Review: The Fear Index by Robert Harris

Review of Robert Harris’s “The Fear Index”

 

The Fear Index is a breezy, fun read. Clearly the author has done his research on the financial markets and the world of hedge funds. Even the basic idea behind the protagonist’s hedge fund is feasible.  Sentiment analysis is a hot topic in machine learning, and I think there are already commercial products available that will analyse the sentiment for a given stream of data.

The story focuses on a day in the life of Alex Hoffman – Super Quant.  It starts with a break-in in the dead of the night and, like all good thrillers ends with a big bang.  Hoffman’s business partner, his wife and the befuddled policeman Leclerc are little more than the scaffolding to the rest of the plot. While the story moves along at a fair clip, and it is hard to put down, I did not find the characters that interesting. I suppose it is difficult to empathize with socially awkward billionaires having a bad hair day.

Where the book disappointed me was the plot. The HAL 9000 \ AI elements of the story are weak and similar stories have been covered a lot better, for example, by Charles Stross in Rule 54 or Accelerando. If you are looking for a fun thriller, I heartily recommend The Fear Index. If you are a fan of science fiction, you might want to steer clear.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Fear-Index-Robert-Harris/dp/0307957934/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334452323&sr=8-1

Code of conduct for Professional Programmers

Robert Martin’s book Clean Code (Amazon Link here ) is one of the most important books I have read on the craft of software development. It is a language / platform agnostic book on how to write good, maintainable, and readable (i.e. the “Clean”) code.  But, when deadlines start slipping and things start falling apart, it is all too easy to cut a few corners and accrue some technical debt which will come due later.  It looks like Robert Martin has written a follow-up to Clean Code. The title is The Clean Coder: A Code of Conduct for Professional Programmers (Amazon Link here ).  It is on my “to-read” list, but Christoffer has written an excellent summary here.  He lists 9 points that he took away from the book. For me the most important point was this:

A Professional Programmer Takes Responsibility

It is very easy to blame the BA (Business Analyst) for not writing a clear specification or a clear test plan. It is easy to blame the user for not doing a thorough UAT, and it is easy to blame the QA team for not doing integration testing properly. If there is a bug in the code, it is the programmer’s responsibility. Once a system reaches a certain complexity, there will always be bugs or edge cases that somehow slipped through into production. Once a bug has been identified, it is the programmers responsibility to explain it, to fix it and to ensure that similar mistakes don’t happen again.

I have been (and routinely am) in positions where a bug in code I have written has lead to a significant outage or a measurable, significant, monetary loss. The first instinct is to always look for problems somewhere else. Maybe something went wrong in the operating system, maybe the deployment team did not release the packages correctly.. It may be the case, but as a Professional my first responsibility is to check my own code. What did I change? What could have gone wrong? How can I reproduce this error in the test environment? How do I fix it? And finally.. how do I make sure this does not happen again?

In my experience, a policy of complete transparency is the best policy for a Professional Programmer. If the management team knows they can trust you, they will generally be more understanding when things fall apart in production!

Aftershocks

The worse thing about the last two weeks has been the aftershocks.  Day after day, the floor sometimes shakes or maybe vibrates a little.  The odd creaks, and there we are, looking nervously at each other wondering if this is just an aftershock, a small earthquake or “the big one”.  At times, I am not longer sure if the earth is moving or if I am just sitting here imagining things.

We are told to expect aftershocks for the next few months.  Since the earthquake on the 11th of March, there have been hundreds of aftershocks.  Most people have alarms on their phone that are linked to the earthquake alert system.  At times, the trading floor is full of phones beeping, chirping, vibrating and trilling phones.  Everybody cranes their neck, and looks at the big TVs suspended over our desks.  All programming is interrupted with a big map of Japan and the location of the epicenter of the incoming quake.

