The Gaussian copula function tattoo
Jared’s professional work is great stuff — I particularly like his idea of pitting the Chrome browser against a potato gun in a speed test. His body art, by contrast, is more emo grad student: his first four tattoos were inspired by Samuel Beckett, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the Uruguayan-born French surrealist Comte de Lautréamont.
And now, to that list, you can add David X Li.
Why is Li’s ill-fated formula tattooed across Elms’s forearm? Here’s how Elms explains it:
All my tattoos are all concepts that are smarter than me that I’ll be chasing my entire life. It’s how I know I will never regret getting them, because these are concepts I never want to forget…
It’s pretty corrupt. It’s been hitting me pretty hard what happened just a few years ago. Then you see Carl Levin and the Senate looking to bring criminal charges against Blankfein. There are some key learnings that came out of that period in history, and it felt like it was a really appropriate thing to eulogize on my body…
To me this represents the recipe for human greed. It was severely misappropriated by traders, the way it was oversimplified and reduced it to a single gamma number – and they couldn’t stop using it even knowing the inherent fallibility in it…
I’m only now learning what was taking place and how it happened, because there are all these amazing books and documentaries, like David Harvey’s Enigma of Capitalism. And obviously Inside Job did an amazing job of articulating what happened, how it could all ripple and global…
I was just reading The Violence of Financial Capitalism, and that book got really deep into what was going on [during the crisis] from a trading standpoint. It’s a world I have very little knowledge about, how trading occurs and what those guys are doing. I wondered: Was there something they were all paying attention to, what were the tools they were referencing?
I remembered googling it and coming across that Wired article. It was an amazing article. I was really thankful for pieces like that. It was such a powerful concept to me, and when you realize how much [the Gaussian copula] embodies the potential for human greed, it ends up being a pretty powerful and poignant lesson. [The way companies communicate financially is] all predicated in obfuscation, like if we don’t understand, we don’t question. We should be vigilant and not forget, and this is the way I do not forget it.
The tattoo, then, is the work of a guy who very much buys the argument of David Harvey, who wants a Communist revolution which will overthrow the current capitalist regime. Elms is also a fan of this book, which as befits a Semiotext(e) publication includes lots of writing along these lines:
Crowdsourcing technologies, based on what Alexander Galloway called “protocological control,” represent the new organic composition of capital, i.e., the relationship between constant capital (as the totality of “linguistic machines”) dispersed in society and variable capital (as the totality of sociality, emotions, desires, relational capacity, and… “free labor”) deterriotorialized, despatialized, despersed in the sphere of reproduction, consumption, forms of life and individual and collective imagination.
Ellipsis, needless to say, in the original.
As someone who doesn’t want to overthrow capitalism and who has never read more than a few paragraphs of a Semiotext(e) book without needing to lie down and recuperate slowly, it’s natural for me to treat Elms with some prejudice — even though he does describe my Wired article as “amazing”, which is very nice of him.
But I do think Elms is onto something here. The financial crisis was a major event which was caused by Wall Street’s shortsighted greed — a greed which is epitomized in the way that the copula function became ubiquitous even though risk managers and even Li himself knew full well that it was extremely limited in how it should be used. If we want to “be vigilant and not forget” the destructive potential of Wall Street, then the Gaussian copula function is actually a really good thing to get as a tattoo.
There’s an irony here too. Elms got this tattoo, in part, because of its very incomprehensibility — the way it epitomizes the way that Wall Street is “predicated in obfuscation”. But Wall Street embraced Li’s formula for the opposite reason — that it was very tractable and easy to understand, at least if you were a quant with a degree in finance.
Elms’s tattoo is the version of the formula which I used in the Wired article — but it’s not, actually, the version of the formula which was used day-to-day on Wall Street. In fact, it took me a long time to find the formula written down in a manner which looked like an old-fashioned formula, and which I could annotate graphically — here’s the gamma, here’s the copula, here are the distribution functions. Most representations of the copula look nothing like that, and are much harder to understand.
All of which shows that Elms is absolutely right, at heart, about the copula function and what it represents. To Wall Street, it’s simple and easy — disastrously so. To the rest of us, however, it makes a Semiotext(e) book look like a Sesame Street lyric. And that, I think, is why Levin and Elms are going to be disappointed, and Blankfein is going to remain out of jail.
Back in 1933, when Ferdinand Pecora uncovered huge scandals on Wall Street, they were easy for all Americans to understand, and easy to protect against. This time around, Wall Street’s activities are incomprehensible not only to the lay person but even to senior bankers: a big part of the reason why the crisis was so big and so bad is precisely that people like Stan O’Neal and Bob Rubin failed at their job of understanding the risks their banks were taking. They were knavishly foolish, but still more fools than knaves — which means that it’s extremely hard to make a strong case in front of a jury that what they did was criminal.
And so maybe it makes sense to get a tattoo of the copula function — it’s a way of remembering not only the financial crisis, but also the dangers of believing other people who claim to have found a clever and simple way of improving the world. Such claims have a tendency to be entirely true, until they’re not.