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Sunday, Jan 12, 2014 - 20:17 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

Night Of The Wolf

Exciting days. Got OpenCL working on Ubuntu, which mainly consisted of digging up a guide that actually works (which is not the case for the official one); annoyances like this are what's stopping open source OSes from gaining wider acceptance, all the more as much of it isn't even necessary. Even for many "power users" who build their own executables, much of it is knowing where to download the correct libraries. And don't get me started on the default package repository being incomplete/improperly configured with Forbidden 403 errors...

Having Ubuntu dual-booted on my home PC did save my bacon, however, after it crashed without warning one recent evening, then refused to boot with an Unexpected I/O Error. Luckily, I was still able to get into Ubuntu 11.10 (which I basically hadn't touched for two years) to verify that the other drives were still alright, and then burn a rescue disc. I suspect that it may have been an avast issue, and this has led me to seriously consider RAID-ing the OS drive on my next PC.

Also began attending RT, which turned out to be fairly enjoyable (and would be more so, if it were not for the interminable waiting about) - rediscovered the old joys of long-ago PE lessons during the shuttle run relays, and the minor sense of accomplishment in muscle soreness. Only gripe was the post-training burger being out of stock at times.

With all that done, I figured that I could afford a night out (and do my bit for the local economy), and set Saturday night aside for The Wolf of Wall Street. At three hours long, that's plenty of minutes (and rude words) for my buck.

[Warning: Some Spoilers Follow]

For this, I had to go all the way down to Plaza Singapura, since the neighbourhood malls weren't screening it for some reason. There, I couldn't resist splurging S$7.50 on the jumbo hotdog combo, because it's good to get ripped off once in a while. There seemed a rather larger percentage of expats in the audience than usual, but that was perhaps to be expected.

Before we begin, it should be said that the film is based on the real-life story of one Jordan Belfort, and most of the over-the-top escapades depicted - the midgets (if not the tossing), the office hours bunga bunga, the totalled luxury yacht - are actually true (and some of it might even be downplayed). Belfort was the very image of Wall Street decadence and excess, the spirit exemplified by an early exchange between him and his onetime mentor, Mark Hanna.

Hanna begins by teaching the newbie that the name of the game on Wall Street was to move money from clients' pockets to your pocket (which probably does hold true today, albeit generally with a thicker veneer of geniality). Belfort, who was still relatively honest then, asked if it wouldn't be better if both parties benefitted, at which the worldly-wise Hanna retorted:

"Nobody knows if a stock is going to go up, down, sideways or in circles... you know what a fugazi is?... Fugazi, fuwazi, fugawazzy, fugawoozy *chirping sounds*... it's fairy dust."

As luck would have it, Black Monday soon arrived and cost Belfort his job, but that didn't keep him down for long. Here, we might ask what Belfort was; well, he was a born salesman. The sort that could believably sell ice to Eskimos. Now, those blessed with this gift will often realise that they can make more money by selling products that are no good (and thus cheaper to produce). The less scrupulous among them, then, tended to drift towards peddling used cars, penny stocks, and worst of them all, the eternal salvation of immortal souls.

Being not wholly fallen yet, Belfort went the middle path, and pursued his calling as a marketer of dodgy enterprises - under him, a two-brother garage operation (with their mum as receptionist) could be transformed over the phone into a swanky hotbed of cutting-edge high technology, without ever technically running afoul of the law. Given that he took 50% in commission (up from the 1% he had been making on Wall Street proper), he was soon rolling in the dough.

Having outgrown the boiler room, Belfort went into business on his own, recruiting from his old friends, most of whom had a background in selling weed. Under his guidance, the unlikely band of scammers thrived, and Stratton Oakmont was born.

[N.B. By the way, weed is now legal in Colorado, which if experience is anything to go by, shouldn't create that many problems (pissed former monopolists excepted), or at least not much more than what alcohol and cigarettes already cause; Nee Soon South, however...

More concerning is the move towards selling insurance online, once more skipping the middlemen (agents). Frankly, this was always coming, with travel insurance already long operating under this model. Sure, agents can (and will) say that they value-add, but I gather that increasingly financially-literate customers would be more than happy to save on their commissions. The bigger issue is that the pool of "catch-all" jobs, that provides succor to workers without a specialised skillset, is continually shrinking. This is probably the biggest practical open problem in modern economics.

There has only now been a long-overdue effort to lift wages at the bottom, but the proliferation of moneylenders, severe hospital bed crunch (your fault), everyday transport breakdowns and another isolated near-incident all seem to indicate that the chickens are coming home to roost.

This would not be so bad if concrete measures were being taken, but just look at the latest much-ballyhooed do-nothing change: The MOE is doing away with A1 to F9 grades for CCA (A1 & A2: 2 bonus admission points, B3 to C6: 1 point, D7 and below: 0 points), and switching to a banding system (Excellent: 2 points, Good: 1 point, Fair: 0 points). Having seen this, we should probably not hope for too much from the committee tasked with the PSLE scoring revamp]

Stratton Oakmont Sunshine Empire

More examples of firms with obviously unsustainable business plans

Belfort displays keen insight into human nature when he notes that they were only successful in pushing their wares on unsophisticated investors, and were not able to get actual rich people to buy in. Paraphrased, Belfort observes that when a prospective client says that he has to consult his wife (or dog), what he is actually saying is that he doesn't trust you. And, Belfort continues, why should he, given that him and his associates were basically a bunch of scruffy losers? One solution then, was to bait them with blue chips they had heard of, before slowly reeling them in (all the while stifling laughter at the gullibility of the suckers - they're not nice people)

[N.B. Skipping a bit here, Belfort reprised the "sell me this pen" exercise, which he had used on his buddies, at the end of the movie in his new career as a motivational speaker (well, no one claimed he was rehabilitated). Several attendees who were given the challenge were entirely unconvincing, probably due to being decent folks who knew that it was just a pen - what can be so special about it?

There are maybe at least a couple of slightly creative responses, though. One would be to attempt swaps (which has eventually resulted in a house, in at least one case); another would be to ignore the pen totally, because it is not what's actually important. This is likely the way of Belfort, who is of the "act like you've made it" school - one can easily imagine him befriending a millionaire, only to palm the pen off on him in passing for a thousand bucks - and at his own request. Yes, l33t social skills can be that powerful - and corrupting]

To nobody's surprise, Belfort was proven right, and his Stratton Oakmont kept expanding, together with their appetite for debauchery - he went from (pragmatic) wanking in the men's room, to an almost uninterrupted carousel of booze, hookers and (non-liquid) coke (all amply illustrated, thus the R21 rating; the movie is a lot more than the [admittedly attractive] boobies and other naughty parts, though)

Nothing that original, seriously - party, drugs, boobs, meets attractive lingerie model at party, goes to her place for tea, boobs, snorts drugs off boobs, divorces devoted non-lingerie model wife, felt bad for three days, boobs, buys mansion and yacht, takes drugs all over said properties, a lot more boobs in various interesting positions, FBI finally takes an interest (in Belfort, not the boobs), Belfort hooks up with Swiss banker (who, it is later revealed, enjoys the boobs), sinks the yacht, gets higher than ever before on drugs, boobs, cuts a deal and rats his accomplices out (but by then it's more or less over)

A common complaint from the reviews that I've seen are that scant - in fact, zero - attention is given to Belfort's many victims. To be brutally honest, the critics probably know, deep down, why this is so - who is really interested in watching widows and retirees choking back tears and describing how Mr. Belfort robbed them of their life savings, even for a minute? That might work for an indie feature, maybe win some prize at some festival or other, but this is big business - rightly or rightly, the producers understood that what moviegoers want to see is a well-groomed Leonardo DiCaprio fondling shapely boobs, and so that is exactly what we got.

You are real man, Mr. DiCaprio. Real man.
(Source: china.org.cn)

There is a thought-provoking sequence towards the end, where FBI Special Agent Patrick Denham (Gregory Coleman in real life), who successfully took Belfort down, rides home by himself in a dingy subway train; this is by itself barely worthy of mention, but becomes more significant when taken in conjunction with the scene where Belfort, after his failed bribery attempt, orders Denham off his yacht while taunting him that he'll be taking the subway back to his ugly wife, while Belfort enjoys his boat and fast cars with beauties - so, was the scroundel right after all? We do see Belfort whiling his short prison sentence away playing tennis, before becoming an ostensibly thriving motivational speaker...

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