Did Robotraders Know the Financial Crisis Was Coming?
f you asked a stranger on the street to describe what the stock market looks like, most would probably mention a bunch of sweaty white-shirted types shouting and furiously gesticulating in a Wall Street trading pit. The more erudite might include references to retired rich people playing with their money over the computer or offices full of overworked geeks glued to multiscreen terminals.
These days the reality is that the average trader doesn’t have eyes or hands or emotions. They only have the numbers. Commodities markets the world over have been hijacked by robots or, more specifically, algorithms that can scan data and trade stocks so quickly that their meat-brained creators often can’t keep up with what they’re doing.
High-frequency trading (HFT) accounted for about half of US stock-exchange trades in 2012—approximately 1.6 billion shares a day, according to estimates cited by Bloomberg Businessweek. In many ways, these algorithms mimic human traders’ transactions buying and selling stocks among themselves, though to make trades as quickly as possible, they are equipped with only the most rudimentary analytic tools. Unlike human traders, whose actions are often undergirded by real-world data like a company’s reported quarterly profits or losses, algorithms react only to real-time market movement, and some scientists and analysts now say that all their unsupervised activity might be a problem.
Over the next month, in celebration of the forthcoming release of Tao Lin’s latest novel, Taipei, we will be featuring a weekly selection of photos taken by the author during his recent trip to Taipei, Taiwan. While there, he took thousands of pictures with his iPhone, pictures which he has divided into albums titled things like “Taipei fashion,” “Taipei carbs,” “Taipei babies,” and “Taipei animals,” among others. The images were taken between January and February 2013 during one of his semiannual visits to the Taiwanese capital, where his parents live.
This week’s photos are named after a term* in Taiwan, which Tao’s mom says she first heard on TV, for people who seem unable to stop looking at their phones while in public.
All photos and captions by Tao Lin.
*literal translation from Mandarin is something like “head-lowered [‘group’ or ‘troupe’].”
This woman is staring at her Samsung Galaxy thinking, What am I trying to look at? what is my finger wanting to push? The screen is black.
The teenager with white shoes is trying to convince himself that no one can see what he’s looking at and that, even if they could, he shouldn’t feel embarrassed, or whatever, because he’s only, at the moment, looking at his Gmail account. The man in the red-striped shirt is trying to cancel his Boingo account for what must be, he thinks, the 20th time, or something insane like that, in probably not even a full year.
This man is rereading an article titled “CNET Asia’s Top 10 phones.” His LG Optimus G is ranked number seven. He doesn’t know how he feels about this. Being worse than six phones, on a list of ten phones, seems bad, but being listed at all—how many phones are there? hundreds? thousands?—seems good.
Cops’ Military Tools Aren’t Just for Catching Terrorists
above: A SWAT tank parked in the Boston Commons on April 16, 2013. Photo via Flickr user Vjeran Pavic
On April 19, a million Bostonians stayed locked down in their homes while 9,000 cops combed the metro area for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the marathon bombing. In Watertown, cops went door-to-door and removed homeowners at gunpoint before searching their houses. Tsarnaev was found in that town around 8 PM by the owner of the boat sitting in his backyard that the 19-year-old suspected terrorist had chosen as his hiding place.
The lockdown was something new. Not serial killers, not cop-killing cop Christopher Dorner’s LA rampage, not even 9/11 shut down a city like this. Still, Bostonians seemed fine with staying inside for the most part. Cops found their guy relatively quickly, and the city partied in the streets afterwards. During the manhunt, a tough-looking officer even brought two gallons of milk to a family with young children, serving as a perfect meme to refute any accusations of jackbooted thuggery. Even some normally anti-police libertarians urged restraint in reacting to the manhunt.
What shouldn’t go unmentioned, however, is that while the circumstances were unique, the military muscle displayed by law enforcement is hardly reserved for responding to rare acts of terrorism. Videos from the lockdown—particularly this piece of paranoia-porn, in which a SWAT team orders a family out of their home at gunpoint and one of the officers screams “get away from the window!” at the videographer—either look frightening or grimly necessary, according to your views. But haven’t we seen displays like this before?
US Soldiers in Afghanistan Are Hot and Need Your Cock
“aaaaauuuuuhhh … aaauuuuuyyyy.”
An American soldier stationed in Afghanistan whom I’ll call “Steve” keeps texting me moaning noises. He’s not in pain, he just wants me to fuck him, or more specifically, wants me to “shove that mother fukin’ cock inside my pussy and watch me ride that cock with my tight pussy walls…” A handsome, mixed-race serviceman from DC, Steve is very, very horny because he’s been on active duty for months, which means it’s been at least that long since he’s gotten laid. So he spends a lot of time on an iPhone app called Scruff spelling out elaborate sexual fantasies of what he’d like me to do to him. Most of them involve me choking him with my dick.
Scruff is a gay hook-up service that allows you to check out dudes living anywhere in the world and basically take a gay vacation without having to leave your apartment. You can enter the address of your childhood home, for example, and you’ll probably run into most of the dudes you thought were gay in high school looking for sex. If you punch in Saudi Arabia, you’ll get a bunch of hairy headless torsos and pictures of cars. But if you select Afghanistan, you end up with dozens of US Armed Forces personnel posing in their uniforms or with their assault rifles, desperately looking for distraction.
When I downloaded Scruff, I didn’t have much interest in chatting with guys down the street who wanted to get in my pants as quickly as possible (“Wanna fuck?” “No”), so I started chatting with soldiers overseas, which seemed a lot more interesting and hot. Plus, given how paranoid the military is about people talking to soldiers in war zones, it seems like a weird loophole that you can just download a free app on your iPhone and get them to send you a picture of their penis.
