... in modernity

Stock trades, art and algorithms

26 Sep 2010 | 686 words | algorithms art economy future modernity technology

If you ask me one of the more fascinating things going on out there right now is high-frequency trading. High-frequency trading (HFT) occurs when traders program computers to buy and sell stocks (or other financial products) in quick succession under certain, pre-defined circumstances. (a good starting point to learn more about HFT is this planet money episode or this ai500 article by Joe Flood).

Apparently High Frequency trading enables successful trading firms to skim of enormous surplus off these transactions (up to 1 million USD per day according to the planet money episode mentioned above). Not surprisingly this behavior can also act as a destabilizing factor wrecking havoc on stock markets. It has been one of the contributing factor’s to the ‘flash crash‘ which saw the Dow-Jones index plunge nearly 1,000 points in seconds on the 6th of may 2010.

If you believe wikipedia (which of course you should not) High Frequency trading is currently responsible for 70% of the equity trading volume in the US. Needless to say the practice is generating a fair share of controversy among economists.

At the core of this controversy are the merits of HFT: does is make macro-economic sense (because it ensures the liquidity of markets and limits market volatility) or is it detrimental to the economy at large (because it extracts value from markets based on no other fact than that prices tend to move)?

While this debate is going on it appears that there are even stranger things occurring in the field of high frequency trading: in August the Atlantic reported on research undertaken by a market data firm called Nanex that unearthed trading patterns that do not seem to make sense even by the high obfuscation standards of HFT. The article in the Atlantic claims that these strange patterns are the result of ‘mysterious and possibly nefarious trading algorithms’ whose ways and reasons of operation are known to no-one:

Unknown entities for unknown reasons are sending thousands of orders a second through the electronic stock exchanges with no intent to actually trade. Often, the buy or sell prices that they are offering are so far from the market price that there’s no way they’d ever be part of a trade. The bots sketch out odd patterns with their orders, leaving patterns in the data that are largely invisible to market participants.

When you visualize this you get something like this (graphs by Nanex):

According to the Atlantic it is unclear what exactly causes these patterns to emerge. The Nanex researchers have come to the conclusion that these algorithms are most likely an attempt by trading firms to introduce noise into the marketplace in order to realize a competitive advantage:

Other firms have to deal with that noise, but the originating entity can easily filter it out because they know what they did. Perhaps that gives them an advantage of some milliseconds. In the highly competitive and fast HFT world, where even one’s physical proximity to a stock exchange matters, market players could be looking for any advantage.

On the other hand there are much more poetic explanations for the emergence of these patterns, that abandon the idea that these patters serve a purpose all-together:

On the quantitative trading forum, Nuclear Phynance, the consensus on the patterns seemed to be that they simply just emerged. They were the result of “a dynamical system that can enter oscillatory/unstable modes of behaviour,” as one member put it. If so, what you see here really is just the afterscent of robot traders gliding through the green-on-black darkness of the financial system on their way from one real trade to another.

Whatever they are, these patterns are also outright beautiful. The above visualizations remind me on the work of german artist Jorinde Voigt, who’s stunning drawings (pdf) often rely on algorithms as a source:

Konstellation Algorithmus Adlerflug 100 Adler, Strom, Himmelsrichtung, Windrichtung, Windstärke -Jorinde Voigt Berlin, Oktober 2007

p.s:Sara says that these stealth trading bots remind her of the tiger in Jonathan Lethem’sChronic City instead. p.p.s: Also just finished reading ‘the Fires‘ by the aforementioned Joe Flood. brilliant book, highly reccomended.

Kabul tourist guide

The city of Kabul (and Afghanistan in general) is still pretty high on my list of places i want to visit. Unfortunately, the closest place to Kabul that i got to so far is Delhi. Fortunately, however, there is the fabulous internet where Safi Airways ‘the international airline of Afghanistan’ is publishing PDF versions of it’s fabulous in-flight magazine. Browsing through the three available issues only reinforces my desire to go and visit the place.

As far as the standards of such publications are concerned the Safi Airways in-flight magazine boasts a number of rather unconventional topics (dog fighting, opium addiction) and a somewhat chaotic layout (a story about ‘man eating lions’ is run right next to an article about Kabul’s christian cemetery). Among the quirky stories and hidden in-between a fair amount of ads for armored cars are some real gems like this one about a olympic-size swimming pool on a hill overlooking Kabul that was never filled with water ‘due to the difficulties of pumping water uphill’:

Some of the parts of the magazine are outright amusing. This is especially true for the section of the publication that serves as a city guide for Kabul. The (apparently expat) copywriters seem to have inherited a certain casualness from their work in Kabul which readily expresses itself in the descriptions given in shopping section that covers everything from shopping malls:

Kabul city center is Afghanistan’s first modern style indoor shopping mall that opened in 2005. it is approximately 9 stories tall and is located in downtown Kabul

… to open air bazars offering counterfeit entertainment products …

Chicken street is famed for it’s tourist fare (carpets, carvings knifes etc) and pirated CD/DVD’s

… to sellers of misappropriated goods:

Karimi Supermarket […] make sure to head upstairs for some great stuff that’s fallen off some PX trucks.

Another area where the copywriters really shine are directions to restaurants and shops that are provided alongside these descriptions: The ‘Red Hot & Sizzling” restaurant can be found after making …

… a left at the next traffic circle. slow down, the first gate to the right used to have a red chili pepper hanging up on a pole. Not easy to find.

And in order to get to the ‘Corner Pizzeria’ you have to …

… head down the barricaded street to almost the end. You’ll see big misspelled banners showing you the way.

Update (6 sept): Spiegel online has an interview (in German) with the editor in chief off the in-flight magazine. turns out that the whole thing is intended to be ‘honest’ (as opposed to all other in flight magazines out there).

Apparently the dutch had video telephony well before i was even born...

15 Apr 2010 | 95 words | design history modernity technology media

Last year i spend a fair amount of energy to get the open video platform openimages.eu off the ground, but so far the videos that have been uploaded there (mainly from the polygoon collection of the institute of sound and vision have utterly failed to impress me.

Now after 4 month of operation there is finally a video that i can approve of. It has the perfect combination of techno-optimism, cuttting-edge design and sideburns:

if you do not see a video here you need a better browser

‘first test with videophone’ on openimages.eu / cc-by-sa

The first world catching up with the third

19 Feb 2009 | 53 words | energy modernity netherlands lights

While cycling along the Keizersgracht this morning i noticed that a number of the buildings now use CFL lamps for the outside illumination:

CFL lightbulb in a lamp on the outside of a building on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam

Looks like the first world is starting to play catch-up with the third world.

Mall of hyperbole

16 Jun 2008 | 331 words | china development modernity

The National (from that other place of hyperbole, the UAE) runs an fascinating article (‘Mall of misfortune‘) about a desolated shopping mall in Dongguan in China’s Pearl River Delta:

The South China Mall which opened with great fanfare in 2005, is not just the world’s largest. With fewer than a dozen stores scattered through a space designed to house 1,500, it is also the world’s emptiest - a dusty, decrepit complex of buildings marked by peeling paint, dead light bulbs, and dismembered mannequins.

[…] What sets the South China Mall apart from the rest, besides its mind-numbing size, is that it never went into decline. The tenants didn’t jump ship; they never even came on board. The mall entered the world pre-ruined, as if its developers had deliberately created an attraction for people with a taste for abandonment and decay. […]

It’s odd to find a store with an actual person in it, like S-Square, a small, stylish clothing store with black-painted walls. Its 21-year-old shop assistant, Miss Chen, said business wasn’t so bad back when the mall first opened. Rent was then 10,000 yuan, but it’s no longer collected. “We used to get lots of tour groups,” she said. “Now it’s just student groups, and occasionally groups of factory workers, and they don’t buy anything.” She gets “one or two” customers a day, and passes the hours reading magazines and sending text messages to her friends.

Miss Chen often sends texts to Miss Peng, also 21, who sits behind the cash register at Eyaya, an accessories shop that is just far enough around the corner to prevent the two ladies from chatting. “Our bosses say we could go into the corridor and yell down to each other,” Miss Peng said. “I usually just stare into space. Sometimes I get really sleepy and want to take a nap, but I get scared because at any time a customer could come in, and I might miss the only customer of the day.”

There is another warehouse way beyond the end of the long tail

02 Dec 2007 | 434 words | libraries architecture books copyright modernity

So the commonly used images to visualize the Long Tail are shots from inside the enormous warehouses run by the online book retailer amazon.com all over the world.

Seems like that these warehouse are not the only ones associated with the long tail. In reality (which is not properly depicted by all those fancy graphical representations of the long tail) enormous warehouses are being constructed way beyond the (imagined) end of the long tail:

The Guardian has an excellent article (‘Inside the tomb of tomes‘) that focusses on the construction of a warehouse that will house the British Library’s collection of books that no one is reading. The warehouse, currently being constructed somewhere in the cultural wastelands of the midlands, will house most of the books that the BL aquires via the legal deposit function it has for copyrighted works being published in the UK. Under this system it has to take into it’s collection a copy of every book being published in the UK which means that they are amassing a fair amount of unwanted books:

We used to build cathedrals. Now we build warehouses. [… This] warehouse is extraordinary because, unlike all those monstrous Tesco and Amazon depositories that litter the fringes of the motorways of the Midlands, it is being meticulously constructed to house things that no one wants. When it is complete next year, this warehouse will be state-of-the-art, containing 262 linear kilometres of high-density, fully automated storage in a low-oxygen environment. It will house books, journals and magazines that many of us have forgotten about or have never heard of in the first place.[…]

It is where, before this century reaches its teens, copies of books spared a quick death at the pulping plant – thanks to the grace of the provisions of the 1911 Copyright Act and later government legislation – will go to serve their life sentences in a secure environment. […] The British Library, you see, strives to live up to its self-imposed title of “the world’s knowledge”. That knowledge, though, is an odd thing. Along with the Magna Carta and the Gutenberg Bible, it includes Everybody Poos, by Taro Gomi (to help kids over toilet phobias). Not to mention Wayne Rooney’s autobiography, Jordan’s novel and a book called Do Ants Have Arseholes And 101 Other Bloody Ridiculous Questions. The MPs who in 1911 established the legal deposit principle for the five greatest libraries in the British Isles probably didn’t realise the full consequences of their decision.

