn't work well, to say the least, but I think I've now got a handle on both the personal and the philosophical failings of this approach.

Essentially, what I think he was trying to do was to place Hitler in the Tisha B'Av context. That's the context that says that all the great villains in Jewish histoy were evil to be sure, but were also tools of God, serving His purposes, which we can't fathom, but which generally call for Heshbon ha-Nefesh - literally, an "accounting of the soul." There are two problems with this approach as regards Hitler and Yom HaShoah.

The more obvious problem is that Pharoah, Nebuchadnezzar, the Crusaders, and Torquemada didn't exist within living memory. To put Hitler in the Tisha B'Av context is profoundly disturbing to people who are the close relatives of victims and survivors, because they saw up-close a monster and a pathological people, not the hidden hand of God's will.

The less obvious problem is that the Yom HaShoah context isn't the Tisha B'Av context. The Tisha B'Av context is essentially passive when it comes to the outside world. It comes from millenia without a country, without a homeland, and without power. It comes from accepting a subordinate role in the world and in history, one where the primary actors are not Jewish, or Jews acting on behalf of non-Jewish powers.

Yom HaShoah, in Israel, is actually called Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day. It, along with Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut (stay tuned for next week) stress the importance of taking positive action, as a people and as individuals, to prevent evil and promote good. This means prayer and study, but also means picking up a gun and defending your country and your family. It is a message that is compatible with, but different from, the message of Tisha B'Av.

I'm afraid that the fact that Israel focuses on the Heroes and that American Jews tend to focus on the Martyrs says something unsettling about American Jewry - that we haven't really overcome the Galut, or Exile, mentality. That we are more comfortable seeing the world through the lens of victimhood than the lens of self-reliance. Which pretty much condemns us to relive that experience, too.


Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud