Click here to close now.

Welcome!

Web 2.0 Authors: Cloud Best Practices Network, Elizabeth White, Dana Gardner, Plutora Blog, Liz McMillan

Related Topics: iPhone, Java, XML, Wireless, SOA & WOA, ColdFusion, Websphere, PowerBuilder, Weblogic, .NET, Linux, Adobe Flex, Symbian, Open Source, SYS-CON MEDIA, Eclipse, Search, AJAX & REA, PHP, Web 2.0

iPhone: Article

New Column: A Geek's Bookshelf

Book Review: A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Invocation

Geeks like to read – and not only programming books. Most of us read incessantly. Whether it’s popular science, sci-fi or fantasy, a good thriller or an occasional popular history book or biography, it’s a rare geek who isn’t in love with books. And I am no exception, although I have to confess I am rather an extreme case since my love of books and eclectic tastes borders on the “gentle madness” aka “bibliomania.” 

What I am going to do in this regular column is feed my habit by highlighting some of the books I am reading, and (mostly) enjoying. (I will only rarely write negative reviews; it’s a rare book that I “do not put down gently but throw across the room with great force” after all.)

Finally, since I remain involved with Apress (www.apress.com), the publishing company for IT professionals I helped found, is there any potential for a conflict of interest? I don’t think so nor do the kind people at SYS-CON; the kind of books I will be reviewing are the books I read “non-professionally” –for fun – in my spare time. It is only these books, rather than professional books, that I will review.

Title: A Demon of Our Own Design: Markets, Hedge Funds, and the Perils of Financial Invocation
Author: by Richard Bookstaber
Publisher: John Wiley 2007, ISBN 978-0-471-22727-4.
Price: $27.95

Talk about prescience, this amazingly relevant book, 10 years in the making, was actually published in April of 2007 – four months before the market meltdown that was caused by subprime mortgage-backed instruments going very, very south. Yet, in this extremely interesting, extraordinarily well-written book, Bookstaber essentially predicted this, and also (alas) he predicts more crises to come. The first paragraph of the book sets the stage:

“While it is not strictly true that I caused the two great financial crisis of the late 20th century – the 1987 stock market crash and the Long-Term Capital Management (hedge fund debacle)…”

Who is Bookstaber? He was one of the early “quants” on Wall Street. These are the physicists, mathematicians, statisticians, and mathematical who revolutionized trading on Wall Street by trying to search out hidden patterns and values. The foremost among them, the great mathematician James Simon, made a mere $1.7 billion last year by apparently doing exactly this.

The idea, roughly speaking, of most of these strategies is: can you find two (seemingly) equivalent securities that should trade in parallel but are currently not? Buy one and sell short the other, wait (hope) for a regression to the mean and make a bundle. Only you won’t make a bundle unless you use a lot of leverage because the anomalies are small at best. And leverage, as the old Wall Street adage has it, cuts both ways. If something really strange happens (a “black swan event,” in the words of best-selling author Nicolas Taleb whose very interesting book I’ll review soon) that makes the divergence greater than historical norms, your billions upon billions of leveraged investments often leads to catastrophic losses. And they did. What’s worse, there is a Heisenberg quality to this kind of historical/statistical arbitrage. As Bookstaber puts it: “Predicated on their conviction that the relationship had long-term stability, they would take positions based on the assumption that it would return, or converge, back to its historical value. What they did not appreciate was that they had changed history. There had never been someone trading hundreds of billions of dollars in the middle of this relationship before.”

Of course, it isn’t only about statistical arbitrage affected by the size of the investments made by people playing the game. As Bookstaber often points out, there is a certain amount of stupidity, cupidity, and outright deceit at work here. For example, the Enron-related transactions of Citigroup were described by the then head of risk management at CitiBank as: “[our] accounting is aggressive and a franchise risk to us if there is publicity,” which Bookstaber translates beautifully as: “we’re making this up and if anyone finds out, we’re in trouble.” Of course, Enron was found out and billions upon billions were lost and some of the people who went beyond merely aggressive accounting actually went to jail. (He has a wonderful suggestion about how to handle financial reporting by the way – one that will appeal to programmers: replace a lot of the hocus pocus in financial reports by requiring that the raw data be made available in basically XML form, and thus let smart data miners make sense of it without it being filtered through high-priced accounting firms with potential stakes in the matter.)

As this book is just filled with interesting information and great anecdotes, I could go on for a long time describing its virtues. For example, there’s a wonderful discussion of what portfolio insurance is and how it (inevitably with hindsight) led to the crash of 1987, for example. In the end, however, the whole point of this book can be summed up by the following passage:

“The danger to the system is the system…despite all the risks we can control, the greatest ones remain beyond our control. Those are the risks we do not see, things beyond the veil…”

Combine this inescapable fact with the amazing leverage that modern hedge funds can use, throw in the usual amounts of human stupidty and cupidity, the speed with which things happen in our modern era, the interconnections of everything with everything and Bookstaber has convinced me at least that more and more disasters await the financial system.

Before I leave this review though I do want to point out some parts of the book that will be especially interesting to programmers. Here is an amusingly scary one that occurred in the past and perhaps is not so relevant anymore; however, it remains of vital importance to everything we do. He describes how one early crisis (1995) was caused by the use of a now exotic programming language called APL (“A Programming Language”) created by Turing award-winner Ken Iverson. APL was an amazingly fun language for math types. You could invert a matrix with a single key stroke and write the most amazing one-liners. But let’s forget about the maintenance problems of a language that makes PERL seem like COBOL in it lucidity; the real problem was that APL was interpreted in an era when JITs were still a decade away and computers were hundreds of times slower. But many financial calculations require zillions of iterative calculations to compute prospective values, and APL, since it was not compiled in those days, simply couldn’t do them. So oddball situations weren’t well modeled in the financial models built with APL, and, once upon a time, this failure to use a compiled language led to a loss of between 100 and 250 million dollars to UBS – and this was back when a quarter of a billion dollars was real money.  

But more important is his stressing that the worst nightmare of financial machinations is our worse nightmare as well: the effects of tight coupling on systems. OOP was designed to solve this problem but it hasn’t proven the panacea its early proponents had hoped for. And, as anyone who was on the Vista team can testify (for example), tight coupling remains the biggest problem we face for large software projects.

In sum, get this book. Read it and learn. It’s beautifully written and full of insights that apply not only to financial management but to “life, the universe, and everything.”

More Stories By Gary Cornell

Gary Cornell has a PHD in mathematics from Brown University. At various times and among other things he has been a professor, a program director at the National Science Foundation, and a visiting scientist at IBM's Watson Labs. He has written or co-written numerous best-selling and award-winning computer books. Most recently he co-founded Apress (www.apress.com), which under his leadership became one of the largest publishers of books for IT professionals in the world. And he did all this while simultaneously having a truly serious case of the 'gentle madness,' AKA bibliomania.

Comments (4) View Comments

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


Most Recent Comments
Debbie Moynihan 10/15/07 01:52:26 PM EDT

Interesting review, I love the idea of a geek book review column. The suggestion to make raw financial data available in XML would be interesting. It would be cool to be able to grab data from various companies and do interesting things with it, but that might be a bit scary to some people...

Jane 10/11/07 04:39:13 PM EDT

Nice start to your new column, Gary. Great review of an interesting sounding book.

Paul E. Hanson 10/11/07 04:48:04 AM EDT

I did get a laugh (on a morbid level) that the blame for LTCM debacle does not lay where popularly thought. I will not give away the source for future readers.

Rajat Bhatia 10/11/07 04:28:17 AM EDT

Derivatives, trading and hedge funds are here to stay. They perform a valuable service to the financial markets, though Warren Buffet will disagree with me.

Nevertheless, it is the mis-use of derivatives and the excessive use of leverage that leads to financial disasters. This book provides an excellent insight into why we witness financial turmoil in some of the most liquid markets.

@ThingsExpo Stories
SYS-CON Events announced today that Dyn, the worldwide leader in Internet Performance, will exhibit at SYS-CON's 16th International Cloud Expo®, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Dyn is a cloud-based Internet Performance company. Dyn helps companies monitor, control, and optimize online infrastructure for an exceptional end-user experience. Through a world-class network and unrivaled, objective intelligence into Internet conditions, Dyn ensures traffic gets delivered faster, safer, and more reliably than ever.
The industrial software market has treated data with the mentality of “collect everything now, worry about how to use it later.” We now find ourselves buried in data, with the pervasive connectivity of the (Industrial) Internet of Things only piling on more numbers. There’s too much data and not enough information. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Bob Gates, Global Marketing Director, GE’s Intelligent Platforms business, to discuss how realizing the power of IoT, software developers are now focused on understanding how industrial data can create intelligence for industrial operations. Imagine ...
As organizations shift toward IT-as-a-service models, the need for managing and protecting data residing across physical, virtual, and now cloud environments grows with it. CommVault can ensure protection &E-Discovery of your data – whether in a private cloud, a Service Provider delivered public cloud, or a hybrid cloud environment – across the heterogeneous enterprise. In his session at 16th Cloud Expo, Randy De Meno, Chief Technologist - Windows Products and Microsoft Partnerships, will discuss how to cut costs, scale easily, and unleash insight with CommVault Simpana software, the only si...
Hadoop as a Service (as offered by handful of niche vendors now) is a cloud computing solution that makes medium and large-scale data processing accessible, easy, fast and inexpensive. In his session at Big Data Expo, Kumar Ramamurthy, Vice President and Chief Technologist, EIM & Big Data, at Virtusa, will discuss how this is achieved by eliminating the operational challenges of running Hadoop, so one can focus on business growth. The fragmented Hadoop distribution world and various PaaS solutions that provide a Hadoop flavor either make choices for customers very flexible in the name of opti...
Even as cloud and managed services grow increasingly central to business strategy and performance, challenges remain. The biggest sticking point for companies seeking to capitalize on the cloud is data security. Keeping data safe is an issue in any computing environment, and it has been a focus since the earliest days of the cloud revolution. Understandably so: a lot can go wrong when you allow valuable information to live outside the firewall. Recent revelations about government snooping, along with a steady stream of well-publicized data breaches, only add to the uncertainty
Operational Hadoop and the Lambda Architecture for Streaming Data Apache Hadoop is emerging as a distributed platform for handling large and fast incoming streams of data. Predictive maintenance, supply chain optimization, and Internet-of-Things analysis are examples where Hadoop provides the scalable storage, processing, and analytics platform to gain meaningful insights from granular data that is typically only valuable from a large-scale, aggregate view. One architecture useful for capturing and analyzing streaming data is the Lambda Architecture, representing a model of how to analyze rea...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Vitria Technology, Inc. will exhibit at SYS-CON’s @ThingsExpo, which will take place on June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY. Vitria will showcase the company’s new IoT Analytics Platform through live demonstrations at booth #330. Vitria’s IoT Analytics Platform, fully integrated and powered by an operational intelligence engine, enables customers to rapidly build and operationalize advanced analytics to deliver timely business outcomes for use cases across the industrial, enterprise, and consumer segments.
The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to evolve the way the world does business; however, understanding how to apply it to your company can be a mystery. Most people struggle with understanding the potential business uses or tend to get caught up in the technology, resulting in solutions that fail to meet even minimum business goals. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Jesse Shiah, CEO / President / Co-Founder of AgilePoint Inc., showed what is needed to leverage the IoT to transform your business. He discussed opportunities and challenges ahead for the IoT from a market and technical point of vie...
Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) are increasing at an unprecedented rate. The threat landscape of today is drastically different than just a few years ago. Attacks are much more organized and sophisticated. They are harder to detect and even harder to anticipate. In the foreseeable future it's going to get a whole lot harder. Everything you know today will change. Keeping up with this changing landscape is already a daunting task. Your organization needs to use the latest tools, methods and expertise to guard against those threats. But will that be enough? In the foreseeable future attacks w...
HP and Aruba Networks on Monday announced a definitive agreement for HP to acquire Aruba, a provider of next-generation network access solutions for the mobile enterprise, for $24.67 per share in cash. The equity value of the transaction is approximately $3.0 billion, and net of cash and debt approximately $2.7 billion. Both companies' boards of directors have approved the deal. "Enterprises are facing a mobile-first world and are looking for solutions that help them transition legacy investments to the new style of IT," said Meg Whitman, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of HP...
Containers and microservices have become topics of intense interest throughout the cloud developer and enterprise IT communities. Accordingly, attendees at the upcoming 16th Cloud Expo at the Javits Center in New York June 9-11 will find fresh new content in a new track called PaaS | Containers & Microservices Containers are not being considered for the first time by the cloud community, but a current era of re-consideration has pushed them to the top of the cloud agenda. With the launch of Docker's initial release in March of 2013, interest was revved up several notches. Then late last...
The Workspace-as-a-Service (WaaS) market will grow to $6.4B by 2018. In his session at 16th Cloud Expo, Seth Bostock, CEO of IndependenceIT, will begin by walking the audience through the evolution of Workspace as-a-Service, where it is now vs. where it going. To look beyond the desktop we must understand exactly what WaaS is, who the users are, and where it is going in the future. IT departments, ISVs and service providers must look to workflow and automation capabilities to adapt to growing demand and the rapidly changing workspace model.
Disruptive macro trends in technology are impacting and dramatically changing the "art of the possible" relative to supply chain management practices through the innovative use of IoT, cloud, machine learning and Big Data to enable connected ecosystems of engagement. Enterprise informatics can now move beyond point solutions that merely monitor the past and implement integrated enterprise fabrics that enable end-to-end supply chain visibility to improve customer service delivery and optimize supplier management. Learn about enterprise architecture strategies for designing connected systems tha...
The explosion of connected devices / sensors is creating an ever-expanding set of new and valuable data. In parallel the emerging capability of Big Data technologies to store, access, analyze, and react to this data is producing changes in business models under the umbrella of the Internet of Things (IoT). In particular within the Insurance industry, IoT appears positioned to enable deep changes by altering relationships between insurers, distributors, and the insured. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Michael Sick, a Senior Manager and Big Data Architect within Ernst and Young's Financial Servi...
The explosion of connected devices / sensors is creating an ever-expanding set of new and valuable data. In parallel the emerging capability of Big Data technologies to store, access, analyze, and react to this data is producing changes in business models under the umbrella of the Internet of Things (IoT). In particular within the Insurance industry, IoT appears positioned to enable deep changes by altering relationships between insurers, distributors, and the insured. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Michael Sick, a Senior Manager and Big Data Architect within Ernst and Young's Financial Servi...
PubNub on Monday has announced that it is partnering with IBM to bring its sophisticated real-time data streaming and messaging capabilities to Bluemix, IBM’s cloud development platform. “Today’s app and connected devices require an always-on connection, but building a secure, scalable solution from the ground up is time consuming, resource intensive, and error-prone,” said Todd Greene, CEO of PubNub. “PubNub enables web, mobile and IoT developers building apps on IBM Bluemix to quickly add scalable realtime functionality with minimal effort and cost.”
Sensor-enabled things are becoming more commonplace, precursors to a larger and more complex framework that most consider the ultimate promise of the IoT: things connecting, interacting, sharing, storing, and over time perhaps learning and predicting based on habits, behaviors, location, preferences, purchases and more. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Tom Wesselman, Director of Communications Ecosystem Architecture at Plantronics, will examine the still nascent IoT as it is coalescing, including what it is today, what it might ultimately be, the role of wearable tech, and technology gaps stil...
With several hundred implementations of IoT-enabled solutions in the past 12 months alone, this session will focus on experience over the art of the possible. Many can only imagine the most advanced telematics platform ever deployed, supporting millions of customers, producing tens of thousands events or GBs per trip, and hundreds of TBs per month. With the ability to support a billion sensor events per second, over 30PB of warm data for analytics, and hundreds of PBs for an data analytics archive, in his session at @ThingsExpo, Jim Kaskade, Vice President and General Manager, Big Data & Ana...
In the consumer IoT, everything is new, and the IT world of bits and bytes holds sway. But industrial and commercial realms encompass operational technology (OT) that has been around for 25 or 50 years. This grittier, pre-IP, more hands-on world has much to gain from Industrial IoT (IIoT) applications and principles. But adding sensors and wireless connectivity won’t work in environments that demand unwavering reliability and performance. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Ron Sege, CEO of Echelon, will discuss how as enterprise IT embraces other IoT-related technology trends, enterprises with i...
When it comes to the Internet of Things, hooking up will get you only so far. If you want customers to commit, you need to go beyond simply connecting products. You need to use the devices themselves to transform how you engage with every customer and how you manage the entire product lifecycle. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Sean Lorenz, Technical Product Manager for Xively at LogMeIn, will show how “product relationship management” can help you leverage your connected devices and the data they generate about customer usage and product performance to deliver extremely compelling and reliabl...