Category Archives: Book review

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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The Shallows, Nick Carr

I’ve just finished reading The Shallows, by Nick Carr which is his latest book after The Big Switch, which ‘sold’ cloud computing. This book has quite a different tone from the technological optimism of the Big Switch – here, Nick has turned against the Internet that feeds him and suggests that the use of the Internet and its multi-channel, multi-modal communication is having serious effects on our ability to think deeply and concentrate for extended periods.  In essence, his argument is:

1. Our brains dynamically reconfigure themselves to allow us to do common activities better but an inevitable consequence of this reconfiguration is that we get worse at things we don’t do so often.

2. Electronic communication through the Internet is essentially shallow and is based on superficial impressions rather than deep reading and analysis.

3. Therefore, our brains are changing so that we can cope with many channels, many modes of communication; but we are losing our ability for contemplation, reflection and analysis.

Carr bases the argument on how he feels that his thinking has changed and I can sympathise with this. Certainly, I read less in depth than I used to and am much more likely to skim technical material rather than spend a lot of time thinking it through carefully. I had put this down to the nature of my job(s) where I do lots of different things but maybe Carr has a point and this is a real physiological change.

Is Carr right or wrong here? Hard to say but the consequences of him being right are quite profound (especially to authors of textbooks!) and the precautionary principle should apply. If we do something to encourage deep reading, and he is right, then we win; if he is wrong, we lose very little. So, I guess that there are two courses of action:

1. From a personal perspective, it seems pretty important to me  that I spend time away from the computer reading and thinking about what I read.

2. From an educational perspective, we need to design our courses so that deep reading and reflection is required of our students. They simply should not be able to get a degree without demonstrating this ability to read, analyse and critique. This is expensive in teaching time and, sadly, budget and other pressures mean that many institutions are going the opposite way – courses are constructed from fragments and students may never have to read a book or research paper.

Oh, and it seems that reading a paper book is qualitatively different from reading an electronic book. So, don’t rush to buy an iPad or Kindle.

Having said all this, the book itself is, like The Big Switch, rather repetitive. He makes the same point several times in not so different ways. Really, an extended article rather than a book would be better. Or is it just I can’t cope with books any longer?

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