The first guy I started chatting with was a muscular black guy who likes to post photos of himself in his underwear. He’s been mostly stationed in Germany (he really likes German guys), though now he’s in Afghanistan trying not to get killed. He likes to show off his dick, which is legitimately impressive, and sent me a lot of photos of himself shirtless in his barracks in front of an American flag. Although he seems pretty horny most the time, he says he’s never used Scruff to hook up with other guys while deployed, but he did once use Adam4Adam (a gay dating and hookup site) to meet another soldier for sex in the showers at 3 AM when nobody was around.
Helping the Malaysian Government Find Gay Dudes on Grindr
The Malaysian government has a throbbing, vein-popping hard-on for gay guys. In fact, they’re so concerned about the homosexual population’s “rampant” activities that they’ve sent 66 “effeminate boys” to be straightened out in the most macho, testosterone-driven pastime known to man: paintballing. Better that, I suppose, than the other prospect for gay men in a country where homosexuality is illegal: a prison sentence or the totally un-homoerotic punishment of being bare-bottom caned in public by another guy.
Besides the government’s foolproof scheme of sending a bunch of gay teenagers to spend time with each other in an effort to make them not gay, the education minister has also just published a handy guide on how to “spot a gay.” That guide suggests looking out for stuff like a “Muscular body and a fondness for showing off the body,” “A fondness for V-neck T-shirts,” “A tendency to carry large handbags,” and (shocker) “An inclination to be attracted to men”—so the general public of Malaysia can join in, too.
I spoke to Jerome Kugan of Malaysian LGBT rights group Seksualiti Merdeka to find out how many homophobic vigilante citizens are following the guide and rounding up hordes of muscular men in V-neck T-shirts.
VICE: Hi Jerome. So, is anyone actually taking this guide seriously in Malaysia?
Jerome Kugan: Discussions about sexuality are still very taboo in mainstream Malaysian society, even though we’ve always had our fair share of sexual diversity. Most Malaysians don’t really want to face the issue because it’s quite personal, but this absurd guide, whether it’s taken seriously or not, is part of a growing movement within the conservative right that sees LGBTs as deprived of moralistic and religious values.
Are you concerned that, if this going to be the norm, Malaysia’s next generation is going to be raised as homophobes?
Yeah, that’s definitely a major concern. We at Seksualiti Merdeka feel like the government is practically giving people a licence to perpetrate acts of vigilante bullying against innocent Malaysian LGBTs. Also, the majority of Malaysians are Muslim, so the influential local religious bodies already view being gay as a symptom of moral degradation, like a social sickness that needs to be rehabilitated. A lot of religious Malaysians buy into that idea, but as long as there are voices of resistance, I think there’s still hope.
Is there a particular reason it’s been brought up again like this?
Some of us think that the government is fuelling anti-LGBT sentiments to turn it into a moral and political scapegoat issue. There’s an upcoming general election, so they’re trying to link the issue with other parties as some kind of smear campaign.
Wow, that sucks. Lastly, settle this for me: Every single gay guy in Malaysia wears a V-neck the whole time, right?
[Laughs] No, but they are quite popular in chic urban enclaves. I have a few in my closet, but I reckon, after this official guide, they’re going to get a whole lot more popular.
Amber Case is like the Socrates of digital natives. She calls herself a cyborg anthropologist, which in human talk means she studies the relationship between man and machine.
Most of us walk around with small computers in our pockets. We’re able to access emails, talk to friends, and make with the mega-lulz whenever we wish. Because of this, Case considers us low-tech cyborgs, emotionally tied to our technology and digital networks whether we like to think so or not.
Our modern lives take place interacting with the human and non-human, using one as an interface to connect with the other. We’re able to instantly access entertainment or friends via our smartphones and other devices. Just try spending a day not looking at Twitter or Facebook or going online. It’s bloody hard. Case calls this phenomenon the “technosocial womb.” Her work concerns understanding this relationship, it’s evolution, and how it defines us and our culture.
To help us understand all this complexity Case has a new book out called An Illustrated Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropolgy, so idiots like myself can look at the pretty pictures and try to grapple with the concepts she peers into the future and brings back for us to comprehend.
Here’s what she had to say about where we’re heading, augmented reality bullying, looking after your dead parents’ avatars, funerals for tape recorders, and her favorite fictional cyborg.
VICE: What would be the worst-case scenario if our digital tools consume our lives and we lose our ability to self-reflect—or, at least, sit in a room for 10 minutes without checking Facebook on our phones?
Amber Case: No matter what era of history we live in, there are always going to be people who don’t take time to self reflect or build things. Some people like to consume, and a very small percentage like to create. I think the worst-case scenario is when the people who are intent on creating, and are naturally prone to create, get addicted to endless consumption, because consumption has been made so much easier than creation. I find myself falling into this trap easily.
Most of my day is now consuming. I’m addicted to interfaces and no longer look at a computer as a tool, but a source of fulfilling addictions. Repeatedly clicking the email button to check mail. Repeatedly checking Hacker News and Reddit and Twitter to see if any replies have come in. And if new items have come in, not replying but just clicking again and again.
Yeah, the clicking thing is worrying.
The psychology of persistently checking email again and again is called “intermittent reinforcement.” It came out of Skinnerian experiments that found that rats that got irregular rewards from food-bar-pushing were far more driven to compulsively push the bar.
Within a few years there will be a trend piece about how having a shitty phone (specifically one that doesn’t offer email functionality) is a new sign of power. Profiles of important figures will note how they carry a flip phone, or, even better, carry no phone at all. The reasoning behind this being that only a powerful person could have the luxury of not having to constantly be on alert and available via their work email.