In most cases, it would be too far or too weak to be a cause for concern.  But sometimes, the epicenter would be Chiba, or Saitama or another neighboring prefecture.  Then we wait.  After a few minutes, everybody gets back to work.  Maybe with a sigh of relief, or a little defiant giggle.  Truth be told, my nerves are shot.

Propaganda in the age of Wikileaks

Gloria Origgi, in Edge 335 states that we are leaving the information age behind and are entering a reputation age. She posits that one of the reasons for the influence Wikileaks wields in current political and social discourse is due to powerful, and reputed media organisations like the New York Times and The Guardian acting as conduits for it’s revelations.  We trust the contents of the Wikileaks secrets because of our implicit trust of these formidable media organisations.  We believe the revelations because we believe in the integrity of the Guardian or the Times.

When a reputed newspaper breaks a story, we assume that the sources have been vetted, and that the editors have double checked the allegations / revelations before publishing them.  Wikileaks, however, presents an interesting dilemma.  The contents of the leaks were uploaded by someone (presumably PFC Bradley Manning) within the US military establishment.   The behaviour of the US government (and other governments) subsequently offer some reassurance that these diplomatic cables did come from within their organisations.  Not surprisingly, “Cablegate” has become perhaps the media event of the year (or even the decade).  Hordes of commentators have descended on the Guardian website venting their spleen about the evils of the US government, and the hypocrisy of US foreign policy.

I can’t help but be a little cynical about this hoopla.  Yes, clearly some of the contents of leaks may jeopardise national (or indeed international) security.  However, I wonder how easy it would be for a government, or any other organisation to manipulate public opinion via a channel like Wikileaks.  Could Wikileaks itself be used as tool for government (or indeed corporate propaganda)?  Would it be easier for the US government to sell overt support of a South Korean invasion of North Korea given the cables published on the topic?  Would it be easier for the state department to withdraw a diplomat / intelligence agent from a tricky situation abroad now that he has been “outed” and him disappearing would look very bad for the host nation?

Yes, this is tinfoil hat territory.  I just want to convey that we should think twice before taking the contents of the Cablegate memos at face value.  Even if the leak was unintended (as it appears), it could be quite easy for a motivated organisation (government etc.) to move quickly and use it as another avenue for propaganda.

Meetings

I wonder if there is a simple and straightforward formula which determines the value proposition of having a meeting at work.  Corporations love looking at the bottom line.  Cost saving measures abound in these economically straightened times.  Travel budgets are slashed, weary executives travel coach class and nights out on the company expense accounts usually stretch no further than a burger at TGI Fridays, if you are lucky.

It is depressing when you attend a meeting knowing fully that it is pointless.  It is doubly depressing when you know your fellow attendees probably feel the same way,  but nobody else wants to cancel the meeting.  I guess it depends on the corporate culture.  Here in Tokyo, decision making is basically building consensus, and meetings are all about sharing information.  What ends up happening is you have ten people sitting in a room and one person talking.  Out of the ten, maybe three would have some idea on what is going on.  Two will be asleep, and the rest would be nodding but with a glazed over look in their eyes.

So, is there a solution?  Maybe have Outlook or Notes or your meeting organizer somehow hookup to the HR database and come up with how much the meeting is costing the company?  If you have ten people, each costing say $50 an hour to employ, an hour long meeting is going to cost $500.  Is it worth the expense?  Would it be better to get everybody out of the office and to a bar or a restaurant for a meal (probably costing around $500 – TGIFridays!).  Maybe people can have a bit of fun, and relax and get something done as opposed to just sitting around slowly sinking into a dazed sort of stupor.

Echo Chamber

Does anybody even remember the term “Information Superhighway” any more?  Do you remember a pre-global warming, pre-divorce, skinny Al Gore and his dubious claims on inventing the Internet?  We were told about having the world’s knowledge at our finger tips. The Internet would free information and provide the most egalitarian way to get to knowledge previously limited to inhabitants of ivory towers.  But what happened?  The story of the last ten years unfolds almost like a moralistic tale. Like Midas and his golden touch or like the Genie from Arabian nights and their granting of life wishes that destroy lives.