Read the complete guardian article here [via BLDGblog which has a couple of amazing warehouse/library pictures in its review]

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk > Grand Ayatollah Sayid Ruhullah Musawi Khomeini

25 Nov 2007 | 215 words | airtravel turkey iran religion modernity

At least when one is to believe the flight schedules of Turkish airlines and Iran Air. Since november 2007 both airlines have a daily service connecting Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport with the new Imam Khomeini International Airport just south of Tehran (actually it is quite a bit south of the city but very close to the shrine of the the late Grand Ayatollah).

Is it just me or isn’t it at least a tiny little bit ironic that there are direct flight’s between two airports that are named after the founder of the secular Turkish republic (the first and as far as i know only secular muslim majority country) and the leader of the Islamic Revolution that lead to the establishment of Islamic Republic of Iran. There are hardly two men who’s politics could be more opposed to each other (at least when it comes to the relationship between state and religion in the 20th Century). It appears that globalization and the associated travel patterns of the 21st century conveniently ignore such matters and integrate them in their highly codified languages:

… we are approaching Imam Khomeini International Airport, please bring your seatback in the upright position, fold away your tray-table, switch off all electronic devices, put on your headscarf and finish your last drink.

Slideshows

07 Aug 2007 | 172 words | china dubai modernity photos urbanism

Ran into some amazing slideshows in the last couple of days which somehow remind me of my trip to Dubai, India and China (see here) late last year. First, the New York Times (which apparently is one and a half inches less wide these days) has a beautiful slideshow from construction sites in Dubai (see my own pictures here): Photo by Tyler Hicks nicked from NYTimes.com And the Atlantic Monthly hosts an extensive slideshow by James Fallows (complete with voiceover and cheesy pseudo Chinese music) portraying the manufacturing city of Shenzhen. i was in Shenzhen for a really intense day last December and this slideshow definitely makes me want to come back and stay a little bit longer (another recommendation for those interested in South China manufacturing madness: the documentary movie ‘Manufactured Landscapes‘ by Jennifer Baichwal)

Bonus: the New York Times also hosts a stunning slideshow about ‘Television in Afghanistan‘ which so reminds me of the WICTV project that Shaina Anand did in Bangalore for World Information City back in November 2005.

Europe is so 20th century ...

17 Nov 2006 | 118 words | europe china modernity movies war

… coming home form the (opening of the going to be) excellent mycreativity event/conference/meeting i stopped by the shoarma place around the corner from my house. The egyptian guy who runs the shop was in chatty mood and somehow we ended up discussing Syriana which he described as…

… a film about the CIA and the Arabs (sic!) fighting about influence about the enormous oil resources of the Persian gulf

… form there our discussion went towards describing how much of a mess this confrontation and between ‘the Arabs’ and ‘the Americans’ had caused and when he handed me my shoarma he concluded the discussion by stating:

but who is going to keep this in check? the Chinese?

For the benevolence of expression....

08 Oct 2006 | 311 words | europe media islam modernity civilisation

Patrice (thanks!) posted a translation of a posting by the french philosopher Fréderic Neyrat to the internal multitudes mailing list to nettime. It was made as a comment on the appeal by French intellectuals for a Salman-Rushdie-style protection of Robert Redeker, a philosopher threatened by fundamentalist groups after publishing statements deemed insulting to Muslim culture in general (more background here). well worth the read:

For the benevolence of expression and against the ‘clash of civilisation’ discourse.

Against a commonly held belief, the “clash of civilisations” monicker is not a descriptive, but a prescriptive statement.

Thinkers, university professors, publications that pretend to be ‘modern’, and politicians, all have actively participated in the manufacture of conflicts between a West gone delirious and the Orient it imagines.

This mind-set is grounded in despise and fuelled with insults. When the aggrieved party reacts violently, one can exclaim : “DidnÂ’t we tell you so? They’re all savages !”

This is a vicious circle. No identity, no civilisation will be ever its outcome – but deaths certainly will. This circle must be broken.

As far as intellectual work is concerned, this first and foremost requires to avoid the pitfalls of what Hegel has called “the fiendishness of expression”.

The media would like to impress on us that one is entitled to say whatever one likes to whomever one likes in whatever way one likes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Words do matter. They shape the reality in which we live.

The issue at stake is not one of (self-)censorship, or of freedom of expression, but is about the need for a ‘benevolence of expression’ : we must avoid those words that make our common space unliveable.

Then, there will be no need to call in the police, to demand protection from the state, and no man shall henceforth need to live in fear.

Fréderic Neyrat

meanwhile... is the personal weblog of Paul Keller. I am currently policy director at Open Future and President of the COMMUNIA Association for the Public Domain. This weblog is largely inactive but contains an archive of posts (mixing both work and personal) going back to 2005.

I also maintain a collection of cards from African mediums (which is the reason for the domain name), a collection of photos on flickr and a website collecting my professional writings and appearances.

Other things that i have made online: