Book Review: Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Yesterday, the NYSE went down for a couple of hours, and the fascinating thing was while it was out, stocks rallied… as soon as it came back, it plunged. Well, I guess “fascinating” is a word I can use because I’m not invested in the American market in any meaningful way, but for those involved, this kind of weird stock market behaviour makes for wondering as to what on earth is going on in the American market.

Which is where Flash Boys by Michael Lewis comes in. It’s pure non-fiction – Lewis (of Liar’s Poker fame) returns once more to the world of Wall Street to find out just what is going on, to find out how the market has changed in the last 10 years, and how we can get events like the above, or the “flash crash” in 2010 which saw billions, nominally, wiped off the collective value of companies, only to reappear not much later. Lewis takes his investigative eye to weaving a story of the people behind the scenes that make the markets tick now.

The story he tells starts with the construction of an optic fibre cable between Chicago and New York – something which appears to have no ostensible connection to the stock market – and he goes on to slowly fill in the definition and detail in the picture, weaving a story magnificently of how High Frequency Trading has changed the market since 2005, the impacts, and the people working to make things better. It does attempt to build some people into plucky heroes, and doesn’t directly involve the villains in telling the tale, but the message is loud as it is clear, and stuff like the NYSE system crash yesterday just jumps out at me now like “that was probably caused by HFT, damn!”

At certain points, it feels almost like a thriller – I just wanted to keep turning the pages and reading on. The book resonates with me particularly because of where I work in technology and finance, though I’ve never been directly involved with the specific processes at hand – but I’ve definitely seen the changes in the last 10 years as an “insider”, and so much rings true that there’s little doubt Lewis has the right end of the stick.

A magnificent quote that put into words what I’d been feeling about technology in financial markets is towards the latter stage of the book –

The markets were now run by technology, but technologists were still treated like tools. Nobody bothered to explain the business to them, but they were forced to adapt to its demands and exposed to its failures – which was, perhaps, why there had been so many more conspicuous failures.

Technologists being treated like tools – or more accurately, “cost centres” that are  money pits – when banks couldn’t operate in 2015 without technology is one of the most frustrating parts of my working life. Capital investment is a given in many industries, but technology is not viewed that way for far too many organisations.  That’s not even the primary message, but it’s an important one, and one I hope gets some momentum or at least recognition with people that are in important roles.

Elon Musk, The World’s Raddest Man

Part 1 of a multi-part series, profiling Elon Musk:

In college, he thought about what he wanted to do with his life, using as his starting point the question, “What will most affect the future of humanity?” The answer he came up with was a list of five things: “the internet; sustainable energy; space exploration, in particular the permanent extension of life beyond Earth; artificial intelligence; and reprogramming the human genetic code.”

He was iffy about how positive the impact of the latter two would be, and though he was optimistic about each of the first three, he never considered at the time that he’d ever be involved in space exploration. That left the internet and sustainable energy as his options.

Pretty sure the heftiest question on my mind in college was “How can I get away with doing the least amount of work for the most amount of reward?” and went shallower from there. Definitely keen to find out more.

The (true) killing of Bin Laden

Not sure if this is the kind of article that sparks revolts or is conveniently ignored for real politik – Bin Laden’s location was known to Pakistan, his killing was more about managing political realities than it was about the Americans finding him and taking him out:

‘The compound was not an armed enclave – no machine guns around, because it was under ISI control.’ The walk-in had told the US that bin Laden had lived undetected from 2001 to 2006 with some of his wives and children in the Hindu Kush mountains, and that ‘the ISI got to him by paying some of the local tribal people to betray him.’ (Reports after the raid placed him elsewhere in Pakistan during this period.) Bank was also told by the walk-in that bin Laden was very ill, and that early on in his confinement at Abbottabad, the ISI had ordered Amir Aziz, a doctor and a major in the Pakistani army, to move nearby to provide treatment. ‘The truth is that bin Laden was an invalid, but we cannot say that,’ the retired official said. ‘“You mean you guys shot a cripple? Who was about to grab his AK-47?”

So much of this seems more believable than the story we’ve been told so far, especially from a perspective that understands the reality of the ISI’s reach and capabilities; it’s now left to wonder who will write the history of this in the long run, and what it will reflect.

Edit: and of course, the follow-up which takes this story to pieces:

And there are more contradictions. Why, for example, would the Pakistanis insist on a fake raid that would humiliate their country and the very military and intelligence leaders who supposedly instigated it?

A simpler question: why would Pakistan bother with the ostentatious fake raid at all, when anyone can imagine a dozen simpler, lower-risk, lower-cost ways to do this?

The truth is out there, somewhere.

Questioning the ANZACs

Scott McIntyre, a sports reporter for SBS news, was sacked this weekend for tweets about the ANZACs

McIntyre began his tweets on the centenary of the Gallipoli landings by criticising what he said was the “cultification [sic] of an imperialist invasion”.

He was called out by Malcolm Turnbull, and many reacting online. SBS News’ managing director had him out the door practically before it even became a news story.

But: is he that far wrong? And what value free speech?

His tweets made some upsetting suggestions; that perhaps Australian involvement in World War I was unjustified, that some soldiers Australia dispatched to several parts of the world may have been less than ethical in their conduct, and that our commemoration of Gallipoli has, to some extent, become a day of drinking and gambling bathed in crass nationalism.

For the Right, this would not stand. The calls for McIntyre’s removal were swift and loud, most forcefully from elements of the commentariat who typically condemn Twitter’s tendency to outrage and instead rally for free speech.

The lesson of the ANZACs, as I have read it from the time I was able to think it through for myself, was that getting involved in wars is bad, and especially so if they’re halfway around the world because of our allies and not because of any direct threat to our nation. That some 125,000 men died on both sides in Gallipoli 1 for a stalemate of a situation because of the blunders of commanders, that hundreds of thousands more were sent home injured, for little benefit to anyone 2.

The futility of war should be writ large in the lessons of Gallipoli, not a hagiography of the noble Diggers who went to war. The refrain of Lest We Forget is to remind us not to forget the cost and the horrors of war, not to glorify the troops as is increasingly evident in the commemorations, especially at the 100 year mark, with increasing commercialisation of the events.

The other ugly factor is the increasing “fought for our freedom” line that seems to be cribbed from the American refrains of their armies – Gallipoli was never about Australia’s freedom. Kokoda could be held to that, the war in the Pacific in World War II could be held to that, but the continental war of Europe that spilled into World War I because of the colonial possessions of the European nations? That was not glorious, necessary, or for our freedom 100 years ago.

That the soldiers who fought there have all passed away doesn’t mean we cease to commemorate, of course, but it also does not mean we look at it through rose coloured glasses, that we now glorify the dead because no-one would speak of the mistake of wars that are not necessary.


  1. Worth noting only some 8,000 Australians and 3,000 New Zealanders. 29,000 British soldiers died, but we commemorate our own far more than the British do
  2. Except the commander of the Turkish forces, who went on to lead the Turks to their Republic – Ataturk.