According to Merriam Webster the term is used to describe “a shot taken from ambush at a random or easy target.” It is more commonly used to describe critical remarks made in “…a random or sporadic manner. The first known use was in 1858, and was used to describing a shot that was unsportsmanlike and only worthy of those whose only object was to fill the cooking pot.

Panic! The Story of Modern Financial Insanity

panicThis book was loaned to me by a friend, and it provides useful information and warnings to people interested in or involved in stock market investing It was edited by Michael Lewis, as described on the front flap, is about “…the crash of 1987, the Russian default…the Asian currency crisis of 1999, the Internet bubble, and the ongoing subprime mortgage disaster.” The book is composed of more than fifty articles that were written by numerous authors, and several are by Lewis himself. The approach had both positives and negatives. The chapters are usually short and to the point, but there is obviously no consistency of style. Also, the articles often have redundancies.

I recommend scanning the reviews on Amazon. Many reviewers warn that the book is edited by Michael Lewis, and is not a “Liar’s Poker,” “Money Ball” or “Blind Side.” I will say in Mr. Lewis’s defense that the front cover clearly says at the top “Edited by…” (although in relatively small print). Another point in his defense is that he mentions in acknowledgments that proceeds from the book will go to Katrina victims (and the first person he thanks is himself).

I found the most interesting sections to be about the Internet bubble and the real estate collapse. Perhaps the most interesting theme in the book is that crises often find their beginnings when smart people begin running complicated but legal versions of Ponzi schemes. The nice thing about Ponzi schemes is that early investors can make lots of money if they get out in time. The bad thing is that those getting out late can easily result in losing everything. Overvaluation results from sellers looked for “the greater fool” to buy what they had bought for too high a price. They hope someone else would give them an even higher price before the price collapses. Another theme is that we think of the people who are involved in mind-numbingly complicated financial schemes and “instruments” as geniuses. The author often reminds us those revered experts often don’t understand any better than others. One statement worth remembering is, “The longer the bull market goes on, the more believers there are.” Continue reading

Don’t Change Horses in Midstream

Yahoo observes that this phrase was made popular by one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches in 1864 in explaining it isn’t wise to change leaders. He said, “An old Dutch farmer, who remarked to a companion once that it was not best to swap horses when crossing streams.”

This expression was posted on this date because the country decided yesterday to keep Barrack Obama on as President.

Lies My Teacher Told Me, Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

Reviewed by Kathy London

teacher-liesThis book by James W. Loewen covers a survey of twelve major high school history textbooks that the author found to be full of irrelevant and erroneous details, yet omitting pivotal facts. While history contains fantastic and important stories which “have the power to spellbind audiences, even audiences of difficult seventh-graders”, textbooks come up lacking. They are concoctions of “lies, half-truths, truths, and omissions” that avoid many important ideas, and they are generally boring. No wonder students lose interest. Since I was bored by history in high school, Loewen’s book rings true for me.

Loewen will provide any group with lively conversation: people of Columbus’ age did not believe the world was flat; Europeans were able to conquer the New World because European diseases decimated Native Americans, Helen Keller was an active social radical, and Abraham Lincoln did say the Civil War was fought to end slavery. Be outraged when Loewen labels your favorite piece of history as bland optimism, blind nationalism, or plain misinformation, and delve your own research.

I recommend the book and Loewen’s home page. So I was delighted recently to find Loewen’s home page. Here are some provocative quotes from that site:

“Most Americans hold basic misconceptions about the Confederacy, the Civil War, and the acts of neo-Confederates afterward. For example, two-thirds of Americans–including most history teachers–think the Confederate States seceded for ‘states’ rights.’ This error persists because most have never read the key documents about the Confederacy.” Continue reading

Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us – And How to Know When Not to Trust Them

Reviewed by Kathy London

wrongThe topic of this book by David H. Freedman might seem disheartening, but proving wrongness is not Freedman’s point. Rather, he is interested in how people can seek out trustworthy advice: “you are [not] helpless to judge…. Look over the evidence, gauge the quality… weigh the likely biases… and take your best shot at deciding…”

While I enjoyed Freedman’s book, I did skim sections where examples kept going long after I thought his point was made.

I admire Freedman for tackling the first obvious question: “Is This Book Wrong?” I suggest you read the appendix first. Freedman’s researcher-father kept, framed and hung on his office wall, a letter that torpedoed one of his published studies. “It reminds me how easy it is to be wrong” his father said. Freedman admits his book is probably “riddled with factual and conceptual errors”, describes how errors probably snuck in despite his attempts to keep them out, but why you should read it anyway.

Freedman’s introduction addressed the second question that sprung to my mind: if experts are wrong, why are we better off now than a hundred years ago? Freedman argues that most progress comes when experts, every once in a while, get it right: wrongness “punctuated” with success. Continue reading

Big Wig

The origin of this title seems pretty obvious, but a grandson suggested that I post it. Random House writes that the use of wigs apparently started in France in the seventeenth century and reached England a bit later. The English wore wigs differentiated based on class and profession, and “…men of great importance naturally wore larger wigs that the rabble…” earning them the title “big wigs.” The term is also recorded as “bigwig” and it was considered to be a derisive term. Other words used to poke humor were “bigwiggery” and “bigwiggism.”