We don’t learn any more.  We bookmark.  We don’t read any more, we skim.  We don’t discuss any more, we forward links to points, and another set of links to counter points, followed by links for the conclusion.  When we do decide to comment, it is a comment made in character, stereotypical.

We all live in an echo chamber of our stereotype.  Our voices bounce off the walls, and are magnified by those of our peers, also of our stereotype.  These voices then pour out of the mouth of the chamber and as an atonal roar that clashes with those coming out of other chambers.  We are here, shouting at one another, but not bothering to understand why or what we are shouting for.  We like shouting because it is what we do, our slogans are what define us.

Saving the American Job

Contemplating a proposal by veteran Silicon Valley leader and former CEO of Intel to help create jobs in emerging industries in the US.

I read this editorial early last month when it was published on the Bloomberg opinion pages.  It was by Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel.  It is a thought provoking, if somewhat incendiary piece.

Mr. Grove argues that the move of manufacturing jobs to low cost locations, especially in Asia, have resulted in the loss of “scaling skills”,  i.e. the ability to move from a startup to an established, market leading industry.  He worries that this will lead to a terminal disadvantage for US industries when it comes to emerging or green industries (like advanced batteries).  He suggests the US imposing a tariff on all goods that have been manufactured off-shore.  The revenue should be earmarked for supporting industries that will create jobs in the US in strategic industries.

To read such comments coming from a man whose company has benefited immensely by offshoring, and by exploiting new markets (and lower wages) abroad is shocking.  It goes to show the existential angst the current economic conditions are causing.  Slapping import tariffs on all good manufactured abroad is starting a trade war, and is naked protectionism.  None of the The US’s key trading partners would take take kindly to such a move.

What could be the possible implications of such a move?

  • It would cause a jump in the prices of imported goods.  Politically, this would be a risky move.  While people in the US have been agitating to “Take America Back”, it is difficult to see them taking a sudden jump in prices at Walmart without a murmur.
  • Lets say they go ahead, and after a couple of decades these new industries do take off.  With unilateral import tariffs, unless the goods made in the US have a huge advantage in quality or cost, there is nothing stopping competing products being created in other countries that could also have invested in new industries around the same time.
  • With the ability now to send huge amounts of data instantaneously anonymously, it would be almost impossible to protect US intellectual property abroad.  By imposing unilateral tariffs, the US would also lose political leverage, making it difficult to try and enforce US patent law abroad.
  • As the industry manufacturing our hypothetical future commodity grow, they would come up against limits of domestic consumption.  To continue growing, they would have to find markets abroad.  There are guaranteed to be retaliatory tariffs imposed on US exports.  So who will pay for these US jobs?

What Mr. Grove seems to be suggesting is a form of Mercantilism.  What was a dominant economic theory of the 18th century might not work in a world that offers a much more level playing field.

Please find Mr. Grove’s original article here on Bloomberg.

Less money, more problems..

That seems to be  Dileep Premchandran’s hypothesis in his latest entry on the Guardian Cricket website.   It should not be surprising that an eighteen year old from a deprived background falls for a couple of thousand pounds.  The most interesting comparison on the lack of money in Pakistani cricket compared to their IPL playing, bling-blinging counterparts across the Punjab border was this:

Little has changed. The £4,000 cheque Mohammad Amir received for being Pakistan’s player of the series was three times the monthly retainer he gets from the PCB. It is just over half what Ishant Sharma, India’s most exciting bowling prospect when he signed for the Kolkata Knight Riders in 2008, received for every ball he bowled in the Indian Premier League.

It probably is all down to Cricket’s most unpopular (ex) commissioner, a certain Mr. Modi.  If he hadn’t gone after the ICL, all guns blazing, there might still have been a viable way for up and coming Pakistani players to make some money, and not get distracted by shady “fixers” hanging around the hotel room.