Digital Stress

I did actually go and count how many windows and tabs I had open:

  1. Seven active program windows:
    1. the Internet browser to write this blog post,
    2. Skype with a follow-up on some outstanding work,
    3. Slack with a conversation about invoicing,
    4. my Mail client for an email about a project,
    5. Microsoft Word for an invoice that was part of the Slack conversation,
    6. Microsoft Excel for spreadsheets on the Skype-work and the Mail-project, and
    7. my Reminders app for updating the To Do list based on B, C and D.
    8. Also iTunes, Finder and iCal – but those don’t really count because they’re just in the background.
  2. Twelve open tabs in Safari, including:
    1. Auctionata (checking the catalogue for their next online Post War and Contemporary Art auction);
    2. Three partially-read articles by Matt Levine from Bloomberg View (about Uber, Active Managers, and whether Yahoo will be able to spin-off Alibaba without killing themselves by tax);
    3. A youtube clip on vaccinations (your guess is almost as good as mine);
    4. News pieces on Greece, Tesla and China’s ghost-towns;
    5. Facebook; and
    6. Pinterest for the infographica (of which today’s post was one).

I was also messaging on Whatsapp.

Think of all that dopamine.

*automatically opens another tab to google dopamine*

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.

Rand Exchange Rate Fixing? Less exciting than it sounds, I reckon

Moneyweb and Biznews have been exploding with news that the Competition Commission is investigating potential ZAR exchange-rate manipulation amongst some of the big banks.

From their media release on Tuesday:

The Competition Commissioner has initiated an investigation against BNP Paribas, BNP Paribas South Africa, Citigroup Inc., Citigroup Global Markets (Pty) Ltd, Barclays Bank Plc, Barclays Africa Group Ltd, JP Morgan Chase & Co, JP Morgan South Africa, Investec Ltd, Standard New York Securities Inc. and Standard Chartered Bank, (Respondents).

The Respondents who are traders in foreign currencies have allegedly been directly or indirectly fixing prices in relation to bids, offers and bid-offer spreads in respect of spot, futures and forwards currency trades in contravention of section 4(1)(b)(i) of the Competition Act no. 89 of 1998, as amended. The Commission’s investigation is focusing on trade in currency pairs involving the South African rand.

And:

The alleged collusion the “ZAR domination” was carried out through electronic messaging platforms used for currency trading, which enabled the Respondents to coordinate their trading activities when quoting customers who buy or sell currencies. This coordination has the effect of eliminating competition among the Respondents, as it enabled them to charge an agreed price for a specific amount of currency.

Firstly: I’m entertained by the “ZAR domination” title.

Secondly: it sounds as though the forex traders contacted each other over skype and said “What u chargin? K, we chargin this. BNP as well. Also Barclys. Thoughts? Thought so. Kewl.”*
Because #fact – bankers cannot spell while they’re busily incriminating themselves over electronic messaging platforms.

For those who haven’t read the release – but who might have read the commentary from “independent traders” that all sounds a lot like “I can’t imagine the authorities would launch into this without a high chance of finding something” - there is this tagged on at the end:

The Commission’s investigation follows similar investigations launched by other competition authorities in other jurisdictions.

So it’s a bit of a fishing expedition (although I’m sure they’ll find something – nothing is ever spotlessly clean, and we are all of us sinners).

The SA Reserve Bank was quick to point out that this wasn’t their fault, issuing their own press release to say:

It is our understanding that such alleged instances of market misconduct took place in foreign jurisdictions and do not relate to actions that took place in South Africa.

Which does bring me back to an earlier post that I wrote about the ZAR market – where I pointed out that the last few years of depreciation have very little to do with SA politics and a whole lot more to do with global money flows and investor appetite for emerging markets (see The Rand Depreciation: Not Zuma’s fault. Come now.) Oh, and also the fact that a giant chunk of trade in the Rand does not touch South African shores (see SARB press release above).

The problem that I have is that many of us will read these headlines and assume that the depreciation/appreciation of the Rand against certain currencies is all just rigged.

But that’s unlikely to be true.

A graph:

Turkey, South Africa, Brazil – they’ve all been dancing down the value chain in relative tandem (although the Rand does seem to get low much quicker than that Real). So unless the forex traders are manipulating everything

But to be honest, the more important thing to point out is that forex traders don’t benefit from a particular movement in the rate so much as they benefit from a bigger difference between what they pay for a currency and what they sell that currency for.

This:

That difference, between what banks “buy” at and what they “sell” at – that’s where the real profit is*. After all, in the forex trade – the bank is more of a market-maker than they are a trader. They might be a counter-party to a specific transaction – but overall, they’ll be hedging their foreign currency exposure to end up fairly neutral. So they’re mostly interested in earning a spread (you might call it the “commission” for bringing the buyer and seller of a particular currency together).
*And we’re talking real bid-ask spreads here – for business transactions – not the touristy ones that you find at Thomas Cook.

And just as a general observation, if I were a potentially-corruptible and semi-unscrupulous-by-some-standards forex trader, and the options were:

  1. Collude with other traders to charge higher effective commissions; or
  2. Try and manipulate the whole foreign currency market;

Then you can be sure that I’d be going with the easier option of number 1: trying to maximise the buy-sell (bid-ask) spread.

Also, that would be the type of engagement that you could easily accomplish in tweenage English over skype.

So as I see it, the Competition Commission isn’t really concerned with the actual forex rates so much as they’re concerned with the bid-ask spreads.

And in market-manipulation terms, that’s only a venial sin.

All that bad-spelling, however…

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.

Be Lazy About Saving Money #Psychology

Some years ago now, I was a lowly article clerk earning a lowly salary.

During that lowly-paid time, part of my contract terms included an automatic 12.5% contribution to a Provident Fund. I could elect for that amount to be higher – but never lower. And I became relatively famous (at least, I thought so) for making the following argument:

  1. Principle: I ought to maximise my quality of life.
  2. Fact/Observation: 12.5% of a small salary today has a much greater impact on my quality of life than 20% of a higher salary when I “start reaching my full earnings potential”.
  3. Conclusion: I should be allowed to opt out of this absurdness. Come now.

So when I left my articles time behind me, I was first in line to cash in that provident fund in order to “maximise my quality of life”. And when I say “first-in-line”, I really do mean that: those forms were submitted alongside my resignation letter.

Whether or not that was the right decision, I can point out some psychological impulses that helped me make it:

  1. A desire to be instantly gratified
  2. A belief in my ability to be self-restrained in the years of “my full earnings potential”.

I was also guilty of an arithmetical bias (an inability to see the cumulative compounding effect of small sacrifices, which I wrote about here: “Have you really done the math?“).

I have since listened to a Richard Thaler lecture

Richard Thaler is one of the pioneers of behavioural economics – a field that combines psychology and economic observation. And for the record, he is a highly entertaining speaker – if you’re looking for a way to utilise your time spent in traffic, you should have him on your playlist.

Some links:

  1. An academic paper, co-authored with Shlomo Bernatzi.
  2. A lecture at the LSE.

What We Should Know About the Way We (Don’t) Save

  1. We are much better about saving in the future than we are today. It’s like going on a diet: we’re always going to start dieting tomorrow; today, there is the slice of chocolate cake that my mother made, and it would be rude not to have a slice.
  2. We are loss-averse. Which means that we hate giving things up that we think we already have. An example: I’m more likely to resist the chocolate cake if my mother offers to go to the shop and get me a slice than if she sets the cake down in front of me.
  3. Inertia. Having also read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg, I might also call this our ability to fall into routines which are difficult to change. In the chocolate cake example – if I always expect to have a slice when I go to my mother’s, it’s even harder to say no. Because my body is already anticipating the chocolate deliciousness.
  4. We don’t know how much to save. Do you save R300? Do you save R3000? What is too little? It’s all too much calculating effort.

So there are some issues to be overcome

The Thaler/Bernatzi Solution: Save More Tomorrow™

The Thaler/Bernatzi solution was to use the above “negatives” to help in the saving process.

Here is the story of their experiment:

  1. They found some companies to participate in the experiment.
  2. They had management approach their employees three months prior to year-end, (so three months before the employees would normally receive their annual increases).
  3. Management then invited their employees to commit to an increase in their savings rate (ie. increase the percentage of their salary that they’re contributing to their retirement savings plan) in three months’ time, and also to commit to the same level of increase every time they would receive a future raise.
  4. The employees were allowed to opt out of the commitment at any time.

So to backtrack a moment, when these employees were first approached about increasing their savings rate immediately, 72% of the staff opted to keep things the same.

But when they were given the in-three-months-time option, 78% committed to the change. And 98% of those employees stuck with the plan through two future pay-rises (ie. they increased their savings rate every time they got a raise). And even then, the people that eventually opted out didn’t go back to their initial savings rate – they just didn’t want the savings rate to increase any more.

In the end, over the 28 month experiment period, the average savings rate of the employees went from 3.5% to 11.6%.

What We Should Take From This

When you look at the reasons why the Save More Tomorrow™ plan worked, you’ll notice that:

  1. Because the commitment took place in advance, there was no present cost or loss for the employees.
  2. Because the employees were committing to save money that they were still to receive, they didn’t yet have the sense of entitlement (ie. it didn’t even feel like they had to give something up in the future).
  3. And because they had the option to opt out (rather than to opt in), it meant that they would have to go through the administrative process of contacting people and filling in forms in order to change the status quo.
  4. That is: the proposed solution used their own laziness (or “inertia”) in their favour.

In practical terms, what that means is:

  1. Before you get your next raise, call your broker/unit trust of choice, and set up a debit order.
  2. You only need to do it once.
  3. Because firstly, you’ll probably be too lazy to ever change it.
  4. And secondly, you won’t really notice the impact (because the money will be out of your account before you even realise that it was there in the first place).

And in South Africa, we have fun things like Tax-Free Savings Accounts. And if you want to get a feel for the impact that a monthly debit order can have, go and have a play around with this neat calculator from savetaxfree.co.za. I’m a massive fan.

Finally, don’t stress too much about feeling lazy. Because if you manage it correctly and call it “inertia”, then it can become a very good thing.

PS: this post was an updated and much-modified version of a post that I wrote exactly two years ago: The Psychology of Saving.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.

The Best Podcasts To Listen To In 2015: Part 2

Last week, I started writing about Podcasts:

This post has two more lists.

The Binge-Listening List 
(being those podcasts whose back-catalogues of episodes I frantically download whenever I’m in the vicinity of free fast wifi; and which get played whenever I’m not listening to freshly-released episodes from the providers in Part 1)

Radiolab

Radiolab

*gets choked up*

Radiolab takes stories and science and turns them into art.

I mean, not to overstate it, but the “Desperately Seeking Symmetry” episode from April 2011 is actually a religious experience. In particular, the third segment of that episode (titled “Nothing’s The Antimatter”), in which scientists speculate that the primordial soup that spawned us did so through a minute imperfection in the laws of physics. And it turns out that the Birth of the Universe was the triumph of the unexpectedly asymmetric: the one that had no counter-one to offset it.

I dare you not to experience awe at that conclusion.

Another example: yesterday, I listened to an episode called “Colors“. In it, they investigate how the works of Homer, and the Hebrew Bible, never mention the colour “blue”. And in fact, there’s actually a common thread of that across ancient literature: when you go back into history, and start to roll forward, it’s almost like colours started to bloom into consciousness in order. As though ancient humans first saw in black and white, then they noticed red, then yellow and green, and finally, we started to perceive blue.

How crazy is that?

Freakonomics Radio

Freakonomics Radio

When I first started listening to Freakonomics radio, I got a bit bored. But I must have struck out on a bad episode – because I went back, rediscovered it, and it’s pretty awesome.

Each episode is like a mini-chapter from their books – or, rather, from books that they’re yet to write.

If I had a podcast, I hope it would be a bit like this. Suggestion: start with “What Do King Solomon and David Lee Roth Have In Common?” It’s still one of my favourites.

Death, Sex + Money with Anna Sale

Death Sex Money

This is one of the more recent podcasts that I’ve discovered: and I think Anna Sale chooses really interesting subjects, and she has this great way of interviewing people that almost makes you forget that she’s interviewing them.

I particularly liked her two episodes on cheating (the first was an interview with Dan Savage – and the second was a follow-on of people reacting to what Dan had said). Also, there’s a great episode on money in relationships.

Point Of Enquiry

Point of Inquiry

When I wrote Part 1 last week, this was on my list of potentials. Only, it’s now a week later, and I’ve already done a solid 6 hours worth of podcast, and I’ve downloaded dozens of episodes into my playlist.

A disclaimer: I think that the hosts tend to emphasis atheism in a way that gets condescending. Mainly, I think they confuse “knowledge” and “belief”. For example, I am both agnostic and Christian because those two things are not mutually exclusive: being “agnostic” is a statement of knowledge (eg. “I don’t know if there’s a God because I acknowledge that any evidence for His existence is open to interpretation”) while being Christian is a statement of belief (eg. “But I choose to believe in a God through this Faith anyway, because belief is a choice, and I’ve chosen that over the alternatives”).

But if you can bear through some of the hard-edged condescension, the content is worthwhile. I started with an interview with Frank Schaeffer, talking about the future of Evangelical Fundamentalism just after the death of Fred Phelps (the founder of Westboro Baptist Church). Interesting stuff.

The Binge-Listened-To-Exhaustion List 
(being those podcasts that I have listened to so often that I just can’t anymore. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t).

TEDtalks

TEDTalks

Everyone loves a good TEDtalk. I just got tired of hearing “this talk contains powerful visuals – watch them at…” at the beginning of each episode.

The other problem: because the talks vary so much in their content, it requires a bit of curation to get to the stuff that you’re interested in. And I’d already found other, better podcasts (like Radiolab) that came pre-curated.

But I do go back occasionally and have a TEDtalk splurge. It’s just happens less often.

Planet Money

Planet Money

Planet Money releases two episodes a week on finance, the economy, and other business-related things. It feels very similar to what I try and do on this blog (making finance and economics accessible and interesting). So when I first started listening to them, I began at episode 590 and worked all the way back to episode 381, including the newer episodes as they were released.

And by then, I’d had enough.

I still feel exhausted thinking about it.

And to think – there was once a time that I had real anxiety over running out of Planey Money episodes…

Stuff You Should Know

Stuff You Should Know

“Stuff You Should Know” taught me things about quantum physics, head-hunting, head-shrinking (for ye olde shrunken head necklaces), presidential pardons, cremation, mirrors, gender reassignment, prohibition, how to grow dreadlocks (and wash them), molecular gastronomy, how long you’ll stay conscious after being decapitated, acne, sword-swallowing, fractals, asexuality, peak oil, the five-second rule, the history of condoms, the papacy, doing police sketches, how to join the French Foreign Legion, allergies, no-fly zones, castration, the Panama Canal, Miranda Rights, bitcoin, the origin of grief and how to use the insanity defence. Amongst many many others.

At some point, I just got tired of hearing Josh and Chuck talk.

Stuff To Blow Your Mind

Stuff To Blow Your Mind

 

After I got tired of hearing Josh and Chuck talk, I thought that it might just be the presenters. So then I started to listen to this podcast, in the hopes that new presenters would make a difference.

And I learned about wendigos, the science of hell, dinosaur sex, our aversion to the word “moist”, autotomy (the ability to self-amputate on demand), sasquatches, the psychology of smiling, normalcy bias, the illusion of continuity, and the outsourcing of memory before I got tired of those presenters.

Stuff You Missed In History Class

Stuff You Missed In History Class

This was the last of the HowStuffWorks.com podcasts that I listened to before I realised that the presenters were not the problem – it was the format. Pure informational discharge. There was no story; it was just factoids, coming at you, continuously, interspersed with mini-anecdotes and mini-jokes.

Saturated.

That said, if you do want to know how some stuff works, then they’re your guys. All three of them.

#ToBeContinued

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.

ECONOMIES ARE NOT HOUSEHOLDS. The bad paradigms must stop.

As Greece approaches what might well be her final hour (in a long string of last-minutes and ultimatums and bluffs), I wanted to write something more about it. And add to the already long-winded catalogue:

  1. Germany: History has more lessons that just inflation (because the Germans have lost their minds).
  2. Grexit: The Costs and Impossibilities (because the journalists have lost their minds).
  3. Syriza: Are You Actively Trying To Orchestrate a Grexit (because Syriza have lost their minds).
  4. Syriza, turning Left, and is there any evidence for it? (because the Troika has lost its mind).
  5. What Yanis Varoufakis’ Dad Said (because Yanis Varoufakis’ dad has lost his mind).

In the past few years of writing and thinking about the Greek crisis, it seems to me that the key issue is this: for some reason, we all labour under the delusion that an economy is like a household. Mainly: when you’re having a tough time, you tighten your belt.

That analogy is ridiculous. And I say that having used it inappropriately on this blog many times before.

Mea culpa.

I’ve changed my mind.

Here is why:

  1. A household is not a contained economic system. It is not even a partially-contained economic system. A household is fundamentally reliant on forces outside of its control.
  2. It relies on an external bank for credit, on an external employer for income, on an external (super)market for sustenance, and on an external governance system for the maintenance of law and order.
  3. This means that there is no option for a household but to tighten its belt in the face of difficulties.
  4. That doesn’t make “belt-tightening” a moral imperative. There is nothing moral about it. It is simply the balance of power – and the household has none.
  5. In short: the household is a completely open economic system, with almost no natural resources (other than the skills of its labour force) and virtually-zero competitive advantage.
  6. Yes – you get exceptions and people that go off the grid. But when we are using the household metaphor, we are talking about the general household, and the general household is fully an economic subject.
  7. National economies, on the other hand, are relatively-contained economic systems – even when they have some reliance on external debt and foreign trade.
  8. You cannot equate them. You can barely compare them.
  9. When you do, it makes almost as much sense as saying: “The cells of my body absorb glucose by osmosis to continue living. Therefore: the entire human body, because it is comprised of cells, should simply reside in a bath of high fructose corn syrup in order to optimise itself.”
  10. That would be a bad idea.
  11. And how do we know that’s a bad idea? Well, not necessarily through trying the bathing technique (although we’re free to risk death in the attempt). But we can observe what has happened empirically to people that didn’t eat. In fact, we can also observe what happened to people that maintained a diet of near-to-pure refined sugar. As it turns out, the sum is a lot more complicated than its parts.
  12. And often, what’s good for the part is only remotely connected to what’s good for the sum.
  13. We’ve also seen what happens historically when economies are treated as though they are households.
  14. It doesn’t work.

And in Greece’s case – all the years of austerity have not made a single iota of difference in the debt burden.

The Greeks have slashed spending. They have achieved a primary budget surplus. They have accepted bailouts from Germany and Co to repay Germany and Co’s banks. And nothing has changed:

Which is actually the other important point: when households have tried and failed to tighten their belts, they are allowed to go bankrupt without losing their citizenship or their basic human rights.

We need to find a better metaphor, and punish politicians for being so folksy with their non-wisdom.

Here’s a suggestion:

  1. Economies are like lap top computers.
  2. When the lap top keeps freezing up, you sometimes have to delete your music library to free up the space.
  3. And if that doesn’t work, then you can start deleting other things.
  4. But what is the point of a lap top if you start deleting Microsoft Word, and Microsoft Excel, and disabling the wifi connectivity?
  5. Sure, the device may turn on and off, and you can type some things into the notepad – but when it comes to getting work done, it’s now useless.
  6. There comes a point at which you need to do a hard reboot, clear out the memory banks, and re-install the operating system. Because then you stand a chance of doing the real work that might allow you to pay for a new lap top with better specs.

And forcing Greece out of the Eurozone in order to do that? It’s like confiscating the power cable and insisting that they try and do all the re-booting on battery reserves.

Madness.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.

Ha Ha H-Avon! Where in the world is this PTG offer?

I suspect that the SEC is stumping around this morning, looking like the troll in Harry Potter that just got knocked about by its own club.

The story, in case you missed it:

  1. Avon, the beauty product manufacturer and direct-seller-through-middle-aged-housewives across the world, has had a languishing share price for some time now.
  2. It also has a “SELL” rating wherever anyone bothers to rate it, mostly due to being not profitable by greater magnitude with each passing year.
  3. But yesterday, the SEC received a filing to say that PTG Capital Partners in London had placed an offer for Avon stock at triple the then-going share price.
  4. Of course, the “We made an offer on Avon!” filing also included these two sentences: “This press release does not constitute an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to buy any securities. No tender offer for the Company’s shares has been made at this time.”
  5. So much like Schrödinger’s cat, the SEC filing about the Avon offer both was and was not a filing about the Avon offer.
  6. Never mind that the legal firm mentioned in the filing does not exist, nor that PTG misspells its name at least twice in the filing, nor that the whole letter is an apparent triumph of dyslexia over spellcheck.
  7. Also, never mind the fact that PTG or TPG or whoever-they-are don’t apparently exist on the internet, and that anyone else with a passing reference to those initials has denied involvement. how very dare you
  8. Even Avon is more confused than it was before, because it didn’t receive any offers (although I’ll bet they’re rather anxiously hoping that their offer letter just got caught by the spam filter, so please resend it, please).

Unfortunately, we live in a world of mysterious algorithms. And I’ve spoken about this before*, but I think that one of the problems with “market efficiency” is that we view is as an absolute range – where you have complete informational efficiency on one end (where everyone knows everything about a stock), and zero informational efficiency on the other (where no one knows anything). But I think that there is something beyond perfect informational efficiency – a mysterious other-side, through the looking glass, where there is more information than there should be, some of which is false, and now you need to try and tell the difference.
*but I can’t quite remember where – this will be post 933, and I’m starting to lose track.

And immediately after the filing, the algorithmic traders charged straight into the twilight zone, and started buying up Avon shares on the false assumption that any information filed at the SEC must be true.

Witness:

Algorithmic bad assumptions aside, I think that we can safely assume that whoever lodged the SEC filing has made some money. Probably somewhere in that momentary white line drop just after the first rise.

After they were done, the price leapt back up again until trading suspended for 10 minutes because that’s what trading circuit-breakers are there for. Then the human traders had a chance to read the report in person, and important questions were asked such as:

“Where are these people in London and oh-look-this-is-there-first-time-making-an-offer-how-cute-for-them and actually, why aren’t they answering their phones; and wait, more importantly, why is it that the one person who answered a phone had no idea who/what we’re talking about?”

The SEC is now investigating. So we should expect to see someone arrested in, oh, five years or so. And how very awkward that they’re having to investigate their own filing system for having been frauded.

In the meantime, I suspect that whoever did it might be related to the guy from Florida who tried to cash a blank check for $368 billion in order to start an underwater Italian restaurant that would seat “30 million eaters” at once.

Of course, that story is probably a hoax as well – because it mentions that in addition to the forgery charge, he was charged with “unlawfully carrying Chinese throwing stars and possessing bath salts”. I’m just not sure that it’s illegal to possess bath salts. But then again, it is Florida.

Two other posts on Avon:

Happy Friday.

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.

The Best Podcasts To Listen To In 2015: Part 1

Yesterday, I wrote about the rise of the podcast (it’s actually more like a resurrection – but semantics), and I said that I would prepare a new and/or updated list of podcasts that are worth your time. The original list can be found here.

So I’m going to split this list into the following categories:

  1. The Will-Not-Miss-An-Episode-For-Money List – being those podcasts whose new episodes rise to the top of the listening queue as soon as they drop (and on release days, I’ll constantly refresh until they become available).
  2. The I-Just-Want-More-Seasons-Already-Dammit List – being those podcasts who were there for a season, and then ended, and now I’m forced to listen to spin-offs in an effort to replace them.
  3. The Binge-Listening List – being those podcasts whose back-catalogues I have trawled and trawled to the point where I’ve almost run out of back-catalogue.
  4. The Binge-Listened-To-Exhaustion List – being those podcasts with such large back-catalogues that I eventually lost my will to listen, and now they stare at me accusingly at the bottom of my subscription pile.
  5. The Backburner List – being those podcasts that I want to hear more of, but they keep getting pushed down the list due to lack of time.
  6. And because I can: The Newcomers-That-Might List – being those podcasts that I’ve recently discovered, that might just be awesome, but it’s still a bit soon to tell.

Also, a disclaimer: there are many great podcasts out there (or so I’m told) that revolve around sports/comedy/gadgetry/personal-finance/self-help/parenting. I listen to very few of those. Some, like the comedy podcasts, I’ve tried but never liked. Others, like parenting podcasts, I avoid owing to the general cooing and cloying, and the “I never thought it would be this hard and yet be so worth it” truisms. Also, I’m not a parent, so I guess that doesn’t help.

Let me get started (in today’s post, you get the first two lists):

The Will-Not-Miss-An-Episode-For-Money List

Slate Money 

Slate Money

Every Saturday, I wake up, roll over to grab my phone, and download the weekly episode of this podcast (it drops on a Saturday). I then go to boot camp. And once I’m back home and in the kitchen making coffee/breakfast/etc, Slate Money plays in the background, giving me “the finance news of the week”.

Felix Salmon is the main host, along with regulars Cathy O’Neill (a flagrant 99 percenter, Occupy Wall Street organiser and “data scientist”) and Jordan Weissmann (the millenial voice). Felix takes whatever side of the fence everyone else isn’t on – and I do love a contrarian.

In each episode, there are usually three main stories; and then they’ll have a numbers round, where each person brings a figure/statistic that they found interesting that week.

The numbers round may sound boring. But an example: on this Saturday past, Felix brought “$1.8 million” to the table, which was the cost to rent a luxury house in the Hamptons for the summer. At which point, Cathy got crude. And stayed crude for some time.

Amazing.

Pop Culture Happy Hour

Pop Culture Happy Hour

PCHH comes out on a Friday – and one of my favourite parts of 2015 is that they’ve recently started scheduling the podcast to come out at midnight American time – as opposed to “sometime in the morning in the US on a Friday”. Which means I get to download it before I even leave for work (as opposed to around lunchtime off the 3G).

The four regulars on this show get together on a Monday/Tuesday evening at the NPR studios in Washington to talk about everything entertaining – entertainingly.

You know how you sometimes find those smart cool friends who are just a delight to spend time with because when plied with wine, they have these conversations with each other that are always hilarious and so elegantly-phrased, with wit and vocabulary and yet entirely-not-pretentious? And you’re just happy to sit there and listen?

That is what PCHH is like.

And when Glen Weldon goes off on a prepared diatribe, I have to stop the car. Because laughing.

New York Times Book Review

NYT Book Review

There are so many books to read and so little time in which to read them. And apart from not having enough time to read, it’s a problem to choose the books that won’t waste the time that one doesn’t have a lot of.

I’ve tried a number of book review podcasts – and most of them are kind of pointless if you haven’t read the book already; because either the conversation is too detailed, or they give away the story.

But somehow, the NYT Book Review manages to get it right.

Although that shouldn’t be such a surprise. I mean – it’s the New York Times Book Review.

Common Sense with Dan Carlin

Common Sense

The Common Sense episodes come out once a month or so. And in them, Dan Carlin takes the recent major political events (and/or court cases and/or company press releases), and ties them together into this historical narrative.

Firstly, it’s quite awesome to see his mind at work.

But also, you find yourself starting to see the political undercurrents beneath the media froth.

Which isn’t to say that it’s accurate, exactly. There is a clear American bias (which Dan admits to) – but that doesn’t stop my excitement for car trips in traffic when there’s a new Common Sense episode.

The I-Just-Want-More-Seasons-Already-Dammit List

Invisibilia

Invisibilia

Invisibilia was the podcast that everyone was waiting for at the start of the year. It shot straight to the top of the Podcast charts, and then stayed there – despite the fact that they only delivered a measly six full-length episodes.

But those six episodes were excellent.

According to the show website: “Invisibilia explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.”

That might sound a bit loose and New Age – but they did it with science. So, for example, the “Entanglement” episode was about the impact that we have on each other’s lives – but it included quantum mechanics and the seeming impossibility of science proving the existence of two atoms that are the exact same atom, 88 miles apart.

Or like in “How To Become Batman“, where they investigate how your preconception can define your reality – including the neuroscience of how the brains of the blind can learn to see as clearly those with functioning eyesight, just without the differentiation of colour.

Six episodes of mind-blowing, life-changing, excellence.

Serial

Serial

If you haven’t heard about Serial, then I’m almost jealous that you’re going to get to discover it for the first time.

Sarah Koenig of “This American Life” went off on her own to investigate an old court case from Baltimore, in which 17 year old Adnan Syed was accused and convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

Yes, it gets a lot of hype. But there’s good reason for it – it’s a completely fresh way of experiencing crime drama. It’s a polished and carefully-constructed series of interviews with key witnesses, friends, family, officers and Adnan himself.

Perhaps it sounds like it should be boring – except I spent days in my office, pretending to work, just listening to episode after episode until the series ended.

BBC Pop Up Ideas with Tim Harford

BBC4 Pop Up Ideas

 

The concept of Pop-Up Ideas is still a bit weird for me: Tim Harford, popping up in public spaces in London, giving impromptu lectures of bits of economic theory.

I was never quite sure why he needed to “pop up” in places, specifically.

Nonetheless, I like anything where Tim Harford is lecturing. He’s most famous for being an author (perhaps most famous for writing “The Undercover Economist”), but I’m not a big fan of his books. Frankly, I think he’s at his best when he’s speaking in public, and especially when he’s giving a speech about the book that he just published. Mainly because it never feels like he had to condense the book into a speech – rather, it tends to feel like he took his speech, and then padded it out into a 150 page book.

And this podcast series was like getting a whole library of Tim Harford books in their best format.

#ToBeContinued

Rolling Alpha posts opinions on finance, economics, and the corporate life in general. Follow me on Twitter @RollingAlpha, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rollingalpha.