Archive for the ‘Educating & Learning’ Category

A walkthrough guide to building yourself a Linux system for coding

November 24, 2012

In any technical role it is important to strike the balance between getting-things-done-quickly and knowing-all-the-details, and this is especially true when it comes to building computer systems.

You can find lots of different Linux distributions to download, and most have a relatively easy system for adding components or software via some kind of package manager.

However, anyone who is fiddling with Linux is probably doing so because they want to learn more about how their computer works. Dragging-and-dropping packages leaves you with a feeling that you haven’t really learned much.

The balance is wrong: we are getting things done but we really wanted to know more.

Of course, the way to know more is to roll up your sleeves and start building software from source code.

But experience has taught me that it is often much more difficult to build/compile than anyone will admit. Typically the problems come because you have some slightly different settings, or there is some minor file missing which everyone assumes is always there, or any one of a collection of ‘little problems’. An experienced user can circumnavigate these issues easily, but a beginner needs a much straighter path to the destination.

In this post I give a walkthrough of how to set up a Linux system (called Puppy Linux) and how to compile a few important packages (SDL, Tcl/Tk and Python) from source that you can use to write interesting pieces of software (eg games, eg applications with windows and buttons etc.).

The important difference with other ‘setup guides’ is that I have put a lot of effort into thinking how we can be sure that your machine is set up identically to mine, so that your walkthrough experience will be exactly the same as mine when I wrote it.

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Understanding the credit crisis

June 17, 2012

In an earlier post (see here) I put a link to an online book that explains all the main concepts of economics in terms of the classic ‘Island Economy’.

If you think about it in theoretical terms, this book is a ‘proof’ that the Island Economy is a sufficiently rich model into which many important elements of economic life can be incorporated.

And like all good models, it is light and understandable.

Very importantly, this means that everyone can get involved in a healthy debate about its assumptions & simplifications, and any policy implications coming from it.

This is something that undermines the quality of our mathematical models of financial or economic processes: they require a very large amount of technical ability before you can even start to understand the terms of the model (for derivatives pricing this means stochastic calculus & arbitrage-free pricing theory; for systematic trading this means advanced statistical analysis; for economics this means advanced calculus and plenty of background reading of fragmented economic theories).

Experience tells me that the more technically ‘perfect’ we make our models, the less able the users become of giving an informed critique of the theory’s assumptions and main features.

The lesson I draw from this is that it is the responsibility of the model builders to work even harder to make our theories and models accessible to an averagely intelligent user.

What does this hard work look like?

Well here are four examples:

  1. Irwin Schiff’s book on economics (see my post here).
  2. Ray Dalio’s paper on why economies rise and fall (see my post here).
  3. A series of articles by Isabella Kaminski from FTAlphaville that present the credit crisis in terms of a felt cartoon story about water gathering and storing (see here).
  4. My work on understanding the Black-Scholes formula for out-of-the-money options (see my post here).

How to read the FT

January 5, 2012

Since moving back to a front office seat I have been a keen reader of the Financial Times. Regular reading of economic and finance journalism and analysis is a must if you want to understand the themes discussed around the trading floor.

If you have tried and failed to get into the FT, it may be because (like me once) you weren’t able to see any shape and form in the way things are gathered and reported — so it all just seemed rather more like a difficult-to-read book than a collection of educating and stimulating articles.

Well, this short post may give you some useful indications on how to navigate through the FT and learn to enjoy it.

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A useful tip for learning a language

December 11, 2011

When I was teaching English in Rome I took a lot of interest in reading the literature on how we can best learn a language, and how we can best help our students to learn a language. There are lots of different approaches out there but most schools teach an approach which is a mix of grammar, role play, word games and spoken exercises — a modern-day version of the grammar translation approach. (One exception to this is the Berlitz school which uses the direct method). The school I worked at used the grammar translation approach.

One of the most common problems that beginner students faced when learning English was that they would feel like they just didn’t have enough vocabulary available to deal with the role-play exercises. Anyone who has tried learning a language will know the feeling of wanting to say something but just not knowing the translation of the words you need to use.

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