Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Fear Index – a novel about LSCITS

I read the Fear Index by Robert Harris on holiday last week.  Harris states in an afterword that ‘I would like to write a new version of Nineteen Eight-Four, based on the idea that it was the modern corporation, strengthened by computer technology, that had supplanted the state as the greatest threat to individual liberty’.

In a nutshell, the book is about algorithmic trading and a trading program created by a reclusive physicist that uses machine learning to predict the market and make trades on that basis. Its premise is that the market is affected by fear – as indicated by the use of certain words in the news, websites etc. as well as future trading indexes and that this information is a predictor of future stock prices.  So far, so good. Then it gets silly – in Harris’s scenario the machine learning creates a ubiquitous ‘super intelligent machine’ that builds its own data centers to ensure its survivability, tries to kill its creator (for reasons that are never clear and using a stupidly obscure approach) and manipulates not just the market but world events that will change the market.  The novel ends with the Flash Crash which is supposedly created by this machine to hide its actions.

I like Harris’s novels but like Woody Allen films, the earlier ones were the best. Fatherland and Enigma were, I thought, excellent and his novels of classical Rome were pretty good. I wasn’t impressed by the Ghost – reflecting Harris’s dislike of Tony Blair and this one was really pretty grim.

I think it’s great that popular novelists write about technology and no-one expects them to do anything but simplify and exaggerate for effect.  This could have been an excellent book about the dangers of algorithmic trading and complex systems – we are creating systems whose operation we don’t understand. But Harris’s ignorance of the technology means that he has written a book that is anti-technology and which grossly exaggerates the dangers.  He is absolutely right about the risks of algorithmic trading but exaggerating these means that his message will simply not get through.

Harris is an excellent writer but he should stick to history – this is a bad book.

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Personal responsibility and research funding

I was recently asked to review a research proposal where the proposer, who I know and respect, is  past the ‘normal’ retirement age. He has a distinguished track record of research and the work proposed was very good. It was a high quality proposal and I supported it.

But I think it was highly irresponsible of the applicant to submit this proposal. It may be good for science but it was bad for the research community. Why? Because the old guys are getting more than their share of the money and this means that we are making it more and more difficult for young researchers to get their first step on the ladder.

It might be argued that research funding bodies make dispassionate decisions based on the quality of the research that is proposed and if young researchers have the best ideas, then these will get funded. This is arrant nonsense. Not only is proposal writing a skill in itself, which takes time and experience to learn, researchers with an established track record get an easier ride. This makes complete sense – if people have done good work in the past, you can expect them to do good work in the future. Consequently, reviewers overlook issues in a proposal that they would be otherwise be concerned about.

Therefore, if you have no track record and are starting out on your research career it is harder to get funding. But it is absolutely essential that we (the research community) provide a route for early career researchers to develop as independent research scientists and engineers.

The best way to do this, of course, would be for research funders to make a policy decision that no-one over the age of 60 (say) can submit a new application for funding as a principal investigator. But, age discrimination is not allowed so this is impossible.

But, we can do this voluntarily – instead of submitting proposals as principals, we old guys should step back and help our younger colleagues rather than competing with them. Let us use our expertise to advise the next generation instead of creating a situation where many of them will be so disillusioned that they will simply give up research. We don’t need the money and, if we are good enough to get proposals funded, we’ve already established our reputation.

It will be argued that this might mean that the ‘best’ science is not supported. Again, arrant nonsense. Research ought to be risky which means that what is ‘the best research’ cannot be decided objectively. The research councils reject lots of high quality proposals and often the decision on where a proposal is ranked is simply an accident of reviewing.

Personally, I have about 30 years experience of writing successful research proposals so I think that I can speak with some authority here. I don’t intend to hang up my researcher hat yet but I will not submit any new research proposals as a principal applicant to the EPSRC or to EU research programmes.

I know that in an ideal world, this would not be necessary as there would be sufficient funding for everyone. But waiting for an ideal world has never been a very practical strategy